Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Heritage open days at Heron Corn Mill

This week we're celebrating Heritage Open Days at Heron Corn Mill. This nation wide celebration of our wonderful heritage gives us a chance to make good use of the fantastic stoneground flour that Stuart Hobbs is producing, and bake some real bread. Nell Dale and I will be in the mill from Thursday to Sunday (11th to 14th September) from 11:00 to 16:00 with some sample breads made with our own fair hands and largely with Heron Corn Mill flour.

OK, I'm getting excited now! The idea is that we will be comparing home made breads using Heron Corn Mill flours with other home made breads using commercially produced flours. Will we be able to taste the difference between stoneground and roller milled flour? And how about the difference between organic and "conventional" grain? Which makes the bigger difference to the taste - how the grain is grown, or how it is milled? Should we be fussy about these things, or is there an element of hype in all this? Should we be thinking about the planet? Or our digestive systems? Or just the taste? If nothing else, home made bread usually tastes great!

I've already started getting my stuff together for baking tomorrow evening. Here are my basics - four different flours to set the characteristic tones for my breads -

Heron Corn Mill stoneground wholemeal wheat and spelt take pride of place in the middle; a commercially produced stoneground wholemeal wheat from Tesco; and a stoneground white from Gilchester Organics for use in my sourdough among other things. In the front is my starter culture for the sourdough, and some fast acting yeast for the others.

I think these should give quite a lot of room for interesting comparisons. And I know for sure that the Heron spelt flour is absolutely fantastic for flavour. As I'll be baking on a hot stone (4 hot clay tiles, actually!) I am expecting to have some good crust on my breads, and I'll be adding some texture and extra flavours just for interest.

I've snook in a few extra flours here - a stoneground wholemeal wheat from Little Salkeld Watermill near Penrith; a very robust organic rye from Swaffham Prior Windmill near Ely; and Allinson's roller milled white - an irresistible bargain at £1 a bag in Asda. In front of them are my "textures" that I will be liberally adding to most of the breads. From left to right - rye flakes, golden linseed, wheatgerm, and cracked wheat. A couple of spoons of any of these gives most loaves a nice lift.

Just for fun, I will be adding some fragrant ingredients as well. If I have time I'm hoping to do a rosemary focaccia. One of my wholemeal wheat breads will have a pinch of caraway seeds, which will be interesting to compare to a "vanilla flavoured" wholemeal wheat. I will be trying to copy a wonderful thing I had from Simon Thomas at Staff of Life in Kendal recently. His white bread with herbs running through was a thing of rare beauty. Whether I can get anywhere near the sublime subtlety that Simon achieved remains to be seen!  

I often use polenta to stop my bread sticking to the peel on the way in to the oven. It gives a nice crunchy bottom, which is a very nice effect, I think. It can also add a nice bit of crunch to an otherwise plain white loaf. Likewise semolina can just give a little bit of extra richness to an otherwise fairly light loaf.

I foolishly mentioned my parkin was a legend in the family, and of course I was instantly challenged to do one for the heritage open days at the mill. So, I'll be slipping a parkin in at the bottom of the oven when the bread is at the top. Fingers crossed I don't burn it!

So, first up - get the sourdough sponge started. This is a quarter sponge - 75 grams of flour for a 300g loaf. 

If you haven't tried a sponge, you really should - it adds to the flavour very noticeably. The basic idea is to mix a quarter of the flour, half the water and no salt the day before you will be baking. You can either add some yeast, or some sourdough culture, and then just let it alone to do its thing for a number of hours. There doesn't seem to be a correct length of time - it all depends how much yeast or sourdough you add, how warm the room is, how warm the water is, and so on. I'm leaving mine for 24 hours, so it is quite possible I'll find it is quite strong at the end, but my sourdough culture is not particularly violent, so I am taking that risk.

In with the flour and a couple of spoons of the sourdough culture.

Add some tepid water.

Give it a good stir, and hey presto! You have a sponge.

Leave it well alone for a few hours.

And it will look a bit more frothy.

Now it's time to let nature get on with the job, and I'll start again tomorrow, with a bit of serious home baking. Watch this space!

