Monday, 30 March 2015

Pass the salt

This week's task at the Bread of Heron, the community bread group at the Heron Corn Mill, was to bake a seeded loaf choosing freely from a range of seeds and other texture enhancers.

Nell had provided a straightforward seeded loaf recipe which included molasses, butter and seeds. We could choose from our own Heron Corn Mill spelt and a range of commercial flours. The recipe suggested a couple of ounces of seeds, but we were free to choose from sunflower, pumpkin, sesame, linseed; and there was cracked wheat and rye flakes on hand as well. Everything in fact, to produce a rich and interesting loaf, with any level of crunch according to the preference of the baker.

Predictably, within these broad parameters, we produced a wide range of loaves in highly individual styles . The temptation to tweak a recipe is very hard to resist.

Such freedom is only possible in a community bread making group, of course. Can you just see us on MasterChef? "So Pete, you've chosen a mixture of banana seeds and giant Hibiscus. How do you think that's going to work?"

Amazingly, we all seemed to come out unscathed again today! How did that happen?

Plan A was to dissolve the molasses and butter in warm water, and add the lot to the dry ingredients in the mixing bowl. There might have been one good Christian soul who followed this procedure, but generally the dough assembly line was every man and woman for themselves. One might as well try to herd cats. Butter was squelched through fingers, salt was mixed with water, molasses were stirred into flour. You name it.

And yet, such is the glorious alchemy of baking, after five minutes of anarchy and chaos, everyone had a perfectly presentable bowl of dough to turn out onto the shiny new stainless steel tables in the shepherd's hut. That's not to say there weren't some tell-tale signs of sticky fingers as well -

And as for me and the salt. Well! Try as I might, I couldn't get any salt out of the salt drum. You know how it is - the merest bit of moisture and the whole thing seizes up like a brick. So I thought I'd give it a good shake to break the lumps up. Bad move.

There are moments in everyone's life which scar them. Character forming moments that stay with you for ever. Such a moment happened in 1965 at Mrs Cattle's Guest House, Wiveliscombe. (Peace be with her.) My innocent brother picked up the tomato sauce bottle and, following the instructions printed thereon, gave it a vigorous shake. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but events proved otherwise. Events, dear boy, events!

Persons who do not screw the tops on bottles before returning them to circulation on communal tables in guest houses deserve to be treated with disdain, or possibly to be horsewhipped to within an inch of their lives, you choose. In my brother's case, there was tomato sauce everywhere - ceiling, tablecloth, fellow guests. It looked like something from Reservoir Dogs.

With that traumatic event still vividly in mind, and holding stoutly onto the top of the salt drum, I shook. And the bottom fell out of the salt market.


I just wanted to slink away stage left.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this business of salt is troubling me this week, and was one topic that we discussed at the shepherd's hut at coffee time.

If you use a bread making machine, you will have read the dire injunctions in the instruction book warning you to keep the salt away from the yeast. My instruction book never actually explained why, but the simple fact is that if you mix them together, the salt turns the yeast to gloop, which is never a good thing.

Our recipe suggested salt to one side of the flour, yeast to the other, then mix everything together with the wet ingredients. But there's always the option to mix the salt through the flour beforehand. That way the most salt the yeast is likely to come into contact with is a grain or two. And last week's technique of mixing the yeast into the water also reduces the risk of a stand off between salt and yeast. My preferred option is to mix the salt with the water, and stir quick action dry yeast into the flour. That pretty well guarantees an even distribution of the salt round the dough.

So why do we put salt in bread at all if the yeast doesn't like it? Certainly it affects the taste. It also affects the taste buds, so if you are used to plenty of salt in your diet (not a good thing from a health point of view) then your taste buds will register it less and less over time. Much the same thing applies to monosodium glutamate, and most people seem to have decided it's not a great idea to get too used to everything having its flavour "enhanced" by MSG.

Apart from contributing to the flavour and regulating the action of the yeast, salt apparently also helps the development of the gluten in the dough. This article describes the role of salt, but you might want to take it "cum grano salis" when you see the recommendation of 2% salt to flour. That's two teaspoons to one loaf, whereas we were all quite satisfied with half that amount.

There's a great little trattoria called Il Contadino in Florence where we went (every day) on holiday. I watched a couple eating there one day. She hit everything with the salt cellar; and he put about half a bottle of olive oil on a plate of spinach! I think I'm with him on that one. [Don't get him started on olive oil. Ed.]

