This post is seriously overdue - but it's just one of those things that you never write about because they're with you all the time. It's not that you grow bored of them, but you sort of take them for granted. I make this bread at least twice a week, sometimes with slight variations, but it's really become our staple bread. Does this make it any less exciting? I don't think so. For me, this is quite literally the perfect loaf.
For years and years living in London I have been frustrated with the bread on offer - a sandwich loaf, which is basically air and possibly some flour, preservatives and E-numbers miraculously shaped into a log... it's inedible raw, but even toasted it's hardly a thing of beauty (let alone taste!). You've basically got the option of eating it raw, which results in it sticking to your teeth and the roof of your mouth much in the way I imagine playdough to do (not that I've tried it), or toasted, making you feel like you've just fallen flat on your face on a sandy beach. And yes, I hear you, of course there has been an incredible rise of bakeries (mostly French) that sell decent bread here in London, but to tell you the truth, I have grown tired of that. Yes, I buy bread at Paul and Maison Blanc every once in a while, but wouldn't enjoy it every day. Their bread is lovely, but just not as versatile as this loaf (plus, there's the extra travel involved). Even the bread at the Borough Market is quite pitiful - I am not sure why people rave on about De Gustibus and others, yes, it's better than toast, but it's just not what I call proper bread! It's never the right side of crunchy, appears stale within hours of buying it and altogether lacks taste compared to what you can find in any old bakery on the continent (mostly referring to Austria, Germany and France here). Seeing how much I adore bread, I was not a happy bunny.
Until I decided to get my hands dirty and bake my own. The ultimate proof of whether it could or could not be done (by the standards I set myself) was to produce a sourdough loaf similar to what Poilane bakeries (and Waitrose here in London) sell - only it wouldn't be three days old before it hit the shelves! A dear veteran bread baker and blogger sent me two batches of sourdough and after a week or two of "reviving" it, I had a new baby at home - feeding it regularly (luckily not necessarily in the middle of the night ;-)), giving it my undivided attention, massaging it gently into a loaf... you get the idea.
Now, my above-mentioned guru had supplied me with a few recipes and her site is a source of constant inspiration (as it this one and more recently, this one here), but I was on a mission. If I couldn't manage to get my perfect loaf, I would kick out the new "tenant" that had taken over part of my (already over-full) fridge and busy life. So the recipe hunt began. I tried a few that weren't bad, but just not quite right. I was about to give up when I got an email from a lovely foodblogger that wasn't about bread at all. We were exchanging emails about Tuscany and my upcoming vacation and first trip to the Southern part of the region and after telling her how I was trying to fall in love with bread baking, she recommended this book. Now, this is not the kind of book I normally indulge in, but a perfect light read for when you're on the tube or relaxing by the pool... the prose really wasn't that important anyway. At the back of the book was a recipe for a country loaf and, having almost despaired in my search for the one and only, I ripped the pages out and decided to just give it a try.
I have been baking it ever since, adapted slightly over the years, and despite my tinkerings (using various types and ratios of flours, adding onions, seeds, nuts, etc), it has never let me down. The proving times work really well with my schedule - setting out the starter the night before, then mixing the dough in the morning, going about my business, starting to fold the bread (no kneading required!) over lunch time and baking the bread when I'm back from the afternoon school run. I had never thought it possible to achieve a perfect crust at home, but it's actually not difficult at all once you get the hang of it. The technique of introducing steam at the beginning of baking, is one commonly used in the home-baking world and it makes such a difference when you want to achieve a beautiful, crunchy crust.
Of course, I try new breads all the time (recipes on this blog are scarce because I find bread very difficult and boring to photograph in a different and interesting way every time - at least not if you want to do it full justice with crust and crumb playing equal parts) but this recipe has stuck with me and is used at least twice a week. Try it for yourself, I urge you. You will never buy any bread again... unless you are lucky enough to live in a country where decent bakeries are abundant!
