the Life around the Loaf

Everyday bread can be Extraordinary. I am a baker and good-bread-seeker with a particular interest in Sourdoughs (see first post for explaination) but also a general interest in Life and Happiness and the role bread can play in it.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Re-starting a starter

The first breadmaker loaf has been gobbled up, I'm not proud to admit. One of those compulsively moreish foods from which you shave 'just one last' thin slice, slice after slice. It was truly horrible, actually, but we find that it holds butter and honey very well, having a spongey, small-bubbled texture. Much more convenient than big-bubbled sourdoughs that let all the honey through the holes onto your hands. In fact, it was very like a sweet washing-up sponge, with butter and honey on. It toasts in a jiffy too, because of all the sugar. So much less trouble! Never mind the fact that the middle remains uncooked and melts to a weird gummy substance in the toaster...

The breadmaker machine has a very small mixer blade set into the base of the bowl (this doubles as the baking tin, so the blade has to be small enough to be extracted from the baked loaf). The finished loaf has a cake-ish appearance, but, rather than being crumbly and moist, the crumb is just strange and dry. It tastes of flour and skimmed milk powder, and the sugars (from the underworked flour, SMP and bucket-loads of sugar) make my mouth hurt and give me enough instant, shaky-hand energy to hoover for an hour (two hoover-bags-worth, i.e. a lot).

Second attempt: first task is to work out why the recipe supplied with the breadmaker is as it is, then to change the recipe and my use of the machine to make a kind of bread that interests me more.

The normal 'Basic White' setting takes 3 hours, very fast for me! I've got used to a very slow fermentation using a really, really small quantity of yeast (when I use yeast instead of, or with, a sourdough). The smaller quantity of yeast requires a longer time for fermentation, because there are fewer yeast cells producing carbon dioxide, the bubbles in dough. During a slower fermentation a more complex, sour flavour emerges as the yeast cells break down the flour's complex carbohydrates into sugars and produce alcohol as a by-product. These have both a physical effect on the dough's texture and create the flavour the baked loaf. As the flour's been broken down already, working the gluten and producing sugars and alcohols (which turn to vinegars), slow-ferment bread is a lot more chewy than a piece of sliced white and doesn't require flavourings, such as sugars and vinegars to be added, as Chorleywood plastic bread does. I prefer chewy, harder-work bread with flavours that have come from the flour itself, but the trouble here is that the breadmaker is preprogrammed: The choice is limited to 'Basic White', 'Quick', 'French', 'Cake', Wholemeal', 'Fastbake', 'Dough', 'Extra Bake' ('French' adds an extra 50 minutes onto the 'Basic' process, but at what stage, the instruction book doesn't say). What I've decided to do is make a mixed-starter bread, i.e. packet yeast and sourdough together, to make more flavourful, interesting-textured dough.

Second loaf: Disaster! Taking out the majority of the sugar, SMP and oil (4tbs in the original recipe, which makes the crust crisp as if fried) doesn't work. The sugar is needed to get the yeast up and multiplying from the word 'go', necessary because time is limited, so my reduced-sugar loaf had an even meaner tight sponge texture. The oil replaces the moisture lost in the certain type of baking that takes place in this mini-oven. Without the oil, the loaf was so utterly cardboard-y in tasteless taste and sad texture. It was the type of bread Delia Smith would describe as 'wangy'. Her word.

The good thing about this loaf is that it gives me the opportunity to revive Monster Baby, my whole-wheat starter who's been living in the fridge, untouched since October. Amazingly, he is alive, though feeble. For this bread, Monster Baby was just too weak to add much more than a bit of a tang. However, I replaced the bit I'd taken out with flour and water, and with this new food he's now bubbling like a bad'un in his jar. I would feel like I'd killed a pet if he didn't revive (despite being heartless enough not to feed him over the winter. My rye starter Peckham Rye has 'passed over', shall we say, but I have saved a tiny, dessicated bit to attempt a re-incarnation when needed.). In the picture are Monster Baby, note bubbles, and my ale-fed starter Mr Barm. It's time for Loaf no.3.

p.s. Tom Jaine's contribution to BBC4's Bread: A Loaf Affair made me look up more of his writing. His book, Making Bread at Home is new to me, but now on my wishlist because he talks about bread-making with such tenderness and humour. This article was part of the Guardian's Baking Guide in late 2007 (all worth a read) in which Tom Jaine explains why he makes his own bread: “It ties you to a longer perspective of human sustenance”. Not the case with me and the breadmaker, so far - I've felt like it's me versus it. Perhaps a more conciliatory acceptance that it's a machine, poor thing, and I'm a mentally flexible human, lucky me!, will prove to be more productive.

p.p.s. If there's still time to watch Bread: A Loaf Affair, I recommend it. Voice-over'd by Tom Baker (who else?) and including interviews with Tom Jaine, Linda Collister and Andrew Whitley, the lovely baker and writer whose 'Baking for a Living' course (NOT 'Baking for Profit', as I accidentally called it, to his disgust!) I was delighted to attend last October. Near the end of the program, it gets into why we (I) have this seemingly primeval attraction to kneading and shaping dough - [Voiceover:] "Bakers seem to have an affection for their craft beyond the call of duty" [Andrew Whitley, caressing a tender mound of ciabatta dough:] "This is the real reward of bread-making, especially for the male. Running your fingers down this soft, puffy ciabatta is like feeling the inner thigh of your best-beloved - slightly resistant but also beautifully sensual." Cue Marvin Gaye's Let's Get it On, and a video montage of men massaging dough. oooh. I'll take his word for it, but it could explain why I'm so envious of the breadmaker.

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Madeleine (Dilly) Boase