I got really over-excited at the 20% off Le Creuset sale at John Lewis, and was delighted to get home late this evening and find that my pie dish (in ‘cassis’) had arrived. I’d planned to make the courgette and rice filo pie from River Cottage Veg Every Day! at some point this week, and this seemed like as good a time as any. It’s delicious and very easy, and I’ve just made it having been to one of those drinks parties where people keep topping up your glass so you lose track of how much you’ve had, so I can vouch for its simplicity.

Courgette and rice filo pie (from River Cottage Veg Every Day!)

500g courgettes, coarsely grated
75g long-grain rice
1/2 medium red onion, finely chopped (I love onion in all its forms, so I put a whole one in)
75g hard goat’s cheese or mature Cheddar, grated (you might like to add some feta too, adjusting the seasoning accordingly)
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tbsp olive oil
A handful of dill, chopped
A good handful of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
250g filo pastry (if you can get a slightly larger pack, do – you always end up with one really raggedy sheet per packet)
75g unsalted butter, melted
Salt and pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 190°C.

2. Mix the courgettes, rice, onion, cheese, eggs, olive oil and chopped herbs together in a large bowl, and season well with salt and pepper. It really does need quite a bit of salt, especially if you’re not using feta.

3. Lightly brush a sheet of film pastry with melted butter, and use it to line an ovenproof dish – leave the excess hanging over the sides. Repeat this with all but the last sheet of pastry, lining the dish the whole way round.

4. Pour the filling into the pastry-lined dish. Fold the excess pastry over to cover the filling, dabbing with melted butter to encourage the pastry to hold together. Crumple the last sheet of pastry in your hands a bit, before placing it over the top of the pie and tucking in the edges.

5. Brush the top with a bit more butter, and bake for 45 minutes until golden. Depending on how late it is and how tipsy and/or hungry you are, you could eat this with some Turkish-/Greek-influenced mezze dishes, or just shovel a slice down and go to bed.

Unencumbered as I am by ‘normal’ adult concerns like mortgages and small children, my brain generally concerns itself with questions such as, ‘Whose turn is it to put the kettle on?’, ‘Do I watch too much Black Books?’ and ‘What am I going to do with all those egg whites cluttering up the fridge?’ I’m keen on custard-making, which has the unfortunate (ha!) side-effect of using every egg yolk you can get your hands on, leaving you with bowls of sad-looking whites, destined for meringues that will never be made. Normal procedure is to leave them in the fridge until they go all watery, then chuck them out when you need the space to chill another bottle of wine.

These little cakes, from Lucas Hollweg’s Good Things to Eat, use five eggs whites. Five! Joy of joys. They’re very simple to make too, with no creaming of butter and sugar necessary; you needn’t even bother remembering to take the butter out of the fridge to soften, as it just needs to be melted. I used vanilla extract (Hollweg’s suggested alternative) instead of lemon zest, just because I fancied something vanilla-y with the raspberries.

Right – I’m off to make five egg yolks’ worth of custard.

Little almond cakes with raspberries (or almondberry cakes, as I’ve dubbed them)

Makes 12

175g butter, plus extra for greasing
250g icing sugar, plus extra for dusting
140g ground almonds
60g plain flour
finely grated zest of 1 lemon (I substituted about a teaspoon of vanilla extract, which I stirred in just after the egg whites)
5 medium egg whites (I used large, and this doesn’t seem to have hurt the cakes at all)
12 raspberries (or blueberries, blackberries or blackcurrants, as Hollweg suggests. I agree with him that strawberries would be BAD)

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C, and smear the holes of a 12-hole muffin tin with plenty of butter.
  2. Melt the butter gently until frothy and bubbly. Mix together the 250g icing sugar, almonds, flour and lemon zest (if using) in a large bowl. Stir in the egg whites and beat vigorously for about 10 seconds, until everything is nice and smooth, with no clumps of almond or sugar. Add the vanilla extract now, if using. Pour in the butter and mix it well – it’ll take a bit of elbow grease to get it incorporated. What you’ll have now is much runnier than a normal cake batter.
  3. Divide the mixture between the 12 holes of your tin (easier said than done when it’s this runny. I used a ladle and it still went everywhere). Put a raspberry on the top of each one – no need to push it in – and bake in the preheated oven for 20 minutes. They’re done when they’re golden brown round the edges and still a little unset in the middle; this will become firmer as the cakes cool.
  4. Leave them in the tins to cool before prising out with the help of a metal spoon, then dust with a little icing sugar just before serving. Enjoy.

