A while ago one of my flatmates, the Queen of the Night, brought back a tupperware full of a dough-like substance that we soon found out was lievito madre, a type of living yeast used for breadmaking. We were initially pretty excited about all of the delicious focaccia that we were definitely, no doubt going to make with this creature, but then it turned out that we didn’t know how to use it and none of our stuff ever came out all that amazing. But help was under way – I recently stumbled across a one-day course to learn how to make bread with lievito madre, and decided to sign up. It was pretty cheap, super cultural, and only one day, so no strings attached.
The course was held on a Sunday, and it was organised by an association that does a whole bunch of cultural events here in the region. I’m generally very fond of this sort of thing, as I like to learn about the region I live in. Unfortunately this type of event is heavily frequented by the elderly, and the course was organised on a Sunday morning, which meant that I had to deal not only with a pounding hangover, but also with 20-odd dead excited pensioners who introduced their every question to the baker-teacher with an anecdote about the flour they bought last week which was different from the flour they normally used but and so on and so forth.
On my left side was the grumpiest man alive. On my right was a neurotic lady with her nine-year-old son whom she kept trying to instruct in doing just about anything from breathing to kneading. At the end of the day, someone stole my bread. I was kind of disappointed, but too unbothered to draw a granny into a fistfight about it, so I left the course with a whole lot of knowledge about different types of flour, new kneading techniques, and an anonymous bread that someone else had left behind (and that may have been way nicer than mine, actually).
So let’s talk about this yeast for a minute. Because this is where the language barrier gets messy. I know this thing as lievito madre. When I wikipedia this item, and I go to the English section, it tells me sourdough. But sourdough is a type of bread, not a yeast, right? I get so confused. The most likely translation I’ve been able to come up with is yeast starter. Let’s settle for that, and if anyone knows a better translation, please let me know.
Now I know that it’s pretty unlikely that anyone but me will have a yeast starter, but I’ve also been assure that no-one ever reads the recipes anyway, you’re just here for the story, which is totally cool. If you feel really inspired, you can chuck a bunch of flour in a tupperware with some water and a piece of fruit that’s gone funny – according to the bread people that’s how it works. If you do happen to have a bunch of yeast living in your fridge, you probably already know how to make bread, so this recipe will be useless, but never mind. This is the way I learned it and it was good fun. Have a go, if you fancy it.
A note on baking bread: if your bread comes out terrible, keep trying. I’ve been assured that anyone’s bread gets better over time and I’m going to have to admit that mine still come out whichever way they choose to, not really the way I plan them to. But it’s cool, I like surprises.
For one big fat bread, use:
- 250 gr yeast starter
- 250 ml water, room temperature
- half a kilo of flour – I use tipo 2, which is a bit stronger than strong bread flour. Go for strong bread flour if you’re not sure, I couldn’t really tell you what the UK calls this stuff
- a little bit of olive oil
- a teaspoon full of salt
As for materials, you will need some baking parchment.
You need a full day off for this, by the way. Here’s a summary, so you’ll know how much time this takes:
30 minutes: weighing ingredients, mixing of dough, first rising, kneading and folding
1,5 to 2 hours: rising and second folding
4 hours: more rising and last folding
1 hours: baking
Here we go!
Start by mixing your water with your yeast. Pop it all in a big bowl and then mix it until it’s a homogeneous paste. Put in about 2/3 of the flour, stir well so it becomes a nice smooth dough. Mix in the salt with the remaining 1/3 of the flour, then stir that in as well. By now, you should have a relatively smooth and workable dough ball. Leave it alone for about ten minutes.
Now dust your hands with flour, grab that doughy motherfucker and start working it. You knead for a few minutes, then when it’s a nice smooth dough, start working it out into a circle. Don’t roll it with a rolling pin, don’t pull it so hard the surface tension (you know what I mean, right?) breaks, just carefully squeeze it with your fingers so it becomes a larger circle. Now fold that circle inwards. No idea what I’m talking about? Check this out:
Flip it over, and with swift movements, sort of shove your hands (palms upward) under the dough ball, twist it and repeat. This way you kind of close the folds. Then pop it in a large bowl that you’ve oiled up with olive oil before, cover it with a tea towel, and leave it alone for a couple of hours. It likes to be in a constant temperature of between 25 and 30 degrees celsius. Apparently if you turn on the little light in the oven (but not the oven itself) the temperature is perfect, so you can leave it in the oven for a while and the temperature will be nice and constant and your yeast will love you. When you go back to check on it, it’ll have doubled in size. (No? Don’t bin it, it might still turn out OK.)
After the rising time is up, pull out your dough, tip it over on a clean work surface, and repeat the whole stretching and folding procedure. Again, pop your dough back in the bowl (greased up!) but this time, leave it for 4 hours. Alright 3’s OK, but 4 is better. After four hours, pull it out, repeat the folding process, but this time instead of flipping the dough and closing the folds, you just leave it upright and you squeeze the folds shut, after which you pull the centre of the folds together upwards into a sort of bready nipple.
Now of course you’ve totally preheated your oven to the highest temperature imaginable (250 degrees, in my case) and you’ve put a bowl of water at the bottom. (No? Go do it now, then.) Pop your bread in and leave it like this or 15 minutes. After fifteen minutes, remove the water, turn the temperature down and leave your bread for another 45 minutes. Remove it from the oven, wait for at least half an hour (with this yeast business the flavour really changes in that half hour) and then eat it whenever you like.