our (not so) daily bread :: 2

IMG_3899Although sourdough bread has become extremely fashionable in recent years, it’s fair to say that its chewy texture and characteristic tang are something of an acquired taste. Personally, I can’t get enough of the stuff (though there will always be a place in my heart for the guilty pleasure that only a slice of totally plastic white bread, dripping with butter and Marmite can provide), which is why, many months ago, I put myself on the waiting list for Laura Hart’s wonderful Bread and Breakfast Workshop. The workshop takes place once a month throughout the year over the course of a weekend: a three-and-a-half hour session on Saturday evening followed by a shorter session on Sunday morning.

IMG_3883In my excitement at finally getting an email alerting me to the fact that my time on the waiting list was over, I didn’t really take on board what the workshop would involve beyond mastering the art of sourdough. And I couldn’t quite believe my luck when I realised that we would also be making croissants, Danish pastries, cinnamon buns (one of the bakery’s signature creations), chocolate tarts and pizzas — the last of which we ate together that evening with a glass of wine while the various doughs rested prior to shaping.

IMG_3885The session began with the sourdough and, although most of us had some sourdough experience, none of us had ever come across the autolyse technique which Laura uses at the bakery. The idea is very simple: the first bit of kneading, which is often extremely sticky and messy, is sidestepped and the dough is left alone for 20-30 minutes during which time the gluten begins to develop naturally (nice explanation of the theory here).

Incredibly, the dough was much easier to manage after the rest, and at this point the salt is added. A further rest, of an hour, and we then began to folded the dough a few times every thirty minutes until it was time to shape it for the proving basked. There is no doubt about it, sourdough takes time — there are no viable shortcuts — but get your timings right (the folding only takes a moment or two) and the whole business is easily fitted around whatever else you are doing: making an evening meal, watching the television, or even gardening. Over the course of the evening we filled the gaps between tending our dough with thwacking lumps of butter, folding and shaping pastry for our croissants, rustling up a marmalade and chocolate tart and making and eating pizza.

IMG_3895It was an intense session, but enormously satisfying. And as we chatted over pizzas (a half sourdough base) we all agreed that we’d learned many valuable tips and techniques: weighing water rather than measuring it; the autolyse technique; working the dough in the bowl rather than on the work surface; creme fraiche with a sprinkling of parmesan makes a fantastic pizza topping; butter for croissants needs to contain at least 82% fat; a heavy iron pot (not a le Creuset though) can be used to mimic a professional bread oven…

There was also much discussion of sourdough itself, with one participant admitting that she didn’t like it — too sour. Why on earth was she there, we all asked. Unlike me she had read through the details of the course and, well acquainted with Hart’s delicious pastries, she’d come to learn how to make croissants.

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On Sunday morning we returned to the bakery, each of us accompanied by someone with whom to share breakfast (I took Matilda), and while our guests drank coffee and read the papers we got back to work. First we had to tip our loaves out of their proving baskets and onto a baker’s peel, then we slashed them with a sharp knife (scissors will do if you don’t have a suitably razor-sharp blade) and finally shot them into the depths of the oven. Next we put the final touches to the pastries: creme patissiere and apricots for the Danish pastries, a glaze for the pain au raisin, croissants and cinnamon buns.

P1290552And then it was time for breakfast. But despite our enthusiasm, there really was no hope of us polishing off all that we had made, so once again we left the bakery laden with treats to take home. Best of all we were given a pot of Laura’s 50-year-old starter, which I’ve already put through its paces several times in the weeks since the workshop.

Laura waved us off with the promise that should we need any help, she’d happily talk to us at the bakery or reply to our emails. And she has been as good as her word, taking the time to reply to various queries I’ve had. I really cannot recommend the course enough — whether or not you are a fan of sourdough, if you enjoy making bread you’ll almost certainly leave harbouring fantasies of starting your own bakery. I’m hopeless at early mornings, so my bakery dreams lasted all of twenty-four hours, but at least I’ve got back into the habit of making bread on a regular basis.

our (not so) daily bread :: 1

white loafI have been making bread on and off for many years; since I was a teenager, in fact. Sometimes I bake a lone loaf, made on the spur of the moment, just because; at other times, I fall into the rhythm of regular bread-making and happily turn out a couple of loaves a week for several months (more often than not I make a smug vow that I will never again buy my bread). And then, for no particular reason, I find that the shop-bought bagels, bread rolls, pittas and loaves have made their way back into our lives once more. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to it.

But last month, as I started bottling the first of this year’s jam, the home-baked loaves began to appear with increasing frequency and I realised that there is a cycle to my bread-baking: it follows the seasonal spikes in my jam and marmalade-making. A batch of homemade marmalade prompts a home-baked loaf. And then, as the novelty of marmalade wears off, homemade bread disappears from the menu until I start turning summer fruit into jam.

sliced whiteOver the years it has occurred to me that investing in a breadmaker might be the solution to a more reliable supply of homemade bread. I have many friends who swear by them, and certainly the bread they make with their machines tastes wonderful. Machines are convenient too: a daily loaf, hot and delicious, first thing in the morning with minimal fuss and planning — who could argue with that? But a bread machine would deny me the part of the process I really enjoy. I like to feel the dough change texture: gloopy, resistant and impossible one minute, smooth and elastic the next.

