My uncle owns a bakery. While this does not mean that I have a claim to the title ‘bakery girl’, I did grow up eating what could today only be described as ‘artisan baked goods’ and bread and I have a very special, if thorny relationship.
During the early years of Pekařství Kopecký, when things looked less than rosy, the whole extended family would get involved. Believe it or not I still remember those sleepless nights as a four-year-old, weeping my eyes out whilst holding a vigil for my mother at the window. I disliked being left alone even if I was not left alone – my two years old brother could not count as company. Out of my observatory station on the windowsill I could see the whole stretch of our street next to the train tracks. I would see my mother emerge from around the corner, on her way from the evening shift, perched on her screechy folding bicycle and drenched in sweat from the stifling heat of the ovens. The moment I saw her there on the road I jumped back into bed and pretended to be asleep – why should I, the eldest, cry for mummy?
Over the years the bakery became a runaway success, and the wider family became involved as buyers, not workers – other than my brother who loves his weekly bread night shift. We have been buying loaves of bread of various kinds, bread rolls, baguettes, ciabatta, knotted buns and a plethora of sweet produce, some of it traditional Czech (buchty), others a fashionable novelty (ground poppyseed swirls) to name but a few. My mum stops at the bakery every day, and when I still lived with at my parents’ house I ate fresh bread every day. Bread was, and still is, my go-to indulgence, with grilled cheese toasts on top of the list of naughty treats, only to be taken on days so sinful they may as well be written off. Unfortunately eating lovely bread at almost every meal was not good for my waistline, or my eating habits. It was, however, only too easy to kick my bread habit when I moved to England. Back home we would refer to even the fanciest bread money can buy here as ‘toastie bread’, because that is the kind of bread you only buy about twice a year when in firm grip of cheese toastie cravings. I used to be able to buy sliced sourdough bread at Waitrose, but those days are gone.
So I gave up bread on a daily basis, an event which ushered in a new era: bread as an occasional treat. As I cannot find a satisfactory supplier my own skills will have to do*. In short, I must reclaim my bakery girl roots. (*This is no longer true, since I moved out of Sheffield the fantastic Seven Hills Bakery has set up shop on Sharrow Vale Road. Just my luck. On the wrong side of the Pennines Liverpool based French Corner bakery is doing rather well.)
Following extensive research of both traditional and online media I decided to embark on an activity that may seem intimidating and time consuming – baking sourdough bread. Sourdough bread, or artisan baking as they call it in London has swept the culinary scene by storm. I have not one, not two but three books offering sourdough recipes, and am aware of many more. Prominent foodies have blogged about their love of the stuff: Diana Henry, Rose Prince and Claire Ptak to name but a few. (I usually follow Hugh F-W’s recipe as experimentation with different quantities has previously ended in disaster and tears). The fact that sourdough got a mention on the very mediocre Great British Food Revival on BBC2 last year, as well as Channel 4’s River Cottage Everyday is testament to the current popularity of continental baking. In the past you would have been able to count independent bakeries providing sourdough or German style bread on the fingers of one hand, these days you’d have to grow a few extra hands to be able to do so. Dense, sour bread is all the rage – no wonder when the squares of airy white cotton wool we’ve had to get used to over the years simply cannot begin to compare.
And so I scoured the internet for information before, overwhelmed by just how much there is out there, I turned to good old cookbook. It turns out that you must first make a starter, then the sponge, then the dough, and some 24 hours later you might have bread – that is if your starter is 10 days or older. I imagine this seems a bit much but please don’t stop reading now! Some people add honey to the starter, mine consists of whole grain flour and water, nothing else. I keep my starter in a lidded container and feed it daily – that is if I remember. My starter is now several months old and survived multiple famines and an ice age (when I went away at Christmas and, worried about its welfare and survival I put it in the freezer…). In short, it is a hardy creature – yes, that thick paste of fermented yeast is indeed a living thing. And it smells delightful, fruity and boozy, enticing me to bake. I could detect a tinge of shock in my grandmother’s voice even as it was carried across the crackly, jumpy Skype connection when, bursting with pride, I related my baking exploits to her. ‘You keep your starter for days, weeks even? But it will be sour!’ Sourness in bread was always the greatest undesirable at Pekařství Kopecký, yet, ashamedly, I was always drawn to the competitors’ sour concoction. And it is kind of the point, too – as your starter gets older you will notice a more profoundly sour, stronger taste. And there are some very old starters out there. Diana Henry’s starter even has a name – indeed many people think of their starter as a pet. Just… no. I would much prefer a kitten to floury gloop.
