Although heavy on theory, getting sourdough going is surprisingly low-tech in practice. All it really needs is for you to leave flour and water lying around to fester. If you keep adding a bit more flour and water every day, you can easily end up with a viable ‘starter’ or ‘leaven’ – a bubbling source of yeast cells lively enough to make bread within about five or six days. Once you’ve got it going, you keep feeding it with fresh flour and water every three days or so, or you can give it a strategic boost a day or so in advance of making a new loaf.

Man discovered this simple process thousands of years ago and has been making use of it ever since. Today, we’ve managed to make cobbling together a leaven a pretty complicated business: there seem to be as many different methods as there are books about bread-making.

Some writers swear by flour and water alone. Others indulge in a little sneaky baiting of the mixture, leaving things in it that will attract more rapid yeast growth – such as yoghurt and dried fruit. Some people stick to a rye starter which does, admittedly, seem to be the easiest to get going and keep alive. Others branch out into leavens made with other flours. Some get very particular about the conditions, the container and the temperature, others uppity about the water (tap water is frowned upon, although I’ve never found it a problem). Conveniently for most of us, it is also said that you should avoid over-zealous cleaning in the kitchen as this runs the risk of killing off your bacteria.

Although I’ve got starters going by a number of different methods, the one I successfully make most of my bread from is straight from Dan Lepard’s The Handmade Loaf. It has a small amount of rye flour in it, but it’s basically a wheat flour starter and used to make wheat-based bread.

He starts off with 2 tsp rye flour, 2 tsp strong white flour and 50g of water, with 2 tsp currants or raisins and 2 tsp live low-fat yoghurt. You mix all of that up in a covered plastic container and leave in a warm-ish place for 24 hours. The next day, you add 2 more tsp of each of the flours and another 50g water. On day 3, you double the quantities and leave again. On day 4, just when it’s probably starting to look good, you counter-intuitively chuck away three-quarters of it. Add 100g water to what you’ve got left, stir well and then strain the whole lot, removing the manky dried fruit and the flour goo, leaving only the liquid. Add 125g strong white flour to this, stir again and leave another 24 hours.

By day 5, the whole thing should smell pretty ripe and acidic. Again, chuck away three-quarters of it and add 100g water and 125g strong white flour. In another 24 hours, you have a starter you can use to make bread. The rule of thumb after this is to keep on repeating day 5 by adding flour and water – a process known as ‘refreshment’. The ideal proportions seem to be around about 1 part existing starter, 1 part water, 1.25 parts flour.

If you’re canny, you’ll develop a routine whereby you only end up refreshing the starter immediately after taking out the right amount to make a loaf of bread. That way, you won’t have to throw any away. So if, for example, you have around 300g of starter and your recipe asks you to use 200g of it, you’ll end up with about 100g left in the pot, which becomes just over 300g when you next add flour and water, and you’re back to where you started. If you’ve had a break from making a loaf, you’ll probably have to throw some away when you do your next refreshment. Or, you can slow down the whole process by putting it in the fridge, in which case you might only need to refresh the mixture every 7-10 days. If you need to make more than two loaves in a week, you might need to do some forward-planning and adjust the quantities so that you have more ‘left-over’ starter and you add proportionately more flour and water when you refresh it.

It all sounds complicated and I’ve put in quantities as a guide but, as with all of this, you don’t have to be too precious and you can get away with a lot of haphazard management. All you really need to know is that a ‘hit’ of flour and water should get a sluggish starter going again. Even if you follow all the instructions to the letter, sometimes there just won’t be much happening. It’s really all about being sensitive to what a lively and a dormant starter looks and smells like. Never be afraid to throw a lot away and do try to resist building up a big lifeless stock of goo.

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There are some fantastic books out there on how to make good sourdough bread, but they won’t give you the same story on what the method is or even on the things you should and shouldn’t do. You’ll just have to see which best suits the way you do things. Or, more probably, you might pick one based on which has the best-looking pictures.

I’m going to mention three I’ve found really useful – Bread matters by Andrew Whitley, Crust by Richard Bertinet and The Handmade Loaf by Dan Lepard. They may not necessarily be the best ones out there but I happen to own them and they also nicely illustrate three contrasting approaches to the topic.

