[edited 20.4.15 to add a few extra photos; 27.4.15 to signpost to comments and replies]
I come from a family of good cooks and food lovers, so food is dear to my heart and central to my life and culture. As it happens, my maternal grandfather was a baker, his oldest son was (amongst many other things) a very accomplished pastry cook, and my mum spent some of the earliest years of her childhood growing up above the family’s bakery and shop in Cable Street (London’s East End).
Her father died before I was born, so I never knew him, and the baker shop was long gone by the time I came along.
Anyway, I promised to write it up, and here at last it is. My everyday bread recipe. Or to be more exact, the recipe I used for the twenty or so years before I began using my sourdough starter. But really, the only difference is that now I use that instead of the dried yeast.
This is a recipe to play around with once you get the basics right. I take after my mum when it comes to recipes – whenever I asked her how to cook something, at some point along the way I would always ask how much of something, and she would reply “well, you put in till it looks right”. Right mum, and how do you know what it’s meant to look like?
Well of course the answer is trial and error – you give it a go and next time adjust things if it doesn’t turn out exactly how you wanted. But I hope that here I’ve given you enough hard detail to help you get it right first time, and then you’re free to play and make it your own.
Although it takes a long time to make this, it takes very little work. You spend about 5 minutes on the first mixing bit (Stage 1), another few minutes on the next mixing bit (Stage 2), then a few minutes kneading and putting into tins (Stage 3), and that’s all the work there is apart from baking it (Stage 4). But it takes a long long time, because you want the yeast to really do its work, so you leave it to sit for hours. While you go out to work, sleep, do whatever you do in your life, or (like the yeast and bread mix) just sit and be. Your choice.
I’ve given the quantities for two loaves, because really, you will want at least two. And it makes better use of the oven than just doing one. I’ve always done four loaves together, because that’s what fits in my oven and my freezer – double what I’ve given if that’s what you’d like to do too.
If you do the quantity for two loaves but really only want one loaf, then use half of it as pizza base, or to make some rolls (8 large, or 12 small). You choose.
I’m sorry, but these measurements are in pints. I’m sure you can easily convert if you need to use a different measurement. Spoons vary in size, but luckily this is a very forgiving recipe (barely a recipe at all), so don’t fret about how big yours are compared to mine, it won’t matter (I promise!).
[before you start, you might want to have a look at the comments on this post for my replies to readers’ questions].
Ingredients and method
Get a large bowl (I use the mixing bowl from my mum’s big old Kenwood chef). If you don’t have a really large bowl, use a big saucepan, or a pressure cooker, or whatever you do have.
NB in the the pictures below I was making my usual 4 loaves, so everything here is twice the size of the recipe amounts!
Stage 1: Put in:
Oil: 2 tablespoons (I use locally produced rape seed; you can use whatever you have or like, or leave it out altogether. I think having it in just helps it keep better)
Sugar : 2 tablespoons (I use soft brown sugar if I have it; you could use any sugar you like, or honey, or less if you prefer your bread more sour)
Salt: 2 teaspoons (you can reduce the amount if you like; this works for our taste)
Dried yeast granules: 1 level teaspoon – essential! Do not leave this out or fiddle with the amount.
Water: lukewarm, 1.25 pints – essential – getting this quantity right will enable you to get the amount of flour right. Better too cool than too hot – you don’t want to kill the yeast.
Flour: mix it in until you have the consistency of thick porridge – I use a mix of wholemeal strong flour and white strong flour, about half and half. You definitely want strong (bread) flour, as it has the right gluten content for bread. Sometimes I add in a bit of rye flour. Often I throw in some porridge oats as well, they give a softer bread.
Once it’s all mixed together, cover and leave for several hours. Sometimes I do this bit (Stage 1) just before I go to bed and leave it till breakfast time; sometimes I do it at breakfast time and leave it till lunchtime; sometimes I do it at about 5pm and leave it till say 9 pm. Honestly, it doesn’t matter toooooo much how long, so long as when you go back to it you’ve got a nice bubbly appearance on the surface – that’s telling you that the yeast has been doing its stuff.
So long as you see that, you’re ready for
Stage 2: Add:
More flour, stirring it in and then mixing it in with your hands. I use my right hand to mix it, leaving my left hand free (and clean) to add flour. You want it to put enough in for it to be a dough, and all stay together in one piece. This bit may take a while for you to figure out how much is ‘enough’. I like it to not be sticky, but not be too stiff either.
When you think it feels right, cover it and leave it in the bowl for more time. This time the point is to let your dough rise nicely. Which gives you time to put your feet up and have a cup of tea, or go to work, or go to bed, or whatever else you have to do.
Until the dough is ready for
Shape and make ready to bake. So now you need a floured surface to work your dough on, shape it, and get it ready to bake. Take it our of your bowl, put it on the floured surface, cut it into two equal sized pieces and work with one piece at a time.
To make a tin loaf, a 2 pound tin is the size you want for this. I lightly oil my (supposedly) non-stick tins, just to be sure the bread won’t stick. Knead the piece of dough well (not too hard, you don’t want to knock all the air out of it), stretching and folding and turning it a bit as you do so, until it feels even and nice to work. Then make the dough the right shape, lightly flour it, and put it in the tin. Repeat for the other piece of dough.
If you don’t have a tin, you can do a freestyle loaf (round, long, plaited, whatever you fancy) on a (lightly oiled) baking sheet or even on the bottom of a casserole dish. You can make it into rolls, or use some of it as a pizza base. It’s your dough!
Now cover again, and leave to rise. I find that this takes around about an hour or so. Don’t leave it to rise too long, or it will over-rise and start to fall a bit. Not a disaster, but not the best.
Once it’s risen you’re ready for
Stage 4 – baking
Slash the tops of the loaves. There’s a reason for this, it stops it splitting apart as it rises further in the oven. You’ll need to use a really sharp knife or blade for this, otherwise I find it sticks to the dough a bit.
For loaves, bake for about 55 minutes in a hot oven (mine is a fan oven at about 175 degrees C). Sometimes I pre-heat the oven, sometimes I forget. It doesn’t seem to make much difference either way. You’ll want to bake rolls for much less time. They’re done if you tap one on the bottom and it feels hollow.
After 55 minutes take the bread out of the oven and out of the tins, leave to cool on a rack.
Stage 5 – oh didn’t I mention this other stage? But it’s the best bit.
Eat and enjoy.
(Hint: don’t let your partner, children or friends eat it warm – it will all disappear in no time at a all!)
* apologies to Ogden Nash