Nothing beats the smell of freshly baked bread. It’s an almost hypnotic scent which draws you to it’s source like bears to honey. I have yet to find soul who can eschew eating freshly baked bread. Everything about it is so deliciously enticing. The crisp golden crust. The downy interior. The yeasty flavour sometimes sweet or slightly acidic depending on the type of bread. It’s so hard to resist a loaf fresh from the oven although warm bread spread with butter (and yes, it does have to be the full fat, salted variety) is one of my guilty pleasures.
“Bread, the staff of life, has become the prime symbol of nourishment.” writes Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat. It is the stuff of legends and myth and is regarded as sacred in some cultures. Historians believe we have been baking bread since at least 9000 BC and it is the cultural heritage of so many civilisations. Despite the reverence it commands, bread is one of the simplest things to make containing just four ingredients (or less if you are making sourdough or flat breads) – flour, yeast, salt and water. Commercial organisations have modified this most basic of baked goods to make it softer, whiter and to increase it’s shelf life by adding a host of ingredients which we simply do not need in our diet. You can read more about the ills of commercially produced bread in Andrew Whitely’s book Bread Matters or here.
This week (7-13 May) is the Real Bread Maker Week in the UK. The Real Bread Campaign is the membership organisation that brings together bakers, independent millers, cereal growers, researchers, activists and everyone else who cares about the state of bread in the UK and it is part of the charity Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming. It is calling for people to champion the week by either supporting their local real bread makers (there is a facility on their website to help you locate the one closest to you); by making their own bread or attending a bread making course.
I have heard many people complain they simply do not have the time to bake bread at home. It does take time in so far as you have to wait for it to rise etc but the physical labour element is relatively short in terms of the overall process. Although I find it extremely therapeutic to make bread from scratch (it’s a great way to alleviate stress when you’ve had “one of those days”) there are short cuts you can employ to make the task less labour intensive. I use my Kitchenaid to knead the dough and I’m always happy with the results. I don’t use one myself but I have friends who swear by their bread machine. The important thing is to make unadulterated bread – how you get to the end result is frankly semantics!
So here are my contributions to the Real Bread Maker Week. I hope you will enjoy them. If you do have a go at home please let me know how you get on!
Chestnut and Pecan Bread
Makes 1 loaf
Italian chef and restaurateur Giorgio Locatelli describes how chestnut flour was widely used in Italy during the Second World War when there was a shortage of wheat flour. Castagnaccio (chestnut cake) is still made in some parts of Italy today. Chestnut flour has a natural sweetness to it making this bread particularly delicious with blue cheese such as Stichelton (a current favourite of mine). Chestnut flour contains no gluten so you need to mix it with regular strong bread flour to achieve a closer textured bread. It can be purchased from Italian deli’s or here online.
- 375g strong plain white bread flour
- 125g chestnut flour
- 1 tsp (5g) quick, dried yeast
- 1 tsp (5g) fine sea salt
- 1 tsp (5g) sugar
- 300ml luke warm water
- 50g pecan nuts, roughly chopped
- Place the flours, dried yeast, salt and sugar into the bowl of a food mixer with a dough hook attached. (If you are using a bread machine follow the manufacturers instructions for a similar type of bread e.g. walnut bread).
- Using a low speed (I use setting 2 on the Kitchenaid) slowly add the water. Once the ingredients have combined “knead” for 2 – 4 minutes until smooth and elastic. This will take about 10 minutes or so if you are doing it by hand. Cover and leave to rise in a warm place for 11/2 – 2 hours.
- After the dough has risen place on a floured board and knead again for a few minutes this time incorporating the pecans as you go. Shape into a round and place on a greased baking sheet, (I used a proving basket to achieve a more rustic appearance but this is not essential). Leave to rise again in a warm place for 30 – 45 minutes.
- Pre-heat the oven to 200°C/400°F/Gas 6. If you used a bread basket for the second proving gently tip the risen loaf onto a greased baking sheet. Bake for 10 minutes then reduce the heat to 180°C/350°F/Gas 4 and continue to cook for a further 25 minutes. Allow to cool on a wire rack and enjoy!
Spelt and Fennel Bread
Makes 1 large loaf
I recently had dinner at The Old Bakery in Lincoln where they serve the most delicious fennel seed bread. It was a beautifully soft crumbed variety with a subtle but undeniable anise flavour. I knew when I returned to Sussex that I had to make this bread (although I forgot to ask them for the recipe!). As I love experimenting with different types of flour I thought I would try using white spelt flour for a change. I also used milk instead of water which gives the bread a softer crust and closer texture. I used Dove’s White Spelt Flour which states on the packaging that spelt loaves rise more quickly (which proved to be the case). If you can’t find white spelt flour then substitute it for regular wheat bread flour but the proving process may take longer.
- 500g white spelt flour
- 1 tbsp (15g) fennel seeds
- 1 tsp (5g) quick, dried yeast
- 1 tsp (5g) fine sea salt
- 300ml luke warm milk
- Place all the dry ingredients (including the fennel seeds) in a bowl of a food mixer with a dough hook attached. (If you are using a bread machine follow the manufacturers instructions for spelt or white bread).
- Mix as for the Chestnut and Pecan bread recipe above.
- Leave to prove for 1 hour in a warm place until doubled in size. Knead for several minutes then shape into a rough oval shape (like a thick, stubby baguette). Place on a greased baking sheet and slash the top of the loaf several times with a very sharp knife. Leave to rise again for 25 minutes.
- Meanwhile, preheat the oven 220°C/425°F/Gas 7. Bake for 10 minutes then reduce to 200°C/400°F/Gas 6 and continue to cook for a further 25 – 30 minutes until golden brown. Enjoy!