Friday, 30 October 2015

Boon day

Today was a wet and chilly day at Heron Corn Mill. All wrong for the last of the mill's "boon" days this year. The volunteers and staff are supposed to get together for a jolly time sprucing the mill up inside and out, ready for the coming spring or winter, delete as appropriate. In weather like today, it's more a case of "someone has to do it". But appearances, as so often, were deceptive today - and how!

There was a list of jobs, and names of victims - sorry, volunteers - to do them. Audrey's name featured next to "get rid of the mole hills", a job for which I doubt there would have been much competition. My name was ominously next to "pull up Himalayan Balsam". This would have been a high risk activity, because I would just as likely pull up rare orchids, herbs, saplings and maybe even the odd mole as Himalayan Balsam. But it was not to be.

The "B" list of less glamorous (and less dangerous) indoor jobs came to the fore, and I was dispatched to the top floor of the mill with orders to sweep it to within an inch of its life. This is my kind of job. I know one end of a brush from the other, and I can do dust with the best of them. After about half an hour I was in a muck sweat and had to go and get a cuppa. David, the other sweeper, who was manfully sweeping with a mere dustpan and brush, seemed to have more stamina than me, and battled on. "Maybe he'll steal my brush" I thought, giving silent voice to my secret wish.

Fortunately, while imbibing the cup that refresheth and not inebriateth, I was pointed at an uber-brush, the brush of Holy Dream, with an industrial-width brush head. This made the rest of the job much more pleasant.

On the way to the barn for my cuppa, I passed the younger generation of conscripts, who had a nice looking job, namely collecting leaves off the paths. "I could do that" I thought, like Yosser Hughes. "Gizza cuppa and a KitKat, and a job."

So after sweeping out the basement floor, which always attracts leaves and dust beyond what is reasonable, I decided to go native and start muscling in on the leaf collecting concession.

But first, I thought I would check out the fish pass. Rumour had it that recently there was a day, when waters ran high, that the sound of fish had been heard, plopping into the steps of the fish pass. That is undoubtedly the mot juste - plopping.

My luck was in, and I saw a couple of fish making their break for freedom. One flew majestically straight over the water gushing through the middle of the step; one flew sideways to land in the relatively quiet waters at the edge; and one landed atop the side of the step, where little water was flowing over, and had to scriggle over the bare stone, all flap and puff, panic and wild straining. The drama of it!

When I tore myself away, I found the tool shed door open, so I selected a nice heavy rake, and set to work on the lower paths, which were awash with leaves, to mix a metaphor. After a few wheelbarrowfuls of leaves it was time for a hearty lunch in the barn - a duo of soups, a quartet of sandwiches, and a veritable brass band of cakes for afters.

Staggering back to work after lunch, the leaves seemed heavier somehow, and deeper than before. Each load took longer to wheel up to the waste ground. I felt like the frog who jumped half way across the river, then another quarter, then an eighth. Would I ever get to the end? It is the nature of leaves: you can never gather all that fall. So I decided not to beat myself up about it. There was a jolly good compostheapsworth of the pesky blighters to show for my efforts, after all.

So I went in to see how Stuart was getting on with cleaning the millstones. Several of us had gathered to watch him raise the topstone with his lifting gear before lunch - quite a drama in its own right, by the way. And by now the stones were dusted, the left over grain had been collected for some lucky pig or hen somewhere (it can't be ground again, so it goes for animal feed). Buttie had come down from her precarious perch cleaning windows, and was now sweeping up round the Lowder frame. Sweep the unlucky black cat felt the rough edge of Stuart's tongue when he tried to use the Lowder frame as a scratching post. "Oi! Sweep! NOOOOOOOOO!" He's so masterful with those cats.

I got the job of hoovering out the insides of the "furniture" - the covers that contain the flour while it is being ground. This is an important job, as there is nothing mill moth likes better than a bit of flour left in the furniture, so it has to be kept really clean.

After that there was nothing to do but point a couple of passing visitors at the fish pass and advise them not to miss the "greatest show on earth" - jumping fish! I went back down with them, and there was a lot more water than in the morning. Now each step was overflowing right across its width, not just through the lowered part in the middle. And each step looked shallower than before, although the water was certainly flowing much faster.

Whatever it was, the fish seemed to like the conditions in the afternoon, and there was a steady stream of candidates all wanting to take a shot at the great migration stakes. There were dozens and dozens of them even during the 20 minutes or so that I stood and watched. Trout and salmon I recognised from the fish counter at Asda, although they were considerably more lively at the Heron Corn Mill. And from tiddlers of about 6 inches in length, these boys went right up to about 20 inches.

