Softly softly sourdough

Madame and me are blissfully happy in almost every respect except when we’re not; and the red lines are so clearly charted that we rarely stray into “a conversation” accidentally – which doesn’t preclude the use of red line crossing as a provocation. The Potwell Inn is extremely compact; lacking any West Wing to escape to in the event of a clash, so mostly – and after over fifty years practice – we defer to one another’s blind spots. In return for not noticing her shockingly expensive hairdressing bill, Madame turned a blind eye to shiny new objects in the kitchen, and “oh no, I bought that years ago” books; and until we retired on the same day six years ago it all worked rather well. Nowadays with far less to live on, extravagances are a bit more negotiable.

However; we have never come to a single mind on my breadmaking, or perhaps it’s just that I get bored very easily so I’m always on a mission to try something new. The latest venture is to bake a soft, toastable sourdough in a tin, just the right size for sandwiches. I wrote about the idea a few days ago and since the weather has been awful I’ve had time to do a few preliminary trials. The soft texture seems to be largely a matter of adding some full cream milk to the liquid and substituting butter for oil in the recipe. Apparently the reason it’s so hard to toast sourdough bread evenly is that it lacks sugars to brown under the grill. I didn’t know that toasting is another maillard reaction, although when you think about it – it must be. So I guess a bit of lactose might help in that capacity – I really don’t know; but I do know I don’t want to add any sugar. These adjuncts (as brewers call them) can easily undermine the distinctive flavour and texture of sourdough.

The next consideration is the tin. Having spent years and pounds working up perfect textures by means of expensive bannetons yielding the traditional dome shaped loaf; the disadvantages become more irksome. However you cut a circular loaf, each slice is a different size; and at either end you’ve got a lump of crust ideally suited to snapping off teeth and lacerating the insides of your cheeks, and which – because they’re the smallest slices – dry out shockingly fast. We’ve never thrown them away because at the Potwell Inn, waste bread is always turned into breadcrumbs for coatings and stuffings.

Regularity comes at a price, and this week I bought a commercial sized sandwich bread tin that only just fits diagonally into the oven. I’ve long since given up on non-stick pans because I often start loaves at 240C which is 20 degrees higher than Teflon can survive before flaking off. Heavy duty aluminised steel pans are the way to go; and don’t forget that they need seasoning before use. I once made the mistake of seasoning rather thin bread tin with olive oil which turns into a sticky mess at high temperatures. Now I use rapeseed oil which is far better, and I’m pleased to say the first experimental loaf dropped out perfectly. Well seasoned steel is the ultimate cooking surface. I’ve got a galette pan that weighs a ton but was as cheap as chips and which never ever fails me from the first pancake to the last.

The thing about sandwich sourdough, for me at least, is to preserve the fullest possible flavour. Experiments this week seem to show that a 36 hour low temperature fermentation is the way to go. The dough feels alarmingly sticky and wet, but if you trust your instincts you’ll discover it’s surprisingly easy to handle and doesn’t stick to the table nearly as much as you’d think. The finished result is a soft, slightly springy slice.

Baking times are under review because another aim is to make the loaf as homogenous as possible across the whole slice – and so those beloved lumps of crackling crust that send even super sharp knives sliding off into your fingers, have to go. Neither sandwiches or toast need a hard, thick crust which turns black and bursts into flames under the grill. With a thick baking tin you don’t get the sudden spring that comes from placing the bare dough on a hot iron sheet or bakestone and so I think I’ll give the next experimental loaf a fiercely hot start for about five or ten minutes, and then reduce the temperature considerably for a slow finish with the top of the loaf exposed so it can brown nicely without getting too hard. I’ll use steam right through before I try something different. The big worry is that I’m at the bottom of the last batch of flour and in my experience each batch is just different enough to need adjustment.

But to go back to where I started this post you might recall from a previous post that Madame really doesn’t like the holey texture of the more characteristic sourdough and so for quite a while I’ve been deliberately baking a more closely textured loaf. However she really likes the experimental results and we’ve agreed that the holes can now be conceived of as butter traps and the act of spreading as sealing the slice. I’m more than happy to collude in this helpful change of heart but I’m rather afraid that the latest iteration of the Potwell Inn everyday bread will annoy purists of every stripe – but hey – that’s my primary mission; to annoy purists!

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