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.
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.
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.