Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Sourdough Bread Baking Class

My first loaf of sourdough baked at home
Baking bread is something I do several times a week to keep us in school sandwiches. It’s usually white bread nowadays because the kids prefer it, sometimes wholewheat to salve my health conscience. A long time ago it used to be a rye mix and I even developed my own recipe that the Camphill baker of that day adopted, but in all these years I’ve only once tried baking sourdough. It was rejected by the family wholesale and I never had the will to keep baking against the tide of public opinion. Even though I like sourdough bread and all I’ve read about it says that the sourdough process makes gluten and wheat that much more digestible and nutritious.

Until a couple of weeks ago, when Camphill Village decided they would do two classes at their market, one of which was in the bakery learning about sourdough. Camphill Village is a residential farm community for adults with intellectual disabilities just down the road from us, I write for their website and social media and go to most markets, so it was the perfect opportunity to expand my bread baking skills.

Originally the classes were planned as short one hour introductions, but from the minute the six of us walked into the bakery it was clear that Max was an enthusiastic teacher, full of stories that would take more than an hour to share. Plus we were going to bake our own loaves.

Max describing how sourdough works

Meeting the two sourdough starters

We were introduced to the 14 year old starter that has been powering Camphill bread for all this time, nicknamed The Legend, which sits bubbling gently to itself in a cool place in between bakings. It’s fed with flour and water each time some is used and just keeps on regenerating and gaining in strength and maturity. There was a younger 4 year old starter too, much more feisty and bubbly.

Left: The feisty younger starter  Right: the more mature Legend

Max explained the whole process with lots of illustrative stories – you can’t rush sourdough baking, to get the best flavour the sourdough enzymes and the flour need time to get together and get to know each other in a relaxed way. It’s clear that sourdough is more of an intuitive process than a set of rules and Max was teaching us to feel our way with it. We smelled the starters, and tasted the first stage mixture which had been mellowing overnight to be ready for us.

 Camphill bake in large quantities with an industrial mixer, so we were working in proportions rather than quantities per loaf. The first stage mixture went first into the huge bowl, then the flour and enough salt to offset the tang of the sourdough starter (don’t let the salt get too close to the starter, mix it in with the flour, Max advised, as they fight to see who’s boss) Then add the water and the mixing begins. Seven minutes at most is what it needs, but we stop and check it after 2 minutes to see if it’s the right consistency, adding flour as we’d been too generous with the water (as a rule it’s better not to add flour after the mixing has started, to rather go easy on the water, but it’s not the end of the world if you get it wrong).

Another simple rule of thumb from Max: if the weather is hot enough to wear short sleeves use cold water, if you need to wear long sleeves use warm water.

Once the dough was mixed it was time to leave it to rest. We were hungry by now and dived into the selection of bakery treats put out for us to taste: excellent hot cross buns, rusks and biscuits. Our brains reeling with information overload, we piled back out to the market to shop at the stalls, and I found that Peter had kept me a lovely edition of a Georgette Heyer at his second-hand book stall, always some bargains to find there.

Learning how to shape a free-form loaf

Back in the bakery it was time to shape our loaves. Something new I learned is never to pull off hunks of dough at this stage, but rather to cut pieces off, as the dough has already been worked enough and it doesn’t like overstretching. A floury surface and gently folding the dough over to firm out air bubbles round and round, using palms rather than fingers. Sealing the join, turning it over and easing into a good shape for a free form loaf baked on a tray.

Not my loaf, the cuts here are deep enough

The hardest bit for me was slashing into the dough with a sharp knife, to let air out and give the loaf room to expand. My cuts were too tentative, as I discovered after baking when my crust has risen sky-high at one end with a huge bubble of air underneath.

The next stage was proving on the trays in the steamy proving cabinet. And finally the trays were wheeled across to the industrial oven and baked.

We had another break to relax in the market at this stage and re-assembled just as the market was closing, when our loaves came out of the oven and we all hurried to identify our individual masterpieces.

These we got to take home, and even better, a reason in itself to attend the course, we were each given 500g of the Legend starter to take home with us so that we could carry on baking under our own steam.

Bubbly starter to take home
 Previously I’d thought that the upkeep of a sourdough starter was a bit of a chore. In a lovely novel by Sarah-Kate Lynch By Bread Alone, which hums with the tang of a sourdough starter, practically another character in its own right, the protagonist feeds her starter religiously every day and bakes a loaf each morning. But Max assured us it could keep quite happily in the fridge even for months in between bakings.

I baked my first loaf at home yesterday, very tentative, trying to remember everything from the class, looking at the quantity notes I’d jotted down, but not too sure if I’d got it right. It was a coolish day and all the risings took longer than they had at the bakery, but the end result wasn’t at all bad. I’d got the proportion of salt wrong and put in too much, but it’s still edible and the texture is just right, so I’m feeling like I’m getting somewhere. The family ate it and, apart from it being rather salty, liked it. Next loaf coming soon with half the salt!

So thanks to Max and Camphill Village!

Here you can see all the things that I got wrong: big air bubble, split side, uneven browning but it's not bad for first try!

If you are local to Cape Town and are interested, there will be a repeat of the bread baking class, as well as the class in the cosmetics workshop about essentials oils, at the next market on 1st May. You do need to book as there are limited places. Details  here 

Full disclosure - I do the social media for Camphill Village and was invited on the course free of charge, but there was no requirement to carry on baking at home!