One of the things I love about bread is its versatility. Even a shop bought loaf can be used in a dozen different ways, from slices of toast to sandwiches, breadcrumbs to bread and butter pudding, the savoury crunch of a crouton or stirred through smooth sweet ice cream. And when you start to bake your own, the combinations are endless – crusty loaves and fluffy rolls, baguettes and baps, sprinkled with seeds, or run through with olives and cheese, fruit, nuts and more.
When I first started writing this blog, I made it my mission to bake my own bread on a regular basis. I’ve since experimented with various different flours and techniques, but the staple loaf I return to time and again is a simple mix of wholemeal and malted grain flour. The latter is fairly forgiving, lending the loaf a lovely lightness of texture and depth of flavour. I tend to do my baking on a Sunday afternoon, and each week a freshly baked loaf of bread makes getting up on a Monday morning just that little bit easier.
For those who haven’t been bitten by the baking bug, making your own bread can seem a daunting and even pointless task. Some are simply scared of yeast and kneading, while others argue that they just don’t have the time or that shop-bought bread is cheaper and more convenient. I’m not going to try to take too much of the moral high ground here – each person has their own priorities and there are things I’ve never had the patience to try, like making my own clothes or growing my own vegetables – but if you’ve never had a go at making your own bread, I would urge you to. It really is one of life’s simplest, but greatest pleasures.
It’s also pretty economical. Depending on the quality, a kilo of flour – enough for 3 or 4 loaves – will set you back about a pound, the price of a basic sliced loaf or half a single shop-bought sandwich. The average office worker spends over £600 a year on pre-made lunches and sandwiches, and if you live in London I imagine that cost is significantly higher. Make your own bread and you enter a whole new world of homemade sandwiches, where the soggy lettuce leaf, slick of greasy mayo and swathe of artificial additives, hydrogenated oils and unhealthy preservatives you find in so much shop-bought bread become a thing of the past.
If the malted wholemeal loaf is my every day option, suited and booted for the working week with a sensible amount of whole grain and fibre, the loaf that follows is its seductive Saturday morning sister. Easy to throw together, this lazy little loaf has a beautiful soft texture, tender crumb and delicate, buttery flavour, perfect sliced and spread with Nutella, sandwiched around crispy bacon or toasted and slicked in salty smooth butter.
The first time I made this loaf, Carniverous Boyfriend and I devoured practically the whole thing in one sitting. I made it again this weekend for visiting friends, and the empty bread bin this morning tells a similar story. Today my sensible brown bread sandwich is all packed up alongside my gym bag, signaling the start of another healthy working week, but when it gets to next weekend, I know what I’ll be reaching for come breakfast time.
Do you have certain foods you save for the weekend? Have you been bitten by the baking bug? And do you prefer white or brown bread?
Simple white farmhouse tin loaf (from Dan Lepard’s Short & Sweet)
This recipe uses Dan’s amazing low-maintenance kneading technique. Rather than pummeling the dough until your arms are numb, it requires just a few gentle folds and turns at intervals spaced out over about an hour. I’ve included the basic details below, but for the full techniques and tips on making the perfect loaf, I’d recommend buying your own copy of baking bible Short & Sweet. That way you get to master the tricks of the trade, and I don’t get sued by Dan for reproducing his recipe below.
225ml warm water
1 tsp fast action yeast
350g strong white flour, plus extra for shaping & dusting
1 tsp fine salt
25g salted butter, plus extra for greasing the tin
First of all, make the sponge. Pour the warm water into a large bowl with the yeast and 175g of the flour. Stir well with a wooden spoon, cover the bowl with a tea towel and leave for 2 hours minimum. You can also leave this overnight, or make it in the morning before work and finish making your bread in the evening.
When you’re ready to make the dough, pour the remaining 175g flour into a clean bowl, add the salt and rub the butter through until it vanishes. Pour in your sponge and mix the whole lot into a big sticky lump of dough. Cover with a tea towel and leave for 10 minutes.
After ten minutes, tip the dough onto a clean work surface. Take the edge of the dough furthest away from you with one hand and fold it towards you, to meet the edge of the dough nearest to you. Then with the heel of your other hand, push it lightly into the dough and stretch it away from you. Turn the dough clockwise by a quarter and repeat the process. Do this no more than 10 times, then return the dough to the bowl. Repeat again after a further 15 and 30 minutes.
After this third knead, leave the dough covered with a tea towel for 30 minutes. Butter and flour a 19cm loaf tin then preheat the oven to its highest temperature (220 degrees C if possible).
Lightly flour the work surface, tip out the dough and roll into a rectangle approx. 2cm thick and slightly less wide than the loaf tin. Roll it up tightly and place seam-side down in the tin. Cover with your tea towel and leave until increased in size by half (1 – 1/2 hours).
When the loaf has risen, take a sharp knife and slash across the top. Dust with flour and bake for twenty minutes, adding a little steam to the oven to help achieve a perfect crust if you like. After 20 mins, reduce the heat to 200 degrees C and bake for a further 20 – 25 minutes until the crust is the colour you like.
Remove from the oven and leave to cool (if you can wait that long) before slicing. Eat and enjoy.