Our coffee table, flotsam from a live-in girlfriend a few years back, had seen better days. It had originally been rescued from a skip in Angel, and apart from a semi-uniform coat of white gloss applied by said girlfriend, hadn’t seen much love. Already peppered with woodworm tunnels, it was now chipped, stained, and decidedly wobbly since being used as an occasional stepladder or dance podium. If you tried to drag it across the room you’d risk leaving half of it behind. It’s been long-due an overhaul.
At the age of 19 I lost my sense of smell to a freak cat-related malady, and for the following four or five years I was, to all intents and purposes, smell-blind. I occasionally wondered whether this affliction might make me particularly suitable to some niche profession, but nothing compelling sprung to mind. I look back and now realise I should obviously have trained as a plumber: I’d have made a small fortune fitting toilets and doing other jobs where not being able to smell poo grants some kind of efficiency bonus.
You live and learn I suppose.
Another thing I learnt from half a decade of anosmia (what the medical establishment call nose-blindness, presumably to avoid confusion with those people who can’t see noses) is that I very much missed the smell of toast. The smell of browning bread became this tantalising memory of why I liked the smell rather than the long since lost visceral qualia of the smell itself. It was not until my mid-twenties that my sense of smell slowly returned and I was once again able to smell that glorious smell of toast toasting in a toaster. I bloody love toast. Cats are bastards.
This week you should have a go at baking your own bread. You barely need anything to do it and the worst that can happen is you end up with a wonderful smelling house and a lot of breadcrumbs. Probably. I mean you could really balls it up and burn London to the ground, but you’d have to seriously go off the reservation and at some point there will be a recipe in this post so that seems unlikely.
Homemade bread is also one of those things which is fundamentally different to stuff you buy. At the start the fundamental difference will probably be that it’s not as good, but, once you transcend the teething phase, homemade bread has a freshness that shop-bought bread can’t touch. Though it goes stale quicker it’s not so prone to mould, and stale bread makes fine toast and excellent breadcrumbs.
But making bread is also messy, meditative, and drawn out: in a good way. Like a camping holiday, or revenge. I understand bread-making machines are a thing, but part of what I like about my weekly bread-making habit (other than the smell did I mention the smell) is the childish mud-pie of fresh dough, the fourteen-or-so minutes of rhythmic kneading whilst letting your thoughts wander, and then the couple-of-hour ritual of rehousing your expanding bump of dough from counter-top to fridge and finally to oven. You can even carve offensive messages into it before you bake it, so that’s pretty great.
In summary: it smells nice, it’s rewarding, it’s actually better than what you can buy, it’s cheaper, and it involves some enforced quiet time. I’ve found that guides on making bread don’t cover all the pitfalls I’ve managed to find, so if you’ve not yet had the pleasure be forewarned that I go into some detail as I explain how to make bread.
makes 1x white loaf that I can just about eat all of in a week, before it turns into a brick
- 1x 25g packet of instant yeast
- 450g strong white bread flour
- 50g wholemeal bread flour
- A good three-finger pinch of salt
- Cold water
- A splash of olive oil
Mixing & Kneading
There is an art to making a good loaf. In a big bowl mix the flours (the wholemeal flour makes the final product a bit more interesting) and yeast, and then add the salt: yeast gets upset when salt gets up in it’s face, so do mix in before adding the salt.
Next add about half a mug of water and mix with a wooden spoon. Keep adding water and mixing until you have a sticky dough that just about peels away from the sides of the bowl, with no dry flour left. This is the first obvious pitfall: the dough almost certainly needs to be stickier than you think it does, without being runny. It will stick to your spoon and hands and bowl but that’s good. Dry dough makes stodgy, rubbish bread.
Sticky dough is, however, a bit more of an arse to knead by hand. Splash some olive oil onto a worktop (not a chopping board unless it’s seriously weighty) and spread out to dissuade your dough from sticking. Spoon the dough out onto the oil, and you’re ready to start kneading. The best way I’ve found to do this is the French ‘slap and fold’ method, as demonstrated by Richard Bertinet below:
Slap and fold eh? Who knew. Coincidentally also my signature strip poker play.
The movement is definitely easier to show than describe, but at the start (before the dough tightens up) you want to end your fold with a shrug that leaves a horizontal oblong dough, so your hands need to move outwards. When you pick the dough up for the next lift you do so at one end of this oblong, with hands on the front and back of the dough rather than the sides, so that the dough rotates 90º as you lift it, before the next slap.
Speaking of the slap, let’s get a little child cruelty visualisation involved. When you lift the dough in front of you and away from the worktop, think of the dough like a baby you’re holding under the little baby armpits, who’s facing away from you. Give him a little flick as you lift him to shoulder-height, so his feet kick out in front of him, and when you bring him down his heels should hit hard enough to stick to the worktop. Pull back towards you, stretching his little body out, and then chuck his head into the wood/steel/marble, between where his feet are still stuck. To be extra clear and upsetting, you’re folding him forwards: the way humans usually fold. The shrug sends his arms out to both sides.