Bertinet’s approach to making sourdough is definitely the quickest and probably the easiest to follow. His kneading method is also well worth adopting, and I’ll cover this in part four. I reckon his book Dough is about the best basic guide to making really interesting bread with fresh yeast. Crust, the follow-up, does the job for sourdough. His real strength comes in methods that involve using a combination of sourdough and fresh yeast – the baguettes he makes this way are really delicious.

While Bertinet is all about being inspired by French baking, Lepard casts his net a little wider. He is strong on areas like breads from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, and his method of making a leaven is the one I use most often. He is also a bit more experimental, being a fan of using something more interesting than water as the liquid in the mixture – red wine, cider and cucumber pickle juice all get a look-in

Andrew Whitley really is the purist, the zealot. Bread Matters is much more than a recipe book – it’s a manifesto for how we should change our attitudes to making, buying and eating bread. This is very much the baton (the baguette?) that Michel Roux Jr picked up during his recent television programme about bread in The Great British Food Revival.

If you want to do things properly, and if you care about what you eat from a nutritional perspective, Whitley is definitely your man. Much of the first part of his book is a critique of commercial bread-making methods. It sets out some pretty compelling reasons why sourdough is so much better for you than your average shop-bought loaf. He reserves particular disdain for the apparently dishonest use of various enzymes as additives to change the look, texture, flavour and shelf-life of shop-bought bread. For example, he suggests that gluten intolerance is more to do with reaction to such additives than it is to gluten itself.

Unlike the ‘Lepard process’ I describe in part three, whereby you use your starter directly to make your dough, Whitley sticks with traditional methods and uses an intermediate stage. After making your starter, you use it to create what he calls a ‘production sourdough’, which itself needs to prove. Only then can you use it you create your final dough. As this suggests, his method is comprehensive and quite lengthy – but it does generally work. He also covers starters and breads made from a range of different flours. I find he’s particularly strong on rye breads and I do keep a rye starter going according to his instructions.

Bertinet’s method is a bit of a short-cut. It gets around the need for a starter by getting you straight to the stage of having a dough which you use as your source for wild yeasts (a bit like Whitley’s production sourdough, in fact). This means it is rather less wasteful of flour than other methods and you can get a loaf made a bit quicker. The downside is that the refreshment process is, as a result, a bit more time-consuming. You end up refreshing a sort of stiff dough rather than a liquidy starter, so combining the ingredients is trickier.

What I have found is that you can combine people’s approaches but you need to do it thoughtfully. The fact that they all use a different kind of leaven means that you can’t just substitute, say, Bertinet’s in Whitley’s loaf. It seems to work better if you just stick with one basic method for making your leaven and then plunder specific techniques and combinations of ingredients from others.

Making sourdough might seem like an absurd thing to get into but, if you can get the hang of it, the reward is a regular and cheap supply of really delicious bread. Frankly, who can argue with that? I’ve been inexpertly doing it for a couple of years now and I persevere not only because it tastes great but also because it does become a bit of an obsession. (Like that makes it OK somehow…)

There’ll be four parts to my ramblings about bread, because I can’t think of a more succinct way of doing it. I’ll look a bit at the science of how bread works because I think it’s useful to know about; ponder the question of what the best books are on the subject of sourdough; deal with making a starter or leaven; and, then, in the last part, I might actually say something about making a loaf of bread.

Two things about sourdough tend to be off-putting: it takes a long time from start to finish and it entails having to keep a bizarre yeast culture ‘alive’. I’m not going to say that those things aren’t true because they are, but you just have to embrace the weirdness. You get used to it. Ever wanted a few tubs of pungent fermenting flour and water kicking about the house? Well, now’s your chance.

A sourdough starter is a bit like a cat. It likes to be allowed to settle in a warm place for a while. But you shouldn’t let it get too comfortable: don’t be afraid to chuck it out in the cold every so often. You can even neglect it for long periods of time and revive it when needed (which, although I’m no cat expert, is perhaps where the analogy falls down a little).

Also, it’s educational: making sourdough well is much more about having sensitivity to the science behind the processes you set in place than it is about following instructions. So, it’s good for people who are a bit contrary but quite patient.

