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Sourdough Do’s and Don’ts

Here is my personal checklist of sourdough do’s and don’ts.

Please note that this is MY LIST ONLY – I’m pretty sure most of my fellow bakers will disagree with some, if not all, of my views below. But after 12 years of baking all the bread we eat, this is what I’ve ended up with!

DO use scales

My friend Al assembles her doughs by feel, and always ends up with bread that ranges from edible to outstanding. Even after a decade of baking, I can’t come close to doing that. I am experienced enough now to know how to adjust a bit – if a particular dough seems too dry or wet – but I always start by weighing quantities first.

Some bakers use teaspoon measures for salt, arguing that scales can’t measure small quantities accurately. My scales measure in one gram increments and I’ve never had a problem. And as my neighbour PeteV discovered recently – just a few grams extra can make a loaf too salty to eat!

The other reason to weigh salt is that it varies so much in volume – a teaspoon of fine cooking salt is heavier than flossy salt which in turn is heavier than flaky salt – but by weight, they’re all the same. My tip is to weigh the salt separately before adding it in.

I use scales for all my baking now, not just bread, as I find cup measures notoriously unreliable.

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DON’T pay a fortune for fancy salt

I have a wide selection of expensive gourmet salts, but I don’t use any of them in bread.

When I started my sourdough journey, I was buying boxed sea salt from the UK at $6 for 250g (it was still cheaper than Maldon salt flakes). But when you’re baking six to twelve loaves a week (and giving half of those away), it’s surprising how quickly a box of salt will disappear.

Then I discovered the Olssons cooking salt in little blue packets for under $2 a kilo. If you live in Australia, I’d highly recommend you seek it out. It’s not in the big supermarkets, but almost every Asian grocery store will have it on their shelf. As the packet says, it’s 100% pure sea salt from South Australia, 100% Australian owned, and 100% preservative and anti-caking agent free…

These days, I buy my salt in bulk and I’m always thrilled by how cheap it is.

It started with the broken 25kg bags I bought from Southern Cross Supplies for just $5. I’ve since discovered that the wholesale price is only $10! We use it in all our cooking, curing, breadmaking and skin care products, plus I routinely hand out 2kg bags to friends and new bakers. At full price, it’s just 40c a kilo for pure Australian sea salt.

Please, let me re-iterate. Don’t pay a fortune for fancy salt for breadmaking!

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DO use your hands

Do use your hands…if you can. A few years ago, my hands started to get sore, so I had to adapt my kneading method (I have a sturdy Kenwood mixer as backup, but I don’t like the bread it produces). As a result, I can now bake six loaves of sourdough with just ten minutes of hands-on time – a few minutes to squelch the dough together, a one minute fold after it rests, and then a brief shape before the second prove.

It can still be heavy work manoeuvring four kilos of dough, but it’s a quick process, and I hope to be able to keep baking by hand for years to come. One more thing – I don’t wear gloves unless I have cuts on my hands. I do keep my nails very short though, and my fingers jewellery-free.

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DON’T bake with a flat starter

Just make a rule to never, ever do it. If the starter doesn’t pass the float test, don’t even think about making dough. You might end up with dough that rises a bit, but you’ll still be disappointed with the finished loaf.

My starter Priscilla can be temperamental – she can sulk, bubble over and turn grey – sometimes all on the same day. She’s a diva but I love her, and I probably spoil her more than my children. Some days, she just doesn’t want to play. When that happens, we eat pasta or I grab the instant yeast from the fridge and make a filled focaccia (the fillings help mask the flavour of the bakers yeast)…

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DON’T spend money on an expensive linen couche cloth

I know many (possible most) of my baking friends will disagree with me on this one, but this really didn’t work for me. A few years’ ago, I bought a roll of bakers’ couche from Chefs’ Warehouse. I’m still not sure what I did wrong – maybe I was supposed to season the cloth first – but the first batch of dough I put on it came out covered in fluff. So I tried washing the fabric, which then shrank to an unusable size.  I’m too Chinese to put wet dough onto fabric that can never be washed, so I gave up.

