Tag Archives: bread

Real beer barm bread mark II

Barm bread

A few years ago, I was given a bottle of barm by my brewer friend Michele Sensidoni, of Mastri Birrai Umbri. For those who don’t know, barm is the yeast, and yeasty foam, formed by vigorously reproducing yeasts during the fermentation process in brewing. I used it to make some bread. Last week, I was lucky enough to visit Holler Boys, a new Sussex brewery, and meet its owner and brewer Steve Keegan.

Steve is a friend of a friend, and former managing director of Late Knights Brewery, which he set up in south London in 2012. It expanded fast and they opened several pubs, but things drew to a close in Autumn 2016. I’ll tell that story in another post soon, in the meantime, here’s another experimental barm bread.

I got up this morning – well, I was woken up by the Raver, 19 months, at the not too uncivilised hour of 6.50 – and found the dough crawling out of its proving basket. So, yes, this is one of those blog posts that talks about a bit of a cock-up, not an expert success story.

Barm

 

When we visited, Steve was busy making new brews and one of his conditioning tanks, named Wayne, was bubbling away. I asked Steve if I could have a scoop of the froth, the barm.

Barmy starter
Back home, I mixed with flour and water over the course of three days, much like you would feed a sourdough starter. It wasn’t that vigorous, but it was alive. The barm I’d got from Michele had involved a lot more liquid and yeasty bits. This scoop of bubbles, however, was a bit of a gamble, as it obviously didn’t contain quite such a density of yeasts.

Barm starter

In the evening of the third day – sounding a tad Biblical – I made up a dough. Here’s the recipe.

350g beer barm starter, at 100% hydration (ie, I fed it on equal quantities of flour and water)
8g fine sea salt
300g water
500g strong white bread flour

Ignoring the small amount of liquid in the initial scoop of barm, the total liquid in the dough was about 475g, the flour 675g, making a dough hydration of 70% (475/675 x 100).

1. Bring the barm starter, salt, water and flour together to form a soft dough in a roomy bowl.
2. Turn out onto a lightly oiled work surface and knead. Knead it briefly, form a ball, then put back into the bowl, lightly oiled. Cover and leave 10 minutes.
3. Knead again, put back in the bowl, cover and leave 10 minutes again.
4. Repeat a few more times then put back in the bowl, cover and put the fridge for 24 hours.

Before final prove

Now, this is where I went wrong. I wanted to give it a final prove in a proving basket, but I misjudged the liveliness of the dough – the barm starter had turned out to be more vigorous than I thought. I thought I could give it a final prove at room temperature (in this case 17-18C), overnight, for about 9 hours. I probably should have done it in the fridge.

Oops

The dough spilled over the edges of the proving basket, which was too small for the amount of dough, and stuck. It was overproved and had a bad skin where the dough had dried out. I was forced to prise it out (destroying stucture) and reform the ball, give it a short final prove, then resort to baking in a preheated casserole dish, rather than slid off a peel onto a hot baking stone as I’d planned.

I don’t think there’s any point continuing with a numbered recipe now, as it went wrong. But when I say “wrong”, I mean that I learned a lesson. If I can get hold of some more barm, I’ll know to trust it more for leavening.

The result isn’t what I was aiming for, and its crumb structure is a slight disappointment, but the flavour is good. Fran says she can taste a beeriness, a bitterness. T-Rex, three, enjoyed it too, until he decided he didn’t, and said “Yuck”. I’d like to think this wasn’t an entirely failed experiment: all I had to start with was a few grams of foam, it was fun and the results are tasty. I just got the timings wrong. Hey, I’ve only made real barm bread twice!

Barm bread crumb shot

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Semi-sourdough, no-knead, casserole-baked bread

No knead, semi sourdough crumb shot

Purists will disdain it, but I’ve not got a problem with using a combination of sourdough starter and commercial yeast. This is semi-sourdough baking. The sourdough gives some depth of flavour while the addition of the yeast helps a baker of my middling ability to control the timings better.

It’s a technique I learned from the essential book The Handmade Loaf by Dan Lepard. It’s a technique that stands me in good stead as, honestly, I never mastered getting satisfactorily consistent sourdough loaves. I probably could master it if I had a real push but it’s not really where I’m at these days. Indeed, mostly I just make a fairly basic tin loaf these days for toast, something my family Hoovers at breakfast time. It involves yeast and a mixture of stoneground strong white and wholemeal wheat and spelt flours.

When I want something a bit more interesting, I reach for the sourdough. This is what I’ve been making recently. It involves the no-knead and Dutch oven techniques. The latter means baking it in a preheated Dutch oven, cast iron casserole dish or even a terracotta chicken brick. I’ve got one called a knuspertopf, my mum’s got one called a römertopf. My German-speaking father tells me topf means pot, while knusprig means crisp or crunchy. Römer means Roman, apparently. They all work well, retaining the moisture, adding some steam to the bake.

Knuspertopf no knead loaf

Combine to make a preferment
100g of sourdough starter at 100% hydration (ie, refreshing it with equal quantities water and flour)
2g active dried yeast or 4g fresh yeast
100g stoneground wholemeal wheat flour
100g water

I don’t worry about the temperature of the water. Leave this mixture at room temperature (about 19C in our place now) for about 6-8 hours. One good option is to make it at lunchtime.