Conventionally in bread-making you add yeast to flour and water and, once you’ve left your dough to prove in a warm place, you find that it magically becomes big and aerated, ready to be baked into shape. The yeast cells, activated by water and warmth, have begun to digest the carbohydrates in the flour. Fermentation has taken hold, producing carbon dioxide and alcohol as the sugars break down into simpler molecules. Tiny carbon dioxide bubbles give the loaf its volume and texture, but are only useful if they can remain held within the structure of the dough. This is the function served by kneading: it helps to change the molecular structure of proteins in the flour, creating an intricate lattice that allows the dough to trap gas and then expand during proving and baking.

What makes sourdough different is simply that you use ‘wild yeast’ rather than yeast that you’ve bought in a shop or been given from behind the counter at Asda. Pretty much every foodstuff, including flour, already has some yeast-like bacteria living on it, while anything exposed to the air will pick up other useful beasties over time. These naturally occurring bacteria can be harnessed (again, my cat analogy seems not so appropriate… think about harnessing and saddling up a cat) and used as the leavening agent for your bread. Intriguingly, since the bacteria originate from the flour and from the air, they are locally specific, so you can legitimately claim to be baking from your ‘Deptford culture’ or whatever it might be.

Some of the bacteria are yeasts that act in a similar way to those you get in commercially bought bakers’ yeasts. They help you to ferment a mixture of flour and water. But others, such as lactobacilli, do rather different things and end up being really important in giving sourdough its distinctive taste.

When you use flour and air as your source for wild yeasts, they exist in very low concentrations at first, so this is where you need to give time to let them develop. In warm, wet conditions, yeast not only feeds (bringing about fermentation) but it also reproduces. The trick, then, is to give the naturally occurring yeasts the right conditions to multiply and create a source of cells lively enough to help you make bread.

Cunningly, the longer you leave a dough or any flour and water mixture lying around, the more of a sour taste you get from using it to make bread. While fermentation takes place and the yeast does its thing, the lactobacilli from the flour and the air help to produce acetic and lactic acid. Even in yeast bakery, doughs are often left for a long time to ferment (as a ‘sponge’) in order that some of these acid-producing reactions have time to take place and give the bread more flavour.

Yeast action will be slowed down in an acidic environment so, when you do intend to leave dough to prove for a long time, there is always a balance to be struck between maximising fermentation and yeast reproduction on the one hand, and allowing acid production on the other. Slow proving is often done at lower temperatures – in the fridge even – so that you can manage the balance more carefully and not end up with an overly acidic mixture where yeasts will find it hard to reproduce. Wild yeasts in sourdough starters are usually better suited to surviving in acidic environments than bakers’ yeasts introduced to the mixture.

(To be continued…)

I promise I haven’t forgotten that a) I have a blog and b) I’ve pledged to update it once a week this year; work is all-consuming and I’ve barely had time to cook, let alone write. Sad times. Back soon though…

I’d managed to resist the whole whoopie pie craze until now, but a bit of Christmas money and too much Amazon browsing time meant an impulse purchase of Claire Ptak’s book on the subject. I really liked the way she followed each recipe with a recommended filling recipe, but gave it all a mix-and-match feel so that, you imagine, strawberry buttercream filling could go into a chocolate whoopie if the fancy took you.

Thanks to a huge bag of carrots from the farmer’s market, I was immediately drawn to the carrot cake whoopies with orange mascarpone filling – cream cheese icing and carrot cake is a match made in heaven, as any fool could tell you. The mixture was straightforward to make (see recipe below), and I used an ice-cream scoop to dollop my 18 equally sized blobs on to the prepared baking sheets. Claire Ptak recommends a 5cm gap between scoops of mixture, but if you have the space then I’d leave a larger gap if you possibly can; I watched, powerless, as mine merged in the oven.

Once cool (cooling doesn’t take too long, as the cakes are relatively thin), you need to whizz up your filling, sandwich the cakes together and scoff them down.

Verdict: delicious, sweet, greedy, and a great way to transport a cake + icing combo around without the topping ending up smeared all over the place. No wonder the Amish take them in their lunchboxes. I don’t think there’s anything particularly cutting-edge here though – it’s just a standard cake but with the icing on the inside. I’m going to eat another one now, just to make sure.

