A month of home-made bread – an experiment for June

BEHOLD THE JOY OF BREAD
BEHOLD THE JOY OF BREAD

Not exactly a believer in no-carb. I have no fear of gluten. I love bread and love that making it is half science and half dark art. Over the years I’ve gotten more confident with the bread-making, moving away from the strong-white and a bit of sundried tomato towards breads made with rye, spelt and teff flours. It’s quite a meditative thing and no coincidence, I think, that as my bread making has improved, so has my general approach to food. Understanding what goes into bread, the robustness of it and how satisfying it can be has actually made me put less in my cake-hole. That, and the Lovely One hoovers it up like he’s got a worm or something.

Such was the success that I decided I was going to take the next step and go home-made for a month, which is what it sounds like. No bought bread, no square wholemeals, no nothing. My one failure was when my aunt and uncle came around because I needed a massive loaf quickly – but aside from that it was all my own work. And you know what? It was fun! It’s made me a better and more confident baker and definitely made me get out there and do new and exciting things.

So, in a Buzzfeed kinda-way. may I present: “Things I learned about baking your own bread over the course of a month”:

1) TAKE YOUR TIME, and RELAX. The thing that puts a lot of people off bread-making is the time spent, but honestly the most successful loaves I made were the ones where I forgot about it a bit, popped it in the fridge for a super-slow rise and then accidentally left it too long. Rising dough in the fridge is a doddle and so convenient for overnight rises, meaning a rise which takes about 2 hours will take about 8. But the results are brilliant. My best timetable was making up the dough in the early evening, kneading and resting for a short while for the first rise, before popping in a tin or basket and letting it go in the fridge for baking in the morning.

2) Home made bread rolls are the BOMB. SERIOUSLY. Man, they were excellent. And proof that you can muck about a bit with recipes to tweak to your taste.

Wholemeal baps. I LOVED this. It was my first attempt at modifying a book recipe and worked like a dream. yay!
Wholemeal baps. I LOVED this. It was my first attempt at modifying a book recipe and worked like a dream. yay!
Avo on brown roll. H.E.A.V.E.N.
Avo on brown roll. H.E.A.V.E.N.

3) Sourdough is nice but probably only worth the effort if you want to get super serious about bread. It’s a different sort of challenge and while not terribly difficult, it took a few goes to get right and I still wasn’t sold on sourdough being SOOOO much better than instant yeast. I will definitely keep my starter going (his name is Baldrick) and the results are delicious for toast, to be sure. It just generally doesn’t make for good sandwiches, being a bit too holey.

My first major success with a part-sourdough boule - super pillowy and chewy!
My first major success with a part-sourdough boule – super pillowy and chewy!

 

4) a baking stone is the way forward, ALWAYS. I got mine in  charity shop for a fiver, and it’s simply a great big chunk of flat marble I suspect was originally going to be a fancy serving plate for cheese or the like. I just got it home and whacked it in the oven and while it’s gone a funny colour, it holds up and I love it. Whether you bake directly on it or pop a tin on the top, it helps get a crisp crust on the bottom and provides the consistent blast of heat essential for a good rise, especially on more dense breads with rye or malted grains. Pop it in while the oven’s warming up for best results.

My beautiful blushing pain de campagne. Hello gorgeous.
My beautiful blushing pain de campagne. Hello gorgeous.

5) Get electric scales – seriously. No one wants to spend their time measuring out 10g of salt only for it to be wrong and for your yeast to die.

6) Waitrose and Sainsburys “taste the difference” range of flours are definitely the best for more niche flours like spelt, rye and malted, but when it comes to bread flour, carr’s is a winner for me. Nothing fancy, nothing ridiculously expensive, but consistently good and gets a good loaf for the price. I tried the super-cheap strong white flours but found them a touch gluey and a bit cakey on the finish. If you’re determined to find a bargain, though, the good news is that Lidl does the best strong wholemeal I’ve found.

Looks unpromising, doesn't it?
Looks unpromising, doesn’t it?
"Autolysing" is basically letting your just-combined bread ingredients chillax and sit for 30 minutes before getting in there and kneading. Extensive testing proves that this genuinely works and so you should totally do it.
“Autolysing” is basically letting your just-combined bread ingredients chillax and sit for 30 minutes before getting in there and kneading. Extensive testing proves that this genuinely works and so you should totally do it.

7) Get organised… or find a recipe which is quick to turn out. Generally, with all this waiting around for things to happen, you are not going to get your bread on the day you want unless you compromise. Flatbreads or similar are your friend here. For example, Pitta is amazing, easy and you should make more of it.

