Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Rice, lentils, pasta, Celtic toast and sourdough by lunch time


This week at Bread of Heron, the Heron Corn Mill's community bread group, we had one of those joyous moments when you get an unexpected insight into something you had no idea about.

If wheat flour comes into contact with any moisture, it soaks it up. That makes it unsuitable for dusting proving baskets. If anything, it increases the likelihood of the dough sticking to the basket. That's why proper bread often has a grey or white covering: the basket is traditionally dusted with either rye (grey) or rice (white) flour.

We were dusting our proving baskets this week using rice flour. One baker suddenly got a little excited when we turned the bread out of the baskets and the time came to slash the loaves. A possibility had occurred to this baker that nobody else had even imagined: the chance to be symbolic when baking bread!

The thought was - why not slash the bread with a symbol that identifies it as a rice loaf? It's easy if you know that the Chinese symbol for rice looks like this -

You just have to make your loaf look like this -

The one at the bottom looks like Zippy from Rainbow, which is fine too of course!

Well, you can imagine what a thrilling moment this was! Every week Bread of Heron is bringing people together to bake and break bread - people who may live 50 miles apart. We have people keeping a friendly eye on proceedings from foreign parts, using social media. And now, suddenly, in our shepherd's hut, with one sharp slash of the knife, the dual barriers of language and cultural experience are swept aside and the bread speaks for itself - "I am a rice loaf!". Truly, a wonderful moment.


I was so thrilled about the rice, it put me in mind of another moment of cultural sharing, many years ago. A friend from Israel cooked a meal for us which included a dish that probably could have come from any number of countries in that part of the world - rice and lentils. This is such simple food, and so utterly delicious that I had about six bowls of it on that happy day when I first encountered it, and I've been cooking it at home ever since.

Our friend made it by separately pre-frying everything - garlic and onions, rice and green lentils - in oil, then boiling the rice and lentils in separate pans before combining the whole lot into a luscious sticky bowlful of pure pleasure. It looks like nothing special, but believe me, it's a match made in heaven. I can't bring myself to pre-fry the rice or the lentils, but using lots of oil and getting the onions really soft is essential to bring everything together at the end.

I used to work with an Indian chap, who invited me home for lunch one day, and cooked a lovely simple rice and dahl, which I suppose is the Indian equivalent of the same rice and lentils idea. Rather like the earlier evening, my enthusiasm got the better of me, and I finished off the whole panful of food. Greatly impressed, not to say astonished, my friend said rather proudly "you eat like an Indian", which is a compliment I treasure. As we waddled back to work in the afternoon, we met one of the other people living in my friend's house, who asked what was for lunch. "Pete's eaten it all!" was the slightly embarrassed reply. I had eaten the entire household's lunch. Who ate all the pies, indeed.


A few years ago I got a pasta machine for rolling out fresh pasta. I couldn't get the hang of it at all and gave up in frustration and bitter disappointment. Millions of people apparently could do it, but I couldn't.

This year I got a new pasta machine - the extruding kind that works rather like a mincing machine, pushing fresh pasta through a brass die to form different shapes depending on the shape of the die. This I can manage! 

I learned with the first machine that you need to coat the pasta with semolina to stop it sticking to itself, so this time I dusted everything liberally with semolina as it came out of the machine. Once everything is coated, you can remove the excess semolina and save it for next time. Curiously, given that semolina is made of wheat, it doesn't seem to have the same stickiness problem that wheat flour has when used to dust proving baskets. Maybe it's just that it's a bit coarser.

Anyway, here are my home made fresh maccheroni that are currently in a box in the fridge, waiting for their day to come.

The very first pasta through the machine was caserecce, and it never got as far as the fridge. That's the bronze die it was extruded through -

Oh joy! And an endless source of Christmas present ideas, as there are any number of different shapes of pasta you can get dies to make.


Yesterday's newspapers used to finish up as tomorrow's fish and chip wrappers. If I were a slice of bread, I would hope to end my days as breadcrumbs. But this week's double sized white spelt loaf was always going to be toast. It toasted well from the off, and the last dry morsels went the way of all the rest - into the toaster. You served me well, my friend.

