Lately I’ve started baking in greater bulk to satisfy my slowly growing list of people who pay me the ultimate compliment of paying for my bread. That could make sharing recipes here a little bit tricky, because not everyone wants to handle four loaves worth of dough at a time.1 Anyway, thanks to the miracle of baker’s math, I can give the quantities for a single loaf just as easily, so here goes.


I use my 100% hydrated leaven to start the pre-ferment, and as I store it in the fridge between bakes, that requires two builds to get it good and active, starting the morning before I want to start baking. To about 10g of starter I add 25g of flour and 25g of water, leaving that for about 12 hours to double. I then feed again with 25 g of flour and 25g of water, leaving it overnight. Next morning, I take 10 gm into a clean container and feed again with 25g flour and 25g water. This stays out on the counter for about 6 hours then goes into the fridge for storage.

The active starter goes into the pre-ferment.

  • 50g active starter at 100% hydration
  • 150g water
  • 250g strong white flour
  • 4g salt

First mix the water and the starter to break up the starter a bit, then add the flour and salt and stir well to incorporate everything into a rough dough. Put that aside to ripen. My kitchen is still pretty cold, so after a day the pre-ferment had barely moved and I had to put it into the fridge overnight. Next morning it had almost exploded out of its box. In warmer conditions, the pre-ferment will double in about 8-12 hours, but it really doesn’t matter much if you refrigerate to suit your schedule.

Final Dough

  • 50g whole rye flour
  • 50g wholewheat flour
  • 50g einkorn flour
  • 350g strong white flour
  • 185g water
  • 4g salt
  • 1/2 tsp dry yeast or 15g fresh yeast (optional)
  • All of the pre-ferment

The einkorn was my idea. If you don’t have any, add 50g of some other flour or just use 400g of strong white flour, rather than 350g. The yeast is completely optional, useful if you are in a hurry (or your kitchen is cold).

Mix the flours, salt and water and yeast if you’re using it. Knead the dough so that it has started to come together and then add a chunk of pre-ferment at a time, kneading between each chunk to start incorporating it into the dough. I guess about 4 or 5 chunks is right. It takes a bit of kneading to get everything properly mixed in but recently I have found this easier than mixing the pre-ferment with the water first. When the dough is uniform throughout, return it to the bowl, cover with a cloth and leave to bulk ferment.

After one hour, do one set of stretch and folds right there in the bowl. Wet your hand first and slip it gently under the dough, grab and pull up slowly, you don’t want to tear the dough, then fold it back onto the top of the dough and work your way around the ball of dough.

One (moving) picture being worth a thousand words, here’s my video.

Leave to bulk ferment for another hour, then do a second set of stretch and folds.

After a final hour of bulk fermentation, gently move the dough out onto the counter, shape, and prove for about 90 minutes before baking in a hot oven for about 50 minutes, with steam for the first half of the bake.

  1. I would love to get up to 12 loaves a time, but not with my current oven! 

It’s a long story, one that I hope will appear on the podcast in the fullness of time, but suddenly we have a supply of superb hummus and other like-minded goodies here in Rome. Not so the pita. I mean, it’s OK, as a shovel or wrapping, but not for its own sake. Nothing for it, I thought, I’ll just have to bake my own.

In this I was encouraged by friends who seem to do it all the time, posting photos of the exquisite results. Off, then, to Claudia Roden’s A New Book of Middle Eastern Food and her recipe for Khubz (Eish Shami), which, she delightfully tells me, “is more commonly known in the West as Pitta bread”. I hope she won’t mind me sharing my interpretation here.

The dough is simple:

  • 500g strong flour
  • 300g tepid water (60%)
  • 4g salt (8%)

No time to do it with a leaven, so I went the direct route and added one teaspoon of dried yeast. (It should probably be more, but I did have time to allow for a longer rise.)

The joy, if you’ve been messing around with highly-hydrated doughs, is in the 15 minutes of kneading. I tend to go by counts to 100, with a little rest after each burst to see how things are going, and it is wonderful to watch and feel as the dough becomes alive and elastic beneath your hands. A wet dough, as it becomes stronger and more structured through a set of stretch-and-folds, is also a delight, but it doesn’t offer quite the same satisfaction as a proper knead.

With a lovely, lively ball of dough in your hands, dribble a short thread of olive oil into a bowl and wipe it about with the dough to just lightly coat the surface of the dough. Cover with a damp tea-towel and leave in a warm place to double, about two hours.

As you gently persuade the dough out of the bowl, pause again to marvel how extensible it has become. Resist the temptation to “punch” the dough down; a little gentle kneading is all that is required. I divided the dough into 8 pieces of 100g (Claudia advises “the size of a large potato or smaller”) and roll each one out on a lightly floured surface to a disk of around 0.5cm thick. Place these on a well-floured couche, cover with plastic film and the damp cloth, and leave again for a second rise of about another two hours.

Preheat the oven to maximum (in my case around 240°C) and place a lightly oiled (or non-stick) baking tray in to heat up. Also, prepare to steam. When you’re ready, add the water to your steam container. Then, working quickly, gently lift the rounds from the couche and onto the tray. Gentleness is crucial here; any rough handling and they won’t puff up in the oven. Spray gently with cold water “to prevent them from browning,” slip them into the oven and shut the door.

