Sourdough Bread

In Chapter 5 of Cat and Mouse, Catriona learns how to bake sourdough bread. It’s been a while since I’d done it myself, but I recently got some sourdough starter from a friend, so I had to give it a try. It turned out great. Here’s what it looked like in my kitchen, with relevant passages from Cat’s process by way of explanation. Of course, my dishes are ordinary boring plastics, not lovely stoneware crockery like Cat’s, and I have to admit to using electric appliances for both the kneading and the baking, but following Cat’s method you should come out with about the same results. (Oh, and don’t worry, there aren’t any spoilers for the book in this passage. Other than that Cat learns to bake, but I’ve already told you that.) So here we go:


from Cat and Mouse, p. 39-45

Sourdough in the jar

“Very well. Sourdough first.”
Ouska picked up a stoneware crock from the shelf above the fireplace, brought it over to the heavy deal table in the middle of the kitchen, and took a large brown mixing bowl from the top of the Welsh dresser. The dish, about twenty inches in diameter at the top and eight or ten inches high, was a heavy pottery piece; Cat smiled as she recognised her husband’s handiwork.
She took a look into the sourdough crock. It contained a slightly bubbly-looking slop that looked not unlike the porridge that she had made too runny that morning. “This smells a bit like beer,” she said.

The sponge after rising overnight

“That’s the sourdough working,” said Ouska. “Sometimes I’ve used some of Uncle’s beer leaven if he had any extra; it’s much quicker to make bread with that, it rises faster. But this works, and it’s simple. Usually he needs the leaven for his beer.”
“Leaven? Oh, I think we call it yeast where I’m from. So you don’t use that then? I thought you had to have it for making bread.”
“No, there’s enough leaven in the air. But you have to catch it and feed it before you can use it; I’ll show you later.” Ouska poured some of the sourdough into the bowl, then took the salt cellar from the cupboard and sprinkled a few spoonfuls into the bowl. She pointed Cat to the flour bin that stood in the corner. “We need about two scoops of flour,” she said. Cat opened the bin and saw a large wooden scoop stuck in the top of the wholemeal flour that filled the bin halfway.
“That’s a nice bin,” she said, “is it new?”
“Yes, we just had it built. …” Ouska said as she brought the big mixing bowl over to the bin. Cat dumped a couple of measures of flour in.
[Ouska] put the mixing bowl back on the table and rolled up the sleeves of her blouse. “Now. This is where the real work begins,” she said as she plunged her hands into the flour in the bowl and began to stir the mess with both hands. “Here, give it a try,” she said, rubbing the sticky dough off her fingers.
Cat stuck her hands in the sticky batter. “Ooh, gooey!” she said, and squished the dough through her fingers. “This is a good workout for the hands!” She mixed and stirred until none of the dry flour was left. Ouska sprinkled in additional flour until the dough was no longer sticky.
“Now, move the bowl over a bit,” said Ouska. She scooped a handful of flour from the bin and sprinkled it on the surface of the table, then took the lump of dough from the bowl and smacked it on the table. “Ever done any kneading before?”

The kneaded dough

“A bit,” said Cat. She grasped the dough and started rolling it towards her.
Ouska chuckled. “You’re kneading like a potter’s wife,” she said. “You don’t need to make a nice little roll of it like your man does with his clay; with bread, it doesn’t matter how you handle it, so long as you do it hard.” She tore the lump of dough in half and showed Cat what she meant.
“Oh, I get it!” said Cat, and fell to it with vigour. “Phew, this is hard work,” she said, “but satisfying!” She lifted the dough lump and smacked it on the table so hard the crockery on the dresser rattled.
“Hah, well done,” said Ouska. “It will rise nicely if you keep that up.”
“So the harder you whack it, the better it gets?”
“That’s about the size of it,” replied the older woman.
“So, Aunt,” said Cat, pummeling, squishing, and pounding the dough, “there was something I’ve been meaning to ask you.”
“Yes?” said Ouska, looking up from her kneading.
“You know, being an Unissima—do you sometimes have special dreams?”
“Dreams?” The older woman took Cat’s piece of dough, smacked the two lumps back together, kneaded them into a ball, and put it in a bowl on the warming shelf by the stove. “That’ll need to rise for a few hours now,” she said. “What kind of dreams do you mean?”

The dough after rising for about three hours

“There,” she said, handing Cat a jug, “we need to feed the sourdough. Get it about half full of warm water, would you?”
Cat collected the water from the tap in the bathroom behind the kitchen. […]
Ouska mixed the water with some more flour into the remaining sourdough in the crock … [and] put the sourdough crock on the warming shelf beside the mixing bowl. “Now,” she said, “by tomorrow it will have worked through nicely, and we can make another batch of bread if we need to. So that’s all there is to bread making, other than rising and baking it.

The shaped bread ready to rise for the second time

“Okay,” said Cat, “so let me write down the bread recipe. […] About three or four cups of sourdough?”
“Yes, about that. And as much flour to start with, and then however much it takes to make a firm dough. Don’t forget to write down the salt; it’s a mite bland without it.”
Cat copied it out.
“How long does it need to rise?” she asked.
“Oh, a few hours. Until it’s about twice as big as it was.”
Let rise until doubled in bulk, Cat wrote.
“Then what?”
“Then punch it down, shape it, rise it again, and bake it.”

Fresh out of the oven

“For how long, and how hot?”
“Well, at middling heat, until it’s ready—”
Cat snorted. “Yeah, right. You sound like my grandmother. I’d ask her how to do something, and she would say ‘Oh, it’s easy, you just do it!’”
Ouska smiled. “Well, then, perhaps half an hour or so. You have to keep turning it in the oven; I’ll show you.”
Cat finished her recipe sheet:
Bake for half an hour at moderate h-
“Drat!” she said, “ink blot! And I was doing so well, too!”

Yes, it tastes as good as it looks.

Now, if you want to know what the deal is with those dreams Cat is talking about, you’ll just have to read the book, won’t you?

Life, the Universe, and Sourdough Bread. We had it with French Onion Soup – maybe Cat’s family did too?