And now for something a little bit different...some lovely homemade sourdough loaves! A month or so ago, on a snowy, frigid day, I decided to bake a loaf of bread - a crusty country loaf, from the Flour cookbook (the Flour cookbook is fabulous - I've made probably about a dozen or so things from it, and everything has come out really, really well). A conversation about said loaf of bread with my husband turned into how it might just be really fun to make a weekly gourmet grilled cheese - he'd pick the fillings, and I'd select and bake the bread. We had our first grilled cheese on homemade bread the very next day.
I sent my friend Sasha a few pictures of my country bread loaves - he's a really amazing bread baker - and he said: "welcome to the obsession!". And obsession it has become! The idea of turning a few simple ingredients - water, flour, salt, and yeast - into beautiful loaves of bread is completely fascinating and magical to me. The once a week loaf has turned into several loaves a week, of different varieties. Over the past few weeks, I've made several challahs, chocolate babkas, brioche, country loaves, multigrain loaves, and several sourdoughs. And while the commercially yeasted loaves are wonderful and delicious, baking sourdough has become a new love of mine. It's certainly an investment (not really money wise, more time, effort, and the willingness to learn) and the learning curve can be a bit steep - you must care for your precious sourdough starter(s), the process of mixing, fermenting, proofing, baking can take quite a bit of time (sometimes, in a measure of days), and there are many things that can make your bread turn out not so great. But, the rewards can be really, really great!
I asked Sasha for some advice on bread baking resources, and among the few books and blogs he suggested was the Tartine Bread Experiment blog. It's impossible not to notice Francis-Olive's GORGEOUS photographs and unbelievably amazing bread-baking talents. Her writing style is fantastic, and her posts are packed full of invaluable information. She also almost always photo documents every step of the process, which is extremely helpful (what does the levain look like when it's ready to use? What do the loaves look like after turns? etc). If you're inclined to give sourdough a try, I'd very highly recommend that you give this blog a read (and, try some of her formulae!).
Last weekend, I was ready to move on from the Norwich Sourdough that I had baked a few times (every attempt got better than the last!), and decided to give the city bread, in stout, a try. I also decided to use the same formula to make a hard cider loaf - hard cider home made by my dad and husband. I used Young's Double Chocolate Stout for the stout loaf (bullseye slash), and followed the formula exactly (minus the hazelnuts). For the cider loaf (spiral slash), I used all hard cider for the liquid in the formula, and otherwise followed it exactly (again, minus the hazelnuts). To say that I did a happy dance when I removed the top of the combo cooker after steaming is a severe understatement! Both of these loaves came out gorgeous and really delicious. I had some shaping issues with the cider loaf (cutting into it made it fairly apparent), but the taste was fantastic. I'll certainly make both of these again, though I need a little bit more hard cider to give it another go (I think my dad will be bottling up some more for me this week - woohoo!).
Now, I'm a newbie bread baker, and I have a lot to learn, but here are a few things I've learned so far:
- It can be helpful to start with an established sourdough starter. Sasha gifted me some of his very healthy starter at just about the same time as I had begun to cultivate my own, and it was enlightening to observe how an established, active starter behaves.
- Steam is crucial for awesome, crisp crust. The first few loaves I made I attempted to steam with a pan of hot water in the bottom of my oven. The crust ended up pretty chewy, instead of crisp. Sasha recommended using steaming hot towels (clean kitchen towels soaked in hot water, and then heated up to hot and steamy in the microwave), which worked much better. Best of all - use a cast iron combo cooker. Mine arrived on my doorstep last week, and I couldn't wait to try it - the difference is really remarkable.
- What you bake your bread on/in matters. I started baking on a regular baking sheet, with reasonable results. I then remembered that I had a baking stone, and started using that (much better!). And then I bought a combo cooker, and probably won't go back to anything else (unless I'm baking things that are not boules).
- Preheat your oven - yes, for a full hour. The idea of running my oven at really hot temperatures for hours has been a little tough to wrap my mind around (not sure what I've been afraid of - doubtful the oven could ever blow up? or something like that??), but, the cleaning cycle is far hotter and runs for longer. So, don't be afraid!
- Patience is key. You can't rush things, and if you do, you'll likely be disappointed. If you're going to embark on a 24hr+ process, it's very worth it, for instance, to give your levain another hour or two to ripen if it needs it. As Francis-Olive puts it: "if you don't have time to bake bread properly, don't cut corners. just plan better next time so that every loaf that you make is a satisfying one".