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Almost two years ago, I wrote on the blog that I was making a sourdough starter. A single sentence in a more general post, written on a cold January day. It was at that point that someone in the know should have taken me aside and warned me of the danger involved in entering the world of sourdough baking. No one did, so since that simple statement was written, the sourdough starter has bubbled away, and I’ve developed an all-enveloping obsession with bread making.

Starter

I realised just how bad the obsession had become when, looking through the photos taken during our week in Sicily at half term, I found pictures of a loaf. Yes, that’s right, where my holiday snaps were once pictures of the kids with ice creams, beach sunsets and Italian towns, they now feature slices of bread and loaves stacked up on shop counters.

Sicily bread

And it’s not just the making (and eating) of the bread that fills my time… bread books are taking over on the bookshelf where more general recipe books used to stand. This one was holiday reading –

Book

There could be worse things to become obsessed by. As I read about methods of making bread, I’m finding out more about history, geographical differences in the grains used, and the chemistry of bread making.

Semolina and sesame

Using natural yeasts to produce a loaf of bread dates back thousands of years. There’s evidence of sourdough being used in the kitchens of Ancient Egypt.  Somewhere along the line though, bread became yet another victim of the fast food world, where speed of production and keeping costs down are more important than flavour and nutritional value. The difference in taste and texture between a long-fermented sourdough and a plastic-wrapped supermarket loaf… well, they’re like two completely different foods. Yet making your own isn’t really going to cost much more than that ready-sliced bread. Timewise it is more of an investment. But make it yourself and you know exactly what ingredients are involved… no need for emulsifiers, vegetable fats or caramelised sugar.

Raisin sourdough 2

This is a variation on a light rye bread I’ve been making – with raisins and caraway seeds to add a little sweetness. It takes a bit of planning ahead – allow a good 24 hours between giving the starter its pre-baking feed and pulling a finished loaf from the oven, but it’s the time that develops the flavour in the loaf. It’s lovely sliced and buttered for a mid-afternoon snack, is very good toasted for breakfast, and I discovered at lunchtime, it pairs really well with a good Cheddar to make very tasty cheese on toast.

Raisin sourdough

So, what about you – do you have a favourite bread recipe?… have you started down the slippery slope towards sourdough obsession?

Raisin & Caraway Rye Sourdough

215g strong white bread flour

65g rye flour

115g water

115g active sourdough starter*

1tsp sea salt

½ cup raisins, soaked in water for 30 minutes or so before being incorporated into the dough

1tsp caraway seeds

*I feed ¼ cup starter about 12 hours before I want to make the dough using 1 1/3 cups white bread flour and 1 cup water. Stirring everything gently together and leaving it covered until I’m ready.

Mix the flours together in a large bowl. Add the water and mix to form a stiff and quite dry dough. Leave this mixture to sit covered for up to half an hour, then add the sourdough starter and knead it into the dough. Keep kneading (tip the mixture out of the bowl onto a clean work surface if it’s easier), until you have a smooth dough – about 3 minutes. Add a little more water if the dough seems too dry – you don’t want to end up with a sticky, unmanageable mess, but often a bit more water makes the kneading easier. Leave the dough to rest for 3 minutes, then knead again for another three, this time gradually incorporating the salt as you knead. You should feel a difference once you start kneading again – I find this knead and rest method is really good. Rest the dough again for 3 minutes, then it’s the last 3 minutes of kneading. As you stretch out the dough sprinkle the drained raisins and caraway seeds over, and knead them in so that they are evenly distributed.

Return the dough to the bowl, cover the top of the bowl with cling wrap or a damp tea towel and leave in a cool place for 12 hours (overnight is good). You’re looking for the dough to roughly double in size during this first rise. You can speed this process up a bit by leaving the dough in a warmer room.

Gently tip the dough onto the work surface and shape into a round – there are some great videos online which demonstrate how to shape your dough. Let your shaped dough rest on a lightly floured surface for 10 minutes, then shape it again to get a nice rounded loaf. Place the shaped loaf onto a floured piece of baking parchment, flour the top and cover. Leave to prove for about 2-3 hours. You’ll know it’s ready for the oven when you poke (gently) the surface and the indentation your finger makes springs back slowly.

Heat your oven to 200oC, 400F, gas 6, or plan to use the top oven of an Aga. If you have a baking stone, put this in the oven to heat, or put a good solid baking sheet in to warm up with the oven. When the loaf is ready to bake, slide it and the baking parchment onto the pre-heated baking stone or sheet. Bake for about 40 minutes – you want to hear a good hollow sound when the bottom of the loaf is tapped. I always used to have to turn a loaf through 180o, half way through baking – if your oven temperature isn’t even, you might want to do the same.

Allow the loaf to cool completely on a wire rack before you cut that first slice – it’s not easy when the kitchen is filled with the smell of freshly baked bread, but cutting too early can destroy the structure of your bread so it really is worth the wait.

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