What a crock, part 2

Success! After my recent post about baking bread in a Le Creuset crock pot (here) I tried again and had much better results.

Bursting at the seams… Fresh out of the oven.

So why did it work this time? Well I changed my whole approach based on what happened the first time round. For a start, my dough was dryer than before, a wholesome blend of spelt, wholemeal, rye and plain flour (35/35/20/10, percentage geeks). I also baked the whole loaf as one (usually I turn a kilo of dough into two loaves, but given the size and capacity of the Le Creuset (a 27cm oval) the size of the fermented dough seemed to fit better (and therefore, I assumed, would benefit more from the proximity of the scorching hot cast iron enamel ‘walls’ surrounding it). Here’s the dough in all its glory, ready for baking:

It's alive! A well risen, bubbly dough, ready for baking.

The only tricky bit I’m discovering about baking like this is getting the dough into the pot. When a dough has risen properly, the last thing you want to do is over handle it and risk knocking any of that precious air out, but getting it into the Le Creuset isn’t as simple as turning it out onto a baking stone. What’s more, once it’s in the pot (which is fiendishly hot anyway, so trying to carefully place it in there is impossible) it’s difficult to get in there and make slashes on the dough. So what I did was flour my hands, turn the loaf out gently into one hand, quickly slash the top of the dough and then sort of slide it into the pot. Lid on, back in the oven…

Fresh dough meet hot pot. Words cannot describe the joy of cold fermented dough coming into contact with 250°C cast iron. The sizzle, the wafts of steam, the immediate reaction of the dough… Love it.

So, temperatures: The crock-pot had gone into the oven cold and was brought up to the maximum oven temp (it’s a fan oven, so maybe it gets hotter than the 250°C on the dial). With the dough inside the pot, the lid on and the pot back in the oven, I reduced the temp to 220°C (fan) and left it for 30 mins. Then I removed the lid and gave it another 10 mins, before letting it cool completely on a rack.

And the results? Well, I’m very happy with this new way of baking. The spring of the dough seemed really pronounced, but also quite wild and irregular (you can see how it split beyond the slashes, always a good sign of ferocious expansion). I loved how dark and crackly the crust became, it seems much more ‘scorched’ than usual oven-baking. The texture is great too, it’s a strong, crunchy crust, but it’s also quite thin and chewy (to get the same crunchiness in the oven, I would have had to bake it for longer and risk drying out the loaf). And on the moisture scale, the crumb is lovely and soft here, and it has stayed that way for three days now. It’s not the most well-formed crumb in the world, but then again, I didn’t use much strong flour (only the spelt I guess, the wholemeal, rye and plain white are all quite ‘soft’ in gluten terms). Next up I’m going to try a strong white/spelt blend and see if I can get the bread to lift the lid off the Le Creuset!

Are you thinking what I'm thinking? Hunk of pâté, chunk of gooey cheese, bottle of red and the rest of the day off? It's gotta be done.

Spiced shoulder of pork

Some Sunday meals are all in the planning, some are hasty and last-minute, but in my house, they’re always treated seriously. You’ll never find me skimping on Sunday lunch. I’m a traditionalist. It just wouldn’t feel right.

But I also live in the modern world, and yesterday I had work to finish and no time to plan and prepare. So come 2pm, when I suddenly realised that I had nothing but a frozen pack of sausages in the house (and feeling the need for a good meal and a nice bottle of wine), I ran down to the shops, leaving the gods of fate in charge of my lunch, and picked up what I could find… in this case, a rather nice looking rolled shoulder of pork (I’m lucky to have a decent, farm shop-quality butchers in my local co-op).

Now, personally, I’m not a fan of boned and rolled joints. I like fatty cuts (whole or half shoulders, usually) with their bones left in. Sure, they can be tricky to carve, but they also cook much better and have a lot more exposed surface area to infiltrate with various ‘aromatics’. I find boned and rolled joints just too tightly bound, so that the heat has to spend ages working its way through to the middle and the outside takes all the punishment. Anyway, it’s hardly the end of the world, but this particular joint posed a challenge to me. So here’s what I did:

Spiced shoulder of pork

Firstly, I loosened the string that was keeping it so tightly bound. I thought about unwrapping the whole joint, but I was worried about it drying out if it didn’t have its bone inside. The last thing I wanted was dried out roast pork. I then toasted fennel and coriander seeds and ground them with three garlic cloves, two tblsps sea salt and enough olive oil to make a paste. This was rubbed and massaged all over the pork, specifically into the scored fat. Then I sprinkled the whole thing with a mixture of smoked paprika and thyme and laid the joint on top of a halved onion, a split carrot and two celery stalks. I poured some water into the roasting tin and put it into the oven at 220° fan for 30 mins, to dry out and ‘crackle’ the crackling.

