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Baking with sourdough

How long can a sourdough starter go unused? That was what I wondered the other week when I happened across my own sourdough starter which had sat unused at the back of our second fridge (the one in the shed) for at least a year, perhaps longer.

My sourdough starter was created according to the recipe set out in Fergus Henderson’s second book which he co-wrote with his pastry chef (and also head baker) at St John, Justin Piers Gellatly (Beyond Nose to Tail: A Kind of British Cooking: Part II). They call it the ‘Mother’; we call it the ‘Science Experiment’. I’ve used it before to make a sourdough loaf but there’s not much else that I’ve done with it. In their book, Henderson and Gellatly say that they started theirs “about five years ago”, and that was in 2007, but they use and replenish theirs on a regular basis. They do say that “you can leave it in the fridge without feeding for months” – but a year or more? Well, I followed their advice – “it will take a few days to restart it by feeding it … discard about a third and feed it equal parts flour and water. Repeat this until there are signs of fermentation.” When it’s ready, the starter “should be bubbly and smell strong and sour”.

After several days of reviving, it looked bubbly enough, and stank enough, to be used and so I made another sourdough loaf.

Only afterwards did I peruse my copy of Beyond Nose to Tail to see what else I could make, and I chanced across a recipe for raisin loaf. This required a few things that I didn’t have, so a trip to the shops was called for in order to get some raisins, currants, unsalted butter, more strong white flour (that sourdough loaf had used up the last of it) and fresh yeast.

Putting aside the fact that the whole point of sourdough bread is that you don’t need yeast, why would it need fresh yeast? And where could I buy that? I’ve only ever used the dried stuff, and for a while I did ponder the notion that, somewhere on the Inter-web, someone has probably come up with a chart that tells you how much of the dried stuff you should use when the recipe calls for fresh. Baking, though, is a bit of an exact science – in other forms of cooking, you can go a bit off-piste but you really can’t with baking – so I decided that I might as well get hold of some fresh yeast; although the recipe only called for half a teaspoon of it I was sure I could use it for something else.

My first port of call was a big branch of Morrison’s, where after initially being directed to where the dried stuff was in the baking section I was told that they did sell the fresh stuff, which could be found next to the butter. I found the label on the shelf all right, but no yeast – they were out of stock and hadn’t had any delivered for a while. I bought the rest of my goods and drove over to the nearest other supermarket – an even bigger Tesco. After looking in and around the butter section without success, I asked a passing worker and was told that I should “ask at the bakery counter, they might give you some”. They did, too – and for no charge (since I didn’t need to buy anything else there, I walked out as discreetly as I could, having for once got something for nothing). So there you have my baking lesson for the week: It’s possible to buy fresh yeast at Morrison’s, but Tesco will give you the stuff for free.

The dough, once mixed (with the currants and the raisins) was rather wet although Henderson and Gellatly had forewarned of this (“Your dough will be very wet and hard to handle, so good luck, and remember – try not to add too much flour”). I duly rolled it into a ball, left it in the fridge for an hour, then kneaded away and left the result in a warm place – in a bowl on top of a hot water bottle to be precise. They recommended leaving it for “about 3 hours, until it has risen a little”.

Mine had risen by more than a little within the hour, so I duly re-shaped and bunged the dough into my (buttered) loaf-tin and popped that back on the hot water bottle. After another rising, it went in the oven. The only odd part of the whole process came right at the end; after taking it out of the oven, Henderson and Gellatly said to “take the loaf out of the tin, lay it on its side on the oven shelf and bake for 5 minutes”, and then do the same for the other side. Well, if it’s in the instructions, that’s what you do, right?

The result: A delicious raisin loaf. Goes well with goat’s or ewe’s milk cheese, apparently.

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