The Musette: sourdough focaccia

I have an Italian girlfriend who makes the most divine focaccia. Whenever I buy some my beloved and I taste and compare it to her’s. “As good as” is as good as it has gotten.

As I’m plumbing all things sourdough, I thought I’d give sourdough focaccia a go and the results were quite surprising. It’s actually one of the easier things to make because there is no folding and no shaping. In short, it looks like: stir, long rest and rise, a short rest and rise, dimple, then bake. Then  – importantly – devour.

Making this focaccia is a two step process. First, you must prepare the sponge which helps to enrich the flavor, generate larger holes in the bread and keeps the bread light, crisp and airy. It is an incredible easy process and will significantly enhance the aroma and flavor of the bread.

While the actual time spent making the dough really isn’t much time at all, the entire process takes over 24 hours. It is absolutely necessary to prepare the sponge and let the dough rise for the recommended amount of time. Fortunately, no kneading is involved and all you need is a large bowl and spatula to prepare the dough.

Ingredients

Sponge

  • 530g (2 cups) sourdough starter
  • 125g (1 cup) whole-wheat flour
  • 250g (2 cups) plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 500 ml (2 cups) filtered water

Focaccia dough

  • 250g (2 cups) plain all-purpose flour
  • 1 tbsp fine sea salt
  • 2 tbsp olive oil

Method

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1. If necessary, two days (or more) before you want to start the process, feed your starter each day, 60g (2 1/2 oz) each of flour and water, to build it up. You’ll need 530g (2 cups) for baking.

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a693c1db-41a9-4d0a-af8a-b54457fb50bc2. Make the overnight sponge by mixing together the sourdough, water whole wheat flour and 250g (2 cups) plain (all purpose) flour. Mix well and let it stand overnight or for eight hours, covered, in a warm place. The surface should be covered in bubbles.

3. Add the salt and olive oil and mix in the remaining flour, 50g (half a cup) at a time, until you have a fairly loose batter that just comes off the sides of the bowl but does not gather into a ball.

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4. Cover the bowl with a cling wrap and let the dough rise for 1 hour and 30 minutes.

5. Using a spatula, gently turn the dough over on itself in the bowl about 9 or 10 times, trying not to deflate too many of the lovely bubbles that have formed.

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6. Oil a large, approx. 38-40cm (15”) baking pan and pour the batter into the centre of the sheet and, using a spatula, help it along so it fills or nearly fills the pan. Brush on some olive oil to keep the batter from drying, but don’t cover it up with a towel or cling film (plastic wrap) – both will stick to the dough.

7. Leave the baking pan in a warm place for an hour or so until the dough has risen to fill the entire pan.

8. About half an hour before you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 200C/180C fan/400F/gas mark 6.

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9. Now’s the time to add any toppings and, if you feel so inclined, make the trademark dimples in the dough. Just try not to deflate it.

10. Bake in the preheated oven for 25 minutes or until the top is lightly golden and the bread has started to pull from the sides. One way to tell your bread is done is to press it slightly, and if it springs back, you know it’s ready.

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11. Here’s the tricky bit. Let the bread cool on a rack at least 30 minutes before cutting and serving. Now would be a good time to add further olive oil and salt to taste.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1.I prefer plain focaccia but you can add all sorts of topping: cherry tomatoes, garlic, herbs, olives, grapes, onion, cheese………..let your imagination run wild!

2. I replenish my starter with an equal weight of flour and water. For example, when I used a cup of starter for this recipe, I replaced it with an equal amount (in terms of weight) of flour and water. Thus may starter has 100% hydration. If you use the equal volume replacement method your starter will have a 166% hydration. Why does this matter? Well, if your starter has a 100% hydration you might need to use a little less flour than is listed in the recipe. Just keep that in mind when mixing the dough.

3. It’s best eaten on the day it’s baked otherwise slice it into portions and pop it into the freezer for later.

The Musette: sourdough pizza

Homemade sourdough pizza is an eye-opening experience, with so much flavour in the dough and a crispy chewy texture to the crust. Of course, if only I had a wood-fired pizza oven I could add a smokey note, toasted crust edges and more intensely caramelised topping. A girl can dream can’t she?

Ingredients (enough for 4-5 individual pizzas)

  • 510g (31/2 cups) Italian tipo 00 flour
  • 90g (1/2 cup + 3 tbsp) wholemeal flour
  • 390ml (1 2/3 cup) filtered water
  • 120g (1 cup) sourdough starter
  • 14ml (1 tbsp) olive oil
  • 12g (2 tsp) fine sea salt
  • 2-3 tbsp additional flour for kneading
  • 1-2 tbsp additional oil for coating the dough bowl

Method

1. Prepare the sponge by mixing the starter with 120g filtered water and 120g flour. This is a 1:1:1 starter preparation, but other builds are fine too. Cover the bowl with clingfilm (plastic wrap) and let it sit at room temperature for 4-8 hours until roughly tripled.

