Our very own sourdough starter.


Sourdough bread has always been a magical kind of loaf for us. It seems almost alchemical, harnessing the natural yeasts from the air to turn grain and water into a fragrant wholesome bubbled bread. We decided it had to be a ritual of some baker’s secret society only open to the righteous, with each sourdough starter recipe jealously guarded behind mystery and reverence. Many of the great artisan bakers have had the same starter in the family for hundreds of years, fed lovingly and religiously every day, like an immortal pet or a small flatulent god. We believed their knowledge and starter-offspring were only passed on to the worthy to carry on the ancient tradition. We thought the process of making and maintaining a starter was the realm of a master-baker or maslin-magician, no place for the inexperienced or faint of heart.

This, we discovered, could not be further from the truth. Most bakers are more than happy to share their starters and sourdough tips with the uninitiated, as both an incentive for the new baker and as insurance for the old – should a great disaster befall the original parent it can be easily cloned from its children. And there are no closely guarded recipes. Flour and water it seems is all you need. And a bit of fruit or yoghurt if you’re so inclined, or not, if you’re not. And patience. And a little commitment (but not too much).

Originally, we had a lofty ambition to try our hand at sourdough by the end of this year, not being confident that we could ever truly master the process. But many of the other participants in the 52 loaves project were plunging into sourdough with abandon, and surprisingly good results. Some had acquired starters from other bakers, some had started their own. Spurred on by their successes, we stepped off the baking cliff with a resolution to begin our own family tradition of sourdough. So in April 2014 we made our own starter. It’s still alive and we’d like to think it’ll still be here in 200 years time.

ruby jar

apple collage

flour measure

pouring jug



There are hundreds of recipes and methods of how to make a sourdough starter on the net and in baking books. We followed Justin Piers Gellatly’s method, mainly as it’s pretty straightfoward, and also because he makes damned good bread. It’s working for us so far. It will take a week before the starter will be ready to use.

50g organic strong white flour
50g organic rye flour
100g tepid water
30g rhubarb (we used apple, no rhubarb in fridge)
clean bowl or clean jar

Day 1.

We mixed the flour, water and fruit in a large kilner jar until it became a thick gooey paste. We covered it and left it somewhere warmish (warm kitchen worktop) for 24 hours.

Day 2.

At roughly the same time of day we mixed 50g water, 25g strong white and 25g rye into the paste. Covered and left until the next day.

Day 3.

Same as Day 2.

Day 4.

Same as Day 3. There should be a bit of bubbling and thinning of the paste at this stage.

Day 5.

Our starter was now tangy with lots of little bubbles. We mixed it all up and discarded all but 30g. You need to get rid of the leftover starter as this will only feed off the new flour and ferment too quickly. Alternatively, you can give it to someone else to start their own sourdough mix or use it to flavour pancakes or other bready goods.There were still some pieces of fruit remaining which we threw away. We added 30g rye, 30g strong wholemeal and 80g strong white four with 125g water, whisked it all up and left it.

Day 6.

Same as Day 5.

Day 7.

We made our first sourdough loaf! It’s a learning curve…

Keeping it alive.

Once we made our first loaf, we replenished our starter with the same quantity of flour and water that we removed for the recipe (half flour/half water). If you intend to make a lot of sourdough bread, you’ll need to feed the starter every 1 or two days. If not, feed it after making a loaf then place it in the fridge for a week, taking it out 24 hours before you need to use it. Tom Herbert recommends weighing your container before you start so that you always know what quantity of starter is in the jar, and always leave about a quarter of the original in there to keep its depth of flavour and vitality.



We keep ours in the fridge. We feed it half the replenishing amount before we put it in, then the other half when we take it out after it has come back to room temperature. This way, it’s bubbling nicely by the time we start to bake. Ruby treats it like a pet. She hasn’t got bored of it yet. It’s called Gordon, by the way.

ruby says “the starter i love. it is probably my favourite pet so far because it doesn’t annoy me.”


The Great April White.

April white

Our quest for the perfect loaf continues. Along with our variety of the good, the bad and the ugly loaves, we’ve also been baking a basic white once a week. It is our intention that by the end of the year we will be able to create a perfect loaf, with lofty aspirations of something akin to the overnight Sherston Loaf from Hobbs House bakery. In addition, we’ve been tasting and rating other white and sourdough breads from various bakeries across Dublin to find the ultimate loaf, and compare our more humble offerings – more of that to come in the next few months. Here are four of April’s offerings….

