This is my first post, and unlike Boris, my perspective is from a humble home baker. I’ve been baking now for a few years and in spite of being a professional software engineer, I’ve managed to crack through the ‘bread ceiling’ and come up with some good and consistent results.
This Christmas we (both Boris and my families) decided to visit the Tasmanian highlands for a couple of week’s holiday and I thought it would be a great idea to bring Steve along. Steve is my sourdough starter.
Now you may be wondering why I’ve bothered to name my starter at all, let alone Steve. Firstly, a sourdough starter is a living culture of micro-organisms. It needs to be looked after and fed; and most importantly it brings you joy and good health. It’s all pretty much like having a pet cat (including the indifference). So giving it a name psychologically bonds me even more to my starter and ensures I give it the love and protection it deserves. As for why I chose Steve – it’s a reference to the hedge in the kids animation film “Over the Hedge.” When Hammy shows the others the hedge for the first time… “I’d be a lot less afraid of it if I just knew what it was called.” says Gladys as they all cower under the hedge. “Steve!” says Hammy squirrel. “…yeah I wouldn’t be afraid of Steve…” and then Ozzie says “O great and powerful Steve! What do you want?” If you have the DVD then watch from about 10 minutes in, I found it quite amusing and I think its a great metaphor for how the novice sourdough baker seems to approach their starter. Anyway, that’s the crazy idea I got when I was having a coffee with my mates and it dawned on me that I really should give my starter a name: Steve!
We had decided to drive from Sydney to Melbourne, take the ferry with our cars across Bass Strait to Devonport and then drive the hundred or so kilometers to Miena in the central highlands, where we had access to the Devonport Fly Fishing Club Lodge. Boris suggested that we could leave Steve (the starter) for Don (a fishing buddy of his), so before leaving home I increased Steve to double his size and left half at home and took the other half (son of Steve) with us. As it would take a couple of days to get to Miena, I made sure Steve was well fed and in the fridge till the last minute before we left. I kept him in the back of the car in an eski and when we reached Melbourne immediately put him in the fridge till the next morning. Again the next morning traveling in the back of the car on the ferry and straight in the fridge on arrival at the Lodge.
It didn’t take long before it was time to make some bread. The Lodge had a reasonable kitchen oven, but of course no stone! You’ll know how important a stone is from Boris’ post Stone in a domestic oven, why? Fortunately, the fishing fraternity, and in particular the Tasmanian lot, are very resourceful and before we knew it Don and his mate Murray rocked up with a fine slab of stone he picked up by the shores of the Great Lake (Murray managed to split it nicely to get two pretty flat sheets, one for us and one for Don’s oven). It looked like a basalt or dolerite and was reasonably thin and flat, so an excellent candidate. If it was a sandstone I’d be reluctant to use it as that is generally too soft and prone to crack up from the sudden changes of temperature experienced in an oven.
The stone almost fitted the oven perfectly, needing only a small bit of trimming to get the door shut. Fortunately the ever resourceful Tasmanians came to the rescue again – Don brought his angle grinder, with a diamond disk no less, and in minutes we had a perfect stone for the oven.
We bought some Defiance bakers flour from Woolies (this is generally a strong or high protein flour). Don (also a dabbler in sourdough bread making), supplied us with his royal and ancient stoneground flour. The problem with getting good flours is that you end up having to buy a large quantity and unless you bake every day there is a good chance it will be out of date before you use it all. Well, Don’s stoneground worked fine despite being only 20% of the formula and expired in 2012! So don’t throw out the old flour unless the proportion of weevils is too high to stomach.
What a surprise it was to find a set of scales at the Lodge! Not the best in the world by any stretch of the imagination, but much better than nothing. Next time we’ll remember to bring the digital scales as well as Steve.
I have to admit that I was a tad apprehensive baking in a totally foreign environment – my first away from home baking. Would there be the necessary tools and appliances? Seems that when you set your mind to it you quickly discover how easy it is to adapt to the conditions – you can always find some kind of utensils that work well enough. Containers are really all the same. The only tricky elements were the scales, which weren’t really accurate (but at least consistent), and the oven, which proved fine once we got the stone.
Luckily, I had the use of my sourdough bread App (affectionately coined Bread Boss by my twelve year old son Lukas) to help with all the recipe calculations. It’s an Android app and is a work in progress, but proved to be perfect for the occasion. We created a 80% white and 20% stoneground flour recipe and put in the number of loaves and their required weight and the Bread Boss listed all the necessary ingredients and weights for both the sourdough and final dough.
The sourdough went overnight (15 hours) and quite surprisingly for an Australian January we had to have the wood fire going strong in the evening to keep the 4°C temperatures at bay. A couple of big logs before bed and in the morning the sourdough was nicely matured.
In making the final dough, Boris sagely advised that I should use the delayed salt method of mixing (because of the high protein flour). This meant that I didn’t add the salt to the dough until after I’d mixed it for the first few minutes and left it to rest. Then I sprinkled the salt over the dough and worked it through. It was interesting to see the effect of the salt after only a minute or two of mixing. Delaying the salt allows for easy development of the protein, as the salt tends to toughen it, making mixing a better workout.
The next day was a lazy one and the turning of the dough over 4 hours was not a problem as we were staying close to the Lodge. The next day we put the stone to the test and ‘fired’ up the oven. As it was quite a thick piece of stone we preheated for about 50 minutes. The bread baked beautifully and we got four nice round cobs. The slashing was a bit rough as the sharpest implement we had was a Swiss army knife, but it was adequate. Regardless of what you have available it’s worth doing the slashing, as Boris’s post Good slashing is easy when you know how! will elucidate.
The final results of baking bread at the Devonport Fly Fishing Club’s Lodge.
The second batch of bread really had to be on the go. We’d already arranged to go up to Longford for the day so we took the final dough with us and stopped approximately every hour to turn it over. I was given some strange looks by passing Tasmanians, wondering what the hell I was doing.
By late morning the dough was ready to be molded so we stopped at Don’s real home (as opposed to his fishing shack where he’d been staying up till then). Without scales we roughly divided the dough and molded them into round loaves, placing them into tea towel lined containers (a colander and Tupperware container we’d brought with us from the Lodge). By the time we got home the dough had nicely proved in the warm back of the car and was well and truly ready for baking.
Finally the results of sourdough on the go:
Not bad! Although I had a master baker supervising, it was not really necessary (Boris may just have something to say about that:). Boris’ favorite aphorism to his home baking audience is “My brother’s a software engineer, and if he can do it, anyone can!”
A big thank you to Don and Murray who helped with the stone, flour and fishing.