Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Sourdough, sodabread and sums

First of all, let's celebrate the fact that even mighty Google has sat up and taken notice of our bread making activities in Beetham! This morning I received a couple of creations that Google had made from my photos, featuring my 60th birthday bash and recent bread making sessions of both Bread of Heron groups. There is no escape from the all-seeing gaze of Big Brother - they even included the bread that was forgotten about and left in the oven!

This week in Bread of Heron, the Heron Corn Mill's community bread group, we tried our most ambitious bake yet - sourdough. And I discovered how flustered mental arithmetic can make me.

There is no getting away from the fact that there is something special about sourdough, but equally there is some special complexity about making it. It really needs lots of time, and it is temperamental. You need to take account of what it looks and feels like, and how it is behaving. If you don't get in tune with the dough, you will not get a happy loaf out of it. I know this sounds a bit like looking after a Tamagotchi, but seriously, you need to get on your sourdough's wave length.

Following Julius Caesar's example in the Gallic Wars, we split our problem into three parts -

  - sponge production
  - dough production
  - shaping and baking

Pars prima - sponge

Four adventurous bakers have their own sourdough cultures at home in their fridges, and they started their own sponges off at home from their cultures on Wednesday.

I went into mass sponge production from my culture on Wednesday so that anyone who didn't have their own culture could have some of my common stock sponge when we met for our extra session at the shepherd's hut on Thursday. In effect these bakers joined the action at the second stage.

Pars secunda - dough

On Thursday we met at the shepherd's hut to make up our dough using the sponge that we had started the day before. The dough was then covered up and left in the hut overnight.

There's always one

One baker brought a very unusual ingredient along - grated beetroot! This was extremely interesting, not least because it introduced an extra unknown into the equation: how much water is there in a beetroot? Time would tell.

There was something quite exciting about leaving the dough to its own devices for so long, and just walking away. A bit like putting the kids to bed in a tent in the back garden.

Pars tertia - shape and bake

Our regular Friday morning session then started with inspecting our dough to see how it had fared overnight. There were some satisfying gasps when we found that all the dough had risen strongly and was ready for shaping and proving in baskets. There had always been the chance that we would have nothing to bake if anything had gone wrong overnight.

Our extra meeting - Pete nearly flips

Thursday sounded like a nice easy day - just take the sponge and make some dough with it. What could possibly go wrong with that? Well, you only find out that you have been making assumptions when somebody challenges them.

I had made my sponge by eye - that is, I knew what kind of consistency I wanted, and I just aimed at that. I fed and re-fed the sponge over 24 hours, and so long as I finished up with the right kind of gooiness, I was happy.

Arithmetic alert

The next two sections (Error primus and Error secundus) are full of the kind of arithmetic that is vital if you want to estimate your hydration level accurately.

Readers of a nervous or sleepy disposition may wish to skip forward to the section called The normal Friday baking session.

Error primus

Unfortunately, at some stage I had decided that my sponge was basically half flour, half water, and that idea had got lodged in my head. So when I shared my sponge with the other bakers, I said they should think of it as half flour, half water, and adjust the other ingredients in the recipe accordingly.

That was my first mistake, because if my sponge was, as I intended, a quarter sponge - a quarter of the flour and a half of the water - then it would actually be 58% water and 42% flour.

Total weights for a loaf:

500 g flour
350 g water

Weights for a quarter sponge:

125 g flour
175 g water

Total weight of sponge:

300 g

Percentage of water in sponge:

175 / 300 = 58%

Error secundus

My second mistake was to get mixed up between the amount of culture that is put into the sponge (100 g), and the amount of sponge that is put into the dough (300 g). I told everyone to put 100 g of sponge into their mixing bowls, and then add the rest of the flour. Because of my first error I said there was 50 g of flour in the sponge, so I said the bakers should add 450 g of flour to make up the full 500 g of flour.

Nell then pointed out that my original recipe said 300 g of sponge, so I had to quickly try to work out how to correct the mess I had got everybody into. Mental arithmetic under pressure is a lot harder than in normal circumstances, and I rather went to pieces at this stage.

We increased the sponge in our bowls from 100 g to the correct 300 g (which I was still assuming was 150 g of flour and 150 g of water); reduced the flour from 450 g to 350 g to make (as I thought) a total of 500 g of flour; and added 200 g of water to make (as I thought) a total of 350 g of water.

But that first mistake meant that although we were aiming at 70% hydration (700 g water per 1000 g flour) we were actually getting something a lot wetter.

