JOANNA'S FOOD: family cooking, from scratch, every day

Friday, June 17, 2005

Yeast starter for bread - & the bread

Last year I began reading everything on food labels, and was horrified by what I found. It was clear that the interests of the food manufacturers are not necessarily those of the individual. So I've been cutting down as much as possible on all processed foods, even apparently innocuous products such as tinned tomatoes, orange juice or bread. I haven't cut them all out all the time, and I certainly wouldn't want to - it's extremely useful to be able to open a tin of chickpeas in order to make hummous quickly. The new regime isn't about being neurotic about food, it's about making life as healthy as possible at home, in order not to worry too much when we're out and about. It's also about taking a view, aiming for balance, not fretting too much. In this way, lapses don't mean the end of the regime (as they would if we were "on a diet"), they just mean you know you should try a little harder for a day or two. This also means I can experiment with food - and I do, all the time.

So I began thinking about the bread we eat. I used to make it, but the children came to prefer sliced white flannel (what a galling admission!), and it gradually petered out. I got out of the habit. This was partly because it was a time-consuming and fiddly sort of breadmaking, involving searches in the supermarket for yeast, weighing ingredients out exactly, and generally fretting. I've been reading Dan Lepard's wonderful book, The Handmade Loaf, which proposes a very different, traditional method, using a starter. This is the bread which has been made for centuries, first in Europe, then taken by those admirable women who travelled across America in wagons, so that once on the West coast it became the sourdough loaf which is such a feature of San Franciscan cooking. This is food which you can adapt endlessly; it's food which involves sharing and generosity; it's food which fits in with a busy life. It also frees you from the food processing industry, especially if you can find a local source of flour.

Once you have a starter - yeast and flour, water, perhaps some sugar - all you have to do to make bread is mix part of it with some flour. Then you feed your starter with more flour, so that the process can begin again. If you want to help someone out by giving them some of your starter, just add a little more flour and water. If you don't want to make bread for a while, just leave the starter in the fridge until you do. When the moment comes to make bread, you can measure it all out carefully - or you can use your ladle to approximate the quantities. Despite using the same starter, you can make all kinds of different breads by changing the shape, the flour, the flavourings, the method of proving and kneading. It turns out that most bread has traditionally been made using a starter (to keep the yeast alive in the absence of a shop); it's only in the days of so-called convenience food that we have complicated things by making ourselves dependent on the supermarket.

It's not remotely complicated to make a starter, it just takes a few days. That is to say, it takes you a couple of moments, but you can't use it for a few days.


Dissolve 3 tsp dried yeast in 450ml warm water. Add 375g strong white flour. Cover, put to once side for at least three days, stirring twice a day. I used one of those French jars, about 8 or 9 inches tall, which was fine, except at the very beginning when it bubbled over, so I switched to a big bowl, which I covered with a teacloth. It seemed to be a one-off, because I now keep the starter in a French jar, and although it bubbles up when I add flour and water, it doesn't get anywhere near to overflowing.


1. Sift 175g strong white flour with 75g wholemeal flour, and some salt if you want (I leave it out, for me it's part of the point of making bread; apart from taste, the main effect of salt is to improve the keeping qualities of the bread).
2. Add 500ml of starter. Mix the starter and flour, adding a little more water to make a firm dough. You will have to feel your way here, so it would help if you've made dough before. Generally, you want to avoid using too much water, otherwise your loaf becomes rather hard (my early attempt at making buns, years ago, being known as bullets on account of too much water).
3. Knead the dough; you want it to be smooth, you want it to be what bakers call elastic, you'll know it when you get there, even if you haven't made bread before. It'll take 10 minutes by hand, no time at all in a Kenwood (indeed, using a machine, the danger is that you over-knead it). I can't give any advice about a breadmaker, because I've never used one.
4. Now it needs to be left to double in size. This is the moment when you can take control of the timings. If you want the loaf soonish, then leave it somewhere warm, and it will take about 2hrs. If you want it for breakfast, then put the loaf in the fridge, and it will take all night.
5. Knock it back (this just means giving it a punch to let out all the air), shape it, put it on a floured baking sheet, and leave it to prove. It's ready to bake when it's doubled in size. Slash it, cook it in a hot oven, 220C - check if it's done after half an hour (tap it on the bottom, it's ready when you get a hollow sound). It might take up to an hour.