There was no chance of landing on a stone step now, as water was flowing everywhere. But there were as many different techniques as there were fish, it seemed to me. Some did a Fosbury flop, just about clearing the step; some swam up under water all the way; and the larger chaps looked more like poll vaulters, clearing the stones by a good couple of feet, and landing anything up to 5 or 6 feet from where they emerged, like Ursula Andress, from the water.

This was sport of the highest order! Skill, strength, persistence. These fish know no danger, they are all commitment to reaching journey's end. This really is what the TV people call an "incredible journey" and they don't much care who is watching. Fortunately for them, the crowd at the Heron Corn Mill was more interested in cheering them on their way, like Nicholas Parsons.

There were no herons, bears or fishermen amongst those present, just proud mums and dads, failed high jumpers and long distance cyclists. Flag wavers all.

I haven't had so much fun in years! What a boon on a boon day. I commend it to the house!

Monday, 26 October 2015

Are we losing our mojos? Or what?

Here at Bread of Heron, the Heron Corn Mill's community bread group, we are all young at heart. It's the bread making that does it, of course. But there is no escaping the fact that we are occasionally prone to moments of forgetfulness. What time did that bread go in the oven? Is that my bread or yours? You know the kind of thing.

Where's me specs?

This week the shepherd's hut was a bit like a left luggage department. We had a handbag and specs left behind, and even more spectacularly a trayful of bread left in the oven! The specs were kindly dropped off by a passing knight on a white charger. Not at the right house, unfortunately, but it's the thought that counts.

Two people's loaves rose in a way that was not inconsistent with an absence of yeast. Oh yes! Oh no!

Of course it's all my fault. I started the trend last time, with my caraway seed bread with no caraway seeds in it. But where's it all going to end? I think we should be told.

Treading the primrose path of dalliance

Our mission this week was to out-bake the Bake Off and produce the ultimate iced finger buns. I must say that this non-purist baking is starting to get to me. First it was an enriched couronne, with egg, butter and sugar as well as a handful of raisins. Now it's finger rolls with all the above and milk! But I am always prepared to be pleasantly surprised, and this turned out to be one of those occasions.

Here you can see us teetering at the top of the slippery slope towards downright cake-baking. Eggs brazenly rolling round on the worktop.

And sugar! What would Jamie say?

Yet it is somehow attractive, when mixed, that sweet, sticky ball of bun mix.

You can tell which ones are made with proper eggs with golden yolks. 

It's very easy, this recipe. Just cut the dough up into six.

Six, yes.

Ten? The recipe definitely said six!

We all got very Bertinet about weighing our buns out. At this stage (before rolling on the thigh like a Havana cigar) these look just like my mum's "cobs" in their finished state.

There is room for interpretation: fingers may be long and thin, tapered; or short and fat like butcher's sausages. As the baker on the left found, they may keep growing to the size of a club sandwich if they don't hit the oven.

I must say I am puzzled by the rolls on the right. Everyone else saw 6 rolls as 2 * 3, but here we have 4 + 2. Mr Monk on the TV would be wanting to rearrange that tray, for sure.

And then after just 10 minutes in the oven, it's time to take your finger buns out and start not icing them.

That it should come to this! A bread group making iced buns! Even iced buns without the icing.

And then there was maneesh

Here are the maneesh before adorning with their rich, oily, spicy seeded topping -

And here they are in their finished state, and very nice too.

Pinny protocol seems to have broken down here - that looks more like a kangaroo than a heron to me.

This is the way to live! Fresh finger roll filled with cream and stewed apple from the garden. Heaven!

Dusting technique

We have some way to go with the baskets. There is too much shaking and waving around going on! Baskets should be laid on the table and moved with the greatest of care, so as not to dislodge the precious flour that will hopefully stop the dough sticking. You only need to experience a stuck loaf once to learn how important this is!

 Put it down I tell you. It's much easier to control it!

Still, our luck was in, and the slashing seems to be going pretty well. There's a definite knack to the rapid slash - not too heavy, not too slow. This baker went for an ambitious criss cross, and brought it off pretty well, and without deflating the dough, which is a big plus.

Batard shaping

This week we repeated the exercise of practising our shaping and noticing how, if at all, the structure of the "crumb" is affected by folding and stretching at shaping time. 

Batard shaping could become a party game like pin the tail on the donkey, or a village fete sport like welly wanging. My poor batard today was shaped and unshaped half a dozen times before I let it rest in peace.