We can see that we have issues with uneven rising, erratic oven spring, length of bake…. the list is pretty endless, and the loaves seem to be getting worse instead of better! But at least we can eat our mistakes.

ruby says “I don’t really mind what they look like as long as I can put jam on it.”

13/52: Wheaten loaf.

wheaten loaf and butter800

A little red piece of plastic has revolutionized our lives. It’s a scraper, cutter, dough handler, crumb chaser, residue remover. It’s the bike tool of baking. In fact you could probably mend a puncture with it. It is now our most treasured possession, made all the more iconic in our house because the baking legend Tom Herbert presented it personally.

red scraper800Before our scraper, we were scared of our dough, as it crankily stuck to the table and demanded more flour before it would play with us. The result was always an uptight sulky loaf and two disappointed bakers. And a kitchen table with concrete adhesions that even wire wool couldn’t shift. Anything requiring a soft wet dough was way beyond our courage and capabilities. Now, thanks to our flexible red wrangler, we can herd any gooey mixture from table to tin without a floury fence. 

Emboldened by our newly acquired training, our recent (relative) successes, and armed with our little red weapon, we leapt into making a soggy-doughed brown soda bread. Many of these are often coarse worthy affairs, good for the gut but dull on the tongue. Yet there are some that are sweet and fragrant and soft and tangy, with a certain depth of flavour that can only be achieved with the secrets of a master baker. And one of these secrets happens to be…..sticky black treacle.


treacle and butter800

wet dough800


dough in tin800

Wheaten Bread (from The Fabulous Baker Brothers Recipe)

450g strong wholemeal flour
50g oats
20g butter
100ml black treacle
1tsp sea salt
2tsp caster sugar
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
200ml milk
200ml buttermilk

Heat the oven to 170ºc/Gas 3. This is a no-knead dough, so it’s going in pretty rapidly. Mix the flour, oats, salt, sugar and bicarbonate of soda in a bowl. In a pan on the hob, gently melt the butter and treacle together. Pour into the dry ingredients and add the milk and buttermilk. Stir up the sludgy mixture until it’s all well combined. It will be rather wet at this point. Grease a 1kg (2lb) loaf tin with plenty of butter and scatter some oats around the bottom and sides. Slop the dough into the tin and scrape all residue from the bowl with your trusty scraper. Smooth the top, sprinkling more oats as you go. Cover it with foil and bake in the oven for 35 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 10 minutes or so, until the top is a dark brown and the kitchen smells deep, sweet and oaty. Remove to a cooling rack. Slather with butter and eat warm, or leave to cool completely and top with a deliciousness of your choice.

This loaf is now officially the best wheaten loaf we have ever tasted, made all the sweeter because we managed it ourselves. It will feature heavily in our future lives. And the smell in the kitchen as it bakes….

Oh yes, we got so cocky half way through that we made our own butter too…

butter making800

ruby says “scrumbly delishious, but it was a bit heavy for me to eat every day, i think we did a good job though! it was fun whisking the butter!”

12/52: Ciabatta mark 2.

ciabatta finished

After our last attempt at Ciabatta we decided that next time we would be prepared. And the result was much better – tastier, chewier, shaplier. This time, we teamed it with steak and mushrooms and all the lovely juices they produce. Nothing else needed but a little rocket and drizzle of dressing. Oh and a bread-maker to beat up the insolent dough…..it was only after I almost destroyed our food processor that I realised we had a tailor-made solution.

dough starter

dough in plastic

ruby ciabatta

Ciabatta (following the recipe from Paul Hollywood’s Bread)

400g strong white flour
7g quick yeast
300ml water
30ml olive oil
7g salt
Semolina for dusting and rustic effect

Start the day before, or at least 6 hours before normal. Place half the flour and half the yeast in a bowl and pour in half the water. Stir and beat until you have a thick batter. Cover with cling film and leave to develop overnight, or for at least six hours to improve the flavour.

