Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Measure your muffins

I do tend to bang on a bit about the importance of measuring accurately. The bakers in Bread of Heron, the community bread making group at Heron Corn Mill, laugh at me about it.

Most people like to check their bread is on the right lines by how it feels. If it's too wet, add a bit more flour. If it's too dry, add a bit more water. Eventually it will feel right. Well... yes, but... a slightly more scientific approach is required if you really want to nail it.

I used to do everything by feel, and I got quite good at making bread that I knew was going to be fine because it felt right. The trouble was, if anything went wrong, I couldn't say for sure what the problem was, because I didn't know exactly what I had done. And if anything went much better than expected, likewise I could never be sure what I'd done that had made the difference.

This all became much more of an issue when I started trying to get on top of sourdough. With sourdough, every bake is different for one reason or another. There are so many variables that troubleshooting becomes a bit of a black art. You are constantly guessing what made the difference this time. It's only by removing as many variables as possible that you can be reasonably sure what was actually different.

Once I had decided to be rigidly strict with myself about weighing everything - including water - down to the last gram, things started to look up. I realised that by far the most important thing to worry about with sourdough was the liveliness of the starter. If that was anything short of rampant, the bread would invariably be dull and uninteresting. Those big bubbles so loved by sourdough fans would not materialise, and the final proving would always be disappointingly lethargic.

I've had to remind myself about this recently, because the successful rises we had on Sourdough Saturday at the Heron Corn Mill have been eluding me again. Thinking about it, I realised that the main difference is that before Sourdough Saturday my starter was fed every day for a month, and since then I have "only" been giving it one feed two days before baking and then several feeds the day before baking, to bulk it up. This just isn't good enough! You can't get that high level of activity in the starter without giving it a really good run of regular feeds.

In future, I think I am going to have to feed at least every day for a week - and feed aggressively too - if I am going to get my starter properly into condition. In a real bakery the starter would be fed lavishly at least once every day. And if I finish up generating more starter than I need, I'll just have to use it up in pancakes or pizza. Sourdough pizza - now there's a thought.

But what about the muffins?

When we had some really bad rain recently, I cancelled a bake at the Heron Corn Mill on the grounds that I didn't think it was safe to go to the mill in flood conditions. I challenged my bakers to have a go at something different at home instead of coming to the mill to bake. My suggestion was muffins, and I am a little ashamed to say I have only just got round to trying them out myself.

Working from a recipe in the Hugh bread book, scaled down a little as I am the sole muffin fancier in our house, I made up 400 g of flour, 260 g of water (65% hydration - fairly firm by my standards), 6 g of salt (quite a lot for me, but much less than the recipe), and 2 g of yeast (much less than the recipe). I have plenty of time for my bread to rise, so I don't mind at all using less yeast and giving it more time to rise. It also allows me the chance to knock it back a few times and feel the progress of the dough over 24 hours or so.

This morning it felt very smooth, though still quite firm compared to my normal wetter dough. Time to make some muffins. I rolled the dough into a sausage shape, and cut it in half lengthwise. Then I repeated the process with each half, and again with each quarter. You'd think that halving a roll by eye would be reasonably accurate, wouldn't you? I certainly did, but I thought I'd just check by weighing each muffin-sized lump of dough. Here are my surprising results -

My largest lump was twice the size of my smallest lump. Surely some mistake? Apparently my guesswork is not as accurate as I thought it was.

After a happy few minutes equalising the size of my lumps, I shaped them and dusted them with semolina.

These lovely little things then had a couple of hours to rest again, which didn't make much difference to be honest - they just puffed up a little. What did make a difference was to put them into a medium hot pan on a low to medium gas. They started to swell up quite fast.

After about a minute, the bottom side starts to form a crust, and the top is starting to swell up quite noticeably. At this point you need to turn them gently over to arrest the second side and establish the basic flat shape of the muffin.

Then each side gets about 5 or 6 minutes on a moderate heat, just till it's lightly brown on both sides, and soft all the way round. I must say it's quite a good turn out.