Assuming my sponge was at exactly the right level of gooiness for a quarter sponge, then the 300 g of sponge we put in each loaf would actually contain 174 g water (58% of 300 g) and 126 g of flour.

And the dough we ended up with would be 174 + 200 = 374 g of water and 126 + 350 = 476 g of flour. That means our actual hydration level would be 374 / 476 = 78% hydration. The difference between 70% and 78% hydration is very significant!

And of course as I made the sponge by eye, it could have been even wetter than that. So I have really learned an important lesson here: you need to measure the contents of your sponge as meticulously as you measure the ingredients of your dough.

So long as you measure the sponge ingredients carefully, and assuming you are always aiming at 70% hydration in the finished dough, the 100 g of sponge you keep back for your next bake will be pretty accurately 140% hydration. So next time you bake, you can produce a sponge at 140% hydration simply by adding extra flour and water in the proportion 5 parts flour to 7 parts water.

To keep your sponge production simple, don't feed your culture between bakes. When you want to bake just make a sponge by putting the whole 100 g of culture into the sponge, and then weigh out 100 g of the sponge to keep in the fridge as your culture for next time.

This all sounds like fanaticism, but I really don't think this is too much trouble to take to make sure you get the result you want.

I am now coming to the conclusion that I have probably been making my dough quite a lot softer than I intended, because I have been significantly underestimating my hydration level. However, this is all good practice, because I have got reasonably well used to handling very soft dough, so if I find that my dough in future is a little firmer, I should be able to handle it a little easier.

The normal Friday baking session

The day dawned bright and fresh, and I was in the shepherd's hut early to check the dough.

At 9 o'clock the others joined me, and three home sponging bakers had brought their own dough from home. So we had a full house, and were on the way to a successful bake, even if there was a question mark over the hydration question.

Shaping the dough

Our first job on Friday was to shape our dough and load it into baskets to prove. As we had some first timers, I did a quick demo of my legendary shaping technique. I turned my wobbly dough out onto a very well floured worktop, pointing out that shaping introduces a little structure into dough which has had a long time to develop, but has developed in an untidy way. We could see lots of gluten strands, but everything was very soft - no tension at all.

My first step was to roll the dough up into a swiss roll shape. I stretched the dough gently as I turned it, so that I introduced a little tension round the outside of the swiss roll shape, in the direction I was rolling the dough. Then I let it rest for a while, with the trailing edge of the dough running along the bottom of the swiss roll. In theory, letting it rest allows the "seam" to seal up.

The dough was still quite soft after this first roll, and very wide - too wide for the basket, for sure.

The second step was to turn the dough through 90 degrees and repeat the stretch and roll, this time rolling the dough up along the considerable length of the swiss roll shape. After this was complete, the dough was quite noticeably firmer. I had introduced another set of tension at 90 degrees to the first lot, so the gluten was being made to sit up and take notice. You are aiming at a network of gluten strands, after all, strong enough to contain the gas that the dough is still producing. I let the dough stand on the seam again, to let it seal up as best it could.

Finally I turned the dough through ninety degrees again, and stretched and rolled it for a third time. After this it was really nice and elastic. Before leaving it to seal, I tucked the ends of the swiss roll underneath so that I would have a nice tidy end to my loaf, instead of it looking like the swiss roll it really was.

When I thought it had had long enough to seal the seam up, I confidently turned the dough upside down into my proving basket, only to find that the seams had not really sealed up at all. Never do demonstrations - they always go wrong! (The two pictures in this section are not pictures of my bread.)

Over to you

Once I had my bread safely in the basket, it was time for the group to have a go at handling some really soft dough. For some bakers, this was a first, as  this was their first sourdough. And it can be quite daunting when the dough is so soft, because it quickly starts to slide around in your hands. If you lose it, and rush to correct the situation, you are unlikely to remember afterwards what you actually did, so you don't learn anything from the experience.

Stay calm is the best advice - stay calm and make some tea.

People had varying levels of success with the shaping, I think it's fair to say. It's not something you can get right first time, and it really feels different with sourdough.

Eventually we were all safely in the baskets -

After a good couple of hours resting in the baskets, the next hurdle was to turn the bread out onto the worktop. Because we had lots of bread to go in the oven, we needed to get two loaves on each stone. 

I suggested we turned the bread out onto parchment on the worktop, and then shoot the whole thing off a tray into the oven, parchment and all. This got the bread in the oven double quick, so the doors could be closed quickly, And it also meant that the difficult job of fitting two loaves side by side could be done on the worktop, rather than on the way onto the stone in the oven.

