Baking your own bread – Sourdough

Last summer, as part of my ongoing experimentation with making different kinds of bread, I decided to make sourdough. This is more than likely one of the earliest forms of bread, as it simply capitalises on naturally found yeast. Unlike with regular bread, you don’t add yeast – you grow it yourself in what is known as a ‘starter’. The flavour (as the name suggests) is a little sour and the texture is firmer than normal bread (I’ve heard it described as almost ‘chewy’). It is also much slower to make than regular bread – the natural yeasts aren’t cultivated for speed, so it will need several hours at a time for proving. I find this to be something of an advantage, particularly for making bread over the weekend – once you have got the dough ready, you simply leave it somewhere warm for the day, and come back to beautifully risen dough. Still, the technique is very different, largely due to having to cultivate your ‘starter’.

This rich, dense bread really lends itself to being made with walnuts, poppy seeds, or sunflower seeds and is categorically the most delicious bread for jam and toast. The slightly sour tang of the bread really enhances the sweetness of the jam (recipe for jam here. Not as hard as you might think).

Yay, science!

The starter relies on two symbiotic micro-organisms, yeast, and lactobacilli. The lactobacilli are a type of bacteria that produce lactic acid, and create the slightly sour tang to the bread. They also break down the maltose sugar into straight-up glucose. The yeast does what yeast always does – chows down on sugar (made by the handy lactobacilli) and produces carbon dioxide and alcohol. The alcohol, as in all bread, evaporates in the oven, but the carbon dioxide is what makes your bread rise.

Your starter will be full of living organisms, and as such they’ll need to be fed. You have to ‘refresh’ the starter every so often and ‘feed’ it with more flour and water. The strains of yeast and bacteria will vary from bakery to bakery, kitchen to kitchen, so you often find people getting rather possessive about their preferred starter – it becomes something like a kitchen pet.

Convinced you to give it a try yet?

Sourdough

The starter

The natural yeast you will be using needs time to get going. Your starter will need to be at least a week old before you use it.

To get it going, whisk together 100g wholemeal bread flour with enough warm water to make something like the texture of runny pancake batter – fairly sloppy is fine. Beat plenty of air into it and wander round the kitchen as you do – you want plenty of chance for it to meet up with some natural yeast. Cover it with cling film and leave 24 hours.

After 24 hours, you should see some signs that it is fermenting – it should start to bubble, and over time it will start to smell a bit vinegary/fermented. It won’t smell terribly delicious at this stage, but that’s normal. Provided it’s starting to bubble a little, tip out half and then ‘feed’ it with 100g more wholemeal flour and enough water to bring it back to that runny consistency. Do this daily for a week. Getting it going is quite expensive in flour, but once you’ve got your starter fermenting, it won’t need feeding anything like as often.

The bread

After your week is up, you should start to notice a difference in the smell and texture of the starter. It will still be a sour smell, but should have started to smell less acrid, almost a little beery. If it is mouldy, or still smells revolting, then throw it out and start over.

I tend to make it very slowly to give it the best rise, so you start the dough off the day before.

The night before mix together:
– 100 ml of your starter
– 250g strong bread flour
– 275ml water

Pop this in a bowl with clingfilm and leave at room temperature overnight. It will bubble up nicely provided your starter was a success.

The next morning knead in:
– 10g salt (essential and not just for taste – it holds back the yeast a bit)
– 200g strong bread flour
– 1 tbsp olive oil (rapeseed oil is even better if you have it, this is optional but makes a nice texture)
Give it a good knead for 10 minutes – it will be really sticky, don’t be tempted to dry it out too much by adding more flour – you’ll get a better rise this way. Be firm with kneading it – if after about 7 minutes of kneading it feels a little dry, wet the dough. How much water to add depends on how wet your starter is/how active your yeast is/how warm it is etc so experiment a bit. You do start to get a feel for it after a couple of attempts. The worst that happens is that your bread is a little dense.

Leave this to prove somewhere warm until it has doubled in size. It will take longer than regular bread (usually at least 3 hours) but can be left all day really.

Later that afternoon/evening knock back your dough, and leave it to prove either on a baking tray, or in a loaf tin if you prefer. Again, leave it somewhere warm to prove – usually around 3 hours.

