Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Baking bread again

The nights are growing nippy here and it's dark by 6pm, but I'm not complaining. For me, the official end of the scorching Niçois summer signals the beginning of bread-baking season.
I've been baking bread on and off for most of my life, but it only started to become a real habit last year. Bread baking, like yoga, is most satisfying if you do a little of it every day - which makes sense, since both are forms of meditation. I've used every imaginable machine to mix bread dough, including my new Thermomix (with good results) and a long-since-abandoned bread machine, but I always come back to using my hands. Kneading dough only takes a few minutes, it's therapeutic for the mind and body, and the satisfaction of cutting into a hand-kneaded loaf is incomparable. Besides, who wants to scrape sticky dough off a sharp blade?
My bread baking reached a turning point when I met Dan Lepard last year. You know when you feel an almost spooky affinity with someone you have just met? Dan and I crossed paths on a press trip to Finland, and from the moment we started talking we just kept talking and talking and talking. Always about bread, and how to make it better. When we discovered a mutual passion for babas au rhum, I knew I had found a kind of dough-mate.
One of Britain's leading bakers, food writers and photographers, Dan is on a quest - or perhaps more of a mission - to improve the quality of British bread. While working as a baker in top London restaurants, necessity led him to a new way of working bread dough. Instead of kneading the dough for 10 full minutes and setting it aside, he would work it for a few seconds, ignore it for a few minutes and come back to it. Lo and behold, the gluten continued to work its magic during these rest periods and the resulting loaves were even better than conventionally kneaded bread.
Dan used this method as the basis for his beautiful book The Handmade Loaf. I bought this book soon after meeting him and over the next few weeks and months worked my way through many of the recipes. I made bread so often that the electric radiator in my kitchen became superfluous: my gas oven easily gave off enough heat to keep the room toasty.
The first and most essential step was to make my own leaven, as most of Dan's recipes call for a natural leaven even if some of them combine this with yeast. Following his detailed instructions, I produced a bubbly, friendly starter that sprang to life as soon as I refreshed it with water and flour.
These loaves are some of the best I have ever turned out, particularly the white leaven bread which could rival that of any French baker. Some of the recipes do, however, demand a certain commitment. Even as a freelance writer who works at home, I don't always find it practical to knead dough at 10 and 15-minute intervals over the course of one or two hours, or make a loaf that takes 9 1/2 hours from start to finish. I alternate these artist's loaves with simpler, quicker breads, sometimes using plain old yeast or a combination of yeast and leaven or dough from a previous batch of bread.
Enter Andrew Whitley and his book Bread Matters: The state of modern bread and a definitive guide to baking your own. As the title suggests, this book spends some time criticizing the state of industrial bread in Britain before showing ways to get around it by making your own from whole grain flours.
Having perfected Dan's leaven method I haven't really explored the one in this book, though I am intrigued by Whitley's Russian rye breads. For now I'm having fun with his second-simplest recipe, bread with old dough. Using dough from a previous batch of bread improves the quality of your loaf, and the longer you do this the better your bread will be: the famous bakery Poilâne in Paris has been using old dough since the 1930s.
Baking with old dough makes me feel slightly virtuous, almost as if I were using leaven but without the pampering attention that natural starter requires. What I also like about this recipe is that it will tolerate just about any combination of flours and the addition of seeds, raisins and/or nuts. Often I make it with half wheat and half spelt flour, adding linseed or sunflower seeds.
Dan Lepard and Andrew Whitley disagree on certain points, but I have picked up valuable advice from both that has changed the way I bake bread. These, for me, are the keys to good bread:
- Dough should be stickier than you think it should be.
If the dough is sticking to your hands, resist the urge at first to add extra flour. The wetter the dough (within reason), the moister the finished bread will be and the longer it will keep. Dan recommends oiling the board and your hands, which I often do as it keeps things tidier (and leaves my skin nice and soft). Andrew Whitley says to just keep working the dough until it becomes smooth, adding a little flour towards the end if necessary. I generally find that with French flours and in Nice's dry climate, I need to increase the liquid in British bread recipes.
- The longer dough takes to rise, the better it will be.
If you have to, you can make bread from start to finish in a couple of hours. But bread needs time to develop character, and the more you can draw out the process the better your finished loaf will be in both texture and flavor. If you work in an office all day, consider letting the dough rise slowly in the refrigerator either overnight or during the day.
- Keep the yeast to a minimum.
Dry yeast gives bread a yeasty flavor that can be overpowering, and a large quantity will make it rise too quickly. I sometimes use less yeast than Andrew Whitley calls for in his old dough recipe, with good results. I'm lucky enough to be able to find cakes of fresh yeast, which is preferred by both bakers, but I have no qualms about using dry yeast in small quantities when I have run out of fresh.
- The water temperature doesn't really matter.
My apologies to both authors, neither of whom would agree with this statement, but I don't think the home baker should get too hung up with water temperature. In winter, I use warmer (but not hot) water and in summer I use cooler (but not ice cold) water. That's it - no formulas, no thermometers.
- Protect your dough with a plastic bag.
I was washing an awful lot of tea towels before I started following Whitley's advice and re-using those pesky plastic bags from the market. The plastic shouldn't touch the dough, and you can even blow into the bag to create a kind of balloon that holds in moisture.

