Cognitive dissonance – a term for the state of discomfort felt when two or more modes of thought contradict each other. The clashing cognitions may include ideas, beliefs, or the knowledge that one has behaved in a certain way. As one delves deeper into sourdough baking the idea that trying new methods and/or baking a variety of recipes will lead to one’s ideal loaf tends to be at odds with the objectivity inherent in the idea that one first needs to establish a solid foundation of baking knowledge (starter management, recipe development, dough handling, fermentation management, etc). Often this mental battle becomes even more intense during one’s daily perusing of posts containing gorgeous looking loaves on Instagram and Facebook. Eventually a resolution comes in a form that is unique to each baker’s comfort level and approach to baking. Examples include: finding or developing a dependable base recipe that can serve as a foundation for future recipe development (such as Foodbod Sourdough’s ‘master recipe’) or a simple epiphany (e.g. open crumb isn’t limited to high hydration doughs) that shifts one’s baking journey trajectory. Luckily, it is often those posting the aforementioned gorgeous loaf photos that advocate for a solid foundation of baking knowledge and technique.
One such baker is Chiew See aka @Autumn.Kitchen , a self-described self taught hobbyist baker and mother of three. While she consistently shares photos of sourdough loaves and baked goods (cakes, cookies, muffins, etc) that are true works of art; she makes sure to present her baking as a journey and each successive bake as an opportunity teach her fellow bakers how to master baking in their home climate. These traits have significantly contributed to her becoming a major influence to bakers living in the hot and humid tropical climate/s of China and Southeast Asia. Having mastered baking in her home climate aka Malaysia, she takes pride in sharing her love of incorporating local ingredients into her baking all while baking classic sourdough breads that bakers from anywhere can relate to and emulate.
So without further ado, it is my honor to present to you Chiew See of Autumn Baking.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): How long have you been baking sourdough bread? What was your approach to learning and then mastering the basics of sourdough baking?
Chiew See: I have been baking sourdough for the past 5 years. I dabbled a lot in yeasted loaves before that. Subsequently, in a bid to make healthier breads, I turned my attention to natural fermentation, hence sourdough. At first glance, sourdough seems simple, but the devil is in the details. Mastering the basics entailed making the same recipe repeatedly, adjusting the variables one by one in order to understand the process and get the results I wanted.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): In your Instagram bio you describe yourself as a “hobbyist baker”, do you have a regular day job? If so, how much of your time is taken up by your baking and its related responsibilities (planning, prepping, photography, social media)?
Chiew See: I am a stay at home mother with 3 kids. Before home and hearth took importance, I was a mechanical engineer. Perhaps that’s why I love to analyse my baking. Baking is an everyday affair; I usually wake up early to build my levain (around 6am) and fit in the mixing/kneading around lunch time. And the dough is usually ready for baking during dinner. I spend on average 1-2 hours a day baking and replying to some baking queries (this usually takes place before bed).
Barry (The Brewed Palate): Do you have a weekly baking routine (schedule)? If so, can you describe it in terms of how often you bake and how you keep your sourdough starter ready to bake with?
Chiew See: I usually bake on alternate days so I keep my starter on the kitchen counter most of the time. It only goes into the fridge on my rest days, which are usually on weekends. I work backwards from the time I need to bake and adjust my feeds accordingly. The day before I need the starter for baking, I will take it out of the fridge and give it a refresh (usually 1:1:1). Once it has peaked I will refresh again in a ratio that suits my schedule, for e.g. if it’s over night I will likely go for 1:3:3. When it has peaked the next morning, I will give it another refresh at 1:1:1, and use this at peak as the levain in the recipe.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): While you recently changed your stance on dough lamination (“I did not include lamination in my process videos posted last 2 weeks. At this stage of my sourdough journey, lamination is optional. However, based on several requests, I am demonstrating one for your reference. I only like to use lamination when adding fruits, seeds, nuts etc.”). What are some key factors for creating dough that is at optimal strength for lamination? What benefits does adding ingredients using lamination have over adding them during sets of coil folds?
