Five Things I have Learned about Sourdough

January 24, 2018

So, I promised you an update on my sourdough baking adventures, and who am I to disappoint, especially now that all the picturesque snow has melted (it’s amazing what a day of rain will achieve) and been replaced by a slightly worrying new burn running half way round the house, which we’re hoping will disappear again when the currently saturated ground dries out some time in ooh, May …

1. there are more ways to bake sourdough bread than you ever dreamt of. And every single one of them is _the_ way

If you start googling for sourdough recipes you pretty much soon find that everyone who’s ever baked sourdough bread has then gone and started a blog about it (a bit like cycling, then), laying down their absolutely failsafe method for making sourdough bread, which is of course slightly different from everyone else’s. I’ve yet to discover whether the sourdough bread world is as riven with factions and controversies as cycling is – or what the sourdough equivalent of vehicular cycling or helmet wearing might be – but I’m hoping that all that soothing carbohydrate and delicious bread products is keeping them mellow because I don’t want to stumble into some horrible twitterspat over dutch ovens or kneading vs no-knead techniques.

2. It’s aliiiiiive. And it’s everywhere

I originally got the impression that the hardest thing about sourdough starter is keeping it alive. But it turns out Jimmy (Carter, the starter) is pretty vigorous for an old guy, and has already escaped from his container into the fridge at least once. The way the starter works, you keep making more of it too, and because the dough is sticky it gets everywhere (I keep looking down and realising that the respectable not-gardened-in trousers I thought I was wearing are now spattered with sourdough). Given that it’s all alive, I am starting to wonder if it’s basically taking over the house and possibly even the septic tank, and you really don’t want that rising up in the middle of the night. Some people have suggested composting any leftovers but I don’t want our army of compost daleks becoming sentient …

3. You cannae change the laws of physics

But what about the bread, you cry? Well the first loaf I baked followed a recipe that claimed it didn’t need to be proved in a basket, but would rise unsupported. Ha. Hahahaha. The result was a fine looking and very tasty discus, because sourdough bread dough takes forever to prove and even though it is rising while that happens, it is also spreading slooowly because it’s quite wet compared to normal bread dough.

first sourdough loaf

4. I’m a much shallower person than even I imagined

As a result of the whole laws-of-physics thing, I went back to basics for my next two loaves and (following the Bread Matters recipe) used a loaf tin to create a more loaf-shaped loaf. This worked – it was delicious, it made reasonable sized slices for making sandwiches and toasting, it could be sliced without bending the bread knife, but it looked a bit …

sourdough loaf from tin

Dwarf bread. 

Not so much rustic, as pretty urban, as if it had lost a fight in a dark alley (it was a bit of a struggle getting it out of the tin). What can I say? My instagram feed is full of gorgeous pictures of beautifully risen and marked loaves nestling in baskets lined with checked cloth, while mine got dubbed a brick and ‘dwarf bread’ by Twitter which, if you read your Terry Pratchett, is not a compliment.

So, following a recipe from another Twitter user, I sorted out an improvised proving basket from a serving dish and a tea towel (after 26 years of marriage it’s quite something to be able to finally use one of your wedding gifts).

loaf of bread proving

I gave it a nice long time to rise, failed to make any pretty patterns in the top, bunged it in a dutch oven, only burned myself a little bit trying to get the lid off half way through and bingo

Fourth sourdough loaf

I am ready for my closeup

5. Even so, it’s totally worth it.

So now the only problem is that I’ve got to keep it up because I don’t think we can go back to normal bread. My ambition now is to see just how long we can keep going without resorting to the back-up loaf of shop-bought bread that’s been sitting in the freezer since the beginning of the year. So far, I’ve been keeping up with demand (which appears to have doubled since I started this project) but given it’s a 24 hour lead time minimum, it takes a bit of planning

In fact, I now have to go and set off another Amy (which is what I’m calling the production sourdough, i.e. the offshoot you make the bread out of, rather than Jimmy the ancestral starter that lives in the fridge – this all makes perfect sense in my head) and maybe pick another recipe to see if I can hit my next goal: a loaf that actually remains oval rather than mysteriously going round while it’s in the oven. Oh, and mastering those pretty patterns on the top

What recipe do you use?


Slow Starter

January 3, 2018

Because I’m clearly Not Busy Enough, with the new year my thoughts have been idly turning on possible resolutions. In 2017 I not only managed to stick to my standard resolution* for the first time in ages but also managed to ‘turn left‘ for a new micro adventure every month, even if it was sometimes a very token effort indeed.