You’ll need to knead for between twelve to eighteen minutes – set a timer. I’ve found the tricks to doing this well are:
- concentrating on stretching the dough towards you between the slap and the fold
- nailing that french shrug thing to chuck the dough down
- move the dough lightly on your oily fingers, treating the dough like it’s on fire: toughing it briefly, and without sticking your fingertips into it
- not worrying about a bit of dough sticking to the surface
As I write this my housemate Mark is being a good sport and trying to follow my directions, but has hit another issue. If you’ve listened to my advise about keeping your dough sticky a little too closely you may have found that the dough is so runny it’s difficult to knead. If that happens just mix in a bit more flour on your worktop.
I really enjoy kneading, now I’m past the ‘urgh it’s so sticky what the hell’ phase. There is something profoundly meditative about a repetitive task that fully occupies your attention. When I said your mind wanders earlier that wasn’t quite accurate – as soon as your mind wanders you fling the dough into the ceiling, which is the kind of external correction I’ve always found actual meditation lacks. It’s a very accessible way to get into a state of flow.
So how do you know when it’s kneaded enough? Continuing the child abuse theme, I use the ‘baby’s bottom’ method: the dough is done if you can slap and fold so the dough curls underneath itself, making a little smooth bum of dough that is markedly less sticky that it was at the start. If you poke it, it should bounce back immediately (like a real bum). Check out this demo (not of a bum):
All these videos are well worth watching in their entirety by the way: kneading is definitely something easier to show than describe. Especially on your first time you may find that you need to knead for ages whilst you get the hang of it: it’s pretty hard to over-knead dough by hand without your arms dropping off, and when it’s ready the dough goes though a pretty significant change, becoming tighter and firmer.
Rising & Proving
When it’s done get it back in the mixing bowl and cover with clingfilm or a damp tea towel. Leave it somewhere room temperature (so not next to a hot oven) for an hour – the dough should double in size.
You may find that any dough still stuck to your worktop has set like cement. To get it off without scrubbing too much use a sponge to pool water on top, give it a minute or two to soften the dough up, and then use a plastic scraper or wooden spatula to get the worst of it off. Finish off with a sponge, and if it’s a wooden worktop rub a tiny bit of oil in when it’s dry (I tend to use olive oil or whatever I have to hand – mineral oil would be better as vegetable oils can go bad in wood, but I haven’t had any issues to date…).
Once the dough has doubled in size you need to beat it back to get rid of the bigger air bubbles – wet your hands and punch it in the bowl until it’s back to something resembling it’s original size. Whether this is going in a loaf tin or on a baking tray (either way lined with baking parchment stuck down with a little oil, rather than grease-proof paper) you need to get a bit of tension in the surface of the dough again (by tension I mean the surface of the dough looks stretched out and smooth). Turn in out onto your workshop with a little fresh oil or flour, and either make a baby’s bottom just like we did before (tucking the edges underneath to make something like a french boule) or flatten the bread out and roll it back towards you starting at the furthest edge – see below for a demo from accidental nazi Paul Hollywood:
I have to admit I’m definitely not churning out picture-perfect loaves, but it’s nice to have something to aspire to. Once you’re happy with it (and you can always reset by doing a few slap and folds if it goes tits up) quickly plop it onto your tray/tin, sprinkle with some flour, and cover with a tea towel (I tend to find that my dough either sticks to or gets squished by clingfilm as it rises).
Dough tastes stronger the longer it has to develop, and as white bread can err on the side of bland we’ve lengthened this process by using cold water and not having it rise next to an oven. In this vein, stick your loaf into the fridge if, like the known universe, you have space and time. It can live in there for another hour. If you’re in a rush about 30 minutes outside the fridge is the less tasty option.
As the end of the proving time approaches get your oven pre-heated to 220°C.
Once your bread has proved (it will have risen again) it’s time to get fancy. To ensure we get a good crust we want to bake the bread in high humidity, and we’ll do that by chucking about four ice cubes into a tray at the bottom of the oven. I’ve tried spraying water in as an alternative, but if you make the oven too humid the crust ends up going the other way and becoming super soft, and the ice-cube method is a bit more idiot (i.e. me) proof. Finally, get a good serrated knife, run some water over it, and score some artful lines across the top of your loaf. The classic diagonal lines? A hipster cross? An angular willy? LET’S GET CREATIVE! For more guidance on getting creative see the demo below:
Bake for about 35 minutes, and when it’s done take it out and get the baking parchment off. In a recurring theme in this post (no not child abuse), touch it’s bottom. If it’s a bit damp and doesn’t sound hollow, maybe give it another five minutes baking without the tray. If it feels fairly dry and has a hollow tap put it back in the warm oven on the metal rack with the door propped ajar (remove any water in the tray at the bottom, if there’s any left) – the dry air will help the crust stay crispy.
Leave it for 10 minutes, and you’ve done a bread. Cut off an endy bit and enjoy with some butter, and remember that even if it’s not quite right this is a loaf of bread made by you, and that’s something pretty cool. If it’s completely inedible dry it out and make breadcrumbs, or throw it at as passerby, but the main thing is to have another go and experiment.
That’s bread. I’ll do a post on sourdough at some point too (let’s make our own yeast!), but for the time being why not comment with your own tips, or (even better) a report if you’ve been inspired to have a go at baking bread for the first time. Me, I’m going to have a slice of what housemate Mark has created using these instructions…