Singing Crusts and Rising Bread

Zeb Bakes Apple Bread

This is going to be what I now believe is called a ‘longform’ post. i.e. more than three lines and two photos.

It has been about five years now since I picked up a bag of flour and wandered dustily down the bread road.

Other people in the same time span have started their own businesses, gone to baking school, and done all sorts of wonderful things seduced and entranced as they are by the whole baking world.  I still haven’t made croissants or doughnuts, but I like to think I can make a reasonable loaf of sourdough and great pitta bread.

In this post I just wanted to have a little chat and a meander through my baking past such as it is,  because I sometimes think that people don’t quite believe that we all go down the same road more or less trying to figure out this bread thing, which is how to make bread that makes us and the people we share it with happy!

I have spent a bit of time trawling through old photos, many of which were taken by Brian, (the clue is that his have that fancy blurred background thing going on).  I will try and do a ‘with hindsight’ running commentary on what was going on, and what might have gone wrong, but it is hard to know exactly. If you knew me when I posted on Dan’s forum you will have seen these photos before as I puzzled over what to do to put things right the next time…

First Mill Loaves!

Here we have two of my very earliest loaves, I was very ashamed of them, but I also thought they were quite funny so I took their photo vowing that I would do better next time.

They were both made from the same dough, the flatter of the two on the right had stood for about an hour longer than the other one before being baked and was completely and utterly overproved. The very dark one had been in the oven for ages at a very hot temperature. All those hours of waiting and I wasn’t very impressed.

However my best loaf possibly ever and the one that makes me smile the most is this one:

Mouse Cathedral 1

This was an experiment in not kneading and not folding and putting dough in the fridge overnight. I thought I would be even more minimal than the most minimal of bakers and very clever. I hadn’t really understood that you have to get rid of some of the bubbles in the dough, or stretch and shape it.

Mouse Cathedral 2

As you can see it turned into a mouse cathedral, and rose in a way I have never been able to replicate since. I think there was so much air in the dough that it just didn’t know what to do. Ah me.

White LevainThis was my first attempt at a basic white sourdough made with Dan Lepard’s recipe in the Handmade Loaf. It is a simple dough but not an easy one to handle if you are starting out. I read somewhere the other day that simple is not the same as easy, and this certainly applies to bread making. I think I had used so much oil to handle the dough that the crumb took on a shine resembling my face after a day in the kitchen. Using oil to shape dough is very useful, but too much can cause problems, particularly when it comes to sealing the seams underneath with a firm dough. Use it sparingly and save yourself this grief.

At this point I spent a lot of time reading about flour and reading bread books and decided that if only I had the ‘right’ flour I would make much better bread. In fact I hummed and hawed about this a lot, bought all sorts of different flours and experimented madly, and spread myself so thinly that I never really knew what I was doing.

Sourdough overnight baguettes - 9

I made an attempt at  overnight sourdough baguettes and was appallingly pleased with myself. In fact it is just sourdough in baguette shape but no matter. As I have said before I am not a perfectionist and am easily pleased! Look at their funny little shapes and their slashes!


I proved these in my old cotton teatowels, no fancy couche cloth here, not a clue really what I was doing, but I do remember eating these, baked from cold from the fridge and being extremely happy and greedy.

How many can I eat?

I carried on making breads and posting about them on Dan Lepard’s forum, I shyly chatted away to people who also posted. I made friends, I asked questions, I began to think I knew some of the answers and tried to help people who also turned up, the curse of being an ex teacher and wanting to share knowledge, partial though it was and still is.

It was a lovely forum, with a great mix of people from experts to beginners and was very gentle and friendly. I admit I bought brotforms, in those days not as easy to find as they are now,  so I ordered some from Germany. I found two french banettons with linen liners in a catering suppliers in the UK too.  My early banetton loaves had a ghostly white pallor as I had read somewhere to dust them with potato flour to stop the dough sticking. It works fine but doesn’t change colour in the oven at all. The loaves were beginning to look like loaves that made sense to me at last.