Replenish the remaining starter with flour and water in the same quantities (a little maths is in order here). Now it will bubble away, waiting for the next loaf. This time, you could use different flour; you could decorate it with poppy seeds; you could dig out a recipe for ciabatta and make that instead (if it says to use processed/dried yeast, just use your starter). The second time you make a loaf using this method, you can just get on with it, because the starter is there, waiting for you to use it. Keep the starter in the fridge, just get it up to room temperature before you start mixing.

When you are adapting recipes, don't fret too much. The yeast in the starter will do most of the work for you, and it's forgiving stuff. Remember that the women who crossed America in the wagons didn't have scales, they just had measures, so the best way to claim this recipe for your own, to make this something you can do quickly and easily, is to work out how many ladles of starter are needed for each ladleful of flour in the bread, and how many ladles of water and flour you need to replace what you have taken out of the starter. I found it a little complicated to work out (maths is not my strong point), but once you've done it, you never need to use your scales when you are baking bread. Dan Lepard's book gives percentages of ingredients for each recipe, and the point of that is so that you can use a ladle rather than a scale.

Jamie Oliver's books have good bread recipes, and sensible advice on how to go about making your own. The key thing is that once you've got this going, it only takes a few moments to mix. If you mix it after breakfast, you've got a loaf for lunch. Or you can slow it down so that it's ready at supper time. Either way, it's delicious, and it makes you feel very clever and competent.

I made the starter last week; I made the first loaf with it on Saturday, with the help of Catrin (she was extremely helpful with the maths). She's just emailed to say that she's made a starter. I'm looking forward to reading her blog about how the bread went ... and I'll keep you posted about where I go from here.


PS I forgot to say, the bread was delicious - I brushed it with water and dotted it with fennel seeds. We ate it for lunch, and it was gone in a moment.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005


If you're on a low cholesterol diet, or trying to lose weight, then pudding is thought to be a bit of a minefield. I haven't found it so. It's true that we aren't great pudding eaters - I probably make one a week, and that's enough for everyone. The rule of thumb is to make sure that fruit is the main ingredient. Now I know that that's a problem for the many chocaholics who find themselves having to reduce their cholesterol. Lucius and I are both keen on chocolate, and we eat very good quality black chocolate in tiny squares a couple of times a week. I find that's enough, although I'm not sure Lucius would agree. What I have also found is that, since starting the new diet, I do not have such a sweet tooth - I really can't eat mass produced milk chocolate any more, because it's too sweet, and too fatty. And I never crave chocolate, whereas before I occasionally did.

One important thing to remember is that if you are restricting eggs in your diet, it's actually the egg yolks you are restricting, not the whites. You can eat unlimited quantities of egg whites, indeed there are books you don't want to read which are full of recipes for omelettes made from egg whites only and other similarly disgusting low-fat treats. Lots of recipes can therefore be adapted (I haven't done much experimenting in this field, but will keep you posted when I do). However, it does mean that meringues are allowed. Also macaroons and their Italian cousins Amaretti (you can get very good quality ones in Waitrose these days, but they're easy to make, and the almonds are good for you). So pavlova with a mix of 0% Greek yoghurt and 0% fromage frais topped with raspberries and blueberries is healthy, delicious, and does not make you (or any guests you may have) feel as if you're either on a diet or deprived.

Waitrose gives away useful recipe cards, and there's one at the moment with a good idea for low fat baked Alaska. You buy a flan case (the cards are aimed at getting you to try new products), chop a peach onto it, pile on half a tub of raspberry sorbet, and top with a meringue made with 2 egg whites and 100g caster sugar. It needs 3-4 minutes in a very hot oven. I'd only use the bought cake if it was low fat (ie 5g fat per 100g); otherwise I'd make it myself. (Sorry, I haven't checked; nor have I tried this, it's just a new train of thought.)

