I’ve tried making bread at home for years. The loaves have always come out too dense, or stodgy, or the results simply weren’t worth the effort. I’ve come to realise that bread-making is more of a habit than anything else. I can’t think of the last time I had a good loaf…or maybe it’s just British preferences that I’m having difficulty adjusting to. If I want some nice Italian style bread, I buy and freeze Crosta and Mollica’s sliced Pane Pugliese and if I want a soft, light pillow of Turkish pide, I’m left wanting. And French-quality baguettes? Forget it. So I thought it was time to take matters into my own hands.
The secret to good bread at home is all about the one thing that people had in the past that we don’t have today; time. Making bread at home is a habitual practise, not a spontaneous thing like making a cake or a batch of cookies. Over the last few weeks I’ve managed to locate and master almost perfect ciabatta and crusty baguettes and all with nothing more than a packet of plain white flour, yeast, salt, water and time. I now want to share with you the secret to making bread at home that you’ll be happy to make, eat and make again. I’ll start with the baguette recipe because it is actually the easiest dough to make but you will need more time than the ciabatta. I don’t mean time to prepare, I mean to time wait. This dough needs 6-12 hour to prove. So, this means making it the day before or being a little bit crafty with your oven and getting busy before you head off for the day.
The dough is so easy that you can make it by hand – if you want to, and you can make it in 5 minutes before the school run -if you want to. The simplicity of the dough is what drew me to these recipes, because I know that bread is not a complicated thing, it’s been cooking in the ovens of Europeans since the mill stone ground the first grain of wheat. You don’t need fancy starters and organic spelt, you just need the patience to wait and a few little tricks with water that will give you right sort of results.
Baguettes are renowned and indeed classified in French food lore for their crispy crust. After a little reading, it seems as though that is all down to hydration; a nice wet dough and a nice steamy oven. Most of us don’t have steaming ovens but we all have baking trays and a water sprayer on hand. I’ve seen one lady who put an oven tray with a heaps of chain links in it, which increased the surface area and in turn increased the amount of steam released when she poured water over it, creating a pretty impressive improvised steam oven. I want to get my hands on some pebbles that I can leave sitting in the bottom of my oven, that will act as a sauna for my bread. What ever you do, make sure that you don’t use anything that contains or releases anything nasty. I’d like to get a baking stone which I’ve heard improves the results of bread but they’re not easy or cheap to come by and I’m not sure how I’ll transfer the wet dough to the hot stone just yet. But take care when using any old tile etc, as the glaze in tiles can contain lead – and this you don’t want in your oven.
500g plain flour
1 3/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp fast acting yeast (I use Hovis).
1 1/2 cups warm water
Mix all the ingredients until the dough comes clean away from the sides of the bowl. I use a mixer with a hook, takes about 5 -10 minutes.
Cover with cling film and let prove for at least 6 hours. It’s this part that makes it work so don’t cheat. I put my dough in the oven, and I very slightly heat it up (and turn it off!) before I put the dough in – just to get things going.
When the dough has doubled in size, turn it onto a floured surface.
Have a little bowl with some water in it. Wet your fingers to help you manage the dough. Water is better than flour to work with a very wet dough.
Cut the dough into 4 equal pieces, using a knife. Cut and slide the blade along the bench surface to separate the dough easier.
Gently roll the pieces into sausage-shaped pieces about 30cm long and place them on a tray dusted with semolina or flour. Probably best to use some baking paper, but ok not to.
Leave the dough to prove for another 45min – 1hr.
Turn the oven up to the highest heat setting and put an empty baking tray in the bottom.
When the oven is ready, spray the dough with water (from your water sprayer).
Pour some water into the hot tray in the bottom of the oven, and put the bread in the oven.
Spray the loaves every few minutes to ensure a nice crispy crust.
Take the bread out when it’s well browned. Don’t be tempted to take it out too soon, or the bottom might not be cooked.
When they’re done, put them onto a wire rack straight away, or they might get a soggy base sitting on the hot tray.