A fine loaf of bread

breadThe fact that I’ve jumped on board the baking bandwagon probably suggests we’re nearing the end of the ride.  But as a pretty competent home cook (if I do say so myself) I have to wonder if this particular trend is doing more harm than good when it comes to “getting people into the kitchen”.  Because it’s one thing to come over all “anyone can cook!” when you’re throwing salad leaves together or boiling up pasta; it’s something else entirely to mislead people into thinking baking is something you can just dabble in from time to time and get right.  You can’t.  Funny isn’t it how on The Great British Bake-Off, a hushed voiceover tells us how difficult it is (“just 30 seconds too long in the oven can ruin biscuits”) yet the “how to” shows all tell us how easy it is.  The first episode of Lorraine Pascale’s Baking Made Easy was entitled “So Easy”; the tag line of Paul Hollywood’s Bread conveys a similar false sense of the level of skill required – “just mix, knead, prove, knock back, prove again, and bake!” – as if there were no room for error in any of those steps.  (By the way, adding the word “just” to the front of an instruction doesn’t make it easier).

Well, I gave it a go and I can tell you it bloody isn’t easy.  Not until you know what you’re doing at least, and once you’ve learnt something it always seems easy, doesn’t it?  I’m reminded of an anecdote about how Chopin taught the piano – he would just brush his student aside and say “no, like this!” and then rattle off the Revolutionary Etude, as if that was of any assistance to a novice.  (Upon trying to verify this it seems it is myth, but you get my point).

That’s the problem with these books and shows: with notable exceptions (e.g. Delia) they have no serious pedagogic value.  It’s almost as if they’re saying “look, we both know you’re watching this for the food porn value in a desperate attempt to delude yourself that you’re a foodie when really, you count it as ‘cooking’ if you decant your  M&S ready meal from its box onto a plate before eating it, so we’re not even going to try to convey the full amount of instruction required to execute this satisfactorily”.  To be fair, Hollywood explains what he’s doing in pretty thorough detail on his show, but like some sadistic magic trick, it just didn’t work for me when I tried it myself.  In particular, this innovative business of kneading bread on an oiled surface rather than a floured one didn’t work at all – I just ended up with a pile of kids’ party slime.

But concerned that there might be some souls out there who have taken up the gauntlet, tried, failed and given up entirely on the prospect of making good bread at home, I am going to try to describe how I have got to a position where I can competently make a serviceable loaf of bread, no thanks to any cook book or cookery show.

The aim should, I think, be to learn to make one serviceable, reliable, tasty loaf with a minimum of fuss.  You want something that will be good for sandwiches one day and toast the next.  It should taste better than what can be bought easily and cheaply, otherwise there is no point.  It should not be a “single use” or “regional speciality” so forget foccacia or fougasse and ridiculous things like that.  It should not take long to make, so forget sourdough.  I mean, it requires 13 hours’ proving time!  Now I have a pretty high tolerance for the preparation time to enjoyment time ratio, but really, starting to prepare my lunch the night before is where I draw the line.

So I got about experimenting and after much trial and error (mostly error) I have got to the point of being able to make what I consider to be a very fine loaf of bread and which I believe it will serve you well to be able to make.  File it away with knowing how to tie a bow tie, change a tyre, or read Homer in the original Greek – one of those things that you should check someone can do before you agree to marry them.

You will, I’m afraid, need a sourdough starter.  I made mine

This sardine salad has literally been "sandwiched" between two slices of bread.

This sardine salad has literally been “sandwiched” between two slices of bread.

using the St John “Mother” recipe from Beyond Nose to Tail.  The recipe for the starter is fine – the following recipes for bread were a disaster, which is a shame, because I’ve had bread from St John, and it is marvellous.  “Roll the dough it into a ball” it says.  It’s liquid!  It’s no more capable of being rolled into a ball than pancake mix!  But seeing as the starter recipe is not my own I’m not going to reproduce it here.  Instead I will direct you to Google or any other starter recipe, as I’m pretty sure any of them would do.  It is basically just a mixture of flour and water that has been left to ferment.  It’s hard to stuff it up, and only takes a few minutes to make (even if those few minutes have to be repeated each day for about a week to get it going).  Paul Hollywood’s recipe would I’m sure be fine, which is here.

You will also, I think, need a freestanding electric mixer.  I have simply never been able to get good results kneading by hand, and any assurance that it’s just as good as a machine, you just need to do it for longer, is about as truthful as a claim that “you too can earn £1,000 a day working from home!” on an advert sellotaped to a telegraph pole.  Mixers are expensive.  I am sorry.  But really, better to know that you’re screwed if you don’t have a piece of specialist equipment before you make the attempt than after.

I think the following recipe is pretty much all you need.  It has a healthy crust but won’t break your dentures, a fine crumb, and a lovely bite to it (particularly nice when toasted, it has a tiny bit of “chew”, but not so bad as to tire your jaw out).

House Bread

130g sourdough starter
240g strong white bread flour
130g rye flour
1tsp dried/fast action yeast
8g salt
about 195mL tepid/hand-warm water

Place the first 5 ingredients into the mixer bowl, ensuring the yeast and salt do not touch.  Pour in about 150mL of the water and mix on low speed with the dough-hook attachment.  Keep adding water gradually until the dough is of such a consistency that all the flour has been incorporated but the dough leaves the sides of the bowl dry.  Be patient, add the water a bit at a time to achieve exactly the right consistency.  You may not need to use all the water, you might need a little bit more.  Continue to mix on low speed for 10 minutes.

Tip the dough out onto a floured surface and knead by hand for about 1 minute so that you can judge whether it is of the right consistency.  Hands aren’t that great for the hard work of kneading but to judge the consistency of the dough there is no substitute.  You are looking for a smooth, silky consistency.

Roll the dough into a ball.  Lightly oil the inside of a large bowl and place the dough in it.  Cover with cling film and place somewhere of warm room temperature to rise. (If there’s nowhere warm, I turn on the oven for a couple of minutes, then turn it off, and put the bowl in the oven).  Leave to prove for 1 hour or until at least doubled in size.

Punch all the air out of the dough by rolling it out and folding it over on itself.  Repeat a couple more times.  Roll into a smooth ball again, or a “baton” shape if you prefer and place on a floured baking sheet to prove a second time.  Put an upturned cup or mug in each corner of the baking sheet and make a tent out of cling film to cover it.  Leave at warm room temperature for another hour or more, until doubled in size.

Place a bowl of water in the oven and preheat it oven to 220°C (conventional) or 210°C (fan).  Slash the top of the loaf a few times in any fashion you like.  You need a very, very sharp knife for this.  I use a Stanley knife. Anything blunter and it will look like Freddy Krueger attacked it on a bad day.

Bake for 25 minutes.  Then lower the temperature by 20°C and bake for another 10 minutes.  Test to see whether it is done – it should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.  Remove the bread from the oven and cool on a wire rack.

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