The soft edge all the way round is important because it means you can rip the muffin open rather than cutting it. Ripping is strictly required by tradition, as it creates a rough side for maximum butter absorption.

So there we are - muffins. Surprisingly easy to do, and definitely very pleasing to eat. There is very little comparison between these and shop bought muffins. Morrisons used to do reasonable ones which they bought in from a bakery in Salford. But since they started making their own, the standard has fallen off considerably.

After trying these at home I don't think I will ever buy shop muffins again, unless they are properly home made by the shop. Elizabeth Botham's shop in Whitby used to offer home made muffins one day a week. They were good. But I think mine are even better.

And finally, at the age of 62, I think I have produced something that can reasonably be compared to my mum's "cobs", the spiky white roll-like creatures of my youth. How we loved them! I think I would have loved these muffins as a kid too. Happy days.

Inflation: bread imagery in chapter 7 of Ulysses

You may have heard me mention Ulysses. Once or twice. It's been a part of my life for the last twenty years or so, and I am not usually more than a few feet away from a copy. Rather like bread making - it's just part of the landscape.

At the moment I am in the middle of reading chapter 7. I say reading, but it doesn't really work like that. Every chapter of Ulysses is a little world of its own, and you sort of step in at the beginning of a chapter, and eventually you emerge at the other end, usually with a whole load of new things that you only just realised. Also, this time I am reading the manuscript rather than the printed version, so it is a very slow process indeed. Again, the similarity with bread making comes to mind here. You won't get anywhere with Ulysses unless you embrace the idea of a long slow fermentation. The plot moves forward almost without you noticing, and slowly, slowly over time, a network of connections emerges. Just like a gluten network, slowly inflating with the gas of a long slow fermentation.

The story has two main strands - the poet Stephen's day, and the advertising canvasser Bloom's day. They start off separately, and progressively intertwine through the book, finally coalescing in a ritual cup of cocoa in chapter 17.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, both Stephen's day and Bloom's day start off (in chapter 1 and chapter 4 respectively) with a fried breakfast. There's no reason to see any significance in the fact that that both breakfasts involve bread - not yet, anyway.

This is Stephen's breakfast in chapter 1 -
Buck Mulligan tossed the fry on to the dish beside him... Kinch, wake up! Bread, butter, honey... Stephen fetched the loaf and the pot of honey... Buck Mulligan, hewing thick slices from the loaf... He lunged towards his messmates in turn a thick slice of bread, impaled on his knife. ...as he hewed again vigorously at the loaf

Bloom takes his wife breakfast in bed in chapter 4 -
He ... fitted the teapot on the tray. Its hump bumped as he took it up. Everything on it? Bread and butter, four, sugar, spoon, her cream. Yes. He carried it upstairs, his thumb hooked in the teapot handle.

And he then has his own breakfast in the kitchen -
Cup of tea now. He sat down, cut and buttered a slice of the loaf... Then he cut away dies of bread, sopped one in the gravy and put it in his mouth... He creased out the letter at his side, reading it slowly as he chewed, sopping another die of bread in the gravy and raising it to his mouth.

Two breakfast scenes, both involving bread. Surely just coincidence, if even that? The thing is, you soon learn that nothing happens by chance in Ulysses.

Chapter 7 is where the two story strands start to come together.  Bloom has come back from a funeral, and is in the newspaper offices to talk to the foreman about an advert. Stephen is chatting with the editor and various cronies in the back room. Almost imperceptibly a series of bread-related images starts to appear.

The foreman offers to give the advertiser a bit of free publicity, and Bloom says 
I'll rub that in

like a baker would rub the fat in to the flour.

Next Bloom notices the machinery all round him.
Thumping. Thump... Machines. Smash a man to atoms if they got him caught... got out of hand: fermenting. Working away, tearing away.
He's actually talking about the printing press, but this certainly sounds like a dough mixer to me.

