Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Tomato loaf - take two

Last week at Bread of Heron, the Heron Corn Mill's community bread making group, one half of our intrepid bakers did a tomato loaf. This week the other half of the bakers did a tomato loaf in their turn.

This recipe produces a particularly sticky dough, and quite a lot of "dusting" was required at the loaf-shaping stage. The flexible dough scrapers are a godsend at times like this.

Everybody stayed cool despite the trickiness of the recipe and all the loaves went into their respective tins looking pretty good. The rolling up into a swiss roll shape that had seemed completely out of the question to me last week was successfully negotiated by everyone, and we even saw a couple of couronnes being shaped in round tins. 

Anxious moments before taking the loaves out of the oven.

I counted them all out and I counted them all back in again. One of our loaves appears to have gone missing, but in fact one baker went home early and took the loaf to bake at home. Just the opposite of the old traditional way of making your dough at home and taking it to the baker to put in the oven for you.

Fruit scones and cheese scones

While the bread was resting, there was time for scones. The weighing out was a serious affair, with cheese for the scones being grated to the nearest gram.

By the time the butter was being rubbed in, the chortling had begun.

It wasn't long before the jokes started. What's the fastest teacake? Scone! 

Scone making styles were many and varied, and the results all looked and tasted quite distinctive.


I mentioned last time that the biggest problem we faced seemed (imho) to be following the recipe. In a moment of enlightenment this week, I learned that the real problem was that I had been following one recipe while everyone else was doing another!

Last week's loaf was relatively straightforward, with a shot of sun dried tomatoes incorporated into a dough enriched with olive oil. But this week's involved a (flour and water) sponge, a tomato sponge, tomato puree, sun dried tomatoes, onions, toasted sunflower seeds. I on the other hand, having already done all the tomato stuff last week. rolled up at the shepherd's hut with plenty of sponge and no tomatoes. Heigh ho.

Ask a man to follow a set of instructions...

... and you can expect a pickle.

Notes from Palestine

Our special correspondent Bouran has sent us some really interesting thoughts about Palestinian bread this week. Here is just a taste of what she has to say about yeast and water.


At the mill we have been thinking about the difference between commercial yeast and the wild yeast in sourdough cultures. And we've touched on the temperature of the water we make the dough with. On a nice warm day we noticed that dough resting in direct sunlight seemed to rise very happily. But in England we don't have the luxury (or challenge, depending on your point of view) of such high temperatures in the summer that we have to actively control the amount of yeast. Here's Bouran on yeast -
"As for the amount of yeast, it usually varies depending on the weather condition and the season so generally less yeast in the hot summer days, and bit more in winter."

Water - wetter is better if it feels better

This is probably the hottest topic in the bread group: how wet should the dough be? We haven't been particularly strict with ourselves about this, although we have tried to follow the recipes accurately. And we certainly haven't worked out the "hydration" percentage - the ratio of the weight of the wet ingredients to the weight of the dry ingredients. I am very happy to find that Bouran describes pretty much exactly what I do with my dough -

"Now here comes the issue of how much water! Well I never measure to be honest. I just pour in enough water to combine the flour and get it altogether then gradually I start to add more little by little as I am kneading until I FEEL the dough has become soft and smooth. My idea is to train myself to the feel of the dough until I get it right. But that is just probably true in the case of pita bread only."
More from Bouran next time.

Various sponges

Soapey Sponge is a rogue who appears in a couple of books by R. S. Surtees. He is full of hot air and a very tricky customer to deal with. A bit like a sourdough sponge, in fact. Here he is resting in a warm place, wondering where his next feed is coming from. Definitely like a sourdough sponge!

Unbeknown to Mr Sponge, the butler is also up to no good.

My sponges this week were completely above board.

White sourdough sponge
Yeasted wholemeal wheat sponge
The recipe we were following (some closer than others) said you should use yeast when making your sponge, and didn't say you should add any more yeast when adding the rest of the flour. This was interesting, because I had always thought extra yeast was needed because the yeast in the sponge would be exhausted by the time you came to make bread with it.

This picture shows that the dough using the yeasted sponge (on the right) did indeed rise nicely without any extra yeast, The dough using the sourdough sponge (on the left) hd some yeast added and grew more strongly.

