For several years I have experimented in making my own bread. I think it’s the kneading that I like the most – it’s rather therapeutic. Plus, I’m the sort of home cook who likes to follow recipes to the letter, so I am OK with baking. Unfortunately, though, the bread-making process is not a regular event for me as it tends to require a full day when I’ll be at home for some if not most of the time, what with the whole thing about waiting for four or five hours before I can do the next stage. It’s something that has to be reserved for those weekends when we’re not really doing anything else.
My forays into break-making started a few years ago when I found a fairly straightforward white bread recipe in Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course and wondered how hard it could be to make a loaf of bread for my sandwiches rather than buying one. I subsequently progressed to specialist baking tomes such as Richard Bertinet’s Dough (which contained a step-by-step guide, with photos, about how to knead bread properly), making such delights as walnut bread, dark rye bread and rock salt and rosemary focaccia.
My masterpiece was épi de blé, a rustic version of the French stick that Allison clipped from a copy of Canadian Living, which goes very well with soup, although I also do a mean kolach at Christmas.
Things stepped up a gear a couple of years ago, with the acquisition of Beyond Nose to Tail. This is the second volume of the legendary Fergus Henderson’s cookbook, and it’s the one with the baking chapter .
For those who don’t know, Fergus Henderson is credited with having revived the concept of nose-to-tail eating in the 1990s. His view is that, having killed the animal, making sure that you make use of all of it is the decent and polite thing to do. As such, many of his recipes are devoted to doing all sorts of things with offal. Now I have always liked liver and am ready to give any cut of meat a go, but I must confess that I find Henderson to be a bit hard-core; I’d never even heard of chitterlings before I read his book (pig intestines, in case you were wondering). His main restaurant, St John, is appropriately located just around the corner from Smithfield Market and is highly recommended (order the bone marrow and parsley salad).
Naturally, Fergus Henderson’s people make their own bread. As one would expect, the chapter on baking isn’t for novices. Henderson’s was the first book I came across that seriously advocated sourdough, that naturally leavened bread made from a living, breathing starter – meaning you don’t need to buy yeast. The flip-side is that this involves making (creating?) the starter a week before you can actually begin to use it to make some bread.
Henderson refers to the starter as ‘the Mother’ (with capital ‘M’), although Allison and I prefer to call it ‘the science experiment’. It’s been with us for two years now, and is in fact the only one of three science experiments that I’ve undertaken in our flat that is still in existence; of the other two, sloe gin made with actual sloe berries was an unqualified success, and home-made lime pickle was an absolute disaster (that was from Floyd on Africa, and as I followed the recipe to the letter I suspect the great man may have been drinking when he wrote it).
Getting back on topic, the only problem I have found is that since this starter has come into existence, I have hardly made any other type of bread. The starter, after all, is sitting in the fridge waiting to be used. It’d be rude not to.
Anyway – the bread. But not quite, for if it hasn’t been used for a while the starter needs to be ‘woken’ a day in advance. This is done by taking it out of the fridge, adding flour and water and then leaving it for 24 hours. If it’s bubbling after this time, it has woken and can be used.
Making a loaf of bread is an all-day affair, so first thing in the morning (well, second thing – a cup of tea comes first) it’s time to fire up the stand-mixer and use the dough-hook implement to mix the starter with flour (strong bread flour preferred) and water.
Henderson’s is the only cook-book I have so far come across that advocates adding a ‘bathe’ to the dough after it’s been mixed together. This basically means adding more water but, unlike the water that’s added first of all, this has to be cold and has to be added in three stages. I have no idea what it’s supposed to do, but it’s in the recipe so in it goes.
There follow a series of periods in which you’re best off going away and doing something else. It has to stand for 20 minutes before the salt can be added, then an hour in the fridge before kneading (my favourite part!) followed by three hours in a warm place. The phrase ‘hurry up and do nothing’ could’ve been coined for bread-making.
The shaping of the loaf comes next and that’s the bit I have trouble with. My efforts at free-standing loaves end up looking like blobs on a baking-sheet so I prefer to use a loaf tin.