I used to like complicated recipes. I don’t know why. Maybe because they gave me a sense of achievement, or maybe because I liked being kept busy by intricate details, or maybe simply because taking complicated things and turning them into things that make sense in my head and are easy to execute is something that I actually enjoy. Because underneath it all, I’m an organiser of thoughts and theories. Like a robot, only squidgier.
One of these complicated recipes that I used to like was this dense nutty sourdough rye bread with a flavour remniscent of grape nuts. I found it on the Weston Price website, long before I got sick in Mexico and stopped being able to eat gluten, and long before I decided to start a business and stopped having time for complicated recipes. Jam brought it up the other day, and I thought that maybe the extra long fermentation would make it more easily digestible for my wrecked GI tract. So far, no major reactions, which is a good sign. This bread recipe takes 4 days to make. That’s after you’ve got a good sourdough starter bubbling away. Yes, you read that right. By the time it’s finished cooking, you have to start another batch straight away because you’ll have polished all of it off in 4 days, and if there’s not another one on the way, you might cry.
Not only that, but you might start to plan social events around your bread. Like ‘well we’ve been invited to a party on Sunday night at 7 but I have to feed the starter around 7 so we’ll have to just go late’. Or ‘We can’t go away this weekend! What about the BABY [starter]?!’
But it’s ok. If you do proceed, then you’ll be rewarded with something so complex and nutty and sour and strangely delicious that you will want to give it a name. Which brings me to the whole ‘elf bread’ thing. It wasn’t originally elf bread. It was originally somebody’s family recipe that had been handed down over the years and ended up on the internet. But in our house it has no family history, and when it comes to bread that is heavier than a rock and tastes like a complete meal and is the kind of thing you want in your bag on a long journey, it looks and tastes more like something you’d imagine elves making and eating* than humans.
For the flour: I do a mixture of about 2/3 rye and 1/3 spelt or kamut. If you’re not allergic to wheat, then by all means use that.
The starter should be bubbly and strong.
Day one. Morning.
24og sourdough starter
Mix the whole lot together in a bowl. Cover with a towel and leave somewhere at room temperature for 24 hours.
Day two. Morning.
Add the two to the flour mix from the previous day. Stir it all together, cover, and leave for another 24 hours.
Day three. Morning.
30g sea salt
1 tb ground coriander seed
2 tsp ground black pepper
Mix the salt, pepper and coriander seed in with the water, then pour the lot over the doughy mass you’ve had fermenting. Add the rest of the flour. At this point you can either put it in a machine to knead (for 1 minute), or knead it by hand for a couple of minutes. Let the dough rest for 30 mins, then knead it again for another few minutes. Place the massive ball of dough in a greased bowl, and cover for 12 hours.
Day three, evening.
Rice flour, for dusting the counter and sprinkling in your bannetons or makeshift bannetons.
Remove 240g of the dough from the big mass you now have. This will be your starter for next time. If you’re not going to do it immediately, then you can do as I do, make up the whole lot, and just get another good starter going when I want to make it again.
Divide the ball into 3. If you have bannetons, use those, if not, I line three big-ish bowls with tea towels, and sprinkle the towel with rice flour. With each ball of dough, stretch it out to a square, then fold it, like you’d fold a piece of paper to fit into an envelope, into thirds, then do the same lengthwise so that you’re left with a compact ball of dough. Pat it together nicely so that there are no seams visible, then plop it, smoothest side down, into the prepared bowls. Cover with plastic wrap and put into the fridge overnight.
Day four, morning.
Cornmeal, for sprinkling.
If you have a dutch oven:
Remove the bowls from the fridge. Place your dutch oven in the cold oven, then turn the heat up to 500. When the dutch oven is hot, remove it, sprinkle cornmeal. Tip the dough out of its banneton, and place it, with the side that was facing down in the bowl now facing up, into the dutch oven. Score it a few times along the top (about an inch and a half deep), put the lid on the pan, then place it in the oven. Turn the heat up as high as it’ll go for 10 minutes, then reduce to 450 for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and pull the loaf out- give it a knock with your knuckles on the bottom of the loaf. If it’s hard and makes a hollow sound, then your loaf is ready. If it’s not hard, then put it back in and test every five minutes until it IS ready. Then… remove from the oven, place on a rack, and try not to eat it till it’s cool (it’ll be gummy if you cut into it before it’s cooled down).
If you don’t have a dutch oven:
Remove the bowls from the fridge. Preheat the oven to as high as it’ll go. Turn the first loaf out onto a baking sheet. Score it three times, and then place it into the hot oven. After 10 minutes, reduce the heat to 450. After another 15 minutes reduce to 350. After another 10 minutes, pull the loaf out and give it a knock on the bottom. If it’s hard and makes a hollow sound then your loaf is ready. If it doesn’t then put it back in for 5 mins at a time until it’s ready. As above, try not to cut into it until it’s cool or it’ll go gummy!
*For the record I DID bake it with my pointy elf hat on, and I’ve eaten a couple of slices like that too.