Want to learn more about bread? And how to bake with traditional leavens? And visit a working watermill?
I will be part of a two-day workshop at Coleg Trefeca in the gorgeous Brecon Beacons in Wales on 23–24 June.
I’ll be working alongside Colin Tudge, one of the most thoughtful writers on farming and agriculture, and Ruth West, who organised the first Rise of Real Bread conference in Oxford and is a force in farmers markets and agroecology.
We’ll be talking about bread itself and as an example of how most food is produced today, with narrowly conceived financial profit as the goal and little regard for the health of people or the planet. Bread offers a chance to look at how we arrived at the wonder of a 36p supermarket loaf and what it would take to put that right.
During the course we will explore the history of bread and milling, modern bread production and who is leading the drive for change, and how a new localised bread culture could change the face of agriculture.
On the second day, at Talgarth Mill, we will see wheat turned into flour and together transform the flour into tasty sourdough loaves.
Details of the course are on the Coleg Trefeca website, which has a handy-dandy link to book the course.
For Easter, it seemed like a good idea to make hot cross buns using my 100% hydration white starter instead of yeast. My starting point was Elizabeth David’s version in English Bread and Yeast Cookery, because it is straightforward without too many additional ingredients.
The recipe calls for 500g of strong white flour raised by 30g of fresh yeast and incorporating 280g of milk. I decided to make 200g of 100% hydration leaven, which I built in two stages using water, not milk, because I have never tried feeding my starter with milk. So my final buns are probably not as soft as they would have been following the recipe “properly”. I also had to substitute raisins for currents.
200g lively leaven at 100% hydration 400g strong white flour 170g milk 60g soft brown sugar 60g butter melted in a little of the milk 2 eggs 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon each of allspice, cinnamon, cloves, cumin and nutmeg 125g raisins For the glaze, 30g milk and 2 tablespoons caster sugar
Warm the butter in a little (25g) of the milk. Scrape the leaven into a larger bowl and add the milk. Break up the leaven somewhat and mix in the sugar, salt and spices. Stir up the butter in the warm milk and add that and the eggs, one at a time. Add the flour and stir until all the ingredients are mixed. Finally, add the raisins (or currants if you have them) and stir again to mix everything together. The dough will be soft and golden yellow, speckled with bits of spice. Cover with a damp tea towel and set aside somewhere warm to do it’s thing.
After about four hours, my dough had puffed up a bit, but not quite enough. I transferred it to the oven with the electric light on and left it there for another four hours. By that time, it had more than doubled in volume. I can’t be precise about how long the bulk ferment ought to take; as ever, watch the dough, not the clock.
To prepare for making the buns, I did a very quick set of stretch and folds in the bowl then tipped the dough onto the counter. I scaled each bun at 65–70g; some recipes advise larger, about 90g. Shaping is a bit tricky. You just want to try and form them into a little ball by tucking under, like a miniature bread boule. Doing it on a floured surface and then pinching the bottom to seal worked for me.
Place the shaped buns fairly close together on a lined baking sheet and cover again with a damp tea towel to prove until noticeably puffed up. I returned mine to the oven with the electric light on for about an hour.
Preheat the oven to about 200°C (removing the buns first, if that’s where you put them to prove). At this point you could pipe a cross on top of the buns, but you’ll have to search for another recipe to do that. I just cut a cross in each bun, which wasn’t a huge success but was at least a gesture. Bake in the centre of the oven for about 20 minutes.
After 15 minutes, prepare the glaze. Boil the caster sugar in the milk until it is quite thick and syrupy. As soon as the buns come out of the oven, paint them with the glaze, giving each bun two coats. Elizabeth David says:
Provided that the dough was well matured and baked at the right moment, the crusts will be fine and soft and the glaze will not turn tacky or sticky but will form a fine shining mirror-like finish to the buns.
Well, shiny they certainly were, but also tacky and sticky. I’m prepared to concede that perhaps the dough was imperfectly matured and baked at not quite the right moment. But they were absolutely delicious.
I was a bit worried that it might not work out, because the dough is pretty rich and might have been too much for the microbes. Given more time, I might have built the leaven with a slightly richer mix, maybe including some milk and even sugar in the feed, but as it was I needn’t have worried. As @litchfieldkitchen advised on Instagram, “have faith”. Which seems appropriate, even if I don’t have that sort of faith.
Save the Date: 9 June 2019
Join me in a dream come true. Finally, I have access to a beautiful space and an oven large enough for me to be able to say, “Sure” to everyone who has ever asked me to teach them to bake bread.
While I have been able to offer private courses here in Rome and elsewhere, this is the first time I can make my courses public.
The first order of business is to make your dough. Step by step, I will guide you through the process, along the way explaining why we do what we do. If you have never made a loaf before you will be amazed at how a little effort transforms four simple ingredients into a living dough. And even if you are an experienced baker, there are bound to be new insights.
The secret of great bread
We’ll talk about that, and while your bread quietly does its thing we’ll also talk about wheat, and flour and sourdough leavens. I’ll demonstrate some other techniques and make the bread we will eat for lunch.
I’ve been baking bread on and off for the past 50 years. Some time before 1989 I made my first sourdough starter, and it has been with me ever since, travelling from Somerset in England to Italy. I’m also a biologist and so I have a good understanding of what is going on in the starter and in the bread.
You will leave with your own delicious loaf of handmade bread, plus:
- a “Tuscan” sourdough starter that may or may not be more than 110 years old;
- instructions on how to feed and care for your starter and how to use it to bake more bread;
- an understanding of why I put “Tuscan” in scare quotes;
- a few other recipes;
- maybe some other treats.
And you will have a great day, with good food, in good company.
The day costs 120€, which includes lunch. All you need to do is turn up. Tickets are 60 € in advance, balance to be paid on the day. Cancel up to 72 hours before for a full refund. There will be gluten.
Next course, 23–24 June 2019
Two days in the Brecon Beacons, Wales, baking in a working watermill. Details
A couple of people with whom I have shared the recipe for black pepper rye have said that it is hard to turn the ingredients into a dough, despite the very clear tips in my write-up. So this week I thought, with 3.3kg of the dough to make, I would also make a video of how it comes together under my hands. I jury-rigged a support for the phone on the shelf about the counter, set the time-lapse video going and got to work. As I got stuck in, however, I forgot all about the camera, and of course my head kept getting in the way, so the resulting video is not quite as informative as I hoped it might be.
When I complained about this to a dear friend, customer for the bread and marketing expert, she pooh-pood my reluctance to expose my ineptitude and told me to share it anyway. “It makes you more human. You’ll get a load of followers.”
Well, I’m not really after a load more followers, but what the heck.
And the black pepper rye did turn out really well.