Slop the thick batter into a food mixer with a dough hook, or like us, into a bread-maker. Add the remaining ingredients and leave the mixer to do its work for at least 15 minutes, or until the dough is good and stretchy. We put ours on the ‘pizza dough’ setting. When kneaded thoroughly tip into a well-oiled rectangular container, approximately 3 litres in volume (or 20cm square and 12cm deep) and cover with the oiled lid. Leave to rise to the top of the container, roughly 2 hours.

When risen, gently tip out onto a surface dusted liberally with a mixture of semolina and flour, keeping as much air in the dough as possible. Delicately slice the dough into two equal lengths, gently stretch into a ciabatta shape and lift onto a dusted non-stick baking tray. Sprinkle semolina/flour over the tops. Place the tray in a roomy plastic bag and leave to rest for 15 minutes while the oven heats to 220ºc. Bake for 30 minutes until golden in colour. Cool on a wire rack before devouring.


ruby eating

ruby says  “my new scrumbdidleyombshes, favourite food!”




Big baker / Little baker: what we want for April.

Every year Ruby compiles a birthday list. And a Christmas List. They feature all the toys, games, crafts and novelty clothing she’s seen advertised on TV or played with in friends’ houses throughout the year. Needless to say these lists are very long and detailed, and usually contain ridiculously priced items, so have to be culled severely through endless negotiations. Embracing this theme, we decided to put together our fantasy baking wish-lists each month with the intention of maybe acquiring one or two items before the year is out. Here’s what we want for April.

Big baker….

baker wishlist

1. Flour shaker. 2. Kitchen clock timer. 3. Mixing bowl. 4. Measuring jug. 5. Baker's apron.
Little baker…..

little baker wishlist

1. Mixing bowl. 2. Apron. 3. Flour shaker. 4. Watermelon dough scraper. 5. Owl timer.

The Hobbs House Baking Experience with #52loavesproject

baker bear

Ruby and I were incredibly lucky to join other #52loavesproject participants at a masterclass in bread baking with the legendary Tom Herbert at Hobbs House Bakery, near Bristol. It seemed a little crazy to fly from Dublin and back in the one day, but it was an invitation we just couldn’t turn down. So we packed our baking bear, set our alarm for 4am, and off we went.

Tom Herbert

tom kneading800


mixing dough


The bakery is situated on the mainstreet of Chipping Sodbury, a lovely little town in the heart of the Cotswolds. It’s a family business in every sense of the word, run by the Herberts who have been baking in the area for 5 generations, and the baking school is housed in the rooms above the bakery where the family grew up. Tom Herbert, of The Fabulous Baker Brothers fame, had generously given his time that Monday morning to help us make better bread. Half blinded by the cameras of the baking paparazzi, he patiently explained and demonstrated the art of proper bread-making, and was exceedingly diplomatic about our specimen loaves! Ruby and I learnt that we over-prove, our oven is not hot enough and our tin is too large. Learning about bread in such a beautiful environment, with a skilled and entertaining teacher, a roaring log fire and other equally exuberant 52 loafers was about the best way to spend a March Monday that we can think of. And they gave us lunch.

ruby 1


ruby kneading

spelt loaves

glorious british grub

Throughout the day we were visited by Tom’s father, uncle, brothers and their wives who were so kind and friendly, and could not have made us any more welcome. Bread-making passion and enthusiasm virtually drips off the walls at Hobbs House, and it’s highly infectious! We left laden with Hobbs House dough scrapers, the new signed Glorious British Grub cookbook (our new favourite!), a new birchwood banneton and a loaf of the best bread we’ve ever tasted – the famous Sherston Loaf. We were going to pass it off as our own when we got home, but realised we’d never get away with it….


A selection of 52 Loafers: Carolyn, Ruby, Jack, Lou, Dan, Tom, Laura, Emma, Natalie, Emma.

Tom runs bread-making and other courses from the school throughout the year, if we get the chance we’ll definitely be back, even if it’s just for another Sherston loaf.

ruby says “the funnest place this year i’ve ever been, discovered i LOVE kneading.!! 🙂 🙂 ”

A massive thank-you to Lou and Dan of Littlegreenshed for setting us on this adventure, Emma of Bradshaw & Sons for sorting it all out, and to Tom Herbert and all at Hobbs House Bakery for a fabulous experience.


A little baking trip….

