Thursday, 24 June 2010

Slashing - do you need special tools?

The subject of slashing is big in the bread world. Before I started baking bread, I had no idea that those slashes were there for anything other than decoration.

Oh how simple my world must have been.

If I've understood it correctly, and it's entirely probable I haven't, you slash your bread so that it can rise to maximum height without exploding. This is because the heat of the oven causes something caused "oven spring"-  that final push upwards. Because the bread has a certain surface tension, you want the bread to rise as much as possible before the crust bakes hard and doesn't allow any further growth. So in this respect slashing helps, (but so does causing a moist environment in the oven - steam. More on this another time).

If you slash, you control where the bread expands. If you didn't and it needed to expand, it might burst in an uncontrollable fashion. So slashing can be decorative and serves a purpose. Btw, you only really need to slash with certain types of bread. Some bread that don't rise much, such as a pure rye, don't need slashes.

But how to slash?

People are nervous of slashing the dough, with good reason. You've spent the best part of a day making your sourdough baby and when you tip it out on a (preferably pre-heated) tray or stone you don't want to muck about with it anymore than you have to. Slashing takes a bit of confidence and good slashing also depends on the proving. If you've overproved, slashing is more likely to make your bread deflate, for instance.

When I first started slashing I used a really sharp knife. I found this dragged and it made me panic, because the bread seemed to deflate (although it seemed to recover fine in the oven).

I never need a reason to buy a new gadget or a specialist tool so I looked up what you could use.

  • A razor blade - no good for me as I have young children and I wasn't going to risk a naked blade escaping from the drawer.
  • A grignette or lame - a posh Stanley knife.

Naturally, I decided, I needed one of the latter.

You can get ones with rotating blades (so you can use both sides, although there's nothing to stop you swopping hands and doing it but I guess that requires some dexterity), ceramic blades, steel blades, replaceable blades. They are used "by the professionals".

I got this one:

Mure and Peynot Panette Professional Grignette, £9.99, close up of curved blade

Same, seen side on and full length and with safety cover.

It has a replaceable blade and a safety cover as seen above. 

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, in his lovely little book on bread suggests you can use a bread knife. If you've ever tried to slice a tomato with a regular (even really sharp) knife and a serrated bread knife, you'll know the latter makes the job so much easier. 

Surely a bread knife couldn't be as good as, or better, than a special tool?

Well actually yes it can. I'm sure if you're a proper artisan baker who makes all sorts of fancy patterns on their bread, then I'm sure that a grignette, in your hands does amazing things. But I can't get the slashes to go deep enough.

The bread knife does a far better job.

Slash made with grignette on potato bread. Nice, but see how shallow it is? Although you'll see the bread knife is already starting to muscle in.

This morning's bread, white sourdough, slashed with a simple bread knife. Better, no?

Yesterday's bread: three flour mill loaf, with bread knife slashes. 

Conclusion: it may not be a wallet-busting exercise, buying a professional grignette, but I think a bread-knife does the job better. With the money you save you'd be better off buying a banneton, which is worth the money. But, more on this another time.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Pane e amore

I'm really pleased with the loaves I've made so far. Whilst they may not all look as presentable as those I've bought in (proper, artisan, baker) shops, they're really delicious. So delicious I have difficulty believing I've made them myself.

But the more I learn about sourdough, the more I realise it's a bit like hi-fi's (or whatever they're called theseadays). You can get to the point where you finesse, finesse, finesse so much that you're still going long past the point anyone else stopped caring.

I remember standing in a hi-fi shop with a hi-fi geek friend of mine, who was trying to show me the difference between one system (and we're not talking those vertically racked systems, please, we're talking individually bought and unmatching components) that cost £5K and one that cost £7K. "Can you hear the difference?" she asked.

No, I couldn't. This is where I feigned an epileptic fit and asked to leave the shop.

