Sourdough Saga: Episode 7 – six months on, life with my sourdough starter

Back in May of this year, I started my experiment with creating – and baking with – a sourdough starter.  Now that November is nearly with us, almost six months on, what is the starter like to live with, and what effect has its appearance in my home had on my life?

In July, when I gave a ‘clone’ of my starter to my sister as a gift, I wrote her a guide to looking after her starter.   My starter is less cosseted these days – it drinks tap water, and has survived several rounds of being abandoned in the fridge for a couple of weeks or longer between feedings.  After long periods of abandonment, the starter has a sharp vinegary smell, and either a layer of greyish water on the surface, or an even more unattractive and worrying-looking layer of ‘fuzz’.  But every time, after pouring or scraping this away, and feeding the starter, it has sprung back to life.

Sourdough loaf selection

My starter has successfully baked white, wholemeal, malted mutligrain and spelt loaves (and a variety of combinations of these flours) – in fact, the flour used for sourdough loaves seems to make very little difference, probably because of the longer proving and working time compared to a quick-yeasted loaf.  The loaves are continuing to get better, too – with a nice even crumb and springy texture these days.  Last week, on holiday in a rented cottage in Cornwall, I even managed to bake a batch of sourdough in the borrowed kitchen and unknown oven! (Why, yes, I did take my starter on holiday with me, why do you ask..?)

I use less salt in my batch than I did to start with, but otherwise my method remains the same as for my very first loaf.  I often bake a double quantity, and freeze one loaf.  I’ve added cheese, herbs, and sun dried tomatoes to loaves, with great success.  More recently, I haven’t used the stand mixer for some batches, but worked the dough entirely by hand instead.  A plastic dough scraper, which I bought from eBay for 99p, is a great help and not exactly an investment that broke the bank!  As you can see from the photo, I’ve baked rolls, free-formed loaves, and even a loaf in a tin.  The sourdough pizza was *amazing*, too.  It all works brilliantly, so the limit should only be your imagination!

Several ‘clones’ of my starter are now in new homes with family and friends, and they report baking very successfully with their starters too.  So you see, if my Dad can do it, so can you!  There are even rumours of my starter making it into small-scale commercial production, so watch this space!

As an aside – when I was growing up, I sometimes wondered about the Lord’s Prayer – specifically, the fixation with ‘daily bread’.  After all, what was so exciting about bread? Well, it’s a bit like the first time you’re outdoors, on a crisp clear night somewhere really, really dark, and look up and see the infinite billions of stars and the Milky Way spread above you, and the phrase ‘majesty of the heavens’ suddenly makes sense as something other than a weak metaphor – in an earlier time, before we filled the skies with artificial light (and our larders with artificial food), these things were seriously impressive!  Good bread may genuinely change your world – your food world, at least!

The downside?  Well, all other bread is a disappointment, frankly! I did get a couple of really nice non-sourdough white loaves from a bakers’ shop while we were on holiday, which made a pleasant change.  But, basically, you’re never going to want to buy bread from the supermarket again – even the stuff from the phoney-bakers-shops they have in store these days is a total let-down, and as for the plastic-wrap ‘chorleywood’ sliced white, well…

All of which means that regular baking days have become a feature of our already rather busy lives.  Now, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  And, yes, you’ve guessed it, today is a baking day!

Read all the posts in the Sourdough Saga >>

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Halloween Rib Cage T-Shirt – five minute fancy dress

Oh no – you’ve got a Halloween party this evening, and to call your costume an afterthought is, sadly, dramatically to over-estimate the amount of thought that has actually gone into it so far!  We’re just back from a lovely week in Cornwall, eating great food and walking the dog on the beach.  I’d completely forgotten about our village pub’s ‘costume optional’ Halloween event this evening until we got home about an hour ago!

Halloween Rib Cage T-shirt

But, all is not lost.  Look at my natty outfit (kindly modelled here by Hubby)!

