Tag Archives: bread

How to make a basic loaf of bread

Over the years, friends have asked what my basic bread recipe is. As the simple daily bread – that keeps the kids in sandwiches and toast – I just never got round to it, with my flurries of interest in feast day recipes and almond concoctions and whatnot.

So here it is.

This will seem like quite an involved recipe, but I just want to share lots of tips, which I hope will be helpful for any baking newbies who find this post.

Kit
The first thing I’d say for anyone embarking on their first bread-making experience is: get a flexible plastic dough scraper. The dough scraper is the most essential piece of equipment for handling dough: it helps you scrape it out of the bowl, it helps you scrape it off the work surface, it helps you pick it up and move it around, it helps you tidy up.

As you may be able to see from my photos, I use one from Bakery Bits. I’ve used it for years. I’ve had a few smaller ones, but I prefer the shape and size of this one with my average sized hands. It’s a cheap bit of kit, so invest and see how it feels for you.

The other bit of kit I’d recommend is electronic scales. Sure you can use cups and weights and whatnot, but electronic scales just make life easier, they’re great for scaling up and the tare function will become invaluable.

You also need tins. They’re pretty easy to come by. Manufacturers seem obsessed with giving everything a nonstick finish these days, but I prefer plain steel. Oil it a bit before using and it’ll season nicely to the point where loaves rarely if ever stick.

Stickiness
My basic bread recipe is what’s known as 75% hydration in bakers’ percentages. You don’t really need to get into all that, but it simply means that for every 75g of water, there’s 100g of flour, ie the wet ingredient as a percentage of the dry. A good rule of thumb is 750g of water to 1000g (1kg) of flour. This makes a slightly sticky dough. If that scares you, just reduce the water to about 70% – ie 700g water to 1000g flour.

As we get through a lot of toast, I tend to scale up the quantities so I can make four small loaves (in 1lb or 450g tins) or a couple of large ones (in 2lb or 900g tin). I bake about once a week, and freeze some of the loaves. Some bakers may have reasons to dislike frozen and defrosted bread but for a tin loaf like this it seems absolutely fine. This recipe also works well for freeform loafs but I prefer the tin form these days as it’s easier to process, there’s less fiddling about, which I’ve found particularly useful during the past few years of refereeing parenting small children.

Flour
For the flour, I tend to use a mixture of strong white bread flour, strong wholemeal bread flour and some spelt* flour. You can change the quantities – use all white for example. Using all wholemeal is possible, but it can make for a denser, crumblier loaf, and it may also require a bit more water as the higher bran content of wholemeal seems to make it more absorbent.

Yeast
As for yeast, I used to use fresh yeast, but it’s harder to come by in practical quantities now where I live, so I’m using active dried yeast, ADY, the granular type that you activate in tepid water. I don’t tend to use the powder easy-blend yeast, which you can just stir through the flour, as I enjoy the frothiness of ADY or fresh added to warm water.

Sponge or pre-ferment
My preferred technique, described here, involves making a sponge or pre-ferment – a mixture of all the water and around half the flour. Technically this helps gives the yeast a good start as it can get to work feeding on the sugars in the flour, but in practical terms it can help with timings too.

The sponge can be seen as an easy alternative to a sourdough starter. It won’t have the character you get with wild yeast colonies, but it will help make a tastier bread, and it also means you can use less yeast and do a longer fermentation, which may well mean the bread is more digestible too. The biggest problem with supermarket and industrialised bread is that it rushes the fermentation. I’ve talked about this a lot on here before, but the Chorleywood process, developed in Britain after the Second World War to speed up bread production, has got to a point where the dough has a very short fermentation, less than an hour. I won’t get into it now, but there’s evidence to suggest this rushed fermentation is the key reason a lot of people feel bloated eating modern, industrial bread, or feel they can’t eat bread or wheat.

Kneading
I still knead by hand, despite my recent acquisition of a cheap Aldi mixer. Handling the dough is just so fundamental to the pleasure of making bread. It’s primal. And probably qualifies as quite good stress relief. In short it’s a great activity to help deal with the madness of modern life. I follow a technique described by Australian master baker Dan Lepard in The Handmade Loaf. This was the book that really got me into bread-making a decade or so back. It’s a technique that shows you don’t have to be slavish to one big long knead, you can do short kneads at intervals.

Ingredients
Makes four small loaves or two big ones.

1050g water, tepid
5g active dried yeast (or 10g fresh yeast, crumbled)
1450g bread flour
5g fine sea salt

Method
1. In a large bowl, sprinkle the yeast into the warm water and leave to froth up.
2. Add about half of the flour to the yeasty water and mix well. This is the sponge or pre-ferment. Cover it with a plastic bag, which you can reuse over and over, or even a shower cap. I have a nice floral one. You can leave it for half an hour, or a couple of hours if that’s more convenient for you. You’ll get a nice bubbly sludge. How active it is will depend on various factors, but notably the health of your yeast and the warmth of your room.


3. Combine the salt with the rest of the flour then add to the sponge. I use a silicone spatula to mix it well in the bowl initially.


4. Turn the rough dough out onto your work surface, scraping out the bowl with your dough scraper. I have bamboo worktops which I oil a little first with vegetable or sunflower oil to make it easier to handle the dough, stop it sticking as much.


5. You can oil or wet your hands a bit if you like, but just keep that plastic dough scraper to hand and some flour as the dough is quite sticky. Don’t be tempted to keep adding more loads of flour to make the dough easier to handle as it’ll make the resulting bread drier and denser. Just get stuck in, enjoy the feel, and knead away, pulling and folding. The dough will come together more as the protein structure develops, but don’t agonise. Knead for say five minutes, then scrape the dough off your hands and, using a little bit of flour, rub your hands together as if you’re washing your hands with a bar of soap as this will help remove the remaining dough.


