Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Spongeloaf Squarepants

I've been making my own bread for about five years now - with the aid of a breadmaker. I started by following the recipes that came with the bread maker, and then mixing various flour types to see what would happen. I've never tried the 'mixes', just used the essentials: flour, water, salt, yeast; and various adulterants: milk powder, lemon juice, oil, seeds and nuts. This was all fairly haphazard experimentation, and some of my creations were little better than doorstops.

In particular I found it hard to judge the action of the fast-action yeast recommended by all the breadmaker manuals. Sometimes it worked very well, other times it didn't activate at all. It seemed to go stale very quickly, and was very expensive. And too much could make the bread taste yeasty.

One day, probably at a restaurant or cafe, I had a piece of sourdough. I had forgotten the delicious taste; it seems to be really hard to find compared to the less-fermented breads sold by supermarkets and even bakeries. I looked into how to make sourdough, and found some really useful guides: basically, mix some flour and water, leave it alone for a week, and at the end it will probably be alive! Or you can give it a little baker's yeast at the beginning to start it off. Then use half of it each time in place of yeast. So I messed around with that for a bit, and again, got some nice results along with a few briquettes.

Two years ago, a friend of mine gave me a copy of Andrew Whitley's "Bread Matters", which gave an excellent insight into the chemistry of the bread-making process. Now I could see why some loaves failed while others over-rose, and why my sourdough needed to be fed a few hours before making a dough, rather than before being stored as guides had recommended. It also showed why supermarket breads taste so strangely sweet and salty, and how the industrial white bread is made (if you've eaten a lot of it, you probably don't want to know). It is a really brilliant book and I'll try to condense its advice on sourdough another time. I don't currently have a sourdough starter on the go, as life has been somewhat too interrupted to keep a regular cycle of bread-making, which you need in order to keep the starter fresh and alive.

So recently I started looking at sponge breads. A sponge is like the initial starter for sourdough: just a mixture of flour, water, and a little yeast to get it going. You leave it for 12 hours or so, and the yeast divides, digests the flour and becomes active; there's a picture from previous experiments on the left. Then when you combine it with the main ingredients for the dough, the yeast is ready to go and the rising always works well. It also adds a nice depth of flavour since the sponge has time to ferment. And you can see if there's something wrong with your yeast at the start, rather than post-briquette.

My problem was that the extra 12-hour step of activating the starter can be a bit of a pain. But I've found a timetable to get around this, allowing me to put the bread on before going to sleep, and still get an excellent result. This is a great recipe if you've just remembered you need bread tomorrow morning!

For the sponge:
  • 50ml boiling/hot water
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 75ml cold water
  • 1 tbsp active dried yeast (not fast-action)
  • 100g wholemeal flour
For the dough:
  • 150g wholemeal flour
  • 250g strong white flour
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 225ml water

Dissolve the sugar in the hot water, then reduce to blood-heat by pouring in the cold water. Stir in the tbsp of active dried yeast and give it 10 minutes to wake up. (Brush teeth... feed cats...)

Pour the yeasty water and the sponge flour into your bread maker and press go on its default programme. Let it churn for a few minutes, until everything is well mixed, then stop it. (Put cats out... awwww, don't give me that look... )

Add the dough ingredients gently, trying not to disrupt the sponge. Keep the salt insulated from the sponge entirely. Set the timer on your breadmaker for the following morning. (Ignore meowing... go to sleep...)

And that's it! Remove and enjoy rough hunks of piping hot bread, or rest it for 10 minutes before slicing neatly. (Let cats back in ... !)

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