2. Now, mix all the ingredients together by hand, or in a mixer with the dough hook attachment for 5-10 minutes, until everything is incorporated and forming a ball around the hook.

3. Scrape the dough out onto a floured counter and knead it for 3-5 minutes, adding a small amount of flour until the dough is manageable, but still sticky.

4. Lightly oil a bowl, then lay dough top side down in the bowl and cover with oiled clingflm (plastic wrap).

5. Let the dough rise until it has approximately doubled. Alternatively, you can leave the dough at room temperature for a few hours and then put it in the refrigerator for a day or so, and finally pull it out when it is fully risen or close to fully risen and just needing a few more hours at room temperature.

6. When the bulk fermentation is finished, lightly oil a sheet pan and your worktop.

7. Scrape out the dough onto the oiled counter, gently press out most of the air, and divide the dough into 4-5 pieces. The total dough weight is approximately 1140g. This makes approx.  approx. 225g or four 285g pizzas. (You can go larger and smaller, but you may need to adjust cook time.)

8. Form each piece into a ball by folding the sides of the piece inward. Then hold the ball in one hand with the taut top on your palm, while you pinch the bottom pieces together with your other hand.

9. Place the balls in the oiled pan seam-side down, and cover with clingfilm (plastic wrap) or put the entire pan in a plastic bag. The final proof can be at room temperature for 45-90 minutes or in the refrigerator for 8-12 hours. It’s at this point, I’ll freeze any additional dough.

10. Before the dough has finished proofing, set up your toppings and the area where you will be stretching and “decorating” your pizza. My preferred pizza sauce is my home-made tomato one. I make it ahead of time, and simply pull it out of the refrigerator to warm up a bit when I’m setting out the toppings.

11. About 30 minutes before your dough has finished proofing, preheat your oven to 260C/230Cfan/500F/gas mark 10, using the top shelf if you have a top grill (broiler).

12. Remove a dough ball from the proofing pan and gently grasp one side of the circle with both hands. Holding the top edge of the circle (10 o’clock and 2 o’clock), let the rest of the dough droop/stretch downward while you then rotate and re-grab the dough like you’re turning a steering wheel. This will develop about a 1/2-1 inch crust edge and stretch the middle. (Using a rolling pin is fine too.)

13. Lay your pizza dough on a piece of floured parchment paper. If necessary, stretch and adjust the dough a little more.

16. Now top your pizza dough to your liking and put it in the oven for 7 minutes, then switch to the grill for 1 minute more. This will brown the top of the pizza and caramelize the sugar in the toppings.

17. Remove the pizza from the oven and enjoy! Repeat process with next pizza.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. As above, I often make two large rectangular pizzas to share among four/five rather than individual ones simply because it’s quicker.

2. My home-made tomato pizza sauce is made as follows:-

Marinara sauce: Ingredients (makes 3 cups)

  • 800 g (28 oz) tin of Italian tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 30 ml (2 tbsp) dry white wine
  • 1 tbsp of tomato puree
  • 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 fat cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Method

1. Heat a large saucepan over a medium heat. Swirl around the olive oil to coat the pan and, when the oil is hot, add the shallots, garlic and red pepper flakes. Stir constantly until the shallots are translucent, around 2-3 minutes.

2. Pour in wine and cook, again stirring for 1 to 2 minutes to evaporate some of the alcohol. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for 1-2 minutes before adding the tomatoes, salt and pepper and bring to simmer.

3. Reduce heat to medium-low, crush the tomatoes lightly with the back of a spoon as they cook, stirring occasionally for a minimum of 60 minutes until the sauce thickens. Liquidise sauce.

4. If you’re not going to use it right away, it’ll sit happily in the fridge for a week, or the freezer for a month.

The Musette: part two – what a pickle!

Now I’ve whetted your appetite for pickles, we can move onto kimchee. The backbone of most recipes is the white Chinese “napa” variety of cabbage with its wide stems and pale, crinkly leaves, large white radishes, ground chilli, garlic, chilli sauce and rice vinegar. Some versions, like this one, include fish sauce and ginger – a few neither. True Korean versions are masterpieces of the art but are often too stinky for me.

My own is far from authentic Korean. Of course I want heat. Not your actual teary-type heat, but at least enough to make your eyes sparkle. I don’t use the Korean gochujang chilli paste but ordinary red chilli paste, as I’ve yet to find the former in Nice. Plus, I shy away from leaving the salted cabbage several days to ferment at room temperature – the process that makes kimchee kimchee – partly out of impatience, and partly because I like the crackle of the crisp veg.

So mine is more a crunchy, hot, salty, sour condiment – and is none the worse for that. It is sensational with absolutely anything.

