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The Day My Starter Died

Recently my sourdough starter passed away. Through neglect and circumstance it grew beyond a sourdough starter in to a kaleidoscopic collection of seemingly extra-terrestrial life forms. Here is an ode to the sourdough starter to the tune of that MClean classic American Pie:

 

A Long, long time ago
I can still remember that growing starter making me smile
And I knew that it had a chance
To make a sourdough bread romance
That I would be ecstatic for a while

The first loaf we had for dinner
It sure was a sourdough winner
Cut thick and by the slice
Just one would not suffice

But one day I smelt and nearly cried
When that starter burnt my nose inside
No more sourdough for us, I sighed
The day my starter died

(Chorus)
So bye bye to my starter from I
I loved you then I left you to go mouldy and die
And now all we eat is shop bought wholemeal and rye
Singin’, why’d I let my old starter die?
Why’d I let me old starter die

(Verse)
Did you make a starter with love?
Did you look after it with kid gloves?
Like the experts told you so
Do you believe in sourdough rolls?
Great with jam or just butter you know
You can eat it quick or eat it real slow

Well I eat it with cheese and double smoked ham
Because that’s the funky guy that I am
You know I couldn’t lose
Man, that starter you can re-use

But I neglected the starter, oh what a schmuck
And that starter turned in to a heap of muck
And I knew I was out of luck
The day my starter died

(Chorus)
So bye bye to my starter from I
I loved you then I left you to go mouldy and die
And now all we eat is shop bought wholemeal and rye
Singin’, “Why’d I let my old starter die”
“Why’d I let me old starter die”

But as one must, I have moved on. And the marvellous thing about the starter is that in just seven days a new one is born (see here for how to).

 

Sourdough Starter

Sourdough Starter

 

And so this week I welcomed a new addition to the family; an all new, living and sour sourdough starter. Today it was christened and in to existence came its first offspring; a white sourdough loaf. Recipe coming soon.

Chả Lụa – Pork Terrine

Introduction:

Stern faced, the guard in a snowy white uniform, gripping a menacing looking rifle and holding an intense stare that penetrated the thick grey granite, suddenly flicked his eyes my way and moved his head to the side in a manner filled with such focussed intent that I disembarked from my momentary pause and continued to walk, silently, swiftly and sullen faced. Fifteen seconds later I had ‘walked the line’ and emerged back in to the cold wind swept morning disturbed and exhilarated. I had just seen Uncle Ho, the revered hero and much praised leader of this great nation.

Embalmed to an incredibly life-like presence, he lays there with a perfectly wispy beard; arms delicately crossed on his upper torso; and wearing his favourite khaki suit. I have just seen a body that left this mortal coil in 1969 but looked as if it had been trapped in time, never to suffer the rigours of the ageing process again. It was eerie, disconcerting and surreal, yet given the context of what this person achieved and how people from around the world are intrigued by him, and how the locals’ are so still enamoured with him and driven to succeed through his accomplishments, it was also a wonderful, majestic and inspirational experience.

The Hanoians are terribly proud of their Uncle Ho, and this pride runs through it food. As he still forms part of the locals’ daily lives, so does cooking and eating together, and socialising. No more so when Hanoi’s classic dishes are on the table, one of which is chả lụa, or pork terrine.

Historical French occupation is still evident when one sees the number of bakeries and locals selling fresh baguettes on street corners; the smells could be from une rue de boulangeries à Paris, was it not for the intermissions of smoking char-grilled pork aromas. But these baguettes call out for something most European in its invention: pork terrine with pickled vegetables, tomato, cucumber and lettuce.

I first tried chả lụa courtesy of our friends in Hanoi, who declared that they have a relative nestled in some back alley downtown that produces the best chả lụa in Hanoi. It was magnificent; from the unwrapping of the banana leaf and local newspaper that is was encased in to the wonderfully smooth texture. I attempted to replicate this in Hanoi and only having the use of a cleaver and a pestle and mortar could not get the pork fine enough or paste-like enough to obtain that silky finish. It was something that would have to be worked on back home.

Fast forward 5 months, and a few chả lụa(s) later I have finally managed to make that beautifully aerated and smooth terrine; one that will never be quite as good as Hanoi, but nonetheless very close. I am sure Uncle Ho would have been proud.

 

Serves: A few  |   Preparation:  10 minutes   |   Cooking: 1hour + resting overnight

 

Ingredients:

500g Pork shoulder | Get your butcher to mince this on the finest setting if you don’t have a mincer at home.
2 tbsp. Fish sauce | A good quality fish sauce if you can obtain it.
1 pinch Sea salt | I use Maldon sea salt.
1 large egg Egg white | Free range.
2-3 Banana leaves | Can be bought at many good Asian grocers, fresh or frozen.

 

 

How To:

Put a large pan of water on heat until it is simmering. Next put hot water into a sink and soak the banana leaves for about 5 minutes, then remove the leaves and pat dry.

