Give Us This Day

I mentioned last month that I had been getting into baking, particularly sourdough baking, with the qualification that I was pretty new to the whole game – I didn’t, then, feel qualified to offer up any kind of recipe, as all I’d been doing was following other people’s. Well, I’ve made quite a bit of bread since then, with varying degrees of success, and have hit upon a method which seems to work for me. I am in no way claiming this as ‘my’ recipe – I have strong feelings about that sort of claim – but rather a set of minor variations and techniques, suited to my own particular cirmcumstances. It is basically the (handmade, home-baking) techniques of Dan Lepard applied to the (professional standard) recipe of Justin Gellatly.

A few disclaimers – yes, you will need your own sourdough starter, and no, I am not going to tell you how to make it; it is time-consuming, but easy, and you can find a recipe online. Once you’ve done that, the bread still takes two days to make, and probably doesn’t work out much cheaper (certainly not if you value your time) than buying it. That’s not really the point, though. It is deeply satisfying, and freshly-baked sourdough is incredibly delicious. With all that in mind, I find it odd how many baking recipes insist on electric mixers, proving baskets, and so forth – the whole thing’s intimidating enough as it is. Other than the starter, this recipe requires nothing more specialist than your hands and some bowls.

I know all the resting seems like a pain in the arse, but it does make everything much easier. This is a recipe for a lazy, pottering day at home.

 

SOURDOUGH

400g strong white flour

50g strong brown flour

50g rye flour (this mix, as used by Gellatly, gives a great taste, and a satisfying, workable texture to the dough.)

200g sourdough starter

2 big, multi-fingered pinches of salt

300ml water

a little sprinkle of polenta

a splash of oil

extra flour of some kind, for sprinkling

In a bowl, mix together the flours, starter, and water, then stir in the salt until well combined. Oil your work surface; oil your hands, and with them, oil the surface of the dough, which will be quite wet. Turn it out onto the oiled surface, and knead briefly, in ten fluid movements. Oil the bowl and scrape the dough back in. Leave it to rest for ten minutes. Repeat this knead and rest twice more. It should now be fairly pliable and dry.

Now wash, dry and flour your work surface; turn the dough out onto it, lightly flour, then pat out into a rectangle. Fold the top third of this towards you, and the bottom third over that, like a letter. Do the same lengthways, left-hand third over, and right-hand third over that. Flip over, onto the fold, dust with flour, and cover. Leave for an hour. Repeat this for the next three hours.

This process, tedious as it may seem, it what starts the process of fermentation and rising in your loaf. Don’t try to rush it, don’t try and kick-start it by putting it somewhere warm. Sourdough yeast is not the same as commercial yeast, and won’t be hurried along. At the end of the three hours, take a sharp knife and make a deep slash in the unfolded side of the dough – you should see lots of little bubbles within it, like a Wispa. If not, leave for half an hour or so and try again.

When happy with the bubbles, roll your dough into a nice tight ball. Heavily flour a tea towel, then use it to line a nice deep bowl, a bit bigger than the dough. This is your proving basket. Place the ball of dough in it, fold over the rest of the tea towel, and put in the fridge overnight. Yes, overnight. I told you it won’t be rushed.

Next morning, take it out of the fridge, reshape into a ball, and put back in the bowl. Leave at room temperature until roughly doubled in size. This will take at least 3-4 hours, but at least you can get on with something else now. When you’re sure it’s ready (I can never remember how big the damn thing was in the first place; I had to start measuring it against the bowl), preheat the oven to Gas 7/220C/425F. Hot, basically. Sprinkle a tray with polenta, turn the loaf out onto it, and neatly slash the top in a circle or square. THIS IS NOT JUST FOR DECORATION. It will rise weirdly, and won’t have that distinct, chewy crust, if you forget to slash it. Use a good, sharp knife, and cut like you mean it.

