While I don’t believe a bit of it, I do like the stories that religions tell us. For example, I had no idea before this morning that September 14th is the day on which the Greek Orthodox church celebrates the discovery of the true cross. And what does that have to do with bread? It’s all down to the royal herb basil.

Aglaia – of Aglaia’s table – explained all in a recent blogpost. It was basil that indicated to St Helena and her son Constantine which among many was the true cross. And it is basil, according to Aglaia and her late mother-in-law, that makes bread rise.

Greek women believe that bread rises by divine intervention. If you tell them that a batter of flour and water will ferment from the various airborne microorganisms if left for a few days, they refuse to believe it. They are certain that only the direct power of God can turn a mere flour batter into a leavening medium. This is the reason why prozymi –the natural sourdough starter used in traditional baking– is usually made on September 14, or near the end of Holy Week, preceding Easter.

Aglaia experimented with different flowers in her flour and water. Some did make a difference, but not basil. Which matters not a bit.

Something strange happened to the RSS feed of Dan Lepard’s rather wonderful blog the other day, and I’m glad it did, because I got to see again his excellent post on types of flour. A sample:

If you push me, I‘ll explain that in the UK, strong flour is typically flour for breadmaking, and plain flour is flour for cakes and biscuits. But to be really honest, the truth is much more complex as I frequently use plain flour for bread recipes, and strong white flour for cake recipes.

Dan also explains what to substitute for what, and I particularly want to try his tip to add a little wholemeal flour to mostly white breads, for more additional flavour. He also points out that one reason to add sugar or malt is to sustain the yeasts during a longer fermentation, which is well worth bearing in mind.

Slicing into the loaf, I knew something was Not Quite Right. The knife seemed to catch as I drew it back. I’d felt that before, slicing into some early efforts at Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread. It was the feel of gumminess. Sure enough, the bread had that ineffable gummy quality that I generally have managed to avoid. Could have been that the dough was just too wet, and so didn’t bake for long enough. It had cooled properly, so it wasn’t that. Strangely, though, it tasted really rather good. A bit sweet, and the cranberries are a nice tough. I had no problem finishing the loaf off over the subsequent week, and it kept very well indeed.

Would I make it again? Probably not, because I have a really great sultana durum loaf that I make fairly often, and cranberries are not that easy to find in Rome. But I might be tempted to try again taking more trouble to get a hydration around the 65% mark.

Saveur magazine’s May 2012 issue promised that I could “learn to bake like a pro,” and had a bunch of interesting sounding recipes. Interesting, and weird. For all kinds of reasons. So I thought it would be fun to, er, reinterpret them for people who were reasonable bakers, and had no desire to bake like a pro. I decided to start with Apple Cider Levain Loaf. Big mistake.

The two weird things about the Saveur recipes are the amounts and the instructions, especially with regard to their “levain”. They start with 1/4 teaspoon of dried active yeast, and feed that each day with equal volumes of “all-purpose” flour and water. Helpfully, they do the math: “4 ¾ cups plus ⅔ cup and 2 tbsp. (1 lb. 9 ⅓ oz.) all-purpose flour”. I think 2 tablespoons of flour is 1 fluid oz. So the total volume of flour is 44.4 fl oz., and the total weight 25.33 oz. and a Saveur cup of AP flour weighs 4.6 oz. In which case, given equal volumes of flour and water in the starter, the hydration of the start is 174%.


More to the point, how much else is going to be in there apart from commercial yeast? Is it really worth 10 days of buggering about if all you probably have is commercial yeast?

My Starter

So the first thing to reinterpret was the starter. Saveur builds 1/4 cup of its levain with 1/3 cup of water, 3/4 cup bread flour (a cup of which, confusingly to me, weighs 5 oz. rather than 4.6 oz.) and 1/4 cup apple cider. I’m assuming they mean apple juice. Ignoring the 1/4 cup starter, the hydration of this build is pretty close to 125%.

OK! That bit was easy! Not surprisingly it smelled faintly fruity, bubbled a treat, and was ready to roll this morning.

To about 70 grams of 100% hydration starter, add 75 grams of water, 57 grams of unsweetened apple juice and 107 grams bread flour. Stir to mix, cover, and leave for 12-24 hours.

The Dough

Back to those dumb volumetrics; Saveur calls for 2/3 cup water, 3/4 cup “cider,” aka apple juice, and 3 1/4 cups bread flour, which translates, at their rate, to 16 1/4 oz. I decided to go metric now, rather than later, at 28.8 rather than 30. (Why? Because it gives 150 gm of water and 175 of apple juice, as near as makes no difference.) Plus 50 gm of dried cranberries (because I didn’t have the 2 oz. the recipe calls for) and 15 grams of salt.