The way the toast arranged itself (artlessly, of course) on the plate, reminded me of a Celtic cross -


One of the veterans of my first Sourdough Saturday event last year wrote this week to say that she had managed to get sourdough onto the table at lunch time, rather than keeping the family (who are all keen bread fans) waiting till supper time. The trick is to do the first rise overnight. I've tried this myself, using the fridge to retard the rising. But I've always found that it retarded the bread so much that it had trouble getting going again in the morning. It rather defeats the object if the dough is so cold that it takes all day to warm up again for the second rise.

So the idea is to leave the dough to rise overnight in the kitchen rather than the fridge. This certainly means that the bread is a lot further on in the morning than it would have been if left in the fridge overnight. But crucially it is warm enough in the morning to be moved on into the basket with just a gentle stretch and fold and can be ready to bake in time for lunch.

Of course, it is going to help if your starter (and therefore your sponge) is very vigorously active when you make the dough. Without that precondition, you are never going to get that seemingly endless rising that proper sourdough is capable of, and which separates the fair loaf from the truly outstanding.

Inspired by this new idea, I got to work feeding my starters. Actually I am doing a daily feed of both my starters - wheat and rye - ready for the next Sourdough Saturday which is happening next month. Unless you are lucky enough to be baking every day, encouraging your sourdough to get into exhibition form inevitably produces a lot of waste starter. Fortunately now I have discovered the joys of sourdough muffins, I can cope with virtually unlimited amounts of spare starter. It works really well as muffins, giving a lovely stretchy crumb, if muffins can be said to have a crumb!

Another sourdough veteran suggested using up spare starter as sourdough pancakes. This sounded a bit edgy to me, so I thought I'd give it a try, This was today's first attempt, which was surprisingly good with honey, and not a trace of sourness as such - just a good robust texture. Another hit!

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Boons, moons and Venus

This week we had a boon day at the Heron Corn Mill. What happens is that any mill friends and supporters who can spare some time come along to help tidy the mill up ready for the new season. A spring clean, in effect. I'd never really quite understood why it was called a boon day, so I reached for my old friend the OED to see what the word really means.

According to the OED, a boon started out as either a prayer to God or a request to a person. Here's somebody in 1175 with what reads like a good northern accent asking God to hear his prayer -

c1175   Lamb. Hom. 63   Ah lauerd god, her ure bone.

Spelling has moved on a bit since 1175. A couple of hundred years later, Chaucer has the king kindly granting somebody's request -

c1385   Chaucer Legend Good Women 1592   The kyng assentede to his bone
By the seventeenth century, the lord of the manor had got it all tied up -

  boon-day  n.1679   T. Blount Fragmenta Antiquitatis 153   The custom was here for the Natives and Cottagers to plow and harrow for the Lord, and to work one boon-day for him every week in Harvest.

So we all came along to the mill to give a bit of our time for the good of the mill. My job this time was to provide 19 lunches for the staff and volunteers. We had fresh bread and butter, soup or pasta, and bean and potato stew. Jamie Oliver would have approved (with his school meals hat on), because it was all done for about £1 a head. And purely vegan if you didn't butter your royal slice of bread.

Preston Guild

Language, like bean stew, is very rich, and everyday things often acquire local nicknames. Take the idea of something being an unusual or rare event, for instance. Up north, if something happens once every twenty years, it happens once in a Preston Guild. That's because the Preston Guilds are celebrated every twenty years. This was the celebration in 1902, which implies the next one is in 4 years' time.

[I now know that there was no Preston Guild celebration in 1942, because of the war. That was the first time since 1542 that the tradition was not observed. The date was pushed back by 10 years to 1952, and there has been a Preston Guild every 20 years since then. So the next celebration will be in 2032, not 2022 as I wrongly assumed.]

A friend of mine had a bar job during a Preston Guild, and by the sound of it the celebrations were prodigious. He learned a good life lesson: never wear a tie behind a bar, because thirsty drinkers can drag you over the counter by it to draw your attention to their empty glasses. Northern people are very direct like that sometimes.

If there is no local equivalent to the Preston Guild, people tend to use fantastic ideas to suggest how long it may be before something happens. On the Persian gulf, you might say إذا حجت البقرة على قرونها  which I'm sure you know means "when the cow goes on pilgrimage on its horns". Where I grew up in Manchester, waiting for anything for a long time was always "like waiting for a number 62 bus".