Open the oven, put in the tray, and splash or spray a little water on the oven floor, closing the door immediately. This, again, is for the crust. Bake for half an hour, then take off the tray, put directly on the oven shelf, and bake for ten minutes more. Turn it down a little if it’s colouring too much. Tap the bottom of the loaf; if it sounds hollow, it’s ready. Cool at least slightly on a rack before devouring.

Sour Soup

The thing about being a chef is never having any free time. A normal working day is at least 13 hours long, not including the necessary wind down into drunkenness after a busy service; days off are spent either catching up on normal life (shopping, laundry, friendships) or else in full recovery mode. This is tolerated because of the mix of monomania and bloody-minded machismo that fuels most kitchens. The majority of chefs are either totally obsessed with food, to the exclusion of all other interests, or else in love with the camaraderie that comes from working long hours in close proximity, masochistically driven to work harder, longer, better. Or both.

 

The problem, for me, was that working full time in a kitchen didn’t give me the chance to indulge my love of food. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it – I contributed to the menu, and had carte blanche when it came to specials, so it’s not like I was ‘creatively stifled’- but the pace and demands of a busy kitchen meant I had no time to try longer projects. I was getting more interested in older, slower processes, in pickling and fermentation and salting and curing, and there was no way I could do that. I couldn’t start making something that would be ready in 5 days, a week, 2 months – it was busy now!

 

Unsurprisingly, then, when I quit to concentrate on freelance catering and popups, I got into preserving straight away. I’ve written before about pickling, and I’ve done a fair bit of smoking and salting, but the most satisfying thing for me has been cultivating a sourdough mother. I’ve always wanted to do this since reading about the psychotic baker Adam in Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential,(“Feed the bitch! Feed the bitch or she’ll die!”) and even more since reading the St John and Justin Gellatly cookbooks, but it always seemed too complicated and time-consuming. Well, I’ve got loads of time now, and it turns out to be not that complicated at all. You just have to treat it like a little pet.

 

I’m not going to go through the actual process of creating the mother – I just followed Gellatly’s recipe, swapping grapes for the rhubarb and adding a little live yoghurt – nor give any recipes for bread, as I can’t pretend to be anything other than an enthusiastic amateur. I will, however, give you an answer to the question “what else can I do with this weird pet bacterial culture?” It’s a good question. It takes quite a lot of motivation and time to make sourdough every day. You can leave your mother in the fridge to go dormant, but that seems a little dull. Luckily, a Pole of my acquaintance pointed me in the direction of this rather odd soup.

 

ZUREK (SOUR RYE SOUP)

This is weird, and needs judicious seasoning. If you like the tangy taste of rye bread, though, this is delicious, warm and filling. Serves four.

You’ll need to feed your starter some rye flour the day before.

VEGETABLE BROTH

2 onions, diced

2 sticks of celery, sliced

2 carrots, quartered

2 cloves of garlic, peeled

a few juniper berries

a few peppercorns

a few bay leaves

Put everything in a pan, and cover with water (a litre or thereabouts). Bring to the boil, and simmer for about an hour. Strain and discard the vegetables, which have done their job.

SOUP

About 150g sourdough starter

the broth

2 tbpsn of chopped fresh marjoram or oregano, or 1 of dried

A big dollop of sour cream

extras

Just whisk the starter into the broth while heating gently, until it comes to a nice simmer. Leave it for about 5 minutes, then add the herbs and your extras. This being Polish food, these should definitely include some sausage – raw smoked sausage, sliced and then boiled in the soup, ideally, although I used Mattessons smoked sausage (sorry, all Poles) – and maybe some bacon too. Any sort of cured pig, in fact, would be good, a savoury hit to counteract the sourness. Hard-boiled eggs and diced boiled potatoes are usual, I think, although the soup is already quite heavy. Greens, cabbage, some parsley, whatever. When you’re done, stir in the sour cream, heat, but DON’T BOIL AGAIN. It’ll split. Season well with salt and plenty of pepper. Serve with beer, pickles, and rye bread.