The recipe suggested we could get away with a single rise. This raises the question why bother with a second rise, but I think I'll leave that hot potato for another day. At any rate it meant that we could afford to let our dough take its own good time to rise. So we left it on the shelf under the table as opposed to putting it near the warm oven. This actually turned out to be quite an interesting experiment, because some of the dough was standing in direct sunlight, and rose significantly more vigorously than the dough that was in the shade. So there is definitely some room for influencing the dough at this stage, although the accepted wisdom seems to be that a slower rise allows the yeast to do its thing better.

With an extended rise for our bread, we had enough time to make some scones. And I'm going to nail my colours to the mast right now: scone rhymes with bone, not gone. Or possibly if you're Scottish I might allow spoon.

Some of us did cheese scones (bone! bone!) and some did fruity ones. I did some speciality flat ones, because I replaced "flour SR" in the recipe by "flour not SR" and didn't compensate by adding baking powder. This was my first ever attempt at the mighty scone, and it was truly a baptism of fire among so many experienced sconites. Still, I don't think I am likely to make that particular mistake again.

See if you can spot the point at which my flat scones joined the others on the cooling racks. It's really not that hard!

We all had a jolly good tuck in, with jam and cream or cheese as appropriate, which had been kindly brought along by a group member.


There are a couple of areas where I think we have room for improvement. We haven't quite got into the habit of writing down when our bread is due out; and we don't always shut the oven door to keep the heat in.

Still, all the bread came out looking and smelling great. And perhaps surprisingly the dough which seemed the driest when it went in the tin eventually rose the best.

So do we really believe the saying that wetter better? A softer dough certainly makes kneading less like hard work. But should a wetter dough be producing more carbon dioxide during the rising process? Should it be producing more steam inside the bread as it bakes? On this occasion, something else happened, because the driest dough rose most. Maybe there are just more variables that I haven't worked out yet.

Nice loaves all round, anyway. And we had a good tasting session - always a nice end to a bake-up. The various seeds produced interesting results, both inside and on top of our loaves. And for me the best bit is that my missus has changed her mind after 30 years of not liking caraway seeds, and has been monopolising my caraway loaf since I took it home.

Now that really is a result!

Friday, 20 March 2015

Bread of Heron Spelt challenge

Greetings from the Bread of Heron community bread group at the Heron Corn Mill! Today was special for three reasons: -

There was a total eclipse of the sun
It was the centenary of the birth of Sviatoslav Richter
The second batch of Bread of Heron bread was baked.

I leave it to you to decide which is the most significant of these events.

Like last week, when the first group of intrepid bread makers baked in the sparkling new shepherd's hut at the Heron Corn Mill, spelt was on the menu today for the second group. Along with Heron Corn Mill wholemeal spelt, there was white spelt from Dove's. We all followed the same recipe, but varied the flour, some choosing wholemeal, some white and some mixing the two in various proportions.

The oven in the shepherd's hut is fan assisted, and seems to me to be working very efficiently. Mind you, I'm comparing it to a quite elderly gas oven at home, which seems better at heating the kitchen than baking bread. It's certainly cosy in the shepherd's hut, but the oven's first priority is definitely cooking our bread.

It's really surprising how differently two bowls of flour can behave when it comes to soaking up water.

We all had 1 lb of spelt flour, and we all started out with 12 fl oz of water. Admittedly the flour ranged from 100% wholemeal to 100% white, but it was all spelt. Yet the consistency of everyone's dough was markedly different.

Last week I used all my 12 fl oz of water with my wholemeal flour, and was very happy with a soft, workable dough. Today's wholemeal bakers found much the same. This week I was using half and half white and wholemeal spelt, so I started out with about 10-11 fl oz of water, to see how I got on. I was really surprised to find that my dough was impossibly sloppy, even though I'd used significantly less water than last week. It's very unusual for me to decide I've got too much water, but I certainly felt that today, and I twice went back for more wholemeal flour before I got anywhere near an acceptable consistency, and a workable dough.  And that last bit of water never got used up.

Usually all the bits of dough eventually detach themselves as I knead, and I finish up with nice clean hands. Not today though: my hands were still distinctly claggy when the dough was thoroughly kneaded.

I found this very surprising, and I will be having a go with white spelt again soon, to see if I can get the measure of it. Dove's white spelt is perfectly good flour, and I am intrigued that it seems to have behaved so very differently on this occasion from the Heron's own wholemeal spelt. Is there a knack I need to acquire?

Once you've kneaded your dough, there is nothing to do but sit down and have a chat over a nice cup o' tea.

