The Handmade Loaf: The mill loaf

Although I haven’t had a chance to blog about them, I have been baking most weekends since the new year. In anticipation of the Mellow Bakers: The Handmade Loaf group bake, this weekend I have tried out the mill loaf from Dan Lepard’s tome.

Two loaves resting on a bread board.

This is a sourdough bread; it relies on a wild yeast culture, to leaven the dough, instead of the more common commercial yeast.

In making this loaf, I have made an effort to follow Mr Lepard’s particular kneading technique. Whereas I would usually give the dough a good ten minute workout not long after mixing, Dan prescribes six short kneadings – each 10-15 seconds in length – separated by progressively longer rest periods.

I was initially sceptical about this approach, but I was happy to discover that it seems to work just as well as a traditional kneading.

But, as it doesn’t appear to be any more effective, I am not convinced that I will use this technique again. It just doesn’t seem worth the effort. Yes, on the face of it this is less effort than my normal technique; only kneading for 15 seconds at a time is less physically demanding. But I would much rather find 15 minutes early on instead of dragging myself away from other things every ten minutes just to turn the dough! And, surprising as this may sound to some, I actually enjoy kneading the dough.

Anyway, kneading technique aside, there is very little else to say about the process. I chose to follow the weights listed in the book, which yields two large loaves. I shaped one as a round loaf, proved in a spiral-patterned basket. The other I shaped as a bâtard which is a relatively new shape for me to use. Both loaves rose splendidly on my baking stone, and I am looking forward to eating them during the week ahead.

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook

Thinking about sourdough starters

I know; what an exciting post title! But, to be honest, this isn’t a really exciting post. And it’s not meant to be; this will consist of the collated ramblings of a thought experiment, interspersed by some factoids I try to recall from A-level maths and chemistry.

I am going to be writing about different varieties of sourdough starter. If you don’t know what that means (even with a brief definition: a culture of wild yeast and symbiotic bacteria which is grown and maintained in a mixture of flour and water) then I’m afraid that very little of this post will make sense.

So, with that amazing introduction out of the way, onto the matter at hand.

I have recently read (on random baking blogs I have discovered through Google) a small number of people worrying about the purity of their rye sourdough starters; the individuals concerned feared for the state of their starter if it were exposed to wheat. This may be due to concerns of wheat alergies, or simply because of the (possibly correct) belief that the active agents in a rye starter are noticably different to those in a wheat starter.

I am not going to address the second point—I maintain two wheat starters, an all white and an all wholemeal, due to my (possibly misinformed) belief that the yeast populations in each will evolve to succeed in that environment—but I would like to ponder on the issue of medical grounds.

If I want to bake bread which requires a rye starter, I will take a bit of one of my wheat starters and feed it a couple of times with rye flour. This will do the job required but, even if it is a 100% rye loaf, the small quantity of wheat from the original starter will render the bread unsuitable for anyone with a wheat intolerance. But what if I continued to maintain this converted rye starter? At some point, could it be considered wheat free?

Over the last couple of years, I have used a number of different approaches for feeding my sourdough starters. But, at present, I tend to maintain them at 100% hydration (equal weights of flour and water), with each feeding incorporating 10g of the active starter with 50g each of flour and water.

If I were to start with an all-wheat starter and continue that feeding regime using rye flour, the wheat content in each successive generation of starter would decrease. But how fast?

In my initial starter there is 55g of wheat; after the first rye feeding there is 5g of wheat; and after the second feeding there is only 0.45g of wheat. This continous reduction goes on at a constant rate every time I feed the starter. In fact (I warned you there would be maths) the mass of wheat in generation n (n^\mathrm{th} rye feeding) can be calculated as: 55 \left ( \frac{1}{11} \right ) ^ng.

So what does that have to do with anything? Everything.

We all know that atoms form the building blocks of everything we see in the universe, but did you know that different atoms have different sizes and different weights? (I told you there would be chemistry too!) If you knew that, do you know what the smallest atom is? It’s a hydrogen atom; one of these weighs 1.67 \times 10^{-27}kg or 1.67 \times 10^{-24}g.

So why have I switched from talking about sourdough to talking about hydrogen atoms? Well, I have a formula for the mass of wheat flour contained within starter after a certain number of rye feedings. I also know the mass of the smallest atom in the universe. So there must come a point when the expected mass of wheat flour is less than the single hydrofen atom, at which point there is basically no wheat flour left.

So how long will it take to reach this point? A year? A decade? 3 minutes?

Crunching in the numbers, I can tell you that after 25 feedings, the expected mass of wheat flour is 5.08 \times 10^{-25}g. That means that my starter is effectively wheat-free after 25 rye feedings; that’s less than a month. In fact, if I feed it in the morning and again in the evening, I could complete the process in less than a fortnight!

To be clear, it is possible there would be some wheat particles remaining. But, as you must be using wheat in your kitchen if you are contemplating this process, there are bound to be some wheat particles in the air which would get into an all-rye starter anyway.