My birthday, falling as it does on the last day of August, marks the end of summer and the beginning of autumn. I can’t feel particularly sad about waving goodbye to the hot days for another year, not least because a) this is England, for gawd’s sake, and b) I hate being too hot. I hate picnics (I am forever plagued by wasps and dogs), sunstroke, and the indignity of sleeveless tops. (However, I can’t express my joy at the coming of autumn better that Eva Wiseman did in the Observer on Sunday.)

So, a year older and wiser, I am newly obsessed by the cosiness of autumnal comfort food. (If you don’t see much of me for the next few months, check my bed and then my kitchen.) Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Veg Every Day! is my new favourite kitchen tome; I made the squash and fennel lasagne yesterday, and tonight seemed like a good time to try the swede and potato pasties. Even if they didn’t taste great, these would be worth making for the lovely rootsy savoury smell that wafts around your house while they’re in the oven; luckily, they’re also absolutely delicious. I’m taking one in for my packed lunch tomorrow (with age cometh thrift).

Swede and potato pasties (from River Cottage Veg Every Day!)

Makes 4

For the pastry:

300g plain flour
A pinch of sea salt
150g chilled unsalted butter, cut into small cubes

For the filling:

225g potato
125g swede
75g carrot
1 small onion, grated
Leaves from a handful of parsley, finely chopped
Leaves from a few sprigs of  thyme, chopped
1 teaspoon vegetable bouillon powder
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
50g strong Cheddar, grated (Hugh says this is optional. I say: sling it in.)
30g butter, melted

To finish:

1 egg, lightly beaten with 1 teaspoon milk, to glaze

  1. To make the pastry, mix the flour and salt together, then add the pieces of butter and toss them in the flour until each little cube is separately coated. Add about 150ml of chilled or iced water to form a fairly firm dough. (Clumsy as ever, I added a little too much, but a well-floured work surface and rolling pin did the trick.)
  2. Shape the dough into a rectangle with your hands on a well-floured work surface, and then roll it out away from you, in one direction only, until the rectangle is about 1cm thick. Fold the far third towards you, then fold the nearest third over the top of that – you’ll now have a rectangle made up of three equal layers. Give the pastry a quarter turn, and repeat the rolling, folding and turning five times. Wrap the pastry in cling film, then chill in the fridge for between 30 minutes and an hour.
  3. Preheat the oven to 190°C. If there’s someone in your house who likes a bit of painstaking chopping, call them into the kitchen at this point.
  4. Peel the potato, swede and carrot and cut into 3–4mm dice. This is quite pleasing really, once it’s done. Put the chopped veg in a bowl, along with the grated onion, herbs, bouillon, seasoning and cheese. Melt the butter and stir that in last.
  5. Roll out the pastry to 3mm thick, and cut out 4 circles using a small plate (around 19cm diameter) – you’ll probably have to squish together the trimmings and roll them out again for the last one.
  6. Divide the vegetable mixture between the four pastry squares, keeping it to one side of each circle. Brush the edges with a little water, fold over the other half of pastry, and crimp the edges together securely. Patch up any holes that appear as you stretch the pastry over – you don’t want leaky pasties.
  7. Line two baking sheets with baking parchment. Place the pasties on the sheets, and brush them with the egg glaze. Bake for 35–40 minutes until golden brown.

Once you’ve got your starter, making a loaf of sourdough bread is dead easy. My standard loaf is adapted from Dan Lepard’s recipe for white leaven bread in The Handmade Loaf.

Transfer 200g of lively starter to a big bowl and add to it 325g of warm-ish water. Combine the two with a spoon or a whisk and then add the flour. The recipe calls for 500g of strong white flour, which makes a fine loaf. However, you can happily experiment with different flours. Stealing an idea from another standard sourdough recipe (in Richard Bertinet’s Crust), I often substitute some of the white flour with spelt flour (say, 425g white and 75g spelt). This makes a slightly darker, more characterful loaf.

So, add your flour and, at the same time, 1½ tsp sea salt. Give it all a good mix and start to form it together into a dough. You might need to add a bit more water or flour to get the right consistency. As ever, what is right for you, in the conditions you’re working in, is moot and it’s hard to make generalisations. You need a looser, wetter dough than most people are used to, so you are looking for something that does stick annoyingly to your hands and the work surface (for that reason, little plastic scrapers are strongly recommended). However, there’s always a limit to it – you still have to knead it and so there has to be scope to manipulate the stuff. Most people tell you to avoid adding more flour but sometimes you just have to, or it’s impossible to work with.

