Monday, 20 April 2009
The smell of freshly baked bread
Up till last week I never did a lot of bread baking, as I am never satisfied with the results. It always comes out too dense and you have to eat it as it comes out of the oven – I’ve found my own homemade bread becomes stale before the day is even out. Once I became inspired by reading about bread baked the old fashioned way with a sourdough starter instead of commercial instant yeast. I set out to culture my own starter, with a recipe off the net, but failed. Recently I mentioned my desire to make my own sourdough starter at a braai. Most of the guests looked at me as if I am mad, but the hostess got very excited and said she has a book with instructions which she will borrow me provided that I give her a piece of my starter should I succeed. The book – “The Village Baker - Classic Regional Breads from Europe and America” by Joe Ortiz proved to be a treasure. This guy and his wife own a bakery in California. His mission was to produce very good quality breads, so he visited so called Village Bakers all over France, Italy and Germany to see how they do it. This book has cleared up the mystery of bread making and baking to me to a very large extent. Last week Thursday I have started a new sourdough starter, and so far it seems successful. I should be able to bake with it by tomorrow. With a sourdough starter the aim is to capture natural wild yeast in the air into a mixture of water and flour. This starter can then be used as a leavening agent instead of commercial yeast. It is a slow process though. The method I am trying this time calls for ¼ cup of flour to be mixed with 2 tablespoons of water. This is achieved by making a well in the middle of a small mound of flour and pouring the water into that. The flour is then mixed into the well slowly with your fingers. The result will be a firm dough which should then be kneaded for about 8 mins. One should then end up with a little dough ball the size of a walnut. This is then put in a small bowl, covered with a damp cloth and left in a warm draft-free place. After 2-3 days a crust will have formed, which if removed reveals that the dough has started bubbling and will smell slightly acidic. Without going in to much detail, this is then refreshed twice (every time a couple of days apart) with increasing amounts of water and flour till you are left with a cup or more of the starter which should be sufficient for an ordinary loaf. It is not necessary go through this every time, just keep some of the starter and refresh it (daily if you leave it in a warm place and weekly if you keep it in the fridge). In the meanwhile, I have started to experience with other methods, like the direct method with instant yeast as well as the ‘sponge’ method. I made these Hot Cross Buns from a kit sold by Woolworths. Lamb got it as a gift – but I couldn’t see her making it. The enclosed recipe and ingredients called for using the direct yeast method. This means one adds a sachet of instant yeast to the ingredients and knead it till it forms a dough and let it rise (prove) once. The smell from the oven whilst baking was indescribable. They were very nice straight from the oven, but were totally stale the next day. Here I tried baguettes using the sponge method (the one looks like a turkey drumstick or a club though). With the sponge method one use a lot less instant yeast than is called for in a recipe. The first step then is to create a ‘sponge’ by mixing about half the amount of yeast ordinarily required with flour and water to end up with something the consistency of pancake batter. It is then left in a bowl covered with a damp cloth (somewhere warm out of any draughts) 4-6 hours till the mixture has first tripled in volume and then fallen back on itself. The rest of the flour and water, salt etc. as required by the recipe is then added and left to prove for another 2 hours again. After this second rising the dough is knocked back and left for half an hour. The loaves can now be formed, put on a baking tray and left to relax for 15 mins. The baguettes only bake 15 – 20 mins in a hot oven. I tried one of the tips in the book, which is to put the dough in the fridge instead of a warm place for it to prove and rise much slower (up to 12 hours). A much more interesting texture can be created this way, and wow did it work. Inside the loafs were full of irregular large holes and it was chewy and delicious just as one expect from a rustic French loaf. Although the sourdough bread is my aim, I started experimenting with more common methods in order to start practicing the kneading and all the other steps & techniques in baking bread. With Joe Ortiz’s book as my companion, I learned quite a lot – stuff that as I have said, was quite a mystery to me before. Now I cannot wait for tomorrow, so I can try out the sourdough starter which I cultured myself.