Wednesday, 26 August 2009


They say bread is the staff of it must be important right? Well, it's important to me. Bread seems to have become my new obsession. I'm fascinated by it, every last detail - from the combining of ingredients, to the magic that happens when the dough is fermenting, to the unrivalled joy and satisfaction when you watch it rise even further in the oven and become a loaf that is a result of your own it well crafted or not!! Perfection in baking bread is not necessarily what I aim for. Obviously the end result is far more satisfying if the soft inside is light and tasty, and your bread has risen and baked properly (without the dreaded flying crust, or a dense heavy bread), but I think bread tastes better if it looks a little...rustic, shall we say? There's so much more enjoyment in eating home made bread than mass-produced rubbish, and I quite like it when I can tell that it is the product of hands rather than machines. Those imperfections make it all the better for me!

I was given the River Cottage Handbook for Bread a few days ago, and between that and The Wolseley book (Yes!! I now own a real live copy of Mr. Gill's beautiful book!) I've pretty much disappeared into a black hole of food writing over the last week or so. It's fascinating to learn why ingredients do what they do when you mix them together, rather than blindly following a recipe and hoping for the best! The River Cottage Handbook in particular is a really detailed account, it goes into the minutiae of breadmaking, which inevitably leads to the reader's bread being all the better for it!
I have to admit, that although I have baked bread before, plenty of times, I've never known why each step in the process is important. I've never known what makes one loaf wildly different from another, or in fact, one loaf much better than another - so thank you Daniel Stevens for writing such a brilliant and informative book!! The book also has far more steps for making bread than your run-of-the-mill bread recipes from chefs who don't specialise in breadmaking, which make a world of difference, and I thoroughly recommend taking the time to incorporate them when you make bread (which I really really really hope you do, when you taste it you'll wonder why you never made home-made bread earlier, I promise!!).

I decided to start simple, a wholemeal dough enough for two loaves - one plain, and the other coated in oats. And my oh my, putting the extra effort in and taking those extra steps really did make this bread stand apart from loaves I've baked before. Daniel Stevens differentiates between fermenting, rising, and proving, which I had never come across before (most recipes just say 'prove') and recommends letting the dough rise for a further two or three times after the first fermentation, so that your dough becomes more pillowy with a satin-like feel to it, and this really did make for a much lighter and softer bread.
So here is the recipe and method, bear with me, it's rather long, but trust me, it's worth it!!

For two large loaves:
1kg flour
600-650ml tepid water
20g salt
10g yeast
1 tblsp olive oil
1 tblsp runny honey
Mix the flour, water, salt, yeast and honey to a loose dough, then add the oil and squidge together. This will be quite sticky, but don't worry, it will become less so with kneading.
Knead for about 15 minutes until you can stretch it as thin as a pair of tights.
Oil a bowl and the top of the dough and leave to ferment in the bowl wrapped in a bin bag until it has doubled in size.
Take out the dough and press the air out gently with your fingers. You can leave to rise again another 2 or 3 times to make the dough softer and pillowy.
Press with your fingers again to push the air out.
Shape the loaves.
Coat in anything you fancy!!
Preheat your oven to maximum temperature and place your baking tray and a tray that will hold some water at the bottom of the oven.
Leave to prove until almost doubled in size and when you give the loaves a gentle squeeze they bounce back.
Slash the tops and spray with water.
Place on the baking tray and pour some some water from the kettle into the tray at the bottom of the oven then place the loaves in the oven on the top temperature for 10 minutes.
If the loaves have browned quickly, turn the oven down to 170 degrees and bake for a further 40 minutes. If they are a pale brown, turn the oven to 190 degrees and bake for 40 minutes.
Tap the bottom of the loaves with your knuckles, if they sound hollow, they're done. For a harder crust, you can leave them in the oven a little longer.

After all that time and effort, I wanted a quick and easy dessert...which just so happened to involve more bread...I'm a woman obsessed!! Summer pudding is such an easy pudding, and really, it's not summer until you've made one! I hate to waste food, so this is a great pudding as it prefers slightly stale bread, and you can chuck in any summer fruits you happen to have.

Summer Pudding

600g mixed berries
100g caster sugar
100ml water
8-10 slices white bread

Line a bowl (this recipe makes enough for about an 800ml bowl) with cling film - have two sheets crossing each other so you have the cling film in a sort of X shape.
Put the berries, sugar and water in a pan, and cook for a few minutes until the fruit is tender.
Remove the fruit, and reserve all the juice.
Cut your bread into rectangles, and dip into the juice before lining the bowl with them.
Put the berries into the lined bowl and then fold over the bread to create a lid, or if your bread isn't long enough, just place more soaked slices on top.
Fold over the cling film sheets fairly tightly so that the pudding firms up in a good shape in the fridge.
Ideally leave it in the fridge overnight...but we're too impatient so a few hours in the fridge will do!!

Enjoy your summer in a bowl!!

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