6. Gently but firmly form the dough into a slightly rough ball and put in a clean, lightly oiled large bowl. I tend to use a bigger bowl than for the sponge stage as this is quite a lot of dough and will get quite big as it proves. Cover with the plastic bag.


7. Leave for 10 minutes or so, giving it a chance to rest. You should find it a easier to handle now. Turn out again onto your lightly oiled worktop and give the dough another short knead. Form a ball, put back in the bowl, and cover.
8. Repeat this process a couple more times, every ten minutes or so, then cover and leave for half an hour.
9. Turn the dough out again and you can now try giving it a stretch and fold. This is just another form of kneading. It’s good for trapping some more air in the dough, but it’s also about lining up the protein strands, the gluten orientation. It’s also a method that’s handy with wetter, higher hydration doughs like ciabatta. Just stretch the dough out, then fold in one end, then the other, as in these handy pics.


10. Return to the bowl, cover and leave for its long prove, its “bulk fermentation”. How long this takes will depend on the temperature. My kitchen is about 18-19C. I tend to leave the dough for at least four hours. You can even put it in the fridge overnight or while you’re out. It’s all about finding a technique that fits in with your life and routine.


11. Leave the dough until it’s doubled in size. This is a nice simple rule of thumb. You should see some nice big bubbles of CO2 produced by the yeast.
12. Using your scraper, turn out the dough onto a lightly floured worktop. Give it a gentle knead. This is called “knocking back”, but that sounds so violent. All you’re doing is regulating the structure, reducing any of the bigger gas bubbles to produce a more even crumb in the resulting loaf. This is important for basic sandwich and toast breads, but some breads, like ciabatta and artisan sourdoughs want nice big holes. But that’s another story.


13. Lightly flour the worktop then give the dough another rest, covered with a cloth, then after about 10 minutes weigh it. The total dough weight here is about 2450g. To make four small loaves in 1lb/450g tins, divided it into four pieces each weighing about 612g. Form these pieces into balls by folding the edges to the centre, then chafing by cupping your hands underneath slightly and rotating. This tightens up the ball; if you’re making a boule, you need it tighter so it holds its shape when baked freeform but as we’re doing tin loaves you don’t need to agonise.
14. Place the balls on a more liberally floured area of worktop, cover and leave to rest for another 10 minutes or so.


15. Now, you want to shape them into tube-ish shapes to put in the tins. There are various techniques to do this, but the one that stuck with me is, again, from Dan L. Flatten the balls into discs. Imagine four quarters, and stretch out one quarter, then fold the end into the middle of the circle. Repeat with all four quarters.
16. Now you’ll have a rough diamond shape. Fold one point into the middle, then another, so the points meet. Now fold in half again and use the heel of your hand to seal the join. You can then fold the ends in and drop this into the loaf tin, with the folds underneath.
17. Repeat with all the balls, then cover and leave to prove. Again, this isn’t an exact science but I tend to go for doubled in size again. You can also use a poke test – if you gently push in your fingertip, the dough should spring back slowly, meaning the protein structure is holding the gas nicely. If it springs back too quickly, it’s under-proved, if it slumps, it may well be over-proved, so give it another knead, and repeat the process from step 13.


18. At the end of this final prove, heat your oven to 220C.
19. Slash the top of the loaves with a sharp serrated knife or special tool called a lame or grignette (if you feel like another little investment). Put the loaves in and bake for 20 minutes, then turn the oven down to 200C and bake for another 20 minutes.
20. Turn the loaves out. You can tap the bottom and listen for a slightly hollow knock, and this give some indication they’re done, but with loaves this size, the 20/20 minute bake should be fine. If in doubt, put the loaves back in, without their tins, for another 5-10 minutes. “Under-prove and over-bake” is a rule of thumb from my old teacher Leslie Gadd**.
21. Cool the loaves on a wire rack. Resist the urge to cut them while hot. Sure the smell is amazing, but essentially they’re still baking. If you try to cut them while hot, you’ll mangle the crumb and it can get all gummy. It can be OK with buns and it’s best with (“English”) muffins, steaming and smeared with butter, but not with tin loaves. When they’ve cooled completely, the steam will have all escaped and the crumb will have firmed up. The flavour will be better too. So just enjoy that aroma and have some patience!
22. When cooled, store in a bread bin in a paper or cloth bag, and freeze any extra loaves.
23. Enjoy! When it’s fresh, my kids demand “soft bread”, after a day or two we go for toast.

Drop me a line with any questions!

* Spelt is just another, older variety of wheat – Triticum spelta, as opposed to the more common bread wheat, Triticum aestivum. There are quite a lot of species of wheat, the Triticum genus of the Poaceae or Graminea, or grass, family.
** Leslie was teaching at the National Bakery School at London South Bank University when I did a baking diploma there back in 2010. He now seems to be operating out of Grantham, Lincolnshire, as Lovely Loaves.

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The lords of bread

Many of my posts here include a bit of etymology. I love a bit of etymology. I’m currently reading The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal OBE (etc), arguably the UK’s foremost and most popular writer about linguistics.

The entry about the word loaf tickled me. The origin of the word is the Anglo-Saxon hlaf.

Prof Crystal writes “The head of the household was seen as the person who provides bread for all, a hlaf-weard, literally a ‘bread-warden’… A lady was originally a hlæfdige, ‘bread-kneader’.” I love this idea in relation to my contemporary household – where Fran is the breadwinner and I’m the bread-maker. No medieval gender roles for us.

Crystal continues with this intriguing bit of linguistic evolution: “Hlaf-weard changed its form in the 14th century. People stopped pronouncing the f, and the two parts of the word blended into one, so that the word would have sounded something like ‘lahrd’. Eventually this developed into laird (in Scotland) and lord. It’s rather nice to think that the ‘high status’ meanings of lord in modern English – master, prince, sovereign, judge – all have their origins in humble bread.” Despite bread’s demonisation by popular orthorexia and debasement by the Chorleywood process, it’s also nice to think of people making real bread today as food lords.

