Monday, 19 March 2012

Forty Minute Bread

Following on from my bread making blog, it isn’t always possible to have a spare few hours to allow bread to prove and prove again….but it isn’t necessary if you need something quick and tasty to compliment a soup or, say, cheese and Guinness!

That’s what Soda bread is for. Called damper bread in Australia, bannock bread in Scotland and soda or wheaten bread in Ireland, it is widely used as a quick alternative to yeast bread and can be delicious if eaten warm with some butter running off the top….

It’s basically a giant scone – the rising agent is bicarbonate of soda – there is no yeast involved, nor is it necessary to stretch the gluten of strong bread flour as plain flour is used. In fact, as little handling of the dough as possible is the best approach.
Yet a tasty, if somewhat denser bread is achieved – and in well under an hour…’s how…

Set your oven at around 200 degrees.

Put 500 grams of plain flour into a large mixing bowl and add 4 teaspoons of baking powder and a teaspoon of salt.

Pour in about 300 mils of buttermilk (this can be obtained from supermarkets but I usually add a couple of spoonfuls of plain yoghurt to milk) and mix without kneading too heavily – you just want to bring it together.

Shape it into a round and cut a cross into the top almost all the way through the loaf, then place onto a floured baking tray and bake for around 25 minutes or until it sounds hollow when you tap its bottom.

It’s even easier than bread.

There are also tasty variations – my favourite being the alternative to Soda Bread with Guinness and cheese – Guinness and cheese soda bread! Just substitute the buttermilk with Guinness and when you’ve shaped the dough into a round, plaster the top with grated mature cheddar – or any cheese that takes your fancy – it’s good to experiment. Then cut the cross and bake as before.

Or use wholemeal flour and a spoonful of black treacle for a dark, luscious and unctuous bread.

Then there’s walnut and cheese soda bread…..and so on until your imagination wilts…

Cheese Soda Bread and home made soup...

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Bread Making

Why more people don’t make their own bread, I really don’t know. Can there ever be a better smell to pervade the house than that of fresh bread cooking? Even Estate Agents advocate baking bread and percolating coffee to enhance the ambience of a family home. Walking in through our back door when bread is baking – even though I know that the oven is on and the dough is in – is still as wonderful as it was the first time I ever made bread.

It seemed to me initially, that bread making was akin to alchemy – the purview of magicians, a world of wizardry – and that skills beyond my capability were necessary for the production of such a staff of life. I used to stand at bakers’ windows enviously eying the doughy delights of the bakers’ bounty (ok enough alliteration!) but I always chose the white bloomer, never being sufficiently brave to experiment with artisan wholemeal, six seed, granary or rye. It was only when the different types of grain had been explained to me that I began to try alternative loaves and an interest in baking my own was born.

Like many, I started with a Bread Machine, but unlike most I stayed with it because of a book my wife bought me which explained, not only the basic mechanics of the equipment but also the elementary alchemy behind the operation. This book also clarified the order in which the ingredients should be placed into the bucket and why. However, before the book was gifted I dabbled with the complete bread mixes that can be purchased at any supermarket and for a while had some great results, this kept me happy for a few months, especially as there were many different types of bread that could be made.

A bread-machine loaf

But I still thought I was missing out on something, a part of the overall magic was not yet present it was like going to Art College and doing painting by numbers - I neede to do more. That was when Frankie bought me the book – The Complete Bread Machine Cookbook by Sonia Allison – and I started to buy my own ingredients.

Of course, only three ingredients are needed for bread making – four if you include water - which brings me very neatly to another reason why I wanted to make my own loaves. The question occurred to me why bought bread contains so many ingredients and why the sell by date can be anything up to two weeks in the future. I understand the correlation between the two – that the ancillary additions increase the life of the loaf – what I don’t understand is our appetite for an unhealthy substitute for a hearty food, or our desire for a longer shelf life when bread is a relatively cheap commodity in the first place. Our propensity in this country to change the basic elements of our diet because it’s not cheap enough, pretty enough, long-lasting enough or sufficiently easy to cook is quite alarming.
I notice that a bagged loaf can be purchased in a supermarket chain for 40 pence and that it comes with a 10 day use by date, but healthier bread can be bought for £1 with a 5 day use by date. I think I’d rather pay an additional 60 pence for good health but perhaps I am simplifying the issue over much.