A month of Sundays

Things which are unlikely ever to happen may be said to happen "never in a month of sundays" (England), or "when pigs fly" (Germany) or "on the 31st February" (Italy). Even the Romans showed a dry sense of humour, describing "never" as "ad kalendas graecas". The Greek calendar has no idea of the calends or first of the month. The Spanish take a more laid back approach, putting things off till "mañana" which might mean tomorrow as in "jam tomorrow", or it might mean "sometime never".

Blue moon

If something does actually occur, but only very infrequently, it happens once in a blue moon. But how frequent is a blue moon? Actually it is just a second full moon in a calendar month. With up to 31 days in a calendar month, and 29.5 in a lunar month, it's not so very rare. There are 7 blue moons this decade, according to Wikipedia. Blue moons aren't necessarily blue either, so the colour thing is a bit of a red herring (see what I did there?) - it's just two full moons in a month.

This month we had a super blue blood moon. So what it that all about?

Super moon

The moon has an elliptical orbit round the earth, so sometimes it is nearer the earth, and sometimes it is further away. A super moon is when the moon happens to be full when it is at its closest point to the earth. Again, this is not really that rare. There is roughly a one in thirty chance that the moon will happen to be full on any day.

A super moon causes super tides, or perigean spring tides. This time the tide left parts of Venice high and dry -

Blood moon

I have long been troubled by the scene in Berg's opera Wozzeck where the murderous hero goes off into the night talking about the moon and everything being the colour of blood.

(Der Mond bricht blutrot hinter den Wolken hervor. Wozzeck blickt auf)
Aber der Mond verrät mich ... der Mond ist blutig.

(The moon breaks blood-red behind the clouds Wozzeck looks up)
But the moon betrays me ... the moon is bloody.
Unlike a blue moon which is not blue, a blood moon really is red. It happens when there is a lunar eclipse. A lunar eclipse is when the earth comes between the sun and the moon. (The sun will never come between the earth and the moon in a month of sundays, of course!)

The reason why the moon appears red during a lunar eclipse is to do with the earth's atmosphere. Light from the sun has to pass through the earth's atmosphere on the way to the moon. The atmosphere hampers the blue part of the sunlight more than it hampers the red part. As a result, some of the blue light gets bent away from the moon, and the light that gets through has a higher ratio than normal of red light to blue light. So when that light bounces back off the moon and we see it from earth, it appears redder than normal - or less blue if you like.

So maybe that was what Wozzeck was seeing in the opera. Or then again, maybe it was just his guilty conscience. He had just murdered the opera's heroine Marie after all.

How rare is a super blue blood moon then? I'd say it was about as rare as hen's teeth. People from Georgia might say it will happen "when the donkey climbs the tree". In China it might be "when the sun rises in the west".

So what?

But what has any of this to do with food, I hear you ask. Well, not a lot, I suppose. But like Manchester buses, rare events don't come singly, and it was rather a grand week when not only did we have a super blue blood moon, but Venus Turkish supermarket in Manchester had some big beans on the shelf.

This was a bit of a mixed blessing, as I recently ordered a vast consignment of big beans by post from a supermarket in London. Still, I paid £2.69 including delivery, and these were £3.29, so I suppose I got a result. It really is a red letter day when you find these beans on the shelf anywhere up north - this was the second time at Venus, and I've never seen them anywhere else.

Venus revisited

I have recommended Venus before, and it is still worth a visit whenever you happen to be in Manchester. This time they had a marvellous selection of fresh dates on offer. There were three different brands of the soft luscious Iranian dates, two kinds of Palestinian dates, and some Tunisian ones. In the same display they had several kinds of dried figs from Greece and Turkey, and some dried dates as well. Really fantastic! I came away with £7 worth of dates - 3 700g boxes of Iranians and a 400g tray of Tunisians.

The dried herb offering is also outstanding at Venus. I regularly stock up with generous 80g bags at 89p each. As well as single herbs, there are several really good kinds of mixed herbs, mostly with names like "sabzi polo", "sabzi gourmeh", "sabzi ashe" and rather charmingly "sabzi kookoo".

Venus is a real Aladin's cave, with all sorts of weird and wonderful things on offer. The tinned vegetable aisle is astonishing, stacked high with aubergines, peppers and pickles of all descriptions. And the sheep's heads on the butcher's counter hold a fascination for me. And don't get me started on roasted and salted seeds.

