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After Siobhann’s acclamation, I guess I need to step up…

So, I started making bread as a student. Firstly with those ready-mixed flour packets, I think because I wanted fancy bread and didn’t realise that you can just make fancy bread. My Grannie then bought me a breadmachine one Christmas and I liked the breadmachine, but not the bread. I didn’t like the overly-yeasty flavour, nor the shape, nor the cleaning of the damn machine. I’ve also always liked getting my hands dirty and doing things from scratch, so started making ‘normal’ loaves.

Fast forward a few years, and Jamie and I started our own sourdough starter.  We followed the Moro example, and lo and behold, it was alive. Once you have a starter, as Siobhann pointed out, it’s much like having a pet. You can’t just up sticks for days on end and not sort out cover (thanks Daniele). Our starter is now over four years old, and despite our occasional negligence, it’s still going. Just. I nearly killed it the other day, but somehow, it’s still hanging in there. I heard that the oldest starter is over four hundred years old, and I like the idea of passing it on to Molly in our will.

So, sourdoughs became a regular weekend habit (we’d often leave forceful notes for ourselves so we’d start one up when we’d get back from the pub – as the inclination to start making a ‘sponge’ was pretty slim late at night). Some loaves were incredible, and some made you want punch holes in the wall. Mostly though, they were delicious. Pure sourdough cannot be beaten. The flavour is incomparable and the texture is what proper bread is all about. Actually, this is making me wonder why the hell I’m making hybrids…

I guess what happened is Molly. Our sourdoughs were too chewy for her, and I had neither the time nor the foresight to bake bread that takes twenty four hours to make. So I started buying bread, but she was eating so much that I was constantly going to buy more. Not only did frequent trips to the shops annoy me (especially now that we’ve moved to the country), but the cost was unbelievable. Plus, the bread was lame.

So I started experimenting by adding dried yeast to the mix as well, and found that proving was cut in half and I also started skipping out the knocking back stage (which I used to do four times, as per the River Cottage Bread book). The result was remarkably reliable delicious bread. It has the sour notes, and slight chew, but is quick and soft enough for a then baby with two teeth . As Siobhann writes, there’s just enough time to get one going whilst Molly has breakfast, and it’s ready to bake in time for lunch. So for the past year or so I’ve been baking this bread pretty much every three days (which is ideal for keeping the starter alive), and the recipe gradually became the following (these are rough amounts as I find exact measurements don’t really matter as long as not too much flour is added – one cup is about half a mug):

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Add 1 tspn dried yeast and 1 tspn sugar to about 400mls of warm water. Stir and leave.

Add two cups of flour (I use one of white and one of ‘eight grain’) to a large mixing bowl.

Add 1 and ½ cups of sourdough starter (having first stirred the starter) to the bowl. Feed the starter.

Stir around, and add three or four glugs of olive oil.

Pour in the yeast mixture, stir around. Gradually add white flour until less liquidy.

Add about 2 tspns of ground sea salt (salt kills yeast so never add directly to starter or yeast).

Once mixture forms a dough, empty onto floured surface and with floured hands start kneading.

Stretch lengthways with palm of hand and repeat. A lot.

Add flour bit by bit, but don’t overdo it. Basically you want the kneading to do the work, only add flour if the dough doesn’t stop sticking to the board or to your fingers. If too much dough on your fingers, sprinkle flour onto them and rub hands together.

Once kneaded for around 10 minutes, the dough should become less sticky and you should be left with a silky yet tacky dough.

Put a bit more flour onto the board and do smaller kneads of folding the dough onto itself. Once silky, form into a ball.

Then knock it around a bit, and press your fingers into the dough to flatten it out. Then fold parts of the dough successively into the middle.

Then flip over, and cup and twist until you have a compact round.

Place on parchment paper on a baking tray (or floured bowl or proving basket) sift with flour onto the surface and cover with a plastic bag. Leave to rise for at least 2 hours, but generally not more than 3 and ½.

Pre-heat oven to the highest setting – ours is about 250c.

Brush dough with milk, and sprinkle with poppy seeds. Dust with flour (I use rye). Using a serrated knife, slash either a cross, or diagonals or square – if a round loaf does not matter how – if elongated, then diagonals are better for rising evenly.

Then whack in the oven. Leave for 10 minutes, then twist round and turn oven down to about 190c for a further 25 minutes. Check it’s hollow by tapping on base, and bring out to cool on a wire rack. If you slice into it whilst still warm it not only tastes great, but also the bread in general is a lot softer and I think tastier. Yum.