I love bread. Love. Bread.
I remember the first time my husband brought home a loaf of Sonoma Soy & Linseed. We ate it fresh with French butter. It was ten years ago and a game changer.
The Sonoma story is a great Australian yarn full of ups, downs, family, the bush and a couple of blokes who knew nothing at all about baking. Founder and Director Andrew Connole (below) took me inside the Sydney bakehouse to show me how it’s done and how to recreate some Sonoma magic at home.
And yes I ate a lot of bread. A lot.
Becoming A Baker.
When my father was little his grandfather and grandmother owned a general store in Bellata, which was 50km north of Narrabri (where he lived). He would stay with them on weekends and has fond memories of mornings spent out the back of the store with a freshly baked loaf of bread in his hand, watching the sun rise.
In 1997 my dad, who was a truck driver, was carting a load of wheat up to Bellata and found the old general store his grandparents used to own. It had been abandoned but dad saw that inside the oven was still intact. Always an ideas man, he immediately decided that me, my brother Christian and himself would become bakers and bake this Italian white bread he loved. Not only had none of us ever baked a loaf of bread in our lives, but Bellata was 540km away from where we lived!
Andrew (centre) with his father and brother.
Over the June long weekend of 1997 we all drove up to Bellata with about three or four carloads of tradesmen friends to help us restore the abandoned store. I looked at my dad and said, “I love you mate, you’re an ideas man, but this is the most absurd one you’ve had yet.”
However we continued to fix the place and through love of my father I decided I would support him in this business venture. We were fortunate enough to have a family friend, Alan Scott who was a well-known Australian woodfire oven builder living in San Francisco. He took me over to the US to meet all his baker friends, one of which was Chad Robertson –the man who started the now-famous Tartine Bakery (but back then he was baking out the back of a converted laundry).
Chad Robertson – the guy who taught Andrew how to bake bread.
Chad and I spent a lot of time together; I didn’t bake any bread, I just watched him, learned from him, asked questions, took photos, wrote things down, borrowed a bunch of his formulas and then, armed with a jar of sourdough mixer which was dried out (and buried deep in my luggage) I flew back to Sydney. Dad picked me up and as we drove back to Terrigal I told him we weren’t going to bake that yeasted Italian bread he had his heart set on, but instead we would bake natural sourdough. We battled over it – he was stubborn and I was determined, but finally he agreed.
The photo wall inside Sonoma’s Alexandria cafe.
We leased the old bakery in Bellata for only $1,000 for the entire year. In September 1998 we baked our first loaf of bread. Back then we called our business ‘Heritage Woodfired Bakehouse’.
My brother and I would leave at 9am every Thursday morning and drive the 540km trek to Bellata. Arriving at about 3.30pm that afternoon, we would chop firewood, weigh up the flour, get everything ready, have some dinner, sleep for a couple of hours, wake up, start mixing, fire up the oven and by 7am we’d start baking 300 loaves. Then we would throw the bread in the back of our station wagon and drive all the way back to Terrigal, getting home at 7pm Friday night. On Saturday morning Dad would drive down to the Paddington markets and sell our bread. We all did this from September 1998 to May 2000, baking 300 loaves of bread every weekend!
Where did the name Sonoma come from?
Sonoma is the name of a region in California. And California is what we’re all about.
They’re Not Just Bread Makers.
This dulce de leche brownie was an experiment. It shouldn’t be – it’s the business.
The Bread Recipe.
Makes 2x 750g loaves (1.5kg dough)
720g organic unbleached flour
490ml filtered water
250g starter (see recipe below)
19g sea salt
Making The Dough.
1. Weigh up all the dry ingredients and place in a large bowl or in a heap on your bench.
2. Make a well in the centre, add all liquid ingredients and mix with your hands until all wet and dry ingredients are thoroughly combined. Knead for a couple of minutes and then round up the lumpy dough into a tight ball and place in a lightly oiled bowl to rest.
3. After 20 minutes pull from the bowl and knead strongly by stretching the dough and then rolling it back tightly, repeating for five minutes. Place the dough back in the lightly oiled bowl.
4. After 10 minutes your dough should look visibly smooth, pull from the bowl and knead for a further five minutes. Place back in the bowl and cover with plastic to keep from skinning.
5. Rest the dough for 45 minutes then give a ‘stretch and fold’ (flatten dough out on your work surface and fold dough in thirds along the length of the dough then repeat, folding the dough in thirds along the breadth of dough).
6. Rest for 45 minutes and repeat the ‘stretch and fold’ process.
7. Rest for a further 10 minutes. Your dough is now ready to be divided and shaped.
Shaping The Dough.