This year, as well as attempting not to start any more cycle campaigns (I need to be very careful if I see Back on my Bike coming anywhere near me with cake), I have decided I will attempt two things and you, dear blog readers, get to be bored rigid – sorry, bear witness – to my attempts. The first is to get better at maintaining my bike, of which more anon when the weather has warmed up (remind me in March or April; I have a plan for this).

The second – after a rambling new year’s eve twitter conversation (which as actually far more enjoyable than a lot of twitter conversations are these days, involving as it did no references to Donald Trump or Brexit or cycle helmets) – is to start baking sourdough bread.

I have made bread occasionally in the past, mostly wheaten loaf (or soda bread), and it’s nice enough but it’s never really stuck as a habit. The attraction of sourdough – apart from the fact that it’s complicated enough to be potentially interesting – is that your starter seems to take on the status of something between a chemistry experiment and a family pet (the most concrete advice I have been given so far is to give it a name, to encourage me to look after it properly), complete with the need to get a sitter in when you go on holiday (are there starter kennels? There probably are by now. If not, I offer you the Hipster Business Idea of 2018, coming soon to a crowdfunder near you). This seemed to me the best way to encourage me to actually keep the habit up as starter thrives on you regularly baking with it, and I’m much more likely to do something when someone is expecting me to do it, even if that someone is in fact a bunch of yeast cells named Jimmy Carter,** rather than an actual real person.

And then there’s the complication side of things. New Year’s eve found me rummaging around in the Scottish Water website trying to work out what water treatment chemicals were used in the Bigtown area to find out if I needed filtered water (it’s the chloramines, you see, they’re much more likely to kill off the organisms than plan old chlorination), and wandering the house trying to find a spot that would remain at a steady 21C (this is the problem with following American instructions for starting your starter. Also with moving out of the house with the Rayburn …). Twitter has been reasonably reassuring on this score and provided enough contradictory advice that I can go ahead and do what I was planning on anyway (sticking it next to the hot water tank).

So far – day three – and Jimmy Carter is beginning to bubble away although I suspect it will take a bit longer before he’s fully fighting fit. This weekend I will attempt to bake my first loaf of bread and hopefully the results will be at least palatable enough that I continue the experiment. And maybe even successful enough that I can quietly sweep that foolish ambition of getting better at maintaining my bike come the warmer weather …

* not starting any more new cycle campaigns – although Back on My Bike has conned me into continuing with the supposedly ephemeral Walk Cycle Vote campaign even though there won’t (we hope) be any voting to be done in 2018.

** Why, what do you call your starter?

Chasing Shadows

December 2, 2017

Today was one of those days when I kept getting distracted by the view and dashing out with my phone in a vain attempt to capture some feeble sense of what it was that had captivated me.

mist beneath us

The problem with views is that by their nature they are very far away, and unless you’re in the Alps or something, the interesting bit – the bit where, for the want of a more precise definition, the sky meets the ground – tends to be quite narrow. Add in a phone camera which doesn’t have a great deal of dynamic range, no zoom lens and – let’s be frank – a fairly rubbish photographer, and I end up with a lot of photographs of the fields in front of our house and some clouds and no sense of the wonderful interplay of light and mist and shade over Bigtown that I was actually trying to capture.

dramatic cloudscape

Still, I keep trying.

In the end, I got on the bike and cycled down into it (well, I had to get the paper anyway) to discover that, once you’re in the thick of it, a wonderful interplay of light and mist and shade translates into mizzling rain.

in the cloud

And then I came home and dashed out again to try and capture the sunset, with similarly unsatisfying results.

winter sunset

I could probably take better photos if I had an actual camera and learned how to use it but what these views really make me want to do is learn to paint. Or maybe just learn to be content to look.

This is the Future Calling …

November 29, 2017

Of all the aspects of the future that we were promised (hoverboards! teleportation! silvery jumpsuits!) it’s fair to say that ‘video calling’ wasn’t exactly the one I was hoping for. Still, I have to admit that when you need to have a three way conversation with your little sister in London and your big sister in rural France, it’s very handy. Or it would be handy if Skype didn’t have a user interface apparently designed to baffle even the most hardened techie (approximately 30% of all Skype conversations consist of people trying to make Skype work in my experience), and it would be even handier if all of the computers we were trying to connect up had actually turned out to have working microphones.

conference call

So welcome to the 21st century where, after only 15 minutes of fiddling about, we can now communicate seamlessly with two of us connected on Google Hangout, and the third dialled in on WhatsApp via her mobile phone, and propped up on a stand shaped like a strawberry cupcake. This actually worked surprisingly well, but we may need to work on the technology a bit before we have an important conference call with a client next week. Or at least, not giggle so much.

