The bread project is moving on to the next stage. Sourdough is on the agenda. Sourdough is the aristocrat of the artisanal bread world. It is the high status loaf towards which my bread making books are trying to lead me. Make your simple, yeast raised bread if you must, they say, but the real deal, the true, digestible, trophy loaf to which you should aspire is sourdough, bread leavened only by the natural organisms found in the grain.
For four days I had a bowl of rye sourdough starter tucked in the corner on top of the Aga. On Day One I added 25 grammes of rye flour and 50 grammes of water. The Systems Administrator looked at it doubtfully and asked whether I had anything that needed flour-and-water-pasting. On Day Two I fed it with another 25 grammes of flour and more water. On Day Three I forgot about it until really late in the evening before feeding it. On Day Four I fed it again. It was like having another pet, albeit a small, unresponsive one that didn't do much, like a hamster that spends all its time hidden under its bedding or asleep. Then the rye starter went into the fridge while I finished my weekend's work, and stayed there yesterday because I had to be in Chelmsford by half past seven for a woodland talk, and was reluctant to have an unfamiliar bread recipe in mid-flow at the point where I needed to go out.
It's not that I like rye bread particularly. I find the taste rather strong and the dense texture rather heavy going. One small, thin slice spread with smoked salmon about two or three times a year more or less satisfies my desire for rye bread. But I had a vague feeling that I'd read that rye starter was easier to manage than wheat, and the book (I'm still with Andrew Whitley on this one) said that it could be used to start a wheat based loaf.
Today was the day ordained for bread making. In a way it was a wasted opportunity, what with it being sunny and not raining (I fed the bees again before starting on the bread, and all four boxes still had bees in them). However, I'm out tomorrow, and wanted to try doing something with the starter before it had lingered too long in the fridge. I decided to embark on what Andrew Whitley calls a Cromarty Cob, which contains a mixture of wholemeal flour, strong white flour and some plain white. He first came up with the recipe while running a bread making course in Cromarty. Stage one is to make a production leaven. You add more water and more flour to some of your starter, and leave it for several hours, during which time it is supposed to increase noticeably in size.
I weighed the ingredients carefully, so unless I misread the scales or turned over two pages of the book at once (which has been known) I was following instructions. The production leaven was sticky. Very sticky. Elasticated gloops of bread stuck to both hands and the bowl. I realised I needed a spatula, and got smears of raw dough on the drawer handle pulling one out, then more streaks of dough on the handle of the spatula, then used the spatula to try and clean gloop off the sides of the bowl and my hands. Once it had got as close to a reasonably firm dough (sic) as it seemed willing to do, I stopped stirring it about The surface was puckered and glistening. I covered it with clingfilm and left in on a cooling rack over the Aga warming plate to start rising. It gradually spread out into a puddle that filled the bottom of the bowl.
The book said I was to use the production leaven before it began to sink again. I was not even sure whether it had risen as much as it was supposed to, but after it had been fermenting for the entire morning I thought it was time to move on to the next stage. Make the dough using all the ingredients except the production leaven, the book said, knead it and then add the leaven. Oh good, I now had two bowls on the go. Sourdough is obviously calculated to appeal to washing-up fetishists. I weighed the ingredients for the dough carefully, was surprised by the instruction to use 300 grammes of water for a total of only 400 grammes of flour, but went with the book. The dough was wet. Really seriously, stickily wet. Much stickier than the production leaven had been. I stirred it around with my hands, wondering whether the flour would gradually absorb the water, as I had a vague memory of the dough doing during kneading the only time I tried ciabatta. It didn't, not so you'd notice. I tried to follow the instruction to knead it until I could feel the gluten structure developing. I wondered whether to add more flour, but the books all caution against doing that just because you don't like having sticky hands. I was sure that one of them even said Wet is Good. I repeated this mantra to myself for several minutes while clawing at the mass of flour and water, then decided that the gluten was developed enough, and mixed the dough with the production leaven. The combination was slightly silky, but still very sticky.
The next instruction was to leave the dough on a wet work surface for an hour, covered by a bowl with a wet rim, to allow the gluten to relax. I thought that the gluten might be relaxing, but I wasn't. I used the pastry board and a third bowl, scraping as much of the dough out of the second bowl with the spatula as I could. A lot remained behind. While the gluten was relaxing I started trying to clean the first two bowls, remembering to use my hands and not the washing up brush. Picking the slimy gobbets of wet dough out of a washing up brush that has been used to scrub a bowl containing flour and water paste is not to be recommended. The dough spread itself out inside the upturned bowl, and pressed against the sides like a slug on a window pane.
After the hour was up I was supposed to stretch the dough, then fold in back on itself, and do this along each side of the dough. The dough would stretch and fold, up to a point, and did end up somewhat taller and less flattened and pancake-like than before, but it was quite unwilling to part company with the pastry board. It was so soft that when I tried to pick it up, bits spilled over the sides of my hands while other bits stayed stuck to the work surface. I decided it was a moot point which side of the dough was the least rough, and dumped the squishy lump in the proving basket. Not that I have a proving basket. It was only when I read in the middle of the recipe that from this point I should follow the instructions for a French country loaf on page 184 that I realised that I needed one. The books was discouraging about using a colander lined with a tea towel, saying that condensation from the dough was likely to make it stick. I thought that a colander was about as good as it was going to get, then remembered the large plastic sieve I use for filtering honey. It is shaped like a hollow bowl, and if the perforations allow honey to drip through then I'm sure condensation can do likewise.
I was supposed to have dipped my loaf in a bowl of wholemeal flour, but since I couldn't pick it up I had to sprinkle the tea towel liberally with flour, plop the dough on it, and then sprinkle the rest of the dough. If it has not stuck to the tea towel I shall be amazed. I was about to offer to eat the tea towel, but remembered the SA's story of an overheard conversation between some Irishman at Cheltenham. As the horse that one of them had backed came charging up to the home straight in the lead, its backer swore that if it didn't win he would eat his hat. It was overtaken in the final furlongs. The Irishman's friend turned to him and enquired 'Would you be wanting sauce with that?'.
The bread seemed to take a long time to rise. I wasn't sure how large it should look when it had risen as much as it was going to. With a loaf in a tin you have a benchmark, and if the proving dough reaches the top of the tin you have an idea of how much it's expanded. A lump of gloop in a tea towel in a plastic sieve is more difficult to judge.
By eight it looked larger than it had been, but I had no idea whether it had done enough. However, I had done enough for one day, and was ready to serve dinner. I put the in the fridge, where it sat in a quivering, faintly oppressive mass, and will inspect it in the morning. I once left some non-doing milk rolls overnight in the fridge to see what would happen, and they rose beautifully in the night.
TO BE CONTINUED.