Sourdough Saga: Episode 8 – semi-sourdough baguettes

It’s difficult to believe that it’s over three years since sourdough baking became a regular part of our life and our diet, back in May 2012. I predicted at the time that life would never be quite the same again and, in a variety of small ways, that’s definitely true. A lot has changed in our lives since then, but home baking has remained a constant despite upheavals and long working hours. We make a mix of sourdough and traditionally-yeasted breads at home, and they’re all wonderful in their own ways; the bar is set very high for bought breads and when time precludes home-baking, we’re inevitably disappointed by what we can buy in the shops.

Fresh from the oven

Bread can seem like such a small, inconsequential thing, a cheap commodity which requires very little consideration. But good bread – really good bread – is a thing of great joy, not an afterthought but the crowning glory of a meal, or even a meal in itself. Still warm from the oven, with wonderful cornish unsalted butter melting into the crumb, I wonder if there is any more satisfying food in the world?

My wholemeal sourdough starter, ‘Seymore’, continues to thrive, and in some sense procreated last year when I started the process of converting a batch of starter to white flour. Each white flour feed progressively shifted the proportions and the starter is now 100% white. I find the white starter raises white loaves quite a bit more effectively than the wholemeal one did (presumably because the balance of microbes within it is already adapted to using white flour as a food source), so now like raises like – Seymore has an outing when I’m baking wholemeal or spelt, and the new white starter makes a quite wonderful, airy and chewy 100% white sourdough loaf.

A year or more ago, I had a hankering for home-made baguette. Initial experiments and trials with recipes in my cookbook library were all rather disappointing – they produced baguette-shaped loaves, but lacked not just the flavour, but also the crumb and the chewy, toothsome, slightly elastic crust of a genuine French loaf. French cookbooks, of course, were no use whatsoever – no French housewife in her right mind bakes her own bread, when there’s still a traditional ‘boulangerie’ in almost every village and on almost every street corner.

So I kept reading, and asking questions, and stumbled upon Paul Hollywood’s recipe from his pre-TV ‘100 Great Breads’ book, which begins with an overnight sponge, much like my everyday sourdough loaf. A bake through of his recipe produced one of the worst-behaved doughs I have ever worked with, but also gave me the best results to date. But it was still most definitely lacking ‘something’ in the flavour and texture departments. The sponge step, though, gave me an idea – what if I incorporated some of my white sourdough starter into the mix? Might that add, not just the complex savoury flavour that was lacking, but also the chewy elasticity to the crust? I had to experiment.

A year of trials later, I have a process that, while it’s not a ‘novice bake’, works very well and reliably for me, and as a bonus, can even be baked the same day you start if you forget to start the sponge the night before baking. It’s a ‘hybrid’ bread, making use of both the sourdough starter and of bakers’ yeast (much as many commercial loaves labelled as ‘sourdough’ do!). And while the results can sometimes look a little ‘wobbly’ and rustic, they have every bit of the flavour and characteristics of the loaves I enjoyed for my breakfast on a visit to Paris back in March. Torn in half, with unsalted butter and jam and a big mug of coffee, I challenge you to find a better everyday breakfast.

Of course, you can bake these loaves without the sourdough starter – you’ll be baking something like Paul Hollywood’s original recipe, and it’s not bad, but it’s just not the same!

To make these semi-sourdough baguettes, you will require –

  • Ingredients200g of 100% hydration white sourdough starter (that is, made up of 100g of flour and 100g of water), which has been ‘fed’ within the last 24hours. You’ll need to adjust the quantities of ingredients if your starter is balanced differently.
  • 400g of French bread flour (you can use British-style strong white bread flour, but the texture and flavour aren’t quite right; you’re going to a fair bit of trouble for these loaves, so it’s worth tracking down the good stuff!)
  • 200ml of water at room temperature (or gently lukewarm on a cold day or when short of time)
  • 1tsp or a 7g sachet of dried instant yeast
  • 1tsp salt (this is my personal preference – recipes often double this quantity)
  • 50g of softened unsalted butter
  • Oil for kneading, and
  • Semolina for dusting the baking sheet

Make up the overnight spongeIdeally the night before, combine the 200g of starter with 100g of flour and 200ml of water, add the spoonful of instant yeast, and combine to create a thin batter. A whisk can be helpful. Cover with cling-film and set aside overnight, or, if you’re not that organised, for at least an hour and more if possible.

The overnight sponge after mixingThe loaves will work fine with the shorter resting period but you’re inevitably sacrificing some flavour from the longer, slower fermentation. After resting, there should be some bubbles rising to the surface of your batter (more if you’ve left it overnight).

Roughly mix the dough and allow to restNow add the remaining 300g of flour, the salt and the softened (melted is fine) butter, and combine to make what will be a very soft, wet dough. Before kneading, just let it sit in the bowl for about half an hour to allow the flour grains to absorb as much as possible of the moisture and help the gluten start to set up.

Dough during kneadingTip the dough onto a well oiled worktop, scraping out any that sticks to the bowl, and knead it for at least 10 minutes. It will be very sticky to start with, but this will improve to some extent with working. Try to resist adding extra flour unless absolutely essential, and if you do, add a very little at a time. This is never going to be an easy dough to work, you’re aiming to get it just on the right side of ‘impossible’. Working it with plenty of oil will reduce its tendency to stick to things other than itself, and avoids changing the hydration with flour from surfaces being incorporated into the dough.

Form a ball and allow to riseOnce the dough is well kneaded, form a ball and set aside in a well oiled bowl, loosely covered with plastic or a tea towel to retain moisture, until it has at least doubled in size.

Divide risen dough into threeNow, turn the dough out onto a well-oiled worktop and divide it into three as evenly as you can, but without faffing about (no grabbing a bit from here and sticking it onto there). You’ll see recipes instructing you to ‘roll the dough out into a baguette shape’, but don’t, ok? What you’ll get it you do that is a stodgy, even-textured dough shaped like a baguette (much as you get from most UK supermarkets, sadly). If you want the stretched curst and almost concentric-structured crumb of a genuine baguette, you need to form the shape properly. I got the clue I needed, oddly, from a TV travel show about Paris, where they popped into a boulangerie, and there in the background, when I paused and re-wound the programme, was a guy making baguettes. This way is rather fiddly, but it works!

First, find your widest, shallowest-sided baking sheet, and dust it generously with semolina. This will stop the dough sticking, and provides the characteristic ‘crunch’ to the base.

Shaped loaves on baking sheetTake each piece of dough, and fold two edges towards the centre. Without turning the dough, do this again and again in the same direction until you have quite a tight ‘cylinder’ with a centre seam on top, which will be about a third or half the length it needs to be. Now stretch out the cylinder lengthwise, gently, trying to keep the diameter even all the way along. Turn the baguette over so that it’s seam-side down, and tidy in the ends by tucking under into the traditional point if you can, though don’t worry if the ends are a bit dumpy. Tuck the sides under along the length of the loaf using a dough scraper, if you have one, and then, quickly so that it doesn’t sag, transfer the loaf to the baking sheet.