Then again, having gone through this or a similar palaver pretty much every time I need to make a video call, perhaps it’s a good thing that nobody’s actually invented teleportation yet…


November 26, 2017

Much as I love my bikes, this week has been testing the bounds of that love a bit, what with two puncturetastic days, yesterday’s adventure getting just one ice tyre on the big bike, about which the least said the better, plus the usual background niggles of wet gloves, oblivious drivers, and the fact that there’s a dead cat on the verge just as I’m at my slowest on the ride home which is getting deader by the day.*

waiting bike

Waiting at the start of the ride, wondering as usual if anyone will show up

Today, though, was the Bigtown Cycle Campaign’s monthly winter ride. We did originally try and pretend that there’s some sort of campaigning focus to these rides (encouraging people to ride year round, showing that cyclists can inject cash into the local economy …) but really they’re just jaunts, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We live in a beautiful part of the world, there are just enough cafes to go around for our winter schedule, and when the sun shines and a nice bunch of folk turn out, there’s very few better ways to spend a November Sunday afternoon than pedalling 20 miles at a gentle pace with a stop for soup, cake and hot chocolate (I may not be keeping the local retail economy afloat, but I’m doing my best for the local cafes), chatting all the way

And besides, when you finally get home (averting your eyes as you pass the ex-cat), you are then fully justified in collapsing onto the sofa with coffee and toast and only getting up again to put more fuel on the fire.

You don’t get that out of a Sunday drive.

bike shadow silhouettes

* I did try and find out if anyone was missing their cat – mainly because I’m a nice person and don’t want anyone left wondering what happened to their beloved pet but, if I’m honest, also partly because I was hoping someone would come and take it away so I don’t have to cycle past it every day…


October 26, 2017

Today being our last day here, we headed to Tollymore Forest Park because it’s got to be done: one of those places that was a fixture of my childhood, but which I am only now beginning to properly appreciate.

Tollymore entrance

And despite having come here regularly for over 40 years, I still somehow managed to miss the entrance and was practically at Bryansford before I realised my mistake.

tollymore autumn

tollymore in autumn

Worth the uphill pedal though … if only to work up an appetite for our tea.

tollymore in autumn

Back home tomorrow, to find out if everything is still standing in the garden.

Tollymore in autumn

A Stroll in the Park

October 24, 2017

While all these bike rides and seaside walks are all very well, what else is Newcastle for if not for walking in the Mournes? So today, we decided it was time to go and tackle some of those contour lines directly, on foot. Paradoxically, the easiest climb for us is also the hardest, because Slieve Donard rises right from the back of where we’re staying, and is reasonably easy to navigate because there’s a pretty clear path all the way to the top. The fact that it’s 850m pretty much straight up from our sea-level house is neither here nor there – in recognition of our lack of climbing fitness, and out of respect for our ageing knees, our only aim was to go up as far as could and then come back down again with ligaments and self-respect intact.

all-terrain barrow

How to carry your tools up a steep and rocky path … I did suggest suspension forks for the next iteration

Stopping off to chat with the cheery volunteer rangers of the Mourne Heritage Trust* (and their impressive all-terrain frankenbarrow) who were busy repairing the path, we headed upwards, very grateful for their efforts as this route up Donard gets a lot of visitors and even mountains made of granite aren’t immune to the effects of lots and lots of feet.

donard path

There were pauses to admire the view, and how far we’d come

view from donard

Quite frequent pauses …

view from donard

In the end, reaching the saddle between Donard and Commedagh, we decided that was a good enough point to stop and turn around (550m worth of climbing in the end). It wasn’t just the steepness of the climb that remained that gave us pause – as the realisation that it was already a long way down …

long way down

Given the way we felt by the time we’d reached the bottom and staggered into Maud’s to be revived with millionaire’s shortbread and salted caramel ice cream (delicious, in case you’re wondering), that was definitely the right decision.

*Who, I note from their website, also suffer from an ASBO buzzard