Category Archives: bread

Me, Nigel the Starter, and our relationship advisors

I know, it’s cutesy, but after a year and a half I’ve decided my sourdough starter (based on Dan Lepard’s recipe in The Handmade Loaf), needed a name. Nigel has a personality of its own (yes, still an it, as its yeast and bacterial cells are genderless): fragrant and sometimes a bit sluggish, but it always provides a tasty loaf, even if I stray too far from advice and slap something together experiment.

My relationship with Nigel has also been assisted expertly with the support in real time of Dan, Azelia and Joanna, among others. They’ve helped me think about flours and other ingredients, proving, shaping, and slashing, about how to swaddle the dough in warm weather so that it doesn’t lose the will to grow strongly, and how to fit bread-baking in with my life rather than let it take the reins. They’ve provided fabulous examples for me to emulate. And most of all they’ve kept me from being discouraged by the mistaken belief that I simply lack the chops to make beautiful, delicious bread. Lots of other folks, too, provide encouraging oohs, aahs, RTs and Likes when I send pics around on Twitter and Facebook, and my husband Andrew happily eats everything that comes out of the oven.

Nigel has expressed interest in travelling and its offspring have flown as far as Tilburg, The Netherlands, where they’ve set up housekeeping with future celebrity chef Luc. It’s possible it’s now travelled as far as Toronto; I’m waiting for an update from one of its guardians.

It turns out baking is not so much about chops, at least in any inherited sense; it’s about passion, persistence, luck (occasionally) and knowledge. See? I can do this! (After the pics, I’ll share my recipe.)

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This recipe combines features of two others that I love: Dan Lepard’s Crusty Potato Bread from The Handmade Loaf, and Pain de Campagne from William Alexander’s 52 Loaves (a terrific read about the quest for the perfect sourdough loaf). The key elements are, from Dan’s, honey and some grated potato, as well as Dan’s standard kneading-and-resting method, and from the other, mostly strong white flour with a bit of wholemeal and rye, and a smidge of yeast. Flour geeks: would you believe the spring these got from Hovis extra-strong *British* flour? I had no idea!

My only regret with the loaves above was that after shaping I refrigerated them on baking paper atop a baking sheet (I must’ve been thinking of bagels) and the baking paper stuck. Fortunately I was able to scrape the dough off the paper without deflating it, and dough held its shape for the rise, but with a wetter dough it would’ve been a huge mess. Next time, I’ll go back to the tried-and-true floured-cloth-in-a-bowl-or-basket method.

Sourdough Peasant Bread

200 g levain at about 90% hydration
1 1/2 tbsp honey
290 ml room-temperature water
400 g strong white flour
60 g wholemeal bread flour
30 g rye flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp yeast
small potato, scrubbed but not peeled, grated

Mix starter and honey in water. Weigh and combine flours, salt, and dry yeast. Add water-starter mix to flour and combine well, turning the mass onto a clean work surface if necessary to incorporate all the flour. Cover and set a timer for 10 min while you tidy up the kitchen or check Twitter. Knead/fold for 10-12 sec. Repeat 3 times.

Shape the (now smoother) mass into a ball and put in a lightly oiled bowl; cover with cling film. At this stage you can either leave it in a 20-25ºC kitchen until it’s grown in volume by about half, or put it in the fridge for longer.

Divide the bulk-proven dough into two halves and shape it. For this recipe my shapes approximated a batard and a slightly-off boule. Rub rye flour into a linen cloth to line a basket or bowl, and put the shaped dough in seam-side-up. Wrap loosely with cling film. Again, you can prove in the fridge overnight, or leave at room temperature for a couple of hours.

Preheat oven to 200ºC, for about 45 min if you are using a bread stone of some kind. Dust with flour, then slash with a sharp, cerrated knife to about 1 cm in depth. Bake until well-browned, about 40 min.