There is usually a bargain or two to be had in the olive oil department. This time I got a 5 litre tin of Kolymvari Gold, a very good olive oil from Kolymvari on the north west corner of Crete, for £4.75 a litre, which is pretty well unbeatable value, in my book.

Not everything is as keenly priced however. The vast array of chickpeas all come in at about £3 a kilo, which I find hard to justify when the Unicorn co-op in Chorlton is offering organic chickpeas for £2 a kilo. The ones in Venus actually specify the size of the chickpeas - typically 9mm - which is significantly larger than most. I have to say that on the one occasion I bought some of these large chickpeas they were actually extremely good.

The Unicorn celebrated

I was very happy to hear that the Unicorn co-op in Manchester won the BBC food and farming award for the best food retailer this year. I have been a fan for a long time, and they really deserve the recognition.

As well as the chickpeas, the Unicorn has some highly competitive prices on other items. Dove's flour, for instance, which is £2.30 a bag in my local supermarket, is £1.59 in the Unicorn. How do they manage that with only one shop?

The fresh fruit and veg are exclusively organic at the Unicorn, and always really fresh. And yet it is by no means expensive. You can choose from about 6 organic potatoes, all at 86p a kilo. Try doing that in the supermarket!

Bury market - muffin mecca

No trip to Manchester is really complete without a trip to Bury market. It is de rigeur to go and stand by the black pudding stall, and marvel at all those lumps of fat in the admittedly delicious puddings. I generally bottle out of buying one, though.

There is a very good deli in the indoor market, but their queue is always very long,and the time and motion people would have something to say about how they handle it. It's a shame, because they have a good cheese offering. I got mine outside in the rain this time - proper creamy and tasty Lancashire, which sadly seems to be largely impossible to find north of Preston these days. Beware imitations.

Given my recent muffin obsession, I was rather thrilled to see this place on the market -

Muffin is a bit of a misnomer here, because they are really selling oven bottom cakes - much loved locally, but made with such poor flour that only the shape survives from the days of the brick-built, wood fired bread oven. They are now just soft bread rolls, made in a traditional flat shape. In other parts of the country they might be called baps or stotties. 

The jewel in the crown of Bury market is the excellent fish and meat hall. I came away with a beautifully fresh dressed crab, quite a big one too, for £3.80 from this stall -

I also bought enough really fresh mussels for one healthy appetite for £1.80. I only had to discard one at the cleaning stage, and only one failed to open in the pan. Good stuff!

There were also very good looking whole salmon ranging from £13 to £24 depending on size, and Arbroath smokies at £9.60 a kilo, which in itself would make a good excuse for a visit.

End of an era?

The final thing that surprised me on this visit to Manchester was to find that my old favourite curry house is to be demolished. The Al Faisal may not look like much from the outside, but as another customer said, it is a Manchester institution. I've been eating here for about 25 years - always the same few dishes, served with a jug of corporation pop and a naan bread freshly cooked on the inside of the tandoor. And now it is to be knocked down. I really felt my mortality, I can tell you!

Not to worry though: it is opening up in a different building across the road -

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Measure your muffins

I do tend to bang on a bit about the importance of measuring accurately. The bakers in Bread of Heron, the community bread making group at Heron Corn Mill, laugh at me about it.

Most people like to check their bread is on the right lines by how it feels. If it's too wet, add a bit more flour. If it's too dry, add a bit more water. Eventually it will feel right. Well... yes, but... a slightly more scientific approach is required if you really want to nail it.

I used to do everything by feel, and I got quite good at making bread that I knew was going to be fine because it felt right. The trouble was, if anything went wrong, I couldn't say for sure what the problem was, because I didn't know exactly what I had done. And if anything went much better than expected, likewise I could never be sure what I'd done that had made the difference.

This all became much more of an issue when I started trying to get on top of sourdough. With sourdough, every bake is different for one reason or another. There are so many variables that troubleshooting becomes a bit of a black art. You are constantly guessing what made the difference this time. It's only by removing as many variables as possible that you can be reasonably sure what was actually different.