Low fat sponge cake

Sift 50g sr flour and mix with 40g caster sugar. Beat five egg whites to soft peaks; gradually add 60g caster sugar. You can then add 1 tsp of vanilla essence, if you've got it (but you don't need to if you keep a pod of vanilla in your cooking sugar). Now fold in the flour mixture, and spread this onto a Swiss roll tin. It needs about 15 minutes in a medium over (180C). Obviously for the baked Alaska, you want this cake to be round, and I think it would be okay in a pizza tin (you don't want to put it in a Victoria sandwich tin, because it would be too thick). If you want to use this cake to make a Swiss roll, then you should turn it out onto greaseproof paper to cool, spread it with your mixture, and then roll it up, which is less fiddly than it sounds. It doesn't keep all that well, altlhough if it's stale, you can use it in a trifle (obviously the usual substitutes for cream, and if you must have custard, you can mix it down with yog or fromage frais).

I've had slightly less luck with the topping for apple crumble. I suspect in the end I will give in, and use the nasty marge. But last time, I used a blitzed mix of Amaretti, Brazil nuts, jumbo oats and almond oil. I can't remember the exact proportions, but I do remember that when I tried without any oil it was completely inedible. The almond oil is worth using for this, because it adds sweetness and flavour. Sue Kreitzman has a recipe she calls apple crumble: the topping is 75g ricotta (read the label carefully to make sure you get the low fat version), 75g plain flour, 25g rolled oats, 1 tbsp marmalade (or, in a related recipe, maple syrup), 1 tbsp brown sugar, plus vanilla and spice. I thought it was good, but the children laughed when I called it crumble.

I remember that my grandmother used to make a pudding with stewed apple which was topped with crunchy breadcrumbs (probably fried in butter); I will look it up in Mrs Beeton, but probably not until the end of the summer. I'm sure we could adapt it.

Well that's enough pudding to keep me going for most of the summer. But I'll get back to you on the question of chocolate, and lemon, which I love.


Monday, June 06, 2005

More things for breakfast ...

It's a problem, breakfast, because Lucius is so keen on a traditional fry-up (weekends only), and of course we don't do that any more. Two eggs a week, no sausages, not much bacon. But actually, there's lots of other things you can eat which are much better all round. Tomatoes on toast (wholemeal, unless we've run out, in which case there's generally the children's nasty white sliced); mushrooms on toast (much more delicious cooked with a bit of stock, some sherry or wine, and a little Worcester sauce); scrambled eggs with smoked salmon (that's my favourite); kippers.

I like fruit and yoghurt. At the moment, I'm eating a lot of rhubarb, cooked in orange juice/zest (so from a fruit, not a box), with a little honey stirred in. Later in the summer, I'll go back to my autumn and winter staple, plums halved and baked in grape juice with cinammon and cloves. For a change, I also do dried fruit, which I cook in lots of different liquids, and flavour on a whim with various different spices. Cardamom features regularly, as does China tea. When the gooseberries are ready to pick, I will cook them with elderflower (and if it's over by then, I'll stir a little elderflower cordial into the fruit after it's cooled). None of this takes very long, and I generally do it while I'm cooking anyway. Then I don't have to think in the morning. Stewed apple is an autumn breakfast, but that's more trouble - none of the others needs much preparation. Having said that, it's worthwhile trouble, because you can't buy cooked apples with the delicious sharpness of apples stewed at home (even when you're finishing up the wizened ones at the bottom of the fruit bowl, even when they're all eating apples rather than cookers).

This week I bought a juicer in a sale, because a friend who came to supper gave us a huge quantity of grapes, more than we were able to eat. The grape juice was nicer than any I've ever bought, so it was quite inspiring. My heart sinks at the thought of "healthy" things like carrot juice and spinach juice (both suggested on the box the juicer came in), but I'd quite like to experimeent with tomato juice. I've never been able to understand why commercial tomato juice has so much salt ...