Baking, Blog

Coronavirus Challenge: Bread II

Until the 1940s, home cooks used either fresh “bakers” yeast or home-made “sourdough” starters to make their bread rise. Then some genius discovered how to produce bakers yeast on an industrial scale, and packaged it in such a way that it could be stored in the kitchen for months on end.

Pic by Lebensmittelphotos, via Pixabay

After the Second World War, improved manufacturing, packaging and transport systems made it easy to buy fresh bread of a standardised quality from shops. The only people left baking bread at home were those worried by what additives this Chorleywood Process of bread-making might do to their health.

I bought my first bread-making machine as a treat for myself when our last baby was born. It got me really interested in all types of bread-making. Since then, bread, rolls, buns, naans, pizza bases —you name it, I make it. The only bread we buy now is for the family’s weekly Friday night treat of bacon-and-egg sandwiches. To get the full, wicked experience, those have to be made with ready-made white sliced bread. Healthy eating takes a back seat at the end of a busy week!

Then came the Coronavirus lockdown. Within a week or two, I couldn’t buy yeast locally. That didn’t mean it had disappeared entirely. I saw some offered online at a cost of £15 for a packet that, pre-virus, would have cost only about a pound! There was no way I was going to support a profiteer. Instead, I made my own raising agent.

You can read about how I did that here. I had to start the process before I ran out of packet yeast, as it takes a few days to build up enough for baking. Five days after making a simple paste with nothing but flour and water, the resulting yeast culture had expanded enough for me to make my first loaf of bread.

In the same way making your own starter takes time, baking with it needs patience. That’s why sourdough loaves and other artisan breads are so expensive! Andrew Whitley’s book Bread Matters is a fascinating read, and it sparked my interest in speciality bread-making. Over the years I’ve adapted his recipes and timings until I settled on the following method. It turns out a good, light loaf every time.

Starter mix all ready to go!

A few hours before you start, fill a jug with half a litre of cold water and put it aside, covered. Letting the water stand allows the chlorine within it to dissipate. If you forget to do this ahead of time—as I sometimes do!—use cool, boiled water from the kettle.

Last thing at night, measure out a big ladleful of bread-making starter (see here for details) into a large mixing bowl with 50g of wholemeal bread-making flour and 150g of strong white bread-making flour. Add enough aired water from the jug to make a stiffish dough. Cover the bowl and put it in the fridge overnight.

A mixture of flours

Next morning, mix together in a separate bowl 100g wholemeal flour, 300g strong white bread flour, a heaped teaspoon of salt, and 300ml water. Andrew Whitley says knead this mixture vigorously for between eight to ten minutes, but I cheat by measuring everything into my food mixer and leaving it to run at a medium speed until the dough is stretchy (about five minutes).

Mix until stretchy

I’ve found I get better results when bread-making if I go by the feel and stretchiness of the dough rather than by strict measurements and timings. Different flours absorb different amounts of water. Once you’ve followed a recipe a couple of times, you get a feel for what works well.

Add a couple of big ladles of your sourdough starter, and knead (or mix by machine) for a few more minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic. At this point it should be quite sticky, but be careful not to make it too wet or it won’t rise well.

The first rise…

Moisten a clean kitchen work-surface with a little water, put the dough on it and invert a clean bowl over the top (I wash out the mixer bowl, and use that). Leave for about an hour, during which time the natural yeasts work their magic and the dough will rise. At this point Andrew Whitley holds a plastic dough scraper in each hand and gently stretches the mixture first one way, then the other, folding the dough in on itself to retain the air while exploiting its elastic properties to gently trap as much air as possible. If you don’t have a pair of dough-scrapers, you can use a plastic spatula or the tips of your fingers. That’s how I started. The thing is to be gentle rather than forceful—you want to stretch, not squash.

A small loaf set to rise

I rise my dough in linen-lined baskets, until the mark made by my finger in the surface takes only a few seconds to disappear, then turn the risen loaves out onto a flat tray for baking. The dough can just as easily be put into a greased baking tin, left to rise and then put straight into the oven to be baked. Either way, I give the lined basket or tin a really thick coating of flour to stop the dough drying out while rising, or sticking to the tin when cooked.

Rising takes between 3-5 hours. The dough is ready to cook when it takes a second or so to spring back after you poke it with a floury finger. If the dough has been put to rise in a basket, it will need to be tipped out onto a baking tray for cooking. This has to be done very carefully, or the air you’ve worked so hard to incorporate will escape and the dough will deflate like a Christmas balloon on January 6th.

The finished product!

The oven needs to be really hot to begin with— 220 degrees C or equivalent— to make the dough expand vigorously before the yeast is killed by the heat. After ten minutes at that temperature reduce the heat to around 200 degrees C, and bake for about another 30 minutes until the loaf is firm and golden.

How are you managing for bread and other staples at this time?

Baking, Blog

Coronavirus: The Bread Challenge

How are you weathering this awful crisis? I’m a loner by nature and thought I’d be able to cope well with being in isolation. After all, I’ve worked from home with no near neighbours for years, but it isn’t quite working out as I’d hoped.

