If I was marooned on a desert island with a choice of one dish to eat until the end of my days, I would probably go for a crusty loaf of white bread with a pat of very salty butter. I would be content to eat this every day of my life. I am obsessed with anything bread-like. It’s ironic that I sometimes have an intolerance to wheat – but, as a nutritionist once told me, your body craves what’s bad for you. And in my case, bread is like my heroin. Not just any bread, mind. I crave well made, rustic loaves with a knobbly crust. Stuff that’s hand made – not the pale anaemic sliced ‘breads’ you get in plastic wrap. Incidentally, bread that is made by hand with natural ingredients rises slowly with no addition of chemicals, so it’s easier to digest and is better for you.
In fact, so deep runs my obsession with good bread that I might get hit by a car one day (but let’s not tempt fate!) just crossing the road to look into a bakery window. I spend many a happy moment paused in front of my local one, drooling at the sight of challah, sourdough and multigrain. I even have its number on speed-dial, and I get anxious if they sell out of croissants at the weekend.
Last year, I decided to learn how to make my own bread. My husband and I spent a very happy day having a baking lesson with two lovely ladies: Liz Weisberg and Rachel Duffield at The Lighthouse Bakery School in West Sussex. They were totally inspirational, not to mention hardcore: did you know that a professional baker’s day BEGINS at 3am? Despite this alarming fact, they demonstrated to us that breadmaking is a wonderfully creative and therapeutic process, worth staying at home for once in a while. We carted around 20 loaves of bread home that day – to me, this was as exciting as winning the lottery. Once we had eaten our way through all of it, I began to make my own bread. This was the first loaf, a simple wholemeal:
We continued to make our own bread at home whenever we had a moment, and it’s a passion that has just taken on a life of its own. Recently I decided to learn how to make the ‘king’ of breads: the sourdough. This bread takes an awfully long time to make, but it rewards you with its wonderful tangy taste and crusty top. If you get it right, it tastes just like bread from a posh artisanal market, and when it bakes it smells like the aroma wafting out of a French ‘boulangerie’.
Here’s how I did it. I made a natural leaven (or ‘starter’) from legendary baker Dan Lepard’s book ‘The Handmade Loaf’. You basically put flour, water, raisins and natural yoghurt in a jar and let the mixture ferment over 6 days, discarding most of it each day and topping it up with flour and water. By the end of the week, you have a bubbling batter that makes noises when you put your ear to it!
Then I made a ‘sponge’ the night before I wanted to make the actual loaf, and used a very good sourdough recipe from the blog Chocolate & Zucchini. This involves making a new batter using some of your starter mixed with more flour and water, and you leave it overnight. In the morning, you have this:
I then followed the rest of the recipe on Chocolate & Zucchini. First thing in the morning, you make a dough, leave it to rest so that it expands, knock it back a couple of times, leave it to rest again and then when it has nearly tripled in size (usually 10 hours later) it’s time to bake:
The strange (yet wonderful) thing about the recipe is that it tells you to bake the bread in an oven crockpot with the lid on. I wasn’t confident that the crust would crisp up and brown properly, as I usually place the dough directly onto a bread stone, but I decided to trust the recipe. And it worked beautifully, as you can see here:
When I took pot out of the oven and took the lid off, I was so happy I let out a little shriek. And it tasted a-mazing. Little things, eh?