Carrot cake whoopie pies (adapted from The Whoopie Pie Book by Claire Ptak)
Makes 9 large or 24 small whoopie pies

250g plain flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground ginger
¼ tsp salt
125g unsalted butter, softened
100g caster sugar
100g light brown sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract (use the best you can afford)
2 carrots, peeled and coarsely grated
zest of 1 orange (or use the zest of about ¾ of an orange here and the remainder in the filling)

Filling:
250g cream cheese
150g mascarpone
100g icing sugar
Zest and juice of half an orange – see note above if you abhor orange waste, like I do

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Line 2 large baking sheets with baking paper.
  2. Sift together the flour, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder, cinnamon and ginger. Stir in the salt, and set this bowl aside for now.
  3. In a separate large bowl, cream the butter and sugars together until the mixture is really light and fluffy. The more air you can get in at this stage, the better. Add the egg and vanilla extract, and mix well until it’s all well combined and not curdled-looking. Add the grated carrot and orange zest, and mix again. Add the bowl of dry ingredients and mix once more, until everything’s just incorporated. Refrigerate the mixture for 30 minutes (transferred to a Tupperware container if you have an enormous mixing bowl and a tiny fridge).
  4. Put 18 scoops of the mixture 5cm apart on your prepared trays, or 48 scoops for mini whoopies. Bake in the middle of the oven for 10–12 mins (for large ones) or 8–10 (for mini ones). I had to do the baking in two batches, as I have a normal person’s oven and do not work in a school/prison canteen.
  5. Move them onto a cooling rack and leave until cold – actually cold, not just cool, or the filling will ooze all over the place.
  6. Whisk the cream cheese until smooth, then add the mascarpone and mix again. Sift in the icing sugar, and mix till smooth. Add the zest and juice of half an orange (see note above) and mix to combine.
  7. Spread a heaped tablespoon of filling over the flat surface of one of the cakes, then sandwich it together with another. If yours aren’t exactly uniform in size, you might need to audit your cakes first to pair them up appropriately and prevent filling overspill.
  8. EAT! Or store for a couple of days, layered up with greaseproof paper so they don’t stick together.

Maybe I’ve led a sheltered life, but I think I’m right in saying that I don’t know anyone who actively dislikes garlic. Even the pickiest eaters amongst my acquaintance adore garlic bread, for example. But after reading this post on the beautiful Kitchenist blog, it’s come to my attention that some people actively avoid it (how??); or rather than doubling the quantity of garlic, as I often do, they’ll use just one clove maximum for everything. Most shocking of all, my friend Vicky told me this morning that her mum will open all windows and doors when Vicky’s cooking anything containing garlic. Isn’t that just all food?

Along with onions, garlic is one of the basics that I expect to use to start pretty much any savoury dish I cook. This tart from Ottolenghi’s Plenty really lets garlic take centre stage, and the sweet, caramelised cloves contrast well with the salty goat’s cheeses. It’s an impressive dinner-party centrepiece, and reheats well so you can make it in advance. Pair with a lemon-dressed green salad to cut through the delicious richness.

Caramelised garlic tart (adapted from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi)

375g all-butter puff pastry
3 medium heads of garlic, cloves separated and peeled
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
220ml water
¾ tbsp caster sugar
1 tsp chopped rosemary
1 tsp chopped thyme, plus a few whole sprigs to finish
120g soft, creamy goat’s cheese – a Welsh one would be lovely here
120g hard, mature goat’s cheese – there’s a Cornish one in Waitrose that is both vegetarian and delicious
2 free-range eggs
100ml double cream
100ml crème fraîche
salt and black pepper