Recently, I have taken to putting it in a large round cake tin, covering it with another bowl so that it doesn’t dry out, and leaving it overnight to bake in the morning. This ensure the slow, even rise that sourdough likes.

Bake once it looks good to go – either late that night or early the next morning. As with any bread, you’re waiting for it to have doubled in size – give it 15 mins at 220* and then another 15-20 at around 190*. To get the best oven spring out of it, get a spray bottle of water and occasionally give the hot oven a judicious squirt – bread loves a steamy oven.

It’s a fairly long process, but the amount of time you spend on each bit is no more than 10 mins at a go really.

How to take care of your starter

Top your starter up as follows:

– If you’re baking really regularly, do the flour and water feed daily. Keep your starter at room temperature.

– This takes A LOT of flour, so alternatively, keep it in the fridge and it will go a whole week quite happily. Just bring it up to room temperature when you want to use it.

– Even more extreme – overfeed it. Give it enough flour to get a sticky dough and it will go about four days at room temperature.

– More extreme still – overfeed and put in the fridge. We’re talking like ten days + here before it’s going to want your attention.

– If you really only want this occasionally, chuck it in the freezer. It will get going again upon being (gently) defrosted, and brought back to its runny consistency for a day.

If you forget to feed it – panic not. Yeast and bacteria tend to just go dormant until food is available, so unless it has gone mouldy, just feed it and stir it well.

It will also live very happily in a jar, so you can seal it up in there once it’s had that first week of sucking up all the yeast in the air.

Enjoy your new found love of sourdough, it’s addictive stuff 🙂

Soda bread

So I had always assumed soda bread was really difficult.

Having made some now, honest to god I have no idea why I thought that. It’s easy. Super easy. Not even ‘Yes, but Amanda of course you would say that, you make bread all the time’ easy. It is just out and out superbly simple, and remarkably delicious. I can genuinely say that it took longer for the oven to heat up than it took for me to make the dough, and we have a good oven.

While I was at university I decided to start making my own bread based on a dislike of that soggy cardboard texture, and the discovery that a standard shop-bought white loaf has about one teaspoon of suger per slice and no nutritional value whatsover. That shit just ain’t good for you.

I spent about 6 months enjoying my own white bread before getting the confidence to stray into brown bread, and seeded loaves. Neither of these is really any more difficult than a white loaf, but I just have a hatred of failure with baking projects. That said, it took me about two years to discover that there is a whole world of bread out there beyond the standard loaf, and have begun branching out into sweet loaves, soda bread, sourdough and still have plenty more recipes to cross off the list with my new found confidence. My original idea for this blog was to just post bread recipes, and along with the chickens, the bread posts are by far the most popular. I like to think you all love coming along on other Brunton adventures as well, but for those of you who love a good bread recipe, trust me when I say this is a good’un, and definitely a really great recipe for those of you new to making bread.

So let’s get down to business.

For soda bread, you only need three ingredients – flour, buttermilk, and bicarbonate of soda (it’s in the name, kids). Buttermilk is a bit of a pain to get hold of, so I used greek yoghurt watered down with a slosh of whole milk and it was still super delicious. So to start with, this bread is not intensive on specialist ingredients. Always a winner for me – I’m too damn lazy to source out anything difficult to get hold of!

It’s got a very different flavour to normal bread – and actually when I first tasted it I was rather taken aback. Soda break is a blank canvas people. There are plenty of soda bread purists on the internet who (probably quite correctly) say that it is only true soda bread if it is flour, buttermilk, and soda. To me, it is a bread which cries out not to be eaten plain, but lives to be combined with other flavours, so I’ll add some variations here. Equally, you don’t need to fanny around with fancy flavours – keep it simple and have it toasted with lashings of jam, or with some strong cheese. Probably best not to do both at once.

It also requires no real kneading – a bonus if you’re in a rush, and even better if you’re not used to making bread. I’m not saying that there isn’t an art to perfecting a really awesome soda bread – but for the casual beginner it doesn’t require a practised kneading technique. In fact, the quicker you get that badboy in the oven, the better.

The Recipe

  • 500g bread flour. White or brown, your choice.
  • 500ml buttermilk, or live yoghurt. If you’re using yoghurt, I did 400ml yoghurt, 100ml whole milk in order to get a wetter texture – it takes longer for the flour to absorb the yoghurt and you want to make this fast.
  • 2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

note: If you really don’t have any live yoghurt, I’ve seen on forums people adding a splash of vinegar to activate the bicarb. I would have thought this would curdle it somewhat, but you can always experiment and let me know how it goes!

Method:

  • Pre-heat your oven to 200*. I always ignore this instruction and figure I’ll do it later, but you really want your oven ready and hot for the instant your dough is ready – i.e. in about five minutes time. Pre-heat that oven now.
  • Measure out your flour and whisk the bicarb into it – it both saves sieving the flour and mixes the bicarb well.
  • Make a well and tip in your yoghurt-milk mix or buttermilk. Combine quickly.
  • Tip out onto the side and quickly knead – no more than a minute. You’re not looking for the smooth elastic dough of regular bread – you are making sure you’ve got the ingredients well mixed and that the bicarb has got chance to get to work. It will look lumpy, but so long as it’s mixed well, that doesn’t matter.
  • Roll into a round loaf shape and tip onto a floured tray, then cut a deep cross in the surface – about 2/3 the way through is fine.
  • Whack it straight into the oven and bake for 35-45 mins (depending on what your oven is like). It will be nicely brown and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom when it’s done.

You’ve made soda bread!

Some variations

  • Cheese and red onion

Just knead in a few generous handfuls of grated cheese and a little bit of fried onion when you knead out the dough, and bake as normal. If you’re brave, you can always caramelise the onion with a splash of port by flambeeing it (not for the faint-hearted – lots of flame!)

  • Just cheese

As above, but no onion. (duh)

  • Chilli

Chilli bread is tricky – I found that just adding fresh/lightly fried chilli wasn’t enough – it just lost its heat as it baked, if not the flavour. Try adding a dash of cayenne powder, and a chopped up chilli as you knead for some spicy bread. You could even go nuts with the spice and lob in some cumin and coriander to go with a curry.

And now you know how to make sodabread!

Of Jam and Jerusalem

Well… mostly jam.

A few months ago a friend of mine asked me to join the WI with her. Obviously I said yes. The prospect of belting out Jerusalem at the top of my lungs was a massive draw, but too old to be a girl guide, and never really having got into rangers, I was really looking forward to joining what to me, looked like girl guides for grownups.

Thankfully, turns out I was bang on the money. Except for the Jerusalem bit, apparently nobody does that anymore. (boo)

The CamCityWI (as we have recently named ourselves) are a pretty exciting bunch – set up to be a bit less formal, a bit more creative, the group certainly has a less traditional mindset than you might expect. By the very nature of the beast it has attracted a large number of women who crochet, knit, bake, and do other ‘traditional’ WI activities – but it’s also attracted a different age group, and with it, a very lively attitude. The age range is surprisingly big – 20 somethings through 50 somethings on the whole – but where most groups tailor themselves towards retired members in what they do, where they meet, and the time of day they meet, this group is most certainly aimed at a younger demographic.

Me and the mother in law have joined, and will be paying our subs at next month’s meeting, and the mother is also seriously considering making an appearance – consider the WI the next adventure in Bruntonia!

So is there going to be any actual content in this post Amanda?

Well jam is kind of in the title, so it would seem a bit disingenuous not to talk about jam. Remember that massive glut of strawberries I mentioned we had earlier this year? Well Brunton number one and I froze plenty of them, as there were simply basketfuls that we couldn’t eat. Literally several kilos of strawberries. Now, wet fruit like strawberries don’t love being frozen – the liquid expands as it freezes, breaks down the fruit, and then when it defrosts, leaves a limp, juicy lump that is nothing like the delicious plump fruit you froze three months before.

We discovered that these make the best ice cubes in Pimm’s – keeping the drink cool and pouring out delicious strawberry juice as they melt. We also experimented with strawberry wine (a great success) but still have well over a kilo left. The raspberries are also going great guns right now, as is the rhubard plant.

Jam simply had to happen.

So this is a full on make it up as you go along recipe, but is as good a place to start as any, and nothing like as difficult as I thought it would be.