Once I had decided to be rigidly strict with myself about weighing everything - including water - down to the last gram, things started to look up. I realised that by far the most important thing to worry about with sourdough was the liveliness of the starter. If that was anything short of rampant, the bread would invariably be dull and uninteresting. Those big bubbles so loved by sourdough fans would not materialise, and the final proving would always be disappointingly lethargic.

I've had to remind myself about this recently, because the successful rises we had on Sourdough Saturday at the Heron Corn Mill have been eluding me again. Thinking about it, I realised that the main difference is that before Sourdough Saturday my starter was fed every day for a month, and since then I have "only" been giving it one feed two days before baking and then several feeds the day before baking, to bulk it up. This just isn't good enough! You can't get that high level of activity in the starter without giving it a really good run of regular feeds.

In future, I think I am going to have to feed at least every day for a week - and feed aggressively too - if I am going to get my starter properly into condition. In a real bakery the starter would be fed lavishly at least once every day. And if I finish up generating more starter than I need, I'll just have to use it up in pancakes or pizza. Sourdough pizza - now there's a thought.

But what about the muffins?

When we had some really bad rain recently, I cancelled a bake at the Heron Corn Mill on the grounds that I didn't think it was safe to go to the mill in flood conditions. I challenged my bakers to have a go at something different at home instead of coming to the mill to bake. My suggestion was muffins, and I am a little ashamed to say I have only just got round to trying them out myself.

Working from a recipe in the Hugh bread book, scaled down a little as I am the sole muffin fancier in our house, I made up 400 g of flour, 260 g of water (65% hydration - fairly firm by my standards), 6 g of salt (quite a lot for me, but much less than the recipe), and 2 g of yeast (much less than the recipe). I have plenty of time for my bread to rise, so I don't mind at all using less yeast and giving it more time to rise. It also allows me the chance to knock it back a few times and feel the progress of the dough over 24 hours or so.

This morning it felt very smooth, though still quite firm compared to my normal wetter dough. Time to make some muffins. I rolled the dough into a sausage shape, and cut it in half lengthwise. Then I repeated the process with each half, and again with each quarter. You'd think that halving a roll by eye would be reasonably accurate, wouldn't you? I certainly did, but I thought I'd just check by weighing each muffin-sized lump of dough. Here are my surprising results -

My largest lump was twice the size of my smallest lump. Surely some mistake? Apparently my guesswork is not as accurate as I thought it was.

After a happy few minutes equalising the size of my lumps, I shaped them and dusted them with semolina.

These lovely little things then had a couple of hours to rest again, which didn't make much difference to be honest - they just puffed up a little. What did make a difference was to put them into a medium hot pan on a low to medium gas. They started to swell up quite fast.

After about a minute, the bottom side starts to form a crust, and the top is starting to swell up quite noticeably. At this point you need to turn them gently over to arrest the second side and establish the basic flat shape of the muffin.

Then each side gets about 5 or 6 minutes on a moderate heat, just till it's lightly brown on both sides, and soft all the way round. I must say it's quite a good turn out.

The soft edge all the way round is important because it means you can rip the muffin open rather than cutting it. Ripping is strictly required by tradition, as it creates a rough side for maximum butter absorption.

So there we are - muffins. Surprisingly easy to do, and definitely very pleasing to eat. There is very little comparison between these and shop bought muffins. Morrisons used to do reasonable ones which they bought in from a bakery in Salford. But since they started making their own, the standard has fallen off considerably.

After trying these at home I don't think I will ever buy shop muffins again, unless they are properly home made by the shop. Elizabeth Botham's shop in Whitby used to offer home made muffins one day a week. They were good. But I think mine are even better.

And finally, at the age of 62, I think I have produced something that can reasonably be compared to my mum's "cobs", the spiky white roll-like creatures of my youth. How we loved them! I think I would have loved these muffins as a kid too. Happy days.

Inflation: bread imagery in chapter 7 of Ulysses

You may have heard me mention Ulysses. Once or twice. It's been a part of my life for the last twenty years or so, and I am not usually more than a few feet away from a copy. Rather like bread making - it's just part of the landscape.