The whole lot is allowed to autolyse for 20 minus, and although it looked pretty gloopy, I thought it might just thicken up a bit.

No such luck. Knead for 10 minutes, the recipe said, which I dutifully tried to do, although to tell the truth I was really just using my dough scraper and one hand to move a very thick batter around on the countertop. Somehow I scooped it all back into the bowl and cleaned up, leaving the goop to bulk ferment for one hour.

At which stage, after an interminable time washing up, I came to write up my notes. And discovered that on Saveur’s own recipe page, people were not happy.

“Just forget it. Avoid this recipe. It’s just plain wrong,” said Mr Mambo. His math differs from mine, but I feel his pain. “I’ve now wasted a week and a half of prepping a starter and too much flour to count…all for nothing. I hate you right now, Saveur. I really, really do.”

LKYMOM didn’t follow the recipe too exactly (no apple juice, raisins instead of cranberries, and an unspecified amount of additional flour). “I just figured I’d bake it and have an ugly loaf. But to my surprise it rose quite a bit and was very moist and tasty ( although the loaf itself is like five pounds).

“I will not, however, make this recipe again.” Nothing daunted, though, she says she is “moving onto the Filone”.

And the final commenter, Kclement, asks “Was anyone successful following this recipe as it was printed?! I followed it as written and was totally unsuccessful. I would hope that all Saveur recipes are tested before they are run in the magazine.”

Scrape all of the starter into a larger bowl and add 150 grams water, 170 grams apple juice, 470 grams bread flour, 50 grams dried cranberries and 15 grams salt. Stir to make a dough, and allow to rest for 20 minutes. Turn onto counter and knead for 120 minutes. the original recipe says “until smooth and elastic,” but that’s never going to happen. Return to bowl, and allow to ferment for one hour. Stretch and fold in the bowl, and allow to ferment, according to the original recipe “until doubled in size, about 3 hours”. That’s probably never going to happen either.

Me too

I would hope so too, but I’m not encouraged. The recipe says that after a bulk ferment of one hour I should do a fold and return the dough to the bowl, “seam side down”. that was never going to happen. Seam, what seam? I did 20 quick stretch and folds in the bowl, and I’m still not too impressed.

Now what? The recipe actually calls for it to be baked in a greased tin. That makes sense, given how slack the dough is. I think I’ve still got a tin somewhere. Or should I add flour to being it back to a reasonable hydration? I’m somewhat inclined to the former. In any case, I have about 2 1/2 hours to decide.

In the end, not adjusting the recipe seemed fairest. Not having a tin, I had to improvise with barking parchment, which was fine as long as it was held up in a plastic food box. The blob rose pretty well, I have to admit, but as soon as it his the stone in the oven spread out with a vengeance. Just a couple of minutes now before I test to see whether it is done.

And it was. A thick pancake-like object. Now cooling down. Taste test later tonight.

One of my favourite recipes in Bernard Clayton Jr’s Complete Book of Breads is Oatmeal Sesame Bread. The crumb is delicious and moist, from the oatmeal, and great for sandwiches. So I decided to convert it to weights and to use a sourdough starter.


100 gm white flour starter at 100% hydration
120 gm rolled oats
360 gm white flour (I use grano duro 0)
30 gm butter, cut into small pieces
15 gm salt
15 gm sugar
340 ml water
A little milk or eggwash and sesame seeds for the crust


In a large bowl, whisk the starter into the water, then add the oats and 120 grams of the flour, the sugar, salt and butter. Mix well with a wooden spoon and leave to rest in the bowl for about 15 minutes.

Add the rest of the flour and work in the bowl and on a counter to incorporate all. The dough can be quite sticky. Return it to the cleaned bowl and cover with a plate or plastic wrap. Stretch and fold 4 times at 30 minute intervals, and then allow to rise until doubled in size, about 2 hours.

Turn out of the bowl, shape into a ball and rest on a floured board under the bowl of about one hour.

Transfer to a baking tray, reshaping if necessary, tucking the edges under, then brush with a little milk (or eggwash if you prefer). Sprinkle the top with sesame seeds and make three cuts across the top. Cover the loaf with some kind of cloche and put into a cold oven set to Gas Mark 8 or 230℃. After 20 minutes remove the cloche and after a further 20 minutes turn the temperature down to Gas Mark 6.5, 215℃, for a final 10 minutes.

Place on a rack and do not slice until completely cool.

I’m sending this to Yeastspotting, with holiday greetings and appreciation. Also, I’ve made this recipe as a kind of crown loaf by forming small balls, dipping them in eggwash and sesame seeds, and heaping them in a round tin. The balls are easy to tear apart and make a great alternative to dinner rolls.