Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Sponge, oats and sourdough

This week at Bread of Heron, the Heron Corn Mill's community bread making group, we got back to basics and had a go at using a "sponge". We also dipped our toes into flatbreads, which I am sure is an area we will be revisiting before too long. Cuppas arrived early this week.

Spongeing for flavour and a strong texture

Spongeing is a very traditional way of making bread, and is quite easy to do. It does seem to cause confusion, which may explain why not everyone has tried it before. I suppose the other reason is that you do need to be just a little bit organised, and start thinking about your bread the day before you want to bake. Personally I seem to be thinking about bread all the time, so that's not a problem!

I always do a sponge now, and it's simply become a part of the process as far as I'm concerned. And if I can get organised enough to do it, believe me, anyone can!

The River Cottage Handbook on bread (by Daniel Stevens) suggests mixing half the flour and all the water and yeast the night before you want to bake, and then adding the salt and the rest of the flour next day. That would be called a "half sponge". Others suggest mixing just a quarter of the flour, half the water and half the yeast the night before, which is called a "quarter sponge".

There always seems to be more than one way to do anything when it comes to bread, and I don't think it really matters if you do a quarter sponge or a half sponge, or if you put all the yeast in the day before or just half of it. The main thing is to give some yeast the chance to start breaking down some flour and give it plenty of water to slosh around in and absolutely no salt to worry about.

If you only have a few hours to spare, then your yeast will have a few hours to get to work on the flour. If you go mad and make your sponge a couple of  days in advance, it will still be OK. The sponge activity will probably slow down to virtually nothing after a few hours - just as a sourdough culture goes into hibernation in the fridge when it's had its fill of the available flour. But it won't die off completely, and will spring back to life when the rest of the flour eventually drops into the mixing bowl, like manna from heaven.

Adding extra yeast along with the rest of the flour definitely gives the dough a bit of a kick start, but just adding more flour will certainly get the yeast going again.

Our sponged bread

Master Chef has a lot to answer for. Cooking against the clock, and against each other for that matter, is not the right way to cook, it seems to me. Once you start going down that road, it isn't long before you start cutting every corner there is to cut so that you can do a roast-beef-dinner-style meal in 30 minutes. Look where it got the British baking industry - the Chorleywood process is a high speed nightmare we are only just starting to wake up from.

Once you get into the way of thinking that says bread takes as long as it takes, it becomes an easy choice to give the yeast a bit of quality time with the flour before you get down to making the dough. And if the yeast gets some extra time the day before baking, why not give the dough a bit more rising time before going in the oven?

We heard from one baker this week that a combination of spongeing and letting the dough rise longer meant that the same amount of dough that used to produce one large loaf is now happily stretching to two medium sized loaves. At the mill, it all went into one tin -

And it certainly rose in the oven. In this next picture, you can see where it fell back a little bit when the top of the loaf touched the shelf above -

We like adding bits and pieces for the sake of texture and contrast. The middle loaf above was nicely coated in seeds, and several loaves this week had seeds, flakes and cracked grains inside as well.

The shepherd's hut gets quite cosy with the oven on, so we sometimes need to open a window or two. And the door gets opened occasionally if anyone pops in from the barn. So we have to be careful to avoid draughts upsetting the bread as it rises. We generally cover it with a tea towel or a plastic bag. The little greenhouse in the next picture has the advantage that the bread is unlikely to stick to the top. And you can easily see what is going on inside. A regular little eco system, in fact. 

 Flatbreads ad lib

We've been doing two recipes each week at Bread of Heron. At first we all did the same recipe, or as near as we could. But there has always been a main recipe and a secondary recipe. The bread is always the main thing, and then we try something alongside it, which hopefully takes a bit less time and effort. In practice if you find yourself being pushed for time or oven space, you can find yourself wondering why you bothered! So this week we relaxed things a little on the secondary recipe, and everybody chose something they really wanted to do. This little piece of psychology seemed to work quite well, and everyone was a bit more relaxed. Crucially it gave me the option of not doing pitta breads again! My pitta stockings have become something of a legend - and not in a good way.


If you have been following Bouran's contributions to the blog, you'll have come across za'atar as a topping for flatbreads, and much else besides. It's basically a herby mixture with a bit of a spicy kick as well. You can get it from Oxfam and Single Step in Lancaster, both of which have a small place reserved on their shelves for Palestinian produce.

You stretch the dough out into one big circle or two smaller ones, as the fancy takes you -

Or four very little ones if you prefer -

And when it's risen a bit and is ready to go in the oven, sprinkle some za'atar on the top. Some like it hot -

Others go for a hint of a tint -

Nell has been very enthusiastic about za'atar and maneesh for some time, and with Bouran championing it from Palestine I think we will be seeing more of this in the future.


This is a fun loaf to make, and relatively easy to do. The only problem really is the very wet dough. When I made this on my Staff of Life baking day, Simon Thomas encouraged us to make it as wet as we liked. "You can't really make it too wet" he said, and then added, when he saw how much water I'd put in, "that does look a bit wet though". And then you add a huge amount of olive oil. We put in 70 ml for 250 g of flour. That's a lot.

Kneading the dough is hard work when it's this wet. Simon's suggestion was to make a claw with one hand and beat it by hand like you were beating eggs. This seems to work quite well, and you get a stretchy, squidgy dough at the end of it, which you can roughly stretch out to the shape of your tray and leave it to rise.

The fun starts when the bread has risen. You punch holes all over the top with your fingers. Ideally you should push some rosemary in each hole as you do it, but it's much more fun to do the holes first at high speed and then add the rosemary as a fiddly afterthought.