No matter how often I make bread, it never ceases to amaze me that such humble ingredients (flour, water, yeast and salt) can be combined to create something so delicious. And this sense of alchemy is never more powerful than in those first moments when the water is added to the flour to create a sticky, shaggy mess — how, one wonders, will this ever turn into a loaf of bread?

P1250633Last year, having baked my way through those jammy summer summer months, I decided to add sourdough to my repertoire — I love its flavour and texture and thought the challenge might sustain my bread-making through the winter months. I had long wanted to try my hand at making a sourdough starter but couldn’t quite muster the courage or energy to get my head around the process.

As with all such things, it really wasn’t very difficult at all, more a matter of planning than skill. And so last winter we enjoyed an unusually long period during which homemade bread was a daily fixture. But although my sourdough tasted good, I didn’t manage to achieve the rise, the lift, I had hoped for. And then, just as my loaves began to improve, I found an uninvited guest in my starter: a fruit fly. Although there was just the one fruit fly, the thought that many more might be lurking beneath the bubbly surface put me off. I lost my nerve and ditched the starter. And as I watched it swirl away down the plug hole I decided not to bother with another starter until I had enlisted a little professional help. I cleaned out the Kilner jar (aesthetically pleasing, but a decidedly wrong-headed choice of storage for my starter as it turns out), and put my name on the waiting list for Laura Hart’s Bread and Breakfast Workshop. The joys of which I will share in my next post.

read all about it…

P1290493Back in February I mentioned a shoot that James Balston and I were working on in Peckham, South East London. I couldn’t say much about it at the time — beyond sharing a shot, here, of James balanced rather precariously on the edge of the bath — but it’s in today’s Guardian magazine, with a few extra shots here at the Guardian online. But for the full set of photographs (magazines never have room for everything) take a look here.

IMG_2664The house belongs to textile and lighting designer, Rachael Causer (who you can see above, reflected in two mirrors in her bathroom), and her husband Henry Ward, and it is filled with interesting details, many of which are the result of years and years of reconfiguring the spaces as their needs have changed.

It’s exactly the sort of interiors story I love: all about creative lateral thinking rather than an exercise in how to spend vast amounts of money. Do take a look, if you have the chance.

I’m aware that the blog has been a little neglected recently — a combination of lots of work, lots of DIY (will it ever end?) lots of gardening and a lot of jam making, all of which I hope to share in the coming weeks, though it’s all on Instagram to which I have become rather addicted.

 

fleeting

P1290135I don’t suppose these will last more than a day, as I find woody plants don’t seem to fare very well in the vase. But it seemed a shame to consign these stems to the compost alongside the other deadheads, stalks and general pruning I amassed this morning.

P1290142Since planting them three years ago, my two Cistus plants have grown so enormous that they now meet as one in the centre of the bed. Fortunately their relatively scraggy habit allows similarly thug-like plants, such as hardy geraniums, to co-habit: the geraniums use the cistus as a climbing frame.

I like the contrast between the tiny geranium flowers and the floppy, showy pink of the Cistus. Although each flower only lasts a day or two, buds keep appearing and the flowers will keep the garden colourful until late in the year; my house too, no doubt.

snip, snip

P1290050At last! Flowers to cut for the house.

P1290079Not quite enough to fill a large vase (yet), but three small ones clustered together will do.

Linking with Little Green Shed’s Nature in the Home round up, as it’s always inspiring to see what other people are gathering from their gardens around the world.

nesting

nestThis nest fell out of our next door neighbour’s hedge back in February. They noticed that it was lined with our cat’s very distinctive white fur and so they gave it to us. Since it’s arrival in the house we’ve been wondering how the fur was harvested — the most popular (and outlandish) theory being that poor Spooky is regularly plucked by thrill-seeking robins, sparrows, blue tits and goldfinches.

spookyThe truth, however, is far less exciting: over the last month we have noticed that the local sparrows have become very interested in the the mat by our back door. A few days ago we spotted one with a tufty white bundle in its beak and realised that the sparrows have been busy gathering cat hairs. It’s very sweet to watch.

I’ve tried to catch the sparrows in action with my camera, but they are far too quick — the slightest movement from the house and they’re off. Their activities made me think of this poem by Edward Lear, but instead of buying hats and bonnets, our Mr and Mrs Spikky Sparrow are investing in cavity wall insulation. Very sensible.

nest 2For those who are interested in such things, this last image, which is so like the first, is just to give you some idea of the size of the nest — the hands belong to Bea, so are child size.

spring cheats

P1280141Spring has most definitely sprung since my last post. And when away from my desk I have been enjoying the few bulbs I managed to plant last autumn — though I must confess that these grape hyacinths, like the Narcissus in this post, are something of a cheat.

About a month ago I bought a tray of potted bulbs going cheap at the market, the green shoots were just up, and I planted them in a trough. Since then I’ve been digging them up, a clump at a time, and bringing them into the house to enjoy whilst working.

Even though the weather has been fine their growth is fairly slow outside, but once in the house you can almost see their stalks moving as they take off. I’m quite enjoying this slightly cheaty approach to gardening — more on the path of least resistance for gardeners soon.