Thursday, 2 June 2011

Give us this day our daily bread...

I've always struggled with bread recipes, unfortunately despite a fine appreciation of the freshly baked loaf; I have fallen sadly short of producing many myself.  In this I am quite unlike my father who bakes bread constantly: he meticulously follows a recipe which is never EVER deviated from, churning out endless, utterly delicious, wholemeal loaves.  (With service like that how did they ever convince me to move out?)

It’s not the lack of a bread machine holding me back from following in my father’s bready footsteps, (after all there was life before bread machines right?).  Annoyingly it’s no better reason than not having the most simple of requirements - an airing cupboard. 

When I first tried baking bread I realised that almost all of the recipes suggest proving not once but twice “somewhere warm like an airing cupboard”.  At first I used this as an excuse, wimped out, and baked less time consuming but less satisfying yeast-less breads – but soda bread, my one-trick-bread-baking pony can only take you so far! 

When proving bread you need to leave the yeast time to ferment (ideally somewhere warm... yes, yes we know that part), the yeast emits CO2 leavening the dough.  Proving is usually recommended to take as long as necessary for the dough to increase by one and a half times or double in size.  The timescale of how long this takes is increased or decreased according to the temperature of the dough. 

Unfortunately there is little suggestion of what to substitute said airing cupboard with if your flat doesn’t come equipped with this baking prerequisite.  (How on earth did domestic bakers of the world survive before central heating?)

Initial searches suggested placing the dough in the bottom of the oven and proving it on the lowest setting (apparently 40˚C is an ideal temperature).  In a modern kitchen I’m sure this would work – in a kitchen born in the 1970s (conservative guess) with an oven which cooks at a temperature unpredictably unrelated to the dial on the front, an alternative was needed. 

So in a bid to still be able to bake without the obligatory airing cupboard I read up quite a lot on various different techniques and have stumbled upon the baking version of the impossible dream.  Cold proving – oh how I love thee...  Even better – it apparently increases the taste and texture of the finished result.  Result indeed!  Amazingly I’ve also found it fits perfectly into life for the 9-5ers with busy schedules who want to have a life and their freshly baked loaf!

My first foray into cold proving was last week, and I decided to test it with foccacia.  Now as I’m sure you can tell, I’m not a fervent baker - I haven’t tried my hand at a loaf since my Christmas stollen. But I had some friends coming round who function in a time-zone operating 45 minutes later than the rest of London.  In an attempt to stave off a hangry fit (it’s genetic, like most of my family I get very grumpy when peckish), I decided to bake a loaf to bridge the gap between the anticipated late arrival of my guests and dinner arriving on the table.

The recipe I first tried was from Delicious Magazine but this had to be tweaked slightly (as usual) because: a. I don’t own a bread machine and b. It required that elusive darned airing cupboard again.  This time though I had a solution. 

Who knew bread making could be so easy: mix four ingredients; knead a couple of minutes and bung in the fridge over night to rise.  In the morning knock back the dough, pop into a tin, prod some dimples in the top and put back into the fridge for the second prove while you’re at work.  When you get back that evening, sprinkle over the toppings, drizzle with olive oil and bake.

I’d anticipated serving the loaf with a bowl of pesto for people to tear and dip... but due to a mess up with London transport (shock!) everyone turned up 45 minutes late (double shock!!).  By this time I’d somehow managed to plough through a third of the loaf solo and had resorted to slicing and artfully arranging it to try and disguise how little was left for my 5 guests! (Sorry, what can I say?  I am a bad hostess!!)

Having had such a promising start with my new found technique I decided to branch out and read up a bit more about the foccacia-making process on Dan Lepard’s website. It was the tail-end of a full bank holiday and a few friends in need of sustenance were descending for a hung-over game of Monopoly (last time EVER - apparently even at 30 we’re still not mature enough to play this without it imploding into an out and out brawl).

