In Pursuit of the Perfect Sourdough Loaf: Meeting Mags at Hedgehog Bakery

Opening Image of Breads

I have spoken about GV, our sourdough starter, a few times before in my blogs.

Over two years old, I have made about 15 sourdough breads with it, and feed it every other day.  However, I was never fully happy with any of the breads: though they did improve with practice, they just did not rise enough in the oven.

My intention was always to crack the puzzle so, when I heard about Mags Morrissey and her bakery in Thomastown and how lovely her sourdough breads were, I knew a visit had to be on the list of ‘to dos’ over the summer holidays.

Hedgehog Bakery, Thomastown

And so we all headed off to Kilkenny on Wednesday of this week to Mags’ home and bakery to make some bread.

The bakery is outside the beautiful town of Thomastown and the house is full of character with hens, dogs and other pets wandering around the yard. (The name for the bakery came from the name of the house, so called because of the piles of pine cones that fall each year in the yard  and look like little hedgehogs.)

Yeast & Salt

Joss was adamant he did not want to participate in the class. Don, however, was very excited about the prospect, so Seosamh took Joss and Étienne off to the Medieval Mile Museum in Kilkenny while Don and I rolled up our sleeves and got to work.

Inspirational Grandparents

Mags and I had been in contact a few times prior to the class and she had told me about her connections to Templemore.

Her grandparents, Tim and Mary Meagher, owned a bakery and grocery on Patrick Street. It closed in the mid 1980s, but would have been an institution in the town for decades.

Tim and Mary Meagher outside their shop in Templemore

Tim and Mary Meagher outside their shop in Templemore

Mags recalls the wonderful times she spent there as a child: the big roaster for chickens they had in the shop window so customers could see them being cooked from the street; the old-style counters and displays of confectionery her grandmother lovingly created.

Mags spent a lot of time there in her early years and the memories and experience left a deep impression.

Mags’ Mother, Eileen Meagher, was also an excellent baker and seamstress. Mags and her siblings remember their mother each year, on the anniversary of her death, by meeting for a walk up the Devil’s Bit Mountain. Our local mountain is an anchor for so many generations who associate it with home and memories.

Career in Science

After school, Mags took her career in another direction. She attended the Ursuline Convent in Thurles before heading to UCC to pursue a Science Degree.

I asked if she regretted not having pursued a training in baking and her response was very matter-of-fact: ‘What is the point of regrets?’.

She said she frequently went to the English Market to buy good-quality breads when in college in Cork, so her appreciation of artisan foods was always present.

Mags would eventually take a 12-week course in bread-making at DIT, and this and her childhood experiences have led to her opening her bakery in Thomastown.

Sourdough

First on our list to tackle on Wednesday was the sourdough and Mags had two loaves ready to show us before they went into the oven, which had been resting overnight in the fridge.  This allowed us to see the finished product, as you have to let the dough rest for up to 12 hours before baking.

But here lies, in part, the clue to their success in the rising stakes. Mags cooks her sourdough loaves in a Pyrex dish. Certainly not what I expected, but it works as the steam from inside the dish creates the rise, assuming of course they were kneaded properly; had a good active live sourdough starter (I spoke about this in the White Gypsy post); and were given enough time to prove.

The quality of the flour is also very important.

There is also another key ally in stopping the breads from sticking to the resting basket – rice flour is used for dusting the basket (this can be bought at Country Choice in Nenagh).

The rested breads then went into the oven at 215 degrees (Celsius) and, before long, the waft of yeasty bread filled the room.

 

 

I am surprised at how tricky the kneading exercise was, but we stuck with it, both Don and I taking our turns, as the images above show.

Other Breads and Buns

While my primary concern was the sourdough, during our four-hour-long class, Mags also showed us how to make:

  • A traditional white loaf, which has very little salt and no sugar unlike the processed varieties – we made 4 of these
  • A delicious Focaccia recipe
  • Some brioche buns that can also be made into a cake if joined together
  • And of course – the sourdough – all pictured below.

 

 

Life’s Challenges

I mentioned in a previous post that making breads had, at one stage in my life, helped me cope with a lot of stress and challenges. It still helps when the going gets tough! In the course of our afternoon with Mags, both she and I mentioned the ups and downs of life.

Mags too has had her crosses to carry. She tells me one of her  sons died when he was only 11.

I can’t help make this association between bread-making and healing, a way to work through the grief that life can sometimes bring to our doors.

The process of preparing a dough, working the dough, and then cooking it into a bread, something delicious to share with others, is such a basic and ancient practice – but still has a cathartic effect.

Imparting knowledge and skills to others is another aspect to this healing process. There is no territoriality about the recipes Mags uses nor were there any tips or tricks that I felt she withheld. The reality is, like most things in life, many people can be given the tips and techniques to master an art, but not everyone will persevere with the practice it takes to get something right. In fact perfect.

Don and I need a lot more practice but this week begins the process of working to make a sourdough that we can share with Greenville guests – the process of perfecting the art, as best we can.

The Little Mill, Bennettsbridge

the little mill

On the way home, we stopped at The Little Mill (Kells Wholemeal) in Bennetsbridge, where I picked up some of the items we will need.

This mill is worth visiting.  With an impressive history dating back to the 1500s and owned by the Mosse family (one of whom is the famous potter I mentioned in a previous blog about Rossa Pottery).  The Mosse family have resided here for over seven generations now and they supply the largest number of blends to the bakery trade in Ireland.

They sell larger bags of good-quality strong flour also and some of the baskets, tools, seeds etc that help and enhance bread-making.

I picked up some rye flour which Mags recommended I use to keep the starter fed and active. It gives a lovely colour and has a characteristic taste that enhances the flavor of the finished bread.

GV & the dark rye flour

GV, our Greenville starter and a recent addition, Dark  Rye flour

A workshop with Mags cost between €60 and €70 per person and I would recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about yeast-based breads and, in particular, about  sourdough.

Busy days ahead at Greenville, but the smells from the oven should, I expect, outweigh any of the frustration felt in mastering this slightly more difficult, but deliciously crusty, artisan bread.

Contact: Hedgehog Bakery, Baunskeha, Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny. Tel: 087-2996540

  

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