There are a couple of questions I have at the moment about sourdough. I'll have so many more, but at the moment a few are really bugging me. What I want is a really technical, but hand-holdy book (and if you know of one, please let me know) that will explain the science in a bit more detail than The Handmade Loaf.

And as I try to find these out on the web, I get more drawn into super-geek bread sites (trust me they make this look like Grazia) that make me feel like a miserable failure.

Even though, I have to remind myself, I think my bread is great and it does everything a good loaf should. It rises, it looks lovely and it tastes wonderful. What more could I want? At which point does it get good enough and people stop wondering if the addition of one extra ice cube will make for that super-perfect crust, or if they'd just turned the dough another 180 degrees during their crumb improvement proof, it would have had elongated holes to rival a natural sea-sponge.

Does it matter? I'm beginning to suspect it does. But I also want to scream at some of these sites and say:

"Are you shagging enough?" because surely you can't be. I can't believe anyone who is having enough sex can get that into bread.

And I include myself in this. But look. I have an excuse.

Must go now, have a loaf in the oven.

A completely gratuitous picture of Sofia Loren NOT baking bread.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Rye and Wholemeal bread

Rye and wholemeal, supposed to be Barley and Rye bread, cept I got distracted.
Proved in two whicker 600g baton bannetons for ten hours at 4 degrees. Cooked on preheated tray at 250 for ten minutes then 220 for ten minutes. Slashed with a professional Mure and Peynot grignette with a curved blade. One worked more successfully than the other. Not sure why.

Today's bread was supposed to be Barley and Rye bread from Dan Lepard's The Handmade Loaf. I've rather overdosed on white flour bread and even though sourdough is low GI, and I use stoneground, organic white flour, I really started to feel I needed to make a loaf that wasn't just white flour.

The majority of sourdough bread has a tendency towards white flour use. White flour does the work in keeping the bubbles of sourdough up in a way that other flours can't. This recipe called for a rye leaven, 300g white flour and then 100g each of rye and barley. I'd just had a chat with another budding baker friend about wanting to use more wholemeal so that's what was in my head and that's what I reached for instead of the barley flour. Anyway, it's no bad thing. As you'll see it still uses mostly white flour. *sucks teeth*

I'd made this loaf (using the correct ingredients) before and it's delicious. A really subtly delicious loaf and great for sandwiches (what I also love about sourdough, because have I mentioned that I love it, is its keeping qualities).

Rye and wholemeal crumb, second slice, it will only get better as I get further into the loaf.

 Barley and rye bread made with proper ingredients and an 11hr rise at about 12 degrees. Dan Lepard described this loaf as having a "bold beauty".


Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Mr Potato Bread

 Potato bread. 
Proved in a 400g round whicker banneton with linen lining for 13hrs at 4 degrees.
Cooked on a preheated baking tray at 250C for ten minutes then at 220 for a further ten minutes.

A couple of years ago, at the excellent Whitecross Street market, I bought a Tortano bread from The Power Station. This was a large ring shape and it had potato in it. The potato wasn't obvious, but the flavour of the bread was exceptional.

I've dreamed of it ever since, buying it when I can, but that hasn't been often. When I saw Dan Lepard had a recipe for potato bread in his book The Handmade Loaf, I decided to try it.

The recipe calls for honey and grated potato. This was my first long rise (prove) at such a low temperature (I usually prove my bread for about eight hours at about 15 degrees), and I was dubious it would work. My suspicions were deepened when I got the dough and it didn't seem to have risen as much as my bread usually does. It had spring to it, and I tipped it out onto a preheated, polenta dusted tray (I always use Mermaid trays) and it still deflated slightly. I had two shapes on the go, one in a 400g round (which you can see above) and one in a 600g baton (which you can see in a minute). The slashes on the round one didn't really have much effect and the loaf sort of burst out of one end. The recipe had called for a central fold, rather than slashes, but I hadn't done this (tut, see what happens when you go off piste).

The baton shape I'd slashed on the top but also along one length.

Both breads rose beautifully, with a fabulous (I think anyway) crumb. The baton ended up being more successful in terms of loaf-look because of the beautiful fanning open of the long cut I'd made. I must warn you that this bread is just superb tasting. I had some for lunch with griddled peppers and a tomato salad. You can taste the sweetness of the honey, but not in an off putting way at all - even if you didn't like honey I reckon you'd still love this. My boyfyhusband is currently eating his way through the second loaf whilst I remind him that it's fodder for our daughter's lunch box. I can't even begin to think how delicious this bread would be if used for a bacon sandwich, with some chilli jam. Be warned.

The potato bread baton slash. Bootiful.

First fumblings with sourdough.

When I first started my other blog I didn't know what to call it, so the sharp-eyed amongst you will see it has two names: the URL is paneamoreechachacha and the name of the actual blog is Apropos of Nothing. [I've since changed this to be uniform and the blog and URL are PAeCCC.}

I first chose Pane, Amore e Cha Cha Cha because this is what my parents say a lot. It means, bread, love and the cha cha cha is 'everything else'. It seemed like a fitting name for just about anything I might write about. But I also like Apropos of Nothing as I say this all the time and what I write about is apropos of nothing really: the every day little things in life you may come across that aren't big or important, but might make a difference.  There are lots of blogs out there that herald the new and I love reading about such things. But I wanted to write a blog about things I knew about, things I'd tried. Things I consumed...

But when I first chose the PA e CCC title, I thought the 'bread' part would cover my forays into food things. I never really thought it'd cover bread. And I certainly never thought I'd be starting a whole new blog about Sourdough Bread. But, yet, here it is. The reason for separating them out is that sourdough talk is fairly geeky and I didn't want to clutter up the Apropo/Cha Cha Cha blog with fairly intricate talk about prove times and bannetons.

The reason sourdough, or natural leaven bread means so much to me, the reason I go on about it so, is that bread is the final frontier in cooking that I'd never been able to master. I've baked since I was seven (I used to make the cakes for my parents shop on the Bayswater Road in west London, probably illegally but there you go). But I'd never been able to make bread. I never worked out why. When I was a child I couldn't wear a watch, they'd stop when I put them on. And if I ever tried to make anything with yeast in it, it'd die.  My bread was awful. I tried things like Danish pastries, thinking that maybe cos they were a cakey thing, I might have more luck. But no. It was actually hard to take failure, over and over again and I felt like you do when computers give you problems. Like it's personal.

Some years ago, I went diving and fishing with a Michelin starred chef. I told him about me and bread. He laughed. "Anyone can make bread" he said, sounding like the chef in Ratatouille. "I can't" I answered mournfully. "Come to my kitchen," he offered. So I went.

He made the dough for the day and put it in this huge mixer. Then he asked me to shape it or something. I can't remember now, but anyway, I touched it. We were making the bread for the entire evening's covers. To cut a long story short, cos you must surely know what's coming,  the bread I'd touched failed. The fact that I'd told him this didn't appease his temper. He looked at me like I was a witch and not long after I found myself on the pavement outside, crushed.

Eventually bread makers came onto the market and I even failed with those, but I realised that's because we had a shit bread maker. Our downstairs neighbour, the lovely Sarah, used to produce these huge loaves for her and her husband Ben. Her bread machine was a Panasonic (still the only make of bread maker I'd recommend) and eventually we bought one and what do you know, as long as I stayed away from the mixture with my hands - very easy to do with a machine - we were okay. As time went on, I got confident again. I really don't know if bread senses fear but maybe it does. Because as I got more confident, I started making bagels and pizza, using the machine to make the dough and then shaping it myself. Success was mine. I don't know, perhaps having children changed whatever freaky wiring I had going on that was such an efficient killer of bread dough. Perhaps the hands that had always been so cold, but made great pastry, were starting to warm up. The point is, I was able to make bread.

