Early Adventures in Gluten Free Sourdough

I chanced upon an interesting thread (and article) about the art and science of recipe writing this week (below).

There’s a similar article here, for those encumbered by the Times paywall.

In a nutshell, publishers (and readers) seem to pursue the ‘quick and easy’; often at the expense of the quality of a recipe, and the ability of the home cook to replicate the results pictures and descriptions hint at.

I recognised myself as one of those readers. A long while ago I bought the authoritative hardback on gluten free baking – Naomi Devlin’s River Cottage Gluten Free. On leafing through and discovering the ten types of flour I would need and many recipes starting with “first take your sourdough starter” which takes minimum 5 days to prepare; or those with “then leave overnight” it was subsequently abandoned on my shelf, with only the digestive biscuit recipe seeing the light of day – after I had subbed some ingredients.

Intuitively I knew that good gluten free alternatives needed specialist ingredients and processes, but life still demands the simple and immediate most of the time. Occasionally I will get consumed by a big project like a competition entry, celebratory meal, or birthday cake; but the recipes we make most are those which are short on ingredients, low on time, yet with maximum flavour. I’m not afraid to take shortcuts if needed, especially with bread which I usually find pretty uninspiring.

My attitude changed a little when I attended one of Naomi’s courses recently. Hungry for brain food, as well as real food, and fed up after one too many broken shop-bought loaves; I realised that if I didn’t take the opportunity of the latter part of my maternity leave to start learning a time-consuming skill like bread-making; I would probably not find the time until my twilight years. And so, 4 weeks ago, with a small bunch of grapes dunked into a musty-looking bowl of mulch, I began chasing warm spots around the house as I tried to cultivate my first sourdough starter.

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3 or 4 days later I was already considering jacking it in. The rigmarole of daily feeding, expensive flour ‘wastage’, and distinct absence of life and bubbles in my yeasty-smelling bowl of disappointment wasn’t what I was used to. I had followed the instructions to the letter, but nothing! I duly decided to wilfully neglect my pet for a day or two more before abandoning the experiment and sending my giant order of gluten free flours to a refuge for unloved grains.

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That, of course, was when the magic started to happen. My accidental patience gave newly-christened starter, Patsy, what she needed – time. Soon she bubbled and rose, then fell again, asking for more. A few more days of this and I concluded she was ready for her first outing in a Real Loaf of Bread. Which was duly rubbish – heavy and cakey. I had learnt a lot about cultivating a starter – like what was too cool and too warm. What ‘hooch’ was and when it needed feeding. And through my first failure of a loaf, when it was actually ‘active’.

Joyfully though, I was getting a lot of sourdough ‘discard’ from this process which I used to make a freezerful of pancakes and waffles. Much to my daughter’s delight they are the fluffiest ones I have ever managed without egg – she can polish off 5 in a sitting! Even this was a lesson in ‘slow food’ – setting batter to ferment the night before, then stirring in the final few ingredients with a little bicarbonate of soda to make a gloriously volcanic batter for breakfast treats (recipe at the end).

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More loaves of bread followed. My first real success – baguettes following the recipe from my course at River Cottage! Gorgeous slathered with butter on the day, even more heavenly as giant toasted croutons the day after; then more flops with crumpets that adhered stubbornly to everything they touched; and muffins that we’re somehow greasy and dry at the same time. Thank heavens for children who love carbs in all of their, slightly burnt, dense, forms.

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It’s very rare that I take the time to learn by doing. Is anyone ever given the opportunity to learn by making mistakes? I find it an uncomfortable experience. I’m a big fan of courses when it comes to more technical, or rather artful, cooking – books can struggle to show you the texture you are aiming for; or how a batter should feel as you stir it (or they neglect these ugly uncooked pictures in favour of the styled shots I guiltily buy books for). Even courses, though, rarely show you how things shouldn’t look and feel – and that might even be a more valuable lesson. Recipe books sometimes necessarily simplify. With something so mad as capturing yeast from the air in a warm flour trap, a book can’t tell you why your exact combination of ingredients didn’t work in the same time frame at that moment in that location. Research can help, but you need to get stuck in and do.

Now the successes with bread are coming more frequently, and I’m finding a rhythm. Feed, wait, mix, wait, make, prove (wait), bake (wait), cool (wait). It’s a long process, but not one where I have to spend a long time doing things. My first ‘full’ sourdough without yeast worked beautifully due to month-old Patsy’s vigour. I’ve even been emboldened to make my own minor deviations from recipes now I understand a little of the how and why of the process.

And, in case you too are engaged in a madcap gluten free sourdough mission – here is my breakfast waffle & pancake batter recipe, which I make without eggs and dairy so everyone in the family can eat it. The batter works well with either a ripe banana, egg or flax egg depending on your preference. Be warned, it contains the dreaded phrase ‘the night before’ 😉

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Crisp & Fluffy Gluten Free Sourdough Waffles

Makes approximately 8 waffles or 12 small pancakes. Adapted from this recipe.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup discarded gluten free sourdough starter
  • 1 cup unsweetened dairy free milk (I use soya or almond)
  • 1 cup plain gluten free flour blend (I use the wholegrain one from Free From Fairy)
  • 1 small banana/1 ‘flax egg’/1 real egg
  • 1 tbsp oil
  • ½ tsp baking powder & ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda

Method

  • The night before you want your waffley breakfast (or about 6 hours in advance), mix together the starter, milk & half of the flour. (I do this in the jug of my blender to make it ready for the next step)
  •  In the morning, blend together the remainder of the flour, banana, flaxseed & oil.
  • Heat and oil your waffle iron/frying pan, then just before you are ready to cook, stir through the baking powder & bicarbonate of soda – at this point your batter may do a volcano impression.
  • Cook per your waffle maker’s instructions (my cheap electric one takes 8-10 minutes), or cook 2 tbsp per pancake in a pan.

These freeze beautifully – I just pop them in the toaster to defrost and re-crisp. (Or in the microwave for pancakes).

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