This takes some practice and your first baguettes will probably be rather funny shapes. But don’t worry – it’s not at all important! The process is a bit tricky to describe (I wonder if I should try and get a video of me shaping a loaf?) but hopefully should make sense once you’re doing it.

You could just as easily quarter your dough and make four shorter baguettes; arrange them across the baking sheet rather than along, if you prefer littler loaves. The smaller loaves are obviously easier to handle, so it may make sense to start that way.

Cook-shops will sell you shaped baking sheets with rounded bottoms for baking baguettes on, and that will give you the characteristic rounded base – baking on a flat sheet will obviously give you a flat bottom, though as the dough springs up in the oven it’s often less obvious than you might expect. I’ve tried quite hard to avoid acquiring clutter and kitchen gadgets during my home baking experiments, and actually I find most of the time you can do perfectly well without them!

Cover and allow to riseCover your shaped loaves (I have a large sheet of polythene that I use to form a tent over them) and leave to rise for at least an hour or until at least doubled in size. Now set your oven to pre-heat at its highest temperature.

Slash the risen loaves along their lengthOnce the oven is up to temperature, uncover your loaves, and very quickly using your sharpest knife, slash diagonally along the length. I find two slashes per loaf works best, overlapping over the centre third to half of the loaf. If you hesitate at this stage, your loaves will deflate a lot, so be quick and decisive, and get the loaves straight into the oven.

Turn the baking sheet at least once to help the loaves bake evenly. You may find they need as little as 20 minutes in all – they’re done once the crust is a lovely deep golden to mid brown colour and the loaves feel crispy and sound hollow underneath. Remove them from the oven then and set to cool on a wire rack.

Tear & enjoy

Once they’re (almost!) cool, rip into one. I love to tear rather than slicing my baguette, it makes the most of the wonderful texture of the crust and crumb. Enjoy as the Parisiens do, with unsalted butter and jam for breakfast, or as the ultimate versatile sandwich loaf. Who wants one of those nasty stodgy ‘subs’?

Enjoy with unsalted butter

I would really love to know how you get on with this recipe, so please please come and tell me how it works out for you, by leaving a comment here or tweeting me @CountrySkills!

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No Weigh! – the bake-anywhere, traveller’s loaf

On holiday in self catering accommodation, staying in hostels, on a campsite, or even visiting family or friends, have you ever felt the urge to bake a lovely fresh loaf of bread only to discover that a key piece of equipment – usually a set of scales, or a measuring jug – is missing? I may be a bit odd, but I’ve even been known to go out and buy the missing piece of kit just to get my loaf baked! Since then, I’ve given the question some thought, done a few experiments, and so today I’m going to share with you my ‘no weigh’, measurement free, (nearly!) foolproof loaf recipe that you can bake very nearly anywhere, with almost no kitchen equipment.

Sliced, warm from the oven.

To make this loaf, the bare minimum equipment you require is –

  • A flat work surface or large chopping board
  • A teaspoon
  • Some sort of a liquid container (a pint glass or mug is ideal)
  • Something to bake your loaf on or in (a roasting tray, a pie tin, or whatever)
  • An oven (if you’re camping, you can even bake bread in a dutch oven, though you’ll need to adapt the process a little)

If you can also lay your hands on any of the following, it will make things a little easier –

  • A mixing bowl
  • Spatula or dough scraper
  • A plastic bag or tea towel
  • A sharp knife

And now the ingredients –

  • IngredientsStrong white bread flour
  • Dried instant yeast (a sachet, or from a pot)
  • Table salt
  • Water
  • Cooking oil (a light-flavoured olive oil is ideal, but whatever comes to hand)

Just a quick note first on difficulty – because this recipe depends, essentially, on judging the ‘feel’ of the dough to get the proportions right, complete novice bakers may struggle with this approach; but you don’t need to be an expert baker – if you’ve made a few loaves before, and have a sense of what a good dough should feel like, this technique will hopefully work well for you!

So, time to begin.

Make a well in the flourCheck how much flour is in your packet (standard packs of UK flour are usually 1.5kg but can be 1kg or even 3kg) and tip your best guess at 500g into your bowl or on to the work surface. Make a well in the centre, and add a heaped teaspoon of instant yeast (or a whole 7g sachet) and a teaspoon of salt. I tend to add the yeast to the well and the salt to the side.

It’s useful if you have an approximate idea of the volume of your liquid container. (You’re likely to need about half a pint of water, or a little over.) Fill your glass or mug with lukewarm water and add it a little at a time to the well in your flour, mixing as you go. If you’re using a work surface rather than a bowl you are, I’m afraid, likely to make rather a mess, so do use a mixing bowl if you have access to one. Salad bowls or other serving bowls can make a good substitute.

Form a sticky doughKeep adding water until all the flour is incorporated into your dough and the texture is a bit stickier than you really think it ought to be. The dough at this stage ought to be a bit tricky to work with and glue itself to everything. The reason for getting it to this stage is to make sure that the dough isn’t under-hydrated, as this is is the main cause of stodgy, disappointing loaves which don’t rise properly.

Dough after kneadingPour a generous glug of oil over your dough and work surface and start to knead the dough in the oil. Add more oil every if the dough gets sticky again. The process of kneading will mix the moisture evenly through your dough and you may well find the dough stops being excessively sticky just through the kneading process. But if you’ve been kneading for ten minutes or so and the dough is still too sticky, add an extra sprinkle of flour. Go gently with the flour, though, as I find it always needs less than it seems to get the texture of the dough nice and silky.

Cover with whatever you have to handOnce you’re happy with your dough, and it’s well kneaded, form it into a ball, oil it well, and set it aside in an oiled bowl if you have one (or leave it on the worktop). Cover the dough loosely – a supermarket plastic bag is ideal, or use cling film if you have it, or a tea towel, or anything else that comes to hand! Set aside to rise until the dough at least doubles in size.

Doubled doughOnce the dough has doubled (which may take as little as an hour, but could take quite a bit longer in cold conditions – be patient and don’t rush this bit!) turn the dough out onto an oiled surface.

Turn dough outNow, very gently, form it into a bloomer shape. I’m going to stress the ‘gently’ bit again, because it’s very tempting to get stuck in and almost re-knead the dough at this stage, and that’s not what you want to do at all. You’ll hear a lot of talk of ‘knocking back’ dough, but you’ll lose a lot of the air in the dough just in the shaping process.