After 30 mins of 220° fan heat, I turned the oven right down to 130° (fan) and let the pork roast slowly for another hour and a half. 30 mins from the end, I added two Bramley apples to the pan, halved and cored (the EASIEST apple sauce ever). I also let the joint rest, upside down, for about 15 minutes before carving it. I made a gravy using the pan juices, the mashed up trivet veg, white wine and cider vinegar. The fluffy baked apples were served alongside the pork, and I accompanied it with mashed potato and steamed spring greens. Very easy, and very delicious.

Spiced roast pork with cheats apple sauce and 'trivet' gravy

And to drink? Well, if I’m honest, the whole point of cooking this meal was that I really fancied opening a nice bottle of wine, and what better way to enjoy a good wine than with a nice plate of roasted meat. I opted for a bottle of Prunotto Dolcetto d’Alba (available here), a gorgeous medium-weight Italian red with a good mix of sweetish ripe fruit (to balance the sweetness of the apples), cutting acidity (to handle the juicy fattiness of the pork) and enough spicy, licquorice-y flavours to stand up to the smoked paprika, fennel and coriander flavours. Even if I do say so myself, it was a cracking match, although I was let down a bit by the meat, which, as I suspected, suffered from being a rolled and didn’t fall apart like a proper roasted shoulder should.

Champagne: it’s all down to character

Sometimes, this is all it's good for…

I’ve got a problem with champagne (and it’s not just that I can’t afford to drink it every day – well, actually it is, but that’s another post…). Let me explain: I’m a big fan of terroir, that elusive French term that encompasses climate, soil type, elevation, aspect, and lots more, and champagne eschews terroir for something much more industrial. What I personally love about wine is the beautiful confluence of a vigneron matching his piece of land to a specific grape and using all his skill, dedication, instinct and know-how to get the best out of both and ensure wines of wonderful character are created.

But champagne doesn’t operate like this. All those big houses (or brands, as we call them) that you see lined up on the shelves, your Moëts, Jouëts, Rogers, Roederers, Clicquots, et al, the ones we’re all so familiar with, don’t make their wine this way. Instead, they produce a consistent product by blending grapes of varying quality from all over the Champagne region, bought in from myriad different growers, from different harvests and years, to create a blend (or cuvée) that’s indistinguishable from the previous year’s, or the one in ten years’ time. This champagne isn’t made in the vineyard, it’s constructed methodically in the winery, with an almost scientific approach that’s not interested in grape attribute or vineyard characteristic, but simply in recreating a ‘standard’, an end-product that is identifiable, that sits within a larger brand and forms part of a ‘lifestyle choice’ for the consumer standing at the shelf trying to make a selection.

Vineyards in Epernay, Champagne. Where the magic happens (or not).

And what’s wrong with that? Well, for me, a great deal. As far as I’m concerned, that’s pretty much how McDonald’s approach making a Big Mac. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE champagne, but over the years I’ve come to realise that it could (and can be) so much more interesting. It’s a process, and every individual element of that process is stripped of its own character to ensure that the end product is always the same. And that’s not what I want when I pour a glass of wine. I want to taste the earth the grapes were grown on, I want to feel the sun, get a sense of the area, connect with the winemaker’s toil in the vineyard that year. Call me a romantic, call me a idealist, call me a massive idiothole if you like, but that’s what I want.

A Big Mac, yesterday.

But fortunately, it doesn’t have to be like this. There IS an alternative. Away from the mighty champagne houses, the little guy is fighting back. Known as ‘grower champagnes’, these champagne winemakers are the opposite of the big houses: small domaines who grow their own grapes and make them into their own champagne. These are sparkling wines a million miles away from the big houses’ consistent cuvées: rich, characterful wines made in often minute quantities, but bursting with distinctive charm, and susceptible to change year on year.

These types of champagnes are much more popular in France, where savvy consumers know to look beyond mighty marketing budgets and get a far more interesting return for their expense. Granted, not all RM champagne (RM means Récoltant-Manipulant, as opposed to NM – Négociant-Manipulants – such as the majority of the big houses are, who buy in grapes and make their wines from these) are good, some can be distinctly iffy, but when they are good, boy do they deliver some characterful and terroir-focused wine. Here are three particularly noteworthy examples:

Probably one of the most well-known RM champagnes is Pierre Gimmonet, a family-owned Epernay estate with prestigious vineyards on the famed Côtes des Blancs. Working only with Chardonnay grapes, some from vines up to 80 years old, the domaine produces a range of exceptional wines, from its entry-level non-vintage Cuis Premier Cru to its Gastronome and Oenophile vintage cuvées and its top-end wines. What separates Pierre Gimmonet from the big houses, for me, is both their humble price (these are champagnes that make you feel like the expense and the incredible contents of the bottle actually match) and the great class and refinement of the wine. Characterised, across the range, by a soft and silky opulence that is (or at least, should be) the very essence of this ‘luxury wine’, they are an absolute joy to drink and experience, time and time again. And it’s probably why the wines are so hard to get hold of!

