Along with some changes in the team structure at work, I've been working on a series of market reports on different countries – China, Russia and Brazil so far (and I'm assuming that India is going to be next on the list). Fascinating countries to be learning about, and wanting to do the best I can do has meant work hours and life hours have got a little blurred… And although I would love to share what I've learned and written, I'm not entirely comfortable with doing that just yet. (Although I will say - China's pace of urbanisation is insane.) Which has meant that February posts here haven't quite managed to keep pace with January's updates. 1

So, the time I've had to myself has increasingly been time away from a screen and keyboard. For Christmas, my wife got James Morton's Brilliant Bread. This has worked out quite well for her – she likes to read all about cooking, but I seem to have taken over the actual work of doing the baking. I would strongly recommend the book to anyone interested in the idea — rather than just a simple collection of recipes, lists of ingredients and step-by-step guides to make it, it explains the why just as well as the how — meaning that it works as an excellent jumping-off point when you get to a stage where you want to start trying out your own thing. (Something I used to find particularly intimidating in baking, where you have to worry about the science as much as the flavour — for example, you don't want to chuck a load of salt in for flavour if you know that its going to stop the yeast from working properly.)

We got excited about a bread machine we got some years ago – partly for simple bread, but particularly for malted bread and pizza bases. I then progressed to making my own pasta and focaccia (which is beyond the capability of a bread maker) – but the machine has been retired to the cupboard for some time. 2

Starting off with a couple of the simple recipes: 'mug bread' (where everything is measured out with a mug; no weighing or measuring tools needed), simple white bread and soft rolls (both of which don't require any kneading), this weekend I had my first step at an 'advanced bread' – a white sourdough.

The crazy thing about this is that the only ingredients are flour, water, and a little salt. The first thing you need is a sourdough starter – which is just 100g each of flour and water mixed in a jar, with a little 'seeding' (James recommends raisins, but doesn't say how many – I think I threw in about a dozen or so), left for 24 hours, 'fed' with another 100g of flour and water, left for another 24 hours before I started using it. The natural yeasts and bacteria in the flour (and maybe the raisins) get activated and start to grow, eating the flour and making bubbles – and become the raising agent for the bread. Somehow, the bacteria that you want in your dough create an environment that other bacteria don't thrive in 3, so you end up with what seems like the bread equivalent of the 'healthy bacteria' you get in tiny bottles of drinking yoghurt, or something… Anyway, whatever the biology behind it, with the raisins picked out, the 'starter' is then mixed with flour and water, a little salt (about 10g – although my scales are cheap and rubbish, so for 'about', read ± 4g or so), and mixed, rested, kneaded, rested, shaped, rested and then baked.

The result is a lovely sourdough loaf. Which I can munch away on while learning all about India…

Lessons learned

  1. When you make your sourdough starter, use a large jar to store it in. ie. make sure that there is enough room for it to grow – because as it bubbles away, it will grow. As I learnt.
  2. You can get a proving basket to rest your dough in for the last stretch (after shaping it), or you can make your own with a bowl, tea towel and lots of flour. I'm not sure what went wrong with mine – either using a muslin instead of a tea towel is a mistake, because the weave is too loose, leaving space for the dough to stick. Or I didn't put enough flour in. Or I didn't knead the dough enough. Or it could be any combination of the three, but when it came to turning out my shaped dough into the pan, the result was something of a sticky mess. Not that it made much of a difference to the finished product (I think), other than a slightly unusual shape on the top.
  3. There is obviously a knack to kneading. The book suggests 10 minutes should be enough – but although my dough got to something like a chewing gum texture, it still didn't pass the 'window-pane test' after a good 20 minutes of working. That might be because I was being too timid – with an 18 month old daughter asleep upstairs, I didn't want to be throwing the dough around as hard as I could (attending to a woken toddler with dough-covered hands didn't feel like a great idea…) But again - the finished product was something I was very happy with.

So, plans for the future;

  • Sourdough, because of all the funky bacteria breeding in the dough (I think) lasts longer than normal bread – my loaves and buns were dried out within a couple of days, but sourdough is supposed to last a couple of weeks. Which should make it much more practical to have in the house than normal bread (and also means I don't have to buy any yeast, which is another plus.)
  • A proving basket seems like it might be a wise investment – I'll give the tea towel method another couple of goes first though (unless I can find a cheap one somewhere – £10 for a little basket to help bake a loaf of bread that probably costs about 40p in ingredients seems a little bit pointless – I would rather invest that money in better quality flour, given that its the only ingredient that isn't coming out of my taps. (Should I try baking with fancy bottled mineral water?) There is a health shop in the village that seems to have quite a selection, so I'm sure that something there is what I'm looking for. Although how to judge the quality of flour (versus quality of my baking) is a mystery to me at the moment.
  • Bread with bits in! I want to have a think about what sort of stuff I want to throw in there – ideas right now include a savoury olive sourdough, a sweet raisin/sultana/fruity loaf, sundried tomato… and with my other current cooking obsession being smoked barbeque (pulled pork, beef brisket and ribs) – soft white rolls go very well, but I'm wonding if there's something that I can do with some of the chipotle, honey and mustard that make the bbq sauce to make a perfect sourdough accompaniment…
  • My mum recently had some bread with some sort of salt flakes baked into the crust, which sounds like a nice idea… So I'm wondering what else might be an interesting thing to bake into the crust – as opposed to mixed throughout the dough.
  • It seems that baking 2 loaves at once would be twice as much bread for just a little bit more work – I'm guessing that it would take less than twice the energy in kneading. So thats something else to experiment with at some point. And making 2 loaves at a time means that I can try out some experimental ideas and still have some nice bread if they go horribly wrong.

4

  1. I made a New Years Resolution to write less and post more – too many half-thought through ideas and re-re-drafted contemplations of current events which were long past being current by the time I had over-edited any interest or excitement out of my writing.

  2. As I understand it, the bacteria like an acidic environment, and the yeasts produce alcohol which acidifies the dough. The alcohol/acid stop other bacteria from growing. Apparently there are bakeries in San Francisco using sourdough starters that are over 150 years old. I don't know what the hygiene practices of American bakers 150 years ago were, but I can't help but be impressed by that.

  3. I know lots of people get bored of bread makers, but I didn't – she started cutting wheat out of her diet, and there isn't too much you can do with a breadmaker if you aren't putting flour in it. Although apparently they can also double up as jam makers, which might be useful – I can't see myself using it for bread again.

  4. I can't think of a blog post I have written where I have been so pleased with the title as this one.

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