Sometimes I like to make soda bread, or white dinner rolls, or potato farls. Most often, though, this is the bread we eat. Wholemeal and straightforward, it is remarkably filling and has a small, tender crumb. The crust isn’t too thick or chewy, and it tastes great with marmite, jam, cheese or potted meats – with anything, in fact, that you might want to put on bread. Some of us like it toasted on the aga and others prefer it just as it is, but we all agree that this is not a bread to slice thinly. This is family bread, designed to fill you up.
If you’ve never made bread before, have a go. The worst that can happen is that you waste some flour. With a bit of practice, bread is very simple to make and everyone loves fresh, homemade bread. Baking bread makes me feel as though I’ve made the sun come out.
I work in multiples of a pound (500g). Usually, I’ll make three or four times this amount, but you can make whatever quantity you like.
1 lb/ 500 g wholemeal flour (preferably organic and stoneground)
11 fl oz/ 330 ml tepid water (just put the kettle on for a short time)
1tsp quick yeast
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp fat (I prefer to use butter, but you can use oil)
Put the flour, bar about four tablespoons, into a large bowl. Add the yeast and stir it well before adding the salt. The salt will kill the yeast, otherwise.
Rub your butter into the flour mixture, then make a well in the centre. Alternatively, just make a well and spoon your oil into it.
Pour most (but not all) of the water into the well, and begin to stir it in, crumbling the walls of flour into the fluid. I like this part: it’s like cliffs, eroding into the sea.
Clean your spoon off, into the mix, then use your hands to bring the dough together. You might need to add a bit more water at this point. You want the mixture to be just wet enough to pick up all the flour but not so wet that it’s really sticky.
Once you have a consolidated mass, sprinkle a little flour onto your work surface and knead the dough on it. Be quite firm with it, but don’t tear it. The idea is that you are stretching and squashing it, rather than ripping it. The point of the kneading is to develop the gluten in the flour, and help the bread to have a nice crumb. Keep going until your dough is smooth and soft, and springs softly back into shape when you poke it. You will probably need to use a little more of the flour as you go, because it will get sticky. Just sprinkle it over the surface again.
Dust the inside of your bowl with yet more flour, place your ball of dough inside and turn, so that it is coated with the flour. This will help you to get it out of the bowl with minimal tearing, later. Cover it with a tea towel and leave it, in a warmish place, for a couple of hours. It might take more time or less: you need it to double in size.
This is the ideal time to have a cup of tea, do some knitting, or potter in the garden.
Once your dough has risen, knock it back. In other words, push the air out of it so that it is back to something like its original size. Then shape it. You can make a ball, stretching the surface smooth over the top and tucking any loose ends underneath. You can make a long sausage and cut it into slices, then shape each slice into a ball and batch bake them, nestled together in a roasting tray, as buns. Or you can make a casual lozenge and let the bread pan do the shaping. If you want, you can dust them with flour for that artisan look. Whatever you do, flour your pan first, or use baking paper.
Stoke the aga, or turn the oven on to about 230 degrees Celcius/ 450 degrees Farenheit/ gas mark 8. Leave the shaped loaves for twenty minutes or half an hour, until they have risen a bit. Just arrange the tea towel over the top of them again, to keep the draughts away. Then pop them into the oven to bake.
You’ll know they’re ready when they sound hollow when you tap on their bases. They will smell amazing; try not to keep opening the oven door to admire them or they won’t rise properly. Big loaves can take up to an hour, smaller loaves about half an hour and rolls as little as twenty minutes. All ovens vary, so do use your judgement. There’s no harm in taking them out, tapping them, and putting them back in if necessary.
You can’t beat simple bread and butter for your first taste of a homemade loaf. Enjoy, and make over and over again.