Here’s my recipe for Kimchee:-

Ingredients (makes one 2ltr jar)

  • 700g (25oz) finely sliced chinese cabbage
  • 200g (7oz) finely sliced red cabbage/fennel/celery/carrot
  • 150g (5oz) radishes
  • 3 tbsp sea salt
  • 100ml (3.4fl oz) rice wine vinegar
  • 2 tbsp fish sauce
  • 2 tbsp chilli paste or flakes (preferably Korean)
  • 2 fat cloves garlic
  • 6 spring onions (scallions)
  • thumb-sized piece ginger

Method

1. Halve the cabbage, remove core and shred it roughly. Do the same with the red cabbage (if using) or fennel. then put both in a colander and rinse under cold running water.

2. Slice the radishes into quarters or thin slices, then mix with the cabbage and tip into a bowl. Scatter the salt over. Place a plate on top of the cabbage, put a heavy weight on top, and set aside in a cool place for 4 hours.

3. In a small bowl, mix together the rice vinegar, fish sauce, chilli paste or chilli flakes into a soft, deep rust-coloured sauce. Peel and finely cut the garlic and ginger into paper-thin slices and add to the sauce. Slice the spring onions, stirring them also into the sauce.

4. Rinse the cabbage in a colander, removing much of the salt. The cabbage will have relaxed. Transfer to a large bowl then tip in the chilli dressing and toss thoroughly to coat the leaves. Pile into the clean storage jars, pushing down  – I use a rolling pin – to eliminate spaces, seal and set aside in the fridge for 4 days.

5. Turn the jars upside down each day to encourage the dressing to trickle over the vegetables, keeping them coated.

6. Four days later, dive in! I love it on sandwiches, with felafel and even straight from the jar!

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. Sterilise your preserving jars with boiling water and let them drain, or bake them at a low temperature in the oven for 10 minutes. This batch will fill two 1-litre Kilner jars or one 2-litre one. It will keep, for a couple of weeks, in the fridge. Turn the jars over every few days.

2. Once ready to eat, it’s amazing how many things you can eat it with.

3. Feel free to change the ingredients but maintain proportions.

The Musette: part one – what a pickle!

As a child I loathed most pickles, including Branston, though bizarrely I loved my grandmother’s home-made pickled shallots, picallili  and pickled red cabbage. It’s only as I’ve matured that I’ve come to appreciate chutnies and all manner of other pickles – preferably home-made.

Now the top two shelves of my fridge are a shrine to them. There are glistening rows of ruby, purple and emerald vinegars, chutneys and relishes to go with cheese, cold cuts, frittatas, quiches, savoury pies and so on………

Danya Kukafka says it best:

There is a reason we have pickles, and it is the same reason we crave good art: we are in it for the pleasure … we are in it for the rush of salt, the crunch and satisfaction, that perfect bite.

While I’ll happily buy my jars of perfect bites, I enjoy making them, too – although, as much as I like the idea of a fridge filled with rows of jars, I typically only make small batches of preserves. It feels manageable, both in the making and the storing, because if something does go awry then it doesn’t really matter.

As a rough guide, 1kg (2lb) vegetables, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces, needs 750ml (3 cups) pickling liquid made by mixing 550ml (2 cups) vinegar (sometimes my home-made vinegar) with 200ml (3/4 – 1 cup) water in a pan, then adding a heaped tablespoon each of fine salt and sugar, and whatever you fancy of the following: a crushed red chilli, peeled or crushed garlic, bay, dill, peppercorns, juniper berries or coriander seeds etc etc Try to pick flavours that will complement the vegetable. Then heat it slowly. Once at boiling point, add all the vegetables, stir, cover the pan and leave on the heat for a minute or two before bottling in sterlised jars.

Here’s a couple of easy recipes:-

Quick Pickled Red Cabbage (makes one jar)

  • 1/2 small/medium head red cabbage
  • 250ml (1 cup) filtered  water
  • 125 ml (1/2 cup) apple cider vinegar
  • 125 ml (1/2 cup) red wine vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons muscovado sugar (or coconut sugar, brown sugar, pure cane sugar)
  • a piece of licorice stick (optional)
  • 2 star anise
  • 1 stick cinnamon
  • 5 cloves
  • 1 tsp sea salt

Method

1. Slice cabbage in half. Slice one half in half again. Remove the core. Shred cabbage finely with a mandolin slicer or very sharp knife. Place in a large glass bowl or jar.

2. Place water, vinegars, salt and sugar in a saucepan and heat gently until the sugar and salt has dissolved. Stir in the spices and then pour over the cabbage.

3. Seal or tightly cover the jar/bowl and let sit on the counter for 3-4 hours. Stir then seal and place in the fridge until chilled (at least 1 hour).

4. At first the liquid will not cover all of the cabbage but as it starts to soften it will be fully covered after just a few hours. Best served at least a day after making. Keeps for about 2 weeks in the fridge – rarely lasts that long!