Today the talk was all about food, much of it related to pigs. Pigs' trotters and cabbage for breakfast; making black pudding; keeping a pig (not just for Christmas); letting pigs free range to produce muscle; muscle producing flavoursome meat.

Hmm. I think I put a bit too much water in this dough.

All this reminded me of Lambert the pig slaughterer - a character in the second part of Samuel Beckett's Trilogy.

Samuel Beckett

"Big Lambert had not a tooth in his head and smoked his cigarettes in a cigarette-holder, while regretting his pipe. He was highly thought of as a bleeder and disjointer of pigs and greatly sought after, I exaggerate, in that capacity. For his fee was lower than the butcher's, and he had even been known to demand no more, in return for his services, than a lump of gammon or a pig's cheek. How plausible all that is. He often spoke of his father with respect and tenderness. His like will not be seen again, he used to say, once I am gone...

And to return to our pigs, Lambert continued to expatiate, to his near and dear ones, of an evening, while the lamp burned low, on the specimen he had just slaughtered, until the day he was summoned to slaughter another. Then all his conversation was of this new pig, so unlike the other in every respect, so quite unlike, and yet at bottom the same. For all pigs are alike, when you get to know their little ways, struggle, squeal, bleed, squeal, struggle, bleed, squeal and faint away, in more or less the same way exactly, a way that is all their own and could never be imitated by a lamb, for example, or a kid."

And to return to our bread... each new loaf so unlike the other in every respect, so quite unlike, and yet at bottom the same.

I learned a couple of good tips today, which is another good reason for coming to the bread group. How can you tell when your dough is sufficiently developed, and you can decently stop slogging away at the kneading? If you stretch your dough between the finger and thumb of each hand, and keep stretching, it will eventually tear, but well kneaded dough, with its stretchy gluten, will stretch amazingly thin, a bit like bubble gum, and you should be able to see the light through the dough.

A very good party trick, though with my troublesome dough today I thought I'd keep that one to try out at home!

When you have got your dough in the tin (or basket) and you want to let it rise again, it's a good idea to put it in a plastic bag to create a cosy micro climate for it, like a poly-tunnel for bread. But how can you stop it touching the bag when it rises? Blow into the bag please sir. Remember goldfish at the fair? They always used to half fill the bag with water and then blow it up with air. There's no way the dough will touch the top of a fully inflated bag. Just don't try it with a bag with holes in or you'll be there all day.

When the bread came out of the oven, there was the usual ceremony of tapping the bottoms to see if it sounded hollow.

I am coming to the conclusion that "sounding hollow" is very much a matter of interpretation. "Quot homines, tot sententiae" as my Latin teacher used to say. Maybe it's just me, but I always seem to want to give mine a bit longer in the oven, and I want my hollow sound to be like tapping on a wooden box, not tapping on a cardboard box.

Whatever the rights and wrongs, if any, everybody's bread looked fine when cut, and all our loaves had good texture, more or less open as you would expect when comparing wholemeal to lighter flours.

And tasting was a complete delight again this week. I think if any of us had bought any of these loaves in a bread shop, we would have been more than happy with the flavour, and that for me is what it is all about.

I personally think that the Heron wholemeal spelt is a winner, producing a very satisfying loaf, with a really delicious nutty flavour. A nice thing about spelt generally is that you can be really clumsy when shaping the loaves - I certainly am - and because the dough settles and spreads as well as rising, even the roughest loaf will morph into a beautiful smooth beast by the time it is ready to go in the oven. Mine today looked like a croissant when I had shaped it, but it was perfectly "normal" when it went in the oven, and looked like this when I got it home -

This shows that you don't have to mess the dough around too much in the hope of making it look right at shaping time - just give it a gentle stretch and fold and put it in the tin. Less is more.

My loaf has a nice open texture, but for me it's lacking a bit of body compared to the wholemeal last week. Maybe when it's had a day or so to firm up it'll develop that lovely sponginess that I really like.

Last week I promised an answer to this question out of Ulysses -

"Tell me where is fancy bread? At Rourke's the baker's it is said."

If you start by saying this is a crossword clue, then "it is said" means the clue contains something that can be spelled two way, each meaning something different. Then if you change the spelling of "bread" to "bred", you get the song from the casket scene (Act 3 Scene 2) in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice -

Here Musicke. A Song the whilst Bassanio comments on the Caskets to himselfe.

Tell me where is fancie bred,
Or in the heart, or in the head:
How begot, how nourished.
    Replie, replie.

