I’m back from my holidays, and after two weeks in Thailand and Cambodia I return no more tanned (monsoon season is not the time to go if seeking sun) although slightly burnt after falling asleep on a sunbed on the one day we did receive sun; depleted of blood from the number of mosquitoes that feasted on me (though malaria free, we hope), and annoyingly, without any new exotic spices or ingredients to add to my cupboard (they had to be binned when a jar of massaman curry paste exploded in my bag, also resulting in the clothes on the right side of my bag smelling vaguely of curry).
Despite this, it was great. I won’t bore you by writing about what I learned/experienced/saw/ate on my travels, as no one actually enjoys looking through other people’s holiday snaps. All I’ll say is that a) the crisp selection in Thailand is superior to any other country on the planet, particularly their range of fish/shellfish based snacks which make your breath smell like you’ve consumed a dead animal (which you have, but not the rotting, festering remains of the animal your breath would suggest), b) temple skirts are the sweatiest and most restrictive items of clothing, particularly when you forgot about the dress code and had to wrap it over the dress you were already wearing, and c) don’t opt for ‘Asian vegetarian’ as your in-flight meal because you think it will be more ‘authentic’; I sat through 26 hours worth of flights being served nothing but curried chickpeas. That’s 8 meals of curried chickpeas accompanied by a combination of rice, chapati, curried potatoes and, most appetisingly, squished into a roll with peas. Ironically, peas were the only vegetable present in the Asian vegetarian meal rota.
But anyway, I said I wouldn’t talk about holidays (though above I’ve included a small slideshow of our favourite snaps which should sum up our holiday nicely). I’m here to talk about something much more momentous. What you’ve been waiting for what feels like months for (probably because it has been months, I hope no one’s been following each of my steps to sourdough as I write them, otherwise I feel your starter may be quite dead by now). The birth of Keith (‘who’s Keith? Oh god, you’re still going on about him’) into not one, but two, glorious, rotund little loaves. And I got virtually every step in the instructions a bit wrong. So, read on for how to make edible bread by not doing quite what you’re supposed to.
We begin where we left off, with our bubbling starter, woken from his slumber by having half of him dumped down the sink daily. I should mention here that after a few more days of regular feeding, I thought it was time we slowed Keith down a bit and preserve him for when I actually have time to bake with him – if baking bread every day it’s fine to feed him daily, but if like me, you bake only when you’re feeling particularly brave and can be bothered to clean up all the flour, you can store your starter in the fridge and reduce feeding to once a week.
I think the easiest way to explain the process of baking Keith is to first explain what you’re meant to do, and then explain what I decided to do instead when it turned out I’d read the recipe wrong. So, we began by taking a bleary-eyed Keith from the fridge and, as per usual, throwing half of him away. The remaining 50g or so of him was mixed with 200ml cool water, 100g strong white bread flour and 100ml wholemeal flour, making a leaven – this is only necessary when your starter isn’t particularly active at that moment. If you’d just fed your starter and he was churning out gas and expanding like fire extinguisher foam, you’re good to go. Making a leaven is like the equivalent of carbing up with a massive spag bol before a marathon.
I left the bloatingly full Keith on a table in the warmest room of the house (lid of jar on) for about 7/8 hours as instructed, until he was properly bubbly and about twice the size. Now we have a kind of supercharged starter, ready to mix with more flour, leave to prove, shape, leave to prove some more, get something in the proving wrong and have to prove some more, and finally, bake. At this point I’m struggling to draw any comparison with a real baby, as I’ve been doing in previous posts. There is no need to prove your baby. Leaving them for 12-16 hours covered in the fridge is not necessary, nor is it legal.