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Crumbs Brewing and the bread-beer relationship

Crumbs Brewing Amber Lager

This blog was founded because of my dual love of bread and beer, two foodstuffs that are linked through their fundamental ingredients of grain and yeast. At some point after humanity settled and began growing crops, we discovered that grain, either whole or ground as flour, underwent a decisive process when mixed with liquid and left – fermentation. The first written record of all this is from ancient Sumeria (modern southern Iraq), the circa 1800BC Hymn to Ninkasi1 – the goddess of beer, or more broadly, the goddess of fermentation. Her followers may well have been responsible for beer and bread.

For centuries, fermentation remained a sort of quotidian mystery. Such was the significance of bread and ale as staples for the masses in Medieval Europe that the unknown ingredient had an almost spiritual nature and was called “Godisgoode”, “God is good” (possibly2). Early scientists thought the process was chemical not biological. The single cell fungi yeast and lactobacilli that fed on sugars and produced carbon dioxide – leavening bread and lending vigour to beer – wouldn’t be understood until the mid-19th century and the work of microbiologist Louis Pasteur.

Anyway. In Lewes, on the second Sunday of every month, there’s a street food market called Food Rocks. Not many people seem to be aware of it, so it needs a bit more promotion – as there’s some good stuff there. I was helping my friend Alex Marcovitch on his stall Kabak, selling delicious Eastern Meditteranean, North African and Middle Eastern foods. This time round, diagonally opposite us were Chalk Hills Bakery of Reigate, in the Surrey Hills, where I got myself ready for my shift with a delicious cinnamon bun, and Crumbs Brewing, where I met founder Morgan Arnell and “crumb spreader” Adria Tarrida.

Restoring an ancient connection
These two establishments have a noteworthy relationship. It’s one that reconfirms the ancient connection between baker and brewer. Historically, notably in Gaelic cultures, bakeries and breweries would have operated side-by-side, the barm – the frothy surplus yeast – from the brew being utilised by the baker to make a leaven for bread3.

Apparently, in some parts of Europe, the barm method existed alongside the sourdough method. Baker and food writer John Downes gives one Medieval example here: “In England noblemen’s bread, manchet, was always made with the barm method, whereas the commoners’ bread, maslin, was a sourdough.” He continues “Barm bread survived until World War Two and even later in the North of England largely as barm cakes.”

Anyway, as usual I’m getting distracted4. Crumbs Brewing aren’t doing this (yet). Instead,they’re using leftover bread from Chalk Hills Bakery as an ingredient. A few breweries are using the technique, such as Toast Ale, whose website gives the statistic that “44% of bread is wasted”. It’s pretty shocking. Any food waste is a crime. The amount of energy put into growing and transporting food, only for it to be thrown away is bad enough, but in landfills it contributes to the problem of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Morgan Arnell and Adria Tarrida of Crumbs Brewing

Hills to Isle
So the work of breweries like Crumbs is very important. Morgan, who founded Crumbs with his wife Elaine, says they collect any leftover bread, crumb it, and freeze it. When they have 150kg they take it to Goddards Brewery on the Isle of Wight. Morgan says Goddards were “one of the few brewers that was willing to test out our recipe and method, helped by the fact that I grew up on the Island so could twist their arm to help us!”

The longer term plan is to set up in the Surrey Hills too. Morgan writes more about the process of making the beer – their first batch was brewed in April – here on the Crumbs blog. The 150kg makes a 30 hectolitre5 brew, “c 6000 500ml bottles in our case” explains Morgan.

Breadbeerisgood
Suffice to say, the beer is delicious. I wouldn’t really be writing about it here if I didn’t actually like the stuff. It’s called an Amber Lager, and I can kind of see the logic of this naming to help it appeal to lager drinkers. It’s certainly light and refreshing. It’s bottled at Goddards and isn’t bottle conditioned, but its carbonation level is pleasant. To my mind it is more an ale than a lager, and it is indeed made with top-fermenting (ale) yeasts, not bottom-fermenting (lager) yeast.

There are so many craft ales around at the moment, notably dubbed APA and American IPA, which overuse the Chinook, Cascade, Citra, Mosaic hops etc to the point where they’re reminiscent of cleaning products, pine-scented detergent or whathaveyou. Thankfully the Crumbs Amber is more subtle proposition. Morgan says they use Progress hops, which the British Hops Association says, are “an excellent bittering and late aroma hop.” The overall flavour is more about the malt and bread. It doesn’t taste bready per se, but it has a warm sweetness and decent body, without heaviness. Morgan says “The slightly sweet, malty aftertaste is a result of the bread.” He adds that they plan to try brewing with different types of bread and it “Will be interesting to see how brewing with different loaves changes that character.”

It’s a great addition to the SE of England craft brewing scene so I’m very glad to have come across Crumbs at Food Rocks. Good luck to them, and I’m intrigued to try their next beers made with different breads: “dark rye stout or sourdough IPA anyone?”

Notes
1 The full text of the Hymn of Ninkasi can be found here. In English, not ancient Sumerian.
2 There’s some debate. This thread gives a few sources for the term, but it’s not entirely conclusive.
3 I’ve done a few barm bread experiments: here and here.
4 When one is actually paid to write journalistically, one mustn’t get distracted. There’s usually a tight editorial brief and even tighter wordcount. Not so on one’s own blog! Hah!
5 A hectolitre is 100 litres. 1hl is about 0.61 UK beer barrels, or So 30hl is around 18 UK beer barrels or 660 imperial gallons. For Americans, 30hl is 25.5 US beer barrels or 795 US liquid gallons. Good heavens I wish people would standardise things globally. Some might see it as heritage. I love a bit of history, but all these different weights and measures just make life even more flipping complicated. I sincerely hope “Brexit” doesn’t have us going back to shillings and scruples and chains.