It's always a balancing act between more or less yeast, and / or more or less time, and it's nice when it turns out right.

The happy ending

My babies turned out nicely, not least because instead of dusting the peel with polenta or breadcrumbs, I turned the dough out of the baskets onto a piece of baking parchment, which made sliding them into the oven as easy as pie. A neat trick I picked up from YouTube.


Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Bread of Heron: it's got our name on it

This week we were using tins again at Bread of Heron, the Heron Corn Mill's community bread making group. And here's the evidence - a fine loaf with HERON boldly stamped on the side.

Talking of things with names on them, did you hear about the missing hundred year old tortoise? It went out for a walk last year and never came back. Its owners probably concluded that it had ended up like Dame Edna's mother, in a home for the bewildered. It finally turned up back home this week. It had cunningly written its owner's name on the underside of its shell. You're never too old for an adventure, are you?

Last week saw me and some of the other Bread of Heron bakers struggling to handle a recipe with a lot of very wet raisins. Mind you, we had some good reports about the flavour of the raisin loaf. My wife said I could do it again any time I liked, but I told her she'd have to do it herself! I've had it with raisins.

This week's mystery ingredient was sun dried tomatoes and generally speaking I think everyone got on better with this recipe than the raisin loaf. That is not to say the tomato loaf didn't have its moments. Not all the loaves came out as easy on the eye as the one above. I know mine didn't! But the real issue was the same as last time: following the recipe.

The problem was that there were several things to add to the dough, including both tomato puree and sun dried tomatoes.

Be gentle with me

The recipe warned us to be gentle when working the tomato puree through the dough by folding and refolding - a bit like making filo pastry by folding butter into the dough. Failure to go easy at this stage was likely to result in the dough ripping, and this had the potential to turn our loaves into a "dog's dinner". Not a warning to be taken lightly.

What seemed to happen was that everybody confused the two lots of tomatoes, and skipped several steps in the recipe altogether. In my case this was a good idea because I had made such a mess of the first step that the only option open to me was to stop right there and get the poor thing in the oven right away!

Here's how it was supposed to go. First, make some dough, including quite a generous helping of olive oil. Next spread the dough out, apply some tomato puree, and fold the dough a few times until a nice marbled effect was achieved. Then, and only then, or to quote Britten's Spring Symphony -

"Then oh then;
Oh then oh;
Then oh then"

only then, move on to the second set of tomatoes - the sun dried variety. The marbled dough was supposed to be stretched out again, and most of it spread with the sun dried tomato mixture. The whole lot was then supposed to be rolled up like a swiss roll, bent into an "S" shape and packed into a bread tin. Here we all are spreading all our tomatoes at once. The nearest one is mine -

I didn't see anybody doing the swiss roll stuff at all so our sun dried tomatoes were not very well distributed through the dough. I was tempted to say "crumb" there, but like Mr Charles Pooter's wife (Diary of a Nobody Chapter 23 July 4) I have not arrived at it yet.

There is no going back when you have put all your ingredients in. So my loaf just got a reasonably gentle folding, and into the tin to sink or swim.

When is enough sufficient?

One thing we were puzzling over at the Mill this week was how to tell if the bread is ready to go in the oven or not. Is it still rising, or has it gone "over the top", risking a disappointing fall back on the way into the oven? This is a real problem if you have to turn your bread out of a basket and then shoot it into the oven: you don't want it to be so full of gas that it can't take the handling. On the other hand, you don't want to put it in the oven before it has done as much rising as it can reasonably manage.

The books offer suggestions as to what to look out for, and we have been going in for a lot of prodding of our dough to see if it "only resists feebly" or bounces back proudly. Another tell tale sign is supposed to be that the surface of the bread gets bubbly, because the gas is in effect escaping through the top.

This all a bit too scientific for me. I just look at it, and if it seems to be saying "please, let me at it" then in it goes. And if the oven is not available for a few more minutes, I smile encouragingly and say "just hold on a bit longer old boy - nearly there" or similar.

Surface tension

As for bubbles escaping through the surface - well, that raises the whole issue of surface tension. All the kneading and shaping aims to stretch the dough. Stretching the dough produces surface tension. The effect can be heightened by the following technique, which is very hard to explain, but very easy to do once you can visualise it. I had a  look on YouTube for someone doing it, but all I could find was lots of people doing really bad kneading. Dear me!