Thankfully, the following year I discovered the cotton tenegui from Daiso. These little towels are thin but strong, machine washable, and dough doesn’t stick to them. They’re now my default shaping cloths and they cost just $2.80 each…

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DON’T use an unlined banneton

In colder climates, leaving bannetons covered in flour and dried dough seems to be fine, but in Sydney, we just end up with bugs crawling all over them. I now line mine with the tenegui (see above) and haven’t had a problem since. I dust everything with fine semolina and even the wettest doughs don’t stick much. The cotton cloths go into the wash every few bakes and dry quickly on the line.

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DO bake in an enamel roaster

If there is one single change that took my bread from good to artisan, it was learning to bake in a pot. My friend Emilie put me on to it, and I’ve never looked back. I’m not sure where the trend started – it was either the original No Knead bread guy, or the folks at Tartine Bakery – but either way, they all recommend using heavy cast iron casserole pots to replicate a closed oven environment.

I tried that and scared myself silly lifting blazing hot, super heavy pots in and out of the oven. Then it occurred to me that we might be able to substitute the thin enamel roasters often used for camping – as far as I knew, no-one had ever done that before, and I can still remember workshopping the idea on Twitter with my friends Joanna and Carl. Here’s the post I wrote about it five years ago.

I ordered one online, and then two more, and now I bake all my loaves in them. They sit three across in my 90cm Smeg oven (thanks for showing me that, Clare!).

There are so many advantages in using these enamel roasters for bread!

Because they’re lightweight, you don’t have to preheat them, as they get hot almost immediately. They’re easy to handle, especially if you have old, sore hands like mine, and you’re much less likely to end up with serious burns (I make sure by using welding gloves). Best of all, they’re cheap, especially compared to cast iron, so it doesn’t matter if they get trashed a bit. I don’t even bother to wash mine!

The only downside is that they leave a ridged bottom on the finished loaf – I know some bakers have a problem with that.

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DO share your bread

I can offer two reasons for this one.

Firstly, baking bread takes a lot of practice.

I can write a tutorial that will teach you how to get a decent result from the get-go, but what turns a good baker into a great one is experience. You need to get a feel for how your starter responds to ambient temperatures, how proving times change with the seasons, how adding a bit more water changes the feel and consistency of the dough, and so on.

The good thing is that, at least in Australia, bread flour is cheap. Even though there was a substantial price rise at the end of last year because of the drought, we’re still paying under $1.50 per kilo in bulk. So you can practice to your heart’s content and it won’t bankrupt you.

The downside is that you end up with a lot of bread. Freezers get full pretty quickly, and in the end, you either have to share it, or beach yourself trying to eat it on your own.

Secondly, more than any other food in human history, bread was made to be shared. So much so that it’s written into our vernacular – we speak of “breaking bread” with friends and loved ones. Sharing bread can create communities, feed those around you, and spread joy. Very few things can build relationships and bring such enormous satisfaction for so little outlay in cost and effort…

I bake so much these days that we’ve started inventing our own vocabulary around it.  A large batch of Emilie’s twisted baguettes came out of the oven yesterday…

Pete: “what’s the collective noun for bread?”
Me: “no idea, maybe we should just make one up…”

Then I sent out this text:

“Neighbours, we have a GRUMBLE of wonky sourdough baguettes. Please come and get one!”

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DON’T sweat the small stuff

Just don’t worry about it!

So long as you don’t set fire to your oven like our friend Stephen nearly did, everything else should be ok. Loaves will vary from bake to bake, and baker to baker.

The way I see it, you have two options: you can either obsess about the holes in your crumb and the colour of your crust OR you can get excited each and every time about the fact that you’re actually BAKING BREAD and feeding those you love. Take my advice and adopt the second approach – you’re much more likely to persist with sourdough if you do.

Very little can’t be salvaged – burnt loaves have a lovely smokiness if you cut the thick crust off first and then toast them in slices. Flat loaves make great croutons or melba toast or breadcrumbs. Almost all mistakes are cheap and edible, either by humans or chickens or worms. Seriously, don’t worry about it!