But this time we weren't just playing at batards: this was serious. We wanted to produce a finished loaf that was recognisably a batard. We used a standard bread recipe, but souped it up a bit as suggested by the recipe from the Larouse bread book, which listed some sourdough sponge in the ingredients. This in effect makes the batard a "pain de campagne". Elizabeth David describes it as similar in a French kind of way to an English bloomer.

Apples galore

As well as Miller's Seedlings from Nell, we've had cookers from Jill and today there was home made apple juice to try. It was rich and thick, and surprisingly dark - not far off a black coffee to look at. But apple to the core - really strong taste, and deliciously appley. And absolutely never never never from concentrate!

Bread in the community

One baker recently picked up an unsold loaf of bread from Arnside's ever popular village shop - Bullough's Londis, which was "free to feed the ducks". But he had a cunning plan. He took it instead to feed the young brains of local school kids. Using a slice of bread to represent a slice through the world, he demonstrated what a small percentage of the world the rocky crust actually is.

Now if that had been a sourdough loaf, the world might have been a different place altogether.

Sourdough news

We're going for it. The next meeting of our Friday group will be on Friday 13th of November. We are going to try the high risk option of making sourdough together. What could possibly go wrong? Watch this space.

My sourdough was spectacularly successful at home this week. I started work on the sponge on Wednesday, used some at the mill on Friday, made sourdough dough on Saturday night and finally baked it on Sunday afternoon. Because the sponge had been fed several times during these 4 days, it was extraordinarily active. This is in effect the "production sourdough" that Andrew Whitley talks of, and it really does make a difference. This is what the dough looked like on Sunday morning, after a 12 hour rise -

And this is the finished product -

And it really does taste good. Let's hope we have something to show on Friday the 13th!

Monday, 12 October 2015

The case of the disappearing mother in law

This week at Bread of Heron, the Heron Corn Mill's community bread group, we had a bit of a party. The occasion was my relaunch as a senior citizen - the beginning of my seventh decade in fact. Thanks to everyone who came along to the barn to help me celebrate, and made it rather a special day for me.

Guinness world record attempt

We possibly set a new record for the amount of cassoulet eaten in a single sitting. There were approximately 1.75 kg of dry beans in this little lot, and only a breakfast bowlful left at the end of the day.

Bend and stretch

After a big lunch I like to run through the Jane Fonda workout routine outside my front door. It inspires the neighbours so. The cat from across the road likes to join in and copy all my movements -

Wet wet wet

We did a variety of bakes bakes this week. The main choices were both very sticky, so there was not a great deal of proper kneading going on.

First up was a focaccia, which requires two risings. We got this under way as soon as possible, so we could get on with the second bake - a wholemeal loaf with caraway seeds, affectionately known as the mother in law loaf.

The caraway loaf is almost impossibly wet - over 80% hydration - so all you can really do is beat it with your fingers, making your hand into a sort of claw shape. The good thing is that it is so wet that it will naturally settle down in the tin, and sort itself into a nice tidy loaf shape.

It's definitely worth lining the Heron tins as this mixture would be bound to stick.

It was sticky whatever you mixed it in.

One baker kindly donated a ciabatta to the lunch time fare. Unluckily he opened the wrong mix, and finished up making both ciabatta and rolls in addition to the caraway bread, so there was more pressure on than expected, to make sure everything was ready to go in the oven when needed. 

It all came right in the end, thank goodness.

The brown bread called for an awful lot of yeast, and some of us took the recipe at face value, on the grounds that the recipe was potentially compensating for the heaviness of the dough. Others reduced the yeast, so we had bread that rose at different rates for different people. I'm not quite sure why some of the loaves cracked. Maybe this was to do with the amount of kneading / mixing the dough got, or maybe it was because we had quite a full oven, and possibly didn't get ideal circulation of hot air this time. We need to experiment with shelf placement a little, I think, to make sure we aren't too near the top of the oven when using 3 shelves.

The loaf on the left looks like one of the ones which used maximum yeast: it was starting to flow over the side of the tin.

While the brown bread was cooking, we flattened and stretched our focaccia onto baking trays. It's very springy dough and tends to shrink back when stretched, so getting a tidy rectangle is not as easy as it sounds.

We had looked at various recipes and decided that we should be aimimg at a nice thin and crispy focaccia. But unfortunately I had not thought to scale down the quantities in the chosen recipe, with the result that we each had enough dough to make 2 trays of thin focaccia - or 1 tray of Jamie Oliver style rather fat focaccia. Doh! Still, it tasted good. And this time we made sure we didn't take it out of the oven too soon, which was my mistake last time.

