The Food of Life

Bread might be the staff of life, but how many of us know how to make it for ourselves?

Turning 30 three years ago gave Magpie a new passion for bread, never felt before. She put it down to hormones; despite growing up in a household of breadmakers, she had never known the passion until then. Surrounded as we are by all manner of breads, from the steam baked, chemical filled crap, to the wonderful artisan breads by local bakers such as Patrick Moore, it doesn’t seem possible that we could create such indulgence for ourselves. But anyone who has ever tried to sell a difficult house should be able to pay testament to the selling properties of freshly baked bread.

It is excellently simple. Skill, of course, must be involved, but the techniques are so straightforward that a beginner can still get good results from the start.

Take 1lb (500g ish) of STRONG white bread flour.
Add 3 teaspoons of salt.

Using a litre sized bowl or measuring jug, add 1 dessertspoon (15g) sugar and fill it with enough warm water to dissolve the granules. Cool it to blood temperature. The way to tell this is to dip your finger in. When you can’t feel the water – neither warmer or cooler than your finger – you have the temperature just right.  You want about 600-800mls water. Different flours absorb it in differing ratios, so you just have to test it out as you go.

Using fresh yeast (Magpie HATES dried yeast, but it does work, so if that’s what you have, follow their instructions. Fresh yeast in the UK can be bought from Morrisons for about 50p and if in Tesco, you can ask the folks in the bakery and they might give you some for nothing)  take a piece about 1cm squared – a little more is fine; you want it to rise – and crumble it into the cooled sugar water. Stir with a spoon until dissolved.

Wrap the top of the receptacle in cling film and place in a warmish location for 30 mins. You should find it bubbling infinitesimally gently which will tell you the yeast is live. If you can’t see anything, lay your ear over the mouth of the jug. If you can’t hear fizzing, your yeast is dead. If you can…

…stir it up and pour some into the bowl of flour with an accompanying glug of oil. Sunflower, olive, whatever takes your fancy. Traditionalists might prefer butter, but this is altogether easier.  Stir with a table knife. You want the dough to be claggy without being sticky. Add more if it is dry, but not too much at a time. Not an easy judgement to make but one that comes better with practice. In the early stages, less has to be more. (More creates a loose dough that is hard to knead and impossible to control).

When you have a dough that can be handled, dump it onto a floured surface and knead for at least 8 minutes to get the glutens rolling. KNEAD, don’t TEAR. Tearing is bad. You are looking to stretch the dough.

When your dough is the same consistency of a voluptuous woman’s breasts, then you can leave it to rise for the first time. Best way is to put it straight back into the bowl with a damp, clean tea towel covering the bowl. This keeps the dough moist and if the dog stands in it (a paw print has been found before now), it doesn’t really matter.

When the dough has doubled in size (in a warm place, this should take about an hour; in a cooler one, up to three), dump it out onto the surface again and knock all the air out of it with more kneading action.
Using a blunt table knife, cut the dough approximately in half, then half again and half again. You should get about 8 ‘buns’ out of 1lb flour.  Roll them up into even-sized balls and place on a baking tray.

Cover with the cloth again, leave to rise to double one more time and then put the oven on to 200 deg C.

Place in the oven, mid-shelf, between 20-30mins.

How do you know it is baked? Turn your buns over and tap them on their flat bums. If the tap sounds hollow, you’ve got a baked bun.

Lashings of butter on warm buns, with or without cheese, nutella, peanut butter or jam makes these babies more worthy of adulation and worship than any chemical, long life creation from the supermarket.

NOTE: Oven baked bread also makes the best breadcrumbs (once stale), the best addition to homemade burgers and the world’s greatest stuffing. Plastic bread yields slime in all these uses, but home baked is the original and best.

NOTE 2: If you accidentally leave out the oil, it isn’t a disaster. The buns will be a little drier and they won’t keep as long.

One fat magpie signing off.