It is engendred in the eyes,
With gazing fed, and Fancie dies,
In the cradle where it lies:
Let vs all ring Fancies knell.
Ile begin it. Ding, dong, bell

    Ding, dong, bell

All that glisters is not gold, perhaps, but our wholemeal, mixed and white spelt loaves were all worthy of a medal today.

Happy baking y'all.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

How are you spelting that?

Today's Bread of Heron baking was all about spelt. What better way to start the Heron Corn Mill's community bread group off than by baking with this increasingly popular grain?

There were seven of us in the hut today, Friday March 13th 2015.

We baked with our boots on, and we baked with spelt. But we left the horses outside.

With seven pairs of hands... is probably no surprise that we got a wide variety of results. After all, each of us was encountering at least something new - the hut, the oven, the flour, the company even! Nice then to find that we all managed to produce very satisfying and good looking results. The bread's not bad either!

Nell had arranged for several different types of spelt flour to be available, and some of us baked with wholemeal spelt, some with white and some with a mixture. Other than that, we were basically following the same recipe, with the same quantities.

Mind you, we Brits are free spirits. Rules are made in Bananistan, and are only there to be bent.

We all started out with a measured 12 fl oz of water and 500 g of flour, an uneasy combination of Imperial and European.

One member of the old school (you know who you are!) went imperial, turning 500 g into 454 g - sorry, 1 lb. And in the spirit of seeing how it went, several water jugs were only partially emptied into mixing bowls.

The conversation got round to recipes and cooks. Delia may be reliable, but safe is so yesterday. Jamie also has peaked, apparently. Paul "Bollywood" was on the steel worktop in the hut, but should he be on the coffee table? Elizabeth David was a trusted name for some - but were we following any of these people? No - we were working with the booklet from the Traditional Corn Millers Guild and to be honest we weren't following it so very slavishly at that.

It was actually very interesting to see how much the consistency of our doughs varied, although we started with much the same ingredients - flour, salt, fresh yeast bubbling away in a little of our water.

I agree with Andrew Whitley's maxim that "wetter is better".

It may sound like Mrs Thatcher's motto when choosing a cabinet, but it works with bread too. That is after all Kenneth Baker standing behind Maggie, and Nigella's dad sitting on her left, so hers was a bit of a kitchen cabinet.

I don't think there can be any doubt that a softer dough takes less work to develop, but maybe a firmer dough is just better suited to a more physical kneading method. Some people soften their dough up Enery Cooper style...

... a couple of left dough hooks, a straight right in the punch bowl and a good splash of Brut 33 to finish. Others ask "how would Jeeves go about it?".

Gentle reasoning with your dough, turning it over, coming at it from a different angle, maybe discussing Spinoza with it over a glass of port in the pantry. Dough needs to feel stretched, after all.

As always, there is no right and there is no wrong way. Bread seems to be unique in forgiving virtually every kind of affront the hapless baker can throw at it. Admittedly we didn't let ourselves go to the extent that this Spanish community bread group ("Pan de la Garza") did when they made pizzas recently -

But within the limits imposed by British etiquette -

we must between us have tried most things on our bread today - bashing, slapping, squeezing, squelching, throwing water at it, throwing flour at it. And it all came out looking absolutely fine in the end. Let's face it - making bread is a piece of cake.

The white spelt loaves came out surprisingly yellow, and noticeably sweet. The wholemeal was nice and brown without being heavy at all. The mixed white and wholemeal was predictably paler than the straight wholemeal, but no less flavoursome. They all stood up to being cut open while still warm - a sacrificial offering to the massed ranks of 7 bakers. And they all ate well, with no butter or with a week's butter ration on a slice.

It was great to find that several people were actively trying out using less salt than the recipe suggested. This has to be a healthy development!

No bread blog is complete without a shot of the bread in question. So I thought I'd do a still life, with some kitchen essentials hovering in the background -

I was quite pleased with that - look at that open texture, and that all-over sunburnt crust! But my dear wife felt there were too many product placements in this. I think it was really the Marmite that upset her. She suggested a more austere approach -

This is too political for me! Eventually she softened a little, and allowed the controversial sour dough from last week to creep into the background -

Whichever way you like your spelt, this is a flour that will repay a bit of love and attention.

You probably realise by now that I am a fan of  James Joyce -

Someone asked him what he was thinking when this picture was taken, and he said

"I wonder if I could touch the photographer for ten bob?".

Here's a bread related puzzle for you, from chapter 16 of Ulysses-

"Tell me where is fancy bread? At Rourke's the baker's it is said."

Answer next time.