Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Chasing the sour crumb

The winter inner city patch is yielding rocket, mustard, silverbeet and herbs, but apart from that pickings are fairly slim on the substantial veggie front. The broccoli have leafed up with great vigour, but the heads are too small for my liking. The insignificance of my broccoli heads was brought cruelly home to me as I watched Peter Cundall in his last stint as presenter of Gardening Australia pull out broccoli plants from his Tasmanian veggie patch with obscenely large heads. This is my third year running with this problem. Any suggestions as to how to improve the harvest would be much appreciated.
Warrigal greens (New Zealand spinach)

With pickings out the back so slim, I've been eyeing off the Warrigal greens (Tetragonia tetragonoides) in the front garden. Early last year, I was given some seeds by Paul Fogarty who helped permablitz the inner city patch. I planted them out the front last summer and a couple have come good. It seems to like the cold weather, which makes sense as it's a New Zealand native (it's also called New Zealand Spinach). I cooked some up into Warrigal greens pesto. The recipe calls for Warrigal greens and Sea parsley (Apium prostratum), but I substituted Italian flat-leaf parsley from the garden for the Sea parsley - still tasty.

Warrigal greens and parsley pesto

I've also been raiding frozen produce, including the bags and bags of Jerusalem artichokes harvested from the inner city patch over summer. My partner and I made a dent in them by cooking some of them up in a Jerusalem artichoke risotto.

Activity in the patches
In the inner city patch, it has been mostly maintenance such as spraying the citrus, kiwi fruit, and tamarillo with white oil to control scale (in the case of the citrus) and mites, and watering the potted plants with worm wee. I made the white oil according to a recipe by Jerry Coleby-Williams from ABC-TV's Gardening Australia. On the balcony in the weak winter sun are a few boxes of winter hardy seedlings: Mizuna (Brassica rapa nipposinica), spring onions and Salad Burnet (Sanguisorba minor).

I've planted some perennial flower seedlings to increase the pollinator and beneficial insect population: Gaillardia Amberwheel, Lavender Bee Pretty, and caldendulas (Calendula officinalis).

Strawberry seedlings planted in a mound in the orchard on the peninsula patch

Where I work there is a Friday lunchtime market and a lady has started up a stall with home-potted seedlings for sale, mostly edible. I've bought comfrey, watercress, pyrethrum and strawberry (Fragaria ananassa, varieties Tioga and Aromas) seedlings from her. All have gone in down on the peninsula. The strawberries I put into the orchard where I'm trying to build up an understorey layer. Never having grown strawberries before, I did some research and ended up building a long mound and planting them into it to asist with drainage. I planted them with the top of the root ball partially exposed (I think this is called the strawberry crown). I plan to move one of the self-seeded borage (Borago officinalis) plants next to it over the next few weeks - borage is a recommended companion plant for strawberries.

Borage in the orchard

In the herb garden on the Peninsula patch, built by the Compost Queen, I've done some weeding, laid down some chook poo, and sowed some rocket, which has germinated in record time - probably because it's been raining buckets down there over the last few weeks, interspersed with glorious sunshine.
Rocket germinating in the herb garden

My sourdough journey

My homegrown sourdough starter

At a recent permablitz at the house of friends Susie and Alastair in Preston, I looked in on a sourdough making workshop that produced two loaves of very tasty goodness. I begged some starter culture off Kat Lavers, who ran the workshop and have been a little obsessed with getting it right ever since, although I've since made my own starter from scratch.

Although the rising times in bread making don't suit my impatient nature, there are many things to love about sourdough, apart from the taste. There's the fact that it requires neither store-bought yeast, nor a fancy bread-making machine. Instead, you get to breed up and care for a living culture of microorganisms, the starter, that you can keep forever and share among friends and family. The basic ingredients for sourdough (flour, water, salt) are cheap, simple and easily obtainable. Not many people make bread by hand any more. If you know how to make sourdough, you're one extra step away from supermarket dependency. When I get further down my sourdough journey, I'm sure an added bonus will be the opportunity to experiment with different ingredients like nuts, seeds, herbs, and different types of flours.

There are many, many good internet resources about making sourdough, some of which are listed at the end of this post. It's the kind of hobby that breeds obsession, including my nascent one. I'm even reading about the microbiology of sourdough, but that may be because I'm also studying microbiology.