Be that as it may, I calculate that I can make a 500g loaf for as little as 36p should I wish to, so the price issue is pretty much eradicated. It takes a little of my time and I have the cost of the oven to factor in but they are mitigated by the enjoyment and the lovely smell in our cottage.

As for the use by date - well, we eat the bread as fresh as we can for up to 48 hours but by then it’s pretty much toast – literally. After that it’s bird food, and that’s it. Then I make another loaf. Simples.

So how to make your own loaf:

Take 500grams of Strong White bread flour and using you fingers mix in one packet (7g) of fast action dried yeast and one level teaspoon of fine salt. Make a well in the middle of the mix and gradually stir in, with a fork, between 300 and 400 mils of warm water. Using your hands blend the lot together and turn out onto a clean surface – you don’t need extra flour – just a clean work top. Touching the dough as little as possible with your fingers, stretch it with the heel of your hand, turn, pull back together and stretch again. It quickly becomes less sticky, and even if it’s too wet initially, it will smooth out into a soft malleable ball – just keep it moving. Remember you’re trying to stretch the gluten. After 10 minutes or so it should be quite stretchy and bouncy. Oil a bowl and put the rounded ball of dough into it, cover with a cloth and put it in a warmish spot. Leave it for an hour or two.

When it has doubled in size, pull the dough from the bowl and gently, with your finger tips, push it into the worktop for a minute and then bring it back into a rounded ball, curving it under itself with the sides of your hands. Flour a baking tray – I actually use a tray with baking parchment on top and flour that. Place your dough on top and put your cloth back on top while your oven heats up to its hottest temperature. When it has done so – turn it down to 190 and put the tray with the dough into the middle of the oven and bake for 20 – 25 minutes or until it sounds hollow when you tap the bottom.

A plaited loaf and some rolls for the freezer - all from the 500gram dough mix

That’s less than 300 words to bake your own bread. You need about 2 1/2 hours or so of your time, but you’re only actually doing something for 15 minutes of that time. I actually don’t need any more than 6 words to teach you how to make bread – Look It Up On You Tube – that will give you all you need to produce a delicious edible loaf – it may even inspire you further. Perhaps to experiment with different flours or to make rolls, pizza, nan bread or chapattis – the sky is the limit.

Give it a go.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Wild Garlic (reprised)

What can I tell you about wild garlic without appearing to be a nutritionist nerd, a gastronomic geek or a ranting rambler? Well not much because it is positively one of the tastiest, most versatile, and earliest free foods available.

Normally, you would look for the gorgeous green leaf in mid-March and early April, but it’s in February that it starts to produce its pungent Pandora’s Box of flavours and it’s in February – when the leaves are positively at their newest, just out of the ground – that they have the strongest flavour. Milder than garlic, but stronger than chives, wild garlic has many names: 'bear's garlic', 'devil's garlic', 'gypsy's onions', 'stinking Jenny' as well as ‘ramsons’ are just some that I’ve googled, but many nations and cultures have their own names for this wonderfully versatile plant.

Freshly picked….
It can usually, though not always, be found by water of some kind or another, running or still and it can usually be detected nasally before visually, it has a smell that seems to displace all other fragrances around it. Later in April I have found beds of Garlic near the local river Bewl which have intermingled with bluebells and primroses, but the predominant fragrance is that of the garlic – it carries across the meadows for some distance if the wind is right.

Yet the leaves are only a part of the story. The roots are milder, more subtle and delicate and add a wonderful depth to soups, roasted vegetables and even Sunday joints of meat. The flowers can be added to salads, used to garnish the soups or placed in a vase on the table to add a wonderful smell to the dinner table over and above that of your lovingly cooked meal, like adding an additional sense of the overall flavour.

Please be aware though, that digging up wildflowers can be illegal, and it may also be irresponsible and anti-social – there’s enough for us all to share though, so think of others when you’re out foraging. I like to pick enough for one meal at a time, and in any case, picked garlic does not keep for very long at all. I’ve tried putting the leaves into a vase to keep but they’re gone within 24 hours really. As always food is much better as fresh as it can be.
There’s a very nice recipe here:

But there are so many other dishes that you can use wild garlic in; one of my favourites is roast chicken wrapped in garlic leaves. If you check back HERE, there’s further info on wild garlic soup from my previous blog which is also easy to make and delicious.

A mixed bed, but the predominant smell is garlic…….
Remember, be responsible when foraging and make sure you are certain of what you are picking, but please try some wild garlic this year – I’m sure you will enjoy it.