Even the foreman looks like a loaf -

Mr Bloom halted behind the foreman's spare body, admiring a glossy crown.
By a series of mental leaps, Bloom is reminded of a picture he saw in the National Gallery - Jesus in the house of Lazarus and Mary. Lazarus, of course, is famous for rising again - how bread-like, and appropriate straight after a funeral! Bloom even gets in the old joke about Lazarus -
Come forth, Lazarus! And he came fifth and lost the job.
This is the picture he had seen at the National Gallery -
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Breughel junior and Rubens 1625-40
In the painting, Martha is moaning to Jesus that Mary is sitting around leaving her to do all the hard work. Traditionally Martha is identified as the bread maker. Here's another version of the same scene -
  • Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Vermeer, 1654
And in this older version, she is actually making bread, and kneading so hard her arms are back to front -
Mary kneels before Christ, Martha prepares food. Vergilius Master, 1410
The whole chapter is called "Aeolus", the god of the winds. And all the verbal imagery is related to air one way or another - wind, smoke, gas, hot air, rhetoric, journalism. If Bloom and the foreman are like bakers putting together the ingredients, the editor and his literary friends are like the yeast, producing lots of gas to get the dough to rise. When we first see him, the editor is smoking -
Myles Crawford blew his first puff violently towards the ceiling.

His friends are making fun of a high-fallutin' speech that is reported in the paper.
Ned Lambert, seated on the table, read on: --Or again, note the meanderings of some purling rill as it babbleson its way, tho' quarrelling with the stony obstacles, to the tumblingwaters of Neptune's blue domain, 'mid mossy banks, fanned by gentlestzephyrs, played on by the glorious sunlight or 'neath the shadows casto'er its pensive bosom by the overarching leafage of the giants ofthe forest. What about that, Simon? he asked over the fringe of hisnewspaper. How's that for high?
That's certainly enough hot air to raise the bread! And the final proof is that the speech that is being reported was made by Dan Dawson, a well known baker whose nick name was Doughy Daw. Joyce is clearly plaiting together the two strands of his story with bread making images. Now skip to the beginning of chapter 17 where Stephen and Bloom are walking home arm in arm for that cup of cocoa. Just to make absolutely sure we haven't forgotten all that earlier bread imagery, the first place they come to is a bakery -
<Bloom> inhaled with internal satisfaction the smell of James Rourke's city bakery, situated quite close to where they were, the very palatable odour indeed of our daily bread, of all commodities of the public the primary and most indispensable. Bread, the staff of life, earn your bread, O tell me where is fancy bread, at Rourke's the baker's it is said.
And how like Joyce to give us the key to all this at the end rather than the beginning. He even wraps it up like a crossword clue -
O tell me where is fancy bread, at Rourke's the baker's it is said.
"It is said" is crossword speak for "2 words which sound the same". And of course because everything Joyce does is literary, there is a quote from Merchant of Venice -
Tell me where is fancy bred,Or in the heart or in the head?
And you won't be surprised to hear that throughout the book Bloom is often associated with Shylock.
It's a well baked loaf alright!

Monday, 13 November 2017

Sourdough? Or just long and slow?

Sourdough September seems like a long time ago already! It was a lot of hard work, setting up two long Sourdough Saturdays at the Heron Corn Mill, but it was definitely worth it. For most of the ten bakers who came along to bake at the mill, this was their first time doing sourdough. So it was quite a responsibility for me to make sure it was a positive experience. And you really never quite know, with sourdough, what is going to go wrong next.

 the end, to judge by the feedback, everybody had a good time. And I was really quite proud of the loaves that went home with the bakers. I should think there were some surprised people back home when mum or dad came back with really quite spectacular looking sourdough loaves.

There will be more sourdough in March, but for now I am happy to be doing something a bit less challenging in the bread line.

Real Bread Campaign gets arty

Is it just me, or is this wonderful cover picture on the front of the latest True Loaf magazine a little bit familiar?