This really is a five minute costume project.  It’s thrifty, too, and no sewing required.  You’ll just need to round up the following –

  • A ‘sacrificial’ black t-shirt,
  • a white-t-shirt that you’ll get to wear again,
  • a cutting mat, small rotary cutter, and a tailor’s chalk / pencil, and
  • a basic grasp of human anatomy (google images can help you with this bit!)

Find the approximate centre lineStarting with the black t-shirt inside out, mark out the centre line as best you can.  This will be surprisingly difficult to do with any accuracy as the quality control on these things is always shockingly poor, so a decent best guess at it is perfectly alright.

Mark out ribsNext, using the tailor’s chalk, mark out a set of ribs to one side of your centre line.  There are lots of rib cages in google images to look at, and I found the PDF template for a much more complicated version of this project on marthastewart.com was a useful guide to the general size and shape of the ribs.  Remember to offer up to the white shirt you’re planning to wear underneath to make sure you’re not massively ‘out’ when it comes to necklines.

Fold for cuttingNow, fold the t-shirt in half along your centre line, so that you have both halves of the front of the shirt front-to-front and your chalk markings showing, and the cutting mat underneath.

Cut along markings with rotary cutterCut carefully along the rib markings with your cutting wheel, through both layers of t-shirt, so that the pattern is cut as close as possible to identically on both sides of your chest.

That’s it, unfold your t-shirt, and put the cutting mat inside so you can tidy up any bits the cutter hasn’t cut cleanly.

And you’re done.  Simple, or what?

You could do the back now – but don’t cut the same pattern, as the back of the rib cage differs quite a bit from the front!  But if you can’t be bothered, pair it with a cape (or a long dark coat!), dark trousers or a black skirt and knee boots, and – if you’re feeling especially keen! – a scythe made from a broomstick with a cardboard and tinfoil blade.  You’re all set!

Time to get ready to party without feeling like you’ve completely failed to go to any trouble!  Enjoy your parties, folks, and have a ghoulish good time!

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Offally Good – liver with bacon and onions, fast fresh frugal food

Offal certainly divides opinions!  One of my favourite ever dishes is liver, bacon and onions – so simple, really just three ingredients –  I’ll order it in a pub whenever it’s on the menu, but sadly it’s often a disappointment.  When it comes to liver, freshness is everything.  It doesn’t reward maturation!  Lamb’s  and calf’s livers are the ones to choose – pig’s liver has a nasty bitter flavour, which some people seem to believe can be mitigated by doing things like soaking the liver in milk before cooking.  Don’t bother!  Get the best, freshest lamb or calf liver you can, it needs very little preparation, and makes a wonderful meal.

Liver, bacon and onion

As much of our meat as we can manage comes from the little farm-shop butcher just up the road from us.  Chris, the butcher and farmer, knows us quite well these days – so when my husband was in there last week, Chris happened to mention he’d just that very day come back from taking a few lambs in to slaughter.  He had the ‘plucks’ (the slaughterhouse term for the heart, lungs and liver).  A lovely fresh lamb’s liver, inevitably, made its way into the shopping bag!

Fresh lamb's liverGood fresh liver is dark burgundy in colour, firm but yielding in texture.  There will probably be some blood in the packaging, wash this off and pat it dry.  Fresh raw liver has almost no smell. It shouldn’t be mushy, crumble, or disintegrate under gentle pressure – if it does, then a process known as ‘autolysis’ has started, and the liver is starting to break down.  Blotchiness and pale areas can also suggest less than ideal freshness, or issues with the health of the liver.  This liver, in thick slices, was beautiful.

Liver slicesThere will be some fibrous tissue in the liver,  you can trim this away as you slice the liver into pieces.  I like my liver in bite sized pieces, cut on the diagonal from the original thick slices.  Try to keep the pieces as even sized as you can, so they will cook evenly.

