Category Archives: Bread

What to do when you’ve too much yoghurt…

I shouldn’t succumb to BOGOF offers. I inevitably end up with too many of something or too much of something, and a general inclination to give the extras away. My new resolution is to practise restraint and moderation in the face of offers that are too good to be true (and designed for families of 18 anyway). But in the meanwhile I checked the dates on my bulk buy of yoghurt and discovered that two large pots were on the edge. So what could I do? Make more yoghurt, obviously, but I already had too much (curse you and your buckets of amazing Greek yoghurt, Lidl). Then I remembered. I’d not made it for ages.

Yay! Soda bread!

Once upon a time there was a little local dairy near here, run out of an extension to the owner’s house. However, that closed some time ago and since then I’ve not been able to get buttermilk. But you can use yoghurt instead, and in the face of the yoghurt lake I decided not to be a purist. And the result was – well, though I say it myself, yummy. One thing, though: take the yoghurt out of the fridge about 30 minutes beforehand.

500g wholemeal flour (or half wholemeal, half spelt)
1 level tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 level tsp salt
400g plain yoghurt
and maybe a little milk.

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C, 180 fan / GM 6.
Mix the flour, bicarb and salt thoroughly. Then add the yoghurt, and a little milk if necessary, and mix it all together with your hands until you have a soft but not alarmingly sticky dough. Knead it a little, gently, and then form it into a round loaf on a baking tray. Cut a deep cross in the top.
Bake it in the oven for 45 minutes, but check it after 35; it may be ready. If it sounds hollow when you tap on the underside, it is.

Eat it on the same day or freeze it in chunks; it goes stale quickly. This is generally not a problem…

PS: it’s especially good with home-made – and therefore not too sweet – marmalade. Nom.


Chuffed to bits by bread!

Sometimes, when you’re bread making, you have disasters. I’ve produced loaves even the birds won’t touch, and others which have been more air bubble than bread. I’ve made loaves which fell apart at a touch (how the heck did that happen?) and loaves I couldn’t get the bread knife to even scratch.

Those days have, due to huge amounts of practice, largely gone. Oh, I can still have my off days – who can’t? Days when I forget to set the timer, get distracted and have no idea how long the bread has been in for; days when I even forget that the timer exists and am only alerted to imminent disaster by the acrid smell of bread burning. Then there are days when I get everything set up and forget one vital thing. Like whether or not I’ve got enough starter.

I set everything up on Sunday and then looked at the Le Parfait jar in which my starter was sitting, allegedly ready. Only it wasn’t. I’d made the mistake of using almost all of it, and had then had to revive it big time. I’d thrown away most of the first revival – very watery – and done the second. I really needed to do a third, but I was also out of bread and out of fresh (or dried) yeast. And there wasn’t very much of the starter anyway, not if I wanted to keep some back and avoid making the same mistake again. But what there was did look quite lively.

Brilliant BreadThe inspiration struck – I thought I’d seen something in James Morton’s excellent book Brilliant Bread. And I had – a basic formula for a sourdough. One I could adapt to whatever quantity of starter I had available. So I got the scales, found a clean bowl, found the calculator, found a pen, found some paper, had to find the calculator again… but it was worth it.

Essentially the formula is 2 parts white flour to 1 part starter. Easy. I had 160g starter (measured out in my clean bowl), so I needed 320g flour.

Then I had to work out the water I needed – not quite as straightforward, but simple once you realise that the starter can be assumed to be 50:50 flour and water. You need 75% of the total weight of flour, so my starter could be assumed to  contain 80g flour – with the 320g, that made 400g. Three-quarters of 400 is 220g of water.

Made up tepid water in jug, put jug on scales. No idea how much jug itself weighed. Poured out tepid water, replaced empty jug on scales, set scales to 0 (thank goodness for digital scales). Filled jug with tepid water until it weighed 220g.

Salt, nearly forgot salt. Salt should be 2% total flour weight, so 8g in my case. No probelms.

And then I made my sourdough as normal, letting it prove in the fridge overnight. Second prove in the morning, only took about a couple of hours; result? Great – lunching on fresh bread. On the perfect mini sourdough (not so mini, come to that).

Mini sourdough

Obviously I had to adjust the cooking times slightly, but that’s no hassle. And – quite frankly – neither is working out the maths. And the next time I’m faced with a similar problem (OK, piece of stupidity), I know what to do. Find the calculator.

Oh yes. And remember to keep some of the starter back for that next time.