After the allotted time, when the preferment is bubbling nicely, make the dough by adding
500g flour (I used a 50/50 mix of stoneground white wheat and wholemeal wheat)
400g water
7g fine sea salt

1. Just beat it all together until it clears, that is, until the flour is fully mixed with the water and there are no dry bits left. It’ll be a sloppy, wet dough. For those interested in bakers’ percentages, this works out at about 85% hydration. Ie, the total flour comes to 650g, the total water comes to 550g; 550/650 x 100 = 84.61.
2. Cover the bowl; I use a floral shower cap but a plastic bag is fine. Leave the dough for about 12 hours. I’ve been putting it in the fridge for about 10 of that. Overnight is good.
3. Remove the dough from the fridge and allow it to come back to room temperature. I’m not sure how important this is and haven’t scientifically investigated it yet. Some suggest a cold dough is good for oven spring, but I’m not convinced about that, it’d just be a sluggish spring.
4. Set your oven to maximum. Sadly, my electric Rangemaster only musters about 220C, at best. Put your chosen casserole dish in and heat it up for about 20-30 minutes.
5. Using a dough scraper, carefully remove the dough from the bowl onto a floured worktop. Handling it gently so as not to deflate it or damage it structure too much, fold one side into the middle, then the other, like a letter, to form a rough loaf shape.
6. Take the hot, hot dish out of the oven, remove its lid and, gently as you can, er, drop the dough into it. Put the lid back on, put it in the oven and bake for about 40 minutes.
7. Turn the oven down to 180C and bake for another 10 minutes.
8. Take the dish out, turn out the loaf, then return it to the oven for another 10 minutes. One risk with a dough this wet is that it may not cook all the way through. It should do with the preheated dish and a baking time this long but if you’re not sure, over-baking won’t do too much harm, other than thickening the crust a bit.
9. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack.

Casserole no knead loaf

Now, this is a pretty easy way to make fairly satisfying loaf. It’s got a good chewy crust and a reasonably open crumb structure. My only criticism is that it can feel slightly rubbery, if that makes sense. It’s definitely worth a try though, for that artisan vibe, and it makes cracking toast. Even if kids do fuss about the crust. Honestly, some mornings it feels like all I eat for breakfast is rejected crusts…

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Neolithic bread

Back in 1999, an archaeological dig in Yarnton, Oxfordshire, “unearthed two 5,000-year-old pieces of bread – the earliest fragments of bread to be recovered in the British Isles”.

Despite my enthusiasm for history, British food history and bread in general, I’d not heard about this before, so thanks to Jeremy Cherfas and his Newsletter from Eat This Podcast.

It’s a wonderful story. Not only is it amazing to have such fragments, which survived as they were charred and have been carbon dated as from “between 3,620 and 3,350 BC”, but also, in this era of blanket demonisation of bread, it’s a salient reminder of how long humanity has had an important relationship with grain-based foods. Even here in Britain, which was, a long way from the civilisations of the Middle East, central Asia, China etc.

At the time of the announcement, they had identified one of the grains as barley. I wonder if they managed to identify any more of the ingredients and if anyone had a go at re-creating the ancient loaf? It sounds like an interesting challenge, but one would need not only true ancient grain varieties, but also a quern-stones to mill them. That’s not something that’s part of my kitchen kit at this point.

There’s a little more on this 1999 discovery here and here, but I can’t find anything subsequent.

 

 

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Kubaneh – Yemeni Jewish breakfast bread

Kubaneh

The latest addition to my cookbook library is Honey & Co’s The Baking Book, by Sarit Packer and Itomar Srulovich. It has the same UK publisher as my friend Rachel’s Five Quarters (which boasts a couple of my recipes), so I went along to the launch event a few weeks ago, bought a copy, got it signed and have been trying out the recipes since.

I love enriched doughs, so I was drawn to the recipe for kubaneh. Sarit’s family has Egyptian and Yemeni connections, and this bread is from the latter culture, specifically it’s a Yemenite-Jewish Sabbath breakfast bread. Reading more about it now, it’s traditionally baked overnight in a sealed tin. While Sarit’s version bakes for a fairly long time, it’s not overnight.

Some versions include whole eggs, and can be eaten as more savoury affair, with tomatoes or a tomato dip, or skhug, Yemeni hot sauce*. This one is sweeter. It’s rich in butter (or smen/semneh fermented sheep or goat milk butter; or margarine, depending on your dietary restrictions and inclinations and shopping options) and drizzled with honey, which caramelises together slightly.

Why haven’t I heard of this before?! Just my kind of thing.

Notes
I’ve tweaked the process slightly and given the ingredients in a more consistent format, so as to also include bakers’ percentages (below).

It’s a fairly moist dough – the original recipe says 300-350ml water, but I split the difference at 325ml: 325g. That works out at about 65% hydration, so quite wet and sticky. Check out my post on handling sticky doughs.

For this baking vessel, they use a “traditional lidded aluminium pot” but say you can also use a 20cm fixed bottom round cake tin, with a “lid” made of foil.

I used fresh yeast. You could use 10g active dry/granular yeast instead. If you only have instant/powdered yeast, you don’t need to mix it with liquid first – just combine it with the flour.