Next day...

Here we are again, the day before the first Heritage Open Day at Heron Corn Mill, and lots still to do. OMG, OMG, OMG!

First up, move my sourdough on from being just a sponge to something a bit more like a loaf. The Gilchester flours are quite hard work - presumably the gluten level is relatively low. Whatever the cause, (I have asked them via their web page, but no reply) this flour needs quite a lot of TLC before it starts to feel like responsive dough.

I made my first mistake of the day by putting in enough water for my normal 2 loaves, when I was only intending to do one. Rapidly changing to plan B, I added enough flour to make 2 loaves and got kneading.

With a fair amount of elbow grease, and some more water to adjust the consistency, I finally got something that felt nice and smooth, so I split this in half and added herbs to one half and walnuts to the other half. This is probably my second mistake of the day - the nuts should probably have gone in much later, but hey - let's see what happens.

Next job, start the sponges for the Heron wheat and spelt loaves.

These will take less time than the soudough sponge, because I've added some yeast this time. You can see the mixture is nice and sloppy. This is just what the yeast likes - moist warm conditions, and no salt - so these will look quite different in an hour or so. But I'll be leaving these for longer than that because I'm off to Lancaster for a 2pm matinee performance of She Stoops to Conquer, complete with big hair and Northern Broadsides' usual great northern accents.

Before I run for the train, there's just time to carefully document the bread by slapping a piece of paper on top of each bowl. Now time and mother nature can get on with making my dough rise and my sponge bubble.


Well, when I got back from the show, the sourdough was well risen. I suppose with a 24 hour sponge and a 7 hour rise, it would have been surprising if it wasn't well risen. But it just goes to show that given time, your bread will get there in the end. And it will probably be all the better for rising slowly.

You can see that when I turned the dough out, there were some satisfyingly large bubbles and the texture was nice and open.

So I just gave the sourdough 3 quick folds and put it to prove in the baskets near the oven. You can also see that shaping is not my strong point!

However, bread is nothing if not forgiving, and these "interesting" looking loaves tend to turn out just fine in the end. The Heron Mill spelt and wheat loaves didn't really look much better after being mangled by my best efforts at shaping.

When the sourdough came out, that nice open texture was well in evidence. A good bold slash exposes what's happening inside, as well as letting the bread expand freely in the oven.

Admittedly the nut loaf on the left has cracked a bit at this end, but that's the baker's slice anyway, and I'm not complaining! Look at those stretch marks in the middle of the herb loaf on the right! Fantastic. I can't wait to find out how the herbs have turned out. Sometimes they can just get lost in the cooking, but I was fairly liberal this time, and it looks like a happy loaf, so I am pretty hopeful.

The Heron spelt didn't behave as well this time as it has done before, for some reason. Maybe I didn't give it enough TLC at the kneading stage. The Heron wheat, on the other hand, was very lively, and rose the better of the two.

Just for fun, I snook in an olive focaccia as well as the famous parkin, and a couple of baked apples. I like to get value for money out of my baking stones.

Nell Dale will be doing some live cooking in the Mill tomorrow as well, so there will be lots to talk about and sample. The theme for the Heritage Open Days at the Heron Corn Mill is "Tour and Taste", so why not come along and join in? It'll be fun!

Heron Corn Mill "Heritage Open Days" this Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Milling and bread things going on in the mill, and Heron Corn Mill stoneground flour to buy in the barn. See you then!

Monday, 7 July 2014

Wimbledon bread

While the men were battling it out at Wimbledon, and the sun was shining outside, I was in the kitchen yesterday, baking 2 yeasted and 2 sour dough loaves.

The 2 loaves at the back in the picture are yeasted wholemeal wheat. Three quarters of the flour was milled at the Heron Corn Mill, topped up with a cupful of Carr's because I didn't quite have enough of the delicious gold dust produced at the Heron on the first Friday of the month.

