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Bread of Heaven

August 23, 2010

I remember a time in my childhood when making bread was quite an ordinary thing to do – during the early eighties our house would often be filled with the smell of baking bread on a Sunday morning, and I’d often be found in the kitchen, standing on a chair covered in flour and making a nuisance of myself by constructing aeroplanes and teddy bears out of dough. In my memory, at that time, my Mum seems like a kind of cross between Joan Baez and Delia Smith – all flowery aprons and acoustic soundtrack.

To be honest, I can’t really remember what that bread tasted like. I remember the warm, yeasty smell spreading through the house, the bowls in the airing cupboard, with damp, checked tea-towels concealing the magical growing lumps of dough. I remember the way the dough felt in my hands as I tried to knead it (it’s hard work for a small child!) – first sticky and ragged, and then gradually smooth and almost bouncy as the yeast sprung into action.

Homemade bread is such an emotionally loaded food for many of us – the experience of making it, has a ritualistic element – almost spiritual. Perhaps it’s because you are aware of participating in something that goes back for thousands and thousands of years, taking the raw materials provided by the earth and turning them into something good, nourishing and sustaining – the ultimate staple food. Kneading bread produces a very similar feeling to that you get building a bonfire and then sitting staring into the centre of the flames – a sort of connection with the earth, and with ancient history, that you don’t have to be religious, or even wear undyed hemp trousers to appreciate.

Even if you don’t get that whole earth mother/father thing, baking bread is also very much about the amazing smell with which it fills the house. To many of us, that smell says childhood; it says warmth, safety and home; not to mention saying yum, yum delicious filling food on the way. Supermarkets, have infamously cashed in on our emotional response to bread by pumping the smell of baking around their stores, even where the bread isn’t baked on site. I even saw a “baking bread” scented candle once (I also know of a shop that sells “Fresh Laundry” scented candles, which makes you wonder whether there are other more mundane domestic chores that are becoming lost arts).

Of course, most people don’t make their own bread any more – even the most enthusiastic of foodies seem to prefer to pick up an “artisan loaf” from a farmers market (which is laudable, but not as much fun). Other than sheer habit, I think there are a few myths that prevent people from getting down to it and rediscovering the art of home baking.

The first myth is that homemade bread is just a big faff. As someone who avoids faff wherever humanly possible (I almost never iron my clothes, because that would mean getting the ironing board out from under the stairs) I can assure you that it’s not really any more faffy than making something like a risotto or a Bolognese. True, it can be time consuming, but not in a bad way – and only in the sense that going for a nice walk in the countryside or reading a novel is time consuming. You need to set aside a quiet afternoon, but kneading dough is actually quite a pleasant, relaxing thing to do, and I can’t see that many people would resent it. You also have to let it rise, but as it doesn’t need any attention during that time, you can just get on with something else. Also, if you plan ahead, and make an enormous batch of bread, storing some of it in the freezer, you only need bake once a month or so.

The second myth is that it’s simply not worth the bother; bread is so cheap to buy, so why bother to make it? Well: it may be true that you can buy a Value loaf of sliced white for under 30p in some supermarkets, but whether that actually represents good value for money I’m not so sure. The last time I made bread, I got two crunchy and very filling wholemeal loaves for the equivalent of about 50p each. To buy bread of equivalent quality in the supermarket would cost three times that. And to feel as full, you’d have to eat three times the amount of cheapy white.

If you are a bread-lover, with the recession and everything, the only sensible way forward is to make your own. If, on the other hand, you’ve always seen bread as a functional item – something with which to make sandwiches or to dip in soup, then making your own could persuade you to see it as a pleasurable treat, rather than a mundane necessity.

Incidentally, I do know plenty of people who swear by their breadmaker machines. Each to his own, but personally I’m not sure I see the point. The work that goes in to buying, cleaning and maintaining a machine seems to me like far more faff than just making by hand. You may disagree obviously, but if you’re new to this, I’d suggest trying the old-fashioned method first, before going out and investing in costly bits of kitchen equipment that’ll end up dumped in the attic with the juicer and the dodgy clothes you’re too embarrassed to give to charity.