The dough
60g light soft brown sugar
15g fresh yeast
325g water, at about body temperature
250g strong white bread flour
250g plain (all-purpose) white flour
6g fine salt

Plus
Vegetable oil
Unsalted butter, softened (or margarine or smen, if you can get it. Very unlikely here in England!)
Runny honey

Here is it in bakers’ percentages (rounded):

Ingredient Quantity Percentage
Light soft brown sugar 60g 12%
Fresh yeast 15g 3%
Water 325g 65%
Strong white flour 250g 50%
Plain white flour 250g 50%
Salt 6g 2.5%

1. Mix together the water, sugar and yeast. Stir to dissolve the yeast.
2. Weigh out the flours into a large bowl and add the salt.
3. Add the yeast mixture to the flour and bring together a dough. I don’t have a mixer, so my instructions are for doing it by hand. If you do, just mix until well combined and smooth.

Kubaneh shaggy doughKubaneh - kneading doughKubaneh - smooth dough
4. Turn out the shaggy mixture onto a lightly oiled work surface and knead. I used the Dan Lepard technique of not kneading too much, then returning the dough to the bowl, cleaned and oiled, leaving for 10 minutes, then kneading briefly again. Repeat this twice more, then return to the cleaned, lightly oiled bowl.
5. Cover with plastic or a clean, damp tea towel and leave to prove for a couple of hours, or until doubled in size. The time will depend on the ambient temperature. It’s about 20C in my kitchen on a mild English summer’s day, and it took about two and a half hours.

Kubaneh dough - proved
6. While it’s proving, liberally grease the cake tin with butter, and grease the underside of the foil lid too. If you have a lidded pot, grease that similarly.

Kubaneh dough - slapped around
7. Sarit describes the next step as “the strange bit” – you moisten your hands then “flip the dough about in the bowl to knock it back”. Do it three times, keeping your hands moist.

Kubaneh dough - pieces
8. Oil a tray, then divide the dough up into eight pieces and place them on the tray. The dough weighs 900g, so eight pieces at around 112g.
9. Oil your hands a bit then take each piece, stretch it slightly, and put a blob of butter in the middle. I used pieces at about 10g, half a walnut size.
10. Smear the butter a bit then wrap the dough around it to form rough balls.

Kubaneh dough pieces in tin
11. Put the balls in the prepared tin, one in the middle, the rest equally spaced around it.
12. Put some more flecks of butter on top, drizzle with honey then cover and prove again until the dough “almost reaches the top” – too high and it’ll “overflow when baked.” I drizzled a bit more honey and added a bit more butter before baking.

Kubaneh dough ready for baking
13. Preheat the oven to 220C.
14. Put the tin, with its lid, in the oven and bake for half an hour.
15. Reduce the heat to 200C and continue baking for another half an hour.
16. Reduce the heat again to 180C and continue baking for another half an hour.
17. Turn the oven off and leave in the oven “for at least an hour”.
18. It’s best served warm, so if you’re an insomniac and have been doing this all night, or proved it overnight in the fridge and baked it early, enjoy it thus.

It’s surprisingly soft and chewy, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get nice caramelised bits. I won’t be doing it every week, but it’s a great addition to my enriched breads & breakfast bakes armoury. It’s also reminiscent of English lardy cakes, particularly the fruit-free versions from my part of the country, Hampshire and Sussex. Though obviously the fats used are a bit different for that gentile bake.

It’s also got me thinking about that most indulgent of fatty-sugary-doughy caramelised concoctions, the Breton kouign amann, which is more a pastry than a bread. Still, I might have to revisit that soon.

* Aka zhug, zehug; the Honey & Co The Baking Book also has a recipe for this, to accompany their lahooh, Yemeni pancakes.

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Many ways to bake

Stone and casserole

If my blog is isn’t getting updated quite so regularly these days, it’s because Fran and I are at a pretty intensive stage of a journey we’ve been on the past decade. It’s a journey that’s much shorter for most people: that of starting a family.

The old-fashioned way failed us, so we tried medical intervention. Quackery also failed us, so the past year or so we’ve been involved in the adoption process.

As anyone who’s had similar experiences will tell you, it’s a roller-coaster. The adoption process in the UK is predicated on extending the protection of children in care who may well have had tragic, sad or painful starts to life. So as the prospective adoptive parent, you’re scrutinised to within an inch of your life, every corner of your life checked, considered, evaluated.

You spend months filling in forms, being interviewed. The sheer weight of bureaucracy can make you buckle with its Kafkaesque convolutions as you struggle to prove you can be a good parent – without ever having had the experience of being a parent, thanks to the fickle vagaries of nature. It’s tough, but the end goal is clear – giving a child a good home.

Baking as palliative
When times are tough, baking is gives me solace. Bread-making especially is unique and special: it’s about making a basic food stuff, but it’s so tactile. Plus it’s all about fertility too, in its modest way. You’re reliant on the life incarnate in microorganisms: yeast, and, for sourdoughs, yeast and lactobacilli (bacteria). You need to nurture them, feed them, encourage them to reproduce. Reproduce as fervently as possibly. Unlike us, they shouldn’t need any intervention.

So I’ve been baking a lot recently. I’ve been baking most of my life, and making bread for at least 20 years, though it’s only been the past eight years or so I’ve made pretty much all the bread we eat at home. Although I’ve got a baking diploma, I’m not a professional. The thing professionals have over home bakers is a mastery of skills acquired through repetition. For long baking shifts, often through the night, professional bakers will make their doughs, prove them, shape the loaves, bake them, perfecting the processes.

So although I have a reasonable knowledge of all these things, I haven’t the mastery: it’s a lot harder to achieve when making one or two loaves a week. Especially if, like me, you have an enquiring mind and want to keep experimenting. There are so many variations on basic techniques, so many kinds of flour, so many permutations. So I keep on playing around.