Prepared trimmed liver piecesDecide what you want to serve with your liver, bacon and onions – mashed potato is traditional, but don’t let that stop you.  Ours was for lunch, so we enjoyed it with a little gravy, and warm buttered toasted muffins.  If you want side dishes, get started with those first – the liver will take less than ten minutes, and you want to serve it as soon as it’s ready.

As well as your lovely fresh lamb’s liver, to serve two you will require –

  • Bacon pieces and sliced onionsOne onion, peeled and sliced thinly from root to tip
  • Four slices – or two thick pieces – of dry cured bacon, cut into chunks
  • Pepper, olive oil, flour or gravy granules (optional)

Slice an onion into thin slices from tip to root, some dry cured bacon into pieces.  Use the very best bacon you can – my home-cured maple bacon is perfect – the last thing you want is that nasty bacon-water from commercially produced bacon leaking out into your pan.

Add liver to pan & fry offFry off your bacon and onion in a large frying pan until starting to caramelise.  Add a very little bit of olive oil if you need to.  Once it’s starting to show a little colour, push it to one side  in the pan.  Now add the liver and fry off until the pieces are just a little bit pink in the middle.  You’re nearly done – just time to make the gravy.  Mix the onion and bacon back among the cooked liver.

Cooked liver piecesNow add a generous splash of boiling water to the pan, and stir it all around to capture all the lovely pan flavours.  If you want your gravy a little thicker, thicken it by your preferred method.  Gastropub recipes often have red wine in the gravy – I’m not sure this is an improvement, simplicity is everything here!  You probably won’t need to add any salt – the bacon has enough – but season with pepper to your taste.

Making gravy

Serve, and enjoy!  This is such great comfort food – it’s food for the soul as well as the body!  And a timely reminder to me that I need to remember to enjoy offal much more often!

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Cooking with James Martin – pea and watercress soup

Earlier this year, I was privileged to be invited to spend the day ‘Cooking with James Martin’ with a group of other foodies and bloggers.  We enjoyed some amazing dishes, and I did promise at the time to share the recipes with you.  Time has rather run away with me the last few months, but here, belatedly, is the first recipe – ‘Pea and Watercress Soup with Deep Fried Egg’. 

Pea and Watercress Soup, presentation

While we were very kindly provided with recipes after the event, I made notes at the time and my notes and recollections vary from the recipes we were given in various ways – that’s the art, I suppose!  The recipe I present here is closer to what I remember James cooking on the day, than to the ‘official’ recipe.  How much of the miss-match is due to errors and omissions on my part, and how much to revisions on his, I wouldn’t like to say!

This is a beautiful summer soup and an absolutely amazing colour.  James served it with a crispy-on-the-ouside, soft-on-the-inside deep fried soft boiled egg, which was an amazingly ‘cheffy’ touch, but I think the soup would stand up very well without it, if it seems a bit faffy for you.

To make this soup, you will require –

  • 1l of good quality vegetable stock (the nicer the better – but nice bouillon powder would probably do at a pinch)
  • 500g of frozen peas
  • 300g fresh watercress
  • 100g of flat leaf parsley
  • 1 shallot, chopped
  • 150ml of double cream (see later note)
  • Decent knob of butter
  • Small handfull of asparagus spears (optional)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Blender, either the stick-type hand blender or, for a smoother finish, a food processor blender jug would probably work better

James MartinBlanch the watercress and flat leaf parsley by immersing very briefly in boiling salted water, and then removing straight away.  Squeeze it out in a tea towel to remove as much water as possible and set aside

Now melt the butter in a saucepan (or wide chef’s pan, if you have one), add the shallot and fry gently until translucent.  My recipe mentions some garlic here, but I don’t recall any being used, you could add a minced clove of garlic if you like though!  Once the onion is translucent, add the stock to the pan, along with the peas and chopped asparagus, and simmer for 2 – 3 minutes, so that the peas are just soft but still bright vivid green.