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That’s really all I can think of right now. Ok, my lovely sourdough peeps, the floor is open – please feel free to disagree noisily with me (or add your own do’s and don’ts) in the comments below! ♥

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Fossil Focaccia

As you all know, I’m a mad keen fossil collector, with a particular passion for ammonites…

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So I was a bit excited to discover that my bread stamp which I’ve had for years cuts perfect ammonite spirals…

I made up a large batch of my version of Em’s sourdough focaccia, using a 50:50 mix of bakers flour and plain flour, and let it prove overnight.

The following morning, I dipped my cutter into a bowl of water…

…and stamped away! I re-dipped in the water after every press…

I was a little over-enthusiastic and ran our of space for the final row…

Fossil focaccia! I was so chuffed with how the slab baked…

This was huge fun to make and I’m going to experiment with cookie cutters next. If you try it with other shapes, please let me know how you go!

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Loads of Limes

Loads of limes, lots of limes, luscious limes…there’s something very pleasing in the alliteration. It reminds me of the La La La song from Sesame Street that my sons loved so much when they were little.

But I digress, as usual.

Australian grown limes are crazy cheap in Sydney at the moment. Hard as it is for folks in other parts of the world to believe, we can pay up to $2 per lime when they’re out of season. Even just a few weeks ago, they were $1.50 each.

Then suddenly, they were 40c a lime at Harris Farm, so I bought a big mesh bag full. The following week, they were 25c each. I went back. Then yesterday they were 10 for $2. I went back again!

I dragged the juicer attachment for the food processor out and went to work. Not the smartest move when you’ve got a deep paper cut…

The juice was frozen in icecube trays, then popped out and stored in a box in the freezer. The rinds were too bulky for the Bokashi Bin to manage, so we passed them through the grater attachment on the food processor and Pete spread them out under our tiny, barely fruiting miniature lime tree…

When I asked why he did this, he explained that citrus needs acidic soil and around here we have trouble keeping it that way, so we either add citrus or sulphur. As the latter is expensive, we put all the lemon tree prunings and excess fruit through the chipper to create mulch and layer it over the soil under our lemon and lime trees.

With this batch, we cut the rinds up finely, which means they’ll dry and break down quickly, hopefully with minimal fruit fly problems.

With the second bag I bought, I tried a couple of different freezer options. Lovely Moo suggested freezing them in wedges to use as a garnish in cocktails, which worked a treat. I laid them out on trays and lids to freeze…

…then stored them in a reusable plastic box in the freezer…

My mad Viking friend Anita freezes her limes whole and then just hacks segments off to stick down the neck of her Coronas. I’m not game to try that, but I did freeze some of the fruit whole – apparently when you defrost them, they’re extra juicy because the cell walls burst. They should be good for curries!

Today, I whipped up a batch of Linda Woodrow’s brilliant lime cordial. The recipe is here, and my take on it uses eight limes, a cup of water and 1¾ cups of raw sugar. I stash it in the fridge and serve it with soda water…

Finally, everyone knows that the main reason limes were created was for margaritas! And can I just say as an aside – kudos to the genius who figured out how to selectively grow seedless limes with exactly one nip of juice in each…

Here is my perfect margarita recipe, given to me by the lovely bartender at our favourite Mexican pub…

  • 30ml white tequila (I like the Olmeca Altos Plata)
  • 15ml Cointreau
  • 30ml fresh lime juice
  • 10ml sugar syrup

Combine with ice and shake enthusiastically. Serve in a flaky salt rimmed glass (I use Tasmanian sea salt). Drink. Repeat.

And you knew I couldn’t finish this post without sharing the La La La song, right? Enjoy! ♥

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Smokin’ Brisket

It’s taken us a few attempts, but we’ve figured out how to smoke beef brisket in Rosie theTraeger Pro 34.

Well, we’ve figured out a method that works for us – I suspect true barbecue aficionados will take umbrage to some of our suggestions…

We start with a grassfed Cape Grim brisket. This alone is a fabulous find – Cape Grim produces some of the best beef in Australia and it usually carries a hefty price tag. However, brisket is less popular than other cuts, and Harris Farm Markets in Leichhardt sells it for just $13.99/kg…

Traditional American barbecue uses grainfed beef, but we try to avoid it for animal welfare reasons, plus we find it a bit too rich and fatty for our tastes. Because it isn’t as heavily marbled, grassfed brisket is less moist when smoked, but it’s incredibly delicious nonetheless!