Flour power

Oh, I know, such a predictive post title – but I couldn’t resist! Yes, it’s rant time. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s more a ‘shaking my head in sad bafflement’ time.

IMG_6863I’m a baker. I love making bread, hands and/or ancient Kenwood permitting, and do so on a regular basis. I slice it and store it in the freezer, and always try to have stock in. That’s because if I run out I’m back to the boiled baby’s blanket that passes for a loaf – even a supposedly ‘artisan’ loaf – in a local supermarket. Oh, all right – rant alert: what the heck is ‘artisan’ about any Tesco bread anyway? But I suppose ‘mass-produced in some giant factory and then shipped out to stores for a quick tart up’ doesn’t have quite the same marketing spin, does it?

Artisan, my arse. Ahem.

I buy flour in bulk. I used to share a sack with a friend, but I’m using much less wholemeal now, having finally twigged about excessive fibre giving me digestive problems. So I now buy five 1.5kg bags of Marriages Strong White Organic from a wholefood co-op, and add a little wholemeal for extra oomph. I’ve been quite happy with that, but the latest batch has been rather different. It’s softer than normal, much lighter, even finer. It’s got a completely different feel, and I’d be happy to make cakes with it which I would normally avoid with bread flour. It also makes perfectly good bread, but I’m intrigued. I know flour varies enormously – even the flour you get from one field of wheat can be different from that produced by the grains grown in the next field – but this is a huge change. Maybe it’s time to look at some different flours?

white flourI’ve tried quite a few, all stoneground – the Marriages is roller-milled, but until now I’ve been fine with that; it’s the only roller-milled flour I’ve felt was comparable. I’ve tried other roller-milled flour (the standard way of producing flour, at least in a more ‘commercial’ setting) and I can tell the difference, or I think I can. I like my flour to taste of something, and I find that other roller-milled flours are rather bland for breadmaking. Great if that’s what you want (or, of course, what you can afford) and absolutely fine for some circumstances, but I did a comparison bread test and yup, I could tell. Or maybe it was a case of emperor’s new clothes – I’m still not sure.

If I am right, there might be good reason for it. Many bakers think roller mills run too quickly, thus generating enzyme-damaging heat and giving rise to flour which lacks character. In addition, roller-milled flour has all the goodies – like the wheatgerm – removed and then added back in at the end of the milling process.

quernBut I’m not going back to prehistory, either: grains ground between the stones of a quern like this one could a) take forever – I know, I’ve done it, and b) add extra tooth-grinding grit to the flour, depending on the material used for the quern. Using a quern also wrecks your knees, neck, back, hands and wrists – women’s work, eh?

Nope, I’m happy with perfectly normal stoneground for my bread, so I’m going on a mission: to try all sorts of flours from small mills, big mills, artisan mills, little mills up obscure lanes in the Welsh countryside who sell their flour though a single outlet in Aberystwyth, Machynlleth, Conwy or Bangor. Whenever I find something a bit out of the ordinary, I’ll buy it and give it a go.

I can easily get Marriages and Dove’s Farm, and those are what I’ll use in between. I can also lay my hands on Bacheldre (the mill was up for sale in the summer, can’t work out if it’s been sold or just withdrawn from sale), Gilchesters, Little Salkeld Watermill and Shipton Mill, because they’re all available through the co-op or local healthfood shops. But I’m really after the unusual (plus I had a weevil-based experience with Shipton Mill’s strong white which has rather put me off retesting that one).

It doesn’t have to be wheat, either; of course there are other grains to try. I’ve used spelt and I love it for soda bread; its perfect for that. I’ve tried emmer and einkorn (as an acrchaeologist, even an ex-archaeologist, I felt obliged to give these neolithic grains a go) and I’ll happily have a bash at almost anything. But for me, it’s fundamentally wheat flour. But which one? I’m no nearer to my answer, though I have now set myself off on a Flour Quest for 2015 (think Shrek and Donkey going after Princess Fiona, though I’m female, not green and am unaccompanied by Eddie Murphy). But am a lot nearer to a beautiful fresh loaf. Must let it cool down, must let it cool down…


PS: since writing this I’ve been in contact with Marraige’s, and they’ve asked me to send a packet back to them for them to check out. Luckily I still had one unopened pack – the rest had gone in the flour bin – and it’s on its way back to Essex as I write. A strange Christmas present for the miller, but there you go… us flour-obsessives are a strange lot.

