Saturday, 2 June 2012

A Busy Person's Sourdough

by Linda from The Witches Kitchen

There seems to be an epidemic of busy going on at the moment.  I am insanely busy. I'm not complaining - it is a huge privilege to have interesting, worthwhile work that is fairly local in my rural home.  But it has been a challenge lately keeping all the balls in the air.

Thankfully I'm over the nadir and transmissions should start to return to normal fairly soon.  But this morning it struck me that, even in this crazy time, baking our own bread has made the cut - something worth doing even when time is the most precious commodity going. Which is a bit intriguing. Bread baking has the image of being something only hardcore homesteaders do routinely. Yet, while my poor garden is sadly neglected (happily still yielding well, but due to stamina not care), while the housework is undone and the pile of washing grows, the bread gets baked.

It's a happy nexus of two things: baking sourdough is a whole heap easier and less time consuming than you might think, and baking sourdough is a whole heap more rewarding and delicious than any other option.

I have a nice little routine going.  Two or three nights a week I take the sourdough culture out of the fridge and feed it.  It takes just a minute or so to mix one and a half cups of baker's flour with one and a half cups of water, mix in the sourdough culture, put half back in the fridge for next time and leave half in a bowl on the kitchen bench, covered with a clean tea towel, for the night.

I use unbleached white baker's flour for this, because my experience has been that if I feed the sourdough bugs a nice high gluten flour at this point, I can add almost anything else I like and it works.  In the morning I have a frothy bowl full of active starter, and I can get creative.

Sometimes I add a porridge of cooked grains - barley, millet, quinoa, oat groats. Sometimes I add dried fruit and nuts. Sometimes I add raw rolled oats, bran and linseeds (flax seeds).  Sometimes I add rye flour, caraway seeds and a bit of cocoa powder.  Sometimes I add grated pumpkin and pepitas.  Sometimes I add olives and thyme. Sometimes I add a beaten egg and some melted butter.  Sometimes a sweetener like treacle.

Always a good teaspoon of salt and enough more baker's flour to make a kneadable dough.  Sometimes it turns out memorably wonderful and becomes a favourite.  But always it seems to turn out edible.

There's a feel to kneading bread, and it's hard to describe.  I knead only for a couple of minutes, never the ten minutes in some of the old recipes.  Just until the dough is smooth and elastic and has lost its stickiness.  I  have learned to regard the kneading as my regular "Nana arms" avoidance exercise.

I leave the dough on the kitchen bench, in an oiled bowl covered with the tea towel again, and rush off into my day.  By the time I arrive home, even on these cold winter days, the dough has always doubled in size.  This is the only weak spot in the routine.  I need to pick the days when I will be home before about 6 pm, because the bread needs to be "punched down", or very briefly kneaded again, then put into it's baking tin with it's top slashed to allow rising, and left to rise again for an hour or so before baking.  And on these really busy days I turn into a pumpkin around 8 pm.

But if I get the dough doing it's second rise by 6 pm, and I can keep it a bit warm, by 7 pm it is ready to bake. Sometimes I bake flatbreads, rolling it out rather than putting it in a tin after the punching down. Sometimes I put a tray of boiling water in the bottom of the oven to create a bit of steam.  Sometimes I bake in the mellow oven of the slow combustion stove.  Sometimes I put the loaf in a cold gas oven set to medium. If it has sweetener or dried fruit in it I need to take care to keep the temperature low enough not to burn it.  Usually it takes around 40 minutes for a smallish loaf to bake until the crust is golden and it sounds hollow.

Then the challenge is to hold back from bedtime snacks of warm, crusty, just out of the oven bread. And I'm getting better at that.