Again, fortunes were a little mixed at this stage, and some loaves opened up rather more than would have been ideal. And there was some sticking to the baskets, particularly our friend Mr Beetroot. Do you fancy your chances of getting that pink blob of dough out in one piece?

Er.... not really.

As it turned out, it was happy enough once it made it to the oven. And all the straggly bits just take on a life of their own in the finished bread, giving character to the shape - no problem!

But with such wet dough and all that beetroot colour, cleaning the basket out was a bit of a mare, it must be said.

Final results for the sourdough stakes

Given our over all lack of experience with sourdough, I think we produced very commendable results. And if everybody's tasted as good as mine, I think there will be some happy bakers this week, as well as justifiably proud ones.

There are some unorthodox shapes, it's true, but that's just rustic, after all!

It's hard to see how this next shape was raised in an oblong basket, but it was!

You don't see one of these every day. This is due to the way we got two on a shelf, of course.The bread itself looks really good.

A calculator is not just for Christmas

The main lesson I learned this week was that if I can get in such a tizzy with the ingredients, I really need to start working with a calculator when I'm making bread. So that's my Christmas stocking sorted out - two walnuts, a satsuma and a calculator please, Santa.

Hopefully the lesson the group learned was that sourdough may be a bit fiddly, but it tastes great and it really is within everyone's grasp if they want to do it, and it's fun. Here's the evidence that we had fun -

Whatever the weather when we start, it's not long before the smiles break out.

Sodabread and similar

Everybody went pretty much to town with the sodabread recipes this week, which is great. Not only do we get to taste lots of interesting variations, but we get to see what works that we might not have tried ourselves.

I sat out and didn't do a sodabread this time, because I have had trouble getting the soda element right in the past. But our intrepid bakers seemed to have no trouble at all with dispersing the soda properly through the dough.

This was the beginnings of a tremendous apple and cider sodabread. The smell when it came out of the oven was scrumptious. And how bold to add that much wet flavouring to a sodabread, but it worked out just fine.

And what about this? This is a fantastic six-strand plait, and didn't it turn out well, egg glaze and all!

Here are some photos from the Thursday group's last couple of bakes. Hopefully they tell their own stories.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Pane de Pèlerinage

Tobias Smollett travelled for the good of his health and left a very entertaining account of what he got up to in his book "Travels through France and Italy".

Franz Liszt went for the scenery as much as anything. He took in Switzerland and Italy and left a musical diary of the places he visited in his Années de Pèlerinage.

The trouble with these otherwise worthy attempts to convey the joys of a trip to Italy is their complete failure to cover one of the most important things -


I have decided to put the world to rights, inspired by Charles Pooter's preface to his "Diary of a Nobody" -

"Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I
have never even heard of, and I fail to see - because I do not happen to be a
Somebody - why my diary should not be interesting. My only regret is that I did
not commence it when I was a youth."
So here's to the joys of Italy, not least...


The most interesting place in Florence for food is undoubtedly the mercato centrale. Not only does it have the best of everything in the downstairs food stalls, it also has a trendy upstairs eating area which is open to midnight, and is really good fun to walk round. You can get all the local delicacies - tripe, massive T-bone steaks, fresh pasta, pizza - you name it. My favourite place up there had a sign up saying "lievitato solo con madre" - everything sourdough. "Everything" included bread, cakes, pizza, the works.

I got a proper arancino here, and was sold it by a young lady who could easily have been Nigella's daughter. It was well worth the 3 euros!

And what could be better for pudding than half a ton of cantuccini?

And for a late supper after a night on the tiles, how about a calzone (deep fried pizza)?

This is an interesting one - charcoal bread. It's approximately 6 g of powdered charcoal added to 500 g of flour, and then made up into a very firm dough, around 50% hydration. Good for flatulence, so they say!

Somebody had a bad day with this "ruota" (Italian for "couronne") on the right: it definitely looks pasty in the middle -

In this next picture you can see the local element in the Italians' pride in their bread. Reading the labels from left to right -

  • general purpose Tuscan wood fired
  • three varieties (white, wholemeal and rustic) of bread from the next town along, Prato
  • Puglian from the south
  • Florentine salt free filone.