Formed bloomerTo form a bloomer (the shape you want for a bread tin is very similar), I fold both long ends towards the middle, then rotate the dough 90 degrees and do the same from the side. Then I turn the dough seam-side down and tuck the sides and ends under neatly. That’s it. No kneading, no bashing, just some gentle folding. You can form a round cob loaf by bringing the edges into the centre until you form make a general round, before turning the loaf over seam-down and tucking the bottom under neatly.

Dust your baking sheet well with flour and place the bloomer in the centre of it. If you’re using a tin (or tin-substitute) I would oil or butter it first before dusting well with flour. Dust the top of your loaf with flour too, and put it back under loose cover somewhere warm for another hour or so.

Well-risen bloomerWhen the loaf is well risen, pre-heat your oven as hot as it will go. Take the cover off your loaf, and cut a straight slash down the centre with a sharp knife if you have one (or a more creative pattern, if you fancy!) and pop it straight into the centre of the oven.

The loaf will probably take around 30 minutes to bake, but this will depend on the quirks of the oven, which you probably aren’t familiar with, so take a first look around 20 minutes and then keep your eye on things pretty closely. If you happen to have access to a wood fired pizza oven, you can even use this – just remember that these tend to run very hot so baking times will be quite a lot shorter! Turn the loaf once or twice to avoid any hot spots in the oven baking the loaf unevenly, or even burning it.

The loaf is ready when the top is dark golden and crispy, and the base sounds hollow when tapped. If in doubt, put it back for 5 minutes – over-baking a loaf a a little is never a disaster – it just increases the thickness and crispiness of the crust – whereas an under-cooked stodgy middle is decidedly disappointing. If you have an oven rack to hand, set it to cool on this.

Fresh from the oven

There you go – a no-weigh, no-measure, home made, very tasty rustic white loaf, that you really can make almost anywhere you can get your hands on a few very basic ingredients & equipment. No excuse for rubbish bread this summer, then. Enjoy!

What did I do with mine?

Cucumber sandwich time!

Well, it was late lunch when it came out of the oven, so I sliced it, still warm (I know, but it’s irresistible, right?) and made an old-fashionned but wonderful cucumber sandwich with one of our home-grown cucumbers, harvested yesterday evening from the polytunnel. A little taste of summer heaven!

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Milk Loaf, from ‘How To Bake’ by Paul Hollywood – Cooking the Books, week 14

This bread, I have to tell you, is a revelation – a genuine flavour of my continental childhood. The first taste was one of those ‘madelaine’ moments, where time peels away and you’re no more than five or six years old again, standing in your childhood kitchen with a slice of bread and butter in your hand. Heaven.

Of course, milk bread may not have the same associations for you as it does for me. Still, I would suggest you give this bread a go, because, childhood memories or not, it’s marvellous.

For one large loaf, I used –

  • Milk loaf ingredients500g strong white bread flour
  • 30g unsalted butter (softened before use, if you keep it in the fridge)
  • 25g caster sugar
  • 320ml semi-skimmed milk
  • a 7g sachet of instant yeast
  • 1 tsp salt
  • Olive oil
  • Some extra milk for a milk wash before baking

In a large mixing bowl, rub the butter roughly through the flour until no large lumps remain. Then add the sugar, salt and yeast to the bowl, keeping the yeast and salt on opposite sides of the bowl. Add about two thirds of the milk, and mix gently using your fingers.

The recipe calls for the addition of warmed milk. To save on wastage, I warmed 250ml of milk to blood heat in the microwave, and used this for the initial addition. The rest of the milk, I added straight from the bottle. Add it a little at a time until you form a nice soft dough. My favourite way of judging this is to add the milk (or water, in a traditional bread recipe) until the dough is *just* getting a bit too wet, then add back a sprinkle of extra flour to compensate. That way, you know your dough is as well hydrated as it can be.

Before provingOil your work surface and knead the dough until it is soft, smooth, silky, and elastic. I love kneading bread, there’s something deeply therapeutic and – dare I say it? – sensual about it. Then return your dough to an oiled mixing bowl and cover loosely with cling film, and leave it to rise for a couple of hours.

Risen doughI find that this dough goes off like a rocket – it must be the sugar in the mix, the little yeasty beasties really set to and it rises like a balloon being inflated. Still, give it time (which develops flavour, too) and let it tripple or more in size.

For me, milk bread has to be in the form of a plaited loaf. It’s just traditional. This dough is remarkable, elastic stuff, something I learned to my cost the first time I made it. If you work it too much during knocking back, before trying to form your loaf, you will end up with tight springy little balls of dough that resist stubbornly any attempt to shape them into the long sausage-shapes you need to make your plait.

So, turn the risen dough out onto an oiled work surface, and divide it by eye into three even portions (they won’t end up even, but don’t worry about this too much!). Taking each one, knock it back gently and then immediately start folding the sides towards the centre to form your sausages. You may need to roll these a little, using your hands as if the dough is a rolling pin, to get the length you need.

Turn out your dough  Divide into three  Form into sausage shapes

Once you have your three pieces, join them together at one end, make a plait, and turn both ends under to make it tidy. Place your plaited loaf on a lined baking sheet, cover loosely again (I prefer oiled cling film), and set it aside to rise. Allow it to at least double, just be careful it doesn’t rise so fast it tries to escape from your baking sheet!

Place the plait on baking sheet  Cover loosely with oiled cling-film  And allow to rise!

Once it’s well risen, pre-heat your oven to 210 C. Brush the loaf gently all over with a little extra milk, and then slide it straight into the oven and bake it for 25 minutes until the crust is quite a dark brown colour and the loaf sounds hollow when tapped underneath. Cool on a wire rack (or on a cold oven shelf, which used to serve me perfectly well for cooling loaves and cakes before I bought a ‘proper’ one).

Brush with milk  Fresh from the oven!

What can I say about this loaf that isn’t unbearably mawkish? Well, it’s pretty perfect. That dark, shiny crust conceals a wonderful soft even white crumb. It’s not sweet, despite the sugar addition, but has a rich smoothness from the milk. It’s wonderful on its own, with butter and jam, but also makes a quite marvellous soft bacon sandwich. I commend this loaf heartily to you.

Slice, and enjoy!

 

 

**
How to Bake - cover‘How To Bake’, by Paul Hollywood
Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2012
ISBN 978-1-4088-1949-4
Hardcover, 304 pages, full colour. RRP £20.

[Full disclosure: This is my book, which was a lovely recent birthday gift! I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

I reviewed ‘Paul Hollywood’s Bread’ earlier in this series, and this book is it’s immediate predecessor, on the same imprint. As you’d expect, then, pretty much everything I said then also applies here – with lavish illustration throughout and good ‘step by step’ photography of the basic processes.

How to Bake - inner page viewThe scope of this book is a little wider than ‘Bread’, with chapters on basic and flavoured breads, an extensive section on sourdough baking, as well as good coverage of enriched doughs (croissants, pastries and brioche), and a decent selection of cakes, biscuits, puddings, pies and tarts, too. This additional breadth may or may not be a benefit, depending on your specific interests! This book lacks the accompanying ‘serving-suggestion’ recipe for each of the loaves that was a feature of ‘Bread’.