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Wholemeal Bread

For my first Short and Tweet effort I’m afraid I’m not breaking new ground. In fact, it’s not even that much of an effort as this is our regular loaf, and a fairly easy one at that. So I’m being a a bit lazy here. However, I will say that it’s a cracker – no it isn’t, it’s a bread! arf. – and it’s the loaf that decisively ended our Hovis habit. And when I’m busy/not in the mood/wanting to feel less of a hausfrau, the man of the house, who loves to eat but is not baking-obsessed, feels confident enough to make it without having to fear my control demons coming after him. Result!

So these pics are of a loaf we made together; I started and rose and shaped the dough, he floured, slashed and whacked it in the oven. Detail-wise, the recipe I use is actually Felicity Cloake’s ‘Perfect’ adaptation, which has about 15% white flour, and the knead timings are different to Dan’s book. Either way, it’s a great, pretty-much-unscrewuppable loaf.

Update: The collected results are in; check everyone’s loaves at the Short and Tweet site.

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Sometimes all the stars align

Yesterday afternoon, after shaping a batch of bagels in the morning, I had a good amount of revived starter left over, with a bit of rye flour thrown in for flavour and colour. After 30 hours out of the fridge it was looking even more boisterous, full of those gluten strings, and just asking to be made into a loaf of bread.

I hadn’t made anything yet from Dan Lepard’s Short and Sweet, and I’d noticed that Dan had included a few pages on sourdough, so I checked to see whether were any new recipes. There weren’t recipes per sé, but there was something better: encouragement to experiment. He suggested adding leaven to the Easy White Bread recipe and reducing the amount of water. I did that, tweaking a bit further with a tablespoon of honey and substituting 50 grams of spelt flour for strong white (Waitrose Canadian). After the usual knead/rest cycles, I let the ball of dough rise for a few hours, then just before bed I then shaped it into a batard per the method in The Handmade Loaf. Calling on my friend Joanna’s guidance, which she may not even remember offering, I left the shape for 10 minutes and then came back and did it over, managing to get tapered ends.

But would the shape hold up after proofing? I swaddled the dough in floured baking parchment and a tea towel, tucking it diagonally into a small roasting tin (that would fit in the fridge) with more folded tea towels in the other corners to support it, and then left it to chill overnight. In the morning, the unwrapped loaf from the fridge was still nicely proportioned and in no danger of slopping out to the sides. I whacked the oven on, putting in my trusty pastry and dough-shaping marble slab; it had never occurred to me that it would be a good baking stone after I banished my el cheapo pizza stone to the garden. I probably should’ve decided how long it needed to heat up and stuck to it, but I couldn’t wait; I think it was 25 minutes, or at least the time it took to eat cereal, read the front section of yesterday’s paper, and drink half a cup of coffee. I made two overlapping, slightly angled, 1/4″ slashes as for a baguette – again per Joanna’s guidance – with a sharp serrated knife as I can’t get lames and razor blades to work for me, sprayed the top of the loaf with water, and slid it on to the hot stone. Ten minutes in I regretted forgetting to sprinkle flour on top, but in the end I don’t think it matters.

Et voilà!

Above is the crumb. I left it a bit on the moist (but done) side, and then learned today from my friend Azelia‘s blog that in this state it can soften the crust – which it did. It’s fine, though: chewy.

Azelia also asked, today, what we like about sourdough. I like the solid, substantial texture it seems to have, and it would be ridiculous for me to speculate why that is, though I suspect one or more of my baking buddies can. And it just tastes good, though ‘sourdough’ is really, often, a misnomer. Sure, the sourdough they sell to tourists in the San Francisco airport is distinctly (to me, unpleasantly) tangy, but what I usually make from my starter, whatever the bread recipe, just tastes mouthfilling (how vague is that?) and holds up to a number of sandwich ingredients or spreads, and also toasts well.

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Semolina bread with sesame seeds

Fridge-retarded, fan oven-baked second loaf.