When your starter has reached maturity you will be able to finally bake with it. You should not expect your first creation to be an astonishing success. However, your second loaf will be tastier, and the ones after it will turn out even better. If you are willing to put in the time you cannot, and will not fail. Thankfully, most of the prep time you can leave the mixture to happily do its thing unsupervised – start making the sponge in the evening, add more flour and knead in the morning and knock back and shape it for second rising after work, then bake in the evening again. Unless you live on your own you might be able to get through a loaf every day, and this circle of rising, kneading and baking could become a pleasant domestic routine. Not to mention that long-risen bread simply tastes better. I have added a personal touch to Hugh’s recipe with the addition of caraway seeds, an ingredient that is traditionally used in Czech bread, and is a staple in my uncle’s bakery. Eating my bread, the aromatic flavour of caraway transplants me back home and to my childhood. I only bake bread once a month or so – my starter happily lives in the utility room (the warmest place in the house – don’t ask), ready to spring into action when required. My superhero.
And what do I do with it, I hear you cry! Well, you will still need cotton wool bread for grilled cheese toasts as they’re just not the same made with sourdough. However, any soup will be improved by the addition of a slice of sourdough bread, toasted or not. Make my borscht, eat it with soudrough and then try arguing against this. Sourdough loaf can be used to make cracking pastrami sandwiches, with the addition of mustard and gherkins. Stale sourdough makes fantastic croutons. My grandad, mum and brother spread lard on their bread, but I would strongly advise against this. And finally, and most simply, a warm slice of sourdough with a generous smear of butter and a sprinkling of salt is a pleasure I can never deny myself. And neither should you.
Scroll down for Hugh F-W’s fail-safe recipe and my photographic bread chronicle.
100g whole grain strong bread flour + more to feed
Mix the flour with enough water to make a thick batter. For a week or 10 days, every day discard half and stir in about 100g more flour. You will be able to tell when the starter becomes ‘alive’ – the lovely odour and bubbles will give it away. After 10 days you will be able to bake with it.
250g strong bread flour of your preference (I alternate between white and whole grain and mixture of both)
275ml warm water
This is best done in the evening. Mix the flour thoroughly with the water, then cover with cling film and leave to do its thing overnight. Warning: if the sponge does not rise do not bake with it: the bread will not rise either and will be dense and unpleasant to eat. I speak from experience. Discard the failed sponge, feed the starter for a few more days then try again. Well risen sponge should look like this:
It is the morning now and time to knead. Mix the sponge with the above ingredients. You are aiming for the right texture, and what that means will only be revealed with practice. However, the dough should be neither too dry nor too sticky. It should absorb all the flour and be manageable whilst kneading – which is what you’ll now do for 10 minutes on a floured surface. Not only does this stretch the gluten molecules in the flour, but it also immediately improves the dough’s texture so easy with the additional water or flour!
Grease the bowl with a splash of oil and pop the dough back in. Cover with cling film again and off to work. All this should take no longer than 15 minutes.
On your return you will find that the dough has doubled in size. Now is the time to think of your irritating boss or ex, or an annoying task that needs to be tackled. Or an unpaid parking fine. Because now you need to punch the bread. Several times. This will knock the air out of it and prepare it for its second rising. This time use a bowl or dish of a desired shape as you need to sculpt your loaf. I use an oval baking dish, lined with a tea towel dusted with flour. Cover your loaf with cling film again and leave to rise in a warm place for 1.5-3 hours.
When the loaf has risen again preheat the oven to as high as it goes. Place your baking tray in it to heat up as well. Working briskly, flour the baking tray, pop your loaf onto it, dust it with flour and slash fun shapes in its surface. And into the oven it goes. Boil around 500ml water in the kettle and pour into a loaf tin. This needs to go on to the bottom of your oven and will provide a humid environment for the bread. After 15 minutes, reduce the temperature to 200 (or sooner if feel your bread might burn). Bake for a further 25 to 30 minutes. When you tap the baked bread it should sound hollow.
Leave to cool at least a little bit before slicing up. I like to eat my first slice quite warm and simply just buttered and salted. The pleasure is all mine.