9) In my experience, while you don’t HAVE to, if you want the best loaf, you need to knead. If you don’t, you basically make unsweetened cake. Whether you go in for little and often with the kneading, like Dan Lepard, or go for big slapping sessions like Paul Hollywood, you must must must must knead your bread if you expect it to be good. YES, EVEN IF IT’S STICKY. The only tip I can offer here is to practice. Once you know what silky, alive-feeling well-kneaded dough feels like, it will get easier to know when you’ve done enough.

This is what happens when you don't knead, you don't add quite enough liquid and you don't let it rise for long enough. Bleurgh texture. Tasted great though!
This is what happens when you don’t knead, you don’t add quite enough liquid and you don’t let it rise for long enough. Bleurgh texture. Tasted great though!

10) Experiment! Buy a good bread-based baking book and try new things. They won’t always work, and sometimes they’ll be downright wrong. But it helps you understand why some things work and some don’t and will maybe leave you confident to start getting creative with some recipes!

Pesto bread. Eh. So - here's the deal. I made a giant loaf which was fluffy and springy and tasty but just was - dare I say it - a bit fake-looking? Pearly-white with green swirls in the middle, but fell apart if you tried to do anything other than rip at it with your bare hands and was useful for sandwich making. A worthy experiment, but best for kids.
Pesto bread. Eh. So – here’s the deal. I made a giant loaf which was fluffy and springy and tasty but just was – dare I say it – a bit fake-looking? Pearly-white with green swirls in the middle, but fell apart if you tried to do anything other than rip at it with your bare hands and was  useless for sandwich making. A worthy experiment, but best for kids.

 

Inspired? Try my favourite success. Housemate and Lovely One adored them and while the recipe made loads, they didn’t last long.

Wholemeal Rolls 

Makes 12 – these are not your classic 100% punishers – they’ve got white flour to soften the flavour/texture and are made with milk in the mix to soften them further. As they contain a little sugar, they don’t keep as well as most home-made bread, so eat up within 3 days. The good news is that they freeze BEAUTIFULLY.

(adapted freely from a recipe by James Morton who really does write the best bread recipes. They work and – importantly – explain WHY this stuff works. Top notch.) 

Ingredients:

250g strong while flour

250g strong wholemeal flour (swap in a tablespoon or two of rye flour if you fancy)

20g caster sugar

10g salt

7g fast-action yeast (weird amount, I know, but it’s the standard measurement. Most supermarkets sell instant yeast in 7g packets anyhow)

330g milk-and-water – hold up, this probably needs explaining. The theory here is that baking is about ratios, and so if your ratios are about weight, it’s best to weigh your liquids instead of measuring in a jug, because the small difference it makes can lead to very different outcomes for your bread. I tend to pop the jug on the scales, add 150ml of whatever milk I have lying around and top up with warmish water until the desired weight is reached.

1. Take a big bowl and pop in your flour and sugar, mixing in the sugar so it’s evenly distributed. Put your salt on one side of the bowl and the yeast on the other – it’s important they don’t touch as salt will kill the yeast on contact. That doesn’t mean they’ll die once mixed on or anything – think of it as being like Montagus and Capulets. If they get in each other’s faces then it’s bad news, but mix it up at a party and things are probably going to be okay. Until someone’s daughter cops off with a lad in chain mail and then it all goes tits up because PEOPLE DON’T CHECK THEIR FACTS BEFORE THEY MAKE STUPID DECISIONS. Jeez, that play still makes me angry

2. Anyway, back to baking. Rub the salt and the yeast into the flour on opposite sides of the bowl, then pour in your room-temperature milk-and-water mix. Using your fingers, mix it all together until you get a cohesive, slightly sticky dough. Cover and leave to rest for 30 min.

3. NOW you can knead. Try not to add any more flour at this stage, because every time you add flour to the kneading, you’re just giving the yeast more to do to make the bread rise. Instead, go quickly and try to use your fingertips and the heel of your palms, rather than squishing away with your fingers. The dough will take about 7 minutes to relax, then another 5 or so to get super-silky and a pleasure to handle.

4. Pop back in the bowl and leave for between 1 and 2 hours, depending on how hot the ambient temperature is. In warm june weather it took about an hour to blow up, but you’re looking for a nice puffing, and the dough will more than double in size.

5. Take some trays (two will do it) and oil them. Now, take your dough and split it into 12, then roll into balls. They’ll be rather small, so if you want bit ol’ baps try splitting into 8 instead.

6. Leave on the trays, lightly draped with cling film, oiled on the inside to prevent sticking, and leave for another hour. After 30 minutes or so, heat your oven. I went for 210 degrees centigrade, giving a good balance between a little crust but still quite soft.

7. After about 30 minutes your oven will be nice and hot and your rolls ready to go – they may even be kissing each other! I don’t worry about this, they’ll pull apart nicely afterwards. Cook in the oven for about 10-15 minutes or until golden and smelling bloody delicious. They’ll be super-crisp at first but will get softer in the air. Once cold, keep in a tin, if you can keep them that long!

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