At the moment I am in the middle of reading chapter 7. I say reading, but it doesn't really work like that. Every chapter of Ulysses is a little world of its own, and you sort of step in at the beginning of a chapter, and eventually you emerge at the other end, usually with a whole load of new things that you only just realised. Also, this time I am reading the manuscript rather than the printed version, so it is a very slow process indeed. Again, the similarity with bread making comes to mind here. You won't get anywhere with Ulysses unless you embrace the idea of a long slow fermentation. The plot moves forward almost without you noticing, and slowly, slowly over time, a network of connections emerges. Just like a gluten network, slowly inflating with the gas of a long slow fermentation.

The story has two main strands - the poet Stephen's day, and the advertising canvasser Bloom's day. They start off separately, and progressively intertwine through the book, finally coalescing in a ritual cup of cocoa in chapter 17.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, both Stephen's day and Bloom's day start off (in chapter 1 and chapter 4 respectively) with a fried breakfast. There's no reason to see any significance in the fact that that both breakfasts involve bread - not yet, anyway.

This is Stephen's breakfast in chapter 1 -
Buck Mulligan tossed the fry on to the dish beside him... Kinch, wake up! Bread, butter, honey... Stephen fetched the loaf and the pot of honey... Buck Mulligan, hewing thick slices from the loaf... He lunged towards his messmates in turn a thick slice of bread, impaled on his knife. ...as he hewed again vigorously at the loaf

Bloom takes his wife breakfast in bed in chapter 4 -
He ... fitted the teapot on the tray. Its hump bumped as he took it up. Everything on it? Bread and butter, four, sugar, spoon, her cream. Yes. He carried it upstairs, his thumb hooked in the teapot handle.

And he then has his own breakfast in the kitchen -
Cup of tea now. He sat down, cut and buttered a slice of the loaf... Then he cut away dies of bread, sopped one in the gravy and put it in his mouth... He creased out the letter at his side, reading it slowly as he chewed, sopping another die of bread in the gravy and raising it to his mouth.

Two breakfast scenes, both involving bread. Surely just coincidence, if even that? The thing is, you soon learn that nothing happens by chance in Ulysses.

Chapter 7 is where the two story strands start to come together.  Bloom has come back from a funeral, and is in the newspaper offices to talk to the foreman about an advert. Stephen is chatting with the editor and various cronies in the back room. Almost imperceptibly a series of bread-related images starts to appear.

The foreman offers to give the advertiser a bit of free publicity, and Bloom says 
I'll rub that in

like a baker would rub the fat in to the flour.

Next Bloom notices the machinery all round him.
Thumping. Thump... Machines. Smash a man to atoms if they got him caught... got out of hand: fermenting. Working away, tearing away.
He's actually talking about the printing press, but this certainly sounds like a dough mixer to me.

Even the foreman looks like a loaf -

Mr Bloom halted behind the foreman's spare body, admiring a glossy crown.
By a series of mental leaps, Bloom is reminded of a picture he saw in the National Gallery - Jesus in the house of Lazarus and Mary. Lazarus, of course, is famous for rising again - how bread-like, and appropriate straight after a funeral! Bloom even gets in the old joke about Lazarus -
Come forth, Lazarus! And he came fifth and lost the job.
This is the picture he had seen at the National Gallery -
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Breughel junior and Rubens 1625-40
In the painting, Martha is moaning to Jesus that Mary is sitting around leaving her to do all the hard work. Traditionally Martha is identified as the bread maker. Here's another version of the same scene -
  • Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Vermeer, 1654
And in this older version, she is actually making bread, and kneading so hard her arms are back to front -
Mary kneels before Christ, Martha prepares food. Vergilius Master, 1410
The whole chapter is called "Aeolus", the god of the winds. And all the verbal imagery is related to air one way or another - wind, smoke, gas, hot air, rhetoric, journalism. If Bloom and the foreman are like bakers putting together the ingredients, the editor and his literary friends are like the yeast, producing lots of gas to get the dough to rise. When we first see him, the editor is smoking -
Myles Crawford blew his first puff violently towards the ceiling.