The secret's in the label… Look for the RM code to tell you it's grower champagne

Another particular personal favourite is Bénédicte Jonchère, available in the UK through The Perfect Cellar, who, rather impressively, have managed to bottle their own exclusive house champagne from this estate called Brisson-Jonchere. Based in Bar-sur-Aube, in the Côtes des Bar area of the Champagne region, Bénédicte Jonchère is a small, family-owned estate, but one highly focused on quality and expressing the individual character of their terroir. The Grande Reserve, a classic blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, shows a wonderful aromatic intensity and incredible balance between fruit and yeasty depth. Their Grand Reserve Rosé has a beautifully fine mousse and is not overly sweet, as some rosé champagnes can be. The red fruit flavours balance perfectly with the richness of the toasty, yeasty notes. An absolutely perfect Valentine’s Day treat.

Bénédicte Jonchère RM champagne

Lastly, and sadly a champagne I haven’t seen over here for some time now, is the lovely Ruelle Pertois, another small RM champagne house, this time based in Moussy. These wines really hark back to a bygone era, before the advent of the modern giant houses, when things in Champagne were, presumably, much simpler and a great deal more humble. Ruelle Pertois are a family affair and produce their wines with great care and peerless commitment to quality and tradition. Elegance and freshness seem to be the key to these champagnes, from the beautiful, Pinot Meunier-heavy non-vintage cuvée, to the wonderfully complex Blanc de Blanc vintage, a wine simply bursting with richness but also an incredible delicacy. Their Rosé, made from high quantities of Pinot Noir, is pure opulence and celebration. I really miss these wines.

What a crock

©William Thomas 2012

100% spelt sourdough loaves freshly baked inside a Le Creuset crock

I’ve been baking bread at home for around four years now. While I enjoy using sourdough starters and emulating a stone based oven with a thick tile, the holy grail for me has always been a proper bread oven, something with a brick interior that absorbs the heat of a long firing and radiates that ferocious heat back to the bread for maximum crust formation and oven spring. There are many shapes and sizes, dating back to Roman times, but I would ideally want something like this. Hey, it’s my dream.

One alternative to baking in a proper Roman oven, so I’d heard, is to use a heavy enamelled crock, such as a Le Creuset. Left in a HOT oven, the entire pot becomes a sort of mini oven in itself, so when the bread is dropped in and the lid replaced, the radiant heat from all sides, not to mention the trapped steam, cooks the bread far more intensely than a normal domestic oven can. Well, it turns out I got one of these for Christmas, so let the baking fun begin…

Not being much of a scientist, of course my first foray was a rubbish experiment. I couldn’t get hold of my normal flour (Burcott Mill’s wonderful Glastonbury spelt) and ended up using Dove’s farm spelt, which I’ve never used before. As all flours are different, it’s hard to get consistent results when you use a new one, especially the first time.

Anyway, to cut a long story short (if you really want to know about sourdough bread baking, my best advice would be to get yourself a copy of Dan Lepard’s excellent The Handmade Loaf) I ended up making a very wet dough (70% hydration) which might have scuppered my desire to get a really dramatic oven ‘spring’ (the magical bit when the heat of the oven expands the air trapped inside the loaf and it blooms). As you can see from the pic above, the loves came out a little flat, but having said that, the quality and colour of the crust itself was very encouraging.

And the results? Well, I definitely need to experiment more here, but as a first foray, I’m simultaneously impressed and underwhelmed. I guess I was expecting miracles, but that’s not how bread works. It’s a process, and when you change any part of the process, you change the finished loaf. I guess I’ll just have to adjust my method. But as you can see, the crumb is lovely and open, even though the dough ‘flowed’ more than ‘sprang’ in its first stages. The overall bread is different to usual, it definitely feels like it hasn’t dried out as much and has retained more moisture in the crumb, but at the same time it feels like it’s better cooked.

As to the taste, well, that was never in question really. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that good organic stoneground flour, made overnight with sourdough starter and plenty of salt, is always going to taste good, no matter how it’s cooked. But with the added sweet dark crust, this is a lovely tasting loaf, perfect for cheese and ham sandwiches. And as it’s nearly lunchtime, that’s exactly what I’m going to have. Right. Now.

©William Thomas 2012

Good crust, nice crumb, who's hungry?