Chiew See: Lamination (Instagram video) and I go a long way back. In Malaysia, a popular breakfast snack is roti canai (video). So I kind of experimented with it. Over time as I got to know my dough better, I realise that not all loaves needed lamination. To me, the dough has to be not too extensible/weak to do a lamination, as stretching it out can cause it too weaken. I realized strength can be gained during other parts of the process. In addition, many newbies seem to think that stretching the dough big and wide is the ultimate aim, but actually keeping the dough even is just as important. Over time I realized that laminated dough resulted in a certain ‘look’ in my finished bread that I was not so keen on. However, lamination does have its uses, such as making adding ingredients easier and more evenly distributed.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): What inspired you to name (brand) the sharing of your baking journey “Autumn Baking”?
Chiew See: The name is a derivation of my Chinese name, which actually means ‘autumn poetry’. I like to think that I am also waxing lyrical about my bakes, hence the Instagram and Facebook moniker.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): After 15 months of hard work you released your first book “Autumn Baking: Natural Yeast” this past September. Can you describe what the writing, recipe development, and editing processes were like?
Chiew See: I started this book with the idea of keepsaking and as a momento for my baking journey. This is a collection of many recipes that are family favorites. Recipe development was hard work, as I had to make sure that they would work in different environments. Luckily over the years I have made friends with a group of like minded bakers, who really helped me test and troubleshoot the recipes. Another area of interest for me is photography, and this has proven very useful as I had more control over the look of the picture. It is also convenient as I often bake my loaves late at night, and taking my own pictures meant that I could dictate the baking schedule. As I am fluent in both Chinese and English, I wanted a bilingual cookbook to better cater to the audience in this region, especially for bakers in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China.
Barry (The Brewed Palate); What do you feel is unique about sourdough baking in Malaysia?
Chiew See: Malaysia is located near to the equator and our weather is hot and humid all year round. This creates a different set of challenges. Processes listed in the sourdough books in the west are not applicable. Dough handling is not always easy when it’s above 30C, humidity and proof times also have to be adjusted. So my goal is to document a process that is useful for the bakers living in the tropics, and perhaps indirectly applicable for temperate countries during their hot summer months.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): Upon looking over your Instagram feed it quickly becomes clear that each of your loaves etc is infused with your natural artistic talent and mastery of dough handling. Can you describe the recipe development / overall planning process that you go through in order to produce your art infused (swirls etc) loaves?
Chiew See: Living in this part of the world, my bakes are influenced by different trends and tastes, a lot of which comes from Japan, Taiwan and even China. So I aim to convert my favorite yeasted breads to sourdough. Hence you would see a lot of soft breads, along the lines of Hokkaido milk bread or shokupan, and ingredients like matcha, red bean or pork floss. We love our breads very soft in Asia, and with minimal tang. In fact erasing the slight tang from the finished products is a priority with many mothers in this region. Children generally reject ‘sour’ bread. My bakes are usually given away and tasters will give feedback.
To make patterns out in a bread, I first need to create distinct colored ‘bread swatches’. I love to use natural food color, and there is a whole slew of food colors/powders available here, especially from Korea. So besides the common cocoa and matcha powders; red yeast rice powder, strawberry powder, and blue pea power are also amongst my favourites. By adding the natural color powder into the dough and then layering different color doughs, I can create the swirls or patterns that I desire.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): One part of the sourdough baking process that at times triggers anxiety is figuring out how to know when bulk fermentation is complete. What do you look out for in order to decide when it is done?
Chiew See: The first thing and the easiest visible sign is the growth of the dough. The feel of the dough during the coil folds helps me assess strength. There are no shortcuts. The best way to figure it out is to make the same recipe over and over again tweaking one variable at a time. In this case will be bulking at 3hr, 3.5hr, 4hrs etc and comparing the finished product. Using the same flours and even the same container also helps. Newbies tend to explore and change many variables too quickly, be it different flours, hydrations, scoring, different methods, or adding all sorts of ingredients. This in my mind, creates confusion and impairs dough judgement. A solid foundation will help you go a long way.
Barry (The Brewed Palate): Sourdough bread is often called “living bread.” What do the terms “living bread” and “living food” mean to you?
Chiew See: Sourdough bread is leavened by a microbial ecosystem. It is amazing to see that ingredients that are as simple as flour and water create a living environment for the microbes to work towards leavening the dough. I am continuously fascinated by fermentation and its various branches, be it kimchi, beer, kombucha, tempeh etc. I think it also points to a trend where we seek food that is more whole and pure and to my instincts to have better control of the food in my house.
Thank you Chiew See for all that you’ve done and continue to do for the worldwide sourdough community! You are a true artisan sourdough baker and an inspiration to countless fellow home bakers.