William Petersen’s family knows wheat. For years his father ran a bakery in the Blue Mountains, a precursor to taking over the reins of Infinity Bakery in Darlinghurst. Begun by chef Phillip Searle, Infinity Bakery was Sydney’s “first organic sourdough bakery”, and one of the first to offer fine-quality, locally made artisan breads.
In 2010 William and his sister Sophie took over the business. Since then they’ve refined its offering with a focus on organic produce and sustainable practices to make a product true to authentic sourdough baking.
“Wheat in itself is rather simple,” says Petersen. “It’s what we do with it that makes it complex.”
Petersen will soon draw on his family history to demonstrate these complexities at The Makers by Maker’s Mark, a unique hands-on craft workshop in Alexandria, Sydney, centred around the elements of wood, water, wheat and wax. Unlike many bourbon whiskies which traditionally use rye as the base grain to make their mash, Maker’s Mark uses wheat, which imparts a sweetness and softness to the palate.
In anticipation of the event, we asked Petersen to share one of his favourite, but most simple recipes – focaccia bread. “It’s an instant recipe, so not a long process,” says Petersen. “It allows someone to create a dough within a day.”
All you need to make focaccia is flour, yeast, water, olive oil and salt for the base. From there it’s a choice of toppings for flavour: from herbs and salt or sour cherries and sugar, to garlic and rosemary with potato.
Petersen says it’s important to not skimp on flour. “Anyone can go to the supermarket and grab a basic high-gluten white flour and that will definitely do the job,” he says of the flour made from milling the endosperm (tissue) inside the wheat grain. “But I’d recommend going to a wholefood market where you can get some great Australian organic or sustainable flours. They’ll improve and change the flavours of the dough.”
Your local supermarket will have dry yeast though: a lasting staple for the budding baker. “It’s really handy to have around,” says Petersen, “for when you’re baking on the fly.”
Check your water
Surprisingly, Petersen says check the quality of your tap water. “If you’re in an area where you know the water’s been highly treated, then using bottled water or filtered water will go a long way,” he says. “[Otherwise it] can really affect the bread-making process because it kills the yeast and you wont get your rise.”
Petersen says to also get a good river or sea salt to flavour the bread, as well as a quality drop of oil. “[Oil] adds fat to the bread,” he says. “So obviously the better the olive oil, the more nutrients you’re going to get.”
When weighing out your dry ingredients, be sure to keep it all separate. Salt can interfere with the yeast, which means “you might not get a rise out of the loaf,” says Petersen. Once portioned, add the yeast to water ideally at a temperature of 18 degrees. “As soon as you put the dry yeast combined with water,” says Petersen, “it activates it and protects it.”
You can knead the bread more quickly with a mixer, but Petersen says kneading by hand is the more rewarding experience.
“Make a little hole in the flour and start adding the water while mixing the flour with your hand,” says Petersen. “Make sure there are no dry bits of flour and it’s all incorporated.”
Rest the rough clump of dough for half an hour, then add the salt and three quarters of the olive oil. Squelch it through, breaking the dough up while incorporating the salt and oil into the dough further.
After 20 minutes of rest, bring it onto the bench for kneading. “I find the easiest method is the slap and fold,” says Petersen. “I’ll get the dough, slap it on the bench, fold it over itself and then repeat that maybe 20 to 30 times,” says Petersen. “Try and do it as quickly and consistently as possible to keep the dough moving and warming up.”
Rest your bread
Once it’s smooth and holding together well enough so that stretching it won’t break it, rest your dough in a bowl for half and hour. Then give it a fold, followed by another half an hour rest. It’ll then need another fold and another rest, but this time for an hour.
Cut it into balls and transfer to a baking tray with low edges. “Once you’ve flattened that out, cover it and leave it in a cool, dry place for 10 to 15 minutes,” says Petersen. “Let it warm up and relax a bit, then turn your oven on.” Preheat your oven to 210 degrees. When it reaches that setting, uncover your dough and sprinkle it with the topping you want, then cook it for 20 minutes.
“From that point on you’re just baking it to the colour you want,” says Petersen. “Dust it in a bit of olive oil, maybe sprinkle some salt. Let it cool for five. [But] the sooner you eat it the better it’s going to taste.”
Have a timer handy and don’t rush it. “The more time the better,” says Petersen. “Whenever you think something’s done, maybe give it five or ten more minutes and you’re going to get a better value product in the end.”
He also says to follow through with what you’ve started. “Even if you think it’s been a complete disaster, it’s worth finishing the process no matter how much you feel like it may not have worked to your expectations” he says. “Taste it and you’ll be surprised.”
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Maker’s Mark. Hear more from William Petersen about working with wheat at The Makers by Maker’s Mark – a bespoke workshop experience in Sydney exploring four key elements of the iconic Kentucky bourbon: water, wood, wheat and wax.