I love bread.
I love baking it and I love its taste. I love it in all its varieties: basic loaves; bagels; sourdough; focaccias; and often I find myself looking for a new recipe to try. Once found, I work at it repeatedly until I get the loaf just the way I want, before moving onto another.
Some years ago on a trip to Japan, I cooked a meal with a friend. While I set about making the best chilli con carne possible, she looked through a folder full of bread recipes; the loaf she made was white, soft and delicious. As we all ate later, I decided to make it my business to find bread recipes and start baking my own loaves on my return to England.
Since then, I cook bread as much for pleasure as necessity; after a stressed day at work, a few hours making a new loaf is comfort indeed. The resulting loaf is delightful, too.
It's the "few hours" bit that seems to send those considering baking their own bread rushing away from kneading in a bowl or on a surface to the bread-machine or the local shop, but although the start to finish time for baking a loaf is a few hours, they are not too involved, with the cook being able to take a lot of breaks while the bread does its own thing.
The recipe that follows is a mix: Jamie Oliver's basic loaf was the first I made regularly. A few Nigella Lawson techniques make their way into this recipe. Dan Lepard's tips are also followed. I'm sure I'll be learning from other cooks as time goes by.
To make a basic loaf, you need: 400g of strong white flour; 200ml of tepid water; one sachet of fast-action yeast (equivalent to a teaspoonful) and a teaspoon of salt. You can do your dough mixing and kneading on a work surface. I tend to use a large bowl.
Place your yeast and salt in the bowl and add a little of the water. Stir then leave for ten minutes while the yeast bubbles up. There's lots of leaving ingredients to do their thing, so I do advise you to have something to be getting on with, say letter writing, reading or phone calls in the meantime.
Some stuff to be getting on with
After ten minutes, add your flour to the yeast and salt, followed by the rest of the water. Now, with the fingers of one hand, rather like a spider, start mixing. This is where the magic starts:
the four ingredients forming something new. Under your fingers, over about five minutes, bread dough will begin to form. Keep kneading for another five or so minutes - listen to a song on the radio to time yourself - then stop, sprinkle the top of the dough with a little flour, cover with a tea towel and leave for ten minutes. This might be a good time to get on with your stuff.
After ten minutes, uncover the dough and knead for another five minutes. Sprinkle the dough with a little flour. Cover and leave for another ten minutes. Do all this once again: you will notice your bread dough becoming firmer, more pliable. Sprinkle with flour, cover and leave for 45 minutes to rise.
Taking off the tea towel later, you will see that the dough has increased size somewhat; maybe by twice as much. If not, don't worry, there's another rising session to come; also further rising will occur when you bake the dough later.
Grease and flour a baking tray then lift your bread dough out onto a floured work surface. Press the dough into a rough oval shape then slowly, carefully and tightly roll your dough, pinching both ends to make it neat. Place on your prepared baking tray. Cover and leave for another 45 minutes. Get on with some more stuff.
Half an hour later, turn your oven onto 200ºC. By the time it's ready, you can uncover your bread dough. Sprinkle the top of it with a little more flour and cut a deep slash down its spine. Now, place it in the oven for half an hour.
30 minutes later, take out your loaf and place it on a rack to cool. There are various testing methods to check if it's done: tapping the bottom to see if it sounds 'hollow' is one I've heard, but you can normally tell; the bread has risen, the crust is golden and you want to eat it. Wait for about 20 minutes while it cools.
After this time, you should be able to touch it without hurting yourself. Then, by all means start eating it. It will still be warm. You will discover that, for about three hours time and a little effort, you have made yourself a delicious loaf of white bread. You'll want to make some more.
As I said, there are many varieties of bread to try. I'll post up a few more as and when I attempt them.