Ma Mère Française

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So for the last year I’ve been making all my bread at work, for the simple reason that my kitchen at home is tiny (think ‘The Little Paris Kitchen’ but in miniature). I consider myself lucky to even have an oven, and I’d use it more often, if it weren’t for the fact that it either does very little or scorches everything within reach. Using the kitchen at work has it’s advantages; the oven’s a fancy one with a button for injecting steam, there’s plenty of workspace for rolling, kneading and throwing flour around, and most importantly, I don’t have to do the washing-up! I don’t, however, always have the time to play with bread as much as I’d like to. On several occasions I’ve made mistakes trying to juggle bread dough with risotto or ravioli-making. This may come as a surprise but we only have the one oven; twice now my bread’s been ready to cook (i.e. on the verge of over-proving) before my colleague’s finished cooking meat at 60°C. I also prefer to be in a relaxed, happy mood whilst making bread, but unfortunately this is seldom the case at work. Professional kitchens are messy places and ours is no exception…..we’re usually rushing around from 8am until midnight trying to get things done. But because making bread usually puts me in a better mood, I try to do it during the afternoons in the two short hours we get to chill out between services. I’m pretty sure the others chefs think I’m crazy, but bakers often are.

So I’ve decided to start taking things a little slower, by attempting my very own sourdough starter or ‘levain’ as they say over here. I went straight to Justin Gellatly of St. John’s for a recipe – you’ll find this one in ‘The Complete Nose to Tail’ cookbook…..

1 stick of rhubarb (I used my pastry chef’s unwanted peelings and trimmings)
210ml water
2 tablespoons live yoghurt
50g rye flour
50g wholemeal flour
100g strong white flour

Day 1:
~ chop the rhubarb into slices 5mm-thick and mix with the water and yoghurt
~ add the flour and stir – the mixture will be wet and lumpy
~ place in a clean container, dust with white flour and leave somewhere warm (around 26-28°C)
Day 2:
~ give the mixture a stir and dust with white flour again
Day 3:
~ stir it again, then add 4 tablespoons of white flour and 4 tablespoons of water – mix well and dust with white flour
Days 4-5:
~ discard about a third of the mixture and replace with a fresh quantity of all the ingredients except the rhubarb (repeat on day 5)
Day 6:
~ the starter should now be ready to use – it should be bubbling and smell strong and sour

So what exactly is a sourdough starter? Well apparently this batter of flour and water is in fact filled with living yeasts and lactobacillus bacteria. These little “friendly” microorganisms multiply when mixed with more flour and water (the dough). The naturally occurring enzymes break down the starch into sugars, which the yeast feeds off. When the yeast feeds on these sugars it converts them to carbon dioxide and alcohol – it’s this carbon dioxide which leavens, or raises, the dough. Any sugars left over are fermented by the lactobacillus bacteria – this creates lactic acid, which gives ‘sour’-dough it’s sour flavour. It’s actually the perfect working environment – “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine, and we’ll all live happily-ever-after”!

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They’re some healthy-looking bubbles…..

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If you’ve never tasted a sourdough loaf before, they tend to be denser and almost waxy in texture. Because the bacteria produce enzymes that break down proteins (and therefore gluten), bread made using a sourdough starter will be heavier, but on the plus side it keeps for much longer…..all it needs is a quick flash through a hot oven before eating (try 220°C for 2-3 minutes, just to refresh the crust).

So a few notes on starter-making; they’re very easy to create…..it’s the looking-after that takes some time and effort. It is a living thing after all, which does require some love and care. It’s taken me a while to pluck up the courage to try – I’ve always been afraid of killing my starter through lack of use/time/care. So this is what I said to myself before I started: “if it dies, it dies, but hopefully I’ll get a great loaf out of it before it does”. And boy, the sense of pride I felt when I gingerly carried my first crumpled loaf out the oven…..is this the feeling new parents get?!

Advice is easy to find; there are books and online forums dedicated to sourdough bread-making…..the trouble is that everyone gives different advice. I’m going to trust my instincts. If my starter’s bubbling away, I’ll take it as healthy. I’m also going to keep mine in the fridge, as I can only see myself making two loaves per week maximum. Justin’s advice is this: “you can leave it in the fridge without feeding it for months but it will take a few days to restart it by feeding it…..discard about a third and feed it equal parts flour and water”. So if I plan on making a loaf, I’ll feed it the day before and leave it at room temperature until it starts bubbling again. I don’t see the point in mollycoddling it, or feeding it Yakults (flick through some of the online advice forums and you’ll understand)…..I may give it a name though. A chef-baker I once worked with in England lovingly referred to his as ‘The Bitch’; a starter is more commonly known as ‘The Mother’. It’ll add character to your bread, and the more often you use it, the better the flavour will get and the more active it will become.

One more thing, again from the book – after making a loaf with the starter it will need feeding with half and half flour and water, in equal quantities to the amount you took out. The first recipe I used required 130g of my starter, so I replenished it with 65g of strong white flour and 65g of water. Next time I’ll add wholemeal flour instead of white, just to lay the groundwork for the next challenge…..a brown loaf.

Now to my first loaf…..I was fully prepared for it to take some time, as sourdough starters don’t work quite as quickly as commercial yeasts. I made my dough at 14:30, straight after lunch service. It was ready for the oven after our nightly clean down…..at 23:30! We had it for breakfast the next morning.

250g strong white bread flour
8g fine salt
13g buckwheat flour
38g rye flour
130g starter
162g water

I simply put all the ingredients into the bowl of an electric mixer and mixed for a good 6 minutes on medium speed. I followed this with 2 minutes on high speed, until the dough looked smooth and left the sides of the bowl clean. I shaped it a little by hand on the work surface (it was slightly sticky so I used a light sprinkling of flour), then I put it into a bowl, covered it with a clean tea towel and left it for a full 3 hours to rise in a warm place. It rose a little, but not a great deal. I then transferred it to my proving basket which I’d generously coated with flour, covered it again and left it all evening (about 5 hours). It started to show signs of life in the form of a few air pockets on the surface…..

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I carefully up-turned my precious dough onto a baking sheet and slashed it a few times with a sharp knife. At this point I panicked a little trying to get it into the oven…..someone had already taken my kitchen cloth downstairs to the dirty laundry pile and my loaf seemed to be sinking before my very eyes…..so I burnt my fingers trying to arrange the oven racks. To be honest I was so nervous I can’t really remember how long I cooked it for – I think about 10 minutes with steam, then an additional 5 minutes without.

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It was definitely worth the effort and the wait; the flavour was pleasantly sour and the texture, although dense, was just what you’d expect from a traditional sourdough loaf. I’m going to try my best to keep it up; I’ll probably be finding chunks of rhubarb in my loaves for a while yet though!

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