Mill Loaves again

I am not the most consistent of people and I maybe never took the baking or the blogging quite seriously enough to be a bona fide food blogger nor a baker but every so often I get a nice comment or an email from someone who has been brave enough to make something based on what I have written here and then I feel very pleased that I have helped which brings me to the highlight of my blogging week:-

Highlight of the week

JoH Bakes Beautiful Sourdough

Look at that crumb!

Look at that crumb!

Sharing and Baking

These are photos of JoH’s sourdough that she sent me this week which I am allowed to show you.  I think her bread looks just great and I am delighted that she too is jumping up and down with happiness at making a loaf that pleases her. She was working from my weekly sourdough sheets which you can find here → Weekly sourdough pdf

So here’s to all of you brave and foolhardy people who drag a bag of dry flour into the kitchen, squint at a recipe, wonder over instructions like ‘give the dough a turn’ or ‘ form a boule’, who convert cups to grams and ounces to handfuls,  burn your arms and skid on semolina, to those of you who sit by your ovens and smile as the bread rises,  feed your friends and family, share pictures and stories, advice and lore on the internet, with your salt and your leaven, your ferments and baskets, I salute you, may your bread rise and your crusts sing and crackle!

Oh and a last word of my best well-meaning advice – don’t worry about what they do on TV, follow your instincts, take it all with a pinch of salt, they don’t know it all, no one does – question everything, practise lots, study your failures, as they will tell you more than you think, and have a good time!

55 thoughts on “Singing Crusts and Rising Bread

    1. Joanna Post author

      Have you tried the linseed one I posted recently, I think you would like that too, it is very similar but maybe just a bit lighter?

      1. Le Petit Potager

        The linseed looks splendid. I look forward to making it later in the week.
        I haven’t many photos of NZ to share because the whole of the North Island and the west coat of the South Island were in drought………brown brown and more brown!
        I’ll post some of Dunedin and a sunset in the valley behind us from yesterday afternoon.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Insomnia post :) I could have rambled on for page after page and then I decided suddenly I had to go back to bed. I hadn’t got to the bit where you and Sally decided I should have a blog and Mellow Bakers… I think my breads were always more covered in flour than yours xx

  1. Ardys

    My baking is sporadic because it is so hot most of the year where we live so I really enjoy reading about your baking. And you write so well, too! Thank you!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Bless you that is such a nice thing to hear – my baking is sporadic as is my blogging these days. Lovely to know that you enjoy reading it :)

  2. Jo H

    I’m honoured to have my humble efforts included here! I think (like so many of us) that I’ve learned from each loaf I’ve made, too many mistakes to mention but I’ve still had huge fun inspite of the failures. I love experimenting and eating! Thanks for helping me Jo, I’m still giggling with joy…

    1. Joanna Post author

      I would have been as proud as you of that loaf Jo and I hope you go from strength to strength :)

  3. Misky

    A wonderful post, which I’m reading with my first cup of coffee this morning! A warm good morning, Joanna. :)

    1. Joanna Post author

      Morning Misky, back in the land of the awake again, I had a three hour up in the middle of the night, not like me at all :)

      1. Misky

        I’m going to have a mid afternoon nap; this head cold has knocked the stuffing out of me. A midday nap is also very unlike me! Peder just went to the shops to buy me some soup for dinner.

  4. helenogorman2013

    Lovely to hear about your bread journey Joanna and strangely familiar too, reminds me afresh what a joy the alchemy of bread is: all the different paths it can take you down and the pleasure of giving a friend a loaf of bread!