1. Divide dough into required size pieces and loosely round up.
2. Rest for 10 minutes so dough can relax.
3. For a Boule (round shaped loaf) , gently flatten dough and curl it toward you to form a cylinder. Turn the cylinder length ways and repeat, flattening and curling. Place both hands over the dough and moving your hands in a circular motion, round up the dough piece. Place the seam side down on a lightly oiled tray or bread tin to proof or have the seam side up on a tea towel if you’re stone baking.
4. For a Baton (longer & thinner loaf), gently flatten the dough and fold both corners toward yourself to form a triangle. Starting at the top of the triangle curl the dough toward yourself creating strong tension in the dough as you do. Flatten the seam with the heel of your palm and point the ends of the loaf by rolling under your hands on the bench. Place the seam side down on a lightly oiled tray or bread tin to proof or keep the seam side up on a tea towel if stone-baking.
Proofing & Baking.
1. Proof your dough in a draft free place for approx three hours. *Proofing refers to the process that happens when you let dough rise.
2. Pre-heat your oven to about 240 degrees with a steel tray on the oven floor for at least one hour before baking.
3. Before loading the bread into the oven check to see if it is ready by pressing the edge of the loaf with your finger. If it springs back quickly it is not ready and you should keep proofing. It should spring back very slowly.
4. When the dough is ready, make some decorative cuts in the loaf with a razor blade, very sharp knife or scissors and place a few ice cubes in the tray on the floor of the oven to create steam.
5. Place your loaves in the oven and bake for about 30-35 minutes, taking the steam tray out of the oven when there is about 15 minutes left.
6. When the loaf is baked it will be golden brown in colour and sound hollow when tapped on the base.
Sonoma’s Top Tips.
- You can do the first mix inside a steel bowl to keep it from getting messy. Once you have formed the loose ball though you should knead the bread on a bench for best results.
- To prevent dough from sticking to hands when kneading you can dip your hands in a little olive oil or water.
- Always have a plastic bread scraper on hand to help keep the dough from sticking to the bench.
- Breads can easily be baked in a tray or tin but for an artisan look purchase yourself a pizza stone and pre-heat in the oven on the shelf for about one hour. You will need a peel to load the bread, a small piece of ply wood or stiff cardboard will work, to slide your bread into oven if your choose to stone bake. Semolina stops the loaf from sticking to the peel.
- If you would like, add some olives, dried fruits, nuts or seeds to create flavoured breads. Add them at the last stage of mixing before the 45 minute rest.
- Try not to make the dough too stiff. It will be easier to knead, but will create dense bread with poor baking and eating quality.
- If the dough is too soft it will spread flat in the oven, it will still taste great but you will need to handle it very gently to avoid the bread collapsing.
Recipe For Making Starter.
Day 1 - Combine by hand 500g Organic Flour and 500ml water vigorously until smooth (2-3 mins) in a bowl. Put in a warm (optimum 25 degrees) place to ferment for 24 hours.
Day 2 – Discard 500g of mix and add 500g Organic Flour and 500ml water. Mix by hand until flour is incorporated. Put in a warm place to ferment for another 24 hours.
Day 3 (morning) – You should notice some bubbling and it should have a slight vinegar smell. Discard 500g of mix and add 500g Organic Flour and 500ml water. Mix with hand until flour is incorporated. Ferment for eight hours.
Day 3 (night) - Discard 500g of mix and add 500g Organic Flour and 500ml water. Mix by hand until flour is incorporated. Ferment for 16 hours.
Continue day four, five and six as per day three.
Day 7: By morning your starter is ready to use. Once you have used starter to mix your bread do not wash out your starter container. Rather just add equal parts flour and water ensuring that the starter remains are mixed into your fresh mix. From day seven you can do one feed per day at least 6 hours before you plan to use starter.
Sonoma’s Starter Tips.
- Natural starter is alive. You must treat is as such. Always feed starter once per day and keep in a warm but not hot (20-25 degrees) place for best results. You should use or discard most of your starter before feeding or you will end up with excess.
- Try to feed starter at the same time each day. The more consistent you are with this the more consistent your dough and bread will be.
- Starter should ferment for at least six hours and up to 12 hours before using. After 12 hours it needs to be fed with equal parts flour and water and fermented a further six hours before use.
- Do not develop the gluten in your starter by over-mixing. This give your bread less volume as the gluten in the starter will start to break down before your bread is mixed.
Andrew Connole and Jordan Miller (his Operations Manager… and brother-in-law)
Photographer: Erin O’Sullivan.