The 2 loaves at the front in the picture are half Salkeld organic white and half Heron wholemeal wheat with a little sourdough culture in place of yeast. The culture is about 12 years old, and I got it from the Staff of Life in Kendal. It's been developing Arnside characteristics in my fridge for about a year now, and is pretty stable. It still needs to be cut back occasionally, but the main thing I do is to put the whole culture into each bake, and make sure to take some out to carry forward to next week at the end of my overnight sponge. Using the whole culture every week ensures that what is in the fridge never gets too acid from lying around for too long.

I started both breads off the night before, with a quarter sponge - a quarter of the flour with half the water, no salt, and either a spoonful of the sourdough culture or half the yeast. This develops extra flavour over night, and ensures you get a vigorous rise the next day, although vigorous is a relative term when it comes to sourdough!

I added the rest of the ingredients to the sourdough about 9 a.m. and left it to its cogitations till about the time the tennis started, so it had about 5 hours rising in the bowl before I got on with the yeasted bread in the afternoon.

The yeasted bread is easy to time - 

  • overnight sponge
  • 10 minute knead
  • 1 hour rising in the bowl
  • 5 minutes to fold and shape
  • 1 hour in the proving basket
  • 50 minutes in the oven
The sourdough continued to rise in the bowl until the yeasted dough was in the first pair of proving baskets at 3.15 p.m. I then moved the sourdough on into the second pair of proving baskets, so it had about 1h 45m for its final proving before reaching the oven about 5 p.m.

You just have to let the sourdough do its own thing until it's ready, so it helps to have other things on the go, like the yeasted bread, or Wimbledon. But it's a sobering thought that I started the bread off about 10 p.m. on Saturday, and took it out of the oven about 6 p.m. on Sunday. So they are not joking at the Handmade Bakery in Slaithwaite when they call their bread "sleepless white". As Elizabeth Botham's in Whitby puts it - some things just take time.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Heron Corn Mill bread

Hurray! Flour from my local mill!

By a great stroke of good luck, I chose a great day to call in at the Heron Corn Mill in Beetham to see what "being a volunteer" might look like. The first Friday in the month is when miller Stuart demonstrates milling flour as part of a tour of the workings of the mill.

Stuart and the mill team have put in a lot of hard work renovating the historic mill, with help from Lottery funding. And there is still lots to do, as with any restoration project. But there is also plenty of fun to be had, which is why I went along to see about volunteering.

Stuart sold me a couple of Heron Mill baking tins, and I took home a couple of bags of the flour I saw milled, and this is what I did with them.

First off, I made a quarter sponge. This is the Oxford English Dictionary definition -

4.I.4 To convert (flour or dough) into ‘sponge’. Also intr. 

   1772 Ann. Reg. ii. 109/2 So will a thimble-full of barm, by adding of warm water, raise or spunge any body of flour.    1876 Mid-Yorks. Gloss. 134/2.    1962 M. E. Murie Two in Far North ii. vii. 171 The [bread] sponge didn't sponge in spite of red damask tablecloth and fur parka I had lovingly wrapped it in.

Sponging allows the yeast to do some preparatory work on the flour, developing flavour in advance.I was making two loaves (2 * 450 grams of flour) so a quarter sponge means taking a quarter of the flour (225 grams) and mixing with half the yeast (1 teaspoon) and half the water (1 cup, 9 fluid ounces) - and no salt.

You can see the yeast getting to work on the flour, forming bubbles on the surface of the very moist mixture. Having no salt in there means there is nothing to hold the yeast back, and it really has a great time gorging itself on the flour. All that feasting starts breaking down the flour and generally developing the flavour. If you have never tried this, you should! An overnight sponge makes a real difference to the bread you bake the next day.

By the way, the snazzy plastic bowl can be found at Asda for £1.50 or at the Pound shop in Lancaster for - a pound.