    1. Joanna Post author

      I am so fond of those old first loaves, like first drafts of a strange novel, or something. Some of the photos I have taken in the last year or two could be of any bread almost, as my baking is more consistent these days, those ones have character. I scuttled out yesterday with some loaves and gave them to someone I met recently, felt a bit embarassed but also pleased that I could do it. It certainly takes you down different paths and introduces you to all sorts of wonderful people :)

  5. Alicia (foodycat)

    I love the mouse cathedral and I love this post! I think “don’t worry about what they do on TV” is particularly apt when it’s Paul Hollywood. I am not convinced his show is good for novice bakers.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks for dropping in Alicia. Fortunately there are lots of resources out there for people learning to bake and one can compare different methods and styles and find something that suits. Paul Hollywood is presumably getting even more people interested in making bread so that can only be a good thing :)

  6. ninopane

    A lovely post and one which provides great encouragement to those of us still mastering the techniques.
    Thank you for taking the time to share with us and demonstrate why your blog is essential reading for all aspiring bakers!

    1. Joanna Post author

      What do people do when they can’t sleep, they either start cooking, reading, or writing once they have done the hot drink thing? I am very flattered but all I want to do is encourage an open mind and an acceptance that there is always more than one way to do things :)

  7. drfugawe

    Your bread pics bring back fond memories! Actually, I’ve reached that point in life where it’s not easy trying to remember anything, but somehow when it’s failures and trauma, the memories come more easily. Easy to recall the days when my only goal was to get my bread to rise up over the top of the pan – that led to the days when all my over-proofed breads (the ones that made it to the oven without self destructing), took on the form of monster porcini – Ooo, I thought they were so beautiful! And then there was the rather disappointing day when I came to realize that baking was really a science and not so much an art (except maybe scoring!) – but I moved on, however kicking and screaming all the while. Oh yes, Jo, thank you for dredging that all up.

    Actually, as painful as they once were, they are really quite amusing today – are they not? Just not enough for me to want to relive them.

    1. Joanna Post author

      The worst waiting to rise bread for me was the panetonne made with levain, it took forever. I might hunt out some more photos and must make a gallery post. I love your description of bread like monster porcini Doc. You are a kindred spirit! As to science, my view is that there are too many variables in the ‘home laboratory’ to replicate the experiments; , the shifts in temperature. humidity, the gradual but definite ageing of the flours, the variability from batch to bstch, the cycle of the levain, how each person’s touch varies in strength and sensitivity, it is a very human enterprise and massproduced industrial bread simply has no soul.

  8. Amy

    I really enjoyed this post. I too have been meandering down the bread baking path, in my case for about 18 months with various levels of success (all delicious I am pleased to day but not all beautiful to look at!) and completely relate to the emotional roller coaster! The joy of cutting into, then eating, a warm homemade loaf produced from such simple ingredients is hard to beat in my book.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks for dropping by Amy, so pleased you enjoyed this. I agree wholeheartedly with you :) Happy Baking !

  9. Abby

    I love this post, Jo! Such fun to read about your baking adventures and history, and brings back a lot of memories. Makes me want to go back through all of my old photos…positive that I have a mouse cathedral lurking back there from the Mellow Bakers days. ;-) Those are the most fun loaves to remember, aren’t they?

    1. Joanna Post author

      Yes that is it exactly, they are fun, crazy shapes and funny patterns. whereas a sunken cake is just sad. I love bread much more than cake!

  10. heidiannie

    Love coming here and hearing and seeing your bread posts, Joanna!
    Bread is just so basic to my existence that I only have a few regrettable memories- as long as it could be eaten I figured it was good.
    And your bread is always lovely- especially those thin sliced window shots!
    In the middle of the night I read. It doesn’t help much for going back to sleep- but reading is my go-to activity. :)

    1. Joanna Post author

      Was thinking of you when I took this one this morning xx Windowpane for Heidi

      I need a good book or two I think, I am all out of reading material :)

  11. Ann

    What a lovely read to start my day! And a lovely pic of Zeb – “is that for me?”
    Never had any trouble with commercial yeast but I produced some very odd loaves when I started on sourdough. Oh, the joy when I got my bannetons from Bakery Bits and produced proper loaves with rings round them!
    I also started with Dan’s HML – “simple is not always easy” is a wise saying! I do use his kneading method a lot now though as I tend to be a bit put off if a recipe says to knead for 10 mins!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Of course! I have some newer ones for you too, that one is an oldie. I have a Kenwood mixer now in which I tend to do the preliminary mixing of the dough. I don’t time how long I am playing with the dough, I kind of go by feel and look these days but that doesn’t help someone starting out who only has words and photos to go by, but like you I don’t usually knead for a long time. Saw a very interesting post on Teresa’s North west Sourdough site, where she compared the speed at which two of her starters proved, one was much much faster than the other. Have a lovely day Ann!