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Real beer barm bread mark II

Barm bread

A few years ago, I was given a bottle of barm by my brewer friend Michele Sensidoni, of Mastri Birrai Umbri. For those who don’t know, barm is the yeast, and yeasty foam, formed by vigorously reproducing yeasts during the fermentation process in brewing. I used it to make some bread. Last week, I was lucky enough to visit Holler Boys, a new Sussex brewery, and meet its owner and brewer Steve Keegan.

Steve is a friend of a friend, and former managing director of Late Knights Brewery, which he set up in south London in 2012. It expanded fast and they opened several pubs, but things drew to a close in Autumn 2016. I’ll tell that story in another post soon, in the meantime, here’s another experimental barm bread.

I got up this morning – well, I was woken up by the Raver, 19 months, at the not too uncivilised hour of 6.50 – and found the dough crawling out of its proving basket. So, yes, this is one of those blog posts that talks about a bit of a cock-up, not an expert success story.

Barm

 

When we visited, Steve was busy making new brews and one of his conditioning tanks, named Wayne, was bubbling away. I asked Steve if I could have a scoop of the froth, the barm.

Barmy starter
Back home, I mixed with flour and water over the course of three days, much like you would feed a sourdough starter. It wasn’t that vigorous, but it was alive. The barm I’d got from Michele had involved a lot more liquid and yeasty bits. This scoop of bubbles, however, was a bit of a gamble, as it obviously didn’t contain quite such a density of yeasts.

Barm starter

In the evening of the third day – sounding a tad Biblical – I made up a dough. Here’s the recipe.

350g beer barm starter, at 100% hydration (ie, I fed it on equal quantities of flour and water)
8g fine sea salt
300g water
500g strong white bread flour

Ignoring the small amount of liquid in the initial scoop of barm, the total liquid in the dough was about 475g, the flour 675g, making a dough hydration of 70% (475/675 x 100).

1. Bring the barm starter, salt, water and flour together to form a soft dough in a roomy bowl.
2. Turn out onto a lightly oiled work surface and knead. Knead it briefly, form a ball, then put back into the bowl, lightly oiled. Cover and leave 10 minutes.
3. Knead again, put back in the bowl, cover and leave 10 minutes again.
4. Repeat a few more times then put back in the bowl, cover and put the fridge for 24 hours.

Before final prove

Now, this is where I went wrong. I wanted to give it a final prove in a proving basket, but I misjudged the liveliness of the dough – the barm starter had turned out to be more vigorous than I thought. I thought I could give it a final prove at room temperature (in this case 17-18C), overnight, for about 9 hours. I probably should have done it in the fridge.

Oops

The dough spilled over the edges of the proving basket, which was too small for the amount of dough, and stuck. It was overproved and had a bad skin where the dough had dried out. I was forced to prise it out (destroying stucture) and reform the ball, give it a short final prove, then resort to baking in a preheated casserole dish, rather than slid off a peel onto a hot baking stone as I’d planned.

I don’t think there’s any point continuing with a numbered recipe now, as it went wrong. But when I say “wrong”, I mean that I learned a lesson. If I can get hold of some more barm, I’ll know to trust it more for leavening.

The result isn’t what I was aiming for, and its crumb structure is a slight disappointment, but the flavour is good. Fran says she can taste a beeriness, a bitterness. T-Rex, three, enjoyed it too, until he decided he didn’t, and said “Yuck”. I’d like to think this wasn’t an entirely failed experiment: all I had to start with was a few grams of foam, it was fun and the results are tasty. I just got the timings wrong. Hey, I’ve only made real barm bread twice!

Barm bread crumb shot

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Semi-sourdough, no-knead, casserole-baked bread

No knead, semi sourdough crumb shot

Purists will disdain it, but I’ve not got a problem with using a combination of sourdough starter and commercial yeast. This is semi-sourdough baking. The sourdough gives some depth of flavour while the addition of the yeast helps a baker of my middling ability to control the timings better.

It’s a technique I learned from the essential book The Handmade Loaf by Dan Lepard. It’s a technique that stands me in good stead as, honestly, I never mastered getting satisfactorily consistent sourdough loaves. I probably could master it if I had a real push but it’s not really where I’m at these days. Indeed, mostly I just make a fairly basic tin loaf these days for toast, something my family Hoovers at breakfast time. It involves yeast and a mixture of stoneground strong white and wholemeal wheat and spelt flours.

When I want something a bit more interesting, I reach for the sourdough. This is what I’ve been making recently. It involves the no-knead and Dutch oven techniques. The latter means baking it in a preheated Dutch oven, cast iron casserole dish or even a terracotta chicken brick. I’ve got one called a knuspertopf, my mum’s got one called a römertopf. My German-speaking father tells me topf means pot, while knusprig means crisp or crunchy. Römer means Roman, apparently. They all work well, retaining the moisture, adding some steam to the bake.

Knuspertopf no knead loaf

Combine to make a preferment
100g of sourdough starter at 100% hydration (ie, refreshing it with equal quantities water and flour)
2g active dried yeast or 4g fresh yeast
100g stoneground wholemeal wheat flour
100g water

I don’t worry about the temperature of the water. Leave this mixture at room temperature (about 19C in our place now) for about 6-8 hours. One good option is to make it at lunchtime.

