Fresh bread is one of the simple joys of living: the appetising smell of it baking, then with the loaf fresh out of the oven, the temptation of tearing a hunk off the loaf before it has even had time to cool down. Riding home in the car from a bakery, or even a supermarket, with a warm, new loaf in a brown paper bag, you have to have an iron will to get home with that loaf intact, especially with children in the car with you too.
Baking bread at home can be fun, if you are not under pressure. It is a task that children can help with, kneading alongside you. When you are forming the loaves you can section off some dough for them to make their own sculpturally shaped rolls, which they can take to school proudly in their lunch boxes the next day. Then you get to fill your house with the scent of baking bread, making it feel warm and welcoming on even the most dismal winter day.
Breadmaking machines, of the sort that you feed it the ingredients then it spits out a ready baked loaf a few hours later are a boon to those with no time to bake for themselves – you get the pleasures of waking up to the aroma of bread wafting through the house, without any of the labour to produce it. If you have time though, making bread is not hard. It can be a relaxing, meditative experience. As your hands rhythmically knead the dough, you can let your mind wander and feel the link with all the men and women who have gone about this daily task over the centuries.
If you have never tried making bread before, try this simple recipe for a plain white loaf first. Nothing fancy, just plain, delicious white bread with far more chew and texture than shop bread could ever have.
White Bread Recipe
1kg/2.2lbs white bread flour
15g/4 ½ teaspoons instant yeast
1 tablespoon salt
about 700ml/ not quite 3 cups water
You need a large mixing bowl or you can heap the flour onto a clean surface and make a well for the water. I use a bowl and mix the flour and salt, make a well for the yeast, then pour the water in, gradually stirring with a knife. Once it has come together into dough, tip it out onto a floured surface and knead for 10 minutes, sprinkling on more flour as you go, when it gets too sticky.
Knead by holding the dough with one hand and stretching it away with the heel of the other, fold it back on itself and repeat. It will start off sticky and lumpy and gradually become smooth. After 10 minutes it should feel springy and rise up again if you dent it with your finger. Put it in the bowl again, cover with a plastic bag or clean cloth and leave in a warm place away from draughts for an hour and a half, till it has doubled in size. If you are in the depths of winter and no warm places are available, it will still rise, just taking longer. Go by the doubling in size rather than the length of time it takes.
Knock the dough down – squashing all the air out of it again – then shape it into two loaves, which can be round, long, plaited or sculptural! Put the loaves onto a floured or lightly oiled baking tray. Leave to rise again for 3/4 of an hour, again covering with a plastic bag or cloth, then bake at 200C/400F for 30 minutes. (If the kids make small rolls they’ll be done sooner, check after 15 minutes). The bread is done when it sounds hollow as you knock on the bottom of the loaf.
The great thing about bread is that it’ll be edible even if you over-bake it, just crustier. My only failure with this recipe was the first time I made it. I made one huge loaf with this quantity and the centre was a bit underdone, but even then we could eat the rest of it.
Cool your loaves on a wire rack and try not to scoff the lot while it is still warm…
Once you’ve had a few tries with this recipe, and convinced yourself you can bake, it is no great leap to try out other yeast breads. The process is the same for most of them. The only danger is that once you start baking your own bread, your family won’t let you stop!