I first had a semolina flour-based bread encrusted with sesame seeds when I lived in Chapel Hill, NC, in the early ’90s, from a store soon bought by Whole Foods called Wellspring Grocery. (The less said about my feelings about Whole Foods the better.) Fast forward to 2007, to the New York Times/Bittman/Lahey no-knead bread craze, as a result of which I realized I could make decent bread after a lifetime of thinking I merely hadn’t inherited a gene for it. Not only was my bread decent, I found I could play around with the flours and the coatings and still succeed; sesame-semolina (the link takes you to my old, inactive food blog) was my first creative triumph with this loaf. It had a crisp yet tender crust, and a moist, tasty crumb.

And now, another 4 years later, Joanna of Zeb Bakes lays her hands on some proper Italian flour with a lovely name, semola di grano duro rimacinata – finely ground durum semolina flour, grabs a levain-based semolina bread recipe from Jeffrey Hamelman’s Bread, and produces the gorgeous loaf (as well as terrific ciabatta!) that you can see here.

As the kids say, I am so there. Forgive my crappy pics, and the fact that I cut into the loaf with a substandard knife, before it was completely cool. Joanna’s loaf has a nice, crusty ear to the slashes that mine didn’t, and while mine was rounded on the bottom, I wouldn’t say it had optimum spring. I think I have to blame this – again – on my thin <1 cm) pizza stone, which I swear stays at a lower temp than the rest of the oven; I get springier and more evenly cooked bread and pizza on an M&S nonstick tin. Tonight, I’m simply removing the damn thing. Anyway, the pics:

I should’ve taken a pic of the shaping and how I got the seeds on, but let’s see if I can describe it. After the bulk prove, I made a tight boule shape with the dough (half of it, putting aside the rest for another loaf). I spread out a tea towel on a baking sheet and sprinkled a generous, even layer of sesame seeds on it. Then I picked up the boule, cupping the bottom or seam side in my hand, and rolled the smooth, top side of the boule around on the seeds. I gathered up the boule and seeds in the tea towel and plopped the whole thing in a medium-sized mixing bowl, sprinkling and pressing more seeds around the seam side (still facing up). I left the whole thing in the bowl to prove, and covered the bowl with cling film.

We enjoyed half of the loaf with some spicy Moroccan vegetable stew with Merguez sausage; the bread was a nice change from couscous, which we never seem to finish.

The loaves above proved 2 hours. I have left the somewhat larger portion to prove overnight in the fridge, and I’ll bake that tomorrow morning; it’s intended for some friends we’re visiting over the weekend.

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Bagels, part 2

We’re getting close now. This recipe is worth trying, and making your own. Made with very strong flour and less water, they’re chewier inside, retaining a crispy crust when fresh. Relative to my earlier recipe, based on that of Jo Goldenberg of Paris, these are less sweet. I also tried malt syrup in the dough as well as in the water, and didn’t like the colour or flavour. So, plain old table sugar it is. In addition, these bagels need less yeast because they rise in the fridge overnight once shaped. This makes them easier to manage in the boiling process, and a slow ferment is always good for flavour.

And more on upping the chewy-factor: Normally, for pretty much any yeast bread, I use the Dan Lepard approach to kneading, i.e. 10 seconds of kneading followed by 10 seconds of rest, in three cycles. In this case, however, continuous, serious kneading seems to be necessary to maximize the gluten, possibly, too, because the dough is drier. So it’s a good recipe to make if you enjoy getting your back into it, as well as, eventually, your teeth.

Finally, it has some sourdough starter in it, mostly for taste, so it doesn’t have to be terribly active. My starter began with a couple of tablespoons of yoghurt for the bacteria. Whether or not that makes my bagels dairy, after many generations with no further yoghurt added, is a question for the rabbis, but there are perfectly good starters with no yoghurt in their history, too.

New York/Boston-style Bagels

450 g very strong white flour
150 g active sourdough starter
250 ml warm water
1/2 tsp dry yeast
2 Tbsp honey (or sugar)
2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp malt syrup (or sugar, or treacle) for boiling
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 egg white+1 Tbsp water for glaze

Toppings: poppy and sesame are most traditional; nigella, caraway seeds, onion or garlic bits and sea salt are other possibilities – or all of the above: the Everything Bagel.