Now for pickled cucumbers:-

Ingredients (makes one jar)

  • 6 pickling cucumbers , or 2 regular-sized cucumbers
  • 2 banana shallots
  • 2 teaspoons mustard seeds
  • ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 2 star anise
  • 75 g (1/2 cup) caster sugar
  • 150 ml vinegar

Method

1. Cut the pickling cucumbers in half lengthways, and slice regular ones through the middle, then into fingers. Peel and finely slice the shallots.

2. Put the cucumbers and shallots in a colander. Sprinkle over 2 teaspoons of sea salt. After 45 minutes, rinse well.

3. Combine all the other ingredients in a pan and bring to the boil. Stir until the sugar dissolves.

4. Fit the cucumbers snugly into a Kilner jar, then pour over the liquid. Seal and leave for at least 24 hours. And that’s pretty much it!

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. Sterilise your preserving jars with boiling water and let them drain, or bake them at a low temperature in the oven for at least 10 minutes.

2. The pickles can be eaten the following day, but they’ll be even better if you wait. I keep my pickles in my preserves fridge. They taste better when cold anyway: brighter somehow, the sweet and sour and taste even more pronounced.

The Musette: home-made vinegar

Who knew? All it takes to rustle up some delicious home-made vinegar is a little beer or wine, a clean jar, and some cheesecloth to let microbes in (for fermentation) and keep nasties out.

When I’m cooking, I find that a teaspoon of vinegar is often the missing link in a too-salty soup or overly spicy sauce. Also, a tiny bit of a fruity vinegar works just as well in dishes that I might be inclined to finish with a squeeze of lemon.

I started making vinegar with left over wine, generally stuff we’ve opened but haven’t enjoyed. I’ll often cook with it but sometimes I end up with too much, so hello vinegar! I just leave it to ferment in my kitchen et voilà!

You can easily check on the vinegar’s progress either by using pH strips or by tasting it. I prefer the latter method because as the vinegar ferments, any pathogens that make their way into the liquid will be killed either by the alcohol or by the acidity of the vinegar once the alcohol has transformed. I tend to age my vinegar for months rather than weeks as the flavour will keep developing as the liquid pulls in yeast and bacteria from the air.

Typically after a couple of weeks sitting on the work top in a jar, my leftover wine will stop smelling like leftover wine and start smelling faintly but familiarly like the vinegar. Finally, my outstanding ability to abandon and ignore is beginning to pay off.

Of course, once you’ve graduated from the most basic forms of vinegar-making, you can turn almost anything into vinegar. Aside from wine vinegars – red, white, sherry, or champagne –  beer is a great starting point, particularly a beer that’s low in hops (since all that bitterness will remain in the final product) but high in sugar and alcohol (which will ferment quickly).

Even with a minimal amount of effort, essentially cracking open a bottle of ale, covering the top with cheesecloth, and waiting around, you’ll end up with your own unique vinegar. Two vinegars made with the same method, and even using the same original beer, can taste wildly different depending on the flora and fauna of their environment.

I use most of my home-made vinegar in my pickles – recipes coming soon!

Ingredients

  • 1 ltr (4 cups) beer (6%-12% ABV)

Turning beer into vinegar is an ancient tradition made popular by the Brits to sprinkle on their fish and chips (malt vinegar).

One thing to bear in mind when you begin making this vinegar, is that after you mix everything together, and as time goes on, you’ll notice a layer of what looks like gelatin growing on the surface. This is the vinegar mother. Without it, the alcohol won’t be converted into vinegar.

Make sure to use a beer for this that is 6 to 12 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). And don’t use one that is too hoppy, or your vinegar will be bitter.

Method

1. Wash a 1 litre (1-quart) wide-mouth glass container in hot, soapy water, then rinse and dry thoroughly.

2. Pour the beer into the container. Stir with a spoon to dissipate the carbonation, and then let it sit for 30 minutes. You want the beer to be flat and not fizzy.

3. Cover the container’s opening with cheesecloth, securing it with a rubber band.

4. Let the container sit in a cool, dry, dark place for at least two weeks though longer is better. Then give the mixture a taste; if it’s sharp, tangy, and sour (like other vinegars you’ve had), it’s now vinegar (It’s perfectly okay to taste; no pathogens can survive in either the alcohol or the vinegar.) If you prefer, you can also judge its progress by using pH strips; I shoot for a reading of 4 or below on the pH scale.

The Musette: caramel banana cakes two ways

In the same way that you can never have too many pairs of shoes, you can never have too many recipes for banana cakes. I find that they’re consistently everyone’s favourite. And when I say everyone, I mean every cyclist. I constantly trawl the internet, magazines and my vast collection of cookery books for new ideas.

Now I usually stress the need to use really ripe bananas in most of my banana muffin and cake recipes but what if you don’t have any? Then this is most definitely the recipe for you. You can either bake these as individual cakes – easier for sharing – or in a loaf-sized tin. The recipe which I’ve played around with comes from that excellent book Short & Sweet: The Best of Home Baking by Dan Lepard – required reading for any budding baker.

The end result justifies the large umber of ingredients

Ingredients (makes 12 medium muffin sized cakes)

For the caramel bananas:

  • 150g (1 cup) caster sugar
  • 50ml (3 tbsp) warm filtered water
  • 250g (9oz) or approximately four medium-sized skinned bananas, chopped into small chunks
  • 1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tbsp freshly grated lemon zest

For the cake:

  • 100g (1 cup) raw cane sugar
  • 175ml (¾ cup) buttermilk
  • 3 large organic eggs, approx 45g (1⅔oz) in weight without the shell
  • 50g (1¾oz) plain yogurt
  • 250g (2 cups + 1tbsp) plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
  • ½ tsp of fine sea salt
  • 3 tbsp of fleur de sel caramel chips (optional)

Method

1. Start by caramelising the bananas. Put the sugar and water into a stainless steel saucepan and cook over a medium heat, stirring until the sugar has completely dissolved – after that, do NOT stir again. Bring to the boil then cook over a high heat until the sugar turns to a dark reddish caramel. DO NOT TAKE YOUR EYES OFF THE SAUCEPAN. Carefully add the banana pieces, butter, vanilla, lemon juice, lemon zest – caramel can spit – and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the bananas break up in the caramel and the mixture is thick and gooey, about ten minutes. Pour the mixture into a bowl and leave to cool.

2. Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC/160ºC fan/gas mark 4 (350ºF/320ºF fan).

3. Take a pastry brush, dip it in sunflower oil and gently paint it all over the muffin tin. This will stop the muffins sticking to the tin if you’re not using muffin cases. If you are, skip the oil and place the cases in the tin(s).

3. Put the sugar and eggs into a large mixing bowl and whisk to combine until air bubbles appear on the surface of the mixture.

4. Add the buttermilk and yoghurt, and whisk again. Then add cooled banana mix and combine gently.

5. Sift and mix together in another bowl the flour, salt, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda.

6. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and lightly combine. I find using a rubber spatula in a figure-of-eight movement works best. Ensure that no pockets of flour remain.

7. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tins or cases to about ⅔rds full, sprinkle on the shards of caramel and bake in the centre of the oven for about 15-25 minutes – it’ll depend on the size of your tin –  or until golden, risen and a skewer inserted comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack and then enjoy!

8. The small cakes will keep in an airtight container for 3-4 days providing I hide them from my beloved. But wrapped in cling-film (plastic wrap), they’ll keep happily in the freezer for two months.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. All ingredients should be at room temperature.

2. When I’m baking I always use a timer as it’s so easy to lose track of time. Once you’ve put the cakes in the oven, put the timer on for five minutes less than they should take to cook and then check regularly.

3. You can slightly under-bake small cakes as they’ll continue cooking for a few minutes after they come out of the oven.

4. You can substitute sunflower (canola) oil for the buttermilk, or full-fat milk with a tsp of white wine vinegar.

5. The other day I found a 350g (12oz) jar of Dulce de Leche in the cupboard close to its sell-by date prompting the question as to whether I could use that as a substitute both for the caramel in the caramelised bananas and the sugar in the cake. The answer is “Yes, you can!” Though I should probably call the end result ‘Banoffee Cake(s)’.

6. I gently heated the bananas in the Dulce de Leche and then crushed them with a potato masher. I then proceeded as per the recipe above but whisked the eggs without the sugar. I baked it in the middle of the oven, on the same temperature, in muffin cases.

7. Remember baking times will vary depending on the dimensions of your muffin tin  and your oven, so check regularly. The cakes are ready when a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean.

8. Allow to cool for ten minutes in the tin before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely before eating, or freezing for no longer than two months. The cakes will keep for a week in an airtight container providing I hide it from you know who!

9. Note: I’ve also baked this cake in a greased disposable tin-foil loaf tin 13cm x 23cm x 7cm (5” x 9” x 3”), which I lined with a couple of strips of greaseproof (parchment) paper, for 40-45 minutes.

banana caramel cake

The Musette: basic sourdough loaf

We have the starter and now we’re ready to bake my first ever sourdough loaf…………..well, almost!

Ingredients (makes a medium sized loaf)

For the sponge

  • About 150ml (2/3 cup) active starter (see previous recipe)
  • 250g (1 2/3 cup) strong flour (white, wholemeal, rye, spelt or a mixture)

For the loaf

  • 300g (2 cups) strong bread flour (white, wholemeal, rye, spelt or a mixture), plus more for dusting
  • 1 tbsp rapeseed or olive oil
  • 10g (1 tbsp) fine sea salt

Method

1. The night before you want to bake your loaf, create a sponge. In a large bowl, combine 150ml (2/3 cup) active starter with 250g (1 2/3 cup) flour and 275ml (1 cup + 2 tbsp) warm water. Mix, cover with clingfilm and leave overnight. In the morning it should be clearly fermenting: thick, sticky, bubbly and smelling a bit sour.

