Inspired by an article in Smithsonian online’s Food & Think column — What Makes Whole-Grain Bread So Hard to Bake? — I started to reminisce about my start in baking bread and to read around various recipes online and in books. The only thing to do, in the end, was to try it, putting what I’ve learned over the past few years into practice. And all is going well, so far. The oven is busy heating up, and in a few hours I’ll know for sure whether it really is as hard as people say it is to make 100% wholemeal bread.

Watch this space.

A couple of weeks ago some of the alumni of Sourdough U and potential new students were in Tuscany, celebrating a milestone birthday, and asked if I could do another bread-making class. Of course. We toyed with bagels, but what’s the point, really, for people who can buy a good bagel any day of the week? And we toyed with pizza, given that the place had a wood-fired oven, but without an expert in wood-fired ovens, which I am not, that would be too tricky. In the end, we settled on Hamelman’s Sourdough Seed Bread, which has become a recent favourite, and it went very well. Not content with that, though, I decided to try my hand at ciabatta.

Ciabatta does actually share one key characteristic with bagels: abominations abound, little breads that have nothing in common with the original beside their shape. The secret to a good ciabatta is a very wet dough — Hamelman’s formulae are 73% and 72% — that permits the characteristic giant holes and blistered crust. Building strong gluten that will hold the gas for holes is a challenge in such a wet dough, and one that seems to require a machine, but I remember reading ages ago a piece by Susan of Wild Yeast about making ciabatta rolls by hand. The key is a technique called double hydration: you make a good strong dough with some of the water, and when that is done incorporate the rest of the water to increase the hydration. I’ve had to add extra water to a dough before, when I’ve made a mistake in measurements, and under those circumstances it can be a real pain. Doing it deliberately sets up different expectations, although working with an 75% dough is not for the faint-hearted. I followed Susan’s recipe and method pretty carefully, although I use slightly less salt.

Ingredients

610 gm ripe starter at 100% hydration
465 gm bread flour
75 gm whole wheat flour
26 gm olive oil
15 gm salt
355 gm water
Extra flour (lots of it) for dusting

Method

Combine the starter with 280 gm of the water, the additional flour, the salt and the olive oil and bring this dough together as a rough mass. Turn it out onto a counter and knead until the dough is smooth and elastic. At this stage hydration is 62% and so the dough might be a bit sticky but should nevertheless be quite easy to knead without any extra flour. It took me about 10 minutes to get a well-developed dough.

Now comes the fun. Return the dough to the bowl and add the remaining 75 gm of the water. At this point, you need to get the water into the dough, rather than slipping around entertainingly on the surface. A combination of squidging through your fingers, folding the dough in on itself repeatedly, whirring your hand around pretending to be a dough-hook; whatever it takes. Hydration is now 70%, and I’d leave it there the first time you try this. As you become more proficient you can go up to 75% (which would mean 115 gm of water in the second hydration) or beyond. The tricky part is not so much hydrating the dough but handling it after the bulk fermentation.

Sticky ciabbata dough.

With all the water in the dough, lightly oil a clean bowl and pour the dough into it. Cover, and set aside for 30 minutes. Give the dough a couple of sets of stretch and folds, either in the bowl or, better yet, on a floured work surface, brushing off any surplus flour so as not to incorporate it into the folded dough. Return to the bowl and stretch and fold again at 60 minutes and 120 minutes (i.e. 3 sets of stretch and fold during the 2 hours of bulk fermentation). It is truly remarkable how much structure the dough gains after a couple of rounds of stretch and fold; Susan has great pictures, I was too preoccupied to take any. At this point, put the bowl in a plastic bag and pop the whole lot into the fridge for 7-12 hours, or overnight.

Remove the bowl from the fridge and allow it to warm up to room temperature for a couple of hours. Dust your worktop with flour (Susan recommends a mixture of half and half flour and semolina, but I used plain flour) and gently turn the dough out of the bowl, trying not to degas it at all. Gently stretch the dough out into a rectangle and divide it into 10-12 portions with a well-floured dough cutter. Equally gently, transfer these to a well-floured linen couche, keeping the floury side (the bottom) down and spacing them well so they do not stick to one another. The cut edges of the pieces are sticky, which makes the whole process of cutting and transferring fraught with difficulty, but with a little bit of luck and a lot of dexterity you can get them into the couche for a rest and further rise, under a cover, of about 90-120 minutes. The rolls will be very light.

