I had not baked my own bread before yesterday since… I can’t even remember when! My bread flour had succumbed irreversibly to mould at the back of my cupboard and I had one lonely packet of yeast, similarly neglected, though happily just within its sell-by date (I’ve only ever used the fast-action stuff). Yesterday’s bake was a very welcome and happy reminder of the joys of home bread making – a huge cliche, I know, but trust me on this one. If you enjoy baking in any small way and have never baked your own bread before, do it!! Do it now!! The satisfaction of kneading the dough, seeing the ‘proof’ of the yeast, and the scent of a freshly baked loaf meandering throughout the kitchen – the whole house even – are all things you do not want to miss out on.
As if you would need any further incentive after my waxing poetical about the pleasures of the bread-baking process, I can assure you that the finished product also tastes amazing! The flavour of the yeast comes through subtly, and the texture is lovely if the dough has been proved properly; light and airy but with substance, and bit of bite to the chewy, golden crust. There is one downside, however; I think I can safely say (if you love bread as much as I do, anyway) that once you’ve had your first literal and metaphorical taste of bread baking, pre-sliced, shop-bought loaves will never tempt your fancy again! Of course you can still buy decent proper loaves and really good speciality breads from bakeries and even supermarkets, but… and I know I do harp on a bit about budgeting (when (if) I get a proper job after graduating I promise to stop being such a miser!)… they can be so expensive! Compared to the cost of flours and yeast for home-baking, shop-bought bread is comparatively bad value for money.
The recipe I chose – from Mary Berry’s Baking Bible, of course – is a simple white cottage loaf. Those are the ones that look a bit like wide snowmen to my mind, with a large round for the base and a smaller one on top. Mine didn’t retain this shape unfortunately, and instead baked into one large, flattish round. The texture and taste were unaffected as far as I was concerned, so I wasn’t too bothered, but I’m not really sure why it did happen in the first place, so experienced bread-bakers please feel free to enlighten me in the comments!
The list of ingredients and equipment needed is very short; as you can see the loaf is baked free-form, so you shape it by hand and bake it on a baking tray rather than in a tin. Stock up on bread flour and yeast and you’re good to go!
N.B. It is necessary to use bread flour – strong white or wholemeal (there is a wide range of bread flours available but these two are the basics, and the only two I have tried out as yet!) – because of the extra gluten it contains. Plain or self-raising does work and is occasionally used for some types of bread (soda bread, for example) but be sure to use the type specified in the recipe until you know enough about bread making to experiment with your own preferences.
- 450g strong white flour
- 7g sachet of fast-action yeast
- 40g butter
- 1 tsp table salt
- 300ml warm water
Step 1. Melt the butter, then measure out all the ingredients into a large bowl. If you are using a mixer, combine the ingredients for 4-5 minutes using the dough hook on your swish electric mixer (jel) until you have a fairly sticky, soft dough. If relying on your own trusty appendages, mix the ingredients in the bowl by hand until they come together and you can turn out the dough onto a floured work surface for kneading. Knead for 4-5 minutes or until the dough is soft. It is better to have the dough on the wet side because too much flour will result in a dense texture when the bread is baked. For this reason, Paul Hollywood dares to contradict his Bake Off partner in crime and suggests using olive oil on the work surface instead. Controversial. Here’s a link to his handy tutorial if you’re new to kneading: http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/techniques/kneading_bread_with_oil
Step 2. Transfer the dough to a large, lightly oiled bowl and cover the bowl tightly with clingfilm. Its important for the proving process that no air escapes. Leave in a warm place (not hot, like over a radiator – too much heat can kill the yeast) for about one to one and a half hours, or until the dough has doubled in size.
Step 3. Knock back the proved dough. This means giving it a good old punch up basically; sink your fist into the risen dough, knocking the air out of it. Then scrape the dough out of the bowl onto a floured (yes alright Paul, or oiled) work surface and knead for a couple of minutes until smooth. If your yeast is active, you should be able to see the aerated structure of the dough (again, I should have taken a picture!) which is made up of lots of little strands and holes – looks kind of like a stretchy honeycomb.
Step 4. Cut off a quarter of the dough, and form into a round ball. Shape the other part into a larger ball, and sit the small ball on top of the larger ball on a baking tray (this should be non-stick or lined with baking paper). Oil the handle of a wooden spoon and push it down through the centre of the cottage loaf so it reaches the tray. Remove carefully and put the whole lot, dough, tray and all, into a large seal-able plastic bag for a second prove. I improvised a sort of ‘bag’ with clingfilm, but I’m sure you can buy proving bags on the internet for this very purpose; something I may be investing in if regular bread making is feasible during term time! In this second prove it should take 35-45 minutes for the shaped dough to double in size, again in a warm place.
Step 5. Pre-heat the oven to 22oC/Gas Mark 7 and brush the loaf with beaten egg to glaze (I didn’t do this so it’s not strictly necessary but does give the crust a nice colour and crunch). Pop the loaf on its baking tray into the heated oven and bake for 20-25 minutes until golden. The loaf should sound hollow when you tap on the base – an indication that lots of air is inside, promising a light, fluffy texture! Leave to cool for as long as you can on a wire rack; its not a great idea to cut the bread when its still hot. Store in a bread bin or other air-tight container – it won’t keep for more than a couple of days before having to be relegated to toast duty, but if there’s more than one of you eating it I don’t imagine it will last that long anyway!
Source: Mary Berry’s Baking Bible, p. 285.
No notes on this one really, except to say that the method I’ve written out looks a bit lengthy, but please don’t be put off – most of it is just waiting for the dough to prove! Great if you have jobs to do at home but also want to bake; the long proving times are perfect windows for ticking off lists and getting things done. Or just relaxing and anticipating the success of your delicious home-made bread, if you have that luxury! Go forth and share the bready love people x