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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.

. . . . .

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!

. . . . .

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)…

. . . . .

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…

. . . . .

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!

. . . . .

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! ♥

Happy Chinese New Year!

I recently bought some of these super cute piggy wrappers, just enough for handing out and making a few lanterns. I’ve been calling them my Day of the Dead piggies, but my very Chinese sister doesn’t approve (superstition dictates no mention of mortality during the CNY period)…

I dragged out my old instruction books…

…and made some old favourites…

…as well as a couple of new designs…

This one really tested my spatial skills, which are rubbish at the best of times…

Chinese New Year lasts for fifteen days, so there’s plenty of time left if you’d like to make a lantern. You can buy the red packets at most Chinese grocery stores, or substitute red mailing envelopes. Sometimes you can get them free from the banks as well. Here’s my tutorial for a very simple ball shaped lantern, and an even easier one for a single packet decoration.

. . . . .

A couple of weeks ago, I sorted out my lantern making supplies and took all my surplus stock to Reverse Garbage.

As I was going through them, I found these gorgeous old world wrappers – I’ve hoarded them for over a decade because I loved them too much to give away, knowing that they’d be discarded minutes later. I thought they might get a longer life if I gave them away as bookmarks, so I dragged out my old laminator and guillotine and set to work.

I made these ones as well…

Chinese New Year is always snake bean season in our garden, and we’ve had a bumper crop this year. We’ve picked this many every day for the past couple of weeks…

We feasted on them for our New Year’s Eve Reunion Dinner…

We had chicken rice and homemade dumplings…

And Malaysian prawn crackers of course, fried to order…

. . . . .

Wishing you every happiness and the best possible health this Year of the Pig! And in honour of the swine, I hope you get to enjoy many delicious meals with your loved ones! ♥

Yotam Ottolenghi is visiting Australia at the moment, so it seems a good time to put up this post which has been sitting in my drafts for a few days.

I bought his book SIMPLE at the end of last year in iPad format. So yes, it has an exit plan – at any time I can just delete it from my library. But I can’t see myself doing that any time soon, because it’s brilliant.

I have several of Ottolenghi’s other books and they’re very inspiring but the recipes are complicated and often too much work for a family dinner. This one however, as the title proclaims, is simple. Last weekend, having come home excitedly with discount berries from Harris Farm, I made two of the desserts from it.

The first was the Blackberry and Plum Friand Cake (here’s a link to the recipe)…

It used five of our backyard eggs – whites only, so I turned the yolks into microwave custard to accompany it (recipe is here). I used all five yolks in the custard, even though my recipe only specifies four, and it was completely fine…

We had friends over for dinner and the entire cake was demolished for dessert…

The following day, I tried the Blueberry, Almond and Lemon Cake. If you’d like to give it a go, the recipe can be found here. Our lemon tree is on holidays at the moment, so I used one of the many limes I have in the fridge…

The cake was moist and very moreish. Big Boy and Small Man had three slices each…

I can’t recommend SIMPLE highly enough! The e-book is  well formatted, with lots of hyperlinks for easy navigation, and about half the price of the hardcover version. You will need a tablet or a computer though – I don’t think it will work very well on the original black and white Kindle. Enjoy!

I have a problem with in-ear headphones.

Specifically, an earwax problem. My brother-in-law CC (who’s an ENT surgeon) suggested I try bone conduction ones instead, and they’re the bomb. I bought them in Singapore for about $200, but I believe they’re also available here in Australia. I bought the lighter weight ones – the kids bought the titanium model which is about $50 cheaper.

As you can see from the advertising photo, they sit against the side of your face rather than in or over your ear, transmitting the sound via vibration. Monkey Girl told me that the technology was originally invented for folks with hearing loss, as it bypasses the eardrum completely. According to the AfterShokz website: “Transducers guide mini vibrations through the cheekbones to the inner ears, delivering sound without plugging or covering them.”

I’ve now been using these for a month, so I can offer the following personal feedback:

  • they don’t give me an earwax problem, which is fantastic. They also don’t get gross like earbuds.
  • the sound quality is astonishingly good. It blew us all away from the moment we tried it in the store.
  • the microphone is excellent and phone calls made on them are clear.
  • they don’t work well on planes or other places with lots of ambient noise unless you’re happy to use them with earplugs (which I’m not).
  • they cause my cheekbones to ache if I wear them for too long. The tops of my ears as well, although that’s probably because they’re sitting on top of my glasses.
  • they’re much safer for walking and exercising out of doors, because you can hear a bike horn or an approaching car.
  • they’re not great to use while eating, as the chewing disrupts the sound transmission.
  • they’re hard to wear lying down, as the band is solid, so when you lie on it, the pads are pushed out of place.
  • they’re quite discreet, so if you have long (dark) hair, you can hide them quite well and ignore boring conversations without anyone noticing (my niece taught me that one).

As you can see, I’m still quite excited about them! If you’re interested in these, I’d recommend trying them first to see if you like the sensation – it takes a little bit of getting used to!

We have a brand new stainless steel bench!

A few years ago, our 17 year old stone bench developed a crack, which gradually grew until it finally spread all the way to the corner. It was only a matter of time before it split in two completely…

Pete thought it was a good idea to get a stainless steel replacement and his brother, wonderful Uncle Steve, arranged it for us. He came over and built a plywood template, then organised a company in Padstow to make the bench for us. It was surprisingly reasonable – only a few hundred dollars – but I suspect that was Steve’s trade price.

When we came back from Singapore, he popped over to install it for us…

At the end of the day, we had this shiny new bench…

Isn’t it gorgeous?

Pete and I are both thrilled with it, but let me sound a word of warning to anyone considering stainless steel as a bench top.

This is what it looked like after two weeks…

A metal bench will scratch the first time you put a bowl on it. I’d been pre-warned by both Pete and Steve, so I was mentally ready for it. But if you’re someone who loves smooth, unblemished surfaces, don’t get stainless steel as it will drive you bonkers. Fingerprints can be wiped off, but the scratches are there for good…

Having said that though, the bench is dead easy to keep spotlessly clean, as any residue on it is immediately obvious. And because of that, we’ve found ourselves treating it like stainless steel cookware – hot pots go straight onto it, as do rising bread doughs and freshly baked cookies…

Our kitchen is looking a bit mismatched at the moment, as we’ve only replaced the broken bench, leaving the stone one on the opposite side. That annoyed me for two days, but now my eyes have adjusted and I don’t notice it any more. I don’t mind the scratches either – I’ve decided to view them as patina!

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