Thursday, December 31, 2009

The infinite beauty of an ice crystal

I spent some time over the last week trying to look at snowflakes under my flea-market microscope. And it seemed that it is true that each one is different. I couldn't photograph them, but wanted to put up some pictures here, most taken on Christmas morning, of the snow here. The most snow I've ever seen in Ireland.

Monday, December 28, 2009

A year of bread-making

Rye sourdough

Coming to the end of the year, I realise it was this time last year that I started baking in earnest, wondering to myself if I could make all the bread I eat... and so began a love affair with baking bread. I think I have bought about two loaves of bread since then - which was unsatisfyingly gungy and flavourless, particularly as there are no good bakers I know of in Longford... and made all the rest of the bread I consumed since then.

Sourdough starter

I've learned a huge amount, mostly from books and friends, and have settled on some favourite recipes. But most helpful has been Daniel Stevens' River Cottage Handbook: Bread. This book gave me a lot of confidence to experiment, and gave me a basic bread recipe as a starter point, which I give here.

Basic Bread Recipe

Makes 3 loaves, or 2 loaves and a focaccia

1kg strong flour
2 tsp fast-acting yeast
2 tsp salt
600ml warm liquid

Optional extras:
1-2 tablespoons Oil/butter
Handful of nuts or seeds
Millet, barley, spelt, or rye flakes

You can use white or wholemeal flour, but you will need extra liquid for the wholemeal unless you want to make concrete. I tend to make white or a 50:50 white:wholemeal mix.

For the liquid you could use water or half and half water and milk for a softer bread. One thing I've learned is not to be afraid of wet doughs. They are easier to handle and can rise easier than a stiff dough, making better bread. It just means you need a lot of flour on your work surface.
Also you can make the liquid quite warm as the temperature of the flour will cool it to a yeast-friendly level.

Mix everything except the fat and nuts/seeds together in a bowl until you have a scraggy dough, then add your fat, if using. (If you are using nuts or seeds, leave them until the end to add.)

Knead until smooth, shiny and elastic, shape it into a round, tucking the edges to the inside to stretch the dough, then pop it back in the bowl with a shower cap on top to double in size. (That said, my wholemeal bread never doubles in size...)
Then pull it out, deflating it gently, shape into a round and pop it back in the bowl.

When it has grown enormous again, like a big soft and delicious balloon, (and I have been known to stick my whole face into my dough on occasion...) take it out and cut into three pieces of equal size, and shape into loaves. If you want to make one into a focaccia, then press it into an oiled baking tray. (A cake tin will do nicely.)
Proved loaf ready to go in the oven.

Leave the loaves to prove inside a blown up bin-bag, looking like a big puffed-up plastic cloud.

When almost doubled in size, dredge the loaves in rye flour, and drizzle the focaccia with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and rosemary, or thinly sliced onions.
Ready to go in the oven

Your oven should be preheated as high as it will go, and the bread put in for 10 minutes at top heat. Then turn it down to 180 C. The focaccia will take another 10 minutes, the loaves 20-30 minutes.

Onion focaccia and rosemary focaccia

That is the basic recipe. My favourite bread at the moment is a multi seed, multi grain version, using the following recipe:

900g white flour
40g each millet, spelt, barley and rye flakes, (ground roughly)
2 tsp salt
2 tsp quick yeast
650ml water

When kneading is finished, work in:

15g linseed
25g pumpkin seed
25g sunflower seed

and finish as for the basic recipe

This is a particularly delicious and textured bread.

Its also cheap and very good for you! I think we worked out that it was less than 50c for a loaf of organic white bread, including electricity... Of course the price goes up depending on what you put into it, but it still remains cheap, considering what you get for it - gorgeous, flavour-full chewy crispy homemade bread...
...and a love affair with dough...

Focaccia and two loaves

Sunday, December 20, 2009


By popular request...some photos of snow in the midlands.
Above, our road. (Spot the dog...)
Some of the chickens were out in it...
and some sought shelter! (Spot the kettle for thawing their water!)The garden. (While we are at the spotting game, spot the septic tank!)

And, in unrelated but current news, the family brought me a giant lump of Parmesan back from Venice.
Yay cheese! Its not just the picture, it really is as big as my head!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


I needed a little christmas cheer, so needlefelted this robin. (Spideog in irish)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Adventures in Spinning 1: Herdwick

I thought I'd document here the research I've been doing on different sheep breeds and what they are like to spin with, now that I am completely addicted to spinning and totally fascinated by the story of where fleece comes from, what breeds have produced it, where they lived etc. It lends so much to the finished product to have more of a connection with the materials I use.

First up is Herdwick. Herdwick sheep are from the Lake District in the U.K and are one of the hardiest breeds - left to graze on the hills even in the winter. As a result their wool is pretty tough too. They are associated with Beatrix Potter as she raised them, and are born black, turning dark brown and then lightening to grey. Their wool isn't prized at all it seems, but is used for carpets and as insulation, yet it is so lovely to spin. I think its an excellent wool for a beginning spinner, as it drafts easily and fluidly, and it is very easy to get an even yarn from it (yes, even with my bockety spinning!)

Fascinatingly, Herdwick sheep remember their own heaf or pasture, (the ewes even teach their lambs where they live), and do not stray, so don't need fencing. I also read that they can't be moved if the land is sold - they go with it.

Their fleece has several types of fibre, including a soft woolly undercoat to keep them warm, Kemp and a hairy water-repellent outer coat, helping them get wet more slowly and dry out faster than other breeds. Apparently clothing made from their fleece, while being itchy, is also pretty much weather-proof.

The wool has a long staple - roughly 4" in my sample, and is obviously coarse, but has such amazing texture with all those different fibres. (It was also softer than I expected when spun.) And it drafts like a dream - I suppose its the larger size of the fibres that makes them both slide past each other, (and make me feel like an expert spinner...hooray! ) and also gives the finished yarn a depth of colour with coarser black and white fibres, and finer grey ones showing.

Yes, add to that the incredible water-repelling and insulating qualities, and I'll give top marks to Herdwick sheep.