2. To make the dough, add the 300g (2 cups) flour to the sponge, along with the oil and salt, and incorporate. You should now have a fairly sticky dough. If it seems tight and firm, add a dash more warm water; if it’s unmanageably loose, add more flour, but do leave it fairly wet – you’ll get better bread that way.

3. Turn out the dough on to a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and silky – about 10 minutes – then put in a lightly oiled bowl and turn it to coat with the oil. Cover with clingfilm and leave to rise. Sourdough rises slowly and sedately, so it’ll take a few hours in a warm kitchen. One good option is to knead it in the morning, then simply leave it all day in a cool, draught-free place until it has more or less doubled in size and feels springy if you push your finger gently into it; alternatively, knead it in the evening and leave to rise overnight.

4. Deflate the risen dough by punching it down with your knuckles on a lightly floured surface. You now need to prove the dough (give it a second rising). First form it into a neat round, tucking the edges of the dough underneath itself so you have a smooth, round top and a rougher base.

5. If you have a proper proving basket – I do – dust it liberally with flour. Alternatively, rig up a proving basket by lining a wide, shallow bowl with a clean, floured cloth. Place your round of dough smooth side down in the basket or bowl, cover with oiled clingfilm or a clean plastic bag, and leave to rise, in a warm place this time, for an hour and a half to three hours, until roughly doubled in size again. It’s now ready to bake.

6. Heat the oven to its highest setting (250C/230C fan/500F/gas mark 10 is ideal). Five minutes before you want to put the loaf in, place a baking sheet in the oven to heat up.

7. Just before you put your loaf in the oven, place a roasting tin of boiling water in the bottom of your oven to create a steamy atmosphere, which helps the bread rise and develop a good crust.

8. Take the hot baking sheet from the oven, dust it with flour and carefully tip the risen dough out of the basket/bowl on to it; it will now be the right way up. Put the loaf in the oven and leave to bake for 15 minutes.

9. Lower the heat to 200C/180Cfan/390F/gas mark 6, add more water to the roasting tin, and bake for a further 25-30 minutes, until the now well-browned loaf vibrates and sounds hollow when you tap its base.

10. Leave to cool for at least 20 minutes – it’s okay to slice while warm, but not if it’s piping hot. My beloved much enjoyed it for a light supper with a selection of French cheeses, and some of my pickles and chutneys.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. My dough was wet and sticky, even after using my dough hook for 10 minutes. But, you know what, it didn’t matter.

2. I used a mixture of bread flours: wholemeal, spelt and rye largely to use up odds and ends though the final loaf was largely a rye and wholemeal mix.

3. It smelled wonderful while it was baking, had a lovely chewy crust, excellent flavour and sliced easily, despite not being much of a looker!

4. What of the rest of the starter? It’s resting in the fridge until I need it next week-end for more sourdough bread and pizza.

The Musette: sourdough starter

The secret to great bread 

Many of our favorite foods are the product of carefully controlled ageing: dry-aged beef, sharp cheddar and umami-packed miso paste all owe their complex, pungent flavours to microbial fermentation. Sourdough bread works the same way, but instead of fermenting after baking, it all happens on the front end with something called a sourdough starter.

I love sourdough bread but until now have lacked the patience to create a starter to make some. Thankfully, it’s not difficult, just stir together some flour and water and let it sit. That’s right! No mysterious rituals required – just regular injections of flour, water and a lot of patience. Every time you “feed” the starter with fresh flour, those microorganisms get to work converting complex carbs into flavourful sugars, acids and alcohols.

The key here is the wild yeast. Bread is typically made from commercial yeast (fresh or dried) because it’s easier for mass production, it’s easier to store and use, and it proofs breads and pastries in a fraction of the time of the wild version.

By comparison, wild yeast is a bit like an unruly teenager, it has to be constantly maintained and monitored. Wild yeast prefers cooler temperatures, acidic environments and works much more slowly to proof breads and pastries.

So why bother? Because the flavour and texture of products made with wild yeast is way better. The taste is more complex and interesting, the texture is sturdier and more enjoyable to chew.

Note: Making a sourdough starter takes about 5 days. Each day you “feed” the starter with equal weights of fresh flour and filtered water. As the wild yeast grows stronger, the starter will become more frothy and sour-smelling. On average, this process only takes about 5 days, but it can take longer depending on the conditions in your kitchen. As long as you see bubbles and signs of yeast activity, continue feeding it regularly. If there are zero signs of bubbles after three days, start again!

Method

Day 1: Make the Initial Starter

115g (3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons) flour
115g (1/2 cup) filtered water

Weigh the flour and water, and combine them in the glass bowl. Stir vigorously until combined into a smooth batter. It will look like a sticky, thick dough. Scrape down the sides and loosely cover the container with cling film (plastic wrap).

