I was dropping my four-year-old granddaughter off with her mother after an evening of respite care when she threw her arms round me and said, “I think I love you a bit too much, Nanna.” And I thought, ahhh, that’s how I feel about bread.
(Also about granddaughter. But this blog post isn’t about her.)
I love bread in all its forms. White, brown, even black. Big loaves, small loaves, split tins and bloomers, plaits, rolls, flatbreads and any other shape you can name. I love it toasted, plain, spread with butter or topped with any number of things, dunked into soup, drizzled with oil, or supporting an unfeasible quantity of homemade jam.
And bread loves me too. It loves me so much that it likes to hang around after I’ve eaten it, on my hips, my stomach, my chin, in fact anywhere it can find. So I try not to eat it as often as I’d really (really) like. And if I’m going to eat it less often, I want it to be the best I can get. So I bake my own.
In true Lazybones style, this would not happen if I listened to the likes of Paul Hollywood with his ‘you must knead it for ten minutes or it will fail’ imperative. I don’t want to think of bread baking as a ‘workout for those bingo wings’, Paul. Maybe I love my bingo wings. Have you thought about that? No, you haven’t.
Nor do I want to go down the techie route. Mixers with dough hooks and bread machines involve washing up. And lots of it. And the worst kind of washing up at that. FIDDLY.
But three years ago, a friend drew my attention to the journalist Annalisa Barbieri’s blog, Pane Amore e Cha Cha Cha (which frankly floats every one of my boats) and in particular her post on milk loaf. From there it was a short hop and a skip to Dan Lepard’s milk bread recipes in the Guardian which opened my eyes to the ‘no knead’ method. I’ve used it ever since.
Traditionally, bread recipes tell you to knead for ten minutes to develop the gluten in the flour. Dan’s point is that the gluten will develop anyway, even if you don’t knead it at all. But to get the best results with the least effort, kneading for ten seconds every ten minutes for the first 30 minutes is all you need to do. I’ll repeat that, for the benefit of Paul Hollywood and his bingo wing exercises: TEN SECONDS.
After the first loaf of milk bread I made from Dan’s recipe I had to make another one pretty damn swiftly, because basically I scoffed the lot in a single day. It became known as ‘devil bread’ in our house. It was utterly irresistible. I gave up all attempts at restraint and doubled the recipe.
For my birthday, I acquired Dan’s book Short and Sweet (tip: it’s the pastry that’s short, not the book) which I now think of as my baking bible, not only for bread but all sorts of other baked deliciousness too (two words: carrot cake). I’ve made most of the bread recipes at least once, and settled on a few favourites with adaptations.
The milk bread recipe is still my favourite for a treat. It also makes delicious not-quite-brioche buns (glazed with egg) for burgers, hot dogs and pulled pork, and even better little bridge rolls (dusted with flour, no glaze) for a proper afternoon tea.
Dan’s malt vinegar rye is great for IKEA-style open sandwiches, though it’s worth seeking out a Polish grocers for their rye flour (maka zytnia, to save you staring hopelessly for 20 minutes at the shelves like I did) which is not quite so heavy as the standard rye flour you get in the UK.
My regular bread for quite a while was the sour cream bread which is both reliably good at rising and reliably delicious. And especially good toasted.
But my everyday loaf now is an adaptation of Short and Sweet’s Easy White Loaf. The original recipe just uses water, and doing that will give you a perfectly good quick easy cheap loaf. My tweaks were drawn from trying out combinations of various suggestions in the book: I replace the water with a mixture of soya milk (for a tender crumb), orange juice (for the Vitamin C that helps the rise), and a little boiling water, and add a spoonful of sugar for character and a bit of caramelisation when it’s toasted. Strong bread flour is a deal-breaker, I think – but own brand is as good as branded here. You can replace the flour (though if you use wholemeal, you’ll need more liquid) and the liquids, as long as you keep the proportions the same, and skip the sugar if one teaspoon spread over several slices of bread seems over-indulgent to you. Though if that’s the case, you’re probably not eating bread anyway. Or reading this blog. Too busy spiralising a courgette.
This makes a dough which is quite wet to start with (it settles down after a couple of kneads if you can hold your nerve), so if you’re nervous of that you can cut the liquid by 25-50 ml. A wet dough makes a better rise, but you can always build up to it. My tip: buy a plastic dough scraper. They are extremely cheap and save a lot of swearing when you’re working with a sticky dough like this. You can also use a silicon spatula, but a dough scraper is more robust. Also good for cleaning the bowl afterwards without getting bread dough stuck in your washing-up sponge.
Makes 2 (one for freezing, what’s the point of all that effort for one loaf of bread?)
- 800g strong white flour
- 2 tsps salt
- 2 tsps sugar
- 1 sachet instant dried yeast (7g)
- 200 ml orange juice
- 300 ml soya milk, or a little less if you want a drier dough (I use unsweetened light)
- 100 ml boiling water
- Oil for kneading
Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Measure the wet ingredients into the same jug (should be 600 ml of liquid in total unless you’re using less milk), give them a stir, then tip into the bowl and mix everything into a sticky ragged ball with a knife (I find this the easiest and least messy method but use your hands if you must). Cover with oiled clingfilm and leave for ten minutes.
Then turn out onto an oiled surface and knead for 10 seconds – just enough to start bringing it all together into a smooth ball of dough. Back in the bowl and cover for ten minutes, then knead for ten seconds again. Repeat once more, then leave for 30-45 minutes till it’s expanded to 1½ – 2 times in size. Rising time depends on temperature but DON’T put it in an airing cupboard or (heaven forfend) on the radiator! Slower cooler rise is much better for developing flavour. You can even leave it in the fridge overnight or during the day, it’ll still rise but more slowly.
When it’s risen turn it onto an oiled surface, divide in two and pat each out (gently – no punching down) into a rough rectangle, then roll up tightly and tuck the ends under to neaten. Place side by side with plenty of room between in an oiled roasting tin, cover with the clingfilm again, and leave to rise for another 30-45 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200C, Gas Mark 6 and put a baking tray of water on the bottom to create steam (helps the rise and creates a good crust). Slash the top of the loaves with the sharpest blade you can find (razor blades or craft knives are good if you’re careful) and dust with a little flour. Bake in the centre of the oven for 40 minutes, turning the heat down to 190C, Mark 5 after 30 minutes if they’re browning too quickly. It’s worth holding your nerve and giving them the full 40 minutes. Remove from the tin and cool on a cooling rack.
Don’t be tempted to dive in while they’re still hot – the texture will be doughy and it won’t do your digestion any favours. Once they’re warm though, all bets are off…