Sunday, 22 August 2010

Bread, and a rant about flour/food shops

I would prefer to write this because I have done some marvellous baking experiments lately, but when it comes to bread, I am rather stuck in a rut.

I do, however, have some pictures of some successes, which is remarkable for two reasons:

  1. I rarely remember to photograph anything; and
  2. I actually had some successes.

When I was in England for three months, staying with my father, I managed to get an incredibly good sourdough starter going. Remarkably, I left it on the windowsill near the Aga for the entire time and it never went mouldy or off in anyway. Possibly the heat of the Aga was mitigated by the chill of the single-glazed window, and created the perfect temperature for the yeasts. I was also chuffed that whatever wild yeasts were picked up from the air happened to be successful ones for bread-making.

I stuck to my usual sourdough, which is a variation Dan Lepard’s Barley and Rye loaf. I use rye only, because it is easier to find. I often make this because the proportions are so simple:

  • 300g unbleached strong flour, 200g other flour, 300g water (plus the usual refreshed starter).

With easy-peasy proportions like that, it’s a trivial matter to substitute or mix flours or liquids. I have a plain/rye/beer dough proving as I type this.

My father will not eat real bread, and stuck stubbornly to Tesco’s Tiger loaf (marginally better than Mother’s Pride, but still like polystyrene), much to my dismay. To mitigate the rubbish, I got into a routine of making at least one loaf of proper (albeit white) bread each week for him - 500g organic unbleached bread flour (Dove’s Farm), about 12g dried instant yeast, 300g water.

This was mixed until messy and porridgey, and left in a bowl overnight in the fridge or near the Aga for an hour or two. No kneading was involved.

This was then messily put into a well-oiled 0.5kg/1lb loaf tin, and put in the “hot” Aga oven, for about 45 minutes.

The results speak for themselves - magnificent loaves, no kneading or fuss at all. Possibly helped by the fierce heat of the Aga, which made loaf after loaf of perfect bread. My god, I miss the Aga:

Back in Melbourne, I revived my semi-dormant starter which had lingered at the back of the fridge for months. Two different experiments follow.

One, baking in a pot. I would have used a Le Creuset, but ours are ridiculously massive and the dough would have spread out like a pizza, hence the bodgy Pyrex.
This wasn’t bad, except for the shape (odd), the texture (spongey) and the bottom (soggy). The flavour was okay, but I can’t be bothered repeating the experiment with the Pyrex dish. Maybe I will try with cast iron…

Two, VERY wet dough (with about a tablespoon of treacle, for fun) slapped and stretched around a la Richard Bertinet (SO messy - found bits of dough that flew off mid-slap all round the kitchen later), baked on a pizza stone which had heated up in the oven set to its maximum temperature (300˚C! It set the smoke alarm off) and with a dish of cold water in the bottom:
This worked brilliantly, although the BEEP BEEP BEEP of the smoke alarm was rather annoying. I will definitely repeat this method again. I also love a little treacle in a rye dough - great colour and flavour. I would be interested to try malt with barley flour in the future, too.

Gratuitously, here's a shot of some quince preserve I made (quinces poached in the pressure cooker for 1 hour, with water, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, a bit of vanilla pod, then cooked with raw sugar until jammy. Pressure cookers are a godsend for quinces!):

Finally, a digression on flour and flaky foodie foisters:

When I was in England, the most experimental that I got was using different rye flours - my favourite in England was the Balcheldre Organic Stoneground Rye Flour. Compared with how much I pay in Melbourne for inferior flour, this is incredibly cheap at £2.55 for 1.5kg. Moreover, it was the best rye flour I have encountered - not too fine, not too light. It had ‘bits’ in it, and made a lovely, dark, gutsy loaf.

It was slightly gutting to see how much easier it is to get good, interesting flours at the supermarket in England. Woolworths has improved a little here in Melbourne, as I can get organic rye, buckwheat etc under the Macro brand, but there is still very little choice. No choice, really, in who makes the flour and no choice in the flour and grade of flour. Lots of bread-mixes which have rubbish added to them, and which are inedibly salty.

I know I was lucky to have a Waitrose near by, where the range was mind-boggling (they even had oak-smoked flour, which unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to try), but Tesco still had a decent range. Also, the flours were cheap. And organic.

Second point: upon fossicking through the cupboards at my father’s, I discovered two bags of flour from my previous visit - three years earlier. Not surprisingly, they were well past the Best Before date. However, when I opened them I discovered that there was not a hint of rancidity or staleness, which is all the more remarkable when one considers that one bag was rye flour and rye seems particularly liable to go horrible.

I used both for making the sourdough starter, and for baking bread. The results were delicious.

The white bread flour was Allinson bread maker’s flour, and the rye was Waitrose organic.

What I find interesting, if not troubling, was that this ostensibly ancient rye flour was fresher and sweeter tasting than the “fresh” stuff I buy in Melbourne. Perhaps proper bakers with more clout can get assurances from suppliers that the flour is really fresh, but for the amateur baker we must rely on shopkeepers who may not be as scrupulous about supply and storage as we would like. I regret to say that this is often the case with health food and organic shops, which not so much run by people as limp along. If anyone knows of a place where the owners and staff are actually serious and organised enough to not let food go off (and then sell it anyway!), I would be very interested to go there.

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