I am a fan of traditional British cuisine and I love cooking flavoursome stews, savoury pies and especially these wonderful hot desserts, such as bread and butter pudding and fruit crumbles in all varieties. Every Christmas I treat my family in Germany to a slap up British Christmas dinner and everybody loves it (at least that’s what they say). What I never managed to get used to, though, is British bread. I am talking about those sliced loaves sold in plastic bags in supermarkets all over the country. Of course, some traditional bakeries remain and you can find excellent farmhouse loaves and other speciality breads if you are prepared to look a bit more closely. However, earlier this year I really started missing rustic sourdough bread baked with rye flour, which turned out to be really hard to come by in my East Midlands town. Bread baked with sourdough is the rule rather than the exception in Germany, and bread that includes at least a proportion of rye is also common. Rye bread is darker than wheat, it tends to be less fluffy and it has a distinctive, aromatic flavour. Because of the specific makeup of its gluten (so I have been told) rye flour needs to be ‘acidified’ in order to be used for baking. This is achieved with sourdough, which probably explains the relatively rare use of rye flour in the UK, where yeast is most commonly used as a raising agent for bread.
Rye bread tends to be associated with savoury toppings, but I think it is as versatile as any other bread. It tastes excellent with butter and jam and especially with a good chocolate spread for breakfast. A real advantage of sourdough bread is that it keeps fresh for a lot longer than bread baked only with yeast. If stored correctly a loaf can be eaten for at least a week without getting hard or losing too much of its flavour.
Making sourdough is a science in itself and I spent a lot of time reading and researching the topic on the internet. Of course I am still not an expert and there is a lot more to learn. Making the first batch of sourdough was quite time intensive, but I have now mastered a small repertoire of sourdough breads that are almost as quick to make as regular wheat and yeast loaves in a bread maker. I ‘grew’ my own sourdough from only organic rye flour and water, which took about five days. But I have seen that readymade sourdough culture can be purchased online, which would considerably accelerate the process (but it would also take away a lot of the fun). Whether you grow your own sourdough culture or buy it online – give it a go! It is definitely worth it! For a description of how to make your own sourdough starter click HERE
Recipe for one large loaf:
To make the sourdough:
2 tbsp sourdough starter
140 g wholegrain rye flour
140 ml lukewarm water
For the bread:
280 g sourdough from the ingredients above (keep 2 tbsp in the fridge as a starter for the next loaf)
350g strong white bread flour (or spelt flour)
210 g wholegrain rye flour
300 ml lukewarm water
10 g salt
5 g fresh yeast (optional)
150 g walnut pieces, dry roasted in a pan
1 tbsp walnut oil
For the sourdough combine the starter with the rye flour and lukewarm water. Leave in a warm place (26 degrees are ideal) for about 12-15 hours. When the sourdough is ready it will be bubbly and at least have doubled in size.
For the bread dough combine the sourdough with all other ingredients and knead for about 10-15 minutes (I use the dough hook of my old Kenwood Chef, but you can also do this by hand). Add a bit more wheat flour or warm water if required so the dough can be handled without being too dry or too sticky. Cover with a cloth and leave to relax for about 15 minutes. Briefly knead the dough again on a surface floured with rye flour. Then place in a greased loaf tin or in a floured banneton (proofing basket) to bake a round and crusty loaf. I bought a banneton for very little money on ebay. But you can also use a round bowl or colander lined with a floured tea towel. The purpose of the banneton is to prevent the dough from spreading so you don’t end up with bread as flat as a pancake.
Leave in a warm place to rise until doubled in size. Depending on the prowess of your sourdough this can take 1-5 hours (the potency of a sourdough tends to improve with age). If you use a small amount of yeast (purists sneer at this, but I usually add a few morsels so I don’t have to take a day off work and/or actually can get some sleep) about 50-60 minutes are sufficient.
Preheat the oven to about 240 degrees. Before you are ready to bake spray some water into the oven – this will give the bread a good crust. If baking without a tin carefully turn the bread from the banneton or bowl onto a baking sheet covered in baking paper. Bake for about 60 minutes, decreasing the temperature gradually from 240 to about 180 degrees. The bread is ready when the bottom sounds hollow when tapped.
Cover the bread with a clean tea towel. Do not be tempted to cut a slice while it is still warm even if it smells extremely good. It will taste best if left alone overnight. The loaf will keep fresh for up to a week if stored in a bread bin or tin. I have been told that the walnut bread tastes particularly good with a piece of brie. But I also recommend trying it with chocolate spread!