Preheat the oven, preferably with a baking stone, to 250°C, or as hot as you can get, and prepare also to be able to steam the oven using whichever method you prefer. Gently flip the rolls onto a piece of baking parchment, slide the whole parchment onto the stone and bake with steam for 5 minutes. After five minutes, turn the oven down to 240°C and bake without steam for another 15-20 minutes until the rolls are the colour you like. I prefer them quite pale. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack.

I confess, I was very pleasantly surprised by how well these turned out, and so were the Sourdough U alumni. To consolidate my learnings (sic) I made another batch last Friday, pushing the final hydration up to 75%, and they were just as good, if not better. A lot of work, but really worthwhile.

p.s. Thanks to Christy Lichtenstein for pointing out an error in my original quantities for the total water. Now fixed.

Finding a better vocabulary for tastes and smells is definitely something I need to do, because faced with putting the sensation of baked kalonji into words, I fall back on US Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of pornography : “I know it when I see it”. And I like it. Kalonji, not hard-core pornography. I’ve used it before in bread but not lately and not kneaded into the dough. So, with a bunch of ripe 100% starter at hand, I thought I would do an experiment.

Ingredients

530 gm ripe 100% starter, made with tenero flour.

100 gm wholewheat flour (10%)

100 gm whole rye flour (10%)

15 gm salt (1.5%)

40 gm kalonji (4%) I would normally aim at 5% but had only 40 gm.

25 gm olive oil (2.5%) because I wanted a little of the softness

535 gm tenero forte 0 flour (taking total flour weight to 100 gm (100%)

400 gm water (taking total hydration to 66.5%)

Method

Add the water, wholewheat flour, rye flour, salt and kalonji to the starter and mix to incorporate. Now add the oilive oil and the rest of the white flour, stir until mostly mixed, and tip out onto the counter. Work in the rest of the flour, kneading and folding as you go. The rye makes to dough a little sticky, but it will quickly develop some structure. Knead quickly for about a minute after it has all come together properly and then return to a bowl to rise. Cover with a plate and bulk ferment for approximately 2 hours. Turn the dough out and knead again, quite rapidly, for about 30 seconds. Return to the bowl and rest again for about an hour.

Turn the dough out, degas gently, divide in two or three and shape loaves.

At this point I refrigerated the shaped loaves overnight, or you could leave them out until proved, about 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 22 minutes. Then remove the steam, turn the temperature down to 220°C and bake for a further 22 minutes. Test the loaves for doneness and if done remove and place on a wire grill to cool.

There are some more pictures here on Flickr.

The way rye always gives the starter a big boost is really interesting, although the still-cold weather meant that it was Saturday night before I could feed it up again. I decided to go for Jeffrey Hamelman’s 40% caraway rye, without caraway seeds because my client doesn’t much like bits in her bread. Which is why she doesn’t get bread as often as I bake, but that’s another story.

I’m not going to repeat the recipe and method here because other than omitting the caraway seeds I didn’t do anything to make it my own. Normally I don’t add the little bit of yeast that Hamelman’s sourdough loaves often call for, but this time I did, partly in order to be able to bake it on Sunday night. Rye doughs, even at only 40%, are often sticky and so I tend to work it by smooshing it along the counter with one hand and using a scraper in the other to bring it back together.

In addition to omitting the caraway seeds, I also began building the rye starter with 150 gm rather than 20 gm. The idea was to have enough left-over starter to try something else: crispbread. For this I turned to Dark Crisp Rye Bread in Dan Lepard’s The Handmade Loaf, another favourite book. Again, I’m not going to copy out the recipe. I hadn’t made quite enough extra starter, so I ended up reducing quantities to 75% overall. Rolling out the dough proved not nearly as awkward as I expected, probably because I followed the instructions to dredge it with rye flour. I even managed to make the whole thing almost rectangular. I suspect that if I really got into this I might try harder for neatness in future, but not this first time.

