winter bread

hree sisters, elders in my family, taught me to knit, each a variation on the next, adding to what I’d learned from my grandmothers as a child. All of these teachers contributed to my style of knitting, just as so many drawing teachers in art school changed my drawing, and musicians altered my playing. I’m ever so pleased to develop my baking in the same way, revisiting River Cottage Cookery School and studying with a passionate baker, Aidan Chapman from The Phoenix Bakery in Weymouth. He taught a great friendly group of us, enthusiastic cooks, and we had a glorious time making biscuits and breads together.

river cottage baking © elisa rathje 2011

Aidan’s approach to breadmaking is improvisational, working by feel more than by measurement, and he talked to us about developing our own style and making a recipe our own. We observed a sourdough begun in the morning and very gently turned through the day, with great ideas about fitting breadmaking into busy lives – bringing the dough through its rising, proving, forming it into shapes, then possibly setting it in the fridge, to bake in the next day or two, whenever we’re ready. I was amazed at how wet a dough Aidan uses, fascinating ideas about the grains absorbing all the water and gaining firmness and structure as it develops, I never would’ve thought such a sticky dough could be so successful. Usually he would work with a long, slow ferment of about eighteen hours, which we didn’t have time for in our little class! But some of the sponges had been started the day before, it makes a huge difference. One of the most amazing suggestions from this baker is to use the sourdough culture in many other forms of baking, so that when I remove half of my starter when I go to feed it, if I’m not baking bread with that starter, instead of tossing it I could make pancakes with it (which Aidan did – gorgeous ones) or throw it into Yorkshire puddings, add it to yeasted breads, anywhere, to increase the depth of flavour and help with healthy digestion. I love this!

river cottage baking © elisa rathje 2011

We made a beautiful fruit & nut bread using raisins and walnuts, but cranberries and pistachios might be gorgeous, or dates and almonds to ring the changes. This one is a yeasted bread. Most folks used a combination of flours, while I used spelt, which is a little more reserved in how it rises, but still produces a wonderful bread.

river cottage baking © elisa rathje 2011

We mixed our ingredients very gently at first, then kneaded the wet dough in long pushing forward and pulling back movements, made a well, dropped the fruit and nuts into it, and tucked them in.

river cottage baking © elisa rathje 2011

Then kneaded it all some more. Aidan surprised me by suggesting that I don’t knead spelt as long, as it has lower gluten, it doesn’t need it. I’ve been taught the opposite! So I’ll experiment there.

river cottage baking © elisa rathje 2011

After covering with cloth and leaving the dough to rise;

river cottage baking © elisa rathje 2011

We gently knocked it down with fingertips;

river cottage baking © elisa rathje 2011

And Aidan showed us a few ways to shape the dough. I’m already very fond of making boules, so I thought I’d try out his plaiting technique. It reminds me of my Finnish grandmother’s traditional braided pulla which I shall have to ask my mother how to make!

river cottage baking © elisa rathje 2011

Let me see if I remember this style. Cross the lower two. Move the upper right across, between the upper and lower left. Move the upper left between the lower two. Repeat.

river cottage baking © elisa rathje 2011

Turn upside down into the floured proving basket. Oh, how I want these proving baskets! Three, please, to fit the boules of my regular recipe. They give the bread perfect support and allow it to breathe just enough. And the spirals are awfully pretty. Aren’t they gorgeous, rising?

river cottage baking © elisa rathje 2011

Those wonderful spirals. We sliced the boules that weren’t plaited just before baking, to allow the bread to open up and give it a strong structure as it rises in the oven. I love these details, not unlike the specifics of wedging and throwing clay.

river cottage baking © elisa rathje 2011

Our winter bread turned out beautifully, I took mine home to my little family and it’s gone, though it would’ve kept beautifully for days. Beautiful bread and pizzas, flatbreads, biscuits, and most gorgeously, our pannetones. Those were a dream to make, intoxicating citrus scents. I’m saving mine for Christmas. If you’d like to make one, Aidan’s pannetone recipe is here! If you’re in Weymouth, you’re a lucky person, for you can visit the Phoenix Bakery. As ever, River Cottage was a delight.


Every day I care for a sourdough culture that I started a couple of weeks ago. I feed it half a cup of rye flour and water, sometimes pouring off some to make room. First it sat near the wood stove and I fed it twice a day, then it moved into the kitchen, to a cosy spot where I won’t forget it. Beside the kettle. It makes a resounding pop when I open the seal, the bubbles are tremendous, and it grows significantly each day. Seeing that it was more mature and hearty than a previous attempt, I thought I’d give it a crack at raising a few loaves.

I love that sourdough culture forms from wild yeasts, it is much easier on our digestion. We’re also sensitive to wheat, so this bread is made from spelt. I’ve been reading the Bread handbook by Daniel Stevens, which is an intense pleasure all by itself and very distracting. Flatbreads! Croissants!… oh yes, and Spelt Sourdough, hurrah. Before bed, as I was told to, I mixed up the sponge and put it near the stove for the night.

dough ingredients.jpg

In the morning it looked like bubbly soup, but when I measured in the flour and mixed that in, I was amazed to find it became a dough. Following some good advice, I left it to rest for 10 minutes before adding the salt, which I did. Scientific reasons, you see.


Flour, salt, a glug of olive oil, mixed about;


Turned out and kneaded. A lot, (or perhaps not) as spelt has lower gluten. I am so glad that I learned to knead at River Cottage! The Bread handbook has great illustrations of this technique. Mine are provided by my small child;


And by my tall child, made far taller by a handy stool. What a pleasure it is to knead the dough, I’m in love.


I formed the dough into a tight round and put it near the wood stove to proof for an hour, repeated this a few times; it got lighter and lighter; then finally made it into three boules, dusted with flour and put into linens. I later discovered that the bowls I had them in made them too humid; suddenly proofing baskets sound very good. From here I left them to double, which they sort of did.


Baking the sourdough was quite dramatic. I have tried a no-knead bread recipe, which has a wonderful technique of cooking in a good pot, but I just had to try this way, using a hot pan with a water bath below it. Only I had no roasting tin for the boiling water and used a ceramic piece, which promptly cracked in two. Oh dear! I had reserved two of the boules to rise a bit longer, and tried my muffin tin in its stead on those two; much better. We did try hard to wait for that first loaf to cool, before eating all of it. Gorgeous.