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Bread in the oven

I'm sitting watching the rain on an unusually cool, wet March Adelaide day, International Women's Day actually. I have bread in the oven and the waft of fresh bready smell has just met my nostrils. It always comes about 15 minutes in, and this morning is no exception.

I was one of those people during COVID lock-downs who sneered at the born-again sourdough enthusiasts. It's a personality defect of mine. I am suspicious of popular things. I don't go to movies or read books if everyone else is. This has created gaps in my popular culture and literary experiences so it's a habit I am trying to change although I am still scathing about food trends like chorizo, quinoa, vegan cheese or coconut yoghurt. So my cynicism about homemade sourdough bread was yet another over-opinionated judgy Janet thing.

I am now a total convert. I have seen the "bready light" and now make my own bread every week. I love that every loaf is unique, and that I can play with the flour, and add seeds in, and on top and depending on the weather and the humidity it bakes and rises differently but what I really like is the magic. The mother yeast or starter is just flour, water, and the air around us, yet it is a living thing that requires care and constancy.

I love that it is passed lovingly from one person to another and becomes part of your family. A friend in Italy has a natural yeast that was her grandmother's, then her mother's. It is more than 60 years old. It even has a name - Arturo, and she takes him with her on holidays or finds a yeast sitter to keep him alive and well-fed in her absence.

Im not sure how old mine is as it came via cousins to my sister-in-law who gave it to me. I have had it for around 15 months and I haven't officially named it but I think of it as Bella. I love watching it bubble up and I often open the lid to take a good smell of its sour yeastiness.

Every new loaf gives me great delight and joy. There is no perfect loaf. As each one bakes, I evaluate why it was so beautiful, or how it could be better, and what I could do next time. There is so much joy in repeating something simple over and over and over, tweaking the technique, and knowing the recipe is becoming less written, coming more and more out of my hands and my heart.

And what caused this change of heart?

It was from the terrible and dark time of a stem-cell transplant in December 2021. My sister-in-law Anna was staying with me to avoid being infected with COVID as she carried the crucial cells that were to be transfused into my husband Raffaele's body to build his new blood. It was a tricky, anxious time as his immune system had been wiped in preparation for the transplant and this was the only shot he had at recovery from the dreadful Leukaemia.

Anna came with her own sourdough starter and over the weeks patiently taught me to make it according to her cousin's recipe. I was fearful at first, thinking that it would be too difficult, or it would fail. I've always had an irrational fear of cooking with yeast. I had no confidence. With her help, I was eventually able to manage it on my own and before she left, she wrote the recipe out on the back of a piece of scrap paper. It now sits with torn edges and bits of dried dough in my scruffy book of collected precious recipes.

She gave two gifts at this time. The gift of new healthy blood and the joy of fresh sourdough bread.

There are many recipes, books, secrets, and stories for sourdough bread. I have included Anna's recipe but I would recommend learning by watching and working alongside someone else, preferably family or a dear friend. Then you can share the joy and understand that the process, the communion between humans and yeast is where the love is.

Anna's sourdough bread recipe (this makes 2 loaves)

*Accurate measuring is important so get yourself a scale if you don't already have one.

Place 200g of starter in a large mixing bowl and add 400g of tepid water and 1 teaspoon of sugar or honey.

Add 100 grams of wholemeal flour and mix well.

Add 300g of white bread flour and 1-2 teaspoons of salt and mix well.

Add 200g of tepid water and 400g white bread flour and mix really well.

Cover with a tea towel and leave to rest for 30 mins then fold over with a spatula and cover again. Repeat this 3 more times every 30 mins.

Cover the bowl with a shower cap and either place it in the fridge overnight or until you want to bake it or leave it out to bubble up.

When the dough has reached the top of the bowl, scrape it out onto a floured board, cut the dough in halves, and then fold it over 4 times to make a loaf

Line 2 loaf tins with baking paper and put the dough in each. Cover the tins with a tea towel and place them in a warm place to rise. You can add seeds or oats on the top if you want.

Heat the over to very hot. 240-260.

When the loaves have risen to the top of the pan, and the oven is hot, put them in and bake for 30 minutes, then check. They might need another 10 minutes.

take out and remove immediately from the pan and cool.

Then. Cut a slice and lather it with a slab of cold butter - nothing like it!

Feed the starter once a week. Add 200g plain flour and 180-200g tepid water. mix well, cover and leave until double, and then put it in the fridge until you need it.

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