Combine flour with dry yeast, sugar and salt; stir with a fork. Dissolve starter in warm water and add to flour mixture. Stir till combined and let rest for 10 minutes.

Turn dough out onto smooth surface and knead vigorously for 10 minutes. Dough should be on the dry side at this point. When dough is very smooth and springy, put it in a lightly greased bowl, cover and let rise until doubled in volume.

Divide risen dough into 8 or 10 equally sized pieces and form into tight ball shapes. Let these rest for 10 minutes, then form your bagels thus:

–       Roll a ball into a snake shape about 6 inches long, its ends somewhat tapered.
–       Wrap the middle of the snake around the tops of your fingers and pull and pinch the ends together between your thumb and fingers.
–       With the bagel still wrapped around your fingers, roll the joined bit back and forth on your work surface to seal the join.

Put the formed bagels on baking paper (parchment) on a baking sheet with at least half an inch between them. Cover securely but not tightly with cling film (plastic wrap) and refrigerate overnight.

In the morning, preheat oven to 210°C. Take the bagels out of the fridge and let them rest while you get set up for boiling, decorating and baking. They don’t have to be completely warmed up to be boiled, however. Now is a good time to mix your egg/water glaze and set up your seed toppings.

Set a medium-to-large pan to boiling. Add sweetener and bicarb. Once the water boils, turn it down until the surface is just barely moving. Add 2 or 3 bagels to the water, flip them after about half a minute, and continue to simmer for half a minute more. Scoop out and remove to a clean tea towel. Be gentle, as they will be quite soft at this point; a big slotted spoon is good for this task.

Brush the boiled bagels with egg glaze and sprinkle with seeds to taste.

Bake for about 25 minutes in the middle of the oven. About halfway through baking, flip the bagels over to prevent excessive flattening of one side.

Update: My friend Azélia gave me a hint on the sweetener: apparently honey improves the texture of the dough, and it seemed to be the case the last time I tried the recipe substituting it for sugar. They came out smoother and shinier. Malt syrup, used in some traditional recipes, apparently has the same function, but I found it gave the bagels a misleading brownish colour given that they were actually made with white flour, and anyway honey is something most people are more likely to have around the house.

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A mini-honeymoon in Amsterdam

I always thought that a proper honeymoon was supposed to involve beaches and sleeping in a lot. But then I also thought that weddings were supposed to involve big, white dresses, ice sculptures of swans, and family rows, and I knew we weren’t having any of that either, so why sign up for a stereotypical honeymoon? Amsterdam seemed interesting, was quick to fly to, and neither of us had been there – oh, and it was possible we might find something good to eat, even if it was just classic Old World bread and cheese. So, done.

As it turned out there was plenty of good stuff to eat. The Time Out guidebook offered an enticing hint: that there were substantial snacks to be had, so that you wouldn’t starve between meals. One dilemma was that I have really been trying to lose a bit of weight. One the one hand we were on holiday so a bit of indulgence seemed OK, but on the other I did find myself making mental notes of calories consumed versus hours walked. And walk we did, until our feet hurt, although lot of that walking involved tracking down recommended food stops. Well, that is who I am.

Houses on the edge of the Vondelpark. You know you want to live there.

Tuesday evening, after getting settled in our hotel and having a quick wander in the Vondelpark, we hopped a tram to the Pijp, where efforts at upward mobility clashed gently with bohemian coffeehouse and immigrant cultures. This was evident in stoned graffiti on building-site plywood – for example, “A city sodomized by tentacles of distrust” – across from a pedestrian-only block filled with a variety of relaxed natives and tourists scattered amongst sidewalk cafés. Here, we learned our first bit of food-Dutch: Vlaamse friet, or Belgian (Flemish) fries, on offer alongside falafel. Yes, please. The menu had a bit of Hebrew on it, so I asked the guy in front of us if it was an Israeli shop; he told us most of the falafel shops in Amsterdam were run by Indians and, sure enough, some of the salads in the falafel bar had a touch of cumin and coriander seed, not what you’d find in Tel Aviv. Good though. More difficult to figure out was the long list of friet toppings; I picked the one that seemed most likely to be mayo, and it was. A satisfying snack indeed; we never got around to dinner that night, but after much walking we did succumb in the hotel bar to a (bad) slice of ‘New York’ cheesecake, which they seemed a bit too eager to get rid of.