One of the frustrating things for a beginner (I've never made bread before, let alone sourdough) looking for information on the internet, is the number of times you come across such bla bla-ness as "trust your instincts and your hands" and "when it feels right, it probably is right". When you're starting out, you don't have any sourdough instincts. And if all you seem to be able to do is make bricks, that kind of hippy wisdom is not very helpful! So, for what it's worth, here is what I've found works for me, after many failed attempts. The guts of this is taken from John Ross's excellent non-nonsense site 'John Ross's sourdough basics' with some shortcuts (as I've mentioned, I'm impatient) and hotbox tips thrown in. It's probably not great sourdough, but it sure is tasty, and there's nothing like an early win to get you fired up for more action. These instructions exclude the making of the starter. For info on how to make starter, check out John Ross's site.


1) Rig up a hotbox
Make yourself a hotbox - a warm, preferably enclosed environment where the bread can rise over extended periods of time in a fairly stable temperature. I made mine out of a polystyrene esky with a hot water bottle at the bottom (thanks to my partner for this idea). The lid of the esky sits fits fairly loosely so as to allow some air in. The bowl and tin I use to rise the bread in are big enough so that they kind of wedge into the esky, sitting perched above the hot water bottle, but not directly on it (this would be too hot and would heat the base unevenly, methinks). The ideal temperature for raising sourdough is said to be 27 degrees celsius but I didn't use a thermometer - I'm trying to keep things simple.

2) Proof your starter
This step is designed to ensure that your starter is active. Take 1/2 cup of starter (put the rest back in the fridge to hibernate) and add 1/2 cup flour (I use wholemeal flour) and 1/2 cup warm water. Mix in well. Put the mixture, still in the container you mixed it in, into your hot box. For this stage, you can just put the container, which is probably smallish, at the bottom of the esky in the middle, with your hot water bottle leaning up against the side of the esky but not touching the container. Leave it there for at least 3 hours. If it has formed lots of bubbles, and has increased a little in volume (it should look somewhat like the photo above), you're in luck. If nothing's going on, you may need to let it stit a while longer or nurture your starter for a week or so. I built my starter up over 3 weeks (see links below for starter making info).

3) Make the batter
In this step, you make the "batter" or "sponge" and it's basically the same as proofing the starter but with more flour and water. (Before you start on this step, put aside some proofed starter as starter for your next loaf - if you didn't have any starter left over in the previous step). Add 1 cup warm water and 1 cup flour to your proofed starter. Put the mixture in your hotbox for about 2-3 hours. As with the previous step, it is ready when it's increased in size, but this time it should increase more as the whole mixture should be active by now. This is your batter.

4) Make the dough and set it out to rise (1st rise)
For this step, you'll need 2 cups of batter, 3 cups flour (I prefer wholemeal), 2 tbsps olive oil, 4 tsps sugar, and 2 tsps salt. To the batter, add the sugar, salt, and oil. Mix well, then knead in the flour a half-cup at a time. I do it in a bowl with my hands and finish it on the bench, and instead of flouring my hands to avoid stickyness, I wet them (this prevents the dough getting too floury). As John Ross says, flour amounts are approximate. I think if you're using wholemeal flour like I am, you may want to stop at 2.5 or 2 and 3/4 cups rather than going all the way to 3. I left my dough a bit wetter than the non-sourdough dough I've made in the past (pizza dough and flan bases). The test for whether you've kneaded it is enough is to stretch the dough between your hands. If it skins out in plane, it is good. If it just breaks up into ropy strands, it's not done.

Shape the kneaded dough into a circular form (don't worry too much about shape at this stage; that comes in the next step), put it in a wide bowl (to give it space to increase in volume) and put it in the hot box for a couple of hours. "Let the dough double in bulk: when a finger poked into the top of the dough creates a pit that doesn't "heal" (spring back), you've got a risen dough." (from John Ross).

5) Set the dough out to rise again (2nd rise)
Take the dough out of the hotbox, and knead it a bit more. Form it into a loaf and put it in a floured tin. To help prevent the loaf sticking, you can scatter seeds (i.e. sunflower) or oatmeal in the tin before putting the bread in. I haven't yet tried slitting the top to let it rise better in the overn and make it look purty, but you could - this would be the step at which you do this. Put it back in the hot box and let it rise again, but this time for a shorter period of time. You don't want to overise it, otherwise you won't get any oven rise. Don't let it double in bulk - increase by a third is enough.

6) Bake it, bake it good
Preheat the oven to 160 degrees celsius, put your tin in and bake the loaf 30-45 minutes. This is contrary to John Ross's advice - he reckons you should have the oven at 180 degrees and you shouldn't pre-heat it. He also says you should leave the loaf to cool - but I reckon half the fun is eating the hot bread just as it's come out of the oven.

A success. I think this could be a 'crumb' shot. Sourdough enthusiasts talk a lot about 'the crumb'.

Fresh-baked sourdough - with someone poised to eat

John Ross's Sourdough Basics
Taming the Wild Yeast
Dan Lepard
San Francisco Sourdough

Marie Antoinette