Overall I would definitely consider adding this book to your library if you’re at all interested in expanding your home baking repertoire. I can see myself experimenting with a lot more of these recipes in the future, and this milk loaf has jumped straight onto the ‘house standards’ list.

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

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Microwave ‘Roast’ Garlic – and a gorgeous roast garlic and rosemary bread

I was looking for a garlic flatbread recipe yesterday (as you do!) and came across a very intriguing suggestion… that it was possible to ‘roast’ garlic in the microwave, in just a few minutes. Could it be true? If it was, it would save quite significantly on the time and energy involved in roasting in the oven – typically 45 minutes to an hour, fine if you’re organised and remember to put your little tinfoil parcels in with something else, but irritating and inefficient if you find yourself wanting some right now!

The instructions I’d found were only a tantalising hint, unfortunately – vague on both the technique and on power and timings. So I had a little google, and discovered that apparently lots of people were doing very similar things. Convinced now that I was reinventing the wheel, and that everyone else already knew about this trick and just hadn’t bothered to tell me, I tweeted to this effect. What was said in response surprised me – apparently, no one else had heard about it, either. So, I promised to investigate and then blog my findings. True to my word then, here goes!

Obviously, you’re not really roasting the garlic, since this requires the application of direct heat. Consequently you won’t get the caramelisation which true oven-roasted garlic gains (well, you can, but more of this later!). The process is closer to steaming, but produces a soft, sweet, cooked garlic very suitable for using as a substitute for true roasted garlic if you’re short on time and organisation – and there are ways to cheat the last mile and get that caramelisation, too.

For your microwave ‘roast’ garlic, you require –

  • Ready to 'roast'One or more garlic bulbs (I suggest you start with one, until you’re happy with the process),
  • A splash of water and olive oil,
  • A microwave proof dish with suitable loose-fitting lid (or some cling film), and
  • A microwave, obviously.

Slice the top off your bulb of garlic, at a level where you’re just ‘scalping’ all of the cloves of garlic inside.

Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of water to the bottom of your bowl (enough to cover the bottom about 5mm deep), add your clove of garlic cut side up, and drizzle over some olive oil. Cover loosely – don’t seal, and if you’re using cling film, leave a small opening on one side. Pop the whole lot in your microwave.

Now – all of these directions are for *my* microwave, which is a very standard UK-type category E (800W) device. Your microwave may be slightly (or very!) different – even if it claims to be the same – so a little experimentation is going to be required!

Softened and changed colourStart by heating the garlic for 1 minute on full power. Then take it out of the microwave, remove the cover (carefully, as there will be a lot of steam!) and give the cut surface of the garlic a speculative prod with the point of your knife. It should give very slightly, and have changed colour subtly from white to a slightly translucent creamy shade.

It probably isn’t convincingly soft yet, though, so pop it back in the microwave and this time give it 30 seconds on full. Take it back out and repeat the poking process. Depending on the size of the cloves in your garlic, it may well be ready by now. If the surface of the garlic seems reasonably soft (it won’t be pulpy), and the cloves are coming away from their inner skin, then it’s worth popping a clove out to test.

If you can crush the clove easily with the handle of a spoon, then it’s done. If not then give it a little longer. My bulb had a couple of quite big juicy cloves, so I put it back in, but only for a final 15s. So total time in the microwave, for me, of 1 minute and 45 seconds.

Crush a clove to test

After letting it cool for a few minutes, I popped out one of the bigger cloves, and it squashed really easily. Job done.

Taste a little piece – it has become quite unlike raw garlic, instead mild, sweet and aromatic, just like roast garlic. Yes, it lacks a little note of caramelisation – but we’ll get to that!

Here’s the really important thing. ONCE THE GARLIC IS SOFT, STOP!

Burnt garlic bulbBecause, these photos aren’t from my first attempt. The first attempt I made turned out like this. I gave it two initial 1 minute blasts in the microwave, and so pleased was I with the progress it got another 30 seconds. A nice toasted smell started to develop, and a golden colour on the edge of the garlic. I was delighted. Right up until I gave it a poke and it was rock hard. So let my mistake stand for all of you, and we won’t have to sacrifice too many perfectly innocent garlic bulbs!

What do you do with it now? Well, if you want something closer to ‘real’ roasted garlic, heat up your oven, wrap up your garlic in a little tinfoil parcel with an extra drizzle of olive oil, and bake it for 10 – 15 minutes at 180C until it takes a little colour. Much quicker! An even ‘cheatier’ approach might be to heat a little olive oil in a frying pan and just brown off the cut surface gently until golden. No one will ever know!

But most of the time, roast garlic is going into something else, anyway. As I said, all of this came about because I wanted to make some garlic bread to go with pasta for dinner. The one I chose to make is based on this recipe from BBC food.

To make one roast garlic and rosemary bread (serves four generously as a side dish) –

  • Dough ingredients250g strong white bread flour
  • 150ml warm water
  • 1 (7g) sachet of dried yeast
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1 bulb of garlic, ‘roasted’ as above
  • 75g unsalted butter
  • 3 or 4 sprigs of fresh rosemary
  • A generous pinch each of salt and freshly ground pepper

Kneaded dough before rising

Weigh your flour into a bowl, and make a well in the centre. In a measuring jug, combine the water, oil, sugar and yeast, and stir in gently. Now pour the liquid, a little at a time, into the flour, and combine into a dough.

Knead the dough for about 5 minutes, until it becomes silky and elastic, and set aside to rise at room temperature in an oiled bowl until well risen about tripled in size is ideal). This will take an hour or so, more if your room temperature is low!

Crush your garlicIn the meantime, you can prepare your microwave ‘roast’ garlic as described earlier, and allow it to cool. Once you can handle the garlic comfortably, pop all the cloves out of the bulb and crush them with the flat blade of a knife, leaving a little texture (you’re not making garlic puree).

Chop rosemaryFinely chop your rosemary (stalks removed), and mix this, the garlic, salt & pepper into your softened butter. My butter lives at room temperature, but if yours is coming out of the fridge, a 10s blast in the microwave (with foil wrapper removed!) will soften it up and make it easier to work with. You’re pretty much all set, so go and do something else while the bread dough rises.

Well risen dough and herb butterOnce your dough is well risen, find a baking sheet or shallow-sided baking tray and line it with baking parchment. Tip the dough out onto a well oiled work-surface, and knock it back gently, shaping it to the size and shape of your baking sheet. It will be quite a thin layer, probably about 1cm thick. It doesn’t need to be perfect and I certainly wouldn’t use a rolling pin, you should be able to stretch and shape it with your hands just fine. Transfer carefully to the baking sheet – it doesn’t matter if it gets a bit ‘crumpled’ looking!