Pre-ferment bread perfection

This blog shouldn’t, strictly speaking, be called ‘twelve miles from a lemon’. Things have moved on since Sydney Smith’s day, and I’m about 500 metres from a lemon (about 3 metres if you count the ones in the fridge). No, strictly speaking it should be ‘fifty-five miles or several clicks and an interminable wait for the postie from fresh yeast’. Gripping, huh?

Yup, I ran out.

I’ve ordered some now, of course, but in the meantime I had to find a solution to my immediate bread-free problem that didn’t either involve buying boiled baby’s blankets from the Co-op, waiting a few days to revive my sourdough starter or purchasing some dried yeast which would get used once and languish in the back of the cupboard until I threw it out. I’ve been corrupted, you see, by the delights of using fresh yeast. Unfortunately it can be a pig to get.

But I remembered a friend of mine, a man who has recently returned to breadmaking, telling me about his overnight pre-ferment which used very little yeast. There were some broken bits in the container, and I weighed them out – about 5g.

So I set to. And it worked, and it worked WONDERFULLY. I make no apologies for the sudden appearance of caps; the end result justifies them. In fact, I may take to pre-fermenting my bread on a regular basis. It’s a version of the sponge method, for any other bread nuts out there.

This is what I did. And thanks, Jon!

Basic bread – with an overnight pre-ferment
Makes one large loaf

pre-ferment 1For the pre-ferment:
100g wholemeal flour
250g strong white flour
a small pinch of sugar
5g fresh yeast – a teaspoon, roughly
425ml tepid water

Mix the flours and sugar together in a large bowl. Put the yeast in a jug with the water and stir until it is blended in, then add the liquid to the flour. Stir until you have something that looks attractively like wallpaper paste. Ignore its appearance, cover the bowl with cling film and pop it in the fridge overnight.

pre-ferment 2You might think this would kill the yeasts, but no; the following morning there should be plenty of bubble action going on. Take the bowl out of the fridge and allow it to come up to room temperature.

Now for the rest of the process.

350g strong white flour
1.5 tsp salt

Mix the flour and salt together in a bowl, then add the bubbly pre-ferment. Stir everything together well, using a spoon at first if you don’t want to get too messy but hands are easier. When the mixture has begun to come together as a dough, tip it out onto a lightly floured work surface.

Start kneading, firmly pushing the dough away, bringing it back towards you and turning it as you go, and do so for 10 minutes; I set a timer or I give up too early. The texture of the dough will change – it starts to feel silky – and it should become much warmer to the touch.  Roll it into a ball, put it in a large bowl and cover with cling film. Set it aside to prove (aka rise) for about an hour or so, until approximately doubled in size.

dough in bannetonThen take the dough out of the bowl and knead it lightly once more, shaping it into a round ball (or in my case, a sort of oval ball; perhaps I was influenced in my choice by the rugby that was going on at the time).

I use French bannetons – linen-lined proving baskets which are old, well floured and were dirt cheap in Carrefour – for the next stage, but the bread can also be put into an oiled and floured tin. (Personally, I find it spreads a bit much sideways if I just put it on a baking sheet, but I am the Queen of Sloppy Dough.)

Put the dough in the basket (or whatever), untidy side uppermost. Cover it with a clear plastic bag, pulling the bag up so there is no danger of the rising dough touching the bag.*

banneton 2Leave it in a warm place to rise until doubled in size again. This may take less time, possibly about 45 minutes. In the meanwhile preheat the oven to at least 220 degrees C, GM7 – you want it as hot as you can get it, really.

Put a lightly-oiled baking tray over the top of the basket and turn it over, carefully holding the basket in place; the dough will drop down and the basket can be easily lifted off. Slash the loaf three or four times with a really sharp knife – a sharp bread knife is good, or a purpose-made blade known as a lame or grignette – and put it in the oven quickly.

bread yumBake for 30-35 minutes – until the base sounds hollow when rapped, and the top looks golden-brown and delicious.

Cool the loaf on a rack, and resist the temptation to eat the lot. Like all loaves, it slices more easily the following day, but it did have to be sampled yesterday. Especially the crust. With raspberry jam. Might have been poisoned or tasted vile. You never know…This was, after all, an experiment.


Well, I have to say that I found this loaf every bit as good as my normal loaf – in fact, possibly even more flavoursome. And, of course, it is much more economical with the yeast, certainly something to consider when the fresh stuff can be so fiddly to obtain.