Dan Lepard is British baking’s superhero and undeniably my favourite baker of all time, his recipes are always different to the standard fare (instead of kneading for hours, he advises ten second bursts, leaving the dough for ten minutes in between – saviour of bingo wings everywhere).  He suggests using rendered pork lard (traditional in northern Italy, to add depth of flavour), and the use of malt (dark ale is substituted in this recipe for ease of availability). He also proposes a completely different method (which I didn’t end up following) – involving an almost puff pastry-like process, folding the dough in thirds and turning and stretching to produce air bubbles and give an unusual aerated texture.  To be honest though, I want to fit baking into my normal day, so I stuck with the same method I’d used previously:

First, measure out and mix the flour, salt and fast-action yeast.  Then slowly incorporate the warm water, olive oil, dark ale and lard (if using) until it comes together into a ball.
The dough should be slightly wetter than normal bread dough.  Knead for a few moments on a lightly floured surface (making sure your hands are dusted with flour as well).  Alternatively you can use olive oil to cover your work surface and hands.

 Pop the dough back into the mixing bowl, cover with oiled clingfilm and place in the fridge overnight.  Next morning knock back the dough, this just means literally knocking the air out - you can punch, slap and/or give it a quick knead.  Then the dough needs to be placed in an oiled tin (I used an 8 inch round cake tin for mine) and flattened slightly, although there is no need to try and make it fit the tin exactly.  Poke dimples into the top of the dough using your fingertips, cover with the oiled clingfilm and place back in the fridge.

In the evening, take the bread out of the fridge, and cover with any toppings you fancy, sprinkle with flaky sea salt and drizzle liberally with olive oil.  I divided my toppings into quarters: paprika, chilli and coriander; shallots; rosemary; and an olive paste (more on that later).

Then bake for approximately half an hour at 180˚C until golden and hollow sounding when the bottom of the loaf is tapped.  Cool on a wire rack.

This recipe only uses half a sachet of yeast, and I just can’t bare half-measures, so I ended up making two of them... yes two!  Now as you can tell, freshly baked bread has never stuck around long enough in my house for me to need to store it longer than a couple of hours (I’m a glutton for gluten!).  But apparently if you wrap freshly baked (and cooled) foccacia loaves in clingfilm and store in the fridge they will last a couple of days.  (I dare you to resist the allure of the oily, crisp, salty loveliness for that long)!  In view of this extra loaf, I hunted out a Nigel Slater recipe for what to do with leftovers.  I made the olive paste he suggests early and used some (thinned down with a little extra olive oil) drizzled over as one of the toppings.

Finally... two loaves, that must mean leftovers right?!  Only, actually no, it doesn’t because I ate one of the loaves (yes the entire loaf) before my long suffering guests arrived (again!) and then ended up feeding them the backup loaf which meant no leftovers.  So Nigel Slater’s recipe was adapted and used as an instant hit of umami spread - the full version will have to wait for my next venture which will accordingly consist of three loaves... 

Delicious Magazine Foccacia Recipe:
350g strong plain white flour
½ tsp salt
7g sachet fast-action dried yeast
210ml blood warm water
15ml olive oil, plus extra for greasing
Handful small fresh sage leaves
Three shallots, finely sliced
Coarse sea salt or crystal salt
2 tbsp olive oil

Dan Lepard’s Foccacia Recipe: (I doubled this to make two loaves)
150ml barely warm water
(1/2 sachet) easy-blend yeast
2 tbsp dark ale
1 tbsp olive oil
250g strong white flour
1/4 tsp fine sea salt
malden salt to sprinkle on the top
(optional - 2 tsp rendered pork or duck fat, or dripping )  - I decided (probably wrongly) that rendered pork lard sounded like an Italian version of bacon dripping.
  1. Paprika, crushed dried chillies, fresh coriander
  2. Rosemary
  3. Taleggio mixed with olive oil to thin for drizzling
  4. Sliced Shallots
Nigel Slater’s Olive Paste:
150g stoned, green olives
2 small cloves of garlic, peeled
2 large anchovy fillets
1 tbsp capers
lemon juice
the leaves from a sprig of rosemary
olive oil


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