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!