[B]ake for 6 to 10 minutes, by which time the strong yeasty aroma escaping from the oven will be replaced by the rich earthy aroma characteristic of baking bread – a sign that it is nearly done.

Do not open the oven door during this time.

I gave them eight minutes. Eight long, fraught, anxious minutes. I needn’t have worried.

As I said on Instagram: “OMG. It worked. Thanks Claudia.”

Cool the little flatbreads briefly on a wire rack and if you have any left over, pop them into a plastic bag. Anathema for most breads, but these need to stay nice and soft.

I can also attest that they reheat beautifully in a hot cast-iron frying pan.

Panis quadratus, carbonised at Pompeii

When first I came across the ancient Roman festival of Fornacalia, back in 2010, it seemed to me an ideal opportunity for newly inspired bakers at home and in bakeries to celebrate their art. Two years later, I even left a desperate little plea to that effect in a forum I frequented. It died a death, as it has most years subsequently, a notable exception being Dan Etherington’s post Fornacalia, Fornax and burnt spelt. Like my leaven, though, which refuses to die, I’m going to give it another go.

I’m emboldened to do so by Chris Aldrich, who took it upon himself to anoint me curio maximus. As such, it is my duty to proclaim Friday 16 February, an auspicious day for me, the day to celebrate Fornacalia, using the hashtag #fornacalia.

I’ve been doing a little research of my own, torn between the Scylla of tried-and-tested and the Charybdis of new-and-appropriate, and I think I have come to a decision.

Stay tuned. And spread the word.

50 percent long soak 1

Jonathan Bethony, who runs Seylou Bakery in Washington DC, mills his own wheat and uses 100% of the grain. Talking to him for Eat This Podcast I learned about the difference in bran between softer European wheats and harder North American wheats. My wholemeal, from softer wheats, has larger flecks of bran that cut through the gluten network so the bread doesn’t rise as much. Having learned more of the details, I decided to give my brown flour a really long soak before making the dough.

This soaking period, without any leavening, is usually called an autolyse. Before, I’ve generally done a 30 minute autolyse, maybe an hour. Then lately I upped it to overnight, although that was for all the flour. For an experiment, I decided yesterday to soak only the wholemeal. I hoped that a long soak with more available water (not absorbed by the white flour) would soften the larger flecks of bran even more, so the dough structure would survive better. Also, hearing that Jonathan pushes hydration to 100 and even 110 percent, I thought that I could usefully push mine to 80% (from about 70% most of the time).

So, at the same time as I started the second build of the wholemeal leaven, I put the rest of the wholemeal to soak in all of the water, 300g of flour in 600g of water (200% hydration). A soupy mess. Eight hours later I added the leaven (350g at 75%), the strong white flour (500g) and the salt (17g). After mixing by hand to incorporate and distribute everything I did a set of folds at roughly 30, 60 and 120 minutes. After three hours of bulk fermentation I pre-shaped the loaves as gently as I could, gave them a bench rest of 30 minutes and then put the shaped loaves into the fridge for an overnight rise.

Slashed and baked from cold in a Dutch oven at 235°C for 26 minutes, before removing the lid and giving another 26 minutes at a slightly lower temperature.

50 percent long soak 2

The rise was great, with good oven spring. The texture was fabulous, with a crisp crust and a soft, light crumb. The structure was open, without any giant holes, and that’s the way I like it, uh huh.

Tasted pretty good too. I could be mistaken but I think the nuttiness of the grain is more pronounced and perhaps the long fermentation also brings out more of the natural sweetness. Next time I might even try pushing the hydration to 85%

I’ve just finished listening to the Modernist BreadCrumbs Podcast. Some of the guests often had interesting things to say.

Flour power: why every revolution begins with a piece of bread in Prospect magazine also occupied me for a couple of minutes. I suppose it is a marker of the new grooviness of bread that the piece even exists, but does it have to peddle quite so many alternative facts?

  • No need to quote a pundit’s opinions when experts have actually studied food prices and social unrest.
  • What does “A bowl of gruel for one becomes dinner for six out of thin air.” actually mean?
  • The Big Mac index is not about “basic economic theory”; it is about the relative value of currencies, as The Economist helpfully tells us.
  • "[S]omething abysmal-sounding about mixing yesterday’s stale crusts with today’s fresh ’wheaten dow’” would not, I fancy, seem at all abysmal to the many bakers (mostly German in origin) who regularly add stale bread (altes) to their dough and make perfectly fine loaves that actually depend on the stale bread for their flavour.
  • It is not “a historical fact that Victorian millers’ habits of adding alum to the flour gave children rickets.”1 It is a historical fact that the great proto-epidemiologist John Snow hypothesised that this might be the case, but he offered nothing like convincing evidence, which yet might be obtained from the Victorian bones.

As an antidote to all my naysaying, treat yourself to Paul Levy’s Let them eat bread in the Times Literary Supplement, a lovely review of several books, including Modernist Bread, my point of departure for this little rant.

  1. Was it even the millers, rather than the bakers?