With flat hands on either side of the bottom of the loaf, palms up, turn the loaf round by moving one hand in one direction and the other in the other direction. This tucks some dough under the bottom of the loaf every turn, and increases the surface tension over the dome of the loaf. You can read this and see a picture in River Cottage Handbook No. 3 pages 48-49.

The bubbles are what the proving process is all about, of course. You want to keep them inside the loaf because they are effectively holding the dough up. When you slash the bread, you expose some of the inside of the dough, and I think it's really nice to see the bubbles stretching for all they are worth as the bread bakes. When you see stretch marks on the exposed bubbles in the slashes, it means the loaf has been stretching in the oven.

Surface tension is something I see in the river at Arnside when the tidal bore comes in. The sea water rapidly overwhelms the river water, and you get all sorts of swirlings, shimmerings, currents and counter currents. You get different shapes and interference patterns in different parts of the water, and surface tension all over the place, with stretch marks where faster water runs alongside slower water. If you have never seen the bore come in at Arnside, it really is worth seeing when there is a big tide due. A little girl was watching with her granddad this week when the bore came roaring in, overturning everything in its way. She sagely commented "even the sand is moving".

You can get some idea what I am talking about from these pictures of the bore arriving in Arnside -

This is what the Arnside bridge looked like early in the 20th century -

You can find lots of really interesting old stuff about Arnide at this web site.

Releasing the tension

Today I decided to relax after the rigours of our tomato bread at t' Mill, by baking some "simple" bread at home. Not that sourdough is ever simple. But when it comes out as well as this did today, it is definitely worth the effort. I think everyone has their own idea of what a proper sourdough should be like, and mine never quite turns out like the crusty Italian bubble-fest of my dreams, but I always love it anyway.

On the left my sourdough is chilling out as it doubles in size in the basket. No sign of tension there by the looks of it. But on the right you can see how wide the slashes have spread because the surface tension has been released. This allows the bread to grow without being held back by the crust.

You can see lots of stretched gluten, popped bubbles, even stretched bubbles as the bread rose rapidly in the oven.

Bread that goes onto a hot stone needs as much room to stretch as it can get. Slashing releases surface tension at the last moment, allowing the dough to rise rapidly in the oven.

Nice results

The tomato loaves came out looking pretty good -

Special friend in Palestine

This week the group was introduced to Bouran, a friend of one of our group, who is a keen home baker in Palestine. We got to read a little bit about life and cooking in a very different part of the world, and to see some pictures. Here is a completely different take on a tomato (and olive) bread made with love in Palestine -

Bouran is baking all sorts of things, and very skilfully too by the looks of it. There were some biscuits which looked amazing, and lots of different types of bread. So welcome to the group, Bouran! We look forward to sharing our many highs and possibly an occasional low with you, and to hearing about what you are doing in the kitchen.


Alongside the tomato loaf, the group made some teacakes this week. This starts off with working some butter into the flour, to produce something of the consistency of breadcrumbs.

It's really fascinating to watch the group kneading dough. Nobody does it quite like anybody else!

Well paid jobs

We get through a lot of chatting while we bake in the shepherd's hut. It's hell, but someone has to do it. One thing that came up this week was first jobs and wages. Mine was the lowest wage by a fair margin. My first paper round paid 16/- (80p) in 1969 for a 7 day week, including a double round on Sundays. I eventually replaced that with a Saturday job in a green grocer's, where the pay was a king's ransom - £1 a day and Liberty Hall at the fish and chip shop at lunch time.

I have several fond memories of this job. Valerie Barlow from Coronation Street came in for spuds one day.

I can still wrap 5 lb of potatoes up in a couple of sheets of newspaper tucked in the crook of my arm.

The beetroot were boiled out the back in what looked like a small washing machine. "Big Joe" had the job of getting the skins off, wearing washing up gloves of course. "Mick" the hot shot salesman once swore blind the peas were "picked fresh this morning" and tasted them there and then, as though that proved anything. He almost swooned with the pleasure, but as soon as the customer had agreed to buy some, he nipped round the back and spat them out. "Dick" was famous for smuggling lady friends upstairs past his mum's bedroom door by giving them piggybacks. All of human life, and a bit to spare. The shop's famous cry was "strawberry ripe cherries". And strawberries were displayed loose on a tray and served up with a metal scoop into a brown paper bag.

