Friday, 26 March 2010

Flours For Algernon

Today was a HUGE day for me.
*cooking geek alert!*
For years and years, I have been alternately obsessing with and giving up on trying to bake a decent loaf of bread and for just as many years I have been failing pretty miserably.
I followed countless recipes, scoured the web looking for tips and techniques, only to produce anaemic, flavourless loaves of nothingness. To begin with, they looked fine. Just like a loaf in a bakery window with a pretty crust and lovely colour, only the texture was all wrong. Instead of the springy, chewy texture I was striving for, I produced loaf after loaf of bland, crumbly bread that was suitable only for the bin.
What was so cussing annoying was that in principle, bread is such a simple thing! Since time immemorial, man/woman has been mixing flour and water together and baking loaves of delicious bread for their families. Bakeries and market stalls all over Europe proudly display bronzed rounds of perfection without a second thought, and yet the best I could do was blaaahhh.

Baking bread often reminded me of golf. The first time I played golf, I thought it would be a cake walk. I mean, you take a stick and you hit a motionless ball into a hole. You're not swinging at anything coming at you at speed, and your feet are stationary- So how come I ended that first game covered in mud from falling on my ass FIVE TIMES and was something like 837,537,837 over par?
I'm pretty sure I threw a driver into some trees too. Stupid golf. Easy in theory, not so much in practice, just like baking bread. I bet that is the first golf-bread analogy you've read today.

Since flavour was my biggest problem, I decided I wanted to try sourdough. That was about four months ago. I made a starter by mixing equal parts flour and water together and leaving it to sit on the kitchen counter for about a week, checking daily for signs of life. I'd made glue.

My clever cousin Hugo told me about his friend using organic flour and grapes to make a starter, and so I read a little about that on the web and by jove, he was right. By this time I was on starter attempt number 4, which I quickly binned and started over with all organic ingredients. By the next morning, I had a beery, beautifully frothy mixture which smelled like it was well on its way to starter success. I fed it for a few days- equal parts flour and water, stir..... and named it Algernon because I thought that if I gave him a name he might try a little harder for me.

Algernon and I have made a few loaves of bread and several pizza crusts over the past few months, but while the pizza crusts have been brilliant, I've been having an impossible time getting a well-risen loaf of bread. (blunt objects sure, loaves no.)

Last night on BBC4 there was show called In Search of the Perfect Loaf about a baker trying to make a loaf good enough to win an organic foods contest. Watching him kneading loaf after loaf and pulling one after another out of the oven with varied success really got my baking juices flowing. Also, I was encouraged that this man, who was from a long line of bakers and had been baking all his life was having some serious problems of his own.
At the end of his show (he won second place) I went to the kitchen and got to work. I know this will sound a little crazy, but this time it felt different. While I was kneading the dough, I was no longer an average suburban broad in a cookie cutter kitchen in a cookie cutter neighbourhood. I was a farmer's wife, kneading a gorgeous ball of family history at a weathered kitchen table while the French country sunlight filtered through the window, catching on the flour floating about in the air.....sighh.....
I kneaded away, caught up in my little fantasy until I had what I thought felt like the right consistency. Soft like an old woman's bingo wings, (I know, you're loving the comparison) and elastic as heck.
I put my precious ball of dough into a floured bowl, covered it with cling film and left it by the gas boiler in my utility room overnight. For the uninitiated, this might seem like a long time, but bread made from starter takes a lot longer to rise than bread made with instant yeast.

The next morning, I came down and he was huge! I was very excited that Algernon had been so hard at work all night, eating all the sugary flour, farting out gas bubbles, but I was still only cautiously optimistic. We'd been here before, with a beautiful big ball of risen dough, which only turned to the consistency of warm, chewed chewing gum once punched down and shaped into a loaf.

But that was the only thing for it. I tipped the loaf out onto the counter and gave it another little knead, incorporating a little more flour because it was still a little loose.

For future reference, I used:
700g organic bread flour
200ml Algernon
2 tsp salt
400ml warm water- brought it together in my Kitchenaid with a dough hook and then finished kneading by hand, adding in a little flour on the work top.

I shaped it into a boule and placed it on a floured baking sheet, dusted with a little more flour, scored the top in a square pattern and put it iback near the boiler to proof one more time before baking.
After about an hour, the ball had almost doubled in size and was expanding outward more than upward, as all my previous experiments had done in the past, only better this time.
I decided that proofing time was over and I turned on the oven. When it was good and hot, I slipped my loaf in and set the timer, deciding not to even look at how it was doing until the beep went off.

40 Minutes later, I turned off the timer and opened my oven to find this:

I know, it's certainly not going to win any beauty contests. In fact it looks a little like John Merrick, but this was a massive triumph for me. This was the first time I had made a properly risen loaf using starter.
I left it to cool down while we went to the garden centre to buy some veggie seeds and when we returned I eagerly sliced into it.

The crust had a lovely, solid crunch, and the inside looked like it had the requisite array of holes you want in a decent sourdough. I spread the slices with some good butter, proudly presented them to the guys and tucked in.
*choruses of Hallelujah* It was brilliant! Just the right chewy texture and complex flavour I have been striving for all these months. It's certainly not the sourest sourdough I've ever eaten, but the twang is certainly present, giving a wonderful rounded flavour and feel.
Drew asked for seconds immediately, which is a huge accomplishment for me, because he is so maddeningly dispassionate about food. Christian even left his teenage boy den of stench to come down and tell me how much he liked it. Result!

So for dinner, instead of having the tortellini I was going to make, we had massive slabs of this bread with some fresh buffalo mozzerella, slices of ripe tomato, basil leaves and sea salt. Bloody perfect.

I am having some lovely family over for lunch on Monday, so I'm going to see if I can do it again, but prettier this time.

Sourdough Bread on FoodistaSourdough Bread


  1. It looks perfect to me!

    Great job Emily!

    Alba H. Rodriguez

  2. Hey Emily, I love making bread, and this looks really delicious and rustic too. Rustic is what I want when it comes to bread.
    By the way, I got a very concerned e-mail from another on-line friend of mine who I will leave anonymous out of respect and affection for her. The e-mail's content made me a bit concerned about what people envision when they go to my blog. You were one of the first two people who came to mind when I thought 'I need an honest opinion about this'. So, all of that being said, did you come to the conclusion that I am a Wiccan by looking at my site? I'm not, by the way. Just wondering if a lot of people think that or just don't know. Any honest feedback on your first thoughts is appreciated.
    Hey, you can delete this comment and write me back at if you like-I know it's long winded (smile)...

  3. I enjoyed your post tremendously - next time I try to make a sourdough starter, I'll try naming him, er, her. Maybe she, I mean he, LOL will work a little harder for me too!

  4. That says one thing to me. Butter.

  5. Thanks girls!
    I'm going to try again tonight, but I think I'll make more dough and turn it into two loaves.
    Fingers crossed!!

  6. Sourdough is on my food bucket list.. the whole starter thing and the fact that its a little finicky has always been a wee bit intimidating! CONGRATS on your success and thanks for taming my sourdough fears :)