  12. hotlyspiced

    I do admire people who drag the bag of flour across the floor to start making bread – something I aspire to but haven’t yet achieved xx

      1. FEARN

        I would of said “Yes” but the loaf I have been labouring over today (Dan Lepard’s Barley loaf) has come out pretty flat!

        Tell me the secret!

        p.s. What did you think when Paul Hollywood said that the best use for his sourdough was to make toast?

        1. Joanna Post author

          I think the barley loaf is a flattie compared to a wheat loaf, low in gluten ? Sorry but I haven’t seen the show Mal, I watched the first one and decided to skip the rest. I like toast though :)

          1. FEARN

            I thought of starting a bread blog “Makes good toast” because that is a (common) admission of failure in my book. I do like toast, but not with fresh bread!

  13. sallybr

    You DO know how much I love this post right? I remember very well our exchanges in Dan’s forum and the way you inspired me to start baking bread more “seriously” – I have been in this bread journey for exactly 4 years and 1 month, as my sourdough starter was born on March 2009…

    like you, I had my share of failures and funny looking loaves – but too bad I did not document them all, it would have been fun to be able to do a post like you did… OH, well –

    Great post! Really great!

    1. Joanna Post author

      I love the camaraderie! It has been what kept me going, online at least – bread makers by and large are the most generous people I know and very supportive, our loaves all rise together. ‘wipes small tears from eyes’ xx

      1. sallybr

        Here, have my Kleenex…. I hope I’m done ;-)

        Joanna, speaking of it, what happened to Dan’s forum? I wanted to go there after a looong time not visiting, and got a shut door on my face.. do you know?

  14. thefoodsage

    And i salute you! Loved, loved, loved this post and looking at all your past photos. I am having a harrowing journey … you have given me the sourdough strength to carry on!!!! THANKS

    1. Joanna Post author

      It was a bit gladatorial of me, us aspiring bakers against the lions in the arena – but you can do it, I promise, can I help at all? Put a different spin on what you are doing? Harrowing doesn’t sound happy … will email you.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Hee hee, I know I wrote ashamed in the post but it isn’t really a question of shame, but of edibility! Those early loaves were inedible, tough, sour peculiar beasties! But I got better as I went along and wrote this post as a celebration of Jo H’s (whose loaf features at the end of the post – not mine ) fantastic baking so early on in her baking travels :)

  15. Karin Anderson

    I never thought of taking photos of my first series of breads (aka bricks) in my desperate effort to make a decent mixed rye/wheat sourdough loaf in the land of the wonderbreads. They got all eaten, though, and my husband only remarked that it was always a good thing to have a weapon in the house, to ward off possible home invaders.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I used to be a teacher and taught kids whose work often had to be assessed on photographic evidence of practical projects. We used to do displays for their assessments and had to show not only achievement but progress etc, so maybe that was in my mind or I just thought the bread was so funny that it needed to be recorded :)

  16. michaelawah

    hi joanna,
    you wouldn’t believe it, but i remember you from Dan Lepard’s forum, when it was still not so large (i haven’t been on it for ages and imagine it to be madness now). I think you even posted an answer I had asked in a panic, or else I consulted your posts on some bread I was having trouble with. I’ve only just started blogging (for practical reasons more than anything else), and i like your mellow approach. I don’t know how people start becoming authors or professional photographers overnight but I know i couldnt stand on a chair trying to take a photo of my bread from ten different angles when all i really want to do is to tear a chunk off. Although I am not a regular reader, I always thought you had a nice, authentic ‘voice’ to your blog, and although i never used your recipes, I knew you to be a very experienced, seasoned baker. When I made a stab at Mellow Bakers, I used your breads as a standard. All this to say you’re too modest, your blog has reached out to many and thank you!
    PS: am feeding the milk keffir regularly! very much more lively outside of fridge (the warm weather, at last!!!, is helping) but still no signs of multiplying.
    And i love that mouse cathedral! So that’s what becomes of dough you don’t touch at all…bet it was tasty though. The glistening bits around the holes are my favourite.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Hi Michael, ah ha you have figured me out! Sadly Dan’s forum has shut down and I think many of the people on there either chat to each other via The Real Bread campaign, on Twitter, the Fresh Loaf, or their blogs, the life cycle of social media seems to ebb and flow. I don’t really blog to provide recipes, I do it for fun and to have a chat. I like to help out, reciprocal altruism. I take photos mostly in the kitchen in the morning when the sun comes in and hits the breadboard. Sometimes I drag the bread outside if it is a nice day too. I use a Lumix camera nothing fancy, or my phone camera, lately nearly all have come from the phone camera. I rarely stand on a chair unless I am getting something off a tall shelf :-)

      I have been feeding my kefir and the individual grains are getting bigger and fatter. I think they break up to form new ones usually. If you rinse yours carefully and have a look and a feel of them. You should be able to gently separate soft bits off. I haven’t seen any tiny single blobbies in mine since I froze them, maybe they have variable reproductive habits, your guess is as good as mine.

  17. chocveg

    Hi Jo, lovely post and thanks for all the memories of the help you and others gave me on Dan’s Forum at the beginning! I too have lots of weird photos, some loaves labelled and some not! Good memories too of mad baking weekends around Britain with more breads than we knew what to do with! thank you! Allison x

    1. Joanna Post author

      Stottie making was our big moment wasn’t it? Lots of good memories that we share Allison. I am glad that I am not the only person with a strange bread photo collection, and lots of mine aren’t labelled either. ( … and which crust are you… ? ) I could have written a gigantic essay and namechecked all sorts of people, but I ran out of puff, it was an insomnia post. One of the things about the way I blog is that I try and write and edit and do it all more or less in one hit. I would probably be a lousy writer, I can do rewrites and edits but I have to keep going. I am not that keen on drafting a post and then dragging it out weeks later to post it. Here and now is how I prefer to do it. Sending a hug Joanna

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  19. Cindy

    Perhaps you can help… My friend and I took a Royal Caribbean cruise and in the dining room were the delectable little breads called savory bites. The basic recipe, we were told by the waiter, is flour, water, salt, yeast, and sugar. The base flavor is sun dried tomatoes. Daily, the “recipe” changed by using herbs (guessing basil, oregano) or tiny seeds (linseed?, flax seed?, sesame – white and black, poppy, etc.) The breads looked as if they were rolled in logs, then cut on a diagonal, log rolled a quarter turn, and sliced again. Final product were little 1.5″ triangles, a bit hard, but wonderful flavor.

    Do you have something similar? Should I use a basic Italian or French loaf recipe and blend the tomatoes with the liquid? I’d really like to replicate this recipe.


    1. Joanna Post author

      Cindy I have had a look on the internet snd found various forums where these rolls are discussed and someone gives a recipe towards the bottom of the thread. See link below. I have no idea what they mean by potato bread flour. Elsewhere someone says it is a breadmix which they make up on board. Maybe try getting hold of sundried tomato paste and use that in the dough? I saw a photo of one on this message board and it does look like they are cut rather than shaped. You could also segment a flattened ball of dough, like an orange to get the segments. Hope this helps !

      I would just use a basic white dough and maybe add potato flour which is used to add softness and longevity to a dough, though small rolls stale quickly! Hope this helps. Maybe post a message on the cruise boards as well?

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