I fell in love with baking bread at the same time as I discovered growing things from seed. I get the same tactile pleasure from kneading dough as I do from being up to my wrists in earth. I usually have either dough or dirt under my fingernails – and sometimes both… A couple of weeks ago I mentioned baking bread in a post and Christina asked me to post my bread recipes so that we could share. I’d been meaning to blog about bread occasionally anyway, and decided it was high time I got around to it, so here is a start.
When I began I followed a Nigel Slater recipe, and turned out flattened domes of dense chewy bread. Tasty but not attractive, and certainly no competition for a good quality loaf from a good baker. But at least I knew exactly what was in it – just flour, yeast, salt and water – and had the pleasure of creating it. As with growing things, I have learnt a lot since then. Best of all, I bought myself the River Cottage Bread book by Daniel Stevens. It transformed my bread-making. He takes a full chapter to explain the basic bread recipe, what ingredients to use, how to shape a loaf, everything you need to make good bread. And it really works! I now make all kinds of bread, including ciabatta, walnut, peanut, not to mention great pizza bases, biscuits, bread sticks. But our every day bread, the one I am making today and make every week, is a wholemeal five seeded loaf.
The basic recipe follows the standard baker’s percentage but I use a little white flour to lighten the loaf slightly and add in a mix of seeds:
700g Wholemeal organic bread flour
300g Strong white organic flour
10g dry yeast
20g fine sea salt
600ml warm water
One handful each of poppy seeds, linseeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds
I use the sponge method for my 5 seeded bread, as it seems to give a deeper flavour and fits well into my daily life. This involves mixing half the flour (for me, 500g wholemeal) with all of the yeast and all of the warm water to make a rather unappetising glop, covering it with a (clean!) bin liner and leaving it out in the kitchen over night. The yeast starts to ferment and multiply, so that when you come down in the morning you are faced with a glop now full of bubbles and smelling slightly like a brewery. Now you add the rest of the flour, the salt, and in my case the seeds, and mix to form a rough dough. Sometimes enough water has been lost over night that I have to add a little more to make the dough nice and moist.
Ten minutes or so of kneading transforms the dough, turning it from rough and unpromising into smooth and elastic. I think this is my favourite part of the process, and I frequently lose myself in thought, often daydreaming about the garden and what I need to do next, kneading for closer to 15 minutes. The now pliable dough is shaped into a tight round – a key tip from Dan Steven’s book – and put back under its bin liner to double in size. I love the apparent alchemy of this, it reminds me of the way that you sow seed and then as if by magic it sprouts into the green shoots of the new garden. Knowing the underlying science in no way diminishes the pleasure. This rising takes anything from an hour to three, depending on the temperature. I rather like the unpredictability of it all, though it can be a problem if I am working to some sort of deadline – like lunch…
Next comes the shaping and proving. I like smallish loaves, it gives a higher crust to bread ratio, which in a household where everyone wants the fresh crust helps maintain a certain degree of harmony! I divide the risen dough into 3, shape each portion into a tight round and leave, covered by that bin liner, to rest for 15 minutes. I would never have known to do this without the book, but it seems to really help. Each round is then shaped into a stubby cylinder, rolled in a little milk and then in some pumpkin seeds, and placed on a floured board (under that bin liner) to prove. I was getting problems with loaves splitting during the proving stage, but some advice from the River Cottage forum suggested I was leaving the loaves for too long. Now I tend to only leave them for just over an hour, until they have almost doubled in size and are springy to the touch.
Now the oven gets turned up to top whack with a large heavy baking tray inside and an old tin on the shelf below it. I boil the kettle, make sure I have a plant sprayer full of water to hand and gently slash the top of each loaf. The tops spring apart proving that the yeast is still alive and well. Now comes the only bit of the process that I don’t really enjoy. Transferring the loaves to the baking tray. I used to get really panicky at this point, as I’d read dire warnings about needing to be careful about not knocking all the air out. And yes, you do have to be gentle, but actually the loaves rise a lot in the first few minutes in the oven, so it is not nearly as desperate as I used to think. So, each loaf is gently lifted on to the piping hot baking tray, sprayed with water, and the tray replaced in the oven. The boiling water from the kettle is poured into the old tray on the bottom shelf to add steam, the door closed, and timer set for 10 minutes. When the buzzer goes, the oven gets turned down to between 190C and 170C, depending on how quickly they are colouring, and the timer reset for around 20 minutes. By this time the smell is filling the house and people tend to start appearing in the doorway looking hopeful…
The final product is a tasty wholemeal bread, perfect toasted or for sandwiches, with no preservatives. It costs a fraction of what the equivalent loaf from an artisan baker would be, and I get the joy of making it. Each loaf is slightly different, and sometimes I forget to slash the tops and they split in the oven, or I don’t leave the dough to rise enough and the loaves are a tad too dense. But I could never go back to buying bread having discovered what fun it is to bake my own. Would I still do it if I worked full time? I think so, as it doesn’t actually take much time. Perhaps 20 minutes to weigh, mix and knead, then later – and it can be much later – another 10 minutes to shape. I think the timing would be the most difficult thing, as you do need to be around to check during proving, and you do need to be around for the half hour or so around actually baking the loaves, but it is so worth it…