Once the sponge had done its work (several hours), I set about making the bread. As well as adding the rest of the flour, I threw in some extras for added texture. I try lots of different ingredients in this way, but I always measure them quite carefully with the large side of the plastic spoon that came with my bread making machine. That way I know what works and what doesn't. For 2 loaves, these are my usual choices -

  • 4 tablespoons of rye flakes
  • 4 tablespoons of cracked wheat
  • 2 tablespoons of linseed (golden for white bread, the cheaper brown for brown bread)
  • 2 tablespoons of wheatgerm

I use quick action "easy bake" dried yeast (not the old fashioned "dried active" stuff that you need to mix with water, and which doesn't taste nice at all). The quick action stuff can be mixed in with the dry flour and works really well. Simon at Staff of Life bakery in Kendal uses it, so it must be OK. Don't waste money on those little sachets, though - you can get it in a tin made by Dove's Farm or Allinson's for about £1.15 and it lasts for ages. You can also get it from Single Step Wholefoods in Lancaster, where it is even cheaper, and you buy it by the ounce which rather appeals to people of my age!

To get the salt mixed in properly without damaging the yeast, I mix it with the second 9 fluid ounce cup of tepid water. In fact, though, I like to make my bread nice and moist, because it just works better, and with all the extras I used in this bake, I finished up adding nearly 2 cups of water at the mixing stage, making 27 fluid ounces in all. But it's best to start with a fairly dry mix (1 cup of water at sponging time and 1 cup at mixing time) and then keep adding till you think it can't take any more. Then add a bit of olive oil and you get a really smooth and lovely texture. This is the bit I like most about working dough - when it feels really smooth and velvety, you just know it is going to be fine. If you really go too far, you can always add a bit of flour at the end to make it more manageable. But as Andrew Whitley says in his book (Bread Matters) - "wetter is better".

After about 40 minutes rising, my bread was starting to look lively -

But I let it have at least an hour and it was up to the top of the bowl by the time I moved it on into the Heron Mill tins.

Don't listen to anyone who says you need to knock back your dough! Why waste all those good bubbles? It just needs a bit of gentle stretching to get it going strong in the final proving stage. As Simon at Staff of Life said, anything more than half a dozen gentle stretches and you'll knock all the life out of it. I watched the lady at the Handmade Bakery in Slaithwaite near Huddersfield moving bread on into proving baskets, and there really is nothing to it. Their website spookily has a picture of me having a cup of good Yorkshire coffee in the cafe - a chance in a million.

Just cut the dough into 2 loaf sized pieces, and fold in 3, stretching as you go. Then turn it round 90 degrees and fold in three again, stretching as you go. The Handmade Bakery lady then dragged the dough towards her a couple of times, with her hands cupped round the back of the loaf. The bottom sticks to the table, so everything else gets a good stretch. Very hard to explain, but it feels right. Here's a picture from their web site, showing how it's done -

But just the folding is probably enough preparation for putting the bread in the tins. When I've used tins in the past, they have always been coated with a non-stick surface, but the Heron Mill ones are simple heavy grade metal tins. I was fairly liberal with the oil to make sure that they wouldn't stick, but this was not a good idea, because the tins are made from folded not pressed metal, so the corners are actually joins and can leak. As it turned out there was no way they would have stuck, so I would recommend just a very light wipe with an oily piece of kitchen roll.

It's clear from this picture that the bread is going to be substantial and coarsely textured - really good qualities in a wholemeal loaf! I left them for an hour in the warmth of the kitchen - no direct heat, but a leisurely rise, covered with a tea towel against draughts.

They went in the oven on the rack above the middle of the oven, pre heated to absolute full whack, and only turned down to gas mark 8 after about 14 minutes. My usual bake is done on a hot stone, so it's not surprising that these loaves needed 55 minutes rather than my normal 50 minutes. There is the tin to heat up, after all, and no super-heat from the stone. It's always better to be safe than sorry - there is nothing worse than an underdone loaf.

When they came out, you could just see the lettering on the side and end of the loaf, thanks to the tin. And the flavour was completely wonderful - rich and nutty. Maybe I am a bit dewy-eyed about baking with flour I've seen milled at my local mill, but it really is a special taste!

And the texture was good too -

If you want to see flour being milled (in small quantities) at the Heron Corn Mill, why not come along on the first Friday of the month, where Stuart will be doing a mill tour and milling demo at 11:30. The tour costs £5 and is really interesting. A mill tour (with the wheel turning, but no milling) is available at 11:00 every day the mill is open, again the cost of the tour is £5. And you can look round the mill under your own steam for free.

Pete Taylor