Blended soupNow take the pan off the heat, add the blanched watercress and flat-leaf parsley (the recipe also says the cream – I don’t remember any cream but it could well be an oversight on my part!) and blend aggressively until it looks almost luminescent green.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Bread-crumbing egg for deep fryingJames soft boiled some eggs (5 minutes), and once cold, peeled and coated in breadcrumbs (flour, egg wash and then crumbs) before deep frying until golden brown.  The egg adds a lovely richness and texture balance to the final dish, but for me, thinking about this as a dish to cook at home, the deep frying was a flourish too far. I think floating a poached egg in the soup would achieve a very similar effect.

Bring the soup up to temperature, without boiling, and serve in your prettiest bowls, placing the egg in the centre.  James added some crispy fried bacon bits, which add a nice crunch and salty-savoury note.  You could add a sprinkle of crispy breadcrumbs or small croutons to increase the crunch if you liked – particularly if you’re skipping the crunchy deep-fried egg.  The finished effect, it struck me at the time, is very much ‘ham, egg and peas’, but taken apart and put back together again all fresh and inside-out!  The final presentation flourish is celery cress & coriander cress, sprinkled over.  They don’t sell celery cress or coriander cress in my local co-op, and it’s the wrong time of year to sprout my own, so I suppose I’ll have to make do with a few reserved flat-leaf parsley leaves!

Really Important Note – You know that ghastly grey-green colour and slightly odd sulphurous odour that tinned peas have? This soup depends for it’s amazing colour and fresh flavour on absolute freshness and minimal cooking.  It will not re-heat!  Well, not without turning grey.  So don’t prepare it in advance and expect it to be any good re-heated for your dinner party.  You have been warned!

If thats got your appetite going, have a look at the collected James Martin recipe posts, here…

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Felt Like This – washing machine felt, and five minute fingerless gloves

I have a confession to make – I can be a bit of a hoarder!  I’m at my worst when it comes to clothes, even when they’re worn out, damaged, or utterly unsuitable, not even good enough for the charity shop, I look at all the lovely fabric and can’t bring myself to throw them out. Instead, they end up pushed to the back of the cupboard, or in bags and piles for ‘doing something with’, one day.

Finished fingerless gloves

Browsing around the web a few months ago, I came across a reference to washing-machine felt, a technique for taking unwanted woollen knitwear and turning it into a wool felt which can then be used in other projects.  All the tutorials I found seemed to hinge on also having access to a tumble dryer (which I don’t), but I had a dig about in the back of the wardrobe, rounded up three dead jumpers (two of which had already suffered and shrunk a little in the wash) and decided to give it a go.  It’s important that the jumpers you’re felting are entirely – or almost entirely – made of natural woollen fibre, as polyester and other synthetics won’t felt properly.  Mine ranged from 80% to 100% wool.

The 'donor' jumpers, before feltingI threw them all in the washing machine with a scoop of normal detergent, and selected a 60 degree cotton wash with all the ‘extras’ selected – extra dirty, extra spin, you know the sort of things.  Kids, this is not a good or friendly thing to do to knitwear (do kids these days even wear woollens??).  The jumpers came out of the machine half the size they went in, and undeniably now made of felt.  Success – and no dryer required!  After a couple of days drying, I was ready to have a play.

The fabric you’ve made will now behave very much like manufactured felt (though it’s a bit thicker than the stuff you buy by the square foot at the craft shop – and rather more robust) or polar fleece. You can cut it without it unravelling, and the edges don’t need finishing.

Cut lengths from sleeves

For a really quick satisfying up-cycle from your first washing machine felt sweater, how about a pair of fingerless felt gloves?

Work out how long you want your gloves, and cut the appropriate length from the sleeves of the felted jumper.

Offer up for thumb position

You’ll probably want the cuffs of the sleeves to be the cuffs of the new gloves.