Shaped dough with butterNow spread your flavoured butter over the surface. Again, use your fingers, blobs and knobs are fine, you’re not aiming for an effect like icing a cake, but try and share the butter around reasonably evenly. Finally, stab the bread all over with a fork, and leave to prove for another 30 minutes or so until the dough is looking a little puffed up again.

When you’re happy, heat your oven to 230C and once it’s up to temperature, slide in the baking sheet. You’ll want to watch this bread reasonably carefully, because it’s quite thin and will bake reasonably quickly, and there’s a risk of the garlic burning and taking on a bitter flavour if your oven has nasty hot-spots (mine does, sadly!). Turn the bread if you notice it starting to brown unevenly. Don’t hesitate to turn the oven down to ~190C if the surface seems to be browning too fast. It should take about 15 minutes to be lovely and golden brown all over.

Bread fresh from the oven

This was a glorious accompaniment to a pasta supper. The garlic acquires all of that sweet caramelised flavour during the baking of the bread, so there’s no loss at all from the microwave roasting process compared to a more traditional approach. After baking, the garlic is sweet and aromatic with none of the raw hot flavour you get have from raw garlic in garlic bread. I will definitely be making this one again.

And serve!There are some obvious variations, which I think would work very well with this bread. Adding some finely chopped, caramelised red onions to the butter would work very well, I think. You could also throw a handful of grated parmesan into the butter mix, which would melt beautifully into the surface. You’re really in pizza-bread territory here, and the world is your oyster! Experiment!

The microwave garlic roasting technique is the real star of this show, for me, though. One of those accidental discoveries which really will change the way I cook. I recommend you give it a try!

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Pain de Savoie, from Paul Hollywood’s ‘Bread’ – Cooking the Books, week 2

We seem to have ended the Christmas season with rather a lot of lovely cheese in the fridge! So today’s challenge was to find a recipe in my cookbook collection which would let me use some of it to make something absolutely scrummy. I haven’t baked any bread for a couple of weeks and remembered that Paul Hollywood might have something that would suit… So I dug out ‘Paul Hollywood’s Bread’, which accompanied last year’s popular BBC TV series.

Bread inner page view

And there it was – Pain de Savoie – a lovely looking loaf stuffed with cheese (yes!) and bacon (even better!). Savoie is an alpine region, and as everyone knows, mountain folk have all the best gorgeous stodgy winter comfort food. I had high hopes!

To make this loaf, I used –

  • White & rye flour400g of strong white bread flour
  • 100g of organic rye flour
  • 1 small tsp of sea salt (I can’t bring myself to put more than this into a loaf)
  • 7g pack of fast action dried yeast (oddly, the recipe wanted 8g)
  • 150g of home-cured smoked streaky bacon, rind removed, and cut into lardons
  • 200g of wonderful aged Gruyère
  • Olive oil
  • 330ml of tepid water

Start by weighing your flours and combining in a large mixing bowl, add the salt, yeast, a generous tablespoon of olive oil, and then mix in about two thirds of the water, using your fingers.

Roughly mixed ingredientsThis should roughly combine the dry ingredients but leave them a little dry, so add the remaining water progressively until all the dry ingredients come together as a ball, leaving the sides of the bowl reasonably clean. I found I had just over 50ml left over, but this will depend on the characteristics of your flours. The dough should look a little like this before kneading.

Now knead for 5-10 minutes until it becomes smooth and elastic. You’ll notice the difference – it may take longer than this if you’re not accustomed to kneading, but you’ll get there! I have wholeheartedly adopted Paul’s recommendation of kneading dough on an oiled surface, after a lifetime of using flour – I don’t think it makes very much difference to the dough, but it doesn’t half reduce the mess you make of your kitchen!

After kneadingOnce you’re done, the dough ball will look like this. [You’re supposed to add the fried & cooled lardons at this stage. I suffered an unfortunate spot of reading comprehension fail, and didn’t.] Oil the mixing bowl and put the dough ball back inside, cover with a piece of oiled PVC-free cling film, and set aside for a couple of hours until it’s doubled or more in size.

Ignore anything you might have heard about putting dough to rise somewhere warm like an airing cupboard, just sitting out on the kitchen counter should be fine, unless it’s very very cold, in which case I’ve done well with putting the bowl in the oven with just the oven light turned on. Letting bread rise in a warm environment certainly will speed the process up, but at the expense of the flavour that develops with a slower, lower temperature rise – and if you wanted tasteless bread, you’d just eat the junk from the supermarket.

Fried bacon lardonsIf like me you’ve forgotten to include your lardons, now is the time to fry them until golden. I used my home-cured black pepper bacon, which is lightly smoked. Incidentally, this is what really good dry-cured bacon should look like, when you’re frying it. See that lovely, clear bacon fat in the pan? That’s all that should ever leak out. And because it’s not wet, and doesn’t leach phosphate water, it fries to a beautiful golden caramelised surface. Fabulous. Once it’s cooked, set aside to cool. And try not to sample too many pieces in the name of ‘quality control, eh?

Combine with baconI turned the dough out onto the work surface, knocked it back into a rough rectangle, and sprinkled over the cooled bacon pieces before rolling it up into a rough sausage and cutting it into three (very roughly) equal sized pieces. Each of these pieces I kneaded a little to get the bacon well combined and formed into balls. [If you had already added the bacon before the dough proved for the first time, you could just cut the dough into thirds, knock them back gently and form into balls, and go straight ahead to assembling the loaf in the loaf tin. But I hadn’t, so…]

Dough balls and cheese cubesAfter kneading the little dough balls, they were a bit tight, so I gave them a little time to relax before moving on to the next stage. About half an hour did the trick. In the meantime, cut your cheese up into ~1cm cubes. The original recipe calls for Comté, which would be glorious. This Gruyère, which happened to be what I had in the fridge, and will be a pretty good match, but really any good firm well flavoured cheese will do very nicely – I think a decent mature cheddar would work a treat!

Assemble the breadOil your tin – the recipe calls for a 20cm ‘springform’ tin. I haven’t got one of those, but I do have an 8″ loose-bottomed cake tin I usually use for Christmas cake. Paul says to roll out the dough with a rolling pin into tin-sized rounds. I just pushed it out with my fingertips, which seemed to work fine. After putting the first circle of dough in the bottom of the oiled tin, spread out half the cheese cubes over the surface, repeat with the second ball of dough, and then finally press the third circle of dough over the top. Sprinkle the top with a little bit of rye flour, and cover with the clingfilm for another hour or so until it’s nicely risen.

Before rising  Nicely risen  Fresh from the oven

Once you’re happy, pre-heat your oven to 220 and, once it’s up to temperature, slide the tin into the oven and bake for half an hour. It should come out a lovely rich mid-brown colour on top.