We took advice from two sources – the amazing Steven Raichlen book Project Smoke, which is available in Kindle/iPad format for about $10…

…and the excellent PBS series BBQ with Franklin, as well as Aaron’s fabulous YouTube videos…

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We start by trimming most of the fat from the brisket, leaving just a few millimetres (about ¼”) all over. It’s a rookie error to leave too much fat, as the low smoking temperature doesn’t render it all out or crisp it up.

The meat is coated with ground black pepper and kosher salt (flaky salt would work as well) in equal parts by volume. The pepper is ground in a spice grinder and then sieved to remove the superfine dust – we only use the coarser bits. The rub is evenly sprinkled on and patted into the meat, which is fridge cold for trimming and coating, and then left to come to room temperature before smoking.

We place the brisket in an aluminium tray, fat side up. A temperature probe is inserted  into the thickest part (more on that later). Now, conventional wisdom is to place the meat straight on the bars, and I’m sure you get a better result that way, but we’re lazy and don’t want the extra cleaning up.

It’s worth mentioning that Rosie is a 34″/90cm pellet smoker, with a relatively large hopper. This means that we can confidently load her up with wood pellets before going to bed, knowing that she’ll have more than enough fuel to keep her chugging along until the following morning. You might need to make adjustments if you’re using a different type or size of smoker.

We started off using the Traeger Hickory pellets, but we now buy the Green Mountain Premium Fruitwood Blend from BBQ Aroma in Leichhardt. They’re a slightly more affordable option and they burn well…

If we’re having people over for lunch the following day, we start smoking at 9pm the night before. Rosie is brought to temperature (107°C/225ºF) and the tray is placed in the smoker with an accompanying pie tin of water. It’s then left to do its magic overnight.

The briskets we buy vary from five to six kilos, but trimming reduces that substantially. We’ve found the meat can take anywhere from 12 to 14 hours to smoke (depending on the thickness of the cut), so we need to allow extra time just in case. In addition, the longer the meat rests (within reason), the better the final result!

Once the internal temperature of the meat gets to between 76ºC to 80ºC (169ºF to 176ºF), which is usually about 6am the following morning, I turn the temperature up to 121ºC (250ºF), refill the water tin, and cover the meat with parchment paper.

On that point – Aaron Franklin recommends taking the meat out, wrapping it in butchers paper, and then putting it back in to finish smoking. When we tried that, the temperature of the meat dropped massively and took ages to heat up again. As our brisket is already on a tray,  just covering it with parchment to prevent it from drying out seems to work well for us.

When the internal temperature reaches 93ºC (200°F), we take the meat out. The test for doneness is if you can insert a finger into the brisket without too much difficulty – we use a wooden spoon handle.

Here’s how our last smoke looked just out of Rosie…

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We remove the cooked meat from the tray and wrap it in a double layer of butchers paper, then pop it into a clean esky (insulated cool box) to rest for up to four hours. It probably needs at least two hours resting time.

A note on the wrapping – smoked meats are traditionally wrapped in foil to rest, but recent thinking suggests that the foil causes the meat to steam a little as it cools, resulting in a slightly stewed flavour. Franklin and Raichlen both suggest butchers paper – I didn’t want to pay for the fancy peach coloured paper they recommended, so I sourced a locally made food safe white version on eBay…

And the moment of truth, the slicing! Because of the tray, we don’t get a smoke ring the whole way around, but there is usually a decent pink stripe at the top…

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So…how to serve it? With coleslaw of course – we like to make ours with Chinese cabbage as it’s a little sweeter and gentler on my stomach.

Pete also made an amazing cheese souffle last time, using this dead simple recipe from Kitchn. It will be a house staple from now on…

I made potato salad using Kestrels and dressed it in an excellent honey mustard vinaigrette from Chew Out Loud – this will also be our go-to henceforth.

Now here’s our personal contribution – we served our brisket in…tah-dah!…deepfried DOUGHNUT buns. Brisket doughnut sliders are a thing!

I made a large batch of yeasted sweet dough and once it had proved, shaped it into 50g balls. These were given a second rise before flattening slightly and deepfrying…

Here’s my assorted plate of leftovers. Because there are always leftovers!