In the various guides to bread-making, people always give their tips and their ‘do’s and ‘don’t’s. These can add up to a baffling and restrictive code for how you might operate when you make your bread, and they can really take the fun and spontaneity out of it. I’m sure a lot of the things I do would be frowned upon, but they seem to work and I’m therefore loathe to try to fix them. However, I’ve found two techniques in particular that are well worth taking seriously when it comes to the often arduous task of kneading.

Firstly, Richard Bertinet has a method which mercifully gets you away from the exhausting heel-of-the-hand-based pummelling of the dough that many of us have grown up to think is (k)needed. It’s hard to describe it so you should maybe just get either get one of his books – Dough or Crust – or, given that there are videos of it online, just google ‘Bertinet kneading method’. He manages to use his thumbs and fingertips to flick the dough deftly over on itself in a frankly quite stylish movement that really is very effective. In no time, you’ll find yourself with the kind of smooth, elastic dough you’re looking for. It’s still a bit tiring, obviously, but you don’t feel quite so bruised and battered afterwards.

Secondly, Dan Lepard helpfully points out that there’s no sense in bashing away at a dough continually when the proteins you’re working on carry on doing their thing regardless of whether or not you’re actively kneading. In other words, if you give a dough a bit of a knead and then leave it a few minutes, when you come back to it you’ll find that it’s much easier to work with – it has actually gained in elasticity since the last time you touched it. You still have to do the kneading thing – that’s what traps air inside the dough – but the proteins that form the cellular structure needed to hold gas inside the dough respond best to alternating spells of rest and manipulation. Mr Lepard writes out a detailed schedule of resting and kneading for you for most recipes, but you can be a bit more maverick than that and allow yourself to multi-task as you knead. So, give it a knead for a minute, do a bit of washing up, then come back to the dough and knead again for another couple of minutes, then make a cup of tea, knead again, and so on. It’s magic – it works amazingly well.

Once you’ve got a nice bit of dough, flour it up and leave it in a warm place. I’ve got a little lined basket (a ‘panneton’, no less) for mine but you can just as easily use a floured or oiled mixing bowl with a tea towel over the top. They say this bit takes an hour but, frankly, I’ve left it overnight in this condition and it doesn’t seem to matter. Next, you take it out and stretch it. Don’t expect it to have expanded much – everything is so much slower in the world of sourdough that you don’t tend to get that revelation of your dough having ‘doubled in size’. Stretch it out on a lightly floured surface, and then wrap it back up again, folding the corners into the centre a couple of times and then working back into a ball. Flour it again and stick it back in whatever container you’re using to prove it.

How much time you need here is pretty infinitely expandable, in my experience. It is possible to over-do it, in which case it collapses back in on itself a bit like a dying star (too much Brian Cox there), but generally the longer you can leave it, the better. I think overnight is ideal but I’ve left them up to 24 hours before and that seems to work fine still. Transfer your loaf to a floured tray, slash the top with a sharp knife (for artistic effect and to facilitate expansion) and then bake it in a hot oven. Start as hot as you can and then lower the temperature to somewhere around 180-200 degrees C after five minutes. It helps if you can spray a bit of water into the oven just as you close it, creating a damper atmosphere for the first phase of baking.

It should need around 35-40 minutes, but you’ll find you have to open up the oven and test it a few times to be sure, lifting it up and tapping its bottom in the time-honoured fashion, listening for the hollow sound you’re after. A bit of colour is nice, but don’t let it burn on the top. Flouring the top of the loaf before baking can help to avoid this but, even then, I find I often have to shove a bit of kitchen foil over the top to stop it burning while it has its last five to ten minutes in the oven.

And that’s that. The bread you get is, as always, best eaten fresh. It will keep for about a week (bread with a higher water content tends to keep longer) although probably needs to be toasted from day three onwards which, for sourdough, is no bad thing anyway.

Once you’re proudly munching your sourdough, it’s worth reflecting that you’ve truly made yourself a part of the honourable continuum of bread-making. All bread would have been made this way until the last couple of centuries. You’ve done justice to the traditional ways: you’re no slave to the yeast, you don’t rely on strange packets of dried ‘fast-acting’ stuff. You are master or mistress of the loaves. Here’s to the inner baker in all of us!

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.

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…)