  1. Roll out the puff pastry into a circle that will line the bottom and sides of a 28cm, loose-bottomed tart tin, plus a little extra to hang over the edges of the tin. Line the tin with the pastry. Place a large circle of crumpled greaseproof paper on the bottom and fill up with baking beans. Leave the tin to rest in the fridge for about 20 minutes.
  2. Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas Mark 4. Place the tart case in the oven and bake blind for 20 minutes. Remove the beans and paper, then bake for a further 5-10 minutes, or until the pastry is golden. Set aside. Leave the oven on.
  3. While the tart case is baking, put the garlic cloves in a small saucepan and cover them with plenty of water. Bring to a simmer and blanch the cloves for 3 minutes, then drain well.
  4. Dry the saucepan, return the garlic cloves to it and add the olive oil. Fry the garlic on a high heat for 2 minutes. Add the balsamic vinegar and water and bring to the boil, then simmer gently for 10 minutes.
  5. Add the sugar, rosemary, chopped thyme and ¼ teaspoon salt to the garlic in the pan. Continue simmering over a medium heat for 10 minutes, or until most of the liquid has evaporated and the garlic cloves are coated in a dark caramel syrup. Set aside.
  6. To assemble the tart, crumble both types of goat’s cheese into pieces and scatter them over the bottom of the pastry case. Spoon the garlic cloves and their syrup evenly over the cheese – the deliciously caramelised garlic will try to stick together in clumps.
  7. In a jug, whisk together the eggs, creams, ½ teaspoon salt and some black pepper. Pour this mixture over the tart filling to fill the gaps, making sure that you can still see the garlic and cheese peeping through.
  8. Reduce the oven temperature to 160°C/Gas Mark 3 and put the tart in the oven. Bake for 35-45 minutes, or until the tart filling has set and the top is golden brown. In my oven, this took almost an hour in total. If the tart’s golden and cooked on top but still wobbly, remove it from the oven and don’t worry – it will set as it cools. Leave the tart to cool a little.
  9. When you’re ready to serve, remove the tart from its tin, trimming and tidying the pastry edge if needed, lay a few sprigs of thyme on top and serve warm (but not burning hot) with a crisp salad.

The snack table in the office is looking distinctly bare, post-Christmas. Throughout December, it was piled high with boxes of posh biscuits, mince pies, and even brandy butter, but you’d be lucky to find a stale crumb this week. I’m still enough in the Christmas state of mind for three meals a day to not be quite enough, so it’s normally good to know that there’s a sweet treat to snack on. Something must be done.

My answer to the crisis is Nigel Slater’s iced marmalade loaf cake. It’s a very quick mixture to whip up in the evening, but the marmalade in the mixture adds interest and the drizzled icing makes it all a bit more special. I follow Nigel’s advice and add a drop of orange flower water to the icing too, but as long as you’ve got a jar of marmalade in the fridge and can pick up an orange on the way home you can probably make this cake without a special shopping trip.

A frosted marmalade cake (adapted from The Kitchen Diaries by Nigel Slater)

175g soft unsalted butter
175 golden caster sugar (it’s not a disaster if you only have the white stuff in the cupboard)
A large orange
3 large eggs
75g orange marmalade
175g self-raising flour

For the frosting:
100g icing sugar
2 tbsp orange juice (from the orange whose zest you’ll use in the cake mixture)

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas 4. Line a loaf tin about 25 x 11cm, 7cm deep (mine’s shorter than this, about 21 x 9cm, but seems to work fine if the cake has a little longer in the oven; see step 6) – butter the tin lightly, then line with baking parchment.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar with a hand-held mixer until pale and fluffy.
  3. Beat the eggs into a small bowl and beat lightly with a fork. Pour in the beaten egg a little at a time, with the mixer running, beating well after each addition.
  4. Finely grate the orange zest, and beat it into the cake mixture along with the marmalade.
  5. Fold in the flour gently with a metal spoon, working carefully but making sure that it’s all well combined. Gently stir in the juice of half the orange.
  6. Spoon the mixture into the tin, smooth the top lightly and bake in the preheated oven for 35–45 minutes. Check the cake after 35 minutes by inserting a metal skewer and checking that it comes out cleanly, not covered with raw mixture. I don’t know if it’s my oven or the size of my tin, but the cake was perfectly golden on top after 35 minutes but still a bit uncooked within. I covered the top lightly with a piece of foil at this stage and gave it another 20 minutes in the oven to cook through, checking it a couple of times.
  7. When it’s cooked, let the cake cool a little in the tin before removing to cool completely on a wire rack. Remove the baking parchment once cooled.
  8. Make the icing by sifting the icing sugar and mixing it with the juice from the remaining orange half, adding a splash of orange flower water if you have it. Drizzle the icing over the cake, letting it drip down the sides, and leave to set before scoffing it down.