Kneading, stretching, punching, slapping, pushing & pulling and having a workout that Arnold Schwarzenegger would be proud of. And still my loaf wasn't the way I wanted it. Sometimes it seemed as though its natural home would be a builder's brickyard. Other times it was better but misshapen and all very frustrating and grumpy inducing. An experience shared by many no doubt.
Then I bought a book called ‘Short and Sweet’ by Dan Lepard, an Australian baker and food writer.
I didn't buy it as a bread book but fancied some of the interesting cake recipes he had. But after reading his section on making bread and his technique of ‘hands off’ kneading I was hooked.
Instead of treating your bread dough as an upstart that needs a good thrashing, he suggests a gentler approach to allow the flour, water and yeast to do their own thing with time the most important factor.
This isn't a ‘no knead’ technique though, that you leave all day as in many recipes (which work very well, I hasten to add) but this is a relaxed way of making bread that can produce a fantastic loaf in about 4 hours.
And that makes me happy!
EASY WHITE BREAD (with thanks to Dan Lepard)
400g strong white bread flour
1 tsp fast action yeast
1 tsp fine salt
300ml warm water (approx 30°C)
Mix the flour and salt together then add the yeast. (try not to put the yeast directly onto the salt as this sometimes diminishes its strength).
Then add the warm water and mix to a shaggy mess. (I use a ‘pincer’ movement with my thumb and forefinger to mix which does a good job of replicating a mechanical mixer).
Check and feel the dough as some flours absorb more water than others. You want a nice soft dough, not too sticky and not too dry). Best way to add more water is to dip your mixing hand in some water and give a few ‘pincer’ mixes. You can easily feel and tell the change in the dough. Cover and leave the ‘shaggy’ dough to rest for about 10 minutes. This step is important as is helps the flour absorb the water.
Then you do your first quick knead.
I do this inside the bowl by rubbing a little olive oil on the fingers of my kneading hand to prevent the dough sticking, then pulling the edge of the dough furthest away from me up and over to the edge nearest to me, then pressing down and stretching away with my fist. Then give a quarter turn and repeat. I keep doing this for about 20-30 seconds only. Try and get into a quick rhythm when you are doing this. Don't bash the dough about, just a smooth rhythmic action. (see pics below)
You should see the dough become noticeably smoother and forming a ball.
Flip the dough over so the smooth side is on top, cover and leave for 10 minutes.
Repeat this technique another two times.
Then cover the dough and leave in a warmish room (about 21-25*c) for about 1.5 to 2 hours or until it looks about doubled in size.
When the dough looks puffed up and ‘airy’, gently tip out of the bowl onto a lightly floured surface. You can tell if it is ready when you are tipping it onto your surface as the dough will have a ‘spiders web’ appearance with lots of small holes. (see pic below)
This is where you shape your loaf for your 2lb loaf tin. As you become more experienced and confident you will be able to try more shapes, like a boule, batard or baton.
Lightly grease the inside of your loaf tin with butter and sprinkle with a little flour to coat the bottom and sides. Take the risen dough and flatten it into a rectangle a little less than the length of your tin. Roll it up tightly and place it seam side down in the tin, cover and leave to prove until the dough rises to the top of the tin.
Do not over prove at this point as you need the dough to still have a bit of life before going into the oven.
If it rises too much at this stage it may collapse when baked, giving a dense, heavy loaf.
Preheat oven to 220*c/200*c.
Put a metal tin or tray in the bottom of the oven and fill with boiling water just before putting the bread in to bake. The steam produced helps with an excellent crust.
Now to score the dough which is important for the rise and look of the loaf when baking. Flour the top and using a sharp knife cut a slash down the centre or three diagonal cuts across the surface.
Bake for 35-40 minutes until the crust is a good colour and the base sounds hollow when tapped. Or the middle of the loaf registers about 93°C on an instant read thermometer.