After the allotted time, when the preferment is bubbling nicely, make the dough by adding
500g flour (I used a 50/50 mix of stoneground white wheat and wholemeal wheat)
400g water
7g fine sea salt

1. Just beat it all together until it clears, that is, until the flour is fully mixed with the water and there are no dry bits left. It’ll be a sloppy, wet dough. For those interested in bakers’ percentages, this works out at about 85% hydration. Ie, the total flour comes to 650g, the total water comes to 550g; 550/650 x 100 = 84.61.
2. Cover the bowl; I use a floral shower cap but a plastic bag is fine. Leave the dough for about 12 hours. I’ve been putting it in the fridge for about 10 of that. Overnight is good.
3. Remove the dough from the fridge and allow it to come back to room temperature. I’m not sure how important this is and haven’t scientifically investigated it yet. Some suggest a cold dough is good for oven spring, but I’m not convinced about that, it’d just be a sluggish spring.
4. Set your oven to maximum. Sadly, my electric Rangemaster only musters about 220C, at best. Put your chosen casserole dish in and heat it up for about 20-30 minutes.
5. Using a dough scraper, carefully remove the dough from the bowl onto a floured worktop. Handling it gently so as not to deflate it or damage it structure too much, fold one side into the middle, then the other, like a letter, to form a rough loaf shape.
6. Take the hot, hot dish out of the oven, remove its lid and, gently as you can, er, drop the dough into it. Put the lid back on, put it in the oven and bake for about 40 minutes.
7. Turn the oven down to 180C and bake for another 10 minutes.
8. Take the dish out, turn out the loaf, then return it to the oven for another 10 minutes. One risk with a dough this wet is that it may not cook all the way through. It should do with the preheated dish and a baking time this long but if you’re not sure, over-baking won’t do too much harm, other than thickening the crust a bit.
9. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack.

Casserole no knead loaf

Now, this is a pretty easy way to make fairly satisfying loaf. It’s got a good chewy crust and a reasonably open crumb structure. My only criticism is that it can feel slightly rubbery, if that makes sense. It’s definitely worth a try though, for that artisan vibe, and it makes cracking toast. Even if kids do fuss about the crust. Honestly, some mornings it feels like all I eat for breakfast is rejected crusts…

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Neolithic bread

Back in 1999, an archaeological dig in Yarnton, Oxfordshire, “unearthed two 5,000-year-old pieces of bread – the earliest fragments of bread to be recovered in the British Isles”.

Despite my enthusiasm for history, British food history and bread in general, I’d not heard about this before, so thanks to Jeremy Cherfas and his Newsletter from Eat This Podcast.

It’s a wonderful story. Not only is it amazing to have such fragments, which survived as they were charred and have been carbon dated as from “between 3,620 and 3,350 BC”, but also, in this era of blanket demonisation of bread, it’s a salient reminder of how long humanity has had an important relationship with grain-based foods. Even here in Britain, which was, a long way from the civilisations of the Middle East, central Asia, China etc.

At the time of the announcement, they had identified one of the grains as barley. I wonder if they managed to identify any more of the ingredients and if anyone had a go at re-creating the ancient loaf? It sounds like an interesting challenge, but one would need not only true ancient grain varieties, but also a quern-stones to mill them. That’s not something that’s part of my kitchen kit at this point.

There’s a little more on this 1999 discovery here and here, but I can’t find anything subsequent.

 

 

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Kubaneh – Yemeni Jewish breakfast bread

Kubaneh

The latest addition to my cookbook library is Honey & Co’s The Baking Book, by Sarit Packer and Itomar Srulovich. It has the same UK publisher as my friend Rachel’s Five Quarters (which boasts a couple of my recipes), so I went along to the launch event a few weeks ago, bought a copy, got it signed and have been trying out the recipes since.

I love enriched doughs, so I was drawn to the recipe for kubaneh. Sarit’s family has Egyptian and Yemeni connections, and this bread is from the latter culture, specifically it’s a Yemenite-Jewish Sabbath breakfast bread. Reading more about it now, it’s traditionally baked overnight in a sealed tin. While Sarit’s version bakes for a fairly long time, it’s not overnight.

Some versions include whole eggs, and can be eaten as more savoury affair, with tomatoes or a tomato dip, or skhug, Yemeni hot sauce*. This one is sweeter. It’s rich in butter (or smen/semneh fermented sheep or goat milk butter; or margarine, depending on your dietary restrictions and inclinations and shopping options) and drizzled with honey, which caramelises together slightly.

Why haven’t I heard of this before?! Just my kind of thing.

Notes
I’ve tweaked the process slightly and given the ingredients in a more consistent format, so as to also include bakers’ percentages (below).

It’s a fairly moist dough – the original recipe says 300-350ml water, but I split the difference at 325ml: 325g. That works out at about 65% hydration, so quite wet and sticky. Check out my post on handling sticky doughs.

For this baking vessel, they use a “traditional lidded aluminium pot” but say you can also use a 20cm fixed bottom round cake tin, with a “lid” made of foil.

I used fresh yeast. You could use 10g active dry/granular yeast instead. If you only have instant/powdered yeast, you don’t need to mix it with liquid first – just combine it with the flour.

The dough
60g light soft brown sugar
15g fresh yeast
325g water, at about body temperature
250g strong white bread flour
250g plain (all-purpose) white flour
6g fine salt

Plus
Vegetable oil
Unsalted butter, softened (or margarine or smen, if you can get it. Very unlikely here in England!)
Runny honey

Here is it in bakers’ percentages (rounded):

Ingredient Quantity Percentage
Light soft brown sugar 60g 12%
Fresh yeast 15g 3%
Water 325g 65%
Strong white flour 250g 50%
Plain white flour 250g 50%
Salt 6g 2.5%

1. Mix together the water, sugar and yeast. Stir to dissolve the yeast.
2. Weigh out the flours into a large bowl and add the salt.
3. Add the yeast mixture to the flour and bring together a dough. I don’t have a mixer, so my instructions are for doing it by hand. If you do, just mix until well combined and smooth.

Kubaneh shaggy doughKubaneh - kneading doughKubaneh - smooth dough
4. Turn out the shaggy mixture onto a lightly oiled work surface and knead. I used the Dan Lepard technique of not kneading too much, then returning the dough to the bowl, cleaned and oiled, leaving for 10 minutes, then kneading briefly again. Repeat this twice more, then return to the cleaned, lightly oiled bowl.
5. Cover with plastic or a clean, damp tea towel and leave to prove for a couple of hours, or until doubled in size. The time will depend on the ambient temperature. It’s about 20C in my kitchen on a mild English summer’s day, and it took about two and a half hours.