I want to be taught bread making by her! (The one on the left!) She clearly takes the wood fired oven for granted - how else would you make bread? - and is very much at home with that dough. Shaping bread in mid air in front of the fire, while having your photo taken: she's definitely comfortable with what she's doing.

Wetter is better

One of my bread group asked if the dough was a bit too wet, and was surprised when I said no, it was too dry and sloshed a load more water on from the jug. But that was last term, and this term, the same baker retold this story to a new starter, and added "I'm much happier about soft dough now". That's the way!

Slow but quite a lot drier

I spent yesterday afternoon fussing over a pre-ferment for today's baking day at the mill. I wanted us to do something out of the Real Bread Campaign's bread book "Slow Dough", but it's not really practical in a morning to do a long slow rise. Doing the real thing properly means leaving it overnight at least. So I've had to improvise a little. I made up half the dough for the entire group as a pre-ferment chez moi starting at 3 p.m. I didn't put any salt in, and only a tiny amount of yeast. By 5 p.m. it looked like this -

I knocked it back and by 9 p.m. it had grown back again and looked like this -

I knocked it back again, and by 11 p.m. it had grown back again and looked like this -

I knocked it back one last time and left it to rise overnight. By 6:30 a.m. it had grown back yet again and looked like this -

And this is with just 2 g of yeast in each bowl!

I took the pre-fermented sponge with me to the Heron Corn Mill, and the Bread of Heron bakers and I incorporated it into our bread along with more flour, water, salt and yeast. And cheese and onion.

This is an unusual bread for me as it uses the baker's standard percentage - 60% hydration. That is, 600 g of water per 1000 g of flour.

Using the overnight pre-ferment means we were able to get much the same effect as if the whole dough had a longer rise than we actually had time for. It turned out pretty well, anyway!

Long and slow is a recurring theme

This idea of making some dough up in the day before is a bit like the Sourdough Saturday approach. When I was preparing for Sourdough Saturday, I made the sourdough sponge for everyone the day before we baked. Now you could say that's cheating because I was the only person who did the most important bit - making the sponge. But my thinking was that it's important to get that bit right, and it's terribly easy to get it wrong. So I felt it was reasonable to show the group how I'd done it, and to show them what it had to look like if it was going to work properly. It's no good trying to make sourdough with a half-hearted sponge. It has to be really violently  bubbly and so active that you risk losing a finger if you get too close to it. With a really vigorous sponge, all the bakers were at least half-guaranteed success. I wanted to inspire this year's bakers to have a go at home, knowing the difficulties, but having some idea how to approach it, and how to deal with the problems that inevitably arise.

Must it be sourdough?

Good as sourdough is, it isn't the be all and end all of bread making. It's a bit of a specialist interest. It's hard work. And it's unpredictable. When it's going well it is beyond compare, but getting it right and keeping it working can be a bit of a nightmare.

What is it with yeast?

All commercial yeast is basically the same strain of yeast - Saccharomyces cerevisiae apparently. And all sourdoughs are different. Lovely diversity!

Whichever strain of yeast we happen to be using, the starch in flour is broken down by water into various sugars.  The gas which makes the dough rise is a by-product of the process of yeast feeding on these sugars and breaking them down further.

The OED defines a by-product as - 

 a. A secondary product; a substance of more or less value obtained in the course of a specific process, though not its primary object.

So the production of gas is not the primary object of the process of making dough. Try telling that to a factory bakery where speed is everything! If the yeast can produce the required amount of gas in 10 minutes, what do we care about the primary object of the process?

Slower is a goer

We really should care about what it is that yeast is doing which, as a by-product, produces the gas that makes the dough rise. It's great that the dough rises. But it's really much more important that the yeast breaks down the sugars from the flour. This is where the flavour comes from, and all the good stuff that makes for a healthy gut. That is the primary object of the process: not gas, or speed, but flavour and healthy guttiness. We should be glad to give our dough - sour or not - as long as it wants to work on the flour. The longer the better.