His friends are making fun of a high-fallutin' speech that is reported in the paper.
Ned Lambert, seated on the table, read on: --Or again, note the meanderings of some purling rill as it babbleson its way, tho' quarrelling with the stony obstacles, to the tumblingwaters of Neptune's blue domain, 'mid mossy banks, fanned by gentlestzephyrs, played on by the glorious sunlight or 'neath the shadows casto'er its pensive bosom by the overarching leafage of the giants ofthe forest. What about that, Simon? he asked over the fringe of hisnewspaper. How's that for high?
That's certainly enough hot air to raise the bread! And the final proof is that the speech that is being reported was made by Dan Dawson, a well known baker whose nick name was Doughy Daw. Joyce is clearly plaiting together the two strands of his story with bread making images. Now skip to the beginning of chapter 17 where Stephen and Bloom are walking home arm in arm for that cup of cocoa. Just to make absolutely sure we haven't forgotten all that earlier bread imagery, the first place they come to is a bakery -
<Bloom> inhaled with internal satisfaction the smell of James Rourke's city bakery, situated quite close to where they were, the very palatable odour indeed of our daily bread, of all commodities of the public the primary and most indispensable. Bread, the staff of life, earn your bread, O tell me where is fancy bread, at Rourke's the baker's it is said.
And how like Joyce to give us the key to all this at the end rather than the beginning. He even wraps it up like a crossword clue -
O tell me where is fancy bread, at Rourke's the baker's it is said.
"It is said" is crossword speak for "2 words which sound the same". And of course because everything Joyce does is literary, there is a quote from Merchant of Venice -
Tell me where is fancy bred,Or in the heart or in the head?
And you won't be surprised to hear that throughout the book Bloom is often associated with Shylock.
It's a well baked loaf alright!

Monday, 13 November 2017

Sourdough? Or just long and slow?

Sourdough September seems like a long time ago already! It was a lot of hard work, setting up two long Sourdough Saturdays at the Heron Corn Mill, but it was definitely worth it. For most of the ten bakers who came along to bake at the mill, this was their first time doing sourdough. So it was quite a responsibility for me to make sure it was a positive experience. And you really never quite know, with sourdough, what is going to go wrong next.

 the end, to judge by the feedback, everybody had a good time. And I was really quite proud of the loaves that went home with the bakers. I should think there were some surprised people back home when mum or dad came back with really quite spectacular looking sourdough loaves.

There will be more sourdough in March, but for now I am happy to be doing something a bit less challenging in the bread line.

Real Bread Campaign gets arty

Is it just me, or is this wonderful cover picture on the front of the latest True Loaf magazine a little bit familiar?

I want to be taught bread making by her! (The one on the left!) She clearly takes the wood fired oven for granted - how else would you make bread? - and is very much at home with that dough. Shaping bread in mid air in front of the fire, while having your photo taken: she's definitely comfortable with what she's doing.

Wetter is better

One of my bread group asked if the dough was a bit too wet, and was surprised when I said no, it was too dry and sloshed a load more water on from the jug. But that was last term, and this term, the same baker retold this story to a new starter, and added "I'm much happier about soft dough now". That's the way!

Slow but quite a lot drier

I spent yesterday afternoon fussing over a pre-ferment for today's baking day at the mill. I wanted us to do something out of the Real Bread Campaign's bread book "Slow Dough", but it's not really practical in a morning to do a long slow rise. Doing the real thing properly means leaving it overnight at least. So I've had to improvise a little. I made up half the dough for the entire group as a pre-ferment chez moi starting at 3 p.m. I didn't put any salt in, and only a tiny amount of yeast. By 5 p.m. it looked like this -

I knocked it back and by 9 p.m. it had grown back again and looked like this -

I knocked it back again, and by 11 p.m. it had grown back again and looked like this -

I knocked it back one last time and left it to rise overnight. By 6:30 a.m. it had grown back yet again and looked like this -

And this is with just 2 g of yeast in each bowl!

I took the pre-fermented sponge with me to the Heron Corn Mill, and the Bread of Heron bakers and I incorporated it into our bread along with more flour, water, salt and yeast. And cheese and onion.

This is an unusual bread for me as it uses the baker's standard percentage - 60% hydration. That is, 600 g of water per 1000 g of flour.

Using the overnight pre-ferment means we were able to get much the same effect as if the whole dough had a longer rise than we actually had time for. It turned out pretty well, anyway!

