The mother

Sunny Grace has turned to baking during the mother of all lockdowns. Photo: Sunny Grace.

Like all Sydneysiders, Sunny Grace is enduring the mother of all lockdowns. Among other things, she’s using the time to reconnect with her past in baking.

Given Sydney is in the mother of all lockdowns, I thought it a good time for the obligatory article about sourdough bread in the spirit of the movement that began during our last lockdown. Sydney stores sold out of bread proofing baskets faster than Woolies sold out of toilet paper. Instagram feeds were full of proud loaves of bread but, like jigsaw puzzles, the sourdough movement petered out as lockdown wore on. 

My bread history begins like most of my stories, back in my alternative childhood, with my mother making homemade bread. I would dread unwrapping my lunch at school to reveal the brown slabs of bread with homemade cheese and alfalfa sprouts between. I coveted the white bread sandwiches of the ‘straight’ kids who were pointing at my sandwich and laughing while calling out, “Grass sandwiches, grass sandwiches, she’s eating grass sandwiches!” God, kids can be cruel right? Every now and again my mum would relent and get some white bread. Once, being from Adelaide, she even showed me the old chip butty and I was in love. 

When I moved to Melbourne from Adelaide at seventeen years old, I scored a job at my hippy godparents’ bakery. They (John and Maar Downe) were among the first to make commercial sourdough bread in Australia. They started Natural Tucker Bakery forty years ago and it is still going strong. I worked for them at Firebrand Bakery in Ripponlea which they started with their business partners, Dave and Di Brown. It was here I became educated in the art of sourdough bread. The bakery houses an old woodfired oven and is still going today, run by the children of Dave and Di. I remember watching Dave feed the leaven, the mother. My favourite part was watching him, and the other bakers shape the dough. There was something soothing about the movement, the repetition. Then watching as the loaves were thrust into the oven using the paddle. Almost like a dance of sorts. And the smell when they came out was like being wrapped in a big calming blanket.  

My favourite loaf was The Parisian, made only on Fridays when the oven was at its hottest. The crustiest loaf I have ever tasted. I would take it home and eat it with homemade smoked trout pate (my mum’s recipe). There was never any left for the next day. The only time I have graced the pages of Vogue was in an article about Firebrand back in the late ’80s with a photo of me and a tower of barmbrach (fruit loaves). 

Due to having Graves’ Disease off and on, my endocrinologist has advised me to avoid gluten. Very hard for someone who loves bread. I only indulge in very good quality sourdough like Iggy’s in Bronte or Baker & Daughters in Mullumbimby. No more white bread for me. When the sourdough craze started last lockdown, I resisted and resisted, not wanting to be another flash in the pan baker, until a recipe for gluten-free sourdough popped up in The Guardian. Most gluten-free bread I have tried tastes like cake or rice. So, I decided to give it a go.

The starter – or mother. Photo: Sunny Grace.

After a few weeks I had a mother or leaven of sorts. Little bubbles fizzing and popping. I made my first loaf. It was still dense as the mother was a bit young. But the flavour was there. I persevered and the loaves improved but the shaping was still eluding me. Until I went back in my mind’s eye to Firebrand and the memory of Dave shaping the bread. Gently rolling, not kneading. The next loaf I tried to not think but let the bread tell me how it wanted to be shaped. It worked. Happy with the result, I sent a photo to my mum who was locked down in Adelaide. She was very impressed as she had also been trying to make gluten free bread due to her underactive thyroid. Thyroid disease is hereditary and stress related, so mum and I share tips for helping to keep it under control. 

Something about baking the bread is calming for me. Rather than being a lockdown one-hit wonder, it has become part of my weekly routine. Some loaves are better than others depending on the oven, the flour, the shaping and even my mood. Mum likes my loaves more than hers. We think her oven isn’t the best at regulating the heat and maybe that is why. Although mum has always said I am a better baker than her. This is very high praise as my mum is a magnificent chef. Mum came to visit me in Sydney just before the latest lockdown and we workshopped our recipe, one we have developed together from the article in The Guardian and other references. I gave her some of my mother to take home. Her bread has improved a lot since her visit. So has mine. It is still giving me solace as the kitchen fills with the smell of baking. I once again find myself enveloped in its calming aroma, like a hug from your mother.  

If you want to give it a try this lockdown here is the link to the Guardian article – www.theguardian.com/food/2020/may/27/from-starter-to-loaf-how-to-make-gluten-free-sourdough-bread-from-scratch – and below is our recipe for the loaf.

A loaf of bread baked by the author. Photo: Sunny Grace.

The Graces’ gluten-free sourdough bread 

Leaven
150g starter
150g tepid water
60gm quinoa flour
• Mix starter with water then add flour
• Cover with a cloth and leave in a warm place until bubbles form and it appears lively
• Sometimes it takes a few hours sometimes longer depending on the temperature

Wet ingredients
400ml tepid water
30gm honey
20 mg Psyllium husk
• Mix together until the honey is dissolved.
• Leave to set into a gel.

Dry Ingredients
Use a mix of gluten-free flours of your preference to equal the weight below. I find using some millet or lupin flour adds to the flavour, giving it a lovely golden colour too.
55gm quinoa flour
100gm sorghum flour
175gm tapioca flour
160gm millet flour
1-2 tsp salt
• In one bowl mix the flours and salt and set aside.

Making Dough
• First mix the leaven with the wet ingredient gel.
• Then mix this wet mix with the dry ingredients making sure the water is thoroughly mixed through.
• Cover and leave for 30-60 mins in a warm place.

Shaping
• Stretch the dough and fold it over on itself a couple of times.
• Place it on a tray or proofing basket or oiled bread loaf tin with the seams/joins of the dough facing down.
• Cover with a cloth and leave in a warm place for a further 6 hours.

Baking
• Preheat oven to 200C half an hour before baking.
• Place a container of water in the base of the oven to create some steam during the cooking process.
• Just before placing the loaf into the oven, score with a sharp knife or razor blade. If not using a tin I recommend a pizza stone in your oven. Heat it up beforehand or use the Dutch oven method.
• Bake at 200C for 50 mins, then 220 for a further 20 mins or until the top is golden.
• If not using a tin make sure the bottom of the loaf is cooked by turning it upside down and giving it a knock on the bottom to hear a hollow sound.
• Leave to cool for a minimum of 2 hours but preferably overnight before slicing.

One of the author’s earlier lockdown loaves. Photo: Sunny Grace.

Sunny Grace is a Sydney writer, producer and director. Her website is located at sunnygrace.com.au.