I spent many years yearning to bake bread and feeling intimidated by yeast. I went to work at a bakery, I thought to make cake, but no, I made bread. Trial by fire. I am no longer intimidated by yeast and have now been baking bread professionally and at home for 15 years. Sourdough, though, remains intimidating. I have never successfully kept a starter going long enough to actually bake a loaf of bread. When I saw Michelle Eshkeri’s Modern Sourdough on NetGalley, I knew it was time to try again. This is an honest review.
I completely fell in love with this cookbook. The photographs and the recipes made me believe that I could do this, that I could make a sourdough starter and bake beautiful sourdough breads and pastries. I might be able to someday, but not with this cookbook.
I pulled out my digital scale and patiently followed the starter instructions and after 12 days I felt like I had a healthy starter. Both of the loaves I attempted were complete failures. I don’t know if I did something wrong, if there was a problem with the recipes, or if the difference between existing in London and existing in Austin, Texas – the temperature, the humidity, the ingredients. Or, maybe it was some combination of all these things.
Initially, I was going to go right for the sourdough croissants, but then I then I realized I needed to bake a loaf of bread first. So my first bake, once I got a starter going was the Finchley Sticks. Finchley Sticks were what Margot Bakery created when they were learning to shape baguettes. the ugly loaves got olives put on top and then baked in all their misshapen glory. This seemed like a good place for me to start. It was not a good place to start. I haven’t had this disastrous a bread bake in a couple of decades. The recipe called for the dough to sit in the refrigerator for 12 – 36 hours. I suspect that my American refrigerator was too cold for the wild yeast colony. When I pulled it our 18 hours later, it was limp and lifeless. My Finchley Sticks baked into very dense, chewy flatbreads.
The second bake was brioche dough. The starter looked great, the first and second refreshments looked great. Once I mixed the flour, egg and second refreshment, it looked very dry. As I added the butter the dough became more like a dough, but the hard little pellets of flour created by too little moisture never integrated into the dough. It was inedible and an unpleasant waste of butter. Clearly there was insufficient moisture, but again, I don’t know if my starter was drier that Margot Bakery’s, if the drier atmosphere of an air conditioned house made the flour drier, or if there was something missing from the recipe.
I gave up on the sourdough and tried two of the non sourdough recipes near the end. I decided to make Perlette’s Apple Cake. I have been making a different gateau aux pommes for 20 years, so this would be an interesting change. The recipe calls for 6 pounds of apples, 4 of which are cored, peeled and roughly chopped and then cooked in a medium pan. What I would consider a medium pan was insufficient to hold the apples. The apples also produced a lot of liquid and the recipe doesn’t make clear whether that liquid should be incorporated or strained off. I ended up draining the apples, which left me with a lot of sugary, cinnamony apple liquid. The recipe said to bake at 325 F for 70 – 90 minutes. I baked this cake for almost 2 hours before the tester in the center of the cake came out cleanish. Once cooled enough to slice, I found that the texture ranged from under baked custard in the middle to over baked custard at the edge. It was really more like a cake sitting uneasily on top of a pie. The coarsely chopped apples cooked in sugar and cinnamon were tasty, though extremely cinnamony. The layer with the thinly sliced apples and batter on top had an unpleasant texture. The batter under the coarsely chopped apples seems to have just given up. I am not an amateur baker, so I feel pretty confident that the problem is the recipe. I was left with a cake I don’t want to eat and would never serve to a guest.
The second non sourdough recipe I made is the Cheese and Onion Pie with hot water crust. I don’t have access to Lancashire cheese, so I used a good cheddar. The onions cooked with butter and thyme looked and smelled amazing. As with the apple cake, the direction that I cook the onions in a medium pan was laughable. Also, as with the apple cake, the onions released a ton of liquid, with no direction about what to do with it. I know pastry well enough that I knew better than to They weren’t as jammy as the caramelized onions I make regularly, but I would make it again for other recipes. My heart sank when I got going on the hot water crust. When I attempted the brioche dough, the problems started when I mixed the second refresh with the flour and egg. It wasn’t enough liquid and I ended up with concrete pellets. The same thing started to happen with the crust dough. I deviated from the recipe and added the melted butter and water before the flour and egg were well mixed. I still had to work out some hard clumps. In the end, this was a lovely savory pie. I didn’t worry about making the top of my crust beautiful. It was tasty warm and it was tasty the next day cold. So yay! Something worked. I’m not sure I would actually make this particular pie again, but I will use the hot water crust recipe again. And the onions.
The tl/dr version of this is, I fell in love with the possibilities of this cookbook, but ultimately it doesn’t work for me. Part of the issue may be my lack of experience with sourdough. But, the issues I had with the non-sourdough recipes make me wonder how well these recipes were tested for the cookbook. I would not buy this cookbook unless what you want is a decorative cookbook with great photos. I wish the recipes had worked better.