A little while ago my Italian food-loving friend pressed some of her sourdough starter on me. Those of you that have followed this blog for a while will know that my success rate with foodstuffs requiring cultures or fermentation is not good. I confess that I wrapped the starter in some clingfilm and put it in the fridge. I then tried to forget about it, put some vegetables on top of it and generally abused it foully for several weeks. But one day I caught sight of it and felt a bit bad. I took it out, poked it, stuck it in a bowl and stirred in a random amount of flour and water. By some miracle, after a few hours, it started to bubble. Praise be, it was still alive!
The starter is now called Lazarus and sits on my worktop where I try to remember to feed him. I confess that I haven’t been very scientific about the whole affair but he still seems to be thriving. Here he is:
And yes, I know I’m supposed to clean his bowl out each time; I told you, I’m not good at these things. It’s like having a hamster all over again. Anyway, I finally took the plunge and tried to make some bread last week. The texture, I’ll admit, was not good but it tasted great, lovely and sour (a quality which, alas, no-one else in the family appreciated). So I got cocky and decided to make some focaccia with it for some guests that were coming round. I opted to use a British mozzarella as a filling and plumped for one by Laverstoke Park Farm in Hampshire.
The Farm was started in 1996 by ex-Formula One World Champion Jody Scheckter. Six years ago, he purchased his first herd of water buffalo and they now have a herd of more than 1,500, all of which roam free-range in organic pastures, apparently feasting on 31 different types of grass and clover. Working with experts in both Italy and the UK, Scheckter aimed to produce fresh mozzarella with a minimum of food miles. His was the first serious mozzarella to be produced in the UK. It does taste wonderfully fresh and very different to the well-travelled balls on the supermarket shelves; it’s lactic and creamy, with a salty tang and a hint of buffalo. Fortunately there was plenty left over to eat with some fresh tomatoes and oil.
I based the sourdough focaccia recipe on one I found on Bewitching Kitchen and adapted it to include the basil and mozzarella filling.
For the sourdough sponge:
195 g liquid starter (stir before measuring)
125 g warm water
25 g olive oil
10 g honey
50 g flour
For the final dough:
All the sponge made as described
50 g olive oil
200 g strong white bread flour
1 tsp sea salt
Handful of torn basil leaves
Quarter of a ball of mozzarella, torn into pieces
A small chunk of hard cheese such as Parmesan, grated (I used some Gorwydd Caerphilly I happened to have)
Salt and pepper
Lots more olive oil to slosh about
Rosemary to garnish
First of all, make the sourdough sponge. Combine all the sponge ingredients, stir it well, cover the bowl loosely with clingfilm and leave it overnight. Here is mine the next morning, bubbling like a primeval swamp, hurray:
Next combine the sponge with the olive oil, flour and sea salt. At this point it looked like this:
Let it rest for 15 minutes, then, keeping the dough in the bowl, knead it quickly folding the dough in on itself 10 times. Let it rest for another 15 minutes and repeat this kneading process, all in all repeating the process for 4 cycles of kneading, each with 15 minutes rest. Then shape the dough into a smooth ball, place it in a lightly oiled bowl, and leave it alone until it almost doubles (about 1.5 hours on a warm day). Here’s how it looked before it had risen:
Split the dough into two and pre-heat the oven to 200˚C/180˚C fan-assisted/Gas Mark 6. Cover a baking tray with oiled tin foil or baking parchment and stretch one half of the dough to fit into the tray, pushing and pulling it gently until it fills it. Brush water all round the edges of the dough and sprinkle the basil, mozzarella and grated cheese into the centre with salt and black pepper to season.
Stretch the second ball of dough out to a similar shape and press it on top, sealing the edges all around. Leave in a warm place until it has risen to nearly twice the size. Using the end of a wooden spoon, make indentations all over the top and place a sprig of rosemary in each. Slosh a generous amount of olive oil all over the top with a sprinkle of sea salt.
Bake for about 20-25 minutes until firm and golden. Cool before slicing into squares. Slosh some more olive oil over the top; I served mine with roasted garlic, balsamic vinegar and (yet more) olive oil:
Funnily enough, despite the fact that I used more starter in this recipe, it didn’t taste sour at all; it was a good taste and texture and much enjoyed by all. It was perhaps a little on the dry side but nothing that another good slosh of oil didn’t solve. I make no claims to be a sourdough expert and the slapdash nature of my sourdough care will no doubt offend many. It’s a fascinating business though so do have a search about the internet if you’d like to make your own starter. Apparently they start to ferment due to the presence of natural yeast in the air; I don’t even want to think about some of the disgusting moulds that might be floating about in my atmosphere as a result of the rotting cheeses I’ve made – but it seems to produce some mighty-fine bread.