I attended a fabulous bread making class last Sunday, with none other than Dan Lepard.
I had been very excited about this practically all the time since I booked the class. So make it a couple of months! But the pinnacle was the night before, as I of course couldn’t sleep well, thinking of all the techniques we were to learn, and having nightmares that I would end up in a “bad seat” in the class and wouldn’t be able to follow the steps. The worst!
Once I showed up at the school, my fears dissolved really quickly, thanks to the warm welcome from Dan and his partner David (who helped run the class like a PRECISION CLOCK) and the rest of staff from the school (Marcela and Aga), who had set up everything in such a way that there was no possibility of things going wrong.
Everything was already arranged in a sort of semicircle way—all that was missing was the rest of “students” 😃
In the meantime, we were invited to some delicious (and hot from the oven) delicacies, and coffee or tea.
This was to set the tone for the rest of the day (i.e. being presented with delicious stuff to eat). It very much felt like spending an entire day in the kitchen of one of those grandmas that loves to feed her family. You think you have reached the pinnacle of yummy, and BAM! there is something new and even tastier than what you had eaten before.
I used this spare time to ask Dan to sign my copy of his “The handmade loaf” book, with which I finally managed to develop a working sourdough starter last year (and it’s a fabulous book which I totally recommend).
Once everyone arrived, we were given aprons with our name (on a sticker) and we took positions. Sourdough bread takes a long time to prove, therefore the first part of the class was really frantic as we wanted to get the loaves ready in order to have lunch while they proved.
The main objective of the class was to bake three different types of sourdough based bread, and see the differences in flavour and texture each technique brings with it:
- A white sourdough loaf
- A focaccia with sourdough starter and yeast
- A plaited dill & turmeric loaf, with sourdough starter and yeast, but shorter proving time
Since I have been baking sourdough and soaking myself (almost literally) in sourdough culture, not everything was as new to me as it was for some of the other attendees, but there was anyway a continuous stream of little adjustments and ideas that Dan would suggest when checking what each of us were doing.
For example: when pulling the dough upwards from the bottom of the bowl, I was not getting my hand all the way to the center, which caused half of the dough to get stuck (and sort of defeated the purpose). He saw it, suggested the correction, and I could instantly see the difference!
The concept of autolysis was also discussed. It is, in a colloquial way, leaving the flour on its own, so it absorbs the water. It causes the formation of gluten… so you end up needing to knead way less than it’s been made popular. I really don’t find it very pleasant to knead for a long period of time, so I liked learning about this!
It was in a way tied to the notion of letting ingredients take their time. I’ve been doing lots of fermenting vegetables and brewing kefir, in addition to my sourdough proving for hours and hours, so I immediately got the point of what he was aiming for.
Industrial bread making saves as much time as possible by using cheap ingredients (e.g. flour with a lower protein content), lots of mechanical action and chemical ‘accelerators’, but when we bake at home we don’t need to mimic any of this if we use good ingredients (high quality flour), understand and take advantage of the ingredients’ true nature and behaviour, and give it time.
Another concept I hadn’t given much thought to was the effect of delaying the addition of salt to the dough (and when to do such a thing). I surely had read about it, as in “salt interferes with the yeast” and it sort of sounded like the yeasts do not like salt per se. The way Dan explained this was more like salt inhibits the formation of gluten, so then you end up with less elastic loafs (and thus your loaf cannot accommodate big bubbles). Since we wanted a big, airy focaccia, we delayed adding the salt after mixing starter, yeast, water and flour together.
I also really enjoyed learning how to plait breads, for the dill & turmeric loaf, as I had never done that, and it came out looking really pretty. Dan also said since this loaf was a “quick” one where we mix everything at once, it would not have enough time to develop a sourdough/yeasty flavour, so that’s why we would give it lots of flavour with the addition of spices. And he encouraged us to go bold with this one!
Someone in the class was Jewish and she mentioned that there were Cholla breads with not one, but two and even three plaits, and now I feel like it’s a challenge I should tackle at some point!
We had a delicious lunch with sourdough bread and focaccia Dan had prepared (and David baked), salad, the yummiest cheeses from La Fromagerie (a true cheese paradise in my opinion), terrines, wine and… when we thought that was it? you guess it… staff came up with bowls containing freshly made truffles.
The second part of the class was more about theory, while things were baked, although there was still a bit of practice as we got to slash the top on our sourdough loaves.
We discussed how to keep the starters in good health, how to feed them, how to store them for longer ‘storage’, etc. This I mostly knew already, but it was good to hear a confirmation that I was “doing it right”.
We also learned how to take a little bit of starter with you when you’re travelling, so it can go through ‘security’ and make it alive for you to bake on arrival!
Another notion that I really enjoyed was to always try to make the bread our own: make it reflect our own interests and available ingredients, do not just try to replicate recipes to the letter all the time. We should always experiment once we feel comfortable with the essential aspects of a technique.
Again, this is something I already do, and it can be the cause of some monumental cabreadtrophes (bread catastrophes), but most of the time it results in really unique and special loaves that you cannot find on the shops. In other words, validation is great, specially when it comes from someone you admire 😉
We left with two bags full of our baked goods and great goodies such as Shipton Mill flour, organic yeast and… the same sourdough starter we had been using during the class! Dan explained that this has a 15 year history, as it was gifted to him by some generous ladies in Denmark (I think) and it was also the one that other delis and restaurants in London had been using since then. But if it was gifted 15 years ago, it was possibly already older than that. So this is a very senior starter. Exciting!
The experimentation part got me thinking lots and my brain has been bursting with ideas about things I could try since then:
- making two sourdough bread loaves, one using my starter and the other one with Dan’s starter, but with longer proving time than at the class
- a “focaccia” but with thyme from la Serra
- a full sourdough based focaccia
- a Coca de Fira but with a focaccia style dough (I expect it’ll be just too yummy and we’ll eat it all and die)
- variations on the plaited bread: with Valencian flavours (I was specifically thinking one with saffron and rosemary); also one a bit stiffer so it doesn’t puff up as much, and keeps its plaited shape in a more distinctive form throughout (with aniseed). Also a sweet version, because why not? (like Cholla breads) And filled versions with cream and… and… (am I going crazy here? 🤪)
This was a lot of fun and learning. I was also really impressed by how well it was run and organised. I’d just say that maybe it’s a lot of concepts if you’re new to baking, so maybe I’d recommend it once you have a bit of experience, so you can make the most of the knowledge that is shared. Otherwise, it’s not like you will get lost, but you might miss out on some ‘aha!’ moments. But this is just my opinion!
Bonus: this was a lot of bread for two people to consume without anything getting stale, so I sliced and froze most of it on arrival. Which means that you can see what the crumb of the loafs was like!