Meagre Bread

Our common food is no longer our daily bread, apparently; I’m not sure whether we should be alarmed by this. