Sourdough, wikipedia tells us has been in existence as far back as 3700 BC, but in modern times (certainly in Ireland) it had been something that we only encountered in fancy restaurants, artisan sandwich shops and occasionally in the houses of acquaintances who were also savvy bakers. Then all of a sudden about 18 months ago it was everywhere, recipes were exchanged, shops ran low on wholemeal and strong flour, the internet was flooded with images of crusty bread. Nuances in flavour and texture were discussed constantly and good quality sourdough starters became treasured possessions to be shared only with those deemed worthy to join the cause.
My wife Niki was an early adopter (thanks to a kind neighbour who shared some of that sought after starter!) and had been consistently knocking out quality loaves from the early days of lockdown one. Despite the fact that she is on a low carb diet she approached the daily task with great gusto, finding peace of mind in the regular routine of bringing something nutritious into the world for her family. Then at the start of this summer I noticed in her a certain apathy towards bread baking or maybe it was just that she had become like The Little Red Hen in the fable and she didn’t fancy knocking-back the dough at midnight once again so it could be ready for consumption by everyone else in the family. There was also the fact that providing a daily loaf often required an early start and of the many careers which Niki would be able to pull off, a baker is not one of them, early mornings not being her forte. So about a month ago a set of incredibly detailed (in my opinion anyway) instructions was placed in front of my face and the starter was unceremoniously landed in my lap. The message was clear, this is is your baby now!
Quite miraculously my initial attempt was a success. I correctly identified during the mixing stage that the dough was somewhat light in terms of liquid (100ml light to be exact) narrowly avoiding disaster, and the end product was given the thumbs up by all. Emboldened by this success, I started to express my artistic side by trying out different patterns on the bread. Niki had always been consistent with her # design but I decided to experiment with a Celtic swirl, a shamrock, a loveheart and even a question mark depending on how the mood moved me. Niki seemed to tolerate this expression of artistic temperament but she was less fond of my lack of rigid adherence to her instructions.
As time went by I would sense a presence behind me as I weighed out the ingredients. “Do you know how to zero the scales?” she would add helpfully, “Did you put the full 400g of strong flour into that?” was less appreciated and “How long are you knocking that back for?” was greeted with hostility. I’m not saying that Niki missed her calling as a DS on the RTE programme Ultimate Hell Week but she definitely doesn’t like it when instructions aren’t followed to the letter. When I probed this a bit further it turned out that she thought that the crust on my sourdough wasn’t hard enough.
I was taken aback by this, surely the issue that everybody has with sourdough is that the crust is quite often a bit on the concrete side. I explained that I had been cooking it at 5-10 degrees lower to get a softer crust. Well this seemed to hit Niki like a rock-bun between the eyes! This showed a level of disrespect for her instructions that could only be viewed as insubordination at best and treason (punishable by death) at worst. It was as if by my non-adherence I was endangering the lives of her children (like that chef with the Japanese fish that nearly kills Homer Simpson by not adhering to instructions).
The questions started to flow thereafter, she wasn’t quite shining a torch in my face but it felt like it; how long do you leave it to prove the second time? how much salt do you add? what speed setting is the mixer at? do you add lukewarm water? Finally I had enough, “lukewarm water!” I whimpered “there is no mention of lukewarm water in the instructions, at least I don’t recall seeing it there, please don’t beat me”. Niki grabbed her sacred directives from my trembling hands, “oh” she muttered, “well it should do”. At this she retreated, sensing her moment of weakness I grabbed a wooden spoon and hid in the utility room.
For the next couple of bakes Niki just happened to be around when the bread was put into the oven. The heat was turned up and she was able to munch on the extra crunchy sourdough when it emerged (her low carb diet becoming a casualty of war). But I will have my revenge, wait until she finds out (probably when reading this blog) that I’m planning to add some raisins into the mix! This bread war is just getting started!