Monday, 23 May 2011

Five things I learned about making bread

The tendency to fall into habits applies to more than just what you do with your evenings, the music you listen to and the other little daily occurrences that suddenly become routine. Cooking can become a habitual process too – the same dishes coming into the weekly or monthly dinner rotation, the same cake made for guests and even the same groceries bought week after week.

Last week, I decided to come out of my own cooking habits a little and try something I’ve never really done before – make my own bread. I thought that even if it didn’t work out well on the first few tries, at least the house would smell nice.

But which bread to make? A key staple in human diet for tens of thousands of years, bread has an infinite number of variations that have come in from cultural, historical and experimental factors. I chose five kinds to sample different ways of working with flour, water and yeast. After a week filled with kneading, rising, shaping, timing and – of course – tasting, this is what I came away with…

1. Making bread is not as big a deal as it’s made out to be.
I’m not saying it’s as easy as a Betty Crocker mix, but making a basic white loaf of bread doesn’t really take much more effort than baking a cake, waiting for it to cool and frosting it afterwards.  The time comes in waiting for each stage to rise, but all that means is setting a bowl somewhere and coming back to it in an hour or so.

A basic white bread is easy to make, and tastes amazing!

2. It rounds out even the simplest meal into a special dinner.
Bread is like a meal’s accessory – just like the right shoes or handbag can turn jeans and a T-shirt into a fashion statement, the right bread can complement even something basic like spaghetti and a jar of sauce. Instead of making dinner from scratch, it can definitely be worth it to spend your time on a sun-dried tomato and olive bread to go with it.

This sun-dried tomatoes and black olives goes really well with pasta and a tomato- based sauce.

3. Kneading dough is a good workout.
So perhaps not everyone would devote a week to trying out different kinds of bread, but know this – I certainly felt the effects of spending 10 minutes a day kneading dough by hand. At the very least, it takes the guilt off not going to the gym.

White bread comes in all shapes and sizes – instead of being made in a pan, this "rustic style" loaf did its
last rise on a baking tray, but needed a lot of moisture in the oven to keep the crust from getting too hard.

4. Making bread on a cold day is difficult.
Dough needs a warm place to rise, and there is a particular spot in my house that’s perfect. Or it was, until one cloudy, rainy, miserable day when even The Warm Spot wasn’t living up to its name. As it happens, I was on the fussiest recipe of the five I chose – French bread. It took ages for it to rise, and because French bread dough needs to be refrigerated for a few hours, it was barely done in time for dinner. Props given to the person who invented bread machines.

French bread was my least favourite to make, but it tasted so
wonderful that I can't say I'll never do it again…

5. Don’t leave fresh bread hanging around.
Homemade bread – even when it’s made in a machine – will go stale much more quickly than store-bought. I noticed particularly with the French bread and focaccia that even after a couple of days, they were noticeably drier. The good thing is that bread freezes well, so even if you make more than you need at the time (the recipe makes two loaves and you only need one), you can freeze the extra and bring it out later.

There isn't much that focaccia doesn't go with, and there are lots of different versions to make.
This one was made with rosemary and parmesan cheese, and was pretty quick to do.

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