If it ain’t broke …

Proved on a couche cloth and supported by a couple of rolling pins.

Being a conservative (with a small C) kind of person, I can get absurdly attached to the way we do things round here, and after a couple of successful outcomes with loaves, for instance, I have to almost force myself to try something different. There has to be a strong reason for me to change; and happily a strong reason came along just at the very moment I’d grown a bit tired of circular bannetons which I’ve been using for years after an even longer period of using nothing but tins. You may call it boring, but for me it’s a way of taming an unforgiving and unpredictable world. Of course I know perfectly well that the fact there’s a familiar shaped and flavoured loaf on the table with some home made marmalade at breakfast time – doesn’t guarantee that the roof won’t fall in by lunchtime, but ….. well most of the time it doesn’t!

So it was the impossibility of cutting two slices the same size from a circular loaf that finally pushed me towards the sandwich maker’s friend, a broadly rectangular loaf that yields lots of similar sized slices. Nothing else changed at all; same recipe, same proving time, same baking times. However it wasn’t all that simple to achieve because clinging to the lifebelt of a banneton I bought a rectangular shape without thinking through the obvious problem of getting the dough out of the banneton and on to my improvised peel without at some point turning it over. The resulting loaves were fine tasting but looked like baboons bums by the time I’d deflated them by clumsily handling them. And so I bought a linen couche cloth to line the banneton so I could gently lift the risen dough out and slide the peel underneath it. Nice theory but there was one problem. I’d got very used to producing soft, sticky doughs and baking them on a cast iron griddle plate heated to 240C – smoking hot – so that they wouldn’t spread out and pancake in the oven. Even in the short time it took to transfer the loaf from the couch cloth to the peel, my infant loaves were spreading like regency ladies when they removed their corsets. Good fortune intervened when I had to knock out a couple of batches of morning rolls and I discovered that proving them on the couche cloth firmed the outsides and bases just enough to make it a breeze to transfer them to the oven; and if you could do it with rolls, I thought to myself, why not a whole loaf? I just needed to make the dough a tiny bit stiffer.

Consequently the familiar everyday loaf has suddenly mutated and changed its shape. The slashing was a bit iffy and needs to be a touch deeper next time, but given the new shape it occurs to me I could bake two or even three – side by side – if I could lay my hands on a larger cast iron sheet or baking stone. Then I’d probably need to get a proper peel instead of my improvised cake tin base, because the rectangular loaf overhangs the tinned sheet by about three inches. You see how this baking business sucks you in! before you know where you are you’ve graduated from the occasional recreational loaf to full fledged addiction and the purchase of quite unnecessary accessories like waxed cotton aprons. Luckily Madame has an abundance of common sense which she shares with me whether I like it or not.

I’m perfectly prepared to admit that my loaves would rarely win a beauty contest, but on occasions that we give in to the temptation of a shop loaf we’re almost always disappointed. As I wrote a couple of days ago; when style and ease of manufacture triumph over flavour, food declines. I’m always reading that bread makes you fat, but our experience suggests that the better the quality of the food we buy or prepare, the less of it we actually eat; and in any case when bread making, a little extra time can mean you are able to incorporate more wholemeal flours. 100% wholemeal sourdough can be very hard to bring to life, but our everyday bread has a combination of wholemeal wheat flour, dark rye flour and also strong organic white flour. It tastes, as I’ve said before, like the granary and wonderfully complements a piece of raw milk farm Cheddar. Expensive, yes of course, but the bread comes in at a third of the shop price and the cheese is so well flavoured you need much less of it to satisfy your appetite. It’s junk food – sugar, salt and fat combinations that make us overeat, then makes us sick and overweight. Am I sounding a bit evangelistic? Sorry!

Properly made bread is good food – we can’t emphasise that too much. The process of milling and then fermenting grains outside the body enables us to easily digest a truly amazing source of carbohydrate, protein, vitamins and minerals. Wonderful stuff even if – like me – after years of exploration you’re still wandering around in the foothills!

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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