Like all of us here in the Kawarthas, I woke up last week to the sound of ice hitting the windows, high winds from the east and the branches covered in a thick clear layer of ice. Just beautiful.
I am kidding. Nothing else to do besides start a fire, pour a cup of coffee and look over some bread recipe possibilities.
On Fridays I usually make bread. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been experimenting with sourdough breads made from my own starter that I keep in the pantry. I remember reading about pioneer women protecting their precious little jars of starter as they travelled in their covered wagons. That starter was often passed down through time, shared from mother to daughters and with other women met on the trail.
I’ve left my starter unattended a few too many times and like a child or pet on its own, well . . . who knows what might happen? The starter can go a little crazy. This past week was one of those times. The starter had a certain murkiness about it so I removed at least half of it, then added fresh flour and water and waited a few days for fermentation before making my bread.
Today, the starter is ready to go and I’ve got some dough on the rise. I may start the stone oven in the morning or just bake the loaves in the wood stove. In any event, it will be delicious with honey that a friend dropped off. Yum.
Before sharing this recipe, I want to note that I am not a recipe-follower. Despite many friends telling me that recipes are meant to be followed, I just cannot. I blame my mother: She, like me, has trouble taking direction in the kitchen and didn’t follow a recipe with great exactness, but a great meal was sure to follow!
So, these bread recipes are trial and error. But don’t worry—usually I do not have that many errors.
Sourdough Bread from Starter
In a glass or ceramic (not plastic or metal) bowl, take 2 cups flour and add enough warm water to make a dough that is thick but still a bit runny. Stir the mixture well, then cover the bowl with a plate or plastic wrap and let it sit at room temperature for three or four days until bubbles form and it has a sour and yeasty smell.
The day before you want to bake the bread, put 1 cup of the starter mixture in a larger bowl and add 3 1/2 cups hard bread flour—ideally unbleached, 1 teaspoon salt and, if you like, 1 teaspoon instant/quick-rising yeast. (The yeast is an option if your sourdough starter isn’t as perky as it should be and the dough needs a boost in order to rise. You do not need to premix the instant yeast with water—I just add it directly to the flour mixture. Mix in enough warm water to make another thin dough. It should be very soft; not runny but not stiff, either. Let this mixture sit overnight covered with plastic wrap or a damp tea towel.
When you have the dough organized, go back to your starter. You need to replace what you took out, so add 1 cup of flour plus enough water to make the same runny mixture. Cover it again with the plate or plastic wrap and let the mixture sit at room temperature for three days. If you aren’t going to use it after this time, put it at the back of the refrigerator. At this point, you can forget about it for a while—maybe weeks even! And now back to your bread. The next day, either using a stand mixer with a dough attachment or by hand, add about 2-3 cups of flour—enough to make a stiff but soft dough. Dump the mixture out on a floured board and begin kneading the dough, folding it over again and again, turning as you go. Do this until the dough is elastic and soft but firm. Put the dough in an oiled bowl, cover and let rise for 1 1/2 hours or until doubled in size.
Punch the dough down—which really means popping all the bubbles that have been created by the rise. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board or countertop and knead it several times, folding it over and over to add additional air. Shape the dough into two loaves and place into greased bread pans. Let rise again until doubled in size, up to two hours.
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Spray your loaves with water and put them in the oven. Spray again about 15 minutes later and again 10 minutes after that. After a total of 35 minutes’ baking time, take a look at the bread and tap. If it is nicely brown and hollow-sounding it most likely is done. You may wish to take an internal temperature it should be 205º F at the centre.
Note: The best bread-baking book I have is The Bread Bakers Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread by Peter Reinhart. He is a serious baker and unlike me he follows recipes to perfection. This book offers great guidance for anyone serious about learning the art of the ancient task of bread-baking.