Mixed fruit jam

You will need:

  • Sterilised jam jars – you can sterilise them but putting them in a cold oven and gradually heating up to 100*, turning the oven off, and leaving it to cool down. By the time your jam’s done, they’ll be both cool and sterile. Alternatively, if you’re worried about the structural integrity of your jars, use a sterilising fluid, such as Milton.
  • A big ol’ pan
  • A long handled spoon
  • Patience

The actual ingredients:

  • A couple of sticks of rhubard, chopped up
  • About 150g of apple peel and core
  • The rind of two lemons
  • 1 kilo strawberries
  • 500g raspberries
  • 750 jam sugar (it has added pectin)

Method:

  • Sterilise your jars first, as described above. You all know about my thing with the zombie virus. Don’t question me, just do it.
  • Put the apple bits and the lemon rind in a saucepan and cover with boiling water – use just enough to cover. Simmer for at least 40 mins. This is basically a jam stock, and will add flavour and pectin later.
  • Put the raspberries in a pan and heat them up. The juice will start to come out and they will go to mush. Once it’s started to reduce, add the strawberries, and the chopped up rhubarb.
  • Actually pay attention to it a while – you risk burning if you don’t. Keep stirring until you genuinely have fruit pulp and nothing more. Throw in the sugar!
  • Keep simmering. You want that stuff to start reducing into a jammy gunk. This is going to want at least 20-30 mins so turn the heat down and make yourself a cup of tea.
  • Hopefully your tea was delish and you haven’t forgotten about your jam. It should be good and sticky, and nicely reduced. Hopefully your jam stock has also been sitting there simmering away for a good while, so strain the liquid, and chuck it into your jam (no need to keep the boiled apple and lemon, bleugh)
  • Guess what? Keep simmering! To test if your jam is done, put a plate in the fridge and let it get super cold. Drip some jam onto the plate and blow on it. If it starts setting on the plate, and when you push at the blob the surface wrinkles a bit, your jam is ready to rumble!
  • Get your jars out of the oven (with a bit of luck they’re cool by now) and tip in the jam while still hot, and seal straight away – this will make a good vacuum seal.

Once your jam is cool – chow down on it with all that lovely fresh bread you’ve been making since my bread posts. Obviously.

Greengage and Christmas Jam

So my friend offered me to come collect some plums from her back garden that were just going to waste. I had plans for making these over-ripe plums into delicious plum wine (if you haven’t ever tried it, then do, it’s sickly sweet dessert wine, and frankly amazing). However, when I turned up, I found a tree full of greengages.

Jam had to happen.

Ingredients:

  • 1700g greengages (there were loads. You can of course scale this down.)
  • 850g preserving sugar (NOT the same as jam sugar – greengages don’t need as much pectin)
  • 2 tsp mixed spice
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg

Now our greengages were very over-ripe so were already very mushy – it’s easier if the fruit is nice and mushy, but it doesn’t need to be.

  • Sterilise your jars as above.
  • Get the stones out of the greengages and put them in a heavy bottomed pan to mush up.
  • Let them reduce for a bit, and then add the sugar.
  • After reducing it a bit further, add the seasoning. We wanted this really Christmassy for gifts later in the year, but use your own discretion for how much spice to add – it’s down to your own taste.
  • reduce it until it passes the cold plate test – when tipped onto a cold plate and left to cool for a second, does it wrinkle on the surface when you push it with a fingertip? If not, leave it a little longer. If yes, get it into your jars while it’s still hot. Enjoy!

Oh and one other thing.

I learned to crochet at the WI. Crochet is awesome. Especially when you can make angry birds. Ho yiss.

There’s all kind of awesomeness like this over at Ravelry, with loads of free patterns (and some awesome paid for ones at that) and you can learn to knit and crochet here (I use this constantly!). They even do videos 🙂

If you want to join in with the awesomeness that is jam and angry birds, have a look over here:

http://www.thewi.org.uk/

https://twitter.com/CambridgeCityWI

http://www.facebook.com/CambridgeCityWi

An adventure in Anglesey Abbey / Baking brown bread / The elderflower wine

So. Brown bread. This was a nemesis of mine for a while in as far as it can be a little trickier to pull off than a white loaf, but still very achievable for a beginner. Brown flour contains less gluten and so is less stretchy and therefore a bit different to knead, and will rise a lot less. You can of course add gluten, but I personally feel as though this rather defeats the object of making it for yourself.