Can you imagine going to Milnthorpe market and being offered a choice of traditional Cumbrian, Kendal white, wholemeal and rustic, Somerset, or Milnthorpe? It isn't going to happen any time soon, but amazingly we are starting to have choices - Staff of Life in Kendal, Lovingly Artisan at Plumgarth's, More? at Staveley, Filberts in Lancaster. It's the tradition we are lacking, and that will take some making up for.

Cranky? Or is this the way to go?

This kind of specialist stall might easily be dismissed as cranky in England, but in Italy it is much more of a mainstream thing. Reading the labels from left to right -
  • wholemeal spelt, water, natural levain, salt
  • wholemeal wheat, water, oily seeds, natural levain, salt
  • wholemeal wheat, water, natural levain, salt
  • tipo 2 flour, wild wheat (einkorn), water, natural levain, salt

Duro versus tenero

Here's one you don't see very often in England: "soft flour, stone ground, type 2, obtained from ancient grains, organic, local, direct from the producers". Soft flour is more common across Europe than the "durum" wheat we use.

The key difference between "duro" and "tenero" grain is the protein levels. You can see from this table of soft grains that the protein is significantly lower than the 12-13% we typically see on our bread flour -

Flour typeAsh contentExtraction RateProtein
Type 00< .5%50%7 to 9%
Type 0.51 to .65%72%9 to 10%
Type 1.66 to .80%80%10%
Type 2.81 to .95%85%10%
Integrale1.4 to 1.6%10%
So the flour in the picture above is roughly 10% protein and 85% extraction. And these are the grains involved -
  • verna
  • mec
  • marzotto
  • abbondanza
  • rieti
If your Italian is up to it, here is a learned paper on the development of grain types, including these ones, over the 20th century. They really do take this seriously in Italy!

A bit of art

Here is a pictures of me with Donatello's David in the Bargello. I would have included a similar shot of the David in the Accademia, but my proof reader declared "enough naked men already".

Bridget Riley eat your heart out

And relax

After all the excitement and bustle of our week in Florence, we wound down a little with a couple of day trips to sleepy medieval towns nearby. Italy's trains are great, and you don't get all the nonsense of variable ticket prices that we have to put up with in this country. You pay for the distance you travel, simple as that.


Like most places in Italy, Arezzo has not only a cathedral but also at least one other large and ancient church. Rabbi Lionel Blue told a joke on Desert Island Disks about the Jewish castaway. He spent many years on the island and when he was finally rescued, his rescuers were amazed to find he had singlehandedly built two synagogues. "But why two?" they asked. "Well I don't go to that one!" he replied.

Arezzo's beautiful Chiesa di Santa Maria della Pieve is really old, and has plenty of art inside. The front of the church faces a broad Siena-like piazza. But the most amazing part is this set of columns across the back, the oldest dating back to the 1200s, all of which are subtly different -

What we actually went for were the Piero della Francesca frescoes in the Basilica di San Francesco.

These really were quite something. As Pope Francis was visiting Florence while we were there, the Galleria dell' Accademia in Florence had their best Franciscan art buffed up and prominently on display, so we were certainly not short of Franciscan influences on our holiday.

In the end we didn't go to the Cathedral in Arezzo, where we would have seen this -

Still, you can't do everything, can you? Instead we walked along part of the medieval town walls, and took in the view.


This is a lovely little place half way from Florence to the west coast. The earliest town walls were built in the eighth century. As the town grew, a second larger set of walls was built in the twelfth century. A third set was built in the fourteenth century. Rather shockingly the four old city gates were all knocked down in the early twentieth century to make room for "seemingly better urban development" as described here.

There is a nice little market between the cathedral square and the ancient church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas, both of which are worth a look. Here you can see chestnuts, fresh green and black olives, and mushrooms at 40 euros a kilo.

On the same market stall you can see how seriously they take their flour in Italy. This basket of cake flour is celebrated like a new addition to the family -

Surname... Flour
First name... Sweet
Born at... Cuneo (west of Genova)
On... 02/11/2015
Distinguishing features... Very sweet

And then finally let's cut to the chase - fancy flour costs 13 euros a kilo! "Farina dolce" is made from walnuts, so it's no coincidence that they displayed  it next to the walnuts.

Here is some flour Stuart would be proud of - "authentic organic flour stone ground naturally since 1956" and there's a picture of the stones to prove it!

What the Jiggins are these? I'd never heard of testaroli before.

It turns out they are pasta pancakes. These were in a posh food shop in Pistoia, and they are made by Lucchi and Guastalli, a very posh oil producer.

So that's all from Tuscany.

Ciao for now.