Other people remembered "real" jobs at £8 or £9 a week, which seemed like riches then. Mind you, prices were different then too, of course. My dad bought our house for £400 in 1954, and 60 years later it would probably go for nearly a thousand times as much. That kind of ridiculous inflation makes even beer look cheap. Guinness is probably at least £3.50 a pint now, and it was 2/6 (12.5p) in 1972, so that has "only" gone up about 28 fold in 43 years.

Ulysses as usual has something to say on wages and prices. Two drinkers in the pub raise their glasses to each other in a toast (chapter 12) -

--Thousand a year, Lambert, says Crofton or Crawford.
--Right, says Ned, taking up his John Jameson. And butter for fish.

In those days (1904) a job paying £1000 a year was at best an aspiration, and butter for fish was something you could only afford in your wildest dreams. Nowadays fish is not so cheap either! One thing we all agreed on this week was that nothing can beat the simple pleasure of a piece of freshly home made bread, even if it is too warm to cut.


As a life long lover of Holland's meat and potato - sorry, potato and meat pies, it came as a bit of a surprise recently to bite into a sizeable stone where there should have been only potato, or meat. A friendly and constructive correspondence with Holland's ensued, and after a thorough investigation into what went wrong, they sent me a letter explaining how a very occasional stone might have found its way into a pie in among the potatoes. Having worked in a pie factory (not Holland's), where I once saw a plastic bag of cubed potatoes being emptied into the "hotpot" cauldron bag and all, I can readily believe this explanation.


As a gesture of pure goodwill, and without prejudice, Holland's sent me a compensatory - wait for it - postal order! Remember those? I have no idea how to convert this into regular folding money of the realm, though I expect it involves visiting a Post Office which are about as rare these days as NHS dentists and hen's teeth. For the record, here is what one looks like, complete with a nice picture of Queenie -

Surreal bread monster

I tried to get a picture of today's babies in the oven, but it turned out a bit conceptual, a kind of fusion of man and loaf. It's the closest I have so far managed to becoming "half man, half biscuit barrel".

It's hard to say if this is me trying to get in the oven, or the bread trying to get out. Maybe we both need to get out more!

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Today I have a perfect brie

Sometimes things just fall out right. Not very often, it has to be admitted, but just once in a while you get that feeling that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. This week at Bread of Heron, the Heron Corn Mill's community bread making group, was not one of those occasions. There was no shortage of energy or enthusiasm, but somehow we all seemed to be struggling to get the result we were aiming at. So what was going on?

Where do I begin to tell the story of how great a loaf can be?

We were making a rye and raisin loaf from James Morton's book "Brilliant Bread". On the face of it there wasn't an awful lot that could go wrong. But appearances can be deceptive.

Apparently simple instructions can turn out to be surprisingly vague when you try to pin them down. Take this item in the ingredients list for instance -

"150 g of raisins, preferably soaked overnight in coffee or water."

That seems straightforward enough, you'd think. But it's actually giving you the option of not soaking the raisins if you prefer, or if you don't have time. 150 g of raisins soaked overnight and then drained weighs 250 g. I know, because I checked. And that means that there is a difference of 100 g of liquid between the two options - "150 g of raisins soaked overnight" and "150 g of raisins not soaked overnight". That is a big difference, but the recipe did not say anything else had to change depending on which option you chose.

Bakers use the ratio between the weight of wet and dry ingredients as an indicator of how wet their dough is. This ratio is called the "hydration rate" and is expressed as a percentage. Our recipe called for 375 g of water with 500 g of flour, which means a hydration rate of 75% (375/500). That's a pretty wet dough. With a load of wet raisins as well, the hydration rate is pushing 80%, which takes this loaf into focaccia territory. Focaccia dough looks like this -

We discussed the question of how wet this dough was likely to be before we started, and fortunately decided we had better hold back some of the water in case it turned out to be too wet. Even so, we still ran into trouble at kneading time. The recipe says the raisins should be added before kneading. This makes the dough a lot harder to work with, as the raisins keep falling out onto the table, and generally getting in the way. What is much worse, kneading the soaked raisins makes them split, and their juicy insides ooze into the dough. So even if you started with a reasonably dry dough, once you start kneading, you quickly find you are working with a very wet and sticky dough indeed. A recipe for disaster, in fact. This was my dough, which I was very glad to stop trying to knead after the prescribed 10 minutes -

The next thing that caught us out was this seemingly innocent instruction in the recipe -

"Shape into any shape you like! I like a batard for this bread."

