Simple White Loaf.
I’m making a conscious effort from now on to stop referring to myself as ‘not a baker’. I bake and I bake often. There was a dark time however where the concept of mixing flour with anything and placing it in an oven would bring me out in hives, however I think I have endured enough practice and have thrown enough inventiveness at my own baking recipes to class myself as a regular baker. My consistency of regular baking is questionable, however I can now confidently say that my baking skills are fairly up to scratch.
There’s a mystique to baking that bewilders people and I can totally understand it. If I can attribute my hesitancy to baking to anything, it would be to the lack of control. I find people who cook often to be quite controlling forces and there is something about baking that takes away your natural controlling instinct. Rules do apply to baking and once it is in the oven, it is out of your control. This can be quite frightening to someone like myself, who has somewhat of an overwhelming desire to be in control.
What I present to you here is a starter kit to baking. Reason being is that it took my mastering the baking of a plain white loaf to step back and say to myself ‘Oh okay… that wasn’t so hard’. However, baking requires accuracy and refinement, which are two things I lack in a Kitchen. While usually I am relatively permissive with my recipes and pretty much recommend throwing in whatever you have to hand in whatever quantities you dare, baking really is a practice of precision and unfortunately, I suggest leaving your culinary hap handedness for another dish.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to lie to you, bread making is not something I recommend to crack on with of an evening when you get home from work. Not because it’s strenuous, because it’s not, but because it is relatively time consuming. And I recommend you remember the distinction between what is difficult and what is time consuming – nothing I cook will ever be difficult, however one or two things may take up some time, so I recommend reserving this for a spare Sunday or something.
It is however a lot of fun. I’ve made this loaf a few times now and my favourite part has and always will be the kneading of the dough. I’ll put on some Nina Simone and could literally stand there for hours on end kneading the dough. There’s something elementary about it, almost like you’re childishly allowed to play with playdough or something. I’m not in a position to draw psychology lines between myself and the pleasure of kneading but let’s just say it’s a feeling that I love.
I used a recipe from Russell Norman (who is currently the food contributor to Esquire magazine – to which I’ve had a monthly subscription for about 3 years now!) and of all the baking recipes I have ever tried, I have found this one to be the most reliable and also the most consistent. I have tried it a few times now and it always provides me with the same result and has never let me down.
Grab yourself a loaf tin and rub some butter all on its cavity – or olive oil if you’re struggling. Pour 120ml of boiling water into a jug and sprinkle in a hefty pinch of sugar, giving the water a little stir to aid the dissolve. To this jug add about 200ml of cold water from the tap and put to one side.
Place 600g of ‘Very Strong White Flour’ (don’t panic, it will say this on the bag!) into a large bowl along with two teaspoons of table salt and a 7g sachet of yeast. Drop in about 15g of butter and rub everything together using your fingers. Push the mixture to the sides of the big bowl before picking up the sugar water. Use both hands for this – hold the jug in your left and pour in the water a little bit at a time, and using your right hand to combine the mixture. The mixture is going to go gluey and elastic and will feel really bizarre on your fingers but don’t panic – it’s supposed to.
Once the mixture has combined with all of the water, scatter some flour on a work surface and take your dough from the bowl and place down. Start kneading your bread. The best way I can describe to do this is to push it forward with your palms, drag it back with your fingers, push it forward, drag it back, collecting the flour from the surface as you go. Essentially the more you do this, you will feel it stiffening and forming a tougher dough. The feeling is beautiful; revel in it. Essentially you want to be luxuriating in this for a good 10 minutes but I run it to 15 because I can’t control myself.
Shape the dough roughly into a rugby ball shape or something to that effect before dropping into the greased loaf tin. Cover this with a tea towel and place it in a draughtless place – I use that little tiny pantry where I store coats, ironing boards and a plethora of spare shoes – and leave it for an hour where it will beautifully double in size. It really is something special when you see it once the hour has passed.
However, before this, around the 45 minute mark, preheat the oven to 220C. Place the tin in the oven for 15 minutes before lowering to 200 and baking for a further 20. After this time, remove from the oven and allow to stand for about 10 minutes before removing from the tin to a wire rack and allowing to cool.
This will keep roughly for about 3 to 4 days but I’m not going to lie, one time I didn’t get around to finishing the whole thing so I ended up blending the entire arse end of the loaf with some lemon zest, parmesan and fresh thyme to create some insanely aromatic breadcrumbs that I used on the top of an oven bake (more on that some other time) so please don’t discard of this if you find you didn’t finish it. It’s squidgy on the inside and crunchy on the outside, everything that you need in a loaf.
So use this recipe and stop saying you can’t bake – you can.