The next stage can be a) pretty easy if you have a good food processor b) very healthy if you don’t as you’ll need to expend a fair bit of energy to pound the meat. I did it the second way when in Vietnam, but now I am back in Melbourne I opt for the first way.

a) Add the mince, fish sauce, sea salt and egg white to a food processor and process for about 3-4 minutes. The result needs to be an incredibly smooth paste.

b) Add the mince to a large mortar and pound the meat with a pestle until a very fine paste is achieved. Then add the fish sauce, sea salt and egg white and pound a little more until consistent. This method can take anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes.

Lay one banana leaf along your bench top and then place the other at right angles across the middle of the first one (You should have a large cross shape). Place the smooth pork paste in the middle in an as close to a cylindrical shape as possible.

Now take one end of the banana laying parallel to the bench and gently, but fairly tightly, wrap it over the pork paste. Now do this with the other end and then tuck the excess banana leaf underneath. Now with the banana leaf at right angles to the bench take the end furthest away and wrap it over the meat, towards you. Now take the end closest to you and fold over the meat, away from you. Now roll the parcel to take up the excess banana leaf. You should end up with a tightly wrapped cylindrical parcel. Roll the parcel a couple of times to ensure the meat paste is cylindrical. Now tie the parcel with string, ensuring that it is tight enough to hold the banana leaves together but not too tight to ‘dent’ the meat paste.

Place the parcel in the simmering water; the heat should be on the lowest setting. Cover with a lid and cook for 1 hour. When finished allow the parcel to cool to room temperature and then place in the fridge overnight. Your chả lụa is now ready. Open at one end and slice. Keep it in the fridge wrapped in the banana leaf so it stays moist.

 

Notes:

  • Traditionally eaten in Hanoi with fresh baguettes, pickled vegetables, tomato and cucumber.

Sourdough to Tears

I have always had a fascination with bread; its integral part in culinary culture, the science of how it is made and the innumerable varieties available: flat breads, white bread, wholemeal breads, German dark loaves, non-yeast breads, oil-rich breads, non-wheat breads, sweet breads and enriched breads. The aroma of a steaming fresh white loaf in the morning is one I will always cherish; sliced in to doorsteps and lacquered with French butter and a fine sweet and tart red berry jam. I also have the same feeling for the blue-corn bread served hot as an appetiser at a local Mexican restaurant. The reality is that bread is part of most of our lives, and in many countries is presented on the table as part of the meal, from soup to nuts – I do love that phrase by the way ‘soup to nuts’ and would dearly like to say that it was completely designed in some creative corner of my mind, but alas it wasn’t.

Unfortunately, in some countries the importance of bread is rapidly evaporating, and is being replaced by a plastic variety that lacks substance, flavour, texture and pleasure. A great series in the UK last year, The Great British Food Revival, lamented this point with Michel Roux jnr in one episode taking us on a journey from how the art and love of bread making and bread is being lost to what we can do to revive such an honourable and established human culinary tradition. This certainly whetted my appetite to go straight to the kitchen and start learning about bread.

Until recently, my only experience of bread making was simple yeast based white bread – and even a simple white bread made well and served as referenced above, is heavenly. However, one bread that I had always wanted to make just because I love the flavour, was sourdough. I had always wondered what ‘flavoured’ the bread to achieve those incredible acidic and sour notes. To be honest, I did think that it must be the addition of sour cream or something similar – once our local baker had picked himself off the floor after entering a fit of hysterics, he said that if you want to be a chef my friend then you must learn the real art of bread making, and forthwith pointed me in the direction of something called a sourdough starter.

Completely fascinated by the idea that you needn’t add yeast to create a perfectly risen loaf of bread I embarked on a metaphoric journey to make sourdough bread as good as that from our local bakers (sour cream not included – lactobacillus definitely included). What I wasn’t prepared for was the emotional attachment the journey would induce. The sourdough starter, I learned, was something that takes 7 days to produce, at which point it would probably be ready to make the first loaf of bread. It was during these 7 days that the emotional attachment occurred:

 

The Sourdough Starter Journal

Day 1: To a 2-litre plastic container I added 25g of rye flour and 25g warm water and mixed to a paste. Ok, so today is just a paste.

Day 2: Added a further 25g of rye flour and 25g of warm water and mixed to a paste again. It has softened overnight, but still just a paste

Day 3: Upping the ante by adding 50g of rye flour and 50g warm water and mixed to a paste again. It’s starting to feel like I’m feeding a pet, bit of attachment forming.

Day 4: Added 100g rye flour and 100ml of warm water, and mixed together to form a thick batter. Starting to talk to it now

Day 5: No feeding today, but wow! Took a big smell and was reduced to tears from an acrid aroma, best described as sour banana. Bubbles had formed – my starter was really alive.

Day 6: Added 100g of rye flour and 100g warm water and mixed together. We’re on really good speaking terms now

Day 7: No feeding today – I now class my starter as ripe – it is bubbling, smells sour and has a thick, yet soft consistency.

So after 7 days of feeding (at about the same time each day), observing and nurturing I have a ripe starter, a friend and something that will be by my side for years to come – I have heard of starters being passed down through generations.

