Baking Bread

Breaking Bad Baking Bread
An example of the typos that can happen if you use auto-spell…

Baking bread. Two words that conjure up mental pictures of warm kitchens; wonderful smells; and tastes and textures unknown even in the very best shop-bought bread.

I’ve put-off and wimped-out of giving it a go for far too long.

And so, while the mood’s still on me – buy the flour. Of which there are – gosh – four basic types. Not to mention little subsections like wholemeal; wholegrain; Spelt; Rye; and more.

What did I remember from Tesco and Sainsbury’s back in the UK ? Self-raising and…er…non self-raising.

But – thinking cap on – you need YEAST to bake bread; and yeast makes bread rise; so you probably don’t need self-raising flour. Aside from which, did you know that self-raising four doesn’t seem to exist in Italy ? Which handily removed it from the equation.

(Well, it might exist, but called something completely different and unrecognisable, so no mails belittling my desperate lack of flour expertise)

Yeast. Three varieties here. And on one of the packets, here was a recipe calling for two different types of flour – Gran Duro and Tipo OO. Which were on the shelves. (As were Tipo O – and Manitoba. From Canada !)

Two types of flour. And yeast. Bread's two major ingredients

So a bag of the OO and the Gran Duro. And the yeast. Total outlay a bit under €2, so not exactly the end of the world if the experiment – not to mention my bread, LOL – goes pear-shaped.

A word at this point to explain that I do – honestly – cook. For a brief time a long, l o n g, time ago, (just after I got sacked from my first job in journalism), even being hired-out occasionally as a private chef.

Through an agency, I cooked for dinner parties, but this was kinda short-lived, because although I had one complete 3-course menu off to an impressively good T, it was the only complete menu I could do really well. So I never went back anywhere twice.

And I was a contestant on MasterChef in 1994. With the Certificate to prove it. I didn’t get anywhere, which was actually a GOOD THING, because well within the allotted two hours we  were given to whip-up a meal, I was done, dusted and sitting outside having a cigarette and a beer, while my fellow-contestants were sowing seeds to grow their veg; butchering cattle for the meat; and generally taking it all VERY VERY SERIOUSLY.

Which I’m afraid I didn’t.

My offering was more along the lines of Jamie Oliver’s 30-Minute Meals. Only I’m no Jamie Oliver and this was a long time before 30 minutes – as opposed to 30 hours – became the accepted preparatory norm.

Since you ask, I prepared: Brie Fondue. Salmon cooked three different ways on a crisp potato rosti. And a chocolate parfait of artery-clogging richness zinged-up with blackcurrant and raspberry coulis.

Not a blackcurrant-and-raspberry coulis. But a blackcurrant coulis. And a raspberry coulis. Separately. Which I wouldn’t have to explain if I knew the plural of ‘coulis’.

Couli ? Coulises ? Maybe there is no plural because coulis is perhaps only ever served in the singular. Which’d explain why my actually pretty nice meal was tasted by the judges; damned with faint praise; and then ignored.

So, I do cook. But I’ve never baked. Ovens are for roasting stuff; gently coddling casseroles; and warming plates.

Here’s What You Do…(Or Rather – Here’s What I Did…)
Even so, the principles of breadmaking weren’t totally unknown. Aside from which, it’s not exactly demanding to measure out 250g of OO Flour; 250g of Gran Duro flour; tipping them into a bowl along with the packet of yeast, a teaspoon each of salt and sugar; adding enough tepid water from the 500ml standing-by in a jug to make a dough; and then beating it up until it stops being a moody, sticky mass and becomes a moderately compliant lump of raw bread.

Which you then put into a clean bowl; cover it; and leave it somewhere warm for the yeast to do its business for an hour or so. Which involves ensuring your lump of raw bread expands alarmingly to twice the size it was when you finished pummelling it.

Then you beat it up again for a bit – which seems a bit cruel (not to mention pointless, but it’s what the instructions said) – stick it in a bread tin (or, if you’re going free-form, on a baking tray) – cover it (again); leave it to swell up (again); and finally get to stick it in the oven.

Minor downside here was I didn’t have a bread tin, so I patted and prodded my lump into a pleasing, oval, loaf shape. Which by the time it finally went into the oven had spread and expanded and flattened out a bit to look like a doughy cow-pat.

Not promising.

But into a hot oven it went. Along with a tray of water which current Brit baking guru Paul Hollywood says makes for a steamy oven atmosphere, which in turn ensures a crisp, crunchy crust.

(Jury’s still out on that one, tbh).

You’ll know when your bread’s done because it’ll sound hollow when you rap the crust. Which the top of my loaf did. But not the bottom. Which sounded…well…like undercooked bread dough.

So I flipped it over and left it for another 20mins. Had to take it out then before it became toast.

Onto a wire rack to cool.

Then the moment of truth.

Now…you have to have to cut me a little slack here, because this was the very, very first loaf of bread I’ve ever baked. Ever.

And it was…

…absolutely…

…utterly…

…and surprisingly…

delicious.

Bit flat - but not a bad-looking loaf. And it tastes delicious

Yes, OK, a bit flat, but with a thin, crunchy crust; a light, springy, perfectly-cooked interior; and a taste to die for.

Left to ourselves, we could’ve demolished the entire loaf at a single sitting with butter and some really wonderful, sharp pecorino cheese that just happened to be in the fridge.

Probably just as well that common sense prevailed over rampant greed, because the next morning produced another triumph in the form of the best toast EVER.

And now of course, whether down to beginner’s luck, or the fact that bread-making’s maybe genuinely not all that difficult, I want to soar to the heights of muffins, crumpets, hot cross buns, baps and teacakes.

To help me, I’ve happily rediscovered a wonderful book called English Bread and Yeast Cookery by Elizabeth David.

Do you know her ? Elizabeth David was the food writer and cook, who single-handedly dragged Britain out of post-war culinary drabness with her seminal books Mediterranean Food in 1950; French Country Cooking in 1951; and Italian Food in 1954.

English Bread and Yeast Cookery was the last of her seven books of recipes published in 1977 and from this, I’ve already learned a far easier – and seemingly idiot-proof – way to make a loaf, and also how to stop it spreading into a great doughy pool before popping it in the oven.

Elizabeth David died in 1992, but her writing and recipes are still easily available – (and for literally pennies in Amazon’s used-books section)- and just as entertaining, instructive and relevant as when they were first written.

In an era of ghost-written, celebrity chef-driven, pretty to look at, but – let’s be honest – seldom-used cook-books, Elizabeth David’s are beacons of practicality and highly recommended.

ps…
The chocolate parfait I made on MasterChef was technically quite tricky. While we were allowed brief menu notes, (setting out – for example – the order in which to make our dishes), recipes and step-by-step crib-sheets weren’t permitted. So I must’ve made and tasted that parfait at least a dozen times in the run-up, before I could consistently and confidently nail it.

And on the day, it was perfect.

But by then, I was so utterly, utterly sick of it, that in the twenty years since, I’ve never once made it again. Or a blackcurrant coulis. Or a raspberry one.


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