I have been making Bread recently something that I do fairly regularly, but usually I cheat a bit because I use a bread machine to knead the dough which I then finish by hand. Unfortunately my machine recently died of old age
I have always enjoyed making bread and by following a few basic principles you can generally produce something superior to most bought breads.
I think my enjoyment of bread making and cooking was inspired at least in part by my mother who was an excellent cook capable of making something out of nothing and to have people coming back for more. I think her cooking and therefore bread making was driven by financial necessity (flour was cheaper than bread) but also I think she enjoyed her cooking and then the enthusiasm which her five children would devour her efforts.
My brother Paul became the cook/baker under her guidance as he displayed some active interest and he had the lightness of touch necessary for baking. Mum would often get him to do the pastry if she was making pies, and eventually Paul went on to a successful career as a chef in the army. I however tended to confine my activities to consumption, Mum was a dab hand at making egg custard tarts eventually she learnt to make two, one for me and one for everyone else! Comfort food from my childhood.
The baker’s in Nouan Les Fontaines one of our nearest villages is excellent and traditional, correct is how it would be described in France and we have a regular bread order that is normally short of our weekly needs, the rest is usually made up by what we make ourselves.
Given that I was going to have to make at least some of my daily bread by hand I thought I would finally get round to making some sourdough bread something I have wanted to do but never got round too. Sourdough baking is of course the most traditional form of bread making and produces an excellent loaf with a full slightly sour flavour created by the more acidic wild yeasts compared to a commercial bread yeast. Wild yeasts are present all around us, in the air, in the flour, everywhere. The yeasts are complex and varied and contribute to making a full flavoured bread, quite different to the greyhound pure breed nature of commercial bread yeast. Sourdough bread also has excellent keeping qualities as the higher acid content resists mould growth. On the down side it does require more care and attention, the starter needs regular nurturing and the proving process is much slower requiring the starter, the creation of a ‘sponge’ and a longer rising time.
The use of sourdough is still very common in traditional French bakers, the English began to use specialist bread yeast back in Victorian times but the French stayed with their ale/beer based yeasts, using a bread making process identical to today’s sourdough method, the sponge is termed the levain and any good quality bakers will still produce a ‘Pain Campagne’ using the old process.
In this post I won’t give the recipe for sourdough bread but you can find one here I will however offer my observations and comments on the process.
Making the Starter
Making the starter is very simple combining a 100gms of wholemeal flour and some water and refreshing daily. Apparently it takes a few days, it took me a week, lots of interesting smells but not a lot frothy working. Then overnight the mix burst into life overflowing it’s small bowl.
Making the sponge
The making the sponge is pretty easy apart from organising and motivating myself to get it done late at night
Making and Kneading the Dough
The mix is sticker than a conventional dough but will produce a softer crumb, however kneading is a messier business as you knead the dough firms up, but at the start its a sticky business. Having a scraper handy to get the dough of the table helped to restrict the amount of additional flour required when kneading.
Kneading requires a firm hand, but not an aggressive one, the objective is to stretch the dough not to just push it around the table, the photo below illustrates my point.
Knock back and more patience.
Into the Oven
A few things here. Slash the loaves, not to deep but enough to let them spring forth.
The oven needs to be hot, not mark 7 etc but the top of the dial. Pop a tray of boiling water into the oven 5 minutes before the dough, put the dough in and spray with a water bottle and repeat again a couple of times at 5 minute intervals. Professional bakers use steam ovens and you are trying to create a similar environment, the steam slows the creation of the crust and therefore enables a bigger rise.
After 10 minutes turn the oven down to hot – medium hot until done. Leave for at least 20 minutes as the bread will continue to cook.
Sounds like a lot of work but really it isn’t, mostly it’s waiting for nature to take it’s course with short bursts of activity.
Sourdough bread making is (as I have already said) probably the most traditional form of baking, in older times the starter would be split and a part would be given to a newly married daughter for bread making in her new home (I’m sure a few sons got some as well!). My mother didn’t have a sourdough starter but she did pass on a love of cooking and food, a love probably passed to her by her own mother and now shared by my brothers and sister, traditional food can be about attitudes as much as recipes.