Monday, March 14, 2011

Bread: the staff of life and the stuff of nightmares (mine, at least)

I like cooking. I love baking. But for some reason, I'm terrified at the thought of making bread.

I know it's crazy. After all, lots of people (my mum included) make bread most days so it can't be that difficult. Even I have made some successful focaccias, baguettes and other loaves of bread in the past.

But I can't help it. I feel nervous every time I'm faced with flour, yeast and water. I worry that the water may not be warm enough or, even worse, that it may be too hot. I ask myself whether I am using the right sort of yeast and enough of it. Will the bread rise? And much more importantly, will it taste good?

I've decided to face the fear. Bread is one of the most basic foodstuffs of all. People have been making it - without fuss, anxiety or worry - for centuries. So, I've set myself a challenge. I'm going to bake a loaf of bread every second day or so until I've mastered a selection of breads that I like and can make a loaf in minutes - just like my mum does.

I'm starting with what Jamie liver calls his 'basic bread recipe'. Here goes...

1 kg/just over 2lb strong bread flour
625ml/just over 1 pint tepid water
30g fresh yeast or three of those 7g or 1/4 oz sachets of dried yeast
2 tbsp sugar
2 level tablespoons sea salt
Extra flour for dusting

(I was making a loaf of bread to last two people for two days so I divided these ingredients by three to make one loaf. Alternatively, I could have made three loaves and frozen two of them. That's what I'll do next time.)

  • Weigh all of your ingredients.

  • Pile the flour onto a clean surface and make a large well in the centre.

  • Pour half of your water into the well and add the yeast, sugar and salt.

  • Stir with a fork, slowly bringing the flour in from the outside of the well. Be careful not to break the walls of the well (as I did) as the water will go everywhere. Even if it does, don't worry. Continue incorporating the water until you've got a stodgy, porridge-like consistency. Don't worry about making a mess. This is what mine looked like:

  • Add the remaining water and continue mixing until you've achieved a stodgy consistency again. You can then be more aggressive, flouring your hands and pushing the dough together.

  • Then, it's time to knead. Push, fold, slap and roll the dough around for four or five minutes until you have a silky and elastic dough.

  • Flour the top of the dough. Put it in a bowl, cover with clingfilm and allow it to prove for about half an hour until it has doubled in size - ideally in a warm, moist and draught-free place. Mine looked like this at this stage:

  • Once the dough has doubled in size, knock the air out of it for 30 seconds by bashing and squashing it. You can now shape it or flavour it as required. I shaped mine into a simple round loaf.

  • Leave it to prove for a second time for 30 mins to an hour until it has doubled in size once more.

  • Gently place it on a flour-dusted baking tray and into an oven that has been pre-heated to 180 degrees. I sprinkled on some wholemeal flour for some extra crunch and left it to bake for 30 mins.

  • You can tell whether it's cooked by tapping the bottom. If it sounds hollow, it's done. If not, pop it back in for a while longer. I left mine in for five minutes longer at the end (making it 35 minutes baking time in total) and got a wonderful loaf as a result. I allowed it to rest for 30 minutes and then spread it with some butter and was amazed at the success of such a simple recipe.

    The crust has got a crunchy bite. The bread inside is pillowy soft and light. What more could anyone ask of their first loaf of bread?

    Face the fear, I tell you. It's worth it.

    1. Hi Sharon
      I have to say bread isnt one of the things i usually bake do you know can you leave it too long to proove before putting it in the oven, like if i made the dough tonight and dont put in the oven until tomorrow evening is that too long?

    2. As I'm new to bread making, I'm not quite sure about the answer to this question. I've asked some people and the best answer I got was to leave it in the fridge where it will ferment slowly and have a much better flavour as a result. I haven't done this and so can't personally guarantee success. But I'm definitely going to try it. It sounds great.

    3. I've actually got so many responses to this question on Twitter that I'm heartened at the amount of breadmakers out there! A lot of people are saying that as long as you knock the air out of it and perhaps cut off any bits that have got too big, it should be perfect. I'd say the best option is to try it and see...