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Thursday 3 July 2014

Baking for Beginners: The Perfect Loaf

Sluttery HQ kitchen is either turning out beautiful cakes or delicious loaves. We love to bake, and for me there's nothing more satisfying than baking your own bread. Whether it's focaccia, six seed bread, cornbread or bara brith, you name it and we've baked it, torn it apart with our bare hands, smothered it in butter and burned our mouths on it.

If you just want to make a basic loaf - a simple white or wholemeal loaf that you can proudly display in your kitchen and devour for breakfast - but you've always said it's too complicated / takes ages / goes wrong, then read on. With a few hints and ideas, you'll be turning out loaves to be proud of.

If you want a basic recipe, I'd suggest:
  • 500g strong white flour
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 sachet (7g) dried yeast
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 300ml luke-warm water
And make it by hand. It's so wonderful to see such basic ingredients become a wonderful loaf just with the power of your hands. Plus breadmakers are fine for pizza dough but produce bread that is denser than the core of the earth (just me?).

Baker Tom's soda bread

The Basic Ingredients!
  • Let's start with the basics: flour. Wholemeal loaves are healthiest but often so dense you can only use them as doorstops. A 50/50 mix of white flour and wholemeal flour will give you a healthy and light loaf.
  • Alternatively, swap a handful of white flour for wholemeal flour if you're making a white loaf, as it'll add texture. Swap a handful of wholemeal for white to make a wholemeal loaf lighter.
  • Want your loaf even lighter? Add half a crushed 500mg Vitamin C tablet to the flour. Good luck with finding one that isn't flavoured for kids, mind. Thankfully a mild flavour like lemon won't affect the final flavour.
  • Want a softer loaf? (You want the moon on a stick, you do.) Then add a pat of softened butter or a tablespoon of olive oil to the dry ingredients.
  • Fast action yeast is most convenient. Dried yeast needs water to activate it. Don't add too much in the hopes of creating a GigantoLoaf. It'll just taste of gone off beer.
  • Use tepid water. Hot will kill the yeast, cold means it won't work/will take so long to work you'll have given up and bought a sandwich from Pret. Best of all: use (unsalted) water that you've boiled potatoes in to boost the taste and texture. I learned this tip from Little House On The Prairie (hat tip to Ma Ingalls).
The Fancier Ingredients!

The joy of making your own bread is that you can create the perfect flavour. Try adding grated cheese, roasted garlic, sundried tomatoes, dried fruit, herbs or spices to the dry ingredients. Remember when I added an entire breakfast to a loaf? Good times.

Ice-cream bread. We went there.

The Knead!

I swear by Dan Lepard's method for kneading bread, which is coincidentally the very easiest.

Lightly oil your worktop, then knead the dough by holding it down with one hand, stretching it away with the other, and folding it back on itself. Make a quarter turn and repeat eight times. Put the dough back in the bowl and leave for 10 minutes, then knead again. Leave for another 10 minutes and knead one final time before leaving to rise.

Now go and buy Dan's book, it's utter magic.

The Rise!

Deep breath. You need to be patient now. You're going to let your loaf rise twice, and you're not going to be impatient and say "yeah that's probably doubled in size" when you know in your heart that it hasn't, and you're not going to shove it in the airing cupboard. Leaving it somewhere too hot will make it rise too quickly and give the bread a sour taste.

If you can poke a finger in the dough and the dent remains, it's risen. Now knock it down. It's a little heartbreaking to watch it crumple after all its hard work, but now's the time to shape it and let it rise again.

Grape focaccia

The Shape!

A banneton, or proving basket, will give your loaf a strong shape, crispier crust and dramatic pattern on top (dramatic in bread terms, you understand. It won't come out with flicky eyeliner and rhinestones).

Turn your dough into am oiled loaf tin for the second rise. The tin helps it cook more evenly, but don't worry if you don't have one - just pop your dough on a baking tray. Plait it if you're feeling fancy - Paul Hollywood's eight strand plaited loaf looks far more complicated than it is.

The Finish!

The finish to your bread depends on what you do to it before or after baking.
  • Soft loaf - wrap it in a teatowel for half an hour after it comes out of the oven.
  • Soft golden crust - brush the dough with warm milk.
  • Shiny golden crust - brush the loaf before and after baking with olive oil, which will also add flavour.
  • Shiny golden crust with a pleasing hardness - brush the dough with an egg beaten with a tablespoon of water.
Are you adding seeds or whatnot to the top? Then oil, egg white or milk will help them stick to the dough.

Slash the bread across the top before baking to make the loaf bloom outwards. It looks good and means there's more surface area, therefore more tasty crust.

I nearly bought a bread slashing device for £12 once. Reader, it was a knife.

Gluten free focaccia

The I Don't Have Time For All This!

The time you'll put in to making the loaf is about 15 minutes. The rest of it is leaving the dough to do its thing. Make the dough one evening and leave it to rise overnight in the fridge. Take it out the next day, shape it, and leave it to rise again for about 3 hours. Then bake.

Any other tips, dear readers? Anything else we should be adding to our loaves?

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