I remember making a cake from packet mix when I was about 9 years old, in the matchbox kitchen of the shoebox unit we lived in with our mother. There was little room for improvisation with the recipe, I mean, really, adding a couple of eggs and some butter was hardly going to rocket this cake to memorial status. So recently intrigued by how adding food colouring to nearly any batter produced colour without flavour, I added red and blue to the cake and coloured the icing green. My brain still recalls that it tasted of blueberry vanilla. In fact, it was just vanilla. Purple and green vanilla cake. I thought it was hilarious.
So, I think it’s safe to say that I’ve come to this baking thing late in life. I remember various transgressions on my part through my early cooking years – a gunmetal grey F16 fighter jet birthday cake, flat scones, burst muffins and soggy pastry. I’ve no shame in admitting that I’ll happily use someone else’s guaranteed store-bought pastry to be assured of success in recent years. Now pies, tarts, you name it – leave my kitchen to happy homes and happy bellies. Baking has been a skill to master, a challenge to conquer even if cheating is required.
Bread, however, is another story. I like making it. I like that every dough is slightly different. I love the sound it makes hitting on the bowl as it changes through each stage. I love that it takes hours, consumes your attention. I’m yet to make a bread starter of my own, but the idea of a living starter of my own allures me with it’s ancient artistry.
Bread makes no pretenses about it’s demand for your attention, nor does it have any qualms asking to be left alone. It can be as individual as paint colours in final textures, finishes, flavours. I especially like that bread dough can look like a failure for the first 15 minutes, until the glutens hit their stride and transform into something moreish and chewy. It reminds me of people – you have to learn how to judge the moment and not beat them down too much, too soon and sometimes to just hold on a little longer.
Bread doesn’t need much adornment to satisfy you, either. Nothing more than a little oil or butter to be shown in it’s best light. Again, like the best people – in their simplest form, they are complete.
I like that bread is often best made in batches, not in single loaves. Worth sharing. Better for sharing. And while bread will bide time overnight if necessary, from the moment yeast hits water a process of inevitability has begun. Rise a little, rise a lot – so long as the yeast is alive, then your bread will come to life too. The cycle begins and then it continues.
Bread is simple, honest, universal and yet, personal because all bread eventually is finished by hand, prodded into shape.
Bread reminds me of people – you have to learn how to judge the moment and not beat them down too much or just hold on a little longer before giving up.
Bread is a lot like humans. We are all better off with a little interaction, a little time invested, a little hope holding on, a little belief and anticipation of the end result. Some of the best bread is finished in a fire, but it’s all good bread. Time is the best thing you can do for us. Time to prove. Time to rest, time to rise to the occasion.
The loaves I’m making today have an awkward beginning. You throw everything together* (see below) into a stand mixer and then beat it to within an inch of it’s life. For the first 20 minutes, it looks like a lumpy pancake batter, too wet to hold together and not remotely resembling any other dough I make.
A lot of folks would give up on this recipe about then, but you have to have faith that it will come together. Put aside how you expected it to happen and just watch it, beating on and on. Eventually something magic happens and the threads of gluten start to pull away from the bowl and follow the finger pulling them. The grip of the dough swings from the side of the bowl to your hand, with more of a desire to cling to itself than to a foreign object. And then you leave it, in an oiled dish – just a little oil to help it out and make it more comfortable you might say.
Let it sit, rest and rise – a few hours at least, then slide it gently to the floured bench, cut into four pieces, dust with cornmeal and leave to prove for another 45mins. Then and only then, pull and prod it into the oblong shape you want, dimple the top slightly with your fingertips, little dimples of love. Finish it for 25mins in a searingly hot oven (really 220 degress celsius for the first ten minutes, then 180). Mist it with water or oil until the crust is firm and crunchy, with a resonant hollow note when you tap the base.
It will make 4 loaves, 1 to eat, 1 to keep and 2 to share. Bread has a funny way of filling your house with warm, toasty fragrance and making your belly happy. It’s a wonderful excuse to fill a house with people too, people eating together, using their hands.
500g bread flour or 350g bread flour + 150g semolina flour
500ml warm water
15g active dried yeast