Of flour, water and enzymes: a visceral pleasure

March 13, 2012 § 6 Comments

After two years of shuttling between London and Paris, I have been enjoying the delights of standing still. Although I took the Eurostar journeys in my stride – using the two and a quarter hours wisely – life without this regular intercity commute means more spare time… a lot more! And as somebody who enjoys food, and slow food in particular, I have been devoting some of this time to bread-making.

Baking my own bread is nothing new but in the past I limited myself to a quick hearty soda bread and the occasional spelt loaf with honey and dried yeast. With more time at my disposal, however, I have turned my hand to making sourdough bread… from scratch.

Natural chemistry in action

Armed with the recipe from Dan Lepard’s The Handmade Loaf – as recommended by the lovely L. of Wine, Food and Other Pleasures – I set about making the starter. I diligently followed the recipe, adding the prescribed amount of water and flour each day. By day four the young leaven smelt a little like beer and the occasional air bubble broke the surface but it was not as lively as the pictures in Lepard’s book.

A lively leaven

A lively leaven

After checking and rechecking the recipe, I concluded that the temperature must have been wrong. Making a starter dough in a cool kitchen in the coldest week of the year was probably overly optimistic on my part but I was not prepared to give up on my fledgling leaven. So, to give the natural process a helping hand, I popped the kilner jar in a modern version of a haybox – a tin lined with shredded newspaper. During the next few of days the enzymes did their work and before long a lively dough was bubbling contentedly in the jar. By the time I spooned out the required amount for my first loaf, I had a light, elastic leaven that smelt warm and yeasty.

All in good time…

It is not only the leaven that cannot be rushed. As sourdough needs to be kneaded little and often, it takes about a day to make a loaf. Lepard recommends starting at 8 am, alternating kneading with progressively longer proving times, and baking the loaf in late afternoon. As baking is my form of relaxation, I prefer to start my loaves later in the day, after I have retreated from the bustle of daily life. I carry out the final knead around midnight and leave the dough to prove at a leisurely pace overnight.

A Westfold Loaf

A "Westfold Loaf"

By morning the silky dough has doubled to twice its original size, ready to be transferred – very gently – to a baking sheet. After slashing the top of the loaf and sprinkling it with some cold water, it goes into a hot oven for about 45 minutes. And when it emerges, its smell and crunchy crust are so appealing that I barely wait for the loaf to cool down before cutting a slice for breakfast!

Although the sourdough bread is superb as a base for scrambled eggs and produces a superior toasted sandwich, it excels in that most simple of dishes: buttered toast. The substantial dough absorbs the creamy butter, turning one side golden and moist whilst retaining its crispiness on the other.

Distant memories

I had worried that Mr M would not like the hearty sourdough bread, which is as far removed from the airy concoctions the baker sells as Cadbury’s Dairy Milk is from 75% cocoa solids Peruvian chocolate, but my fears proved unfounded. He waxes lyrical about our loaves! In fact, the flavour, texture and smell of our sourdough bread taps into a distant collective memory we share. It conjures up images of early Indo-Europeans crossing the Central Plains on their march westwards and of hardy Germanic tribes in the rugged northern wildernesses of Scandinavia and the British Isles during the Dark Ages. So strong is the bread’s power to evoke the senses and kindle memories from beyond the mists of time that Mr M has dubbed it “Westfold Loaf”, in a nod to Tolkien’s kingdom of Rohan.

Since making my first sourdough loaf I have been “tending” the leaven with great care. I have also varied the basic bread recipe, alternating white flour and wholemeal flour as well as mixing wheat flour with old grains like spelt, kamut and rye. And, to my great delight, this weekend at his own request, my husband learnt to knead. So visceral is the experience of watching flour, water, salt and enzymes transform themselves into a staple that Mr M wanted to participate in the timeless act of putting bread on the table.

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