There’s a big difference between not needing to leave the house, and not being allowed to leave it. Even if we weren’t restricted to one walk for necessary exercise each day, there’s nowhere to go.

Comfort eating is my big problem. I’ve wrenched my knee so running on my treadmill is off my agenda for a while. Instead of doing between 12-15k steps per day I’m down to about 7k. That means I dare not make any cake, so it’s healthy food only!

I love cooking, but while we’re in lock-down and with no more supermarket deliveries, I’ve got to make the best of what we’ve got in the house. Apparently Jamie Oliver was on TV telling people they didn’t need to panic about not being able to buy bread. He supplied a recipe which needed only three ingredient: yeast, flour and water.

That’s fine in theory, but most people are finding that two of his three ingredients are impossible to get. The supermarkets around here haven’t been able to supply either yeast or bread-making flour for weeks.

Find my recipe for home-made tomato and lentil soup here

I’ve made bread for years, both by hand and machine, so I always have a good supply of ingredients. Unfortunately, as I refused to panic-buy at the start of this crisis, my stocks are getting low. At a pinch, ordinary flour can be used to make bread but you’ll still need yeast. That’s why I’m creating a new batch of sourdough starter today, so that when I’ve used the last of our dried yeast I can still make bread.

Sourdough starter begins as a mixture of flour and water. Wild yeasts naturally present in the atmosphere colonise this, and turn it into a culture. Once this mixture has been fed and nurtured for a few days, a ladleful of it can be used in place of commercial dried yeast.

Loaves made using sourdough starter have the distinctive appearance and tangy taste of those expensive artisan breads on sale in bakeries, but they are really easy to make. All you need is patience, as it takes a few days for the wild yeasts to multiply enough to provide sufficient raising agent. You can buy sachets of sourdough starter, but to be honest what starts off as “San Francisco’s Finest” (or whatever) is soon colonised by your own local yeasts and becomes unique to your kitchen.

Here’s my recipe for a sourdough starter. You’ll need:

• A jug of boiled water, left to stand (covered) overnight at room temperature in order to get rid of the chlorine.
• Strong (breadmaking) wholemeal flour, preferably organic)

Weigh 40g of flour into a food-grade plastic container (I use a 2.6litre, square-bottomed Lock and Lock box). Add 40 ml of water, and beat as hard as you can to incorporate plenty of air. I use the whisk on the right, which I got from Bakery Bits. Then cover with a lid, or a piece of beeswax wrap, and leave in a warm place for 24 hours. Mine sits on the kitchen counter.

When that time’s up, add a further 40g of flour and another 40ml of water to your original mixture. Beat again, then cover and store as before.

Day Three: Your starter may already be bubbling. Alternatively, it may have some greyish liquid on top. Don’t worry—either way, add a further 40g of wholemeal flour but this time only 20ml of the de-chlorinated, room-temperature water, so your mixture doesn’t get too sloppy. Whisk again, cover, and keep the mixture warm.

The next day, you have a choice. If you want to make genuine wholemeal starter, add a further 120g wholemeal flour. If you want a lighter starter (which I use for my bread), add 120g strong white (bread-making) flour instead of wholemeal. Either way, add 100ml water as before, and repeat the whisking.

Here’s some sourdough starter I made by adding white flour

After a further twenty-four hours in a warm place, your sourdough should be bubbly and smell pleasantly fruity. From now on, the aim is to maintain the starter by feeding it each morning.

Here’s one I made earlier…

Feed your sourdough by adding 100g of strong white bread flour (or 75g white and 25g wholemeal) and 100ml of room-temperature water that has been dechlorinated overnight. Obviously, your mixture will grow, so to avoid being overwhelmed you periodically “discard” a ladleful of your starter by either making bread with it, adding it to pancake or waffle mixture to make them fluffy, donating some starter to a friend, or freezing it in case you lose your original starter. It saves you having to start the process all over again.

Making a sourdough starter is quite a long-drawn out process, but it only takes a few minutes each day. It’s worth giving it a try, and once you’ve tasted good home-made sourdough bread, you’ll be hooked!

Blog, books

With Love From Florence!

When the local branch of the Society of Authors met in Monmouth this week, somebody asked me which I liked more—writing, or gardening.I had to confess I couldn’t decide!

I’ve loved doing both since I was old enough to copy plant names onto seed labels with a grease pencil. When the weather is cold and miserable, as it is while Storm Chiara is rolling around the house, there’s no contest. All I want to do is curl up by the fire with paper and pencil, or sit in my nice warm office with tea, cake and a deadline to meet.

Apricots are the first fruit trees to flower in my greenhouse

The trouble starts when February rains ease and the sun slides out onto a blue sky only lightly smeared with clouds. Then I want to drop everything, get outside and start getting the garden (and myself) into shape for spring.

Before I started writing romance, I used to write gardening columns for magazines. That combined my two loves perfectly. I always had an excuse to get out and about. If I wasn’t looking for inspiration, I was taking photographs to illustrate my work.