One baker opted for a wholemeal focaccia with sun dried tomatoes - it's at the top of the picture above. As I am now officially an old fogey, I freely expressed my outrage at this dangerously original idea. "Bah humbug" I puffed. "What would my Italian friends make of it?"

However, events dear boy have a habit of proving me wrong, and yet again I have to eat humble pie - or focaccia as the case may be. And I eat it happily on this occasion. The tomato focaccia was no less delicious for being wholemeal! 

Drizzling is one area where I do encourage boldness. There's nothing nicer than a generous slab of fresh, oily focaccia still warm from the oven. I have to admit the oil can seem a bit excessive if there is any left the next day. Still, tomorrow can take care of itself: focaccia is a bread best eaten in the moment, while the smell of rosemary is still in the air. 

The Shining

One baker, embracing our reputation as experimentalists ('mentalists for short), left off the rosemary, but kept the salt - and then applied a sugar and ginger wash on top. Shall we say there were raised eyebrows? Yes, we shall! But the doubting Thomases and Thomasinas (myself included) were proved wrong, and the sweet and salty ginger focaccia was the star of the show. Amazing but true.

Fresh from the garden

With all the bread done and dusted (and sugared and gingered) our attention turned to lunch in the barn, and this baker pulled out the most beautiful garden salad from under her pinny, and dressed it for the table. As well as a surprise vegetable, there were mixed leaves and nasturtiums which really made for a great presentation.

There was also a grain-based salad, which complemented the bean based main course very well but unfortunately escaped the camera. You can just see it on the plates here -

After what seemed like a league and a half of beans, miraculously we all found room for pudd. There was a choice of cheesecakes, and a very striking pistachio cake, which was really delicious. The prep sounded pretty complicated though, so this was definitely a cake for a special occasion.

More use than a chocolate teapot

I got some nice things for my birthday, including very nice damson gin and jelly, and this chocolate dinosaur -

How have I managed without one all these years?

Trim your hips and flatten your tummy

The theme of largeness and fatness was continued by my family who gave me cards depicting a seal and a pig -

Is someone trying to tell me something?

So what's this about disappearing mothers in law?

We were a little unsure about the wholemeal flour we were using this week. It was certainly Heron Corn Mill flour, but it wasn't clear from the flour box whether it was wheat or spelt. I certainly didn't dare rely on my taste buds in a blind taste test. The bread behaved well, and the loaves we tasted at the mill had the characteristic caraway tang.

But when I took my brown loaf home, it got a definite thumbs down from her indoors. "Are you sure you brought the right loaf home? There are no caraway seeds, and the flour is not the same as in the original" (i.e. it was not wheat). I quietly noted the point about the flour: I wasn't going to argue about that. But the caraway seeds issue was a real surprise. I had a slice to check. Hmm. Definitely no caraway seeds. Quite possibly spelt flour. Undeniably not a mother in law loaf.

Oh well, I'll just have to start all over again.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Back to work

Seconds away, round two

Bread of Heron, the Heron Corn Mill's community bread group is back up and running in the shepherd's hut, and this season we have some new bakers. Several people who have been sitting patiently on the waiting list have now formed a new Thursday group - ladies only at the moment, as it happens. The veterans from the first season's Friday group are still meeting as before, with slightly reduced numbers, but undimmed enthusiasm. I'm hoping the people who couldn't come back after the summer break will still be reading about our doings on the blog, and hearing about us on the grapevine. If you're out there, you are very welcome to "lurk", and please feel free to comment on the blog, or stay in touch any way you like.

The new Thursday group is baking with Nell, and one baker has moved from Friday to Thursday as it's more convenient. It's quite possible that there may be a bit of movement between the two groups as everyone has commitments which make some days impossible. One thing you quickly realise when making bread is that you have to be able to adapt to changing circumstances! In my case this has meant getting used to the idea of leading a group on my own without Nell's organisational skills to keep things running smoothly. I'm not very strong on smooth, but at least there's always something new to go wrong each week! If we're not melting plastic bags on the cooker we're forgetting to turn the oven on! Still, it's all part of life's rich patisserie as they say.

Heron country bread

I'm rather embarrassed to admit that I forgot to take my camera with me to the first bake at the shepherd's hut, so the only evidence I have of what we baked is this picture which I took at home just before setting about devouring a large part of my morning's work.

I can however share the recipe with you.