Rest in the tin for 10 minutes before turning out onto a wire rack to cool for as long as you can bear it, before carving off a thick slice, adding a bit of lovely unsalted butter, and cramming it in your mouth.

Cooling

This is really really good bread. The rye flour gives it a lovely nutty flavour without making it heavy. The cheese has melted during baking to leave quite striking square holes in the dough. Hubby compared it to a really good cheese and bacon sandwich, and I suppose that’s it, really. It’s a thing of great simplicity, but simple things can be fabulous and this really is. But of course the simpler the dish, the more it depends on the quality of the ingredients. So, make it! But be sure to use really good cheese and bacon, m’kay?

Share and enjoy!

Technically, it’s not difficult, though having a ‘feel’ for bread dough will obviously be helpful. Not much equipment required and relatively minimal washing up – kitchen scales, a large mixing bowl, and a deep round cake tin are essential. A dough scraper is useful but not actually necessary. If you don’t have a wire cooling rack, it’s perfectly reasonable to use a (cold!) oven rack

**
Bread cover shot‘Paul Hollywood’s Bread’
Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2013. ISBN 978-14088-4069-6
Hardcover, full colour, 224 pages. RRP £20.

[Full disclosure: This is my book, which I bought in the traditional way! I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

This is a really great book for anyone interested in bread baking, whether you’ve never baked a loaf before and just want to know how to get started, or have a fair amount of baking experience, there’s something for you here. I would definitely recommend it to any keen but inexperienced home-bakers, as the techniques are well explained and the book is quite lavishly illustrated with step-by-step photography.

Sourdough baking is even covered a little, though after my experiences with getting a sourdough starter going a couple of years ago, I think the process given for this may be a tad on the optimistically simple side! (Incidentally, if you’re just taking up baking, and particularly if you’re interested in sourdough, I would also recommend ‘River Cottage Handbook No. 3 – Bread’ by Daniel Stevens)

There are some lovely unusual bread recipes, such as this one, and one or two ‘extras’ to accompany them, and there should be something new to try here even if you’re already a confident baker!

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

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Very Cheesy – baked camembert with garlic and thyme

My local co-op has had those little wooden boxed camembert cheeses on special offer recently.  I bought one a couple of weeks ago, planning to bake it, but of course life intervened and it was only this week that I finally got around to it.  This is no problem, of course, as it just gave the cheese a chance to mature and ripen nicely.

I think it’s probably a side effect of my early upbringing in Switzerland, but I have to admit to being a teeny bit obsessed with melted cheese. And this is one of the quickest, simplest, and most self-indulgent melted cheese suppers of them all.

Baked camembert with bread & chutney

Who could ask for more after a long day at work? You will need –

  • Unwrapped camembertA whole camembert, in a wooden box. The cheaper ones tend to have cardboard bottoms. This isn’t a problem as long as at least one half of the box has wooden top and sides.
  • A clove of garlic, minced.
  • A few sprigs of fresh thyme (dried, at a push).
  • A tot of dry white wine.
  • To serve, a fresh crispy baguette (or other bread if you prefer – some home-made sourdough would be wonderful, of course!) and some chutney (I chose my spiced plum chutney, but choose whatever you like!).

Open the box and unwrap the cheese, taking off any plastic or paper surrounding the cheese itself. Return it to half of the wooden box, and place the box on a baking tray. Set the oven to heat at 180C.

Prepared camembert with garlic and thymeCut four our five parallel slices through the top skin of the cheese. I’ve seen some recipes call for cutting this off entirely, but I really can’t see the point. Mince up your clove of garlic, and rub it into the top of the cheese, making sure you get some into the slices you’ve made. Strip the leaves from the fresh thyme sprigs, and sprinkle these over. Finally, pour over a tot of wine (about a single spirit measure, or a good ‘glug’).

Tuck in!That’s it, really. Could it be simpler? Slide the prepared cheese into the oven, and pour yourself a well-deserved glass of that nice dry white wine. After about 10-15 minutes, put the bread in alongside it to warm through and get all crispy and gorgeous and leave it all for another five minutes.

Then serve, with some chutney on the side. Go ahead and dig straight into the silken melted heart of the cheese with a big piece of crispy baguette.

I think it would be great served with a crisp green salad with a nice sharp vinaigrette, perhaps using some gorgeous chive flower vinegar, but it had been a long day at work, so I just settled for totally indulgent bread and cheese!

All gone!

As you can see, it went down a treat. Make this, you won’t be disappointed!

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Don’t be Sour – a dalliance with yeasted ‘quick’ bread

Regular readers of the blog (and those familiar with the intermittent Sourdough Saga series of posts) will know that I *love* my sourdough starter. It’s fair to say I love it like another pet, like a member of the family.  I feed it and care for it (and, admittedly, stash it in the fridge for a fortnight at the time – please note that this is not generally advisable treatment of household pets!) and in return it rewards me and feeds me with some of the very best bread I’ve ever eaten, anywhere in the world.  It seems a more than fair exchange for my time and effort!

Sourdough loaf selection

The beauty of a sourdough loaf, its rich deep flavours and developed texture, are the result of the long, slow, patient process of fermenting, kneading and raising, followed by a blistering hot (and preferably steamy!) baking oven.  My ‘big batch’ of sourdough bread makes two large loaves, or two smaller loaves plus some rolls or a pizza, uses 1.25kg of flour, and lasts us about 10 – 14 days, freezing the second loaf.  But making it takes about 24 hours, starting the night before baking with the creation of the sponge, followed by a whole day during which the dough has to be kneaded and shaped periodically, finally baking around dinner time.  It’s not a chore – to me at least! – but it does require a whole day at home, and of course I don’t always have that pleasure!  The trouble with getting used to really fabulous home-baked bread is that nothing that you can get in the shops comes anywhere close.

So, obviously, I needed a solution for good, home-baked, ’emergency bread’.  The sort that, if I needed to, I could start in the evening after I get home from work, and have baked and out of the oven before I go to bed – about a 3 hour window.  Yes, you could use a bread machine in that time frame (and we have done, in the past), but I find the bread too sugared and salty when made according to the instructions, and highly ‘unpredictable’ in its behaviour if you start deviating from the recommended formulae!

Sourdough loaves keep basically forever (she says, without a scrap of exaggeration!), in that they don’t go off the same way as yeasted loaves (they’re protected from mould growth, it turns out, by one of the fermentation products of linoleic acid – you can read the paper, in the Journal of Environmental Microbiology, here).  Sure, they go stale and dry with time and exposure to air, but they don’t go furry – and once they’re too dry to eat, you can turn them into breadcrumbs, so there’s no waste, either!  My emergency loaf needs to be a yeasted loaf, and obviously needs a smaller batch size, so that we’ll get a chance to finish eating it while it’s still at its best!