Getting the flour

On this occasion the baking represents an actual adventure in Bruntonia. The husband was back from university for the bank holiday weekend, and I felt like getting out and doing something, so we cycled to Anglesey Abbey. This is something like 6 miles outside of Cambridge, and a marvellous example of an English stately home. The house there is beautiful, but the real triumph is the grounds and gardens. Having risked the hayfever long enough, we also went to visit the Lode Mill.

There has been a mill on the site for around 1000 years, the current mill is around 300 years old and a masterpiece of restorative work. Most of the workings of the mill are still original, and still being used. You can buy freshly ground flour from there, which I was of course, super excited about. I talked off the ear of the poor guy in the mill about the absorbency of the flour (makes a huge difference to the amount of liquid you need to add!) as well as the fineness of the flour, which was very impressive. The other important aspect is the ratio of white to brown flour – as I have mentioned, brown flour isn’t as gluten-y, so a good way to compromise delicious wholegrain goodness and a loaf that doesn’t resemble a rock is to mix it with a bit of white flour. In this case, I recommend about 1:2 white to brown flour, but it is of course down to personal taste.

Anyhoo, having been escorted away from the mill (you have honestly never seen someone so excited about a bag of flour…) we went to the cafe and tried some cream tea and scones baked with lode mill flour (it was the jubilee weekend after all!). I was suitably impressed, and have made a couple of loaves of bread with my flour since. It is mega delicious, but I have to make it last until I feel ready to take a 12 mile round trip on the pushbike to get some more!

We also signed up to the National Trust as members while we were there, cementing the idea that Chris and I are basically old people already. All the same, their membership is bargainously discounted, especially for young people.

The ingredients

  • 300g strong brown flour
  • 150g strong white bread flour
  • 30g cake yeast / 1 tbsp dried active yeast / 2 7g sachets ready yeast
  • 150 ml warm milk
  • 150 ml warm water
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • seeds (optional)
p.s. for something more like Hovis best of both (in colour, not in additives!) do 125 brown flour, 375 white.)

The recipe

If using dried active or cake yeast, you should start with this first. Cake yeast will need to be mixed with 1 tsp sugar. It starts life as a block, but as you mash in the sugar, it will go to a runny liquid. Add the warm milk and whisk together, then give 15-20 mins to wake it up. For dried active yeast, add 1 tsp sugar and the warm milk, and do the same.

Mix together your dry ingredients, then add the yeast mix and the water. Then it’s time to knead baby! Kneading is stretching out the dough – stretch but don’t break it. My fresh flour had an almost sandy texture, but absorbed liquid well to make a beautifully smooth dough. You can read my original bread-baking post here (includes guide to kneading) or watch this video here. It will take a good ten minutes.

Roll the dough up to a ball and lightly oil it. Put it in a bowl covered in a damp cloth for about an hour and a half, or until double the size. Then knock the air out of it, and lightly knead again. At this stage I like to knead in 2tbsp each of sesame, poppy, and sunflower seeds, leaving a few to scatter on top once it’s in the tin. Put into a lightly oiled tin and leave for a further 45 mins to 1 hour.

Bake at 220*c for 10 minutes, then bake at 180*c for a further 15. I then take it out of the tin and bake for another 5 mins to get a good crispy crust.

Leave it to cool and then chow down!

Finally… the wine

The wine has been a bit of an adventure in as far as it got a little mould on the surface. Not the end of the world, provided it hasn’t taken hold too much. It’s normally a natural yeast, which normally has poor attenuation and will die off as soon as it gets alcoholic, so I’ve given it two chances. Anyway, I sterilised a bucket, cloth and a demijohn, and strained off the flowers, raisins and citrus through the muslin. I then siphoned it off into the demijohn, by far the easiest way is with a siphon tube. Just sterilise it first! It will now sit there with a fermentation lock on top and bubble about for another 3 weeks, or until fermentation finishes. I’ll update you then!

p.s. I’ve made more cordial

I thought I had way too much, but it turns out I don’t. There;s still loads of elderflowers, so I’m making a top up!