“Something saporito,” she said. “With bits in.”

The Queen of Thanksgiving Turkeys wanted me to bring bread, and those were the specifications. I thought of a nice foccacia, but the timing was too difficult. A schoolnight, with a heavy day before it would not leave enough time. So it had to be a loaf. And the bits could not be cranberries, for all kinds of reasons. So I settled on sun-dried tomatoes and olives, and with absurd hubris thought I would just wing it. I’ve also been fooling around with chestnut flour and that seemed like a good idea. Also some durum flour. And heck, why not some wholemeal too, for even deeper flavour.

Step one was to activate my 100% starter, in three builds, to give me about 575 gm of leaven at 100% hydration. Weighed out into the big mixing bowl, it came in at 568 gm.

I wanted a total dough weight of 1400 gm at 65% hydration; 850 of flour and 550 of water. The starter provided 284 gm of each, leaving me to add 566 gm flour and 271 gm of water.

Somewhat arbitrarily, I decided on 10% each of chestnut flour and wholewheat flour, 40% of durum flour and the balance of Manitoba. To which I added 100 gm of sun-dried tomatoes softened in oil and 100 gm of green olives in oil. Baked to a rich, dark brown and delivered to the party, I failed to snap a single photograph. But it seemed to go down well. There was a hint of bitterness from the chestnut, which also added extra nuttiness, and the bits were pretty good too, the tomato especially offering little explosions of flavour in many, but not all, mouthfuls.

Saporito? I should say so.

Here is the detailed method.

Starting 24 hours before mixing, build starter. To 20 gm of starter, add 20 gm of soft flour and 20 gm of water, stir to mix and leave in a warm place for about 8 hours, until it is light and bubbly. To this, add another 95 gm each of flour and water, mix and leave another 8 hours. Finally, add 165 gm each of flour and water, mix and leave.

Weigh 570 gm of starter into a big mixing bowl. Add 271 gm of water and 330 gm of durum flour. Mix, and leave for 20 minutes to autolyse.

Prepare the tomatoes and olives. Drain off the oil and cut the tomatoes into strips about 1 cm wide. I use scissors for this, and to cut the olives in half crossways. Much easier than fiddling with a knife.

Add remaining dry ingredients — 85 gm fine chestnut flour, 85 gm wholewheat flour and 66 gm of strong bread flour — mix until you have a shaggy mass, then tip out onto the counter and knead to incorporate all the flour.

With bitty loaves like this one I vacillate about adding the bits with the flour or trying to incorporate them afterwards. Just the tomatoes, and I would add them with the flour, but you don’t want the kneading to break up the olives too much. So this time I patted the dough out on the counter, spread the cut up tomatoes and olives on it, rolled the whole lot up and started to knead gently. This is tricky. The oil around the bits tends to prevent the dough mixing in on itself, but persevere and gradually it will change from dough and bits more or less separate to dough with bits in.

Return the dough to the bowl and cover. After 45 minutes, tip the dough out and give it a quick stretch and fold. Return to the bowl and leave for another 45 minutes before giving another stretch and fold. Finally, return to the bowl and allow to rise for another 2 1/2 hours.

Tip the dough out onto a lightly floured board, divide in two and shape as you prefer. At this point I slipped the shaped loaves, in their bannetons, into a plastic bag and put them in the fridge overnight. I had to, given the timing. But I also wanted to, because the long, slow fermentation would help build lots of flavour. If you don’t refrigerate, allow the loaves to rise for an hour or so.

Heat the oven to 220°C (430°F), gently ease the loaves out onto a tray, slash and bake for 20 minutes. Turn the oven down to 205°C (400°F), rotate the loaves on the tray, and bake for a further 20 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.

Recent newspaper reports suggest that people walking past “pleasant ambient odors (e.g., pastries)” are more likely to point out that someone (an experimental stooge) has dropped a glove than people walking past “places with no odor”. One report summed this up as:

The smell of freshly baked bread doesn’t just make you hungry. It makes you kinder.

I’m not sure that the science merits that conclusion. I tracked the research down to a paper in The Journal of Social Psychology, The Sweet Smell of … Implicit Helping: Effects of Pleasant Ambient Fragrance on Spontaneous Help in Shopping Malls but as it is behind a paywall, I’m not going to investigate further. Except to note that the author, Nicolas Guéguen, seems to have happened on a rich seam of experimental approaches. The sweet smell of… courtship: Effects of pleasant ambient fragrance on women’s receptivity to a man’s courtship request investigated another aspect of social behaviour.