Strangulation by triangulation

In computer projects at work, I was often puzzled by the idea of triangulation. A piece of work would require a certain amount of time to complete, and a certain amount of resources. If the customer wanted you to complete it quicker, you either needed to throw more resources at it, or cut back the amount of work that would be completed.

Modern factory bread seems to have taken the same approach. To get the bread out quicker, throw more yeast at it and cut down on the amount of work the yeast has time to do. Oh, and find the most gaseous strain of yeast known to man.

It does seem to me that along the way we have lost track of which part of the process is the primary object, and which is the by-product.

Supersize me

For a long time now I have wanted to try making a much larger loaf than I usually make. All the old household recipes assume that you will be making loaves with something over a kilo of flour (although they are more likely to talk about a 4 lb or quartern loaf).

The thing is, how do you go about doing it? Bread tins come in 1 lb and 2 lb sizes, and bannetons are generally made to hold either 500 g or 1 kg of dough. My dream loaf has 1 kg of wholemeal flour and 750 g of water. There's no way that would fit into a normal sized banneton.

However, there are bannetons and there are bread baskets. I have often used small woven bread baskets - the kind you put on the table - to raise small loaves in. So why not use a bigger bread basket to raise a bigger loaf? I found this one at the Salvation Army charity shop in Kendal for 79p -

It was just the job. The bread rose nicely in it, and the weave gave it a nice pattern on top -

This again was a low-yeast bake. I used 2 g of yeast for 1000 g of flour. It took 24 hours to be ready to go in the oven, but it really did taste good. And, as predicted by Elizabeth David (p 221), "the larger the loaf the longer it stays fresh". Although it is quite a dense texture, it is not at all heavy, and the mixture of 25% Heron Corn Mill stoneground wholemeal wheat with 75% roller milled wholemeal wheat, and about 5% more texture items - rye flakes, cracked wheat and linseeds - gives it a real rustic feel.

We did the same recipe, but without the long rise, at the mill today, and it worked pretty well there too.

What the experts say

Elizabeth David often quotes Eliza Acton's book -

It's a ripping good read, and you can find it online. This is Elizabeth David agreeing with Eliza Acton about long slow fermentation -

So with authority like that, you know it must be a good idea. Starting your bread making the day before baking is only a problem if you are focused on getting it done as quickly as possible. Once you get your 24 hour loaf hat on (as Jamie would say) it all starts to make better sense - and better bread.

Long live the long slow rise!

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Sourdough September - "how charmingly middle class, mate"

The Food Chain programme on the wonderful BBC World Service had an episode on 28 August 2017 which was all about bread, and what it, if anything, our choice of bread says about us.

This caught my attention because only recently I had been trying to work out what, if anything, our choice of flour says about us. (Scroll down this blog to the previous post entitle "Rolled or ground".) My conclusion about flour was that we British find it hard to be objective about the relationship between quality, value and cost. Most food buying in this country is done on the basis of cost.

The radio programme, rather disappointingly I thought, came to the conclusion that people who break out of the cost-driven shopping model, and pay considerably more for sourdough bread than they could pay for sliced white, are really buying an aspiration. Not an aspiration to eat better bread, but to eat what better (or at least better class) people eat. I find this rather horrible really - social mobility through sourdough!

So I would like to challenge this idea, that people buy - or even, God forbid! - make sourdough bread because it shows other people what discerning buyers they are. Hands off my sourdough! I make it because I like it, and it is good for me, and it is something that has been made this way since the year dot. I make it because people earlier in the food chain are as passionate about growing good grain, and grinding (not rolling) good flour as I am about making good bread.

A few weeks ago, I had a day in Manchester, riding the Metro like a big kid, and shopping at my favourite shops, for my favourite foods. I was really not doing anybody any harm, and I was genuinely enjoying having access to the kind of food products that only a big town can provide. But I still managed to come up against the thorny issue of class. I'll tell you how it was.