Well, for one thing, the dough was so sticky, I doubt anybody could have shaped their dough into one of these batard shapes -

You can watch the classic folding method of shaping a bâtard here. It's not as pointy as the ones above, which have been "rolled off" with the side of the hand to create the point.

But just saying "shape into any shape you like" leaves so much unsaid. What does "shaping" mean? Given that this recipe called for two rises, and shaping happens after the dough has risen in the bowl, and before it rises in the basket, shaping is the step in between the rises, which is is called different things depending on what your main priority is at this stage. It's variously called knocking back, stretching, working, folding or just shaping.

I think he's really saying "do whatever you think is appropriate to get your bread into shape for proving".But we had had so much trouble kneading the dough in the first place that it really wasn't well enough developed to allow us to just give it a light working, and shape it into any shape we liked.

At this point I was seeing trouble ahead -

and I said with as much conviction as I could that I didn't think it was a good idea to go for a banneton, as it was such sticky dough that it was bound to stick to the banneton. I told everyone that I was going going to play safe and opt for a bread tin, but most people decided to risk it for a biscuit and try the bannetons out. I tried to limit the risk by encouraging people to be very generous with the flour when dusting the bannetons, and to choose rye flour, which I have found at home is the best for insulating the bread from the basket.

Even getting sticky ill-behaved dough out of the bowl was a challenge. People just did the best they could, which generally amounted to turning it out of the bowl, scraping the bowl out, and pushing the dough around a bit before scraping it up and depositing it in the basket. I did pretty much the same getting mine into the tin. We were all in it together, and frankly we were in it up to our necks.

After that, I just held my breath and hoped for the best.


 Banneton maintenance

The best advice for care of your bannetons seems to be keep them dry to avoid mould build up between uses; brush off all but the lightest coating of dry flour after use; and be generous with flour every time you use them, especially when they are still young. I have occasionally found creepy crawlies in the drawer where I keep mine, so I now always toast them after use, by putting them in the grill section when the bread is in the oven. I also find that brushing them out carefully with a medium sized decorator's paint brush works well. And if there has been any dough sticking to the baskets, I am quite careful to remove it as best I can, using the same technique as for removing blutac from bedroom walls.

The alternative approach, which may help reduce the risk of dough sticking, is to use a cloth lining. These can be bought separate from the baskets, and are commonly sold with wicker baskets. This does mean you don't get the characteristic lines round the side of the loaf from direct contact with the wood of the basket, so it rather depends what effect you prefer.

I have a friend who simply rises bread in the folds of a cloth inside a flat dish shaped bread bowl. How rustic is that?

In this picture you can see the cloth has been dusted with flour to stop the baguettes sticking. Cloth has a nice textured surface, so you stand a reasonable chance of some sticking when you throw some flour in its general direction. You can get a similar effect for baguettes with a piece of corrugated iron -

Getting flour to stick on a banneton is a bit of a black art. When you first try it, you will find that most of the flour falls straight off, and you finish up with a pile in the bottom, and nothing up the sides. I find the following method works best. First, put the banneton down on the worktop, where you can get at it from three sides, and don't be tempted to move it. Then scoop up some flour with your open hand, aiming to get flour piled on your fingers. Then flick the flour along one side of the banneton, horizontally, aiming for the cracks between the wooden hoops of the basket. Imagine you are trying to make a flat stone skim on the water at the seaside. Then don't turn the basket round, but turn yourself round 90 degrees and throw some more flour at a different side of the basket. Repeat for all four sides of the basket. The bottom of the basket will probably have taken care of itself by now, but add a bit of flour at the bottom too if you think it needs it.

Alternative approach: put some flour in a sieve and shake it over the banneton!

If you need to move the bannetons to make room for shaping the dough, just be really gentle with them.

