As I type this, my sourdough starter has been living with me for eight days, and it is not dead yet! On the contrary, it’s sitting on a bench in the kitchen, looking hopeful, because tomorrow is baking day. I fed it just a few minutes ago, and it really likes that – as soon as the water hits it, you start getting big yeasty bubbles, which subside a bit once you mix all the flour in, but come back with enthusiasm over the next eight hours or so. This will be its third outing, and its fate on this occasion is a fruit bread – so far, it has featured in an orange, fennel and currant bread, a rye and spelt casalinga, and a sourdough chocolate cake.
It’s a great starter, full of flavour and vigour, and it makes tasty, well-textured bread. I would recommend Mardewi’s starter to anyone in Australia who is thinking of adopting a sourdough culture – not only is it good in its own right, but she takes great care to ensure that it arrives in good condition, and with a couple of backups in case anything goes wrong. In short, it’s an excellent product.
Her book, however, leaves me feeling a bit more ambivalent.
I bought book and starter from the author, Yoke Mardewi, a sourdough enthusiast who teaches breadmaking in Perth. You actually get three starters, not one – a liquid starter, all ready to go; a dry powdered starter which keeps for a long time and is good if you don’t bake often; and a hard starter as a backup to go in the freezer. They arrived with a nice little note from Mardewi encouraging me to email her if I ran into any problems – an offer repeated both in email and in the book itself. It’s not every baking book that arrives with tech support. Mardewi’s manner (both in the book and via email) is lovely, and she is clearly extremely knowledgeable – if I’m ever in Perth I’d like to attend one of her classes. As a package – cookbook, starter, and ongoing help – it’s fantastic and very well priced.
Mardewi also has some really wonderful ideas about flavours to combine in her breads, as well as interesting choices of grains and flours. Recipes include a spelt and quinoa bread, a sweet potato and cheddar bread, chocolate, cranberry and pistachio bread, haloumi and mint bread, double barley bread, and even a black rice bread. She has a whole section on wheat-free breads (not gluten-free – I suspect you couldn’t make a gluten-free sourdough), and even number of sourdough cakes and sourdough pastry recipes. This is a wonderfully creative book, and her flavours really work. It goes without saying, I think, that the vast majority of recipes are vegan (bread doesn’t tend to need dairy or eggs, and she doesn’t use honey much, either), and I think all of them are vegetarian.
The book does suffer from three quite serious problems, the chief one being that it is in desperate need of a proof-reader. I’ve made three recipes so far; of the three, one contained a small, unproblematic error (the instructions for how to add the fruit were repeated, with a slight variation in the second version), one was probably right, but turned out very salty (I don’t know if this was an error or a matter of taste), and one was significantly flawed – items that appeared on the ingredients list failed to re-appear in the recipe method and vice versa, and I strongly suspect some instructions were missing. For example, one is instructed to whip eggs with salt until fluffy. There was no instruction to separate the eggs, and I’ve never heard ‘fluffy’ used to describe beaten whole eggs. I contacted Mardewi on Monday to enquire about this recipe but have not yet heard back from her – I’ll update this post when I do.
ETA: I heard back from Yoke on June 20, exactly a week after contacting her, which I think isn’t too bad (she also apologised for taking so long to get back to me). Apparently, one does not need to separate the eggs, and the apple is optional. I’m still not entirely convinced the recipe will work as stated, but I do appreciate the customer service. And even the not-quite-right version of the recipe I tried produced a tasty cake – just a bit on the dry side.
The difficulty with a recipe book that contains errors is that it becomes very hard to know whether you are getting things right, especially if you are working with unfamiliar techniques. Mardewi always advises you to adjust the dough if it is too wet or too dry; however all her doughs are much wetter than I’m accustomed to. I assume is what I am aiming for – but it still makes it hard to know whether any adjustments are needed, and it doesn’t help when you have a faint suspicion in your mind that adjustments may possibly be needed because the quantities are wrong in the first place. I suspect that attending one of her classes would probably solve all my problems, but that’s not really an option just now.
This leads me to the second problem, which is that she does not always explain things as well as she could. Air-kneading, for example, I ended up looking up online, because I couldn’t figure it out from her description. This, however, may be a case of user error – I’m not a great bread baker, and I’ve never been good at figuring out three-dimensional things from descriptions, even with diagrams. Though a diagram might have helped.
The final issue, which is related to both the issues above, is that explanations of how to do things or how they work are all present, but very hard to find. An index would be really helpful here, because I’ve read this book from cover to cover and I know what’s in there, but I still have to go hunting every time I want to know about sourdough feeding ratios, or the windowpane test (which I found once and have never found since).
In short, there is a lot of really good stuff here, but I’m hoping rather desperately that there will be a second edition. This book has so much potential – there is so much about it that is good, and it did actually make the care and feeding of sourdough intelligible to me, which no other book has ever managed. But the mistakes and lack of indexing are a real drawback, and mean that I cannot, in good conscience, recommend this to any beginning baker.
If you are an experienced baker looking for innovative and delicious recipe ideas, then you will find this book very useful. If you are in need of a starter culture, then I can absolutely recommend buying one from Mardewi. If you have attended one of her classes, I envy you madly, and you will probably have enough of a sense of what you are doing to get some good use out of this book. But if you’ve never baked a loaf of bread in your life, this is not the place to start. I suspect I’m going to wind up using the basic sourdough savvy and flavour ideas from this book with recipes from one of my other bread books. After three slightly dodgy recipes, I’m not sure I can trust this book to get the proportions and instructions right.
But damn, I like her flavours.
You can buy this book from The Book Depository or from Amazon, but frankly, if you are going to buy it, I’d recommend visiting www.wildsourdough.com.au and getting it directly from the author. And getting the sourdough culture, too. And if you’re in Perth, why not give her classes a go?