I was a pretty good artist when I was young, but art, like bread-making, like any skill, is something that needs constant practise. Creativity needs nurturing. I carried a notepad and sketched all the time until my mid-twenties, but then it just tailed off. I don’t really know why. Anyway, my creative urges these days mostly go into food, into baking. Talking to my friend Rachel, who knows all about our trying-to-start-a-family saga,  she suggested the baking obsession is also an expression of my creativity, my nurturing instincts. (I’m not a stereotypical macho male, obviously.)

If fate, and the powers that be, allow us to adopt and, finally, start a family, I don’t intend to stop baking. But I suspect I’ll have less time for free-form experimentation as the focus of the nurturing will be very different.

Bread experiments in the oven
Another thing Rachel’s said to me is: make your blog more personal. But I’ve not really known how to approach this. This attempting-to-start-a-family thing is mine and Fran’s big personal project. Fran’s sort of tried to put me off talking about it, but we process things differently.

The way I see it, with a pregnancy, you get to a point where you can’t not talk about it – it becomes publically obvious. I feel we’ve been involved with the adoption process for long it’s reaching an equivalent to that publically obvious stage. Just without the bump. Without the literal bun in the oven. Instead, there are my bread experiments in the oven.

This is my latest haphazard experiment. I wanted to see how the same dough behaved when baked in two different ways.

Lively sponge

I made a dough using a kilo of flour, a mixture of white wheat flour, wholemeal spelt flour and rivet flour. I combined 400g of this with 650g of water and 15g of yeast to make a sponge pre-ferment.

Full of wheatberries

I let that ferment for a few hours at about 17C, then made up a dough with 15g fine sea salt and about 200g of cooked wheatberries (wheat grains) I had.

Well risen

Then gave all that a prove for about five hours, giving it some turns and folds.

I then managed to break Fran’s camera. We’d had two days of howling winds, 40-50mph (64-80kph), and that frays your nerves somewhat. Clearly it made me clumser than usual. I’d just said to myself, better watch out, the concrete floor would destroy this camera if dropped – then I dropped it while climbing a small stepladder to take an overhead photo. So now my pics are taken with my inferior phone camera. And I need to take a trip to the camera shop.

Divided up

After breaking the camera, both pieces of dough were scaled at the same weight, both were moulded the same way, and both were given their final prove in round bannetons.

Final prove

After the final prove, I put one in a Le Creuset casserole dish, pre-heated in the oven at 220C. Some call this the Dutch oven technique. I used a peel to slide the other onto a baking stone (or, more specifically, my pizza stone). Both were then baked at 220C for 20 minutes, then 30 minutes more at 180C.

Baked

Now, as you’ll see from the photos, despite all these years of baking, I’m still making some errors. Firstly, the two kilos of dough I had was too much for the size of Le Creuset I was using. Oops. Secondly, the one I baked on the stone, not being constrained by a container, did a funny oven spring and opened out sideways. This is frustrating for several reasons as I know the factors full well:
1. I probably didn’t leave it long enough in the final prove.
2. It may have opened up better if I’d give the top some slashes.
3. I quite possibly didn’t get the dough tight enough in the moulding stage.

The latter is one a baking skill I really struggle with. Sometimes I nail it, sometimes I fail miserably. I’ve managed 80% hydration ciabatta, then made a 70% hydration ball that’s turned out a discus.

Cut

Anyway, the real thing I was wondering about with this experiment was whether the crust and the crumb of the bread would be markedly different when baked with the different techniques. I was expecting they would be. They weren’t. Both are lovely loaves, soft, wholesome, good for sandwiches or, when they’ve staled a bit, toast.

For this experiment, I probably should have divided the dough in three, and baked a third on a steel baking sheet. Not sure my oven’s big enough though. Still, it was a fun experiment, a nice distraction from the anxiety and emotional intensity of the adoption. And, heck, one day I hope it’s the sort of bread my kids will like for their school lunches.

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How to handle a sticky bread dough

Stretching sticky dough

Tomorrow is Good Friday, the day when, traditionally, western Christians ended their Lenten fast. In Britain, this was marked by eating hot cross buns. So I’ve just made a batch, from my recipe. It’s a day early, but what the heck, the local supermarket has been pumping out its fake hot cross bun smell for at least two months already and most people probably aren’t even aware of the old traditions any more.

My recipe involves handling quite a sticky dough, so that got me thinking – perhaps I should have included some more advice about how to handle it. But it’s quite an important subject for making, so here’s a whole post on it.

When I talk about sticky doughs, this generally means doughs with a higher proportion of liquid to flour. These are called higher hydration doughs, and they often make for the best breads, especially with wheat. They can be softer, with a more open crumb and a better crust. If you’re doing an enriched dough – for a brioche, challah or any number of feast day bakes such as hot cross buns – the stickiness can also be further exacerbated by extra sugar, fats and egg.

A typical error inexperienced bakers make is to keep adding flour to such sticky doughs – putting lots on the work surface and adding more to the mix itself until it stops being sticky and feels easier to handle. This isn’t great, as it will make the crumb dense and dry. And if you add too much extra flour later on, it’ll miss out on the fermentation, being essentially raw – and indigestible.

Anyway, Ecco! Or voila, as we say in English: here are my tips for handling sticky doughs.

