Friday, 16 April 2010

LOAVES (AND FISHES)


I don't know why more people don't make their own bread. It's cheap, simple and delicious, it freezes well, and it is always greeted with coos of delight when I serve it, still warm from the oven. I think people think bread making is one of the "mystic arts", but it's just chemistry, a wonderful, magical chemistry which takes place when flour, yeast and water meet, and are then left to get on with it for a few hours.

Bread baking is one of those special homely smells, like the sweet fug of banana loaf cooking, or onions fried with garlic. It is no surprise that supermarkets pump out ersatz just-baked bread aromas into the store to encourage people to buy a loaf: it is one of those comforting smells that envelopes you like a soft, fleecey blanket, and has you heading for the sofa to curl up with a cup of tea and a plate of toast and Marmite.

I tend to bake bread at least once a week. I do not have a bread maker, preferring to throw the ingredients together in my trusty Kitchenaid (which has a very robust dough hook) and then let chemistry take its course. I have found over the years that certain flours produce a better loaf. My favourite is Waitrose Very Strong Canadian Flour. It has a high gluten content which makes for a good texture and 'crumb'. Another brilliant discovery is Doves Farm Quick Yeast, which I use all the time.

This recipe is for my basic white bread.

500g strong white bread flour
1 generous tsp Maldon sea salt
1 tsp Doves Farm Quick Yeast
1 cup of tepid water

Put the flour and salt in a bowl, or the bowl of your food mixer, if using. Make a well and pour in the water, then sprinkle over the yeast, combining a little to draw in some of the flour to make a yeasty soup in the well. Cover with a tea cloth and leave to "sponge" for about 20 mins. This will allow the yeast to get to work and when you go back to the mixture, the liquid should have frothed up a bit.

If making in a food mixer, fit the dough hook and set the motor running at a low speed. Add some more tepid water until a soft, pliable dough is formed. I sometimes add a little olive oil or sunflower oil at this point. The dough needs to be kneaded for at least 5 mins: you are after a smooth, soft dough. When done, cover with a tea cloth and leave in a draft-free place to prove.

If making by hand, use a wooden spoon to draw the mixture together, adding water gradually to end up with a soft, pliable dough (see above). Knead for 10 mins to achieve a smooth dough. Leave to prove.

You should test to check if the dough has proved sufficiently by prodding it with your finger. If the indentation disappears slowly, the dough is ready for the next stage: kneading and shaping.

Now turn the oven on: it should be at least 220C. Bread needs a hot oven!

I read somewhere that a French bread maker preferred to roll the dough with a rolling pin, rather than knead it by hand in the traditional way. I've found this method is best for removing the air pockets which can cause the bread to cook unevenly. Roll the dough, then fold it, turn it and roll it again. Repeat this process. You should be able to hear the air snapping out of it. Now shape the dough and leave it to prove again on a prepared baking sheet. The loaf is ready for cooking when it has doubled in size. (Your oven should have heated up sufficiently by this time!).

Cook for about 25-30 mins. Check for done-ness by tapping the bottom of the loaf: if it sounds hollow, it is done. Cool on a rack. Do not, on any account, try and slice a loaf straight from the oven.

Some variants:

Focaccia:

Additional ingredients: Sprigs of fresh rosemary, sliced onion/garlic, sea salt, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, olive oil.

Make bread as above but when you get to the shaping stage, roll out the dough to about 1 inch thick and leave to prove in an oblong baking tray. Just before baking, make indentations in the dough at regular intervals and stuff with rosemary or olives or sundried tomatoes etc, or scatter over sliced onions/garlic, and then drizzle with good olive oil and scatter with Maldon sea salt.

Pizza and flat bread dough: Use the quantities as given in the recipe above, but use only HALF a teaspoon of quick yeast. Roll the dough very thinly for pizza bases and flat bread. I have for some time been trying to recreate the airy, "balloon bread" which is served as an appetizer in my local Turkish cafe, but it's tricky without a hot, charcoal oven. Instead, I heat a flat griddle pan on the hob and then drop the thinly-rolled dough onto it. It will puff up. Serve immediately with Turkish accompaniments.

Brown bread: Recipe as before but use half white and half brown flour. I also add a little honey and some sunflower oil to give a slightly sweeter flavour.

Bread dough is great for carrying other flavours: walnuts, rosemary (chopped and infused in warm oil), raisins etc. Add these ingredients when you mix the dough after the sponging. If freezing a homemade loaf, wait until it is completely cool and then freeze on the day of baking. Homemade bread does not keep as long as commercial bread, because it is not stuffed with stablizers and other chemicals to increase its shelf life.

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