October 29, 2011 § 1 Comment

The last week we felt three earthquakes, each minor enough to be scarcely worth the mention, but strong enough to focus the mind and to remind me that I really should replace the money I borrowed from our emergency fund. Two happened on the same afternoon and that night I brought my handbag up to the side of the bed when we turned in for the night, something that I remember my step-mum doing ever since the one time we were burgled in the wee small hours. I hesitate over admitting this publicly, but I put my camera in the bag, thinking that if something major really did happen I’d quite like to be able to document it in some meaningful way, and I also put my wedding ring on my bedside table instead of on the bookcase downstairs where it normally lives the night hours. I don’t know for sure, as I’ve never been in that situation, but I’m pretty sure that if it came to the grab and run moment, I’d be stuffing my teddy bear into my bag too. I’m a grown woman, I own a pair of Miu Miu heels that are spiky enough to kill in an emergency, and I can change my own lightbulbs and plugs, thankyouverymuch. But, and again, I am not too proud to tell you this, I have been accompanied most nights since I was born by a now somewhat ratty brown bear, gifted to me when still a peanut in a swollen belly. That bear has been rescued from football stadium cafes a 30 mile drive away after hysterics, transported across the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and the shorter but more significant 300 miles from home to university: a point of continuity in a life of suitcases and brown boxes. So yes, in that moment, I’d grab that bear to me, the stuffing flying from his worn skin and all, and be just as glad for him as for the wind-up torch.

When times are turbulent, whether because of tremors in the ground, or a travel schedule stretching the nerves like St Catherine on the wheel, I find myself craving the simple and grounding act of baking. Cooking, by which I mean savory-lunch-and-dinner cooking, is all fine and good, and a homespun dinner is crucial to the beat of a normal day, but the pleasures of kneading dough, or beating butter and sugar to a latte hue, is something else all together: elemental in its combination of the simplest possible ingredients yet indulgent in the headspace and homespace needed to carve out the rhythms of kneading and proving and shaping and baking. When the rest of my day is uncertain, baking bread brings it home with a gentle, floury sigh.

This hasn’t always been the case. There was a long time where the different stages and components of bread baking would wind me up tight as much as smooth me out. How much to knead, how to knead, what counts as doubled in size, to shape or to tin-bake: the doubts and worries would mount up to something much greater than the walk to the really quite good bakery downstairs and bread would be a project for another day. Dan Lepard has really changed all that for me. I started baking from his Saturday Guardian column on and off, soothed by the simple, fuss-free instructions and more than anything, the great results. I’ve been waiting for months for his cookbook and had it sent over from England on the release date, even though I knew I would be back a few weeks later and could pick it up in person. And I have not been disappointed.

I’ve tackled a bunch of things from this book in the week since it arrived here but the recipe that has really captured my imagination, on a day to day basis, is the sour cream sandwich loaf. Let’s be clear: we get good bread in San Francisco, by which I mean bread that a home oven is going to struggle to recreate. I don’t really have much desire, or need, to figure out a way to knock out good homemade wood-oven sourdough when I have Tartine within walking distance. But soft, fluffy, white bread, for slicing thick and pressing around smoky ham and pickles? That I cannot get here for as many greenbacks as I care to hand over. Dan’s recipe delivers a slice of home in all senses: a simple and effective method, written for someone baking a single loaf for their lunch rather than for restaurant style production (which is a personal bug-bear when it comes to bread writing), a relaxed and adaptable style that you can weave around your day, and, most importantly, the kind of loaf that would not be out of place in a commercial featuring cobbled streets, a West-Country lad, and a rickety bike. And they don’t have earthquakes in Dorset.

Sour Cream Sandwich Loaf
Adapted from Dan Lepard’s Short and Sweet

150ml cold water
100ml boiling water
125ml sour cream, cold from the fridge
2 1/5 tsp/7g/1 packet instant dried yeast
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp salt
550g/19oz strong white bread flour, plus a little extra for dusting
a little sunflower oil

Mix the cold and boiling waters in a large mixing bowl and mix in the sour cream. Add the yeast, sugar and salt and stir to combine. Add the flour and mix to form a ragged ball. Let sit in the bowl for about 10 minutes, or a little longer if you like, for the flour to absorb the moisture.

Lightly oil a surface area of around 30cm/15inch. Turn out the dough onto the surface and lightly oil the bowl from which you turned it and your hands. Knead the dough by stretching it out with the heel of one hand by about 5-10cm then folding it over on itself with the other hand, turning by a quarter, and repeating. Do this around 10 times, at which point the dough will start to become smoother and firmer. Leave it on the surface for 10 minutes, then repeat the kneading. Leave for another 10 minutes, repeat the kneading again, then replace in the oiled bowl, cover with a clean towel and leave in a warm, dry place. Depending on the temperature of your room it will take 1-2 hours for it to double in size. In the meantime, prepare a tin of about 7-8 inches in length by buttering the insides and lining the base with greaseproof paper.

Once the dough has doubled, turn it out onto an oiled surface, pat it out to a rectangle that is about 2cm thick, and then roll it like a scroll. Place the roll seam-side down in the prepared tin and cover and leave to prove. It will take about another 1-1 1/5 hours for the dough to approximately double in size again. Towards the end of this time, preheat the oven to 390F/200C. When the loaf is ready, dust the top lightly with flour and bake for around 45 minutes. The loaf will rise significantly so make sure you leave it plenty of head room in the oven.

Remove the loaf, turn out onto a wire rack to cool, and eat as sandwiches or toast.


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