When you put the shaped dough into the basket, it should go in with the "seam" at the top, because that will mean the seam is at the bottom when the bread is turned out. Try to lower the dough into the basket without banging the basket at all, and as gently as possible. Then cover with a cloth. If you are worried about it sticking, you can lightly dust the loaf in the basket before covering, but generally speaking a cloth seems to be a lot less prone to sticking to the dough than a plastic bag.

Once the dough has proved in the basket, the trickiest manoeuvre of the lot is to tip it out onto a peel or shovel of some sort and then propel it into the oven. That is what the whole procedure is trying to achieve: direct contact between the dough and the hot stone. A neat trick to make this step easier is to turn the dough out onto greaseproof paper, and slide the whole lot into the oven, paper and all.

Only Nell managed to actually get onto a stone. Everyone else's dough was so sticky that getting it out of the basket at all was the number one priority, and everyone settled for getting the bread out onto a tray.

This rather defeated the object of using the baskets, but in the circumstances it was probably a sensible compromise. Even then, there were problems ahead, as the trays mostly had high sides, and the allegedly non-stick surfaces turned out to be anything but when it came to getting the bread out at the end of the cooking time.

Lessons learned the hard way

This was the first recipe we have tackled that calls for a second rise. There is nothing particularly unusual in bread wanting two rises, but it really does have an impact on your timing. Whereas a single rise loaf can be prepared in a quarter of an hour and ready to go in the over in an hour and a quarter, you are looking at two and a half hours clear easy for a two rise loaf.

Most loaves fall into the two rise category, and when you are baking at home it can usually be worked into the morning routine one way or another. Dough is fairly accommodating when you need it to be.

When you are baking away from home, there is no hiding the fact that the dough needs its time, and you need to work around it, not the other way round. Putting this into the context of a bread-making morning, what this really means is that you should plan to have your lunch at the mill. There are inevitably going to be a couple of hours when the main thing to be done is to wait.

It makes sense to prepare something else during the waiting periods, and preferably something very straight forward. We did some pitta breads, with varying degrees of success, it has to be said. My pittas looked more like Christmas stockings, and completely declined to puff up so there was nowhere to put any fillings! In fact my pittas were almost as much of a disaster as my scones last time, but at least they provided some light entertainment. It's all right - my shoulders are as broad as my pittas were long.

If I hadn't been aiming at pitta breads, I would have been quite happy with what I produced, as it tasted quite nice, somewhere between a biscuit for cheese and a slice of pastry. They did finish up in a bowl of soup, however!

These were much more like it - they had even puffed up to allow for fillings in the middle!

And moving swiftly on from pittas, this is what my rye and raisin loaf looked like, bearing in mind I did mine in a tin.

When things go right

I used to go to this pub in Manchester once in a while, because of its legendary ploughman's lunches.

One time the proud landlord had a sign over the bar proclaiming -

"Today I have a perfect brie"

My heart warmed to him, and I immediately ordered the brie for lunch. Such was the generous scale of the portions that the normal thing was to choose two cheeses, or a cheese and a pate. You would then receive two massive hunks of cheese and a teetering pile of bread that was quite a challenge to carry back from the bar to the table. I once recklessly chose camembert with no second choice cheese, and received a whole camembert for my pains. It was a pretty good one too. But to return to the perfect brie...

When a thing is right, it is just right. You know it is right, and it sometimes feels as if it knows it is right. That's how the brie was - quietly, confidently, perfect. I knew it, the landlord knew it, and really, what more can you ask of a piece of cheese, than that you are still thinking of it with fondness twenty or thirty years later?

How do you get a cheese-loving bear to come out of his cave?

Stand outside and call - "CAMEMBERT".

Cheese also broke in on the revels of Mr Jorrocks the fox hunting grocer one evening, when he was drinking with James Pigg his huntsman and discussing the prospects for the next day's hunt (Handley Cross Ch 57).

To DIY or not to DIY?

When things don't go too well, it's tempting to get the professionals in. 

One such is Lionel Poilâne. His family has shops in Paris and London where they sell wood fired sourdough and tempt you with a bowl of "punitions" - biscuits for the customers - on the counter.

The bread is substantial and strong tasting. Quite something for the dentally challenged, but definitely an experience.

If you can't make it to the shop, they will post it to you. A batch of 5 loaves each weighing 1.9 kg is a snip at 45 euros 50 cents, plus postage.

Shall we save ourselves the trouble next week, and just get some sent from London?