Typical shop in the Pijp.

Breakfast was not included in our hotel package, for which I was thankful; I tend to eat too much mediocre food, just because it’s there, blowing my calories much too early in the day. We noted a cheese shop near to the hotel with an offer of belegte broodje met koffie, filled rolls and coffee. What more do you need, really? I chickened out and ordered in English, though, too scared of making a mistake. The choices were old, young and mild cheese; we got a young and an old, and I’m afraid I didn’t write down the names. The coffee, by the way, although obviously not the focus of the shop, was spot on, as would be each of the subsequent cups we drank in Amsterdam. How do they do that?

We had a good chunk of time that morning to explore the city centre, the Dam (main square), the red light district (how could I not? I’m a public health professional after all) and the Oude Kerk, the old church – right smack in the middle of the red light district, and there’s even a statue of a sex worker on the grounds. A classy little bakery with pretty sweets and really good bread was a few steps away, and we stopped in for an almond-curl biscuit, amandelkrull – I got an approving nod from the baker for sounding out the word correctly. Result! OK, that was an easy one. How about koekje? Am I right in guessing that this should be pronounced, approximately, ‘cookie’? We didn’t spend as much time in patisseries scrutinising the koekjes as we should have. Given that each cup of coffee was accompanied by a different one, I suspect that there is a whole new world out there. Anyway, here’s a pic of the window of the bakery in the red-light district:

Let's call it Munchies Bakery, since I can't remember what it was really called.

While we shared our amandelkrull and drank coffee, a young American guy came in. The proprietor threw a wry, knowing (but not unkind) glance to his assistant that said ‘You want to take this one?’ American guy proceeded to order, rather passionately, a brownie and a slice of carrot cake, at 11 am. It seems the many cannabis coffeeshops in the area are good for business.

That afternoon, after a light, leisurely lunch back in the Vondelpark – it’s so easy to get around! – with a friend and her lovely twin babbies, we braved threatening skies and headed over to the Jewish History Museum. We walked via the somewhat disappointing flower market – mostly tourist souvenirs, at this point, and to be honest (eek, don’t hate me!) I don’t even like tulips all that much. But if I lived there, I might pick up a few perennials. Amazingly, though cannabis seeds were on sale everywhere, I don’t believe I saw any growing, anywhere. (Perhaps it’s grown indoors? I ask purely out of theoretical interest, honest.)

One thing we knew we wanted to try in Amsterdam was Indonesian food, which seems to take the place of Britain’s Indian restaurants, since Indonesia was for a long time a Dutch colony. Our friend referred us to Orient, a family-run business near the famous Concertgebouw and the big art museums. Wednesday was buffet night, which made it easy to try many dishes – the equivalent of a rijstaffel? I managed not to overeat, but I could have done quite happily.

Bloemenmarkt

We shared a fabulously buttery almond croissant, nabbed earlier in the day, on the way back to the hotel. Perfect.

Thursday morning rained buckets on Amsterdam, so it was a good day to hit the museums, but first, breakfast. We had to try Bagels and Beans, if only because it looked like an inviting place for a sit-down. The menu was great, the coffee was again lovely, and some American students were happy to share the shop’s wifi password with us. The only disappointment with the breakfast was, I’m afraid, with the bagels themselves. They lacked that boiled, chewy quality and were somehow a bit crumbly.

Never mind; we survived, and were fed, and braved the queues for the Rijksmuseum. Delftware, check; Old Masters, check (except for the Vermeers, which were in The Hague); celebration of faded imperial glory, check. Truly, though, we love old Rembrandt – he’s a Master for good reason – and it was exciting to experience his work in person.