And before I forget – a final note on probe thermometers. The Traeger Pro 34 comes with two, which record the internal temperature of the meat as it smokes. The problem though is that the smoker sits on the back deck and the first time we used it for brisket, I found myself getting up three times overnight to check the temps. It was like having a newborn baby!

Our darling friend and neighbour PeteV took pity on us and bought us a Meater Thermometer. It’s the bomb. It bluetooths to our phones and iPads, and the alarm function has saved us on more than one occasion from badly overcooked meat. Brisket is a particularly tough cut, so it needs to be cooked very slowly until well done (93ºC or 200ºF). It’s much easier not to stuff that up when the internal temperature is being electronically tracked…

Image result for meater thermometer

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We’re still newbies to smoking and barbecues, so if you have any tips, we’d be very grateful for them. And I’d love to hear about your barbecue adventures as well!

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PS. I loved this show about spending 24 hours working at Franklin Barbecue – it’s fun to watch if you have ten minutes spare. I can’t believe folks queue up for six hours!

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Happy New Year! Wishing you all a joyous 2019!

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As I mentioned in my previous post, we spent the last two weeks of December in Singapore. We were there to attend the wedding of our nephew Nick (my cousin Jennie’s son) and darling Rachel. It was the most wonderful day…

Of course, it was impossible for me to spend a fortnight away and not take some sourdough starter with me. I was reluctant to enter Singapore with dodgy looking dried starter, so I opted to take it in liquid form. Yes, I know, I used not one, but two plastic bags, but it seemed the only way to ensure it didn’t leak out over my clothes…

Our new Singapore baby, christened Lah-Lah by my sister Cynthia, sprang to life immediately. We used Waitrose Duchy Organic Strong White Bread Flour from the UK (available in Cold Storage) and it worked very well…

I soon figured out that proving times in 32°C Singapore were much shorter than in Sydney. I suspect the humidity made a difference as well. Lah-Lah was incredibly active, ripe and raring to go within just a few hours of feeding. Doughs that need an overnight rise in Sydney were ready in just five to six hours.

Here are a few adjustments which worked well for my Singapore loaves. (My sister’s kitchen isn’t air-conditioned.)

1. As the ambient temperature stayed high around the clock, I wasn’t confident about letting my sourdoughs prove overnight. By the same token, leaving the starter on the bench for an extended period was also problematic. In the end, we fed Lah-Lah at about 6pm, then popped her back into the fridge for the night.

Very early the following morning (6am), I took the container out of the fridge, poured some into a bowl, and stirred in ¼ cup bread flour and ¼ filtered water. She was then left covered on the bench for three hours, by which time she was usually bubbly and ready to play. Always test that the starter floats before making dough!

2. My Singapore bread schedule involved mixing up the dough at 9am. The high humidity resulted in a wetter mix than usual, which I compensated for by reducing the water quantity a fraction (20g or so). After a 30 minute rest followed by a quick knead, the dough was left to rise  on the bench for five to six hours while we went out exploring. Sometime after 2pm, the dough was shaped and popped into lined bannetons (yes, I took those with me), allowed to prove for a further half an hour or so, then baked on parchment paper in enamel roasters (yup, lugged those over as well, plus welding gloves to manoeuvre them in and out of the oven).

3. It took me a couple of attempts to figure out my sister’s gas oven. We used the Convection Bake setting, but as the heat source was from below, I struggled not to burn the bottom of the loaves. My first chocolate loaf was scorched, but we cut the burnt base off and ate it anyway…

In the end, we lined a cookie tray with parchment paper, then sat the enamel roaster on top. The dough inside was also on a sheet of parchment. The additional paper lining between the cookie tray and the roaster was Pete the engineer’s suggestion – something about breaking the contact between the two metals and diffusing the heat a bit more. Worked a treat!

4. Storing bread in the tropics is tricky! Placed into a sealed plastic box, the loaf sweats and the crust goes squishy. I took beeswax wraps with me and they worked brilliantly – the loaf below was wrapped for several days and while it eventually went stale, there wasn’t a hint of mould…

The problem though – and this one took me by surprise – is lizards. Apparently they can climb into the tiniest cracks, so an unsealed fabric wrapping isn’t much of a deterrent. After some discussion, we found that storing the beeswax wrapped loaf in the toaster oven or microwave kept it both fresh and reptile-free.