But my eye was always on the big prize:  sourdough. Proper Italian bread is sourdough bread: made without yeast but by using a starter of, basically, flour and water which uses wild yeasts that are present in the air and on the flour. In Italy we call this leaven a 'biga'. Some bakers call it 'La Mamma or La Madre' - the mother. Fitting because the starter you, yes, start with, you make all your subsequent bread from. You use a bit of your starter every day to make your bread (or discard it if you're not making bread) and then feed (or refresh) it with more flour and water. Some starters date back many years. It's said that the starter that makes the famous Poilan bread dates back to 1932. Certainly the longer a starter has been going, the better it is and the more flavoursome the bread.

Sourdough bread is big, holey bread which you can't squash into putty. It is deeply flavoursome, has a low GI (thus very satisfying) and can make a meal out of the most humble of ingredients. Add a squash of Brie and a few roasted peppers in olive oil and I'm happy. If you live in a big City - certainly London - you can buy sourdough bread pretty easily. But here, in Suffolk it's not so easy.

Every weekly trip to London saw me coming back with something from Flour Station or Paul's and I'd text my boyfhusband on the way home and say "we have good bread, we have a meal." But I wanted to be able to make this bread myself.

I'd bought Dan Lepard's The Handmade Loaf some years previously. I'd started a starter from his instructions which had looked promising, but then I got pregnant and other things occupied my mind. My friend Lucy gave me a bit of her starter but I'd let it go off in the back of the fridge. Then finally my friend Emily offered to send me some of hers. This seemed such an act of friendship and I liked the fact that Emily - whom I'd only ever got to know on line (I also co-run a parenting forum called I Want My Mum), could send her starter across the country, in the post, and I could make bread from it.

It came. I tipped it into a Kilner jar, fed it for two days and opened the first recipe in Dan's book, which was for white leaven bread. Dan's recipes are deeply prescriptive: 8am, do this, 8.10am do that. They had put me off at first because it seemed you had to spend all day making bread. Maybe this was why sourdough loaves cost so much. But in fact it wasn't so. It suited me perfectly. I found the bit that took the most time was the beginning, and refreshing the starter. Otherwise you hardly kneaded it at all - 10/15 seconds at a time. Leaving it to rest for 10 mins, 30 mins, an meant I could do it in between feeds/reading to my children/preparing dinner etc.

The first loaf I made I started just after school pick up, which is still the best time for me to make bread. I had already decided to be Master of the sourdough in terms of this: the final rise called for a time of 4-5 hours. I knew I could never stay up that long, so I decided to just leave it to rise overnight in a bowl lined with a teacloth on the concrete floor of the laundry room. At a temperature of about 15 degrees. I decided that the bread either had to cope with this, or it had no place in my life.

The next morning I got up and very clumsily took the bread off the teatowel, which it had stuck to, and wobbled it onto a cold baking tray (my technique finessed incredibly fast, fear not). Dan said an oven temperature of 220 for 50-70 minutes. After 30 minutes my loaf was frazzled.

I was upset, of course, but as I cut into the loaf I realised that there inside was proper sourdough. What's more, as it cooled, I realised the crust had this wonderful taste. I was so excited that I sent a picture of it to Dan (whom I don't know, but I figured he'd not be too freaked out as we work for the same newspaper) and he replied saying he thought it looked great and it looked better than his first sourdough. He probably says this to everyone, but I chose to believe him.

We - boyfyhusband and I, not me and Mr Lepard - ate it with a poached egg (Burford Browns) topped with herbs from our garden. I almost died of happiness that morning. I told everyone, all day, all week, that I had made bread. With my hands. I think I sent a picture of my sourdough bread to everyone with an email address. Finally.

First ever sourdough. Look at that crumb! This was proved in a bowl lined with a teatowel for nine hours at 15 degrees. I didn't slash it, I cooked it for 30 minutes at 220.
And it worked.