Kubaneh dough - proved
6. While it’s proving, liberally grease the cake tin with butter, and grease the underside of the foil lid too. If you have a lidded pot, grease that similarly.

Kubaneh dough - slapped around
7. Sarit describes the next step as “the strange bit” – you moisten your hands then “flip the dough about in the bowl to knock it back”. Do it three times, keeping your hands moist.

Kubaneh dough - pieces
8. Oil a tray, then divide the dough up into eight pieces and place them on the tray. The dough weighs 900g, so eight pieces at around 112g.
9. Oil your hands a bit then take each piece, stretch it slightly, and put a blob of butter in the middle. I used pieces at about 10g, half a walnut size.
10. Smear the butter a bit then wrap the dough around it to form rough balls.

Kubaneh dough pieces in tin
11. Put the balls in the prepared tin, one in the middle, the rest equally spaced around it.
12. Put some more flecks of butter on top, drizzle with honey then cover and prove again until the dough “almost reaches the top” – too high and it’ll “overflow when baked.” I drizzled a bit more honey and added a bit more butter before baking.

Kubaneh dough ready for baking
13. Preheat the oven to 220C.
14. Put the tin, with its lid, in the oven and bake for half an hour.
15. Reduce the heat to 200C and continue baking for another half an hour.
16. Reduce the heat again to 180C and continue baking for another half an hour.
17. Turn the oven off and leave in the oven “for at least an hour”.
18. It’s best served warm, so if you’re an insomniac and have been doing this all night, or proved it overnight in the fridge and baked it early, enjoy it thus.

It’s surprisingly soft and chewy, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get nice caramelised bits. I won’t be doing it every week, but it’s a great addition to my enriched breads & breakfast bakes armoury. It’s also reminiscent of English lardy cakes, particularly the fruit-free versions from my part of the country, Hampshire and Sussex. Though obviously the fats used are a bit different for that gentile bake.

It’s also got me thinking about that most indulgent of fatty-sugary-doughy caramelised concoctions, the Breton kouign amann, which is more a pastry than a bread. Still, I might have to revisit that soon.

* Aka zhug, zehug; the Honey & Co The Baking Book also has a recipe for this, to accompany their lahooh, Yemeni pancakes.

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Many ways to bake

Stone and casserole

If my blog is isn’t getting updated quite so regularly these days, it’s because Fran and I are at a pretty intensive stage of a journey we’ve been on the past decade. It’s a journey that’s much shorter for most people: that of starting a family.

The old-fashioned way failed us, so we tried medical intervention. Quackery also failed us, so the past year or so we’ve been involved in the adoption process.

As anyone who’s had similar experiences will tell you, it’s a roller-coaster. The adoption process in the UK is predicated on extending the protection of children in care who may well have had tragic, sad or painful starts to life. So as the prospective adoptive parent, you’re scrutinised to within an inch of your life, every corner of your life checked, considered, evaluated.

You spend months filling in forms, being interviewed. The sheer weight of bureaucracy can make you buckle with its Kafkaesque convolutions as you struggle to prove you can be a good parent – without ever having had the experience of being a parent, thanks to the fickle vagaries of nature. It’s tough, but the end goal is clear – giving a child a good home.

Baking as palliative
When times are tough, baking is gives me solace. Bread-making especially is unique and special: it’s about making a basic food stuff, but it’s so tactile. Plus it’s all about fertility too, in its modest way. You’re reliant on the life incarnate in microorganisms: yeast, and, for sourdoughs, yeast and lactobacilli (bacteria). You need to nurture them, feed them, encourage them to reproduce. Reproduce as fervently as possibly. Unlike us, they shouldn’t need any intervention.

So I’ve been baking a lot recently. I’ve been baking most of my life, and making bread for at least 20 years, though it’s only been the past eight years or so I’ve made pretty much all the bread we eat at home. Although I’ve got a baking diploma, I’m not a professional. The thing professionals have over home bakers is a mastery of skills acquired through repetition. For long baking shifts, often through the night, professional bakers will make their doughs, prove them, shape the loaves, bake them, perfecting the processes.

So although I have a reasonable knowledge of all these things, I haven’t the mastery: it’s a lot harder to achieve when making one or two loaves a week. Especially if, like me, you have an enquiring mind and want to keep experimenting. There are so many variations on basic techniques, so many kinds of flour, so many permutations. So I keep on playing around.

I was a pretty good artist when I was young, but art, like bread-making, like any skill, is something that needs constant practise. Creativity needs nurturing. I carried a notepad and sketched all the time until my mid-twenties, but then it just tailed off. I don’t really know why. Anyway, my creative urges these days mostly go into food, into baking. Talking to my friend Rachel, who knows all about our trying-to-start-a-family saga,  she suggested the baking obsession is also an expression of my creativity, my nurturing instincts. (I’m not a stereotypical macho male, obviously.)

If fate, and the powers that be, allow us to adopt and, finally, start a family, I don’t intend to stop baking. But I suspect I’ll have less time for free-form experimentation as the focus of the nurturing will be very different.

Bread experiments in the oven
Another thing Rachel’s said to me is: make your blog more personal. But I’ve not really known how to approach this. This attempting-to-start-a-family thing is mine and Fran’s big personal project. Fran’s sort of tried to put me off talking about it, but we process things differently.

The way I see it, with a pregnancy, you get to a point where you can’t not talk about it – it becomes publically obvious. I feel we’ve been involved with the adoption process for long it’s reaching an equivalent to that publically obvious stage. Just without the bump. Without the literal bun in the oven. Instead, there are my bread experiments in the oven.

