Homemade Bread: Discovering the Art and Science
I've said before, the winters are long up here on the mountain side, and our village is often cut off by snow drifts for days at time. Folks rarely venture out, preferring instead to stay indoors close to a roaring log fire. Power cuts are also the norm during this, our quietest, and darkest season of the year. We've been known to store the entire contents of the freezer under several feet of packed snow on the patio without losing so much as a packet of peas to spoilage or foraging mammals; the latter, a bit like us really, are tucked away hibernating under piles of leaf mould (we, however, prefer hand knitted rugs) until the first rays of weak spring sunshine tempts us all outdoors.
Meantime, someone has to make sure we don't run out of pantry basics, regularly check stores of homegrown onions, garlic and potatoes, the last of the pumpkins and make gallons of warming soup to take the chill off rain-soaked days. Hearty soup deserves good bread to go with it. My bread making has gone from getting the man of the house to throw ingredients into the bread making machine to sort out over night, to my certainly more rewarding, even cathartic, in many respects, bread making from scratch.
Previously, hand made bread might have started out with packs of bread mix; just add water they say, but there is more to it than that. Baking bread unleashes a range of emotions, aside from taking comfort and pride in the fact that you are creating something that can be eaten and enjoyed by others, the process involves more of a personal touch than most other forms of baking. Dough has to be teased and coerced, handled with care but not so gentle as to inhibit the formation of gluten - the building blocks of bread dough - which start to come together once water is mixed with the flour. Dough needs the ability to stretch and go back to its original shape. These two characteristics are fundamental for good bread, and without these qualities, bread will come to nothing. They are things I have come to better understand with every loaf I make. It does take practice. As does finding preferences in flour brands and types, all of which can make a considerable difference to the outcome of flavour and texture.
Since biblical times bread has been the staple diet of the humble, costing little to produce, in recent years we've discovered so called 'artisan bread' which often turns up in bakeries where it's possible you wouldn't expect to find a bakery. Other than the odd curve ball sent my way by a younger, savvy sounding visitor on leave from university, which went something like, "Can you make focaccia?", making good quality bread seemed to be the holy grail to which I could never aspire to reach, particularly when I have to consider we are a lactose free household. A high quality plant based spread, or more recently, equally good quality olive or sunflower oils replaces all calls for proper butter or buttermilk in bread baking. And yes, once I found a recipe and put my mind to it, we did get a decent focaccia.
Paul Hollywood, one of Britain's favourite master bakers, has been my lead; and after downloading one of his books, it was time to get started. First up was a simple cottage loaf, my first attempt was perfection with a nice shape, a well-positioned bobble on its top; a lovely golden colour all round; a bit of a crust; and it tasted absolutely delicious. Ever since then, my cottage loaves seem to have bobbles which do their own thing, but the bread is otherwise spot on and often doesn't last a day before its all been eaten. My latest triumph has been a baker's dozen of barm cakes, another recipe from Hollywood's book, 'How to Bake'. Quite possibly one of the easiest bread to make, and barm cakes, or babs, depending on which end of the country you come from, taste as good as they look on coming out of the oven. It is a test of endurance waiting for them to cool sufficiently enough to taste one.
Since then there has been an assemblage of loaf tins and baking trays making its way into the kitchen, along with a cast-iron bread stone and a growing list of hints and tips on the art and science of making good quality dough; such is my quest for great tasting bread baked in my own kitchen. Rye bread and a good rustic wholemeal loaf has also made into the basket of great tasting bread, along with the result of a foray into making flavoured breads, my own recipe sun-dried tomato cob came out a real treat. Once you start baking your own bread, and getting it right, you will struggle to ever find a place on your table again for shop bought bread. Baking your own bread should not be viewed as a chore, but more as a bit of time out for yourself. Considering that it can take less than twenty minutes to get basic dough to its first proving stage, and it can be left between one and three hours before it needs your attention again, it's well worth having a go.