I think the trick to getting the holes to stay open is to let the bread rise quite well before you puncture the top. Surprisingly, the bottom loaf in this next picture was in the oven for 3 minutes more than the one at the top. Either we have a cool shelf in the oven, or something was different. Maybe the bottom loaf had more oil in? Who knows? I'm sure they both tasted good, anyway! 

Pitta bread

This is something of a bĂȘte noire for me! My only attempt at making them resulted in some of the longest flat breads in recorded history. But these ones came out looking and tasting great - 

They really puffed up in the oven too -

Ivan Day's talk on Cumbrian flatbreads

Who could resist a talk with the title "Bakestones and Clapcake: Girdle cakes and flat breads in rural Cumbria 1570-1960"? I couldn't, so I trotted along to the Kendal Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry to see what was occurring.

Ivan Day is a well known speaker, and has appeared at Heron Corn Mill as well as guest spots on TV in any number of food programmes.

He came well prepared, and had some oat cakes (soft "Cumbrian chapattis" and crispy "Kendal poppadums") that he had prepared during the day. He also had some yeasted batter at the sponge stage which he used to demonstrate making the soft cakes. He brought the batter to the museum in a round brown pot of the kind my mum cooked her famous rabbit pie in.

He also mixed up some unyeasted dough to demonstrate making his clap cake. This fragile crispy wafer is clapped out with the palm of the hand on a slightly curved work surface until it is impossibly thin. It's then transferred to a hot girdle using a wood and iron peel. Once cooked on one side, it is slid back onto the peel and flipped over to cook the second side. Then it is stood up on a wooden stand in front of the fire to crisp up. 

These are some of my first batch of soft oatcakes. Like a crumpet, an oatcake batter becomes quite active when it hits the heat. You can see the bubbles on the top cake. These form almost immediately when you are cooking the first side. The bottom cake shows the much tighter formation you see when you flip a cake over to cook the second side.


We have been puzzling for some time about how we can do sourdough bread at Bread of Heron. Because it takes so long, there is no way it will fit into a morning session. Even a day long session is pushing it. When Nell and Stuart went on a sourdough course recently, they got their sourdough as far as the proving basket during the day of the course, and had to leave it overnight to be baked next day. Could this approach help us solve our sourdough dilemma?

I decided to try the basic idea out this week, so I started some sourdough off at home on Thursday, the day before the bread group met in the shepherd's hut. I got it into the proving basket, and left it in the fridge at home overnight, covered with a tea towel.

On Friday morning I took it to the mill, and let it slowly wake up and get back to room temperature in the hut. I waited until the last of the group's bread was ready to go in the oven before turning my dough out of the basket. It was a little crusty when I eventually turned it out, because of the long exposure to the air. I should probably have made the tea towel damp before putting it in the fridge. And it was really stuck in the basket, so I had to be very careful and patient waiting for gravity to help me ease it out.

But - hallelujah! - my sourdough rose beautifully in the oven, and produced a marvellously crunchy crust, complete with lots of little blisters all over - even underneath.

And the texture (on the right) was nice and open.

So in theory, it is possible to make sourdough across two days and across two sites. There are a number of practical difficulties, though, and I can't see how we could do it as a group without putting aside a couple of days to do it in.

Nell brought in a 100% rye sourdough loaf and some Kendal Creamy cheese. This type of loaf is a bit of a tour de force. Getting rye flour to rise is a bit of a magic trick, as it has little or no gluten. And the result is strongly flavoursome, and packs a real punch. For those who like it, there is nothing to beat it. But some people really don't like the taste at all. So it's a bit of a niche market, but a really wonderful thing if you like it. I like it!

Sourdough disaster

Well, the fateful day has finally dawned. I suppose it was an accident waiting to happen. Sourdough is a young man's game. Once the memory starts to curl up at the edges, it's just a matter of time before you forget something really important, like putting your Bread of Heron pinny on before baking, putting the cat out before bed, or winding the grandfather clock.

Oedipus was lax in the business of taking care not to marry his mother. Lear was too soft with the kids. Lady Macbeth's hand-washing left something to be desired. My fatal weakness, it now appears, was my cavalier attitude towards taking back some of this week's sponge to be next week's starter.

Goodness knows, I had systems in place to make sure I always remembered. It says quite clearly on my "to do" list - 

  • put all of the starter from last week into the bowl and make a sponge
  • leave over night
  • take some sponge out into the spare plastic tub to act as next week's starter
  • add the rest of the flour and water, and all the salt to make the dough
But what use are systems, when there is room for human frailty? Alack the day! I have been struck down by that same nemesis that troubled Bloom in Ulysses (chapter 17). Arriving home at the end of a long day, he ...

"... inserted his hand mechanically into the back pocket of his
trousers to obtain his latchkey.
Was it there?
It was in the corresponding pocket of the trousers which he had worn on
the day but one preceding.
Why was he doubly irritated?
Because he had forgotten and because he remembered that he had reminded
himself twice not to forget."
Our common problem -
"defective mnemotechnic" 
He forgot to swap his key from one pair of trousers to the other when he had a funeral to go to. I have lost my sourdough culture because I forgot to move some of this week's sponge into the spare tub to be next week's starter.

We have talked more than once in the shepherd's hut about the lunacy of people giving their sourdough culture a name, a warm basket by the fire, a place at table - treating them like a pet in short, or a respected family member. Well, until you have lost your starter, you just don't know what it feels like. It's considerably worse than losing your mojo.

This week's bread marks the end of an era. That unique strain of sourdough that has been living and breathing in my fridge since 23rd October 2011 (and a good decade at Staff of Life before that) is now defunct. I shall miss the dear old thing.

As Hamlet said in similar circumstances -

"He was a levain, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again."

Next week we start again.