This is my latest haphazard experiment. I wanted to see how the same dough behaved when baked in two different ways.

Lively sponge

I made a dough using a kilo of flour, a mixture of white wheat flour, wholemeal spelt flour and rivet flour. I combined 400g of this with 650g of water and 15g of yeast to make a sponge pre-ferment.

Full of wheatberries

I let that ferment for a few hours at about 17C, then made up a dough with 15g fine sea salt and about 200g of cooked wheatberries (wheat grains) I had.

Well risen

Then gave all that a prove for about five hours, giving it some turns and folds.

I then managed to break Fran’s camera. We’d had two days of howling winds, 40-50mph (64-80kph), and that frays your nerves somewhat. Clearly it made me clumser than usual. I’d just said to myself, better watch out, the concrete floor would destroy this camera if dropped – then I dropped it while climbing a small stepladder to take an overhead photo. So now my pics are taken with my inferior phone camera. And I need to take a trip to the camera shop.

Divided up

After breaking the camera, both pieces of dough were scaled at the same weight, both were moulded the same way, and both were given their final prove in round bannetons.

Final prove

After the final prove, I put one in a Le Creuset casserole dish, pre-heated in the oven at 220C. Some call this the Dutch oven technique. I used a peel to slide the other onto a baking stone (or, more specifically, my pizza stone). Both were then baked at 220C for 20 minutes, then 30 minutes more at 180C.

Baked

Now, as you’ll see from the photos, despite all these years of baking, I’m still making some errors. Firstly, the two kilos of dough I had was too much for the size of Le Creuset I was using. Oops. Secondly, the one I baked on the stone, not being constrained by a container, did a funny oven spring and opened out sideways. This is frustrating for several reasons as I know the factors full well:
1. I probably didn’t leave it long enough in the final prove.
2. It may have opened up better if I’d give the top some slashes.
3. I quite possibly didn’t get the dough tight enough in the moulding stage.

The latter is one a baking skill I really struggle with. Sometimes I nail it, sometimes I fail miserably. I’ve managed 80% hydration ciabatta, then made a 70% hydration ball that’s turned out a discus.

Cut

Anyway, the real thing I was wondering about with this experiment was whether the crust and the crumb of the bread would be markedly different when baked with the different techniques. I was expecting they would be. They weren’t. Both are lovely loaves, soft, wholesome, good for sandwiches or, when they’ve staled a bit, toast.

For this experiment, I probably should have divided the dough in three, and baked a third on a steel baking sheet. Not sure my oven’s big enough though. Still, it was a fun experiment, a nice distraction from the anxiety and emotional intensity of the adoption. And, heck, one day I hope it’s the sort of bread my kids will like for their school lunches.

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Filed under Baking, Discussion, Misc

How to handle a sticky bread dough

Stretching sticky dough

Tomorrow is Good Friday, the day when, traditionally, western Christians ended their Lenten fast. In Britain, this was marked by eating hot cross buns. So I’ve just made a batch, from my recipe. It’s a day early, but what the heck, the local supermarket has been pumping out its fake hot cross bun smell for at least two months already and most people probably aren’t even aware of the old traditions any more.

My recipe involves handling quite a sticky dough, so that got me thinking – perhaps I should have included some more advice about how to handle it. But it’s quite an important subject for making, so here’s a whole post on it.

When I talk about sticky doughs, this generally means doughs with a higher proportion of liquid to flour. These are called higher hydration doughs, and they often make for the best breads, especially with wheat. They can be softer, with a more open crumb and a better crust. If you’re doing an enriched dough – for a brioche, challah or any number of feast day bakes such as hot cross buns – the stickiness can also be further exacerbated by extra sugar, fats and egg.

A typical error inexperienced bakers make is to keep adding flour to such sticky doughs – putting lots on the work surface and adding more to the mix itself until it stops being sticky and feels easier to handle. This isn’t great, as it will make the crumb dense and dry. And if you add too much extra flour later on, it’ll miss out on the fermentation, being essentially raw – and indigestible.

Anyway, Ecco! Or voila, as we say in English: here are my tips for handling sticky doughs.

1. Get yourself a plastic dough scraper.
Seriously, after a bowl – and an oven of course – this is the most useful bit of kit for making bread dough. As a sticky dough adheres to your worktop, use the scraper to keep freeing it. You can also use it to make sure any bits of dough that go astray from the main lump are reincorporated. This the type I use. It’s a reasonable size and has a straight edge – good for the worktop – and a curved edge – good for freeing dough from bowls.

Scrapers

2. Get a metal dough cutter/scraper
Not quite as essential as the above, but it can be used a similar way. One option is called a Scotch scraper.

3. Oil the work surface
You can sprinkle your worktop with flour, but on the initial knead I prefer to oil the worktop. If you have a stainless steel or even marble surface, it’s not so relevant, but if your worktop is wood or bamboo (like mine), smear your work area with a few drops of oil. Generally I’ll just use sunflower seed oil, but if I’m doing an Italian or Middle Eastern bread, I may use a bit of olive oil. The oil stops the dough sticking… quite so much.

4. Clean and oil the bowl
After your first knead, and before you put the ball of dough back in the bowl, clean it. Dry it then add a dribble of oil and rub it around. Again, this’ll stop the dough sticking to the bowl, so it’ll come out more easily when you do your second knead. It’s not essential, but it’s helpful.

5. Knead with quick, confident movements
Watch a professional baker or an experienced home baker in action, and they don’t mess about with the dough. It’s handled with quick, confident movements. Indeed, even if you have a sticky dough, and are kneading it by hand, as you develop it, it will strengthen, become less sticky and start to form a ball. I would recommend getting hold of Richard Bertinet’s book Dough, as it comes with a DVD that shows this process. Someone has posted that video on YouTube, though I’m not sure how long it’ll stay up. He starts kneading from about 4 minutes in.