18–25 year old women walking alone in a shopping mall were approached by an attractive 20 year old male-confederate who solicited them for their phone number. The women were solicited as they were walking in areas with pleasant ambient odors (e.g., pastries) or with no odor. It was found that women agreed more often to the confederate’s courtship solicitation in the pleasant smelling areas.

I’m amazed the newspapers didn’t latch onto that one.

NPR last week had a report on the extra-special bread people bake to celebrate Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. I didn’t know that there are special shapes reserved for the New Year challah — round, for the cycle of the year — and that the bread is even sweeter. More to the point, I didn’t know that challah originally referred not to the whole loaf, but to a small portion that the baker removed and gave to the priests as an offering. These days, few bakers do that. But they do take a moment to reflect while holding the small piece of dough.
That’s a nice idea.

This story starts when my pal Joanne persuded me to reverse engineer a loaf she had bought at some swell place in NYC.1 That done I looked around for other similar recipes, and found one at YeastSpotting. Over time I’ve modified it a bit, mostly by removing the fresh yeast and relying entirely on my 100% leaven. This version makes two smallish loaves.


195 gm ripe 100% hydration starter. I build with ordinary soft flour
220 gm strong bread flour
220 gm durum flour
245 gm water
10 gm salt
22 gm olive oil
110 gm sultanas (seedless!) or raisins, or currants
70 gm pine nuts
10 gm fennel seeds (optional)


Mix the starter, water, flours, starter and olive oil in a large bowl and mix until combined. Turn out onto the counter and knead for about 5 minutes to a smooth, elastic consistency. Add the sultanas or other dried fruit, the pine nuts and fennel seeds (if using) and knead until the additional ingredients are well incorporated into the dough.

Form into a ball and place into a lightly oiled bowl to bulk ferment for 2 hours.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, press out gently and divide into two portions.2 Shape the dough as you prefer and allow to rise for about another 1 1/2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 230°C and prepare to use steam.

Slash the loaves and place them in the oven, with steam. Bake for about 10 minutes. Then remove the steam, turn the temperature down to 220°C and bake for a further 20 minutes. Test the loaves for doneness and if done turn the heat off and leave them in the oven with the door slightly ajar to help them dry out. Place on a wire grill to cool.

Durum loaves often dry quickly, but the sultanas help to keep this one softer longer. I like the contrast of the sweetish bread with salty salami and cheese. It also toasts well.


  1. That recipe will eventually be transferred over here. And right now she’s back there again, so maybe she’ll get the recipe they actually use, this time.a
  2. You can also divide into three or four, as Susan at YeastSpotting does, and bake as mini-baguettes, but I prefer a larger loaf.a

I caught the tail end of the Food Programme’s podcast on sourdough as I was working on a ripe biga, built from a genuine Tuscan pasta madre that I am assured has been going strong for more than a century. So I’m clearly part of the “major revival” of sourdough, which is “experiencing a renaissance”. Except that I’ve been baking sourdoughs for at least 20 years, when I first made my own starter. So there’s the problem that everyone has, when they listen to or watch a programme about something they actually know about. Most of it is bizarrely banal, but buried in there are plump raisins of new information.

One such was that San Francisco sourdough probably has nothing to do with those pesky goldrush miners. Erica J. Peters, independent food historian, explained that the ‘49ers were far too busy digging for gold, and far too close to civilisation, to bother with sourdough bread. It was the Yukon goldrush, 50 years later, that required miners to keep their precious starter warm and cosy tucked inside their clothes. Peters also attacked the story that Louise Boudin, of the Boudin Bakery, canonical home of San Francisco sourdough, saved a bucket of starter culture from the fire that followed the 1906 earthquake, which destroyed the bakery.

As a historian, I tend to think when the story is so adorable you can’t rely on it.

Does that mean it is or is not reliable? No idea.

As for banal, presenter Sheila Dillon seemed amazed that even though the bacterium is found in sourdoughs around the world, it is called Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis. She is briefed, I imagine. And the instructions on the programme website for how to make your own starter are not, in my view, very useful.

Not to quibble too much, it was a good programme (and there’s a longer write-up here). I found the explanations of how the yeast and the bacteria work together really good. And Andrew Whitley’s musings on the sourdough revival — simplicity is not as fashionable as complicated — struck a chord too, even though I think sourdough is in many ways simpler than yeast.