So, if you’ve made it this far, well done! If you follow my feeding schedule you can fully convert a wheat starter to an all-rye starter in a fortnight. I would like to stress I don’t have the medical knowledge to comment on wheat allergies, so don’t trust me blindly.

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook

Mellow baking

Not content with failing to keep up with one challenge (see I’m still alive) I have decided to take up another one! Or is it two…?

I have been baking my own bread for some time now, with varying degrees of success. I love my home-baked bagels, wholemeal loaves and sourdough focaccia. I think my Indian flat breads are pretty decent, but I can never get ciabatta to rise any higher.

I came across the Mellow Bakers group at the end of last year. They are a group of like-minded home bakers who were working through every bread in the book, “Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes” by Jeffrey Hamelman. Every month they picked three random breads from the book, all baked them at a convenient time in that month (although they weren’t strict—quite mellow, in fact—about that) and blogged about their experiences. I came across the group at a very late stage, but I enjoyed looking back through the members’ blogs, discovering all of the great breads they had baked.

At the beginning of this year, the group completed their final breads. But, rather than ending their adventure, they have decided to continue with two new challenges: many of the group are moving on to a new book, “The Handmade Loaf” by Dan Lepard; whilst others are repeating the original “BREAD” challenge.

I already have a copy of both books, and I have baked (again, with varying degrees of success!) one or two breads from each. I have decided to bake along, at least initially, with both new challenges. At times I may have to be mellow about this and drop one or two breads from the schedule. But I’ll give it my best shot and record my experiences here.

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook

I’m still alive!

Really, I am. I went quiet there for about nine months, but I’m back and raring to go.

You may have noticed that my Tin Whistle Challenge didn’t last long! To be honest, that’s down to a combination of laziness and many changes which happened for our family last year.

In any case, I intend to climb back on the wagon and continue the challenge soon. In order to make it more stickable, I may relax the rules and allow myself longer between tunes. Still thinking about it, so more to come; watch this space.

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook

Tin Whistle Challenge: Denis Delaney – the results

Hmm… this is the recording of my second Tin Whistle challenge: Denis Delaney.

Denis Delaney Chris Throup Tin Whistle Challenge "Denis Delaney"

Personally, I think I can do better, but the rules (which I made!) say I have to record each week, so I’m not going to let myself off too easily. I have made a number of mistakes and it’s just a bit slow.

I played this on my Oak D whistle, which is the first one I bought and still one of my favourites; please don’t blame the whistle for my playing faults! 🙂

I may revisit this tune in the future, when I have had a bit more practice. But, for now, I will turn my attention to the next challenge coming soon…

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook

Typesetting Tin Whistle music in GNU Lilypond

I use GNU Lulypond for typesetting music; it is a free and open source application which produces very nicely formatted sheet music. It is available for Linux, Windows and Mac OSX; I run it on openSUSE Linux.

Recently, I have been using it to typeset a lot of tunes for tin whistle; as I collect the tunes from different sources, I like to add them to my collection in a standard format. Although most musical notation is pretty much standard, one aspect which varies from source to source is how to notate tin whistle ornamentation (eg cuts, strikes, etc). I like the notation proposed by Grey Larsen (in his book: The Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle) which is documented on his website: A Guide to Grey Larsen’s Notation System for Irish Ornamentation [PDF] (

Grey’s notation does not exist within Lilypond so, in order to make use of it, I have to use a little cunning. By using existing available notation, it is possible to generate something which approximates the notation I am after:

My sample was created with the following Lilypond code:

cut       = ^\markup{\magnify #1.5 {"⎖"}}
strike    = ^\markup{\magnify #2 {"˅"}}
roll      = ^\markup{\rotate #180 \magnify #2 {"˘"}}
crann     = ^\markup{\rotate #270 \magnify #2 {"˘"}}

\header {
  title = "Tin Whistle Markup"

\new Staff {
    \new Voice = "Tune" {
      \relative c'' {
	\partial 4
	a\cut a\strike a\roll a\crann
    \context Lyrics \lyricsto "Tune" \lyricmode {
      " " " cut " " strike " " roll " " crann "

To make use of the notation in your own music, just include the four highlighted lines at the top of your Lilypond code. You can then write, for example, c\cut in your melody to indicate a cut on C, or f\roll to indicate a roll on F.

A font, containing Grey’s original symbols, is available for free from his website. I would like to integrate this font into Lilypond, but that is a bigger job than I can face today. I will post details here when I pursue it further.

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook

Tin Whistle Challenge: The Sporting Pitchfork – the results (finally!)

Now I am back home, I have been able to record my first Tin Whistle Challenge: The Sporting Pitchfork.

The Sporting Pitchfork Chris Throup Tin Whistle Challenge "The Sporting Pitchfork"

I have played this on my new Clarke Meg in D. I have made a few fumbles, and I think I need some more practise holding the notes in the higher octave, but I don’t this is too bad for my first challenge.

Now I am off to continue practising my second challenge: Denis Delaney (or I could do some work!).

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook