Been a little quiet on the blog front of late. New job has taken up most of my mental capacity, plus the Grab Your Spoon preserves have gone into overdrive with the arrival of summer’s gorgeous fruits. But today I’m back! Back to tell you about my recent forays into the world of baking bread.
Bread is a wonderful thing, and I’m here to confess that I probably eat more of it then I should (carb queen), but that also means I’m picky about the bread that I eat. Most mass-produced bread is doughy and somewhat indigestible, not to mention something that doesn’t keep well nor is ideal for the use-it-all approach I like to take in the kitchen. Learning to bake bread has been on my New Year’s to do list for several years now. I’ve had a go. Turned out bread that could in fact be interchanged with a house brick… Lashed squidgy amounts of dough round the kitchen like a demented cartoon character, and spent weeks scraping it off the ceiling. Best I’ve managed to date was soda bread – which is pretty fool proof but, major drawback, doesn’t keep that well and is a bit, well, crumbly for sandwiches and toast. Great to have with a bowl of soup though.
When my favourite local baker Sandra Dee announced she was hanging up her apron and would no longer be attending the farmers’ markets where I normally picked up a loaf or two of her delicious rye bread, I was desolate. But, maybe this was the kick I needed. Add together my invite to attend the East Avenue Bakehouse’s Slow Food Baking night and I was beginning to think seriously about learning to bake bread properly. But the kneading thing. It’s not me. I’m not the most patient of cooks. Someone I follow, via twitter and also her blogs and her journalism via the Radio 4 Food Programme is Vanessa Kimbell. Vanessa is a food writer but more importantly, she is a bread baker. And not just any bread – Vanessa specialises in Sourdough and she advocates a no knead approach, choosing instead to use a light fingered folding technique that aerates the dough and stops the gluten becoming tough. Even better, Vanessa teaches this via her cookery school in Northampton – www.vanessakimbell.co.uk for details, or www.sourdough.co.uk – her website for everything sourdough related
I mentioned at the start of this article that I have recently started a new job, so I decided to treat myself. Yep. Diamonds and handbags don’t do it for me on the celebration front, cookery school does. Vanessa teaches at her home, a bit of a schlep from Liverpool but luckily she also offers bed and breakfast accommodation so I booked myself in for the night before the course and headed off down the joy that is the M6… Arriving at 9pm, I was greeted by friendly dogs, her equally friendly husband Alastair and then escorted into the house to meet Vanessa and a fellow course attendee, Patsy. I was handed a large glass of the family owned, locally produced Fleurfields white wine – www.fleurfields.co.uk and immediately inducted into the world of sourdough as Vanessa was prepping for the next day. Whilst still light, we took a turn about the garden – I developed a severe case of vegetable garden & herb patch envy. Bit more chit-chat about bread – Vanessa has an extensive collection of interesting and rare bread books – not to mention life and the universe and I felt welcome and at home.
A good night’s sleep in crisp cotton set me up for an early morning walk round the village then I joined Patsy for breakfast in the garden – home made strawberry jam and sourdough toast with copious quantities of tea.
Our fellow course attendees began to arrive – we were all sourdough novices but some were experienced bread bakers, whilst others (me) were stepping into the great bread unknown. Introductions over, Vanessa explained that we were going to understand the 24 hr cycle of sourdough production – from the creation of the sourdough starter, how to keep and refresh it, the making of the dough, how to not knead it (!), and what else to do with left over starter and how to adapt the basic recipe to make all sorts of lovely other items.
We spent an entertaining morning, with a mix of practical and demonstration activity, working our way backwards through the stages so that we could experience the whole cycle in the length of the lesson.
Vanessa is great fun, chatty and encouraging, explaining the science of the process and regaling us with tales of her time working in a bakery in France. Elevenses of home-made Victoria sponge and sourdough scones kept us going, and we enjoyed a light lunch out in the garden, of fresh salad, enlivened by garlicky sourdough croutons.
Back to the kitchen we learnt how to make a sourdough starter, how to refresh it and to make our own bread dough to take away with us at the end of the day to bake the following morning in our own ovens. Vanessa also demonstrated other things to do with the sourdough mix – English muffins, Moroccan flatbreads, and peach and vanilla sweet muffins. I left laden with goodies – my own sourdough to bake the next day, a sourdough starter, samples of “ready” dough to bake that night, a sourdough & poppy roll and a peach muffin.
I treated myself (yes, more treats!) to one of Vanessa’s many sourdough crock pots
– we were invited to rummage in a cupboard full of lovely and tactile baking items for sale – and a bamboo banneton basket for proving my dough in.
The journey home was somewhat epic, at four and half hours, but on arriving home I rolled out the extra dough and made a quick Pissaladière (Provencal onion, anchovy & olive topped bread) for my belated supper. Delicious.
Next day, I followed instructions and baked my very first loaf. Practice will improve it, I was a tad enthusiastic with the flour dusting on the outside but it tasted great. Hugely satisfying and, I hope, the beginning of my sourdough adventures. In fact, whilst I type this, it’s time for me to go and do a little sourdough folding…