I asked around on Twitter (what did we do before Twitter, folks?) and the lovely Lisa (@Cookwitch) offered me her version of a recipe for Pain D’Epi, which looked like it might well fit the bill.  I was pretty pleased with my first attempt at it a couple of weeks ago, but didn’t think to take photos at the time (bad food blogger, no biscuit!).  We’re out of bread again, I was working this morning, and I fancied something nice to go with breakfast tomorrow, so I’m making it again right now.

As I make it, you want the following –

  • 275g of strong bread flour (white flour is traditional, and it won’t be a ‘Pain D’Epi’ otherwise, obviously, but use whatever you like – or a mix, if you have ‘rag-tag’ ends hanging around like I usually do)
  • 175ml of warm water
  • 7g sachet of fast-action bread yeast (the sort that comes in the little double-sachets of small yeast pellets, that you can buy everywhere)
  • A scant half-teaspoon of sea salt
  • A good ‘glug’ of olive oil

Start by combining all the dry ingredients in a bowl and mix together – you could use a whisk, but I’d use my fingers!  Now add the 175ml of warm water, and combine to form a dough.  Add a little bit more flour or water if you need to get the consistency right, just not ‘sticky’ but not too dry as a dry dough will make too dense a loaf.

Kneading your doughNow give your dough a really good knead on a floured work surface.  Set aside 10 minutes to do this, and really give it the time and effort.  This is a single-levened bread, so this is the one and only chance that you get to develop the gluten in the flour and consequently the texture in your final loaf.  Once the dough is starting to develop a silky, elastic texture, rather than just feeling like play-dough, add a generous glug of olive oil and continue to work this in.

Shaped loaf in tinOnce you’re happy with the texture, shape your loaf, and either put it in an oiled and floured 1lb loaf tin, or shape it as required and place it on a sheet of oiled baking parchment on a good thin metal baking sheet.

I would guess that this batch could also make about 8 reasonable-sized dinner rolls, though I haven’t tried this myself.  The traditional form of the Pain D’Epi, as you might infer from the name if you’re francophone, is in the shape of an ear of corn – you can see the finished effect, and how you achieve it (surprisingly straightforwardly, using scissors!) here.  It’s a great tear-and-share shape and I really must try it some day!

Covered with oiled cling filmBut back to my loaf, which is sitting in its much more traditional British loaf tin.  Cover the tin loosely with oiled cling-film (PVC-free, please, especially if you’re using it with oily food), and put it somewhere warm.  Mine is going by the fire this evening – because yes, we have the fire going in what, really, is mid-March. Isn’t that depressing?

Allow it to rise for an hour or two, depending on temperature, until it has at least doubled in size (and filled the tin nicely, if you’re using one).  The initial preparation and kneading takes about 15 minutes, which means that I can usually squeeze it in while dinner’s cooking.

Risen loafOnce the loaf is nicely raised, score the surface with a sharp knife in a pretty pattern of your preference (or construct ears of corn, if you’re feeling flash!) and put it into a pre-heated oven at 200 degrees centigrade for about half an hour – it will rise some more in the oven, if you’re lucky (though not anywhere like so much as I’m used to with the well-developed sourdough) and is done when it’s a lovely golden colour all over and the base sounds hollow when you tap it.  I tend to take tin loaves out of their tins and return them to the oven for a final few minutes to get a nice crispy crust all over.  Free-formed loaves may benefit from being taken off their baking sheets and placed straight on the oven rack, in the same way, to make sure they’re not at all soggy-bottomed!

Baked loaf, coolingOnce your loaf is baked, take it out of the oven and allow to cool on a wire cake-cooling type rack if you have one – I only bought mine very recently, and always used to use a cold oven rack I’d taken out before starting to bake the bread, which unsurprisingly works just fine!  Revel in the lovely smell of fresh bread that now permeates your house, and look forwards to the morning!

Overall, this is a really quick, useful, ’emergency bread’ recipe, that seems to work very nicely with all sorts of flours (today’s loaf was made with some malted granary bread flour I had sitting around at the back of the baking ingredients shelf).  It’s streets ahead of anything you can buy from the supermarket or corner shop, though it doesn’t quite stack up in terms of flavour and texture against slower-fermented yeasted loaves that you might make at home, or buy from a good artisan bakery.  Texture wise it does tend to be a bit ‘cakey’ and edges towards being a little on the heavy side, which I ascribe to the single kneading and rising cycle and lack of opportunity for gluten development.  Still, these are knit-picky complaints when you consider how quick and convenient it is to make, and how much nicer it is than any of the commercial alternatives!

Finished loaf

I wrote, back in June of last year, after my first successful sourdough loaf, that “the bar for ‘good bread’ has just shot skywards in our household, and I suspect things may never be quite the same again.”  I was right.  I’m such a bread-snob now!  But this is good, quick, simple bread, and definitely earns a place at our table.

Read all the posts in the Sourdough Saga >>

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Oh, Crumbs! – homemade breadcrumbs for your Christmas cooking – Blog Advent (12)

I hate wasting my home-baked sourdough.  Of course, I try to make sure it all gets eaten when it’s at its best, but sometimes life interferes with your best laid plans, and you’re going away for the weekend with a third of a loaf still sat on the side, or the last roll in the batch is looking a bit dry to be appetising.  So when it looks like there’s some good bread about to go to waste, I chuck it in a bag in the freezer.

Lovely golden breadcrumbsBreadcrumbs are such a useful store cupboard staple.  At Christmas especially, they go into stuffings, and Christmas puddings, as a crunchy topping for fish pie…  I’m going to need some in a few days when I make my batch of Christmas sausages.  And the shop bought kind contain all sorts of preservatives, stabilisers, and even, believe it or not, yellow food dye for that ‘golden’ crumb!  Yuck!

It’s so easy to make your own.  Slice up your bread into normal-thickness slices (about 1cm / half an inch) before you put it in the freezer.  Once you have enough for a batch, get them out of the freezer and lay them out on a baking sheet.  Put them in a low oven at about 125 – 150 C.  After about an hour, get them out and carefully break them up as much as you can (don’t burn your fingers!), before returning them to the oven until they’re thoroughly dry and crispy.

Bread after dryingThey’ll take on a little colour around the edges, but don’t let them burn!  I’ve seen advice to cut the crusts off and not use end pieces for breadcrumbs, because they’ll tend to take on more colour during the drying process and you don’t want this.  Since that’s most of what I usually have left over, I’ve just ignored this advice, with no ill-effect that I can detect!  Once they’re completely dry, take them out of the oven and wait for them to cool fully.

Breaking up the crumbI’ve made the mistake of trying to put these straight in my food processor – they’re really quite hard and it doesn’t work very well!  You might be able to get away with it if your breadcrumbs are being made from ‘white fluff’ commercial sliced bread, but with real sourdough there’s quite a lot of substance to your bread, and the pieces just seem to bounce around the bowl.  Start by transferring the crusty chunks in batches into a large freezer bag, and crunching them up with a heavy rolling pin (a heavy skillet or saucepan would work well, too!).

