Attending A Sourdough Bread-Making Workshop With Selvan Thandapani
“This is the mother starter,” says Bengaluru-based Sour House’s Selvan Thandapani, who is guiding us through this Introduction to Sourdough workshop. We are five women aspiring sourdough bakers – and one sole male. “Do you bake sourdough bread often?” I ask the man in a carefully casual tone.
“Nope,” he grins. “I usually order from here – just decided I gotta learn how to bake it myself.” I look at him askance. He has the look of someone who doesn’t know much about this thing. Because, I have realised – through hard experience – that baking bread is one thing, and baking sourdough bread is altogether another loaf. Just creating and managing the starter itself is a move fraught with pitfalls – but Mr Man looks thoroughly relaxed.
Meanwhile, Thandapani is showing us a sticky white paste at the bottom of a mason jar. By the end of the workshop, which lasts for a little more than four hours, all of us develop a healthy respect for the starter, a respect that borders on reverence and, in my case, intimidation. In Mr Man’s case, though, I notice he is slightly amused by the starter, but he is making all the right moves. When it`s time to whip our aprons out of our bags and onto ourselves, his is a lovely one, on which Darth Vader is taking something out of a hot oven. I so want it. I`ve baked this kind of bread many times before, and have produced nothing but hard, un-chewable, dense-as-hell results. Hence my respect for Mr Man, a complete newbie where sourdough is concerned; imagine wanting to try one’s hand at the toughest kind of bread.
Thandapani is a minor celebrity in Bengaluru among specialised bread lovers. He has a Master’s degree in user research and design from an American university and worked in his chosen field for ten years before turning to bread making, the culmination of his fascination for the process of fermentation. He started Sour House last year, he says, to bring healthy, naturally processed food to people in a socially responsible way. The bakery makes six different kinds of bread, which call for a fermentation time of between 14-36 hours. This, then, is good gut central.
He takes us through our paces gently. We make our own leaven, taking a pre-set amount from the mother starter, mixing flour and water, and setting it aside, covered, for it to rise. Since the process will take the length of time of the workshop itself, Thandapani has us working on our own bowls of sourdough batter, using that all-important starter.
Mr Man asks him, “Making a fresh batch of starter is as easy as stirring together some flour and water and letting it sit?”
“Well,” says Thandapani hesitantly, and to the last woman, the rest of us exchange glances. We know something Mr Man doesn’t yet know, which is that a starter is a basically wild yeast that is fickle, finicky and bloody-minded to boot. It also takes its own sweet time to proof, thus rendering the making and baking of Sour House bread a slow, carefully overseen affair. Will Mr Man have the necessary patience? Let’s see.
Next, we use the autolyse method, where we mix the leaven with more flour and water till there is no dry bit left, taking great care not to knead, and then let it rest for a bit. During this time, the flour absorbs the water and becomes fully hydrated, and the enzymes in the flour start to break down the starches into simpler sugars, which then become food for the yeast and bacteria in the leaven, all of it going towards making the end-product – the bread – more flavourful.
There is a bottle of fermented keffir water and mugs out on the table, and we reach out and sip happily as we do as instructed. There are sourdough crackers in little bowls with a hung curd dip, too, and these go down a treat. There is also some bread-related chit-chat, and Mr Man and I share some bread-making details. He has, he tells me, only baked (straight-up) bread twice in his life.
Now comes the action part of the workshop – slapping and folding. The slap-and-fold technique is vital to the art of sourdough making. Folding is not only less labour intensive, but it also gives the crumb of the finished bread a better structure and a nicer network of holes, which, it seems, is one heck of a good thing in the artisanal bread world. Once the batter is well mixed with starter, water and salt, we begin an arduous process where we have to slap the dough on the stone counter and fold the corners into the main dough.
Our tentative attempts at (gently) flinging the dough on the counter, then (tentatively) stretching the corners and folding them into the middle don’t impress Thandapani. “You’ve got to be more firm,” he says, as he slaps the dough down with a ringing noise, grabs a flap from the top and pulls it in a neat fold, all of it in smooth-as-hell moves. Emboldened, we attempt to do just that. As far as I am concerned, it`s still a no-go because the dough falls heavily on the stone counter and tears when I try to fold it. I stare despairingly at the mess.
“Here, try to do it this way,” Mr Man tells me, with all the confidence of a Cordon Bleu baker, indicating his own dough, which he then proceeds to slap down, fold in and punch in a most proficient manner. “You sure you haven’t baked sourdough before?” I ask him, trying not to sound like a suspicious aunty. “I swear I haven’t,” he replies, with a twinkle in his eye that reveals he has caught on.
The dough is rested in two phases, then shaped with the help of a spatula and folded into proofing baskets already dusted with flour. This is when we say goodbye to our handmade dough, as it is laid to rest for the 24-hour ‘proofing’ period, when it will rise and take its final shape. Relieved that we have reached this stage, we look on bewildered as Thandapani, with the air of a conjurer, brings out a set of six proofing baskets with neatly shaped balls of dough sitting pretty in them. These were made the previous day by him, to show us what the proofed dough will look like before it is baked.
“Take a blade,” he says next, and so we proceed to score the top of our dough, with one main slit running north to south, with other patterned slits on both sides. One ambitious baker actually makes little leaf patterns on the surface. Before you ask, yes, it is Mr Man.
Into the industrial oven, the loaves go, watched in compulsive-obsessive fashion by the bakers. Twenty minutes later, they are carefully brought out of the hot oven by Thandapani – six golden loaves of sourdough with steam rising faintly off them. “Do you want to partake of them?” he asks with a grin. Not a chance, we women all demur, clutching them to our bosoms possessively. These are hard-won trophies, dammit, why would we want to spoil them by eating them now?
“I do,” says Mr Man. So, Thandapani slices the man’s loaf, brings out some butter, olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and we all sit down to eat. With reverence and absolutely no shame, we finish Mr Man’s loaf. “You are so good, you’ll be baking stuff like this yourself instead of ordering from Sour House,” I tell him, my tone a mix of affability and envy. Mr Man smiles, but does not vouchsafe if he plans to bake sourdough every weekend. As we talk of sourdough baguettes, boules and batards, the Koramangala traffic outside ebbs and flows.
I leave the starter in the fridge for a week, then nervously take it out, feed it and bake a loaf of sourdough bread. Which, to be honest, is not a failure, but it’s not a wild hit either, more a comme ci comme ca endeavour. Even as I wonder if I ought to give up on sourdough and return to normal bread-baking, at which I`m almost a dab hand, my mobile phone pings.
There’s a photograph posted on our sourdough Whatsapp group. It’s a loaf of perfect sourdough, cooled and sliced. I swear I can smell the aroma rising from it. It`s been baked by Mr Man. Of course. Over the past few days, he has baked sourdough croissants, cinnamon rolls, pancakes and focaccia. He has braided the bread, he has thrown in raisins, seeds, herbs.
I Google bread-bakers around the world and find that as of now, there are two famous men to everyone famous woman in the various lists. That ought to make me feel better, but it doesn`t. Be that as it may, sourdough fans, check out Thandapani’s fermented bread, dips, drinks and snacks at www.sourhouse.in