We’re going on a little baking adventure next week, just the two of us. Just for the day. But it means a very early start, airports, planes and automobiles. So naturally, we’ve been planning ahead…..

Big baker….
big baker
Little baker…..

little baker rt800

All very exciting…

ruby says “i feel VERY EXITED! nothing like this has ever happened to me before! i want to go NOW!”

11/52: Maneesh.


I have a soft spot for Middle Eastern food. Or North African food. Or any food that stretches from the Western Sahara to the Black Sea. Tagines, pastillas, harira, falafel, hummus, baba ganoush… (in fact, baba ganoush was Ruby’s nickname when she was a tiny baby). Ruby’s not so keen on the concept, but usually happily hoovers up the result. When a Moroccan lamb tagine was suggested for dinner, instead of the usual couscous dish to accompany it, we decided to turn our hand to a flatbread. Now technically we should have made a Moroccan Khobz bread, but we have had a jar of za’atar in the cupboard for far too long, bought to make za’atar chicken last summer, and we reckoned that a Middle Eastern Maneesh bread would work just as well. Also, we had the recipe to hand.


maneesh dough

 Maneesh (adapted from Paul Hollywood’s recipe).

500g white bread flour
10g salt
25g sugar
10g quick yeast
20ml olive oil
360ml tepid water

Za’atar spice mix (or make your own!)

Make a dough with all the ingredients and most of the water, adding more as necessary to create a workable dough. Tip out onto a lightly floured surface and knead vigorously for 5-10 minutes until the dough is nice and elastic.

Shape into a ball and put into a clean oiled bowl. Leave to prove for about 1 hour or until it has doubled in size. Knock back by folding in on itself until all the air is expelled. Divide into 3 pieces and roll each into a ball. Flatten out into a circle, and then roll out flat, c. 2cm thick. Place all three on oiled or non-stick baking trays. Sprinkle with olive oil and then the za’atar mix. Leave to rest again for 20 minutes while the oven heats to 220ºc.

Bake in the centre of the oven for about 15 minutes or until the top is nice and golden, and the smell of the za’atar is filling the kitchen. Eat warm, piled high with Levantine lushousness.

ruby says “thought it smelt funny in the oven, but when i tasted it with chickpeas it was DELICIOUS!”


10/52: Ciabatta


ciabatta dough

ciabatta sticks

Ciabatta. We love to eat it, but never make it. So when meatballs were put forward for dinner, Ruby and I thought we’d step up with something more interesting than spaghetti. We earmarked Paul Hollywood’s recipe and then sat around smugly, thinking we’d lots of time to rustle up a little rustic roll to match Ruby’s dad’s matchless meatballs. Thing is, we didn’t read the recipe properly. If we had, we would have started the day before. And mixed our starter dough, and left it for 24 hours to mature, and realised in advance that we need a proper food mixer to knead the extremely wet dough, and have the right container to let it prove, and……

Anyway, we’d committed ourselves so we had to produce a ciabatta loaf of some description. We bypassed the first dough mix and just combined all the ingredients in our fairly old food processor with a dough blade (not hook), and pressed on. It stayed on for about 3 minutes, then turned itself off. Pressed on, nothing. Pressed on again, nothing. Unplugged, waited, detached the top, detatched the bowl, re-attached everything – action! For another 3 minutes by which time the processor was hotter than our central heating, and the blade was starting to melt. So we decanted the ridiculously wet dough into an oversized container and let it prove for two hours. By which time it had slightly spread itself and risen a modicum. Undaunted, we slopped it out onto a floured surface, cut it half and manhandled both pieces onto a well floured/semolina-ed baking tray. The result? Mildly aerated, chewy crust, soft if a bit flat. But edible.

ruby says “nice, but the dough was very sticky!!!”