1. Get yourself a plastic dough scraper.
Seriously, after a bowl – and an oven of course – this is the most useful bit of kit for making bread dough. As a sticky dough adheres to your worktop, use the scraper to keep freeing it. You can also use it to make sure any bits of dough that go astray from the main lump are reincorporated. This the type I use. It’s a reasonable size and has a straight edge – good for the worktop – and a curved edge – good for freeing dough from bowls.

Scrapers

2. Get a metal dough cutter/scraper
Not quite as essential as the above, but it can be used a similar way. One option is called a Scotch scraper.

3. Oil the work surface
You can sprinkle your worktop with flour, but on the initial knead I prefer to oil the worktop. If you have a stainless steel or even marble surface, it’s not so relevant, but if your worktop is wood or bamboo (like mine), smear your work area with a few drops of oil. Generally I’ll just use sunflower seed oil, but if I’m doing an Italian or Middle Eastern bread, I may use a bit of olive oil. The oil stops the dough sticking… quite so much.

4. Clean and oil the bowl
After your first knead, and before you put the ball of dough back in the bowl, clean it. Dry it then add a dribble of oil and rub it around. Again, this’ll stop the dough sticking to the bowl, so it’ll come out more easily when you do your second knead. It’s not essential, but it’s helpful.

5. Knead with quick, confident movements
Watch a professional baker or an experienced home baker in action, and they don’t mess about with the dough. It’s handled with quick, confident movements. Indeed, even if you have a sticky dough, and are kneading it by hand, as you develop it, it will strengthen, become less sticky and start to form a ball. I would recommend getting hold of Richard Bertinet’s book Dough, as it comes with a DVD that shows this process. Someone has posted that video on YouTube, though I’m not sure how long it’ll stay up. He starts kneading from about 4 minutes in.

6. Flour your hands
Some people like to wet their hands, but I like to put a bit of flour on mine, not unlike weight-lifters dusting theirs with talcum powder.  It’s not something I do assiduously, but it can be a handy way of making things a bit easier without resorting to adding loads of extra flour to the dough. Also, towards the end of the knead I’ll clean my hands with some flour. OK, I’m not exactly cleaning them, but if you rub some flour between your hands as you would a bar of soap, it helps to get any dough off. My tactic is to do it directly above the sticky dough: the extra flour falls onto and around the dough, and I can then use the plastic scraper to tuck it under the lump, making it easier to form into a ball and put back into the bowl.

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Making bread in The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead 127, gardens at Alexandria Safe-Zone

Those who read this blog will know I like bread. You may not know, however, I’m also a lifelong comic book reader. I don’t follow that many series these days, but one I do is zombie apocalypse saga The Walking Dead, which has recently taken an interesting turn. They’re still fighting zombies of course, but they’re also growing more food too.

Although many people started reading The Walking Dead comics when the TV series (2010-) became a hit, I’ve been there since the beginning, 2003. I can’t remember how I started but it was possibly thanks to my friend Dr Jamie Russell, a screenwriter and author of Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema. We’re both pretty into apocalyptic fiction. I grew up with stuff like John Christopher, John Wyndham and JG Ballard. My mother was partly responsible, as she likes it too: novels like these, but also TV like the BBC’s Survivors (1975-1977). My childhood was also the era of cinema classics like Mad Max and The Terminator or repeats of The Omega Man or Logan’s Run on TV.

I’m one of those apocalypse geeks who likes to discuss how things would change, what you’d do when human civilisation collapses. I like to fantasise about fortifying my parents’ place in the country, building up its traditional southwest of England hedge-banks into a proper defensive palisade to keep the zombie hordes at bay. Or whatever.

Reality check
It’s all daft, obviously, as the collapse isn’t coming in one neat cinematic fell swoop, it’s coming slowly, now, as we speak, from our excessive consumerism, our unquenchable thirst for fossil fuels, supported by “greenest government ever” pawns who support fracking when our focus should be on energy efficiency and renewables. Such backwards policy furthers climate change, which destabilises agricultural, which causes famine, which results in population movement and increased tension in an overpopulated world. But slowly. We’re living the slow apocalypse. Which just doesn’t make for such great fiction.

Still, while all this is happening, we lap up the sudden apocalypse fiction, the bombs, the plagues, the zombies: The Walking Dead TV series is huge how, and a new trailer for the long-awaited fourth Mad Max film has just emerged via the ComicCon event in San Diego, etc, etc, etc.

I’d got a bit behind with The Walking Dead comics, but now I’ve caught up again. Thankfully, with issue 126, creator Robert Kirkman ended the protracted ‘All Out War’ storyline, which IMHO revisited too much ground already covered by the Governor storylines. With issue 127, Kirkman and artist Charlie Adlard refresh the series with a neat ellipsis. The issue is called ‘A New Beginning’ and about two years have passed since the war. The community of survivors seems to be flourishing, focussing on their food security by cultivating food, not just relying on scavenging food from before the zombie plague.

Post-apocalyptic practicalities
As much as I love the action element of apocalyptic stories, I much prefer it when they look at the practicalities of living in a changed world. This is why the BBC’s 1975 Survivors is superior to the 2008 remake. The former got stuck into the important business of how to survive after a plague had wiped out most of the population and nature was taking over again. The 2008 version, meanwhile, mostly just had its survivors bickering like soap opera characters. When they did try to do something practical – eg build a chicken coop – it was pathetic and cursory, physically and dramatically. Compare that with the original TV series, where they look at things like medical treatment, how to make candles, and even how to maintain a watermill.