You might be wondering why I would even bother to bake my own bread, when I live in France. Well, I'm about to let you in on a little secret: the bread in Nice is not that good. Not compared to the incredible naturally leavened loaves I can find in Paris, anyway. A wonderful exception is the recently opened Boulangerie Lagache at 20, rue Arson, but that's a post in itself. I should note that the recipe below turns out bread that is quite unlike French bread, with its crisp crust and holey crumb.

I'm not publishing a recipe here from The Handmade Loaf because the instructions for making leaven are too long for my purposes, but I heartily recommend that you buy the book.

Basic Bread
adapted from Bread Matters

Makes 1 large or 2 small loaves

600 g flour (Whitley calls for wholemeal/wholewheat, but I usually use half organic unbleached white flour and half wholemeal wheat or spelt flour)
5 g sea salt (about 1 tsp)
400 g water (about 1 2/3 cups)
8 g (1/3 oz) fresh yeast or 1 tsp dry yeast

Measure the flour and salt into a bowl and combine. Measure the total amount of water and dissolve the yeast in about a quarter of the water. Add the yeast mixture and water to the dry ingredients and combine well (I use my trusty plastic pastry scraper from Dehillerin) until a soft dough forms, adding more water if necessary. Do not add more flour at this point.

Turn the dough out onto a large board - I use marble, even if it's a bit cool. If it's very sticky, rub your hands and the board with a little oil first. Knead the dough for 10 minutes, or until smooth and velvety. Set aside 160 g (6 oz) dough to make your next batch with old dough.

Scrape out any dry scraps from the mixing bowl, washing it if necessary, and return the dough to the bowl for its first rising. Cover with a large plastic bag, blowing into the bag if you like to form a kind of balloon. Set aside to rise in a warm place for up to 2 hours, or in the refrigerator for much longer if you wish.

When the dough has doubled in size, scrape it out onto the board and flatten it into a rectangle (if you are baking it in a loaf tin). Use a little flour so that it doesn't stick, but don't get too carried away. Roll it into a long sausage, then flatten this sausage and fold it in three. Press the dough down into a rectangle and roll it up, without tearing the dough, into a loaf shape.

Grease a large loaf tin with butter and place the dough inside, seam side down. Cover again with plastic, being sure not to let it touch the dough. Set aside to rise until it doubles in size. It should still give some resistance when gently pressed with a finger.

Preheat the oven to 230 C (475 F) or its hottest setting. Bake the loaf for 10 mins, then turn the heat down to 200 C (425 F) and bake for another 30-40 mins, until well browned all over. Turn out of the pan and cool on a rack. Try to resist cutting into the bread until it's completely cool.

Bread with old dough

Follow the above recipe, using:

500 g flour(s) of your choice (1 lb 2 oz)
4 g sea salt (slightly less than 1 tsp)
330 g water (1 1/3 cups)
8 g (1/3 oz) fresh yeast or 1 tsp dried yeast
160 g old dough (6 oz)

Knead all the ingredients except the old dough for five minutes, then add the old dough and knead until smooth.


Lucy said...

Both books sound intriguing...bread-making is something that I'd like to do, but always seem to find a reason not to.

Likening kneading to yoga as relaxation time spent well makes it very attractive!

Nora B. said...

Hi Rosa,
How fantastic that you met with Dan and even had an opportunity to discuss bread!

i will read through your tips about bread making at another time, I'm in a rush to get to work now. Thank you for taking the time to share all of that.

I like you analogy about bread making and yoga.

Have a good day!

Rosa said...

Try it, Lucy, I know you'll love it!

Thanks Nora! It's always inspiring to talk to someone who is so knowledgeable and passionate. That's what I love about the French food producers, too.

VegeYum said...

Hi Rosa, love your post on bread. I have been cooking bread for years. It does take a while to get the hang of it, how a dough should look and feel, best rising conditions in your kitchen and so forth.

Years and years ago, simply for convenience, I would sometimes mix the dough and knead it in the morning, rush off to work, and come home to cook it at night with (surprising to me at the time) better results. So I agree with your long rising times.

i had been thinking this morning, while still in bed, that it is time that I made another bread post. Maybe it will happen. If I do, I will be very glad to link to your post.

Love reading your blog.

Rosa said...

Thanks, Vegeyum! Of all the things I do in the kitchen, breadmaking is possibly the most satisfying. Glad to hear you are also a fan of this meditative pastime.