I've been meaning to start a blog ever since I registered here, but life has got in the way. It's not as if I haven't been baking. Barring a break over Christmas, I have (it's a curious thing that, while the festive season sends many people into a frenzy of baking and cooking, it seems to have the opposite effect on me - I want a break!).
I think my problem has been where to start. The start of my baking journey is a very long time ago - sitting on the kitchen floor watching loaves rising in the oven, or pushing pastry circles into mince pie tins. Maybe one day I'll be able to chart a path from the simple single-rise white loaves my mother taught me to bake, through experiments with high hydration, wholemeal, tangzhong and cold starts; but I'm not sure anything I wrote could really describe the long, slow, organic process of learning to handle bread.
There have been plenty of Eureka moments - the River Cottage video that first gave me the inkling that dough could be much wetter than I ever thought, the realisation that less yeast is better, and all the standard white bread recipes I had ever seen used far too much ("of course you can use less yeast," my mother said, "it just takes a bit longer"). But those moments, crucial as they are (and this site has offered many turning points) are only a small part of the story. They're the moments when your brain learns something. But the real learning is in your hands, and that takes years. I can handle a loaf. I think I can handle it well. But compared to some of the people on here, and some of the masters I've seen on YouTube, I'm a total beginner.
So that's where I've decided to start: as a beginner. My yeast loaves (I use instant yeast sachets) have reached a fairly high sort of 'intermediate' standard, and I had just been contemplating moving on to something a bit more challenging, like ciabatta or rye, just as long as it didn't involve sourdough, because that was WAY too complicated, when my friend turned up at my door with a jar of goo.
"This," she said, "is the daughter of Hildebrandt".
Hildebrandt was a sourdough starter which my friend had created some time in the middle of last year and nurtured lovingly, but now, as she prepared to move to Ireland, managing and transporting the starter just seemed like too much work. So Hildebrandt was to be adopted out to another friend, and her newborn daughter was to be entrusted to me.
Well, what could I say? It was a sacred charge. I eyed the jar of starter, head echoing with arcane words absorbed from long, technical online threads I had read in a failed attempt to understand sourdough. I put it in the fridge. And I forgot about it.
A few days later, it crossed my mind that perhaps something else needed to be done besides refrigeration. I pulled out the daughter of Hildebrandt, now homesick and hooch-addled, and asked my friend for more advice. Armed with what little I could understand, I tried to make amends.
First, I named her: Ermintrude. It seemed to be a name with dignity, but a certain earthiness which was fitting. Then I apologised. A warmer bed, and a few days of inexpert feeding later, and I made my first loaf, with no better guide to readiness than the presence of bubbles. It shouldn't have worked. Ermintrude felt hungry and unloved, and was still drowning her sorrows, as evidenced by an eye-stinging smell of brandy; but she is a forgiving soul, and that first loaf - made from a bastardised version of James Morton's basic sourdough recipe, but baked in a tin and entirely omitting the bulk ferment (the gluten started to collapse during the initial kneading, so I took a damage limitation approach) - was despite everything one of the best-tasting loaves I have ever made.
Since then, Ermintrude and I have been learning a lot together. It took me too long to realise that her alcohol problem was down to hunger and loneliness, and when I started feeding her twice a day, she got off the bottle and has been far happier for it. Now she bubbles and froths and is ready for anything. I've had to scrabble for recipes to use up the excess starter - we've made waffles (slightly underwhelming), crumpets (outstanding), crepes (simply fabulous) and, today, a wonderful, unexpectedly enormous chocolate cake. What has amazed me is that some of these recipes - the crumpets and crepes especially - are actually easier with sourdough than by the usual method. Of all the things I'd ever read about sourdough, on here and elsewhere, I never came across the idea that it could make things easier.
As for the loaves, I've still got my stabilisers on. I stuck to that bastardised single-rise recipe for a few weeks, reckoning that I needed practice managing my starter before I tried anything with any element of risk. The other day, I branched out and (hold onto your hats) added a bulk ferment. I underproofed it a bit in my anxiety, and it was still in a tin, but it wasn't half bad. I think I need a while to settle into this recipe properly, and perhaps (whisper it) try it free-form, but after that, I'll be looking to spread my wings.
So I'm looking for suggestions. What recipe should a sourdough beginner move onto once they've mastered the basic white? Nothing too scary, please - I'm not sure I'm ready for recipes that take three days, and despite studying innumerable blogs, threads and podcasts, I still can't remember the difference between a poolish and a preferment. Something relatively easy, but something that'll bring out that sourdough flavour that, up to now, I'm only getting a subtle hint of, or give me a start towards that famous open crumb.
Ermintrude awaits her orders!