The latter is particularly significant as water and wind provided the (sustainable) energy for milling grain for centuries. And milling grain means bread, the historic staple food.

Today, most people go to a supermarket, buy something sliced and wrapped in plastic and eat that. That’s not bread. That’s a post-industrial filler, a culinary deception and dietary disaster. There’s no way western civilisation could have achieved all that it has achieved (for better or worse) if we’d had white sliced as our staple.

For a community to thrive it needs a decent staple, and real bread is just that. So it’s great to see the survivors in The Walking Dead during that two-year ellipsis are farming, have built a windmill and are baking their own bread in their home, Alexandria, Virginia, not far from Washington DC.

TWD 128 windmill

Burning issues
In issue 128, Eugene, the community’s resident dorky genius, says he just read a book about how to do it, but Rick, the increasingly physically maimed but mentally sharp leader, won’t hear it. He realises the importance of the mill and the bakehouse in his vision for rebuilding civilisation.

Although we don’t see the more extensive grain fields you’d need to feed the comic’s community of, I dunno, a hundred-ish, you do see gardens and a glimpse of orchards. Unfortunately, the way Charlie has presented the mill and bakehouse is a bit of a bodge. The artwork is as great as ever, but it’s not a credible layout. The bakehouse seems to be inside the windmill. I have never encountered such an arrangement, and suspect it rarely, if ever, happened historically. If a mill did have an associated bakehouse, it would have been a separate building due to the fire hazard of cranking a wood-fired oven near chaff, wooden structures and valuable grain and flour.

The Walking Dead 128, bread fresh from the oven

The bread itself is portrayed slightly strangely too. The baker, Olivia, is handling a peel with tin loaves on it – though they’re not in tins. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say that she’s taken the loaves out of their tins then put them back in the oven to finish baking. Despite this quibbles, the scenes featuring the mill and bread are great: significant and moving.

Growing food. Grinding grain. Baking real bread. Now, perhaps The Walking Dead’s survivor’s can really thrive*.

 

 

 

 

* I doubt it though, as Kirkman generally seems to prefer his protagonists to suffer. Mistrust, human weakness and violence are the bread and butter of The Walking Dead. Not bread.

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Holey-er than thou

Holey bread 1

A lot of my recent bread has been fairly dense, with a close crumb. I like bread like this, especially with wholegrain breads like the 100% wholegrain wheat and spelt I’ve been making recently. They’ve tasted great and when fresh aren’t bad for open sandwiches and when a bit old they’re perfect for toast. But the favoured style of “artisan” bread these days is all about the open crumb. A nice crisp crust and an open, irregular crumb with a variety of big holes.

I know I’ve made holey bread like that in the past, but, I dunno, through all my experiments the past few years with seriously rustic flours, bought from farmers’ markets in Rome and here in Sussex, I seem to have lost the knack slightly. Learning to bake is one of those life-long challenges, especially if you’re a home baker and aren’t churning out massive batches. But it’s funny to feel you’ve learned something then forgotten it again.

High extraction challenge
It does seem that holey breads are a particular challenge if you’re using flour with a high extraction rate. The extraction rate is the amount of the grain that remains in the milled flour. So a genuinely wholegrain flour in principle should be 100% extraction. Modern, industrial, nominally brown flours, however, may only be about 80-85% extraction, whereas white flours, which have been sieved or bolted1 may be closer to 70% extraction – with the bran and germ (ie, the healthiest bits) removed and just the starches and proteins remaining. 

I’m sure the masters of the contemporary bread scene, especially those who work with ancient and heritage grains (like Chad Robertson of Tartine and the bakers producing the great looking results of the Brockwell Bake) could get a nice open, irregular holey crumb from 100% extraction flours, but not me. The wholegrain flours I’ve been buying lately have been very branny, stoneground, and I suspect probably close to 100% extraction. They taste great, but I need to get at it to open that crumb out.

I did go back to a classic Dan Lepard 100% white sourdough recipe the other day, and did get a holey crumb. Bit it’s wholly too holey. Holey-er than though. With giant crazy giant holes. So I’ve gone from one extreme to the other.

I reckon the next few weeks, I’m going to try and make breads that are 50/50 white and wholegrain and try the so-called “no knead” method. This seems to be very popular among US bakers and does seem to give holey crumb loaves. It involves mixing up the dough, resting it, and giving it a few stretch-and-folds over time. This does seem very similar to Dan L’s method of mixing, doing a short knead, resting it, and doing another short knead, then repeating, as those kneads basically just involve folding over the dough. I generally use Dan L’s method, with a few stretch-and-folds anyway. And there’s arguably a fine line between “kneading” and “folding”.

In the meantime, here are some pics of my comically holey bread. The flour was nothing fancy2, but the loaves still tasted pretty good. Even if they weren’t idea for making sarnies.

Holey bread 2

 

1 Etymology geek chums, bolting generally means sieving – or indeed sifting – through cloth. The word comes from 12th century Middle English bulten, from the old French bulter, which is probably from the Old High German būtil, meaning bag.)

