Wednesday, 7 December 2011


I've been experimenting with rolls, lately. I never really used to pay much attention to them, except in restaurants. Mostly, I've made bread that can be sliced and toasted.

I like toast. My wife likes toast. I know that it's an abomination to some people; too bad. I suppose I'l rhapsodise in a later post.

Anyway, rolls -- we used to just pick up a packet of ciabatta rolls at Sainsbury's or Waitrose or even Costco, but as a baker that niggles at me. Why should we pay 25 or 30 p apiece for something I can make for much less, and with any luck, at a higher standard? So, rather than just jump into ciabatta, which I know I can make, I thought I'd go for something different.

Lately I have been trying to adapt the recipes in one of my favourite (and most stained and spotted) books, The Italian Baker by Carol Field. I have the 1985 edition. Someday I may buy the revised edition, but we just don't have the shelf space in the kitchen for all the books I'd like. In fact, we don't have the shelf space in the house: we like books.

Fortunately, several things make it easy to use these recipes with sourdough: on page 41 of my copy, Carol Field says that you can substitute starter for about 20-35 percent of the weight of the flour. However, she appears to mean that you should add it for the flavour, rather than the raising power. I find that a lot in recipes purporting to be for sourdough bread. Most of them want you to add yeast to boost the  dough. Well, that's not my way. It's yeast OR sourdough, but not both!

My starter is 100%, bakers' percentage. That means I refresh it with equal amounts, by weight, of water and flour. I mostly do that because I'm too lazy to calculate percentages each time I change a recipe, so I just subtract half the weight of the starter used from the weights of the flour and liquid, respectively.

In this case:


100g water
500g starter
250g flour*
5g salt

Mix all the ingredients in a large bowl. The dough will be very wet, so if you want to use a mixer, that would be fine. Use a low speed, though. I used my hands, and worked the dough with the method described by Richard Bertinet in his books. It's an excellent method for wet doughs. Work the dough until it's smooth and very elastic. It will be very sticky, but don't worry. Return it to the bowl, cover and let it rise for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. My kitchen was cold, because I didn't turn the heat on yet, so I let it go the full 2 hours. After that, I folded it a few times on a lightly floured counter and returned it to the bowl to rise for another hour.

Flour the work surface heavily and turn the dough out. If you want small dinner rolls, divide it into 16 pieces of about 125g each. I wanted sandwich sized rolls, so I made 4 250g and 8 125g rolls, to test the results. Form these into balls, turn them over and press them through the centre with the floured handle of a wooden spoon to make a deep cleft. Put them on a heavily floured piece of parchment paper, cleft side down, cover and allow to rise for another hour or so.

Preheat the oven to 220C. Oil some baking sheets and lay the rolls out, cleft side up. Press the spoon handle into the rolls again, to emphasise the cleft. Put some water in a pan at the bottom of the oven, or have a spray bottle handy, and bake them for 20-25 minutes, spraying three times in the first ten minutes. Cool on a rack.

*I used half plain flour and half bread flour. The plain flour is about 9% protein and the bread flour is about 12%; I wanted to get it down to 10.5 or so. I'm going to experiment with 00 flour and with just bread flour to see what happens.

These rolls are chewy, with an open crumb, and really very nice.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

The Rustic Crust

My title

Pain de Campagne

After about thirty years of home baking, I'm now considering trying to make this a business. Once upon a time, when I lived in Greenwich Village, New York City, I would bake bread about three times a week. It was fun, and a stress relief. I had a tiny kitchen, and an even tinier workspace - the butcher block top of a rolling cart, wedged between my stove and the fridge.

After a period of baking loaves that could double as building materials (and I would like to insert a tribute to my sister Peri, who dutifully tried those woeful attempts, and didn't complain) I finally managed to turn out some reasonable products. I made rye bread, bagels, croissants and all sorts of things. Some were good, some disasters and some were very very good.

Since you almost always bake two loaves at a time, I had far more than I could eat (and I eat a lot!) So, I started to take me breads across the street to my local bar, a trendy and happening place called the Scrap Bar. 

Since I usually finished baking around ten PM, the breads were warm, when I went down to the Scrap Bar. New York bartenders work very late, usually until four AM, and they get pretty hungry around ten or eleven, so a loaf of hot fresh bread was a treat. They even started to buy butter and they laid in a bread knife and cutting board. I think it goes without saying that I got a lot of free beer.

Well, that was long ago and far away. The Scrap Bar is gone, and I now live in St Albans in England with my lovely wife, whom I met in the Scrap Bar. I bake as a hobby, but now I inflict the results on my wife and sometimes on the neighbours.

Well, no longer will I confine myself to small and infrequent bakings! I have a sourdough culture I made from rainwater and flour from the Redbournebury Mill, a mill that's only about 4 miles away. I want to use that sourdough and the local flour to make lots more bread. That way, I can have fun, and I get a wider audience. Also, with any luck, people will like the bread and buy it.

Sourdough Poppyseed rolls
I've recently made these breads, among others. They are all made with my sourdough culture, with no added yeast.  They stay fresh and moist for up to a week, easily, stored in a bread bin. They can be frozen and thawed with no ill effects; that's what I do when I have too much. The rolls are very good with dinner. The poppyseed rolls are good for sandwiches, and the stout and aniseed rolls are so moreish that I will have trouble letting them go, and not eating them all myself.

Sourdough Rye with Stout and Aniseed
I plan to write more about sourdough later. I may even put up recipes!