I have baked my first ever loaf of bread... it was not without disaster but has turned out much better than I expected, and I'm pretty proud of it to be honest.
Over Christmas I have been growing and feeding my own 'culture', it was passed on to me by artist Alex Charrington and I have been keeping it alive since just before Christmas. I understand you are meant to pass it on and share it with people, so if anyone wants some of mine I will be happy to make you a little jar up, I like the idea of one starter feeding lots of loaves all over Newcastle and beyond! I am very inexperienced in the world of bread making, I still don't really understand why I have gone through all of the processes I have, and whether I have even carried them out correctly. I need to read more and get a better understanding of what I'm doing. I can easily follow a recipe and complete every step, but I'd like to know why I am doing each step and what is happening to the dough while I do. I want to learn more culinary skills this year and bread and yeast is one of the areas I'm going to try and get to grips with.
So I fed the 'culture' every five days as instructed by Alex, with one cup of organic milk, one cup of flour and one cup of sugar, I'm still a bit unsure about the sugar bit, other recipes I have read don't do this, but I proceeded as instructed and it grew and bubbled as it was meant to... I left it unattended while we went up to Bamburgh for a few days for New Year and it kind of took over the kitchen, bubbling out of its pot all over the kitchen counter and beyond...
I gave it a final feed a few days ago, then you have to wait 24 hours before you can start with the bread. I followed a St. John recipe for a White Sourdough Loaf, I trust they know what they are doing when it comes to baking much more so than I do...
Step one was to add 500g of strong white flour, 130g of the culture, or Mother as St John call it and 320ml of water at 5°C to the electric mixer bowl. I couldn't find my thermometer so this was a guess really, I just went with cold... I used the dough mixing attachment and was meant to mix it for 6 minutes on a low speed, but... my mixer doesn’t really do slow, so it went pretty fast for about 4-5 minutes. This was when I began to be concerned that I wasn't going to be much good at bread making, it did form into a ball of dough though. The next step was to add the 'bathe' which was 90ml of cold water which you add a third at a time until totally combined.
This was the first disaster, as when I took the mixing bowl off the machine the dough had somehow managed to leak under the mixer attachment and down and out of the bottom of the bowl, and was everywhere! It is pretty difficult stuff to clean up, so while the dough sat and rested for 20 minutes I ruined most of the cloths in the kitchen trying to clean it all up, at which point I was not at all confident that this was going to turn out ok. After 20 minutes I added 10g of sea salt and mixed for another 4 minutes. St. John said until the dough looked 'smooth and leaves the sides of the bowl' but I think mine was a bit too wet, maybe I should have mixed it more, or kneaded it a bit more. This was the main problem throughout I think, that the dough didn’t become as firm as I expected?
Next I formed the dough into a ball, of sorts, sprinkled with flour and put it in a bowl in the fridge for 1 hour. After this, remove and form into a ball again, sprinkle with flour and cover with a cloth. Leave it somewhere warm, about 20°C for about 3 hours until slightly risen. My house is pretty chilly most of the time so I put the heating on, left it by the radiator and went out to watch Newcastle struggle to keep a place in the FA Cup. They did, thankfully, and the dough had risen slightly when we returned.
The next stage was to form the dough into one large ball, or two small ones, depending on what size loaves you want, I went for one large one, and place on a floured tray, sprinkle with flour, cover and leave to rest for 15 minutes. Finally place the loaf into a floured plastic bowl, sprinkle with flour, cover with a cloth and leave for 4-5 hours until it is doubled in size. I ended up leaving it over night, as the process is so long it takes up more than a day...
This worked out quite well though as it meant I had bread ready to bake first thing on Sunday morning, which is a bit of a treat. Even though I was in no way sure it was going to work... Preheat the oven to 230°C and place a baking tray of water at the bottom of the oven. This produces lots of steam and helps to form a good crusty crust.
Place the ball of dough onto a baking sheet, mine was still not firm enough as far as I was concerned but had risen to almost twice the size. I put it in the oven for 30 minutes and was amazed when I opened the door that it was an actual loaf of bread, that looked like ones you can buy in the shops. I couldn't have been more proud! Take the tray of water out and continue to bake for another ten minutes. This is when I got a bit nervous as the loaf already looked quite brown and I didn’t want it to burn, so I think I only ended up leaving it for about 5 minutes... Which was probably a bit of a mistake.
Apparently if you knock on the bottom of the loaf and it sounds hollow it is done, I did this, it sounded kind of hollow, so I took it out... and left it to cool on a wire rack. I maybe cut it open a little soon in hindsight. So on the positive side the crust was lovely and crisp and crusty and delicious, it smelt amazing and was an actual loaf of bread! On the negative side I think it is a bit too damp and slightly heavy, this may have been for any number of reasons that I have to figure out with continued baking! I think my dough was too wet, but I did use the correct amounts of liquid, flour and culture... I think I should have baked it a bit longer, an extra 5 minutes or more, but I was nervous of it burning, and then I think I should have left it to rest a little longer than I did. I'm a bit in the dark still to be honest, but I will read more and try again, today even perhaps... Saying all that, it tasted pretty good with large amounts of butter melting into it and I think it will make amazing toast... Conveniently I have some leftover slow cooked Brisket which will make an amazing sandwich with a dollop of horseradish and some green herb sauce... Delicious.