6. Flour your hands
Some people like to wet their hands, but I like to put a bit of flour on mine, not unlike weight-lifters dusting theirs with talcum powder.  It’s not something I do assiduously, but it can be a handy way of making things a bit easier without resorting to adding loads of extra flour to the dough. Also, towards the end of the knead I’ll clean my hands with some flour. OK, I’m not exactly cleaning them, but if you rub some flour between your hands as you would a bar of soap, it helps to get any dough off. My tactic is to do it directly above the sticky dough: the extra flour falls onto and around the dough, and I can then use the plastic scraper to tuck it under the lump, making it easier to form into a ball and put back into the bowl.

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Making bread in The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead 127, gardens at Alexandria Safe-Zone

Those who read this blog will know I like bread. You may not know, however, I’m also a lifelong comic book reader. I don’t follow that many series these days, but one I do is zombie apocalypse saga The Walking Dead, which has recently taken an interesting turn. They’re still fighting zombies of course, but they’re also growing more food too.

Although many people started reading The Walking Dead comics when the TV series (2010-) became a hit, I’ve been there since the beginning, 2003. I can’t remember how I started but it was possibly thanks to my friend Dr Jamie Russell, a screenwriter and author of Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema. We’re both pretty into apocalyptic fiction. I grew up with stuff like John Christopher, John Wyndham and JG Ballard. My mother was partly responsible, as she likes it too: novels like these, but also TV like the BBC’s Survivors (1975-1977). My childhood was also the era of cinema classics like Mad Max and The Terminator or repeats of The Omega Man or Logan’s Run on TV.

I’m one of those apocalypse geeks who likes to discuss how things would change, what you’d do when human civilisation collapses. I like to fantasise about fortifying my parents’ place in the country, building up its traditional southwest of England hedge-banks into a proper defensive palisade to keep the zombie hordes at bay. Or whatever.

Reality check
It’s all daft, obviously, as the collapse isn’t coming in one neat cinematic fell swoop, it’s coming slowly, now, as we speak, from our excessive consumerism, our unquenchable thirst for fossil fuels, supported by “greenest government ever” pawns who support fracking when our focus should be on energy efficiency and renewables. Such backwards policy furthers climate change, which destabilises agricultural, which causes famine, which results in population movement and increased tension in an overpopulated world. But slowly. We’re living the slow apocalypse. Which just doesn’t make for such great fiction.

Still, while all this is happening, we lap up the sudden apocalypse fiction, the bombs, the plagues, the zombies: The Walking Dead TV series is huge how, and a new trailer for the long-awaited fourth Mad Max film has just emerged via the ComicCon event in San Diego, etc, etc, etc.

I’d got a bit behind with The Walking Dead comics, but now I’ve caught up again. Thankfully, with issue 126, creator Robert Kirkman ended the protracted ‘All Out War’ storyline, which IMHO revisited too much ground already covered by the Governor storylines. With issue 127, Kirkman and artist Charlie Adlard refresh the series with a neat ellipsis. The issue is called ‘A New Beginning’ and about two years have passed since the war. The community of survivors seems to be flourishing, focussing on their food security by cultivating food, not just relying on scavenging food from before the zombie plague.

Post-apocalyptic practicalities
As much as I love the action element of apocalyptic stories, I much prefer it when they look at the practicalities of living in a changed world. This is why the BBC’s 1975 Survivors is superior to the 2008 remake. The former got stuck into the important business of how to survive after a plague had wiped out most of the population and nature was taking over again. The 2008 version, meanwhile, mostly just had its survivors bickering like soap opera characters. When they did try to do something practical – eg build a chicken coop – it was pathetic and cursory, physically and dramatically. Compare that with the original TV series, where they look at things like medical treatment, how to make candles, and even how to maintain a watermill.

The latter is particularly significant as water and wind provided the (sustainable) energy for milling grain for centuries. And milling grain means bread, the historic staple food.

Today, most people go to a supermarket, buy something sliced and wrapped in plastic and eat that. That’s not bread. That’s a post-industrial filler, a culinary deception and dietary disaster. There’s no way western civilisation could have achieved all that it has achieved (for better or worse) if we’d had white sliced as our staple.

For a community to thrive it needs a decent staple, and real bread is just that. So it’s great to see the survivors in The Walking Dead during that two-year ellipsis are farming, have built a windmill and are baking their own bread in their home, Alexandria, Virginia, not far from Washington DC.

TWD 128 windmill

Burning issues
In issue 128, Eugene, the community’s resident dorky genius, says he just read a book about how to do it, but Rick, the increasingly physically maimed but mentally sharp leader, won’t hear it. He realises the importance of the mill and the bakehouse in his vision for rebuilding civilisation.

Although we don’t see the more extensive grain fields you’d need to feed the comic’s community of, I dunno, a hundred-ish, you do see gardens and a glimpse of orchards. Unfortunately, the way Charlie has presented the mill and bakehouse is a bit of a bodge. The artwork is as great as ever, but it’s not a credible layout. The bakehouse seems to be inside the windmill. I have never encountered such an arrangement, and suspect it rarely, if ever, happened historically. If a mill did have an associated bakehouse, it would have been a separate building due to the fire hazard of cranking a wood-fired oven near chaff, wooden structures and valuable grain and flour.

The Walking Dead 128, bread fresh from the oven

The bread itself is portrayed slightly strangely too. The baker, Olivia, is handling a peel with tin loaves on it – though they’re not in tins. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say that she’s taken the loaves out of their tins then put them back in the oven to finish baking. Despite this quibbles, the scenes featuring the mill and bread are great: significant and moving.

Growing food. Grinding grain. Baking real bread. Now, perhaps The Walking Dead’s survivor’s can really thrive*.

 

 

 

 

* I doubt it though, as Kirkman generally seems to prefer his protagonists to suffer. Mistrust, human weakness and violence are the bread and butter of The Walking Dead. Not bread.

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