For lunch Thursday we wandered around the canals in search of a recommended sandwich shop. The wander was worthwhile in itself, but when we got to the shop, there was truly nothing on the long, mostly meat menu I really wanted, and the bread was only just meh.

A Delft violin, with strings and all. I can only imagine it sounds pretty weird.

Andrew bought one and I abstemiously settled on tangy frozen yogurt with berries, in preparation for the inevitable afternoon attack of the friet. We sneakily borrowed a seat outside the yogurt shop where I made myself available to help Andrew consume the biggest, sloppiest sandwich we’d ever seen, a takeaway item that really should have come with its own table, plate, cutlery and napkins.

Which brings me to the topic of mayonnaise. I love the stuff, but not as much as the Dutch do. It’s everywhere! The supermarket deli/ready-meal section we visited had shelves and shelves of mostly mayo salads and sandwiches. As noted above it’s the default topping for friet. Where do they put it all? Why are Amsterdammers not fat? I can only assume it’s because they cycle everywhere.

I found something better than mayo, or even ketchup (another Indonesian word!), for friet. After circling back around to the Portuguese synagogue, which we hadn’t fit in the day before, I did indeed get drawn in by the ubiquitous friet. This time, though, on a hunch, I asked if one of the sauces on offer was peanut-flavoured and, sure enough, I got satay, a rich, dark, sweetish, slightly spicy sauce that was better than those particular friet to be honest.

I wish I’d gotten a larger portion, but it was just as well I didn’t, as dinner – tapas, at Sal Gorda, not far from our hotel – was very filling indeed (the restaurant is much prettier than the website). And even though my Dutch is nonexistent, our lovely waiter was only too happy to speak Spanish! We had the classics here: marinated anchovies, Merguez sausage, a big bowl of olives, patatas bravas (with more mayo, natch), shrimp in garlic sauce, and more. As it was still light, I forgot it was 9 pm and ordered a cappuccino (just to go wash down the crema Catalana of course); amazingly, it didn’t keep me awake.

Friday morning – our last morning – was again rainy, and we breakfasted at Le Pain Quotidien, a Belgian chain that’s really very good, though I did find myself wondering if there was a seamy underbelly. They sell beautiful sourdough loaves, but when I asked the waiter if he’d had a chance to make them, he admitted that the loaves are prepared and shaped elsewhere, and only baked in the local shop. Fair enough…I suppose. It is a chain after all.

We weren’t sure these were the loaves we wanted to bring home, though, so we poked our heads in a few shops in this (very posh) neighbourhood and ended up in an organic grocery, where we bought a sourdough nut loaf and some young geitekaas (goats’ cheese), having previously bought some aged geitekaas, quite different, at a shop in town. And with our last few euros – luckily they didn’t take credit cards as we could’ve done some serious damage here – we bought some fruit jellies for Andrew’s mum, in the most beautiful sweet shop you’ve ever seen, Van Avezaath-Beune.

Café at Schiphol Airport. These wooden loaves looked better than the actual bread, unfortunately, but they had good coffee and free mini-stroopwaffels.

Amsterdam, we love you and will be back, armed with a better knowledge of Dutch… there is so much more to eat!

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Happy St David’s Day

St David (Dewi Sant) is the patron saint of Wales, and he lived, oh, around the 6th century. I really wanted to make raisin-y little Welsh cakes today to celebrate the holiday, but couldn’t find one of these:

None of the modern cooking stores seem to offer much cookware that’s not non-stick, let alone cast iron (at least unenameled), even though it’s one of the best materials there is for durability and even heat distribution.

Welsh cakes are also called bakestones (another name, too, for the heavy iron griddle), or griddle scones, and in Welsh are picau ar y maen which I don’t know how to pronounce. They are like English scones in composition, but obviously are baked differently. Here’s someone else’s recipe and perhaps by next St David’s Day I will have myself sorted and make them so I can offer my own recipe, and a photo.

Until then, Dydd Gwyl Dewi hapus!

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