 

BREAD

This started life as a Nigella recipe, but I’ve fiddled about with it to suit my own tastebuds. I find making it entirely out of wholemeal flour is a bit heavy, so I’ve messed with the white:wholemeal ratio until I found one that worked for me. You could also try experimenting with weird stuff like Spelt or buckwheat flour, or gluten free (let me know what happens…).

 

You need;

300g wholemeal flour (buy the stuff that says “bread flour” or “strong flour” for best results)

200g white flour (ditto)

One sachet of easy-blend yeast

Pinch of salt

Some warm water

Some olive or sunflower oil

 

Put the flour, the yeast and the salt in a big bowl. Now, as you mix with your hands, slowly add the water until the mixture starts to become a dough. (The water-adding isn’t an exact science – hence the slow-adding, but you’ll probably need at least 200ml.) Also add about a tablespoon of oil and mix that in well. If you want (and I often do)you could add some sunflower or pumpkin seeds at this point.

 

Once you’ve got a nice solid, pliable lump, take it out of the bowl and start kneading. What you’re doing is basically manipulating the dough with your hands to try and start the yeast working – the best way to do it is to push the heel of your hand into the dough, push it away hard, and then bring it back. When I was little my Mum told me to do it by folding the dough in half, pushing it down together, then repeating – that also works. Whatever you do, you need to keep doing until you feel a noticeable change in the dough – it will start to feel smooth, it will stretch, rather than tear when you try and pull it apart, and it will almost “bounce” under your fingers. It could take anything between five and fifteen minutes.

 

Now get the bowl you were using before, give it a quick clean out and cover the inside of it with oil. Put the ball of dough in the bowl. Now wet a tea towel under the hot tap, wring it out well and place that over the bowl.

 

Put the bowl in a warm place. In homage to my Mum, I use the airing cupboard in the bathroom, but you could put it underneath wherever your boiler is, or by a radiator or fire (but be careful obviously!), leave it there for an hour or two whilst you go see if there’s anything good on the i-player (I’ve been watching Wallander the Swedish detective series recently and highly recommend…)

 

When the lump has doubled (or sometimes trebled!) in size, you can get it back in the kitchen. Punch it down so it’s small again and knead again for a couple of minutes, before breaking it into however many loaves you want. You can make about eight bread rolls out of this – just roll roughly into balls and place directly on baking sheets; you can make two normal sized loaves – cut dough in half with a knife then place each half in a loaf tin, or directly on a baking sheet, or one massive loaf (best just dumped on a big baking sheet, it’ll be kind of round, rather than loaf shaped, but I think that’s nice.

 

Leave your bread lumps for another half hour to rise back up to double the size again before popping them in the oven at about 220°C and enjoying the lovely smell – small rolls will need about half an hour, big loaves a little longer – about 40-45 minutes depending on your oven  – apparently the proper way to check is to turn them over and knock on the underside of the bread – if it makes a hollow noise, it’s ready. Obviously don’t check too soon or it’ll get messy, and try not to burn your knuckles.

 

Once it’s done, make sure you have some of the lemon curd you made the other day to eat with it!

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Clare permalink
    September 7, 2010 19:23

    i’m so loving this post. as a baker’s daughter i have a duty to support quality bread rather than your value 30p loaf (no goodness, full of extra rubbish and just yuck).

    I’m am the worlds greatest avoider of faff too (ironing board – beth? – it’s all in how you hang it when it’s wet) – but even i can manage to make bread – it’s great fun, kids are quite useful for kneading, you can throw in extra stuff you have left (courgettes, pesto etc etc), it makes the house smell good (better than wet dog anyway) and it’s lush to eat. it’s a no brainer. Have to confess to using bread machine to do inital pumelling when small children unavailable or work calls but take it out to finish off.

    bring on the bread…….

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