Tuesday, 19 March 2013

The Skylark Loaf

A couple of weeks ago I had a go at baking a loaf of bread (with moderate success) and have spent the last 2 weeks developing my recipe. Delia has shown me some of her greatest tips, Paul Hollywood from the 'Great British Bake Off' has been very encouraging and even Michel Roux Jnr  has given me some very useful advice on things like drizzling olive oil and how to pronounce Bon Jovi and celeriac in french. They all explain how to make bread but they tend to leave out the detail of what works best so the most important thing I have learnt is - you really can't beat having a go yourself and learn from experience, your successes and your mistakes.

I soon realised a few basics:

First, baking bread is really easy. If I can do it, anyone can. Don't be put off by anyone who suggests it requires a lot of skill or special equipment. We know a little knowledge can be dangerous but it will also go a long way.

Second, it's fairly quick. The actual time doing things like preparation, mixing, kneading and clearing up only takes about 30 minutes. The rest of the time, the bread is either sitting by itself or baking in the oven. While the bread is doing 'its own thing', you can go off and do 'your own thing' - whatever that may be.

Third, it's very satisfying. Mixing natural ingredients, seeing them work together, creating something very attractive and then being able to eat it is fantastic. The effect is on a par with building your first narrowboat or going solo into your first lock. Really!

So, this is my recipe for


First, a few tips I worked out for myself:

Wash your hands.
Use either imperial or metric measurements - not both.
Get everything out at the start – your ingredients, utensils, scales, bowls, etc.
Make sure everything is clean.
If you have a recipe, read it, at least once.
It helps (but is not essential ) to keep things warm; if the temperatures are too cold the process will take longer.
If you mix the yeast with water that's too hot you will kill it. 
Wash up as you go along - you know it makes sense. 
Put on your favourite CD or listen to the Archers.
Open a bottle of plonk and pour yourself a large glass.

Pour ¼ pint of 'hand warm' water into a measuring jug and add one level table spoon of dried yeast and the same quantity of white or brown sugar. Stir gently and leave in a warm place for at least 15 minutes. The yeast should be ready when its frothy head is about an inch high. Stir gently again.

While the yeast is 'brewing' , mix one teaspoon of salt (optional), a handful of mixed fruit and/or nuts (desirable) and one pound of good quality bread flour (essential). I have found a 50/50 mix of strong wholegrain and strong white flour works well together. It rises nicely and creates a final texture somewhere between a warm crumpet and a house brick - oh, yes, and it tastes great.

Stir the yeast into the flour with a wooden spoon or similar. Add more warm water until it's thick enough to manhandle but not too sticky. Now put the spoon down and work it with your fingers. Add some honey and some olive oil. When it's got to a dry but homogeneous state, take it out of the bowl and put it on your worktop. You can add more flour to stop it sticking to the worktop but a few drizzles of olive oil works well too.

Kneading activates the gluten (apparently this is the magical stuff that 'glutens' the bread together). Kneading should be vigorous. Use both hands and take out your anger or frustration on it. It might help if you play a few tracks on your Queen CD - that works for me.  Push it, pull it, thump it, squash it, stretch it, fold it and keep doing this for 10 minutes. Now mould it into a ball about the size of a large grapefruit and put it back into the bowl and stretch clingfilm over the top to keep the moisture in. To 'prove' the yeast is working, place it near a source of heat like a radiator. It will work at almost any temperature (even in fridge) but should only take 1 - 2 hours near a radiator. Pour yourself another glass of wine. When it's finished (the bread that is), it should end up as big as a medium-sized melon. Remove it and knead it again to knock out the air pockets that have formed.

Now, you can either grease a warm baking tray with butter or use a bread tin with sides (it doesn't matter which). Place the bread mix on it or in it. You can use all the mixture in one round or long lump or divide it and shape it into fingers, baps, your initials or whatever takes your fancy - experiment.
You can make some deep cuts on the top with a sharp knife. This will increase the surface area, make the bread grow as the cuts open out in the oven and will make the final loaf look more interesting. Now spread some (optional) olive oil on it and sprinkle on porridge oats or similar. Place some more clingfilm over it, making sure it doesn't touch it as this will hinder its growth. I use a couple of mugs at either end of the tray to do this. Put it back near the radiator and pour yourself another glass of wine. When it’s grown back to the size of a medium melon, it's ready for the next stage.

Put a flat baking tray in the bottom of the oven and preheat it to 200 deg for a non-fan oven or 180 deg for fan oven. When it's up to temperature pour in some cold water. This will immediately create steam and will help the baking process. Put the bread, on its tray, in the middle of the oven making sure it has plenty of room to rise if it wants to. Shut the door and pour yourself another glass of wine.
Look at it in about 30 minutes.  If it needs more time, turn the oven down to 150 deg. and give it another 10 minutes or so. When it looks done, take it out and tap the bottom with your finger. If it sound hollow, its done. If it sounds damp (however that sounds), it needs more time. It may benefit from being turned over for the last 5 minutes; a bit like you did on the beach last year on holiday. When it’s finished, place it on a wire baking tray and don't be tempted to try it until it’s cold.
Finally, cut yourself and a friend two generous chunks and add whatever you like on top, eg butter and jam, marmalade, honey, banana and custard, bovril and peanut butter, etc, etc. Then, with a full glass of wine to wash it down, test it to destruction.

Now, just to prove I did it, a photo.


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