Snip thumb holesNow decide where you want your thumb holes, turn the sleeves inside out, and snip out that part of the seam from the inside of the sleeve, leaving a slit of the right length to fit your thumb through.  Err on the small size, you can always cut more later.

Completed fingerless gloveThat’s it, if you want it to be!  Not even five minutes work.

But you can embellish these gloves really easily, if you like.  The sky’s the limit, really, for embroidery and embellishment, but I decided simply to add some blanket stitch to the unfinished edges and thumb holes, using some pretty multicoloured contrasting knitting wool I had lying around.  Blanket stitching the cut edges, like I did, has the added bonus that it should stop the seam coming undone as time goes by.

Quickest, simplest fabric recycling project ever, isn’t it?  Anyone can do this, so give it a go!

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Happy Birthday – and a new home for the blog!

Doesn’t time fly!  I can’t quite believe it was a year ago (well, near enough) that I sat down and wrote ‘Bringing Home the Bacon’, and the Country Skills blog was born.  And it just so happens that while we’re on the subject of milestones, this is also the blog’s 100th post!

Well, everyone likes a birthday celebration, don’t they, and what’s a birthday without presents and candles?

First Birthday Candle

So, there’s the candle, and now for the present – the Country Skills blog has a new home at https://countryskillsblog.com/ although old links via the wordpress.com domain will continue to work through the magic of redirects.

I’d like to thank all my lovely readers – both regular and occasional! – for taking the time to stop by my little blog in the last year, and particularly those who’ve paused to comment or ‘like’, and helped me feel I’m not talking to myself!  Some of you have really helped me out – I don’t think the Sourdough Saga would have come to such a successful conclusion without your advice and feedback – and for that I thank you all from the bottom of my heart.

Here’s to many more years happy blogging!  Please do let me know what you think, I’m always happy to hear suggestions!

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Clucking Mayhem – introductions, is the worst over?

Five weeks ago, I drove a 200 mile round trip to bring home three new hens to add to my little backyard flock. Introducing new hens is always a difficult process, they can be remarkably opinionated creatures and don’t enjoy having new housemates!  The ‘pecking order’ is a very real, and sometimes rather violent thing.  For the sake of both my new and existing hens, I wanted to achieve as gentle and stress-free an introduction process as I possibly could, and made arrangements to take my time about it.  You can catch up with the story so far, from coming home, first introductions, and settling in together.

Reasonably settled?

The weekend before last, once the hens were reasonably settled living together, but sleeping mostly apart, I took the second henhouse out of the run, leaving a dodge-board for the small girls to get out of sight behind if necessary.  There was a bit of stress around bedtime the first couple of nights, but the girls are now all bedding down comfortably side by side on the perches, and during the day, apart from the odd scuffle, are mixing, feeding, preening and generally getting on with happy relaxed henny-things!  Egg production is down, but then it’s well into autumn and more dark than light these days so that’s hardly surprising.

Flora continues to wear her bit – her behaviour is the last remaining problem, it’s not really her fault, I suppose, but things would be really nice and settled without her disturbing influence on the flock.  I think – though it might be wishful thinking – that the frequency and savagery of her attempted attacks on the other girls are reducing a little.  With a bit of luck, in another month or so, the headgear can come off.  In the meantime it seems to be causing her very little difficulty, she’s eating well and laying better than anyone else at the moment, giving an egg almost every day.

Midge is growing up fast, with more comb and wattle than she had when she first arrived, and a hunger to match the growth rate.  I’d love to think we’d get some eggs from her soon, though I suppose it may not be until spring.

With a bit of luck – though I hate to put it in black and white and jinx it! – things are settling nicely now.  I had in mind that things would take about a month to bed down and we’re pretty much on that target.  I really hope the girls can get on with enjoying their seasonal treats (the Halloween pumpkins are going down rather well just now!) and lay me lots of nice tasty eggs for a long time to come!

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