Friday, 30 December 2011

Our Daily Bread.

This post has been sitting on my hard drive for months, waiting to be uploaded, and I kept telling myself that one day I’d get round to taking step-by-step photographs of the whole breadmaking process, but loaf after loaf has been and gone without my remembering to take a single picture. Here then is a post on homemade bread, with nary a photo in sight.
I’ve been meaning to write a bread post for a while, largely because the standard reaction when it emerges that you know how to make your own bread is so completely disproportionate to the actual effort required to make it in the first place, that really it’s a skill worth keeping in the armoury for days when you’re feeling less than brilliant. But also because it makes your house smell really good and generally makes husbands a little more amenable to taking the bins out in the rain.
Baking bread at home, while requiring a little practice, really isn’t that difficult, and I can never understand why it’s got this reputation for being something that only bakers and total domestic over achievers can do.  That’s not to say that in the two years that I’ve been making bread regularly I’ve not experienced every type of bad bread there is, from solid lumps of dough which refuse to rise at all, to one memorable loaf which had an air hole about the size of a grapefruit right in the middle. (Incidentally, it wasn’t the end of the world, I just ate egg-in-a-window for breakfast for about a week). The point is that with some practice, a certain amount of common sense, and some impressive sounding gastroscience gobbledygook I can turn out a pretty impressive loaf of white bread these days. The motive for this post is that if I can get just one person to abandon their bread maker, I’ll consider it a triumph. (Can’t stand Bread makers, evil machines that cost a fortune and then turn out a loaf so heavy that if you made a couple of extra holes in the bottom, they’d make better bowling balls.) We English may not be famed for our cooking, but even my French friends admit that we can do good bread.
Basic White Bread Recipe. (to fill 1x 2LB loaf tin)
·         500g strong white flour
·         1 sachet dried fast action yeast. (Ignore anyone who gets snotty about using fresh yeast. Yeast is yeast.)
·         1 tbsp caster sugar
·         1 tsp salt
·         About 320ml almost hot water.
Weigh out your flour and sift into a large bowl, then, before doing anything else, take out about 2 dessertspoonfuls and set them aside. Pour the yeast and sugar onto one side of the flour, and the salt onto the opposite side, then combine them gently.  (This may seem faffy, but salt is like kryptonite to yeast, so to leave the one sitting there on top of the other is just mean, and your bread wont rise.)
Stir the the water in about ¼ at a time, until you’ve got a sticky dough. Pour the reserved flour onto a clean worktop and turn the dough out onto it.
Turn the dough out onto the floured surface, turn on your radio and set a timer for 10 minutes. Turn the dough over in the flour a few times so that it’s well coated, as it should be very sticky at this point and begin kneeding. You should feel the dough come together and gradually become smoother and more elastic. If at about 6 minutes you feel that it’s getting too sticky, and all of the reserved flour has been absorbed, pour a tablespoon or so of vegetable oil onto the worktop and your hands and continue- I can sometimes manage to full 10 minutes without adding any oil, but it doesn’t hurt if you do need to add a little and it’s far preferable to adding more flour. Extra flour added at this stage is the reason why 90% of first loaves turn out so disappointingly heavy.
When the timer goes off you should have a smooth, elastic, non-sticky little ball of dough and quite tired arms. Rub a little oil on the inside of the bowl you used to mix, pop the dough in and cover with some oiled clingfilm. Put it in a warm place and drape a clean tea towel over the top to stop too much light getting to it. (That last bit isn’t strictly necessary, but it does add to the general aura of domestic idyll that we’re aiming for.)[1]
The dough should take somewhere between 1- 2hrs to double in size, depending on how warm your house is, but you should aim to catch it while it’s still puffed up and swollen looking, and before it starts to go flat on top and looks like its got cellulite. When you think it looks right, uncover (keeping the clingfilm for later), turn it out onto a very lightly floured surface and kneed gently for about 3 minutes. This time you’re just trying to get some of the excess air out of the dough, so you don’t have to go on for so long.
Shape it as you see fit, pop it into an oiled tin or onto a baking tray and re-cover with the clingfilm I had you save (you might need to re-oil it first). Turn your oven on to GM8
Leave the bread to rise again until doubled in size then remove the cling film and pop it in the oven for 25-30 minutes. Set a timer. Don’t ask your husband to do it for you. I once did this when I had to go out suddenly, and got back two hours later to find a sad little black cannonball smoking terminally in the oven. Usually, though, if nothing goes awry  it tends to take 27 minutes in my oven. Turn it out, tap the bottom and go through the usual charade of pretending you know whether or not it sounds hollow then set it to cool somewhere on a wire rack. The wire rack is surprisingly important as the bottom will go all sweaty if you just put it on a worktop.
It’s best to leave bread to cool completely before you cut it, although the temptation can be hard to resist. If you don’t wait for it to cool, the bread tends to pill like a cheap cardigan as you cut, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.
There you have it then. If you haven't already made a New Years resolution, allow me to suggest taking up breadmaking. It beats resolving to take up Atkins, at any rate
Until next time, I wish you all a very Happy New Year.

[1] As long as the tea towel is clean. Otherwise it feels a bit scabby.

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