Bread. Sometimes it isn’t a very interesting topic of conversation. In my experience we spend more time discussing the filling of our sandwiches, rather than the bread that holds the filling. There’s nothing particularly interesting in a loaf of white toast slice – unless it is really fresh, buttered and full of chips from the fish and chip shop. But I digress…
Bread can be interesting! Once you decide you are a baker then bread becomes a topic you really enjoy discussing. I’ve dabbled with bread for a long time, and only recently have I started turning out loaves of bread that I can truly say I am really happy with. I have a couple of good mates who are on a similar journey and we can talk for ages about how we cook our bread, how long we let it rise, what temperature the oven should be at, what effect this has on the crust. It’s a lot of fun. For me it has been an exercise in what to leave out as well as mastering the most important ingredient for any artisan loaf—time.
My first loaves of bread were made to a recipe in a book by Annabel Langbein (she of Free-range Cook fame), and John Kirwin. The book was called “John Kirwan & Annabel Langbein’s favourite barbecue and grill recipes (1989)”, and it had a recipe for “Italian Pizza Bread”. It’s not a great bread recipe. Any bread recipe that begins “Add yeast and sugar and water to the bowl of your food processor” is probably not going to be a classic. I’m almost certain that the bread did not have any particular origins in Naples (adding some rosemary on top seemed to be the only real Italian touch). But it got me started, and the bread always got eaten. Even slightly dodgy home-made bread is still GOOD!
There are two issues I have had with home-made bread. The too yeasty flavour, and the dry crumbly texture. No matter how hard I tried and could never solve those two issues. Recently I seem to have cracked it. I am down to four ingredients now. Here’s my current bread recipe that turns out beautiful, bouncy, spongy artisan bread:
For 1 loaf:
375g strong bread flour (12% protein if you can find it)
1.5 tsp instant yeast
1 tsp salt
about 250ml water
Add all the ingredients together and mix into a dough. Don’t stress if the dough is on the soft wobbly side. I usually use the breadmaker set to “dough”. The breadmaker does a remarkably good job of mixing and kneading, but I never let it actually cook the bread for me. It has messed it up too often to be trusted! It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a breadmaker, or are morally opposed to them, you can make the dough the good old-fashioned way (and build up your forearm muscles at the same time). It is important to knead the dough long enough to end up with a smooth, bouncy elastic ball of bread potential. If the dough has lumps or is dense and unyielding then you have to keep going.
Put the bread into a warm place and let it rise for a good hour. The breadmaker also does quite a nice job of this too.
Punch the dough down (in other words knock some of the gas out of it), shape it into its final form (can be plain or really fancy). I usually line a round bowl with a well-floured tea-towel and put the dough in it covered with another tea-towel. Then let the dough rise again for another hour or so. This second rising is critical! Do not be tempted to do the 10 minutes that some recipes recommend.
Once the second rising is done turn the dough out ever-so-carefully onto a baking tray (if you shaped your dough on a baking tray, or in a loaf tin, in the first place then you can ignore this step). Sprinkle some flour over it if you like. Slash the top in interesting patterns if you like. Place it into a VERY hot oven. I usually go for 220ºC on fan bake. I sometimes put a tray of water in the bottom to generate steam for a chewy crust. The bread will be cooked in about 12-15 mins, so keep an eye on it. It’s done when you tap the bottom and it sounds hollow.
Give it a go. You will be completely delighted with the result. And if you aren’t then try again and muck around with the recipe until you have a loaf you are proud of.
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