2 Strong white from Waitrose supermarket. Although Waitrose/John Lewis does has its own farm,  the Leckford Estate in Hampshire, my home county, and to the west of Sussex in the south of England, they don’t seem to grow wheat that produces a strong white bread flour. The Waitrose own brand strong white is “produce of more than one country” – they, and even the likes of Dove’s Farm and Shipton Mill, Britain’s two big organic flour brands, don’t seem to be forthcoming about which countries. Presumably Canada, Kazakhstan, India, etc. I’ve now ordered some strong white flour from Stoate & Sons now instead. I believe they do manage to locally source and mill  a strong, high protein variety of wheat  in Dorset, the next country along from Hampshire.)

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Hundred per cent local spelt loaf

Spelt loaf 1

The collection of different flours in my cupboard is getting a bit silly (again). I just can’t resist it when I see a new type I’ve not tried before. In this case, it was some spelt flour, grown and milled by Toos Jeuken, who I buy a lot of my veg from at the weekly Lewes market.

There’s a full profile of the Dutch-born Toos here on The Guardian site, from 2004, and a more recent profile on the market site here. They say she arrived in England on a bike in 1978 and has been farming in Sussex, specifically at Cuckfield, 16 miles from Lewes, since.

I hadn’t really registered that she sold grains as she always has such a wonderful selection of veg at her stall, even now, in the hungry gap. (Spring might be verdant, but traditionally March and April were the time of year when, as Paul Waddington puts it in Seasonal Food, “winter stores ran low and new produce had yet to mature.” Sure, there is still a selection of local produce – last week the farmers’ market had its first asparagus – but it’s a long way from late summer.)

Anyway, at her Laines Organic Farm, alongside all the veg, Toos grows several grains, including oats, barley and spelt. Last week I bought some of her rolled oats (hand-rolled!) and wholegrain spelt flour.

Too many chromasomes
Spelt (Triticum spelta) is an older variety of wheat, less manipulated1 than modern strains of bread wheat (Triticum aestivum). Though they are closely related, with spelt alternatively classified as a subspecies: Triticum aestivum subsp. Spelta. Both are what is called hexaploid plant species – that is, they have six sets of chromasomes. By comparison, more ancient wheats have few sets of chromasomes: einkorn (Triticum monococcum) is diploid, with two sets. Emmer (Triticum diococcum) is tetrapolid, with four sets, as is Durum wheat (Triciticum durum, or Triticum turgidum subsp. Durum) – the wheat most commonly used for pasta, which was domesticated from emmer.

In the issue 19 of ‘True Loaf’, the magazine of the Real Bread Campaign, Penny Williams of the Artisan Bakery School, highlights the importance of long fermentation of proper bread, but also looks at the issue of wheat varieties and how they may affect digestibility. She quotes a 2011 Indian study2 and concern about a potential “impending epidemic” of coeliac and other wheat protein related issues as India transitions from older diploid and tetraploid wheats to hexaploid wheats, notably modern strains of Triticum aestivum. She goes on to quote a 2010 study3 that looks at a broad selection of wheat varieties, with an eye to their “antigenic gliadins” – that is, the gluten proteins that may be responsible for “triggering autoimmune response in people with coeliac disease.”

“The findings suggest,” she writes, “that modern wheat breeding practices may have led to an incresed exposure to these coeliac ‘trigger’ proteins. While they also identified a few modern wheat varieties that had relatively low levels of antigenic proteins… I question whether tinkering with modern wheat is really the right direction to be going in.”

Less tinkered with
I would have to agree with that. Although I can’t really entirely avoid using modern wheat as I like to made cakes and enriched breads that rely on white flours too much, and these are hard4 to replace with older wheats.

I do at least try to use older wheat varieties in my wholesome bread experiments. And while spelt may be hexaploid, it’s a lot less tinkered with than modern, industrially cultivated and processed bread wheat. Especially as I’ve been lucky enough to find an experienced organic grower so close to home in the form of Toos. Next time I see her I’ll have to ask if she’s growing any emmer or einkorn.

So anyway. This was my 100% (or 99.5%) spelt loaf.

Spelt loaf 2

500g wholegrain spelt flour, nice and branny
340g water
10g fresh yeast
10g salt
50g wheat leaven, 100% hydration

This wasn’t a proper recipe. I just made a sponge, or pre-ferment, with 250g of the spelt flour, the 340g of water and the 10g of yeast in the evening and left it overnight. I wasn’t planning to use any sourdough leaven, but was playing around with it in the morning, so just chucked a bit into the sponge. I then added the rest of the flour and the salt and formed a dough. Did the on-and-off easy knead thing, let it prove up, formed a ball, gave it a final prove, then baked it the hot Le Creuset (like this bread), spraying some water onto the top crust before putting the lid on, resulting in a shiny floury glaze.

It wasn’t my best loaf in terms of the crumb – it’s crumbly and a bit underbaked – but boy did it taste good. The 100% wholegrain spelt flour just had a nuttiness and depth of flavour that’s more pronounced than the breads I’ve been making recently with the Sussex Red wholegrain flour (from Barlow, a modern wheat variety). As I do long fermentations, and avoid foul industrial wheat-based products (white sliced “bread” etc), I don’t suffer from negative reactions to “antigenic gliadians” etc, but I suspect even if I did, this spelt bread would be perfectly digestible.

 

Footnotes
1. By which I mean selective cultivation, over many centuries, but especially accelerated since the so-called Green Revolution of the 1960s when new strains of various crops with higher yields were developed. Higher yields but, we know now, potentially higher environmental repurcussions, due to their heavy reliance on chemical fertilisers, pesticides etc. So not really very “green” in the modern, sustainability sense.

1. ‘Celiac disease: can we avert the impending epidemic in India?’