Put the container somewhere with a consistent room temperature of 20°C to 25°C (70°F to 75°F) and let it sit for 24 hours.

Day 2: Feed the Starter

115g (3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons) flour
115g (1/2 cup) filtered water

Hopefully, your starter will have a few small bubbles here and there. The bubbles mean that wild yeast have started making themselves at home, eating eat the sugars in the flour and releasing carbon dioxide (the bubbles) and alcohol. They will also increase the acidity of the mixture, which helps fend off any bad bacteria. At this point, the starter should smell fresh, mildly sweet and yeasty.

If you don’t see any bubbles yet, don’t panic – depending on the conditions in your kitchen, the average room temperature, and other factors, your starter might just be a bit slow to get going.

Weigh and add the flour and water as per day 1.

Day 3: Feed the Starter

115g (3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons) flour
115g (1/2 cup) filtered water

By now, the surface of your starter should be dotted with bubbles and visibly larger in volume. If you stir the starter, it will still feel thick and batter-like, but you’ll hear bubbles popping. It should also smell sour.

Weigh and add the flour and water as per previous 2 days.

Day 4: Feed the Starter

115g (3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons) flour
115g (1/2 cup) filtered water

The starter should be looking very bubbly with large and small bubbles, and it will have doubled in volume. If you stir the starter, it will feel looser than yesterday and full of bubbles. It should also smell pungent.

Add ingredients as per three previous days.

Day 5: Starter is Ready to Use

The starter should have doubled in bulk since yesterday and look very bubbly, even frothy. If you stir the starter, it will feel looser than yesterday, be completely webbed with bubbles and even more pungent.

If everything is looking, smelling, and tasting good, you can consider your starter ripe and ready to use! If your starter is lagging behind a bit, continue on with the Day 5 and Beyond instructions.

Day 5 and Beyond: Maintaining Your Starter

115g (3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons) flour
115g (1/2 cup) filtered water

Once your starter is ripe (or even if it’s not quite ripe yet), you no longer need to bulk it up. To maintain the starter, discard (or use) about half of the starter and then “feed” it with new flour and water.

If you’re using the starter within the next few days, leave it out on the worktop (counter) and continue discarding half and “feeding” it daily. If it’s going to be longer before you use your starter, cover it tightly and place it in the fridge. Remember to take it out and feed it at least once a week.  I usually let the starter sit out overnight to give the yeast time to recuperate before putting it back in the fridge.

How to Reduce the Amount of Starter:

Maybe you don’t need all the starter we’ve made here on an ongoing basis. That’s fine! Discard half the starter as usual, but feed it with half the amount of flour and water. Continue until you have whatever amount of starter works for your baking habits.

How to Take a Long Break from Your Starter:

If you’re taking a break from baking, but want to keep your starter, you can do two things:

Make a Thicker Starter:  Feed your starter double the amount of flour to make a thicker dough-like starter. This thicker batter will maintain the yeast better over long periods of inactivity in the fridge.

What next? Get baking!

The Musette: petit salé aux lentilles

Petit Salé aux Lentilles is traditional French cooking, the sort you’ll find in French homes the length and breadth of the country. The meat and lentils are cooked, together with carrots, onions, celery and a generous bouquet garni of herbs, then served in a soup plate with the cooking liquid.

Petit salé means lightly salted so if you can get hold of salt pork, use it, otherwise any cut of pork and/or sausages will be just fine. The pork is traditionally placed in cold water with aromatics, usually onion, a couple of garlic cloves, carrot, some peppercorns, a handful of bay leaves and a clove or two. The whole lot is then brought to a light simmer before the lentils are added. However, I think my twist on the classic recipe is more flavourful.

If like me you are using salted pork, soak it in water for at least 7 hours, preferably overnight, regularly changing the soaking water.

Ingredients (serves 3 hungry cyclists)

  • 500g (1lb) pork belly, soaked overnight
  • 2 Montbeliard sausages
  • 250g (9oz) green lentils
  • 2tbsp olive oil
  • 2 fat garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 medium-sized carrots, peeled and diced
  • 1 medium onion,peeled and diced
  • 1 stick celery, diced
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 500ml (2 cups) vegetable or chicken stock
  • 1 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 1 tbsp sherry vinegar
  • freshly ground black pepper and sea salt to taste

Options to serve:-

  • 1 blood sausage, cooked and crumbled with handful of breadcrumbs
  • handful toasted, skinned hazelnuts
  • freshly chopped parsley

Method

1. Add the olive oil to a large saucepan and add the chopped onion, carrot and celery with a pinch of sea salt. Cook on medium heat until the onion is translucent (15-20 minutes).

2. Add the minced garlic and cook for another minute before adding the herbs and lentils and cooking for another five minutes.

