Kentishtowner Kitchen: Patisserie Diaries – Bread

When people now ask ‘What do you do?’, I still find myself seeking to justify my sabbatical, pointing out that …

When people now ask ‘What do you do?’, I still find myself seeking to justify my sabbatical, pointing out that while I am a student, I did actually choose to leave my job. Scrawling your details on the back of a crumpled receipt­ doesn’t exactly have the je ne sais quoi of a business card, and it’s easy to get on the defensive in a society rife with status snobbery. Thankfully though, those I’ve encountered with disdain so far, well, I didn’t care for them much anyway. The truth is, I may not know yet where I’m heading, but you know what? I’m okay with that. Enjoying the moment rather than constantly looking ahead: a skill so important to master when I bake.

So back at college, bread is next on the menu. We take a ‘school trip’ to Shipton Mill near Tetbury which was bought and beautifully restored in 1981. The mill has been producing flour since the Domesday Book and, during a tour from a man more passionate about flour than I ever thought possible, we learn about the history of milling.

The traditional rotating stones used at Shipton have barely changed in principle from ancient times, with the addition of the modern, faster technique of roller milling – invented during the Industrial Revolution. The company’s passion for traditional processes and quality products is evident and they produce an amazing variety of flours from all over the world. On departure we’re handed goody-bags of flour to try out. I can’t wait to put them to the test.

Until the advent of the Chorleywood Baking Process in 1961, a traditional loaf contained flour, yeast, water and salt. Nothing more. By adding numerous chemicals plus three times the yeast, then mixing at high speed, modern white sliced bread was born. Forty  per cent softer than previous loaves, lasting twice as long, and cheaper and quicker to produce, it changed baking for ever. Eighty per cent of all bread is still made the Chorleywood way, and today ‘nutritionally empty’ white bread still accounts for more than 50 per cent of what we buy.

Inevitably, mass production put many bakeries out of business, but thankfully in recent years the ‘artisan bread movement’ is changing that. While many believe bread makes them feel ill, there’s still a lack of concrete evidence to suggest modern bread is completely to blame. Professor John Warner at Imperial College London says ‘three-quarters of people who believe they have an allergy or medical intolerance to bread show no signs of any symptoms in blind testing’. Although, he also admits he prefers to eat a ‘simpler bread’ – in other words not Chorleywood. Whether the health implications concern you or not, the superior taste of a ‘real’ bread can’t be denied. Rather than the glutinous, zombie-like form of the modern slice, real bread is fresh, nutritious and delicious even on its own.

Two weeks and a multitude of breads later and I’ve discovered muscles I never knew I had. We practice master baker Richard Bertinet’s French method of working the dough and it’s a winner.

The results are incredible: prune and cardamom bread, lavender and honey loaves, sourdough, baguettes, brioche, sesame rolls, pizzas, ciabatta…the list goes on. Inspired I decide to organise my first Bitch, Bake ‘n’ Booze night – a gathering at home for friends keen to learn too.

With six Bitch, Bake ‘n’ Booze members and bread enthusiasts gathered round the table, aprons donned and ingredients at the ready, the slapping and folding begins. There’s dubiousness as to how it will come together, but sure enough everyone eventually turns out a great-looking olive dough.

With a plethora of ingredients for pizzas, focaccia and other flavoured breads prepared we practice the ‘booze’ part of the event with a well-earned wine break. Excitement rises as the dough doubles in size, pizzas are prepared and they’re straight in the oven, with the flavoured other breads following after their second proof. Success! Ten minutes later everything has been devoured. Best of all it really wasn’t that difficult and the delight on everyone’s face says it all.

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Ingredients For One Loaf

1 kilo of flour
20g really good salt
20g fresh yeast
700g water

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Top Bread Tips

1. Quality ingredients might cost more but are still a fraction of the cost of regularly buying bread. A decent bread flour with the correct protein level is key and fresh yeast is best too if you can get it. You can buy it from some supermarkets and I have found asking at in-store bakeries for any going spare works too!
2. There are a few tools that will make your life much easier and are worth investing in: a plastic scraper for mixing and moving the dough; digital scales for accurate measuring; a handful of tea towels and a decent size mixing bowl will make the job that much simpler.
3. Remember, the wetter the better when it comes to dough. It is harder to handle but the pay-off of a moister bread with a crispier crust is worth it. Add most of the measured water, adding the last bit when you know whether it needs it or not.
4. While a food mixer is great time saver, it’s still a good idea to finish the dough by hand to help get a feel for the finished article and prevent over working it. If you’re making the bread by hand resist the temptation to keep flouring the surface or before you know it you’ll have baked a brick for breakfast.
5. Work the dough till it feels smooth, has lost its stickiness and has a firm but responsive feel when pressed. To finish it flour your surface lightly, place the dough on top and form a ball by pulling then pressing the edges into the centre, rotating the ball as you go then turn it seam down to finish. This helps strengthen the dough and stop it losing shape as it proves.
6. Don’t worry about specific times when proving your dough, as long it has doubled in size you’re good to go. If it’s left too long and collapses, you can get away with knocking it back and proving again once. Under proving however will leave you with a more dense loaf so always best to wait.
7. An easy way to work out what tin size is suitable is to select one that the dough only comes about half way up the sides. It should then be near the top once proved and rise above the tin while baking.
8. Once the oven is up to temperature use a water spritzer to spray inside the oven as you put your dough in. The steam will help give the loaf an even better crust.

Words & Pics: Clare Zerny


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