My favourite shops in Manchester are The Unicorn Co-Operative Grocery, and Venus Foods. No trip to Manchester is really complete without a visit to at least one of these, and a curry at the Al-Faisal Tandoori in the Northern Quarter.

On this particular visit, I had been to The Unicorn in the morning, and filled a rucksack with good healthy ingredients - beans, pulses, flour, flakes and the like. Like a squirrel caching nuts, I had taken the Metro back up to the north of Manchester, to the park and ride where I had left the car, and off-loaded everything to make room for more good things in my rucksack when I went to Venus Foods in the afternoon. Lunchtime, I need hardly add, involved stopping off at Al-Faisal for a curry.

When I got to Venus Foods, number one on my shopping list was a large tin of olive oil. They often have very good offers on Greek or Italian oils here, and I was hoping to find some Kolymvari Gold, one of my favourites - nutty, and dark green, and reminiscent of a family holiday in Crete, at Maleme, just along the coast from Kolymvari. They didn't have any, so I spent a little while considering how big a tin (3 litres or 5 litres) of the Eleanthos oil to buy. The tin just says this is Greek oil, but I have subsequently found out that it is actually from Kalamata, so its provenance is almost as specific as the Kolymvari oil.


While I was looking at the oil shelf, a young chap came and stood near me, doing just the same kind of shopping as me. We had a chat about the oil, and went our separate ways. When I got to the till, clutching my 3 litre tin, the same young chap went by, also clutching a 3 litre tin. We had another chat, and he told me about some good shops in Whalley Range, where he lived. I said I was from Chorlton originally (just up the road from Whalley Range), so I knew which shops he meant. He looked a little less happy when I mentioned Chorlton, which is a more affluent part of Manchester than Whalley Range, but I didn't think anything of it. But when I returned his favour of telling me about his favourite shops, by telling him that I'd been to The Unicorn in the morning, his whole demeanour changed. He looked at me rather coldly, and said "how delightfully middle class, mate", with quite an emphasis on the "mate", and walked off, leaving me feeling somewhat like Neil Kinnock in 1989 - kebabbed!

So what was this all about, really, and what has it to do with Sourdough September?

Sadly, two people who both enjoy shopping at Indian general stores and Turkish supermarkets, and both bought 3 litres of good olive oil, managed to fall out over a workers' co-op selling fresh fruit and veg, and beans and grains grown without fertilisers. I love it and the simple values (and good value by the way) that it represents, but the other chap sees it as a posh shop selling trendy food for posh people.

And many people see sourdough as expensive bread for posh people who have money to throw away. Apparently, this includes the presenter of the BBC programme about bread - note the question at the bottom of this picture -

But all this simply misses the point. Sourdough is completely different from sliced white. And sourdough came first, don't forget! So the question should really be not -
"why eat sourdough at three times the price instead of normal bread?"
but rather -
"why eat tasteless soggy chemical filled 'bread' instead of proper bread at all?"
The BBC programme asks the question "have you ever felt ashamed of your sliced white?". But my encounter in Venus Foods made me feel as if I should feel ashamed of my olive oil, my stoneground flour, my organic beans - my whole value system in fact. Well I don't! And I won't!

Let's enjoy Sourdough September for what it is - a celebration of simple ingredients, simply made with care and love. And let's enjoy sourdough bread for what it is - healthy, tasty, satisfying, and by the way, quite challenging to get right.

I'm going to be doing 2 Sourdough Saturdays at the Heron Corn Mill during the month of Sourdough September. A small group of us will be making sourdough together in the shepherd's hut. I've been recording a series of short videos on YouTube, showing how I am getting on with preparing my existing wheat starter and a brand new rye starter so they are in tip-top condition when we bake with them. You can find the videos on my YouTube channel. Each one has a number, so you can start at number 01 if you like, or just dip in to the more recent ones (15 so far!).

And please, when it comes to Sourdough Saturday at the Heron Corn Mill, let's have none of this  "how charmingly middle class, mate": it's just good ingredients, good baking, good food, and good fun.