This is hermit bread. It's a sourdough recipe with ancient antecedents, among them the skillet bread dear to my Old Settler ancestors; Canadian bannock; Scottish scones; Australian damper; focaccia; and even pizza. (Pizza was originally soldier bread, baked by the campfire by Roman legionnaires. They took to topping it with whatever they could find, so as to add a bit of variety to their dinners. Eventually the toppings got more limelight than the bread, and the rest is pizza.)
All you need to bake hermit bread is a sufficient heat source. It's easiest in a proper oven, but can be made on a range, near a fire, or in a fire. It's the oldest part of my monastic routine, actually predating my vows by several years. This is the food I take on the road, and what I grab when I'm hungry and need something now. It has become as sustaining to my morale as to my body, a physical manifestation of my vows.
As ever with monastic practices, each stage and feature of the production of this stuff has taken on Deep Meaning over the years. The pre-cut pieces emphasise the fact that it's sojourner bread ("Incola ego sum apud te in terra / Et peregrinus sicut omnes patres mei" Psalm 38, verse 15). They also honour my Scottish forebears. I could also find great Buddhist significance in the number 8, but one has to keep a close eye on one's compulsive Zen tendencies. So for the time being, it just reminds me of the Union Jack. Rule Britannia.
Hermit bread is also hands-down the most popular part of my practice with my friends. I once baked it for an old high school classmate who was visiting with her children. When she asked what it was, I said, "It's just monk bread." Today, fresh-baked "monkey bread" has become one of her kids' favourite treats.
Nothing boosts a sagging spirit like hot hermit bread and tea. For all that, it's ridiculously basic, and easy to make. And it still rolls out a great pizza dough.
2 cups sourdough starter.
About 2 cups flour
1 tablespoon oil
Flour for kneading
1 tsp soda mixed with 1/4 cup flour
Liberally oil a 10-inch cast iron skillet. (Number 8, in traditional sizes. You can use a cake pan or cookie sheet, but cast iron gives the best results.)
In a large bowl, beat the flour into the starter with a wooden spoon. Switch to a butter knife when it gets too stiff to stir and continue cutting in flour until the dough balls easily and is almost dry enough to knead.
Cut the flour and soda mixture into the dough, then knead it thoroughly in the bowl, adding any flour necessary to prevent the dough from sticking to the bowl or your hands.
Pat the ball flat, place it in the skillet, and pat it down some more until the edges touch the sides. Turn the skillet upside down, catch the dough as it falls out, and put it back in upside down, greased side up.
Poke the handle of the wooden spoon into the dough systematically, all the way to the pan, until the loaf is well-dimpled. Then cut it into eight pieces.
Cover the skillet and leave the dough to work, 30 minutes minimum. (An hour is even better.)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. When the dough has worked, uncover and bake it in the middle of the oven for 15 - 20 minutes, or until lightly browned on top and dry in the middle.
When done, unpan the loaf or flip it upside down in the skillet to let it cool and harden up for a few minutes. Eat as-is or with any topping. (Butter, jam, herbed oil, sugared berries, etc.)
Traditional baking methods:
Place the skillet over slow coals until the bottom of the loaf is browned. Prop the pan up near a hotter part of the fire to brown the top, or flip the loaf, return the skillet to the coals, and brown the top that way. (Same procedure for range-top baking.)
Or flour the ball and smack it onto a clean rock at the fire's edge, turning to bake evenly.
Or place the ball in a Dutch oven and bury it in the coals.
Or drop the dough ball directly in the coals and bury it. (Works in wood stoves and fireplaces, too.)
Or roll the dough into a rope, wind it around a stick, and toast it over the coals.
You can 'wave a chunk of cold hermit bread for 30 seconds and it'll taste like it just came out of the oven. (Split the piece first and reassemble it before warming; it will be too soft to work afterward.) You can also reheat it on a plate in a covered skillet, with a little water added to make steam.