Heron country bread with white sourdough sponge
We’re aiming at a moderately wet bake ­ somewhere approaching 70% hydration. That is ­
● 700 g of water per 1000 g of flour
● 350 g of water. per 500 g of flour
The night before baking:
Prepare a quarter sponge, using white flour and sourdough starter
● 80 g sourdough starter
● 125 g strong white flour (a quarter of the flour)
● 175 g water (half the water)
● No salt
When the sponge is well mixed up, take out 80 g to keep as next week’s starter.
On baking day:
Add the remaining ingredients to the sponge
● 375 g Heron wholemeal wheat
● 5­7 g salt
● 5­7 g yeast
● any seeds etc that you fancy
● 175 g lukewarm water
Knead the dough like fury or as gently as you please Put the dough in an oiled bowl Allow to rise for an hour or so
Generously dust a proving basket Turn the dough out onto a lightly dusted surface Gently shape the dough and carefully put it in the proving basket Leave to rise in the basket for an hour or so
Dust a baking tray with semolina or polenta Turn the bread onto the tray, slash it and put it into the oven at 220 Turn the oven down to 200 after about 10­12 minutes Check after 40 minutes and turn over to crisp the bottom if necessary

The key thing here is the sponge.By starting the loaf off as if it is destined to be a thoroughbred sourdough, you give it a great head start in the flavour department. Adding yeast at baking time makes life easy, and ensures a robust and trouble free rising and a practical over all timescale. The mixture of some white flour with the wholemeal also makes for a lighter loaf, so all in all it's a very practical approach. A French country loaf would probably be all white, but then why wouldn't you go the whole hog and have a princely sourdough? I think of this as a much better way of making a wholemeal loaf more approachable than steam baking an 85% batch loaf.

I got the impression that some people in the group thought this was an unsatisfactory half-way house between a yeasted loaf and a sourdough. If you do a sourdough, you are making a statement. There is no room for compromise, and there is no comparing a sourdough with anything else. The country loaf is a compromise, yes, but all its constituent parts are good and wholesome.

We did a second bread recipe as well as the country loaf, but we chose our own, and it was pretty much a free for all. We produced various different offerings, including a simple tin loaf from yours truly.

Meanwhile the new Thursday group got straight down to work at the crack of dawn by the looks of things.

And in at the deep end with the dreaded pitta breads.

No wonder there are smiles all round - look how the pittas have risen!

Oh dear you Friday people - look how tidy they are on Thursdays!

Ah but you've let the draught in and your pittas are subsiding again. I tell you, they aren't worth the hard work! The loaves look good though, and no mistake.

Crowning glories

Last time the Friday group baked, we revisited the highly popular couronne recipe, which everybody seems to agree takes some beating in the tasting department, and is undeniably impressive to look at.

It's too ambitious for me, so I opted for a lightly fruited bread that just happened to be raised in a couronne basket. Everybody else sweated and slaved over intricate enriched doughs, with lots of rolling out and twisting into shape. There was sugar and fruit all over the shop, and eggs (including one still warm from the chicken's bottom). And somehow, yet again, it all came beautifully together in the end.

 First there was all the usual weighing and pouring -

Then there was a bit of rolling, shaping and spreading -

Some went for Heinz sandwich spread -

Others for lemon curd -

But then came a bit of sleight of hand -

And a flick of the wrist, faster than the eye can see -

The couronne is not unlike a super-sized Chelsea bun, so this baker's idea of making a ring of interconnected Chelsea buns as a sort of deconstructed couronne was an inspired choice -

It was undoubtedly the most sumptuous looking thing to come out of the oven this week. The marzipan was lovely and crisp around the edges, and the flakes nuts were beautifully golden on top.

These sourdoughs came out quite nicely in the end -

The one on the right was suffering a little from wind.

 The other one tried to make a break for freedom off both ends of the stone simultaneously..

We road tested one at the shepherd's hut while it was still really crunchy.


The other main loaf was a white and spelt loaf, which we mostly baked in tins. But first of all we had a go at shaping it into a classic batard with pointy ends. Great fun, but it needs a bit of practice.

This baker had a 50% bonus and made a tiddler as well as a big 'un.

And this was mostly rye, and baked off the stone, in full batard regalia.

Move along the bus please.

This one started life as a simple raisin bread, but I finally cracked under peer pressure, and added an egg, butter and brown sugar. The result was actually rather nice, and I will be experimenting with similar enriched doughs again, for sure. It's good in the afternoon with a cuppa. 

So all in all, we had quite a regal set of crowns by lunchtime, and hopefully everyone has had fun eating them as well as making them. 

I'll leave you this week with an item spotted on the breakfast menu at a Whitby B&B -

"Toast with preservatives"