So with supercharged Keith, I measured out about 200g and plopped it into a bowl filled with 625ml warm water, carefully stirring to disperse him. I then added 300g wholegrain spelt flour, 700g white bread flour and 2tbsp olive oil, and stirred to combine into a wet dough. You don’t have to use these exact flours, but I’m not going to advise on what you can use – one of the main topics of conversation on Breadnet is the various combinations of flours and what effect they have on the crumb/structure/hydration/many other words I’m yet to fully understand (‘I used a 70% rye hybrid with the rest mixing spelt and sorghum with a 120% hydration’ etc.).
After leaving him for 20 minutes to hydrate and allow the flours to soak up some of the moisture, I added 50ml more water, some seeds and what should have been 25g salt. Unfortunately, I could only find rock salt, and so gave up after spending 20 minutes grinding rock salt with the salt grinder. This I feel was my biggest downfall. Always have table salt or fine sea salt to hand, or be smart enough to realise you have a perfectly good pestle and mortar in the cupboard which you could have used instead (this solution came to me in an epiphany as I was walking home from work the other day, a full month post-breadmaking). Salt is vital for the dough in terms of structure and flavour, so I blame this for my slightly denser than expected, slightly less tangy than expected loaves.
I then covered Superkeith will a tea towel and left him for four hours (two and a half hours my time), in a warm place, giving him a poke and a fold every half an hour or so. There are proper ways to fold your dough, but I preferred my technique of grabbing one side of him, pulling it to the other, attempting to make it stay in place and eventually giving up and covering him back up again. This worked fine, so save yourself the hassle of doing it properly.
After this, the book advises you to split your now-very-large dough into two, plopping them both into two proving baskets and leaving in the fridge for 12-16 hours. I didn’t read this bit, so I just shoved the whole thing in the fridge. This is most definitely a mistake, as the doughs need more space to rise. Don’t do as I did, and you’ll probably get perfectly light, airy bread. Do as I did, and you’ll get adequately light, airy bread, but dense enough for you to think ‘shit, I should have read the book’ to yourself as you bite into your third slice and need a lie down.
After this rise, we’re finally ready to bake. You may be thinking ‘9 hours, 20 minutes, 4 hours and then 16 hours – when do you sleep/do other things with your life?’ Well, I just about managed to shape this routine around my working day, but this definitely resulted in slightly warped timings which I think affected the bread. So the answer is to give yourself in to the bread making, and do absolutely nothing else for 24 hours. Sleep by it, eat by it, supervise it even when it’s doing absolutely nothing – like a real baby (this is the most accurate comparison I’ve drawn so far, because 90% of the time it’s really boring, but you still feel obliged to do it. Obliged is maybe the wrong word for looking after your own baby, but it definitely can’t be described as fun half the time, surely).
Heat your oven to the highest setting and put a big, lidded cassarole dish in to warm up. While heating, take your loaves out to warm up, slash the top with a sharp knife like you’ve seen them do on TV, and sprinkle with flour. When the casserole dish is up to temperature, carefully take it out and plop (there’s lots of plopping involved when making bread – I can’t think of a better adjective to describe the movement of dough from one vessel into another. Dumping maybe, or thlumping) one of the loaves into it, putting the lid back on and placing in the oven, turning the temperature down 10 or so degrees and baking for 25 minutes. After this, you take the lid off, turn the oven down another 10, and bake for 20 more minutes. Then you open the oven a crack, peer down at your against-all-odds perfectly crisped, aromatic, impressively tall loaf of sourdough, and you shed a tear.
No matter how dense it may be on the inside, or how much it may lack salt or any other particularly strong flavour, you have, from scratch, made an edible version of one of the oldest foods in the world, from nothing but flour and water. Keith, you did me very proud. My future children have very, very big shoes to fill.
Will I make a Keith mark 2 in the near future? No. Definitely not. I don’t quite feel fully recovered from the birth of my first sourdough, and you don’t get bread maternity leave. But I’m glad I did it, not only because it’s something I can perfect later on in life when I have the time to sit and watch over my dough 24/7, but also because I can now say I’ve done it. I have bread bragging rights, and that’s what matters.