In the food processorYou could just keep crushing the crumbs by hand until you get the finish you want, but if you’re lazy, like me, and have access to a food processor, then you can transfer the chunks to that once they’re all well under a cm in size, and then process them until they’re the texture you’re after.  I’ve left some bigger pieces in here for texture (if I want finer crumbs later I can always sift them through a collander before use), but you can keep going until it’s the consistency of sand if you prefer.

Now just transfer your breadcrumbs to an airtight container, where they should happily store at room temperature for at least a couple of weeks – this is assuming you’ve dried them properly – moisture is your enemy!  If you want to keep them longer, put them into to a sealed bag and store in the freezer, where they should be fine for 2 – 3 months.  If in doubt, watch out for any signs of mould or musty smells.  If they do start to go off, Hubby – who was my glamorous assistant this evening – asked me to remind you that they’ll still do fine for ground bait for any fisherman or woman in your family!

It’s the 12th of December today, which means we’re now half way through my Blog Advent challenge!  I’m exhausted, but really enjoying it too!  Thank you all so much for reading along so far – I hope I can come up with another dozen days worth!

Advent - day 12

I’m trying to write a post a day during Advent, so, please come along with me while I try to Blog Advent – the Country Skills Way – and forgive me if I don’t quite manage it!

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Brilliant Bangers – in praise of the full English breakfast

Those of you who come here regularly will know this isn’t the sort of food blog (if it’s even a food blog, really?) where I regularly post photos of my meals.  This time, though, I’m making an exception.

This was my Sunday breakfast –

Full English breakfast

What’s so special about that, you might wonder?  Well, everything on that plate was made here, by us.  I’m not going to claim to have grown the mushrooms or the tomato, or churned the butter, but the bacon was home-cured and smoked, the bread was my own sourdough, the eggs were laid in the garden by our hens, and, most excitingly for me, the sausages were made here, in my very own kitchen.  Even the ketchup is homemade.

This blog started with bacon, over a year ago, and curing and smoking have been among the recurring themes as the months have gone by.  The trouble with sausages is that they’re so often so disappointing, so much less than they ought to be, a disposal route for otherwise less than tempting ingredients and fillers.  Of course, the more lovely the rest of your breakfast – the fresher and richer your eggs, the tastier your home-cured bacon – the more obvious the deficiencies of your bangers become.

The Porkert PP88I’ve wanted to make sausages for a very long time – so long, in fact, that we received a sausage press (the rather wonderful chromed cast-iron, sparsely named Czech ‘Porkert PP88’) as a wedding gift over six years ago.  I regret that, until last weekend, it hadn’t yet managed to have an outing!  I finally decided that enough was enough, and ordered some sausage skins from Weschenfelder, which arrived very promptly last week.  A trip to our friendly local farm shop butcher provided us with 1kg of minced pork shoulder, and we were ready to rock!

Sausage mixTo the kilo of minced pork, we added a bit short of the recommended 200g of breadcrumbs (I didn’t have enough – they were a mix anyway of shop-bought breadcrumbs I had in the cupboard, and a couple of slices of dried and crushed homemade sourdough), 200ml of water (this, along with the breadcrumb, is essential for getting the mix to a consistency where it will pass through the sausage press), a teaspoon of salt and a half a teaspoon of crushed black pepper.

Soaking sausage casingsThe sausage skins were already soaking in warm water – we had bought the ready spooled sheep’s casing as Hubby’s preference runs to smaller bangers.  Sausage skins are not pleasant smelling things!  So, don’t sniff them, would be my advice.  A lot of the odour disappears once they’ve been soaked, so I’d recommend trying not to think about it too much in the meantime!

Ours probably hadn’t been soaked for as long as they ought to, since when I loaded the first length, they were very tricky to feed onto the nozzle of the sausage stuffer – I put it down to inexperience, but the second length, which had had about half an hour longer to soak, went on much more easily.  As they can soak for 12 hours or so without harm, get started with the soaking early!

Feed your skins onto the nozzleOK, so there’s no polite way of saying this – there’s something unavoidably prepucial about sausage skins!  Feed your skins onto the nozzle of the sausage stuffer (ours were quite a snug fit on the 20mm nozzle), leaving a couple of inches, untied, dangling free from the tip.  And try not to contemplate the resemblance to condoms too closely!

Don’t overfill your sausage stuffing press, especially if it’s manually powered like ours!  Add a couple of hand-fulls to the barrel and start to push down steadily.  We discovered around this time that we didn’t have the mechanical advantage at counter height to operate the lever usefully, and moved the whole sausage pressing rig down onto the kitchen floor. Really, we should have had mounting bolts to allow us to seat the press firmly in position, but we had to make do without.  Something to add to my ‘fantasy kitchen’ wish-list, I guess!

Filling sausagesPut a nice shallow tray (a baking sheet is ideal) under the sausage press to catch the sausages as they’re filled.  Once you get the sausage meat flowing, you want to kind of let it fill the casing and pull it off the nozzle itself as it goes.  This is definitely a two man job with any kind of manual press, I’m afraid!  Don’t pull the skin away from the nozzle unless it seems to be getting stuck, but equally don’t let the skin be over-filled, as you’re going to need a bit of ‘freedom’ when you come to twist and link the sausages.

The skins will split in places – you might have weakened them when you were incompetently loading them! – but don’t worry, it’s not a disaster. Carry on until you run out of sausage meat, or skins!

Linked sausagesNow it’s time to link your sausages.  I looked at various diagrams and instructions in books and on the web, but in the end I just fiddled with them until they did what I wanted – one of these days I’ll try to take photos but it never made much sense to me at the time!  Still, by the end of the process I had two strings of traditionally linked sausages.  The first  – on the left – are noticeably ‘scrappier’ than the second, but I’m really thrilled with all of them.

It’s advised to hang them to dry for a while – the cabinet doors were useful here – and then let them rest overnight before eating them.  We refrigerated one breakfast’s worth and put the rest in the freezer.

They’re great sausages.  They cooked well under the grill, but I’ll admit the first mouthful was almost underwhelming, I worried they were bland but then realised that they were, by any commercial standard, just seriously ‘under-seasonned’ compared to what my taste-buds were expecting.  I have to say I’m now rather worried about how much salt must be in shop-bought bangers!  But on the second bite, the lovely sweet pork flavour came through beautifully.  I’m looking forward to experimenting with some herbs, spices, and other flavours in future batches – we intentionally kept this batch quite plain as a ‘baseline’!

Finished sausages

So, homemade sausages – the last part of the Holy Trinity of the great Full English breakfast of sausage, bacon and eggs.  Go on, try it!  And no doubt, there will be more sausage making posts in the future!

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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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