2. ‘Presence of celiac disease epitopes in modern and old hexaploid wheat varieties: wheat breeding may have contributed to increased prevalence of celiac disease.’

3. Hard, but not necessarily impossible. It’ll just be a lifelong challenge to revise favourite recipes etc so they work with these more earnest, properly old-school wheat varieties.

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Le Creuset-baked sourdough

Sourdough baked in Le Creset, straight out of the oven

This is a technique I’ve been wanting to try for ages. Since last year, in fact, when still living in Rome. There, I encountered the blog of another ex-pat baking enthusiast, Krumkaker. She made several of her loaves in a casserole dish. It’s also a technique demonstrated by the ever-enthusiastic Vincent Talleu here.

I didn’t have my Le Creuset, or similar, with me while living in Rome, but now I’m home, I’ve found it. (Though we’ve lost a load of other baking kit in our double move. Particularly sad is the loss of an Eiffel Tower-shaped cake mould Fran bought in Paris with our dearly missed late friend Sara.)

Anyway. I’m not sure baking in a cast iron casserole, or Dutch oven, or Le Creuset, is a Scandinavian technique. It’s likely something that just evolved before Europeans had ovens, and would bake in pots, initially earthenware.

Cracks

On the road
The only other time I baked in a Dutch oven was in New Zealand, 1989, when I was on the road with my old friend Stephen McGrath, his Clydesdale horses and an elaborate caravan of wagons and carts. I made an enormous, heavy-duty loaf in a massive Dutch oven, baking it in the embers of our campfire.

Me driving wagon through Westport, New Zealand, 1989

The logic of baking in a casserole dish is that the cast iron is not only nice and hot – you preheat it – it also traps the moisture of the dough, effectively steaming the bread as it bakes.

Steam is how you get a crisp crust on bread, and can be difficult to create in a domestic oven. Professional baking ovens have steam injectors, but domestic techniques using misting sprays or trays of water are never quite as good. I can’t remember the qualities of my campfire loaf all those years ago (25!!!), but certainly this loaf has a lovely crust – though it wasn’t the crispest I’ve managed over the years in a domestic oven.

It also has a very satisfying shape, and the dish constrains any dough flow if I hadn’t moulded the ball well enough. (I hate it when I make a round free-form loaf, forming the dough into a ball, then it flows out into a discuss shape when it take it out of the proving basket; shaping nice tight balls can be surprisingly tricky.)

My leaven / sourdough starter, healthy again

Rude health
This loaf is also my first sourdough for a while. Although I’ve been making most of my own bread since we got back to England at Christmas, I’ve been neglecting my leaven somewhat.

Now about five years old, my leaven is well-travelled and much changed. It was born in London, then moved to Sussex, then it moved to Italy with us. There, it was fed on many and varied Italian flours – wheat, rye and various things referred to by the much misunderstood term farro.

Then it moved back to Britain. And I abandoned it for a few months. While we visited friends and family in the US and NZ, the sourdough lodged with my mother. Who’s a great cook, but not a bread-maker – she’s doesn’t make bread with easy yeast, let alone have any experience with sourdough.

So the past few months I’ve been nursing it back to health. I fed it rye, and local stoneground wheat flour, and filtered water. Finally I introduced some other leaven, from third generation baker Michael Hanson of The Hearth in Lewes. This could be seen as cheating, but I see it more like a kind of marriage. The yeasts and bacteria in my (puny) leaven mixing with those in Michael’s leaven. And after weeks of TLC, it’s finally back in rude health.

Mad science
As with much of my bread-making, this is kinda experimental, not a recipe as such.

I made a sponge with:
300g water
80g wholewheat leaven (at 100% hydration)
200g strong white bread flour
All mixed together, and left, covered with a shower cap – another technique I learned from Krumkaker.

I left it all day, for about seven hours, while I went off and worked in The Hearth.

In the evening, I made up a dough, with a further:
100g white bread flour
150g wholemeal wheat flour
10g salt.

I gave it a short knead, formed a ball, then let it rest for about 10 minutes. I then gave it another short knead, another 10 minute rest, and repeated this a few more times. I then left it an hour, at room temp (about 18C). I then gave it a fold then put it back in the bowl, covered it, and left it in the fridge overnight (4C).

Dough

In the morning, I gave it another fold, resting it at room temp for another hour, then formed a ball, rested it 10 minutes, tightened up the ball, then put it in a basked and gave it a final prove in the airing cupboard (about 24C).

Final prove

I then preheated the oven to 250C, with the Le Creuset inside. After about 20 minutes, with the oven at heat, I turned the well-floured dough out of the proving basket and dropped it into the hot dish – taking care not to roast my knuckles. I didn’t slash the top –  because I wanted to see how it cracked. Or because I forgot.

Before baking

The lid went back on and I baked it for about 25 minutes at 220C. I then took off the lid, dropped the temperature again to 200C, and baked for another 20 minutes or so.

Cut

The results were good. The crust is more chewy than crisp, the crumb soft and moist. We had some for dinner, when I did wood pigeon breasts with a pancetta, thyme and juniper berry red wine sauce. We didn’t eat all the meat, so Fran used the leftovers for a sandwich for work, with a smear of wild garlic sauce. I bet no one else had that posh flavour combo sarnie* for their work lunch today.

Sandwich

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* Any US readers, “sarnie” is British English – possibly even English English – slang for sandwich.

 

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