Long and slow is a recurring theme

This idea of making some dough up in the day before is a bit like the Sourdough Saturday approach. When I was preparing for Sourdough Saturday, I made the sourdough sponge for everyone the day before we baked. Now you could say that's cheating because I was the only person who did the most important bit - making the sponge. But my thinking was that it's important to get that bit right, and it's terribly easy to get it wrong. So I felt it was reasonable to show the group how I'd done it, and to show them what it had to look like if it was going to work properly. It's no good trying to make sourdough with a half-hearted sponge. It has to be really violently  bubbly and so active that you risk losing a finger if you get too close to it. With a really vigorous sponge, all the bakers were at least half-guaranteed success. I wanted to inspire this year's bakers to have a go at home, knowing the difficulties, but having some idea how to approach it, and how to deal with the problems that inevitably arise.

Must it be sourdough?

Good as sourdough is, it isn't the be all and end all of bread making. It's a bit of a specialist interest. It's hard work. And it's unpredictable. When it's going well it is beyond compare, but getting it right and keeping it working can be a bit of a nightmare.

What is it with yeast?

All commercial yeast is basically the same strain of yeast - Saccharomyces cerevisiae apparently. And all sourdoughs are different. Lovely diversity!

Whichever strain of yeast we happen to be using, the starch in flour is broken down by water into various sugars.  The gas which makes the dough rise is a by-product of the process of yeast feeding on these sugars and breaking them down further.

The OED defines a by-product as - 

 a. A secondary product; a substance of more or less value obtained in the course of a specific process, though not its primary object.

So the production of gas is not the primary object of the process of making dough. Try telling that to a factory bakery where speed is everything! If the yeast can produce the required amount of gas in 10 minutes, what do we care about the primary object of the process?

Slower is a goer

We really should care about what it is that yeast is doing which, as a by-product, produces the gas that makes the dough rise. It's great that the dough rises. But it's really much more important that the yeast breaks down the sugars from the flour. This is where the flavour comes from, and all the good stuff that makes for a healthy gut. That is the primary object of the process: not gas, or speed, but flavour and healthy guttiness. We should be glad to give our dough - sour or not - as long as it wants to work on the flour. The longer the better.

Strangulation by triangulation

In computer projects at work, I was often puzzled by the idea of triangulation. A piece of work would require a certain amount of time to complete, and a certain amount of resources. If the customer wanted you to complete it quicker, you either needed to throw more resources at it, or cut back the amount of work that would be completed.

Modern factory bread seems to have taken the same approach. To get the bread out quicker, throw more yeast at it and cut down on the amount of work the yeast has time to do. Oh, and find the most gaseous strain of yeast known to man.

It does seem to me that along the way we have lost track of which part of the process is the primary object, and which is the by-product.

Supersize me

For a long time now I have wanted to try making a much larger loaf than I usually make. All the old household recipes assume that you will be making loaves with something over a kilo of flour (although they are more likely to talk about a 4 lb or quartern loaf).

The thing is, how do you go about doing it? Bread tins come in 1 lb and 2 lb sizes, and bannetons are generally made to hold either 500 g or 1 kg of dough. My dream loaf has 1 kg of wholemeal flour and 750 g of water. There's no way that would fit into a normal sized banneton.

However, there are bannetons and there are bread baskets. I have often used small woven bread baskets - the kind you put on the table - to raise small loaves in. So why not use a bigger bread basket to raise a bigger loaf? I found this one at the Salvation Army charity shop in Kendal for 79p -

It was just the job. The bread rose nicely in it, and the weave gave it a nice pattern on top -

This again was a low-yeast bake. I used 2 g of yeast for 1000 g of flour. It took 24 hours to be ready to go in the oven, but it really did taste good. And, as predicted by Elizabeth David (p 221), "the larger the loaf the longer it stays fresh". Although it is quite a dense texture, it is not at all heavy, and the mixture of 25% Heron Corn Mill stoneground wholemeal wheat with 75% roller milled wholemeal wheat, and about 5% more texture items - rye flakes, cracked wheat and linseeds - gives it a real rustic feel.

We did the same recipe, but without the long rise, at the mill today, and it worked pretty well there too.

What the experts say

Elizabeth David often quotes Eliza Acton's book -

It's a ripping good read, and you can find it online. This is Elizabeth David agreeing with Eliza Acton about long slow fermentation -

So with authority like that, you know it must be a good idea. Starting your bread making the day before baking is only a problem if you are focused on getting it done as quickly as possible. Once you get your 24 hour loaf hat on (as Jamie would say) it all starts to make better sense - and better bread.

Long live the long slow rise!