By Mags Hall
Sometimes you’re in the mood for spending all day creating a special fancy loaf, with herbs, and cheese, and a cherry on top. More often than not though, you’ll be wanting something simple and wholesome, that’ll fit in the toaster and go nicely with slatherings of peanut butter. This is my standard loaf I make once or twice a week – start the dough when you get in from work, and you’ll have a freshly baked loaf by bed time, all ready for breakfast.
230g strong wholemeal flour
230g strong white flour
40g porridge oats
3 – 4 tbsp mixed seeds – pumpkin, sesame, sunflower, and chia all work well, and give your loaf a good omega-3 punch to it, but feel free to sling in whatever you have lurking in your cupboards!
1 tbsp dried yeast
1 tsp salt
300ml warm water (1/3 boiling from the kettle, 2/3 cold from the tap)
1 tsp honey
1 tbsp cold-pressed rapeseed oil
Weigh out the flours, oats, seeds and salt into a large mixing bowl and combine. Dissolve the honey in the warm water. Have a look at your packet of yeast – if it needs reactivating, stir it into the water and honey, pop the jug into a plastic bag and leave to stand somewhere warm for 5 minutes, until you have a thick layer of foam forming on the surface. If it is ‘instant’ yeast, just add it to the dry ingredients in the bowl.
Add the liquid to the dry ingredients about a third at a time, using one hand to mix it together roughly. When you add the last slosh of water, add the oil in too, and bring it all together to form a rough, sticky dough. You might need to add more water – you want the dough to be fairly wet and well combined, but not to the point where you can’t work with it. It’s hard to describe the right consistency, but with practice, you’ll learn!
Turn the dough out onto your work surface. I find if you’ve got the consistency right, you shouldn’t need to flour or oil your work top, although I do have a rather nasty laminated wooden worktop in my kitchen which nothing seems to stick to! If needs be, add a very light dusting of flour to the worktop before tipping out.
Knead the dough for about 10 minutes – everyone has a slightly different kneading technique, but here’s a really simple video showing three different ways. Remember you’re aiming to stretch the gluten in the dough, so the more vigorous the better! If I’m making bread after work, this usually coincides with the 6 o’clock news on Radio 4, which is a very useful tool for getting me wound up enough to execute some mean kneading.
Once your dough feels smooth and springy – or your arms have fallen off – shape it into a ball, lightly oil the mixing bowl you used, and pop the dough back in again with the smoothest side facing up. Cover your bowl- you can use clingfilm, but I prefer to just stick the whole bowl in a plastic bag, tucking the edges underneath to seal. Leave the dough in a warm place to double in size. In winter, I pop it in front of a low energy electric heater, or if the oven’s on anyway I open the grill door and sit it on there. In the summer though I find the kitchen is usually warm enough by itself. This can take anything from 1 – 2 hours – enough time to have your tea and put your feet up for a bit.
Once your dough is nicely risen, it’s time to undo all your good work by ‘knocking back’! Tip the dough out onto the worktop and use your fingertips to gently flatten it out, pressing most of the air out of the dough. This isn’t a second kneading though, so don’t be too rough! You then want to shape your loaf by rolling the bread up along the longest edge into a chubby oblong, then tucking the shorter edges under. Use your hands to gently shape it so that the top of the loaf is quite taught, as this helps stretch the gluten further and will make the bread rise better in the oven. Pop your loaf in a lightly oiled bread tin. Then put it back in the plastic bag again and leave it to double in size once more. I usually find this takes less time than the first proving, about an hour.
Pre-heat your oven to gas mark 6 / 200 degrees C, and when your loaf is all puffed up and standing proud, reading for firing, pop it on the top shelf of your oven, making sure there’s enough room for the dough to rise a little further. I also always spray the inside of the oven with water as I do this, as a damp atmosphere creates a nice crust, but make sure you do this quickly as you don’t want the heat to escape. Bake for 30 – 35 minutes, turning the loaf round halfway through to make sure it browns evenly on top. It’s ready when it’s nicely browned, is filling the house with the scent of bread, and if you slide the loaf out of the tin and tap it on the bottom it sounds hollow.
Bread-making is something you rarely get right the first time, and even after two years of making my own bread most weeks, I still have disasters! But as you practice and get used to how a good loaf feels, smells and tastes, I promise you, you’ll never go back to the Chorleywood-processed supermarket pap ever again!
The River Cottage Handbook on bread has been an extremely useful wee guide throughout my bread making journey. Plus keep your eyes out for some Fife Diet bread-based fun, to be announced very shortly…..