Category Archives: sourdough

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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