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And for my extended family, here’s how I made the large slab of focaccia for our Christmas dinner. It’s based on Emilie’s wonderful recipe from Artisan Sourdough Made Simple, which I highly recommend if any of you go further on the sourdough journey. I’ve adapted the timings for Cyn’s Singapore kitchen!

1. Take your starter out at 6pm the night before. Tip out about half of it (you could use it for pancakes if  you like) and feed it with ¼ cup bread flour and ¼ cup filtered water. Whisk well, then put the container back in the fridge. Note: if you’re not baking regularly, you’ll need to do this once a week to keep your starter alive.

2. At 6am the following morning, take the starter out of the fridge. Pour about ½ cup into a bowl, then put the container back in the fridge. Into the bowl, add ¼ cup bread flour and ¼ cup filtered water and whisk until combined. Cover the bowl and put it in a warm spot for three hours.

3. At 9am, the starter should look bubbly and bouncy. Test it by putting a teaspoon of starter into a glass of water – if it floats, it’s good to go. If not, wait a bit longer.

4. Make the dough. Using a set of scales, put the following into a large mixing bowl:

  • 100g active starter
  • 750g filtered water
  • 500g bread flour
  • 500g plain flour
  • 18g fine sea salt

Note: halve the quantities if you have a smaller oven, or if you’re not feeding a crowd.

With a clean hand, mix everything together, squishing the mixture between your fingers to evenly combine. Scrape your fingers off, then cover the mixing bowl with a shower cap, plate or clean tea towel.

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5. Half an hour later, wet your hand and give the dough a quick knead in the bowl – just for a minute or so. I like to fold the outside of the dough into the middle, rotate the bowl a bit, and then repeat until I’ve gone the whole way around. Don’t worry too much about it – Em’s original recipe doesn’t include this step, so it’s fine if you just skip it.

Once you’ve done that, cover the bowl again and put it somewhere warm to rise. You can now ignore it for the next few hours.

6. At 3pm, check the dough. It should be puffy and light, but if it isn’t, let it prove for another hour or so. This timing has a bit of flexibility, so don’t panic if you get to the dough a bit later. Priscilla (and Lah-Lah) are quite resilient and they’ll usually bounce back.

Prepare a large baking pan – I used a heavy duty aluminium tray which fit perfectly in Cynthia’s oven. It’s disposable, but can be washed and reused many times. Adjust a rack to the middle of the oven.

Pour ¼ cup of light olive oil into the tray and spread it around with your dough scraper (yep, took those too). Now carefully scrape the puffy dough straight into the pan – don’t worry that it looks like a blob.

Wet your hands, then slip your fingers under one edge of the dough and flip it over so that both sides are coated in oil.

Cover the tray with a tea towel and allow it to rest for about half an hour. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 220°C with fan (I used the Convection Bake setting).

7. Once the dough has rested and relaxed, it should be much more workable. Wet your hands, then pat and stretch the dough to fit the tray. Get your wet fingers under the edges and pull it gently into shape…

8. Sprinkle two good pinches of flaky salt evenly over the top. Then wet your hands again, shake them off, and push your fingertips into the dough – dimpling all the way to the very bottom. This will carry all the flavour through the finished bread…

9. Bake in the middle of the oven for 20 minutes, then rotate and bake for a further 5 – 10 minutes, or longer if needed. Every oven will be different, so keep an eye on your focaccia and adjust as necessary. In Cynthia’s gas oven, I baked on the middle rack for a total of 30 minutes, then took the finished loaf out of the tray, flipped it over, and gave it just a couple of minutes more upside down, straight on the rack. Be very careful with this (optional) step as the top can scorch if you leave it too long. Bake until it’s golden brown but not burnt…

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It was huge fun baking in the tropics but it did take a little finessing! Hopefully this post will give you some ideas about adjusting your baking routine to suit your climate. And to all my extended fam – I hope you give the focaccia a go! ♥

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