3. Add vegetable or chicken stock, bring to boil and then lower heat to a simmer. The lentils should take approx. 30 minutes to cook. After 15 minutes, add the sausages and, if necessary, more hot filtered water to ensure the lentils don’t boil dry.

4. Meanwhile, heat oven to 180°C/160°C fan/gas mark 4 (350°F/325°F fan) remove pork belly from soaking water and pat dry. Score skin and rub with olive oil, scatter some (optional) fennel pollen over pork flesh and pop into oven for 90 minutes. I don’t like to “boil” the pork as it’s quite a fatty cut. This way the fat melts leaving just the juicy, succulent meat and crispy crackling.

5. Once the pork belly is cooked, remove crackling and chop pork into bite sized chunks. Add to lentils. Remove sausages and slice on the diagonal, return to lentils. Remove bay leaves and thyme stalks. The lentils should be soft and there should be very little liquid in the pan.

6. Add mustard and vinegar, stirring well to incorporate. Season to taste. Serve in soup bowls decorated with piece of crackling, and one or all of freshly chopped parsley, chopped hazelnuts, crispy black pudding crumbs and a further splash of vinegar.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. If you’re in a rush, you could use tinned lentils which will reduce cooking time by 30 minutes.

2. I use ordinary green lentils rather than Puy as I want some of them to meld into the sauce.

3. I often make this dish with the remains of roasted pork belly rather than salted pork belly but always add sausages and occasionally small new potatoes to make the dish go further.

4. Because the dish, apart from the crackling is soft, i like to add a bit more crunch with toasted, chopped hazelnuts, and/or sausage crumb.

5. I make the blood sausage crumb by skinning a blood sausage and cooking it on a low heat with a handful of home-made breadcrumbs. I find it adds a nice crunch and piquancy. You need smooth black sausage similar to French boudin noir, not Spanish morcilla or British black pudding. If you can’t find these, a nice Toulouse meaty sausage would probably suffice.

4. The dish benefits from reheating, happily resting in the fridge for a couple of days. Equally, the dish can be frozen.

 

The Musette: white chocolate, cinnamon and apple rocky road

Winner of Great British Bake Off in 2015, Nadiya Hussain is now a familiar figure on cookery and food related programmes on British screens. When I saw her prepare this recipe I knew immediately that the sons of some friends would love this, particularly with my teeny, tiny tweaks. I was not mistaken. But then hands up who doesn’t love rocky road? Exactly, no one.

Aside from my friends’ sons, I also made these for my beloved’s niece and her friends to eat after they’d completed the recent Nice-Cannes Marathon. They were well received.

Ingredients (makes 15 bars)

  • 200g (7oz) white chocolate chips or chopped block of white chocolate
  • 2 tbsp Grade A maple syrup/golden syrup/date syrup
  • 130g (4½oz) unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing the dish
  • pinch sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 200g (7oz) cinnamon (Speculoos) biscuits
  • 100g (3½oz) white (preferably) mini marshmallows (if you can only find large ones, use scissors to chop them into small pieces)
  • 100g (3½oz) dried apple rings, chopped into small pieces
  • 50g (1¾oz) fat juicy raisins
  • 1 tbsp rum (optional)
  • 1 tbsp icing (confectioner’s) sugar for dusting

Method

1. Lightly grease the inside of a 23cm (9″) square baking tin with butter. Line the base and sides of the tin with greaseproof (parchment) paper or cling film (plastic wrap).

2. Gently melt the chocolate, syrup and butter in either a bain marie (heatproof bowl over saucepan with small amount of just simmering water) or microwave on low heat in 30 sec bursts.

3. Stir contents and as soon as the mixture is smooth and liquid, take off the heat and allow to cool for about 10 minutes.

4. Add the salt and cinnamon to the mixture. Warm the raisins in the rum in microwave on high for 30 secs.

5. Roughly crush the biscuits by putting them into a freezer bag and bashing them with a rolling pin – hugely satisfying! Empty the contents of the bag into the chocolate mixture and give it a good stir.

6. Add the marshmallows, apples and raisins and stir until everything is well coated.

7. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and use the back of a spoon to flatten and level it, not forgetting to press it well into the corners.

8. Put the tin into the fridge and leave it for at least 1 hour, or until set, before taking it out of the tin, dusting with icing sugar and cutting it up into 15 bars.

9. The bars can be stored in the fridge for a couple of weeks but they won’t last that long – trust me!

 Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. If the chcocolate is too hot when the marshmallows are added, you will get into a sticky mess, so make sure you allow the chocolate to cool for 10 minutes.

2. Heating the rum on high in the microwave eliminates the alcohol but can be replaced with a tablespoon of hot water if you prefer. This makes the dried fruit juicier.

3. If you don’t use cinnamon biscuits (Speculoos), add another 1/2 tsp of ground cinnamon to compensate.