I love Bakery Bits for potential supplies – but it’s not cheap and I tend to use it for drooling and idle speculation. On the other hand, if I find myself in a perfectly ordinary French supermarket I automatically head for the homewares section. I’ve found round bannetons, long bannetons, oval bannetons – and all linen-lined and costing a fraction of what I’d pay online or in a posh kitchen supplies shop. Sometimes they are evidently intended to have a decorative purpose, but even those which lurk among the cushions and tablecloths are usually perfectly practical. And are just a few euros.

*Plastic bag + sticky dough = unbelieveable mess. Ectoplasm. Something from Withnail’s sink – matter. Worse. Ergh.

Yeast Quest 2013

I bake my own bread. Well, sometimes I bake my own bread – most times, really, unless I’m unwell or in a frantic rush or have a broken freezer. I didn’t, once upon a time, and that was because I couldn’t. Really. I produced slabs which would have made good ballast and which even the birds rejected when they were thrown on the lawn (where they made a substantial dent). And then I finally got round to leaving London, eleven years ago.

While I lived down south, and while I had a respectable income – not excessive as I mostly worked in the book trade, just acceptable – I could afford to buy the bread I liked. Sourdoughs, perhaps; granary cobs crunchy with sunflower seed toppings; white loaves which didn’t taste of boiled baby’s blanket. There’s a place for the BBB loaf though – a bacon sandwich isn’t quite right without soft and slightly soggy bread – but it wasn’t right for my everyday life, which was what it looked like becoming. Getting those artisan breads was then next to impossible without a long drive, even had I not managed to halve my income.

I found a wholemeal loaf that wasn’t too bad, or so I thought. It would fail to go off even after a week which I found rather suspicious, but it didn’t leave a strange aftertaste or turn to putty when you ate it. And then I read the ingredients, and came face to face with the fact that I was going to have to do something. I’ve always held to the line that if you can’t pronounce the ingredients, then you shouldn’t be putting whatever it is in your mouth. So how about ‘mono- and di-acetyltartaric esters of mono- and di-glycerides of fatty acids’? They’re emulsifiers, basically, but… but…

I was going to have to learn to bake bread.

Financially, I had it planned. It would work out either cheaper or at roughly the same cost; I’d also have bread I liked and would be less likely to throw out for the birds. I’d my two freezers, I was part of a wholefood co-op and I knew someone who would be prepared to split a sack of flour with me. But practically? Hm. I was back with the awful reality of The Slabs. I told a friend of mine – a male friend of mine, an essential fact – that it was no good, I couldn’t bake bread. I’d just have to get to like E471, E481 and E920. (The latter is L-Cysteine, derived often from pork and also, sometimes, from hair – human hair, it has been alleged.)

My friend assumed an insufferable expression of masculine superiority and told me, in incredulous tones, that anyone could bake bread. He baked bread, for heaven’s sake. This of course, is all the incentive a self-respecting independent woman needs. Anything a man could do, I could do, and so there. And I did.

loavesMy breadmaking got better and better; I branched out from tin loaves to cobs and from using easy yeast to starters. I made olive bread and sunflower loaves and loaves containing sun-dried tomatoes. I made soda bread, pain de campagne and pitta; I made plaits and foccacia and San Francisco sourdough. I foreswore the E920, and used flour, salt, yeast and water. Sometimes I used olive oil; sometimes I used buttermilk.

And then I got hooked on real yeast. It’s no good, it just gives a different taste. It’s not that it’s difficult to use.

It’s difficult to find.

I swear it’s easier to score hard drugs (should you wish to do so, ahem). This is one problem I cannot ascribe to being ‘twelve miles from a lemon’, as it also besets foodie friends in London. Once upon a time bakers used real yeast and could be persuaded to sell some to members of the public, apparently. Not so now, though one friend has found a local bakery which will part with a little, reluctantly and at a surprising price. A hefty price for a small piece, barely enough to bake a single loaf, which they then dispense as though it was crack – secretly, furtively, behind the counter. Goodness gracious.

Surprisingly, a supermarket came to the rescue. Morrisons, but only Morrisons in Aberystwyth – 55 miles away, approximately. A keen baker friend had to go there regularly and would bring some back for both of us (50p for 126g), but circumstances have now changed and she’s no longer travelling south every week. You can get fresh yeast online, but supplies are erratic and you often have to buy a minimum of 400-500g. As 15g will do for 700g of flour, I don’t really need half a kilo.

In the short term, we’re sorted – you can freeze fresh yeast for a while, so we bought up Morrisons supply, cut the blocks up into individual portions, wrapped them up and shoved them in our freezers. But what happens when that’s all used up? Yeast Quest, that’s what. Again.