This has been a really mild winter so far. Although it’s too early to tempt fate by looking forward to making more apricot jam, the flowers are already beginning to open on the fruit trees in my greenhouse.

That’s a real sign of spring! It won’t be long before we’re looking out for beach reads. Here’s one for your list—the three-book collection With Love From Florence. My contemporary romance The Italian’s Blushing Gardener is teamed with Scarlet Wilson’s His Lost-and-Found Bride and Heidi Rice’s Unfinished Business with the Duke to create a big, bold celebration of love.

I spent one of my best holidays ever in a little hideaway in the countryside not far from Florence. What’s your favourite holiday destination? Post a comment below to be in with a chance to win a copy of With Love From Florence. The winner will be chosen at random on 28th February, so let me know where you love to spend your holidays!

Blog, Top Tips

Five Cheap Ways to Feel Good

The short, dark days of January are enough to make anyone feel rough. It always seems such a long month, too. The bills for Christmas fun always arrive before January’s payday can bail out the bank account!

Here are five cheap ways to take your mind off the misery…

Exercise

Pic by Skeeze, via Pixabay

Anything that gets you out of your chair is a good thing—even housework, with all that bending and stretching. If you’ve got a dog, you’ve always got a good excuse to go out for a walk and when the weather’s bright and clear, there’s nothing like it. When my joints are working properly I run several kilometres before breakfast on alternate days, but to be honest that does require some investment. To prevent injury good running shoes are vital, and if you’ve got a bust, a properly-fitted sports bra. Neither comes cheap but both will last a long time if you look after them.

Meditation

I meditate for twenty minutes each morning, as recommended by Jack Canfield in his Success Principles. I learned how to meditate by using Headspace, which has a great selection of short courses, tutorials and animations. That started me off, but now I’ve established a routine it’s just a case of settling down somewhere I won’t be disturbed and taking a few deep breaths…

Feed the Birds

Pic by Arnica Bäckström, via Pixabay

Watching birds is as restful as an aquarium, and a lot cheaper. The special foods from firms such as Haiths or CJWildlife provide the ideal things to feed, but if you’re careful you can do it for free by putting out household scraps. No meat (which might contain diseases which, while not affecting humans, could infect the wildlife you’re trying to attract) or white bread, as it’s about as good for birds as it is for us! A sprinkling of wholemeal breadcrumbs, cooked brown rice, chopped apple or grated cheese is okay. When my children were small they used to “help” make fat cakes by mixing dried fruit and cooked potato into melted lard (obviously, I was in charge of the hot stuff!). Once set, the mixture can be turned out onto the bird-table, like a cake. Make sure you put out clean water, too, for the birds to drink and bathe in. They need to do that even in winter, to keep their feathers in peak condition.

Look Out for Signs of Spring

Winger Honeysuckle, Lonicera Fragrantissima

This is one of the best tonics of all. When the sun came out today after a long run of miserable, dark, wet days I discovered polyanthus, a sheet of snowdrops, some hellebores and catkins all on display. Just getting outside felt good, and finding flowers (okay, maybe catkins aren’t strictly flowers!) made the spring seem a little bit closer. I wish you could smell this winter honeysuckle, which grows not far from my kitchen window. No wonder its Latin name is Lonicera Fragrantissima! Pollinators love it, too. On sunny days you can hear the hum of bees from metres away.

Seeing Stars

Orion: Pic by MMVazc via Pixabay

When I was a child, my father taught me the names of the stars and constellations he had learned in the days when he lived right out in the sticks, with no electric light. Light pollution makes the number of things in the sky visible to the naked eye far fewer than it was in Dad’s day, but it’s still a wonderfully relaxing thing to go outside on a clear, cold night, look up and wonder what was happening here on earth all those thousands of years ago when light left those distant objects. Much closer to home, the flashing green and red lights of aircraft passing overhead makes me wonder where they’re heading, and whether anybody up there us looking down on me, looking up at them!

What’s your favourite way of beating the January blues?

Amazon, Blog, Christmas

Heritage: New Writing VIII Is Here!

It’s official—Heritage: New Writing VIII, the 2019 collection of new writing by students, alumni and friends of the University of Gloucestershire—is now available on Amazon. Packed full of short stories, poetry and illustrations, Heritage is the perfect Christmas present for bookworms, and anyone who loves the county of Gloucestershire. Click on the box below to make sure you get your copy—stocks are limited, so buy yours now!

We had so many submissions of quality that we couldn’t squeeze them all in, but with two hundred pages containing fifty-eight pieces of quality work, Heritage represents stunning value for money at only £8.99. As joint managing director (together with Chris Davies) of the anthology project I’m not allowed to have favourites—that’s a good thing, as it would be impossible to choose—although as a writer I felt every word Joyce Grant wrote in her piece The Urge!

I’m really proud to have been part of the Heritage production team. You can find out who we are, and how we all worked together to create the 2019 anthology, here.

And to get your very own copy of Heritage, click here