PS: Should I have whet your appetite and you're not sure where to get live sourdough from, I wouldn't mind returning the favour and send you some (unless I get a hundred requests ;-)
PPS: Please note that US customs (and subsequently all courier services) won't allow sourdough to be sent by mail as it is considered to be "alive". But within Europe is perfectly OK.
French sourdough loaf*
(yields one loaf ca 20 cm in diameter)
Sourdough starter (the night before baking)
80-100 g white sourdough culture
100 g water (room temperature)
100 g white bread flour (wheat)
180 g of starter (keep the remainder as your culture in the fridge)
330 g water (room temperature)
450 white bread flour (wheat)
50 g rye flour
10 g salt (very fine sea salt)
1 tbsp baker's malt (optional)
Possible additions (choose wisely)
2 tbsp nigella seeds
2 tbsp sesame seeds
alternative flours: spelt, barley malt
alternate ratio: I sometimes use 350 g wheat, 150 rye
1 handful fried bacon bits
1 handful of thyme leaves or other herbs
2 handfuls dry crisp-fried onions
Prepare the starter the night before. Weigh ingredients into a large glass jar and stir through thoroughly until you have a white sticky mass. The starter will rise and could double in volume, so make sure you account for that when chosing your glass. Cover with a moist tea towel and leave to stand out on the kitchen counter overnight. (Make sure that the temperature doesn't fall below 20 C and draughts should be avoided)
The morning after, prepare your final dough. Weigh all ingredients into a bowl and knead until the dough is smooth and comes off the sides of the bowl.(I use a Thermomix to knead the dough, I set it at 1:30'/dough setting.) Brush the bowl with oil (I use a mild olive oil), return the dough into it and leave to stand, covered with a moist tea towel, for 4 - 6 hours until risen. If you have a draughty kitchen or want to make sure the temperature is even, place it in the oven with only the light on (no temperature setting).
Now begin the folding process. Oil a work surface of your choice (a marble worktop maybe, or, like me, a silicone baking mat that sticks to the counter top) and place the dough on it. Extend it by pulling evenly from all sides until you have about 40 x 40 cm. (Don't worry if it doesn't extend that much). Now fold about a third inwards from the left, repeat from the right. Your are now left with a rectangular log of about 15 x 40 cm. Now fold again, folding roughly a third of the dough towards you and a third away from you into the middle. Now you're left with a neat package of about 15 x 15 cm. Return to the greased bowl and leave to stand for 45-60 minutes.
Repeat this process twice or until you have enough gluten strength (it will literally become harder to extend). The folding will trap air in the dough and produce those lovely holes that I love almost more than the bread ;-)) After the last fold, return to the bowl with the fold up.
Place a heat-proof pan in the oven (I use a shallow stainless steel pan), heat to 250 C. After 45 minutes, prepare the baking sheet. I usually use a silicone mat and sprinkle it generously with corn meal (somewhat coarser than bread flour) or semolina. Prepare a bowl of water (or spray bottle), some more corn meal/semolina and about 150 ml of boiling water.
Now you have to work fast. Turn the dough onto the sheet, tucking the sides gently in and under with wet hands to shape a round loaf. Sprinkle with some of the cold water, then 1-2 tbsp of corn meal/semolina. Place your baking sheet on top of the oven within easy reach. Pour the boiling water into the pan on the bottom of the oven, which will produce a lovely (and scalding hot!) steam. Immediately place the bread inside and close the oven door. Bake at 250C for 20 minutes.
After 20 minutes, lower temperature to 225C. If the bread is becoming very dark, place another non-stick silicone mat on top to cover - I use a very light-weight one but greaseproof paper should be fine too. You want the air to be able to circulate.
After a total of 40 minutes, take your bread out (close the oven door immediately in case it needs further baking) and tap the bottom with your fingers. If it sounds hollow, it is baked through. If it doesn't, return to the oven and bake until it does.
Leave to cool on a wire rack.
* Based on a recipe published in the novel "By bread alone" by Sarah-Kate Lynch