The loaf looked good coming out of the oven — I’ve developed a new scoring pattern that tends to elongate a round loaf, which I like — and the timing was perfect for the crispbread too. I’m not going to win any prizes for the regularity of my dimples, but they worked reasonably well, and after scoring the dough roughly into squares, into the oven it went “for 40-50 minutes, or until the upper surface is lightly tipped with golden patches against the grey rye crust”. And off I went, timer in hand, to do some other work, out of smelling range of the oven.

Big mistake.

Forty minutes later the oven greeted me with an acrid smell and even some smoke. The bread was charred, rather than merely crisp. It seemed so bad, I really was wondering whether there was a mistake in either the temperature or the time. Seems like I wasn’t the only one.

I’m adding in a comment about the Dark crisp rye bread as well (p. 167). I was very excited to try this as we love knackerbrod. Despite my initial misgivings about the temperature and the bake time (425 F for 40 – 50 minutes), knowing that the light rye flatbreads were a mere 400 F for all of 25 – 30 minutes, I went ahead and followed the instructions to the letter, as I usually do the first time around. What a mistake. 30 minutes into the process, the bread was burnt to a crisp. It was black in several places. Now as I mentioned I’ve had my oven re-calibrated twice and I do not have this problem with other books. So if you do buy the version out right now, go ahead and lower the temperature and bake time on that recipe, and don’t be afraid to tweak things ahead of time if they look a little off.

That’s actually strangely reassuring. I am not alone. In the end, the flavour of these crispbreads was rather good, making allowances for the bitterness of the burnt bits, and I will definitely be trying them again.

Whether that will be before the next entirely unpredictable Pasta Madre Day rolls around, I cannot say. And in its own strange way, the very unpredictability of Pasta Madre Day (there seems to have been one in December 2011, but no indication of whether it is annual, but roves around, like Easter, or happens only when people remember to do it) is at odds with baking with a natural leaven. You can’t just suddenly decide to make a sourdough loaf. You need to have a starter, and you need to feed it up before you begin to make your dough. Unless, of course, you keep a large amount fed all the time just in case, which strikes me as incredibly wasteful. So I’m confused. I didn’t need Pasta Madre Day to bless my baking. But I rather like the idea of my baking helping to contribute to a wider appreciation of the joy and satisfaction to be had from baking with natural leavens.

Maybe next time I (and Pasta Madre Day) will be better prepared.

The image of fine Victorian ladies lounging around in a slight stupor after eating too much poppyseed cake has always tickled me, notwithstanding that some of them were surely on laudanum and had no need of cake. Not so funny the idea that you can be busted after eating a single poppyseed bagel or slice of poppyseed cake. At the very least, you can fail a drug test and have to fight to have that overturned.

Ingredients

2 eggs

150 gm white sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract

125 ml oil (peanut, sunflower, whatever)

250 ml plain yoghurt

130 gm poppyseeds

70 gm plain white flour

1 tsp baking powder

Method

Preheat the oven to 180° C (about Gas 5-6). Butter a round pie or cake tin, about 25 cm diameter.

Beat the eggs, sugar, vanilla and oil well together. Add the yoghurt and poppyseeds and beat them in too. Add the flour and baking powder and stir well to incorporate, ensuring there are no lumps of flour. Pour into the tin, place in the middle of the preheated oven and bake for 40 minutes. Turn it around after 20 minutes to even exposure to heat in the oven. Test that a skewer or toothpick comes out clean, remove from the oven and allow to cool in the tin.

My Mum’s recipe says to garnish with jam and chocolate, but she wouldn’t do that and neither would I. Serve with more yoghurt, mascarpone, or even plain whipped cream. Or without any garnish. A lemon drizzle could be good, but most of the ones I’ve seen out there look too sugary. There must be a lemon drizzle that isn’t just lemon-flavoured icing sugar.

I’d eat a slice every day, especially if I were in a job that subjected me to random drug tests.