Sourdough bread has always been my nemesis. I never could quite get it right. But, it pays to persevere. I finally succeeded in making a strong sourdough starter and have used it so far to make whole wheat bread and the above potato rosemary bread.
The impetus for my sourdough experiment was Michael Pollan’s Cooked. In this book, Pollan discusses the dietary importance of fermented foods (and you can read some of his thoughts on this in this NPR interview). Pollan makes some very compelling arguments for eating sourdough bread, and conveniently includes a recipe for sourdough starter and whole wheat sourdough bread at the back of the book.
Basically, to make the sourdough starter, you mix equal weights of flour and water (50 g. white flour, 50 g. whole wheat flour and 100 g. water) and then set the resulting batter aside to ferment. If all goes well, the batter will get foamy as wild yeast take over. You can help this process along by giving the batter a good stir a few times a day.
It can take as much as a week for the wild yeast to take over, but my batter starting foaming nicely after 24 hours. At this point, you need to replenish the food supply of the starter and build its strength. You discard 80 percent of the sourdough starter and add 100 g. flour and 100 g. water to the remaining amount (about 40 g. starter). Give the mixture a good stir a few times a day. Repeat the process of discarding 80 percent and adding in 100 g. flour and 100 g. water after 12-24 hours. The recipe stated to wait 24 hours between feedings, but my stater was foaming up so quickly, that I felt it would be better to have twice daily feedings. After about a week of this procedure, I had a very lively sourdough starter with a nice, but not overpowering sourness.
I used the sourdough starter to make the whole wheat sourdough in Pollan’s book and also to make a recipe which I found in a book by Dan Lepard for potato rosemary bread. The bread recipe in Lepard’s book originally came from Erez Komarovsky, who has a bakery chain in Israel. Instead of calling for a regular sourdough, Komarovsky’s recipe calls for Biga Acida, a three (or four) day preferment which uses orange juice and a bit of honey along with the flour and water.
A bit background on the people behind the bread recipe. Dan Lepard’s book, Baking with Passion, was about the recipes from the iconic Baker & Spice in London. Founded by Gail Stephens in 1995, it was the prototype for Ottolenghi in its modern Israeli food sensibility. Stephens (also known now as Yael Mejia), was born in London, but raised in Israel. After returning to London and spending years in the food distribution business, Stephens decided to open a bakery. She hired Dan Lepard as baker/consultant and Sammi Tamini as chef. Yotam Ottolenghi eventually became head pastry chef at Baker& Spice. Later, of course, Ottolenghi and Tamimi partnered in creating Ottolenghi.
Now Ottolenghi and Lepard are famous with published books to their name and regular newspaper columns in the Guardian (Ottolenghi’s column; Dan’s). Gail or rather Yael Mejia now is the force behind a Baker & Spice in Dubai.
Erez Komarovsky, the baker behind the original bread recipe, is credited with revolutionizing the bakery business in Israel in the nineties with his chain of artisan bread bakeries. It is unclear how Stephens got the recipe from him, but he was very influential in the Israeli baking scene at the time Baker & Spice was created, and the Israeli baking scene is the inspiration behind both Baker & Spice and Ottolenghi (see this interesting article on the topic of Israel comes to London).
Now, you may be wondering: all very interesting, but how did the bread taste? The bread was fantastic, with a crisp/chewy crust and a just-sour enough flavor to the interior. Unfortunately, I have no photos of the crumb, but it quite nice looking: light texture, with some large holes. The potato and garlic flavor didn’t come through very strongly, although you could smell the potato and garlic when the bread came out of the oven. Definitely worth repeating.