Many home cooks, some professional chefs and at least one semi-professional home cook (that’s me) have culinary blind spots – areas of kitchen endeavour where they rarely attempt to tread. For some it may be pastry, for others fish, and for others perhaps long, slow cooking of meat, as in braises, stews and pot roasts. For me, until a few years ago, it was bread making.
Reasons for neglecting a certain set of cookery skills vary with the individual: some ’fess up to a lack of confidence, or plead restricted opportunity, others may even belittle the speciality in question as simply not worth bothering with. Sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on it. It’s just a strange, almost imperceptible creeping feeling that the gastronomic pursuit in question is not ‘your bag’. This, of course, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the longer you go without breaking through, the more it seems to be part of the definition of what kind of cook you are, or aren’t.
Rarely, if ever, is it because one doesn’t enjoy the food in question. I love bread and always have done. But I somehow never cast myself as a baker. And the more I didn’t bake bread, the more I began to think of myself as a non-bread-baking kind of cook. Then I moved into a house with a fabulous wood-burning bread oven in its ancient inglenook fireplace. I could hardly not try it out. In fact, what better way of reviving it than for our daughter Chloe’s tenth birthday party, when we decided to fire up the dormant beast and bash out pizzas, kneaded, shaped and topped by a gang of frighteningly noisy young girls.
Apart from the sheer joy of the occasion, the pizzas we all put together weren’t half bad. In fact, putting aside the fact that they were formed into some rather unconventional shapes (many could perhaps best be described as ‘protozoan’), they were absolutely delicious. By the end of the day, I had taken the opportunity to knock out a couple of loaves too, pretty much following the instructions on the back of one of the packets of organic flour we had inevitably over-invested in for our pizza-making bonanza. They were also more than respectable. Lovely, in fact. And in one fell swoop my bread-baking jinx was busted.
Now we’ve moved house again, and we miss our inglenook-with-ancient-bread-oven like an old friend left behind. But we have a new friend, as we have installed a wood-burning range. It’s easy to fire it up to get the top oven to a piping 250°C or more – ideal for bread and pizzas. (Incidentally, as long as you can get your oven to a temperature of 220°C, you will be able to bake great bread and pizza; if it’s any less than that, in all honesty you will struggle.) We now have regular family pizza sessions – they make a fine alternative to a big Sunday roast dinner when you have friends over at the weekend. Personally I never tire of dabbling with the pizza theme, my current enthusiasm being for tomato-less types of ‘pizza bianca’. The less-is-more concept is taken to its logical conclusion with the ‘plain pizza’ flatbread (though I have to say, in my house the younger pizza makers are still deeply committed to the more-is-more approach…).
Latterly it is my wife, Marie, who has really been bitten by the bread-making bug. Rather than starting from scratch every time with bought yeast, she tends and nurtures a sourdough ‘starter’ (a fermenting batter of flour and water that contains natural airborne yeasts) that we acquired from River Cottage baker Dan Stevens. She bakes an outstanding loaf from this just about every other day – often daily at weekends and during the holidays. If she’s busy or away, I step in once in a while to start or finish a batch of dough, or bake off a risen loaf that’s too impatient to await her return. And it is this very soothing, almost daily rhythmic ritual that has finally weaned us, as a family, off bought bread. I can’t tell you how satisfying it is – it’s right up there with growing your own veg – and I would urge you to give it a go.
I’m not going to pretend that baking bread is a complete doddle, however. Traditional, yeast-leavened bread is made by a time-honoured and time-consuming process, the rudiments of which need to be respected. My point is that they don’t need to be feared. Just get stuck in, as I did, and there is every chance you will make delicious bread – and every chance you will greatly enjoy both the bread and the making of it. I hardly need to mention that, for both taste and goodness, the home-baked loaf has factory-made, supermarket-sold bread roundly thrashed every time. And with a little commitment and understanding, your own efforts can easily compete with the best artisan loaves, at a fraction of their (often eyebrow-raising) price.
Can it be done instantly? No. But it can readily be fitted round a busy working day, or week, and become a steady and even relaxing part of your routine. Techniques can be adapted to your timetable – and there’s no shame whatever in using a mixer with a dough hook to do the kneading (we do it all the time). Even if you don’t go all out for the sourdough starter as a nurtured ‘family pet’ (it needs ‘feeding’ regularly with flour and water), you’ll find the overnight ‘sponge’ method, borrowed from the sourdough technique, can be applied to recipes using fresh or dried yeast. So… mix before bed. Knead in the morning. Put somewhere cool (the fridge) for a long, slow rise. Knock back at the end of the working day and knead again. Shape your loaf, leave it for a quicker, warmer rise for a couple of hours (we use the airing cupboard), then bake. Your freshly baked loaf, started 36 hours previously, is ready for breakfast. Each little intervention takes only a matter of minutes. And you’ve hardly noticed the effort.
If you want to acquire a bread-baking habit (or perhaps just improve one), this chapter will show you the way. But besides yeast-risen doughs, there is much pleasure (and time) to be gained from more instantly gratifying forms of baking. Making soda bread, for example, is a great shortcut to wholesome and delicious home-made bread. It’s really just a giant scone. And once you’ve got the knack, then adapting the basic recipe by adding seeds, dried fruit or even cheese and onion is not just acceptable, it’s inevitable.
The American take on yeastless breads is dominated by cornbread – in many ways similar to soda bread, except that the principal flour is milled from corn (i.e. maize). It’s taken a while for cornbreads to catch on in the UK but they are a beloved staple of American café culture, and when you start to play around with them you’ll see why. They are falling-off-a-log easy but hugely rewarding.
‘Breads’ can be even simpler – though less obviously bread-like. Take the oatcake. We may class it these days as a kind of biscuit to be eaten with cheese, but it is really a very basic form of flatbread. Thinking of it this way can only help to emphasise its versatility. I’m just as likely to eat an oatcake for breakfast with marmalade, or for a quick lunch with a chunk of pâté, or alongside my suppertime soup, as I am with a hunk of Cheddar and a dab of chutney. Flatbreads in the more traditional sense don’t get much easier, more primitive or more instant than the recipe, yet when you produce a batch of these, the chances are you’ll feel very pleased with yourself as you serve up a stack with a pile of home-made hummus, or offer them to your guests to tear up and dunk into a soup or stew. This kind of unleavened bread has been around for millennia but it’s just as relevant to the way we cook today as it ever was.