Sourdough, Starts and Stumbles

It seems to me that a natural extension of my interest in fermenting would extend to sourdough and bread-making. My dad likes to remind me that I wasn’t always as health-food conscious as I am now; at potlucks as a kid I would pile my plate high with fresh Portuguese buns and ciabatta, and a bit of the other foods, but just to flavour the buns. And my interest in bread has not waned, though I appreciate a ‘heartier’ loaf these days over the ones I would have coveted when I was younger. As I have travelled I have had the great pleasure of coming across a handful of memorable breads; there was the freshly baked croissants and morning breads in a small village in France; the bread a grandmotherly Italian woman prepared at a bed and breakfast in Bruges; the long-fermented rye from a bakery in Dublin; the Slow Food-famed bread for which I trekked across Berlin; the old-fashioned dense pumpernickel from Ottawa; and then most recently the natural fermentation-leavened loaves from the CSA here in London, whose knowledgeable baker graciously allowed me to witness his process for a day.

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Berlin, Slow Food Bakery, 2015

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Yet despite my keen interest in tasting the bread, I always felt intimidated by the seemingly magical process that I knew looked so simple but involved much finesse. And this intimidation was not squelched when I witnessed the wood-fire baking process, though my interest in trying to bake my own loaf was certainly piqued. So I began to read and read and read, but could never quite work up the courage to begin my own bread-making. However, over the holidays when my family came to visit, we did a few Ethiopian meals that were based around fermented flatbread, injera. My aunt and uncle came bearing their spice blend berbere that seasoned most of the dishes that were piled on the injera. Despite the wonderful toppings that were coming together we had neglected to start the fermentation of the flatbread, a lengthy and crucial aspect of making traditional injera. As a family we decided to experiment, as we do, and tossed some old kefir whey into the batter to speed things along. And later, after shaking the batter on the pan, waiting for the edges to curl, then steaming the top by putting a lid on, we somehow ended up with flatbread resembling the taste, texture, and look of injera, even if we still had a ways to go. Subsequent attempts were not quite as successful, but no less experimental, as cousins joined with other dietary requirements, prompting me to do a mix of teff and buckwheat instead of teff and red fife. There’s something to be said about just giving it a go, and troubleshooting later. It can be a fun way to learn about the mechanics of it all, even if it means you try a few less-than-perfect dishes in the meantime.

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Injera, third time around.

So I had eased myself into fermenting flours by starting with the flatbread first. I’m not much of a measurer, which isn’t so bad when you’re nurturing a sourdough starter…mix flour, water, wait, add, mix, wait…and then add more, salt, mix, wait, bake! And my first attempt wasn’t a complete failure. Actually, I was pretty thrilled, and figured things could only get better. So with one sort-of success behind me I felt confident that my next loaf would no doubt succeed. But it didn’t. It fell. Very flat. Even so, it was still edible and deliciously sour. So despite my two somewhat polarized attempts, I’m envisioning years of home-baked bread and experiments before me. Plus, another wonderful perk is that you can make these pretty phenomenal savoury sourdough pancakes using the starter (a tip from Katz) and grate in any root veggies and pile on the krauts, kraut-chis, kefirs, and what have you. So there’s a silver living despite taking one step forward and falling (haha) back.

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One thought on “Sourdough, Starts and Stumbles”

  1. Glad we got you up and running again. That Christmas Ethiopian feast was great. The loaves are looking wonderful, I’m looking forward to some fresh bread next time we visit.

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