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Experiments on a Maltese Ħobża

For some time now, I have been researching the traditional Maltese Ħobża, which is a sourdough loaf, however most recipes I found called for yeast instead of a starter. This is possibly a misinterpretation because my reading suggests the word Ħmira seems to be used interchangeably for yeast or starter (properly called tinsiela or mamma).

I’ve read lots on the history of bread development and how early breads were developed and two weeks prior to the baking date I made two starters, using different flours. One of them died through neglect (my bad ), but one is going quite nicely, so the next step was to make a loaf.

Again I trawled through various recipes, but most of them call for commercial yeast rather than a sourdough starter, and I didn’t really want to start converting recipes when I am such a novice at baking bread. Also, I find it very irritating when recipes use cups instead of precise measurements (I mean – what size is a cup? Depends if it’s English or American!!).

I was also quite conflicted – my object is to make a loaf of bread as good as one can get from a decent bakery in Malta. But not only did I want a good recipe, but I also wanted that loaf to be made traditionally, and really, depending on how far back you go, traditionally when women were baking bread at home, their measurements couldn’t have been precise (I mean – did anyone ever weigh out 31.8g of something?) so there must be some flexibility in the preparation of the bread dough.

Anyway. following much research, studying pictures of different loaves, and reading recipes from around the world, I put together this recipe, which is based on Paul Hollywood’s Classic Sourdough recipe (Yes Paul from Great British Bake-off – recipe on BBC website)!

I added a few tips from other various Maltese recipes for making bread and ftira as well as advice from the Sourdough Home website on starters.

This is the recipe, with comments on how it worked
Approx 10-15 hours before you want to bake your sourdough loaf – (really if you have a good active starter, 4-5 hours would seem to be enough.)
Take 250g (9oz) of starter
Add 375g (13oz) strong white flour (or bread flour)
Add 7.5g (1 tsp) salt

Mix to a soft dough adding 100-175ml of tepid water – yeah, it has to be a soft dough, but maybe not quite as sticky as mine was.

Pour some olive oil onto a kneading board, and knead the dough for around 10-15 mins until it is smooth and elastic. I admit, this is the first bit I flunked – I tried using the dough hooks on my mixer to save my aching wrists, but it didn’t work as well as I would have liked.

Instead of using oil to knead, I used Rye flour. This was for 2 reasons – first that when white flour was scarce, rye flour was added to the ħobża dough, and second because I thought my dough was too sticky and needed more flour.

Tip the dough into a lightly oiled bowl and cover with cling film. Leave to rise in a warm place for 10-15 hours, (5 hours would have been quite sufficient) or until at least doubled in size – the cooler the environment the longer it will take to rise. Some bakers say this is better for the flavour.

This is where I made another mistake – I had read somewhere not to use a metal bowl, but the plastic jug with my dough was almost overflowing, so I poured the whole thing into my large dutch oven, quite forgetting that cast iron is a metal! Doh! (However, further reading and talking to other bakers have shown that this was a needless concern and that a Dutch Oven/cast iron pot is ideal for baking bread!)

Then with a spatula fold the risen dough over…turn the bowl round 90 degrees each fold and do this about eight or nine times. (Alternatively knead it to knock it back). I kneaded – I think I should have added oil earlier or at this stage but no… I bulldozed on.

Roll into a ball and dust with flour, then leave to rise again for 4 – 8 hours. And another Doh! moment… I wanted to make a ftira, and since I was going to bake it on a pizza stone, I needed to put it somewhere to shape it. Oh - thought I, I have a pizza tray I can use (forgetting that it, too, is metal!) so I floured it and shaped my dough into a convincing looking ftira shape.

When you are ready to bake, put a tray half-filled with water at the bottom of the oven and a bread stone on a low shelf. Preheat it for about half an hour at Gas No.7-8 220-225°C.
If you are making a round loaf, sprinkle flour on the dough and using a sharp knife cut a line or a cross in the top of the dough, then place it on the breadstone. If you are making a ftira put flour on a board and turn out the dough - be careful not to knock out the air too much. Flatten the dough a bit and tear a hole in the middle.

If you are making a loaf, bake for 30 minutes then reduce heat to around 200-210°C and bake for a further 20 minutes.

For a ftira, carefully transfer the ftira onto the breadstone and bake for 20 minutes. Well, I tried to do that, except… errrrmmm… you know that pizza tray it had been resting on – well *sigh* it was one of those pizza trays with holes in (for a crispier pizza). So when I came back to it some 5 hours later, the dough had risen beautifully, but utterly refused to detach itself from the tray. Oh well – I thought, I shall forego the pizza stone and just bake it on the damn pizza tray – what could go wrong! Ha! See picture below of the ftira’s backside!

After twenty minutes, the ftira was looking gorgeous and I wish I had taken a picture at that point. I pulled it out of the oven and tried to place it on my wire rack. Well – remember those afore-mentioned holes? The dough had seeped out a little and curled around them and my ftira did not want to let go. I ended up alternately hacking at the holes with a sharp knife and levering the ftira off with a fish slice. Brute force triumphed in the end, but it seemed to me that the base was not quite cooked properly, although it did sound kinda hollow when I slapped its bum.

Is anyone keeping track of the number of dimbulb mistakes I made. Here’s another to add to the list I thought – hmmm! Not quite done?!?! Best shove it back in for a while longer then. Eventually I hoicked it out of the hot place even though the base still didn’t look done.

The flavour was good though I decided I wasn’t fond of the colour which resulted from using rye. The crumb (aka bieba in Maltese) was good. The crust…. Um… let’s just say that it gave my jaw muscles a *really* good workout! It was crunchy in parts and leathery in others.

I had reserved some of the dough to make a small loaf and that turned out much better, although since the dough was quite sticky it rose in a sideways fashion rather than up! Still that tasted good too, and it all got eaten enthusiastically. I might try my next loaf in a dutch oven or a loaf tin!