8-9/52: St. Patrick’s Day Bread.

cross bread

Looking at other people’s bread creations for St. Patrick’s day produced an abundance of green tinged loaves and rolls, some of which looked tasty (pistachio bread definitely) and some simply barmy. We were trying to get inspiration for a St. Patrick’s weekend bake, when Ruby asked the question “what bread would St. Patrick have eaten on St. Patrick’s day?” Good question Ruby. Ignoring the fact that there was no St. Patrick’s day when the man himself was around, we decided to bake an authentic loaf from the time of the early monks. But there was a distinct lack of early Irish bread recipes in cyberspace….did they even eat bread, or just bowls of watery gruel? So while researching another job, I diverted a little time to more scholarly articles on early breads. Turns out bread was definitely on the monks menu, but it seems that baking, like everything in Ireland, was fraught with politics and social jostling that dictated what kind of bread you made and ate. There were flatbreads and leavened breads, barley breads, oat breads, rye breads, wheat breads, maslin (mixed grain) breads, women’s bread and men’s bread, festival breads and penitent breads.

Now strictly speaking, it being the middle of Lent, St. Patrick would have eaten a penitent loaf. But from what we could glean, these were heavy, grey flatbread loaves made from barley, oats and water, meant to sustain rather than excite the palate. So we thought we’d make two different loaves – St. Patrick’s Penitent Loaf, and a secular Bairgen Banfuine, or woman’s bread, a maslin leavened loaf that included wheat (so much more palatable). And we decided to indulge in a little experimental archaeology too, and prepare and bake them in true early medieval style. Flatbreads were cooked on a griddle on the open fire, and although there were no built-up ovens in that time, raised loaves could be cooked on a griddle covered by an upturned pot, or in the equivalent of a modern Dutch Oven – a clay pot with a close-fitting lid, surrounded by embers from the open fire.

There’s a distinct lack of information on the exact ingredients in early medieval bread, let alone the quantities and ratios, so our recipes and methods were cobbled together from an article written by the Irish culinary historian, food writer and broadcaster Regina Sexton. Barley flour seemed to be the staple ingredient in a lot of breads, but Ruby and I could not get a bag of it in Dublin for love nor money. So in keeping with our authenticity, we ground our own! Just enough for our two loaves. We’re on a promise from the Dublin Co-op that they’ll source some for us next time (thanks Amy!).

St. Patrick’s Penitent Loaf.

200g barley flour
200g oat flour
250g water

Combine the barley and oat flour in a bowl. Add the water and mix to a pasty dough. Turn out onto a floured surface and shape into a circular flat loaf or four smaller loaves. Sprinkle with oat or barley flour. Heat an oiled flat griddle pan over an open flame (or an electric ring, your choice). Cook on a high heat until the outside is browned. Leave to cool and for the interior to cook.




ruby knead
bread on fire
Bairgen Banfuine (Women’s maslin bread)

100g barley flour
100g oat flour
100g rye flour
100g wholewheat flour
10g yeast (or barm yeast if you can get it)
150ml buttermilk
100ml water

Combine all the flours in a bowl. Add the yeast, buttermilk and water and combine to create a claggy dough. Tip out onto a floured surface and knead vigorously for 5-6 minutes. Return to the clean, oiled bowl and leave to prove for about 2 hours (or longer if it’s struggling). Tip out and form a round domed loaf on a flat griddle pan covered by an inverted ceramic pot, or in a dutch oven. Place in the centre of the fire, and heap the hot embers around the pot. This is where any baking advice from us ends…….

burnt bread

Obviously we had no control over the temperature of the fire, and subsequently, our makeshift oven, so our timing for the maslin bread was completely made up. We left ours for 30 minutes. When I tried to take it out, the griddle pan was a fiery orange colour, and my oven gloves were melting! Needless to say, this did not bode well for the loaf. In hindsight, we should have left the griddle and pot on the fire for about 10 minutes, then taken it off and let it cook under its own heat. That said, once we chipped off the outer charcoal shell, there was some decent tasting (if a little smoky) bread in the middle. The flatbreads were more successful from a baking point of view, though they were largely lacking in any kind of flavour and were distinctly gritty.

burnt bread interior


Final impressions? Both breads were definitely edible, and while we wouldn’t want to eat them every day (for every meal), they were certainly palatable enough when piled high with our authentic(ish) early christian condiments (one historical source recounts that St. Colman buttered his Lenten loaf on both sides. I don’t blame him). On the whole the process was hilarious, if a little tedious in sections (hand-grinding barley grain until someone more quick-witted pointed out the spice-mill), and the results were….hmm, interesting. Still, we’ll definitely give this one another go.

ruby eating

ruby says  “nice, but let’s not burn it next time!”