Although I blog about my baking over at Cake-Off (now gone), the emphasis there is on cakes, cupcakes, tray-baked cakes, biscuits, cookies and all things sweet and yummy. For my bread-making, I’m going to try and write about it a little more here.
I’ve been making bread on and off most of my adult life, starting, like much of my more homely, traditional interests, with the time I spent on small organic farms in the Buller Gorge, South Island, New Zealand in the late 1980s and 1990s (a couple of years in total, on about off). There, mentored and encouraged by first Mr Stephen McGraph of Newton Livery then, more significantly, by Ms Nadia Jowsey of Old Man Mountain, a highly accomplished baker and chef, I started to learn all about making real bread.
Last year, I was given a copy of The Handmade Loaf as a present. This excellent book is by Dan Lepard, the master baker who has been writing the baking column in the Weekend Guardian the past few years. Its emphasis is on using a natural leaven – aka levain, aka ferment – in your breads. I’m not sure I can entirely summarise the difference in results between a homemade loaf made with just commercial yeast (be in easy-blend, dried or fresh) and one made with your own leaven, but it certainly adds different qualities: you can achieve very different textures, but the main difference is probably a depth of flavour. Plus, where making your own bread is always deeply satisfying, that feeling is multiplied when the only raising agent you’re using is a natural yeast you’ve cultivated yourself. There are different methods of doing this, but Lepard’s basically involves using the natural yeasts presents on the skin of raisins, feeding it with flour and water, and nurturing it over a week or so.
Not all my experiments with the recipes from The Handmade Loaf have been a resounding success, but all have been informative experiences. And some of them have resulted in some of the best breads I’ve ever made.
Here are just a few examples from the past few months.
The mill loaf
This is second recipe in The Handmade Loaf. It uses leaven made with white flour (you can make rye leavens, etc), alongside white flour, wholewheat flour and rye flour. It’s a great all-rounder, for wholesome sarnies, top toast or just a few slices with a meal. It’s one of the recipes in the book I make the most, though for home use I half the book’s quantities, which call for half a kilo of levian, along with a kilo of flours (combined), and more than half a kilo of water.
Onion and bay loaf
This is a yummy loaf where you chop some onion, then head it, along with some bay leaves, in milk. You then cool the milk and use it for the dough’s only liquid. The finished loaf is a lovely savoury affair, that’s both nice and alliumy and instilled with the distinctive sweetness of bay. This one uses both some white levain and some fresh yeast.
Lemon barley cob
Made this one a while back. It uses white leavain and some fresh yeast, combined with 100g barley flour and 150g white flour. A little lemon juice and zest gives it, in combination with the barley flour, gives it a slight tang. Need to practice this one a bit more.
Ale bread with wheat grains
This is a great one, though takes a little more advanced planning. Its given distinction by the addition of wheat grains, which you simmer, then soak overnight in ale. I love ale. I love bread. And of course the two are closely related – or at least they used to be, before the advent of commercial yeast when much baking would apparently involve using the barm from beer-making for your yeast starter.
Rolled oat and apple bread
This is one of my favourites from The Handmade Loaf, so far. Adding the remains of the porridge to the bread dough was one of the things I learned from Stephen and Nadia, and this recipe incorporates a similar process – making some semi-porridge by soaking oats in boiling water. The apple here also keeps the loaf loaf and moist and soft. The recipe uses grated apple, but I had some pureed remains of our apples in the freezer, and added that instead on one occasion; the results were similarly successful.
Another connection with the old tradition of making beer with beer barm. Here, you make a barm by mixing bottle-conditioned ale with some white flour and white leaven the leaving it overnight. The loaf itself just uses this barm, water, strong white flour, and a little salt. Yum. Check out the texture – I’ve never achieved anything like that with a non-leaven bread. Though again, this needs a little practice, as it’s a bit too crusty.
Bottom line: get this book. And get baking! That said though, what’s with the prices on that book now? Mitchel Beazley – do another print run for crying out loud!