On the eighth day I made my first loaf of sourdough bread. According to some bakers’ experience it is advisable for the first few loaves to make semi-leavened bread; that is using a combination of your starter and added yeast (approximately half of what would be required in leavened bread).

 

A Rough Dough

A Rough Dough

 

After the 7 day process I had ended up with a 600g batch of sourdough starter. It is normal to use half of this to make your bread, which means replacing (feeding) the starter with fresh flour (I use rye flour) and water, to make the weight back up to 600g. As I am going to make bread on a weekly basis I will store the starter at room temperature and be feeding it once per week. Making sourdough bread is a complex and skilled profession, and I have only touched the surface, but in doing so have understood the important basics of bread making, and of course made a new friend.

Click here for the recipe for the Continental Loaves I made with my sourdough starter.

Sourdough Continental Loaf

Introduction:

The smell, feel and taste of freshly home-made bread is fairly unbeatable if you ask me – not that you did ask me, but I am sure you was going to so I pre-empted it. I have made standard white bread previously, using the iconic Delia Smith as a guide, with wonderful results. However, I had never made sourdough bread until recently; something that I had been longing to do as I think the tanginess and texture is just super.

After preparing my sourdough starter I decided to make this sourdough continental loaf. As my sourdough starter was only young at the time – about 2 weeks old – I didn’t think it was ripe enough to produce a well-risen loaf, so used a leaven (rising agent that causes fermentation) of both sourdough starter and yeast. Also, by using the yeast the preparation is much quicker, albeit still a few hours, than the more traditional fully sourdough leavened bread.

The bread is fantastic fresh and warm from the oven. Slice the end crust off to reveal clouds of hot bready steam. Immediately cut a slice and smother with French butter, and devour.

 

Serves: 1 delicious loaf   |   Preparation: 5-6 hours   |   Cooking: 1 hour

 

Ingredients:

600g Strong White Flour | Strong flour contains more protein (gluten) than standard plain flour, making ideal for forming well-risen and formed loaves.
150g Sourdough starter | I use a Rye based Sourdough Starter – See here
360ml Hand hot water | The water should still be able to be touched by the hand, without pain.
3g Dried yeast | If using fresh yeast, a general rule is to use double the amount than the stipulated dried yeast measure.
12g Sea salt | Crush the salt if it consists of flakes. I love the flavour of sea salt.

 

How To:

Start by adding 250ml of the hand hot water to the sourdough starter in a large mixing bowl. I used a ‘clean’ roasting tray the first time I made this as I doubled up on the ingredients, but either will do. Mix until combined and then leave to stand for a few minutes.

Next sprinkle 100g of the flour and all of the yeast over the sourdough starter mix and then whisk together. At this stage you should have a loose paste. Leave this to stand for an hour in a warm place, covered with a wet tea towel. The mixture should take on a sponge-like form, but if it’s not completely sponge-like don’t worry too much. I have had varying degrees of sponginess at this stage.

Now add the rest of the flour and water to the mix. Add a splash more water if the dough feels really dry, however the dough is initially dry at this stage. Knead the dough to a rough ball. The roughness is good here, as the miracle transformation will occur next. Leave to rest for an hour, again in a warm place covered with a wet tea towel.

The next stage amazed me when I first made this loaf. Lightly wet the surface of the dough – using wet hands is a good way. Then sprinkle the sea salt on the rough dough and start to knead it in. All of a sudden the rough dough ball turns in to a smooth and silky form. Keep kneading until you can no longer feel the salt crystals then leave to rest in a bowl, covered with a wet tea towel, in a warm place for an hour or two. The time depends on how warm the place you leave it in is.

If the dough is ready it should provide little resistance. That is, if you poke your finger in the mark should remain. Mould the dough in to a round and leave for up to another hour in the bowl covered with wet tea towel, in a warm place. Once the hour is up check for resistance; if there is any then leave the dough a little longer.

Now form the dough into a cylindrical loaf shape and place it on an oiled baking sheet (or in a loaf tin if you’re not too confident). On the baking sheet the dough will lose its shape – but that’s fine, just gently reshape it if required. Wet the dough with your hand and pattern the top of your bread as desired e.g. 3 diagonal slashes. Leave the dough covered for an hour to rise, again in a warm place. In the meantime pre-heat your oven to 180 deg C. I have a fairly decent oven, but always use an oven thermometer for accuracy.

Once the dough has risen, put the dough in the oven (remove the cover!) and reduce the oven temperature to 160 deg C. Bake for one hour. Just keep an eye on things. A recipe can only ever be a guideline; it is still really important to use judgement along the way, as I have learnt the hard way.

Take the loaf out of the oven, procure a slice whilst hot, smother in butter and conserve, and marvel at your ingenuity, skill and penchant for hot home-made sourdough bread.

 

Notes:

  • This seems a laborious process at first but it gets easier and more instinctive the more you make the bread – planning ahead is crucial
  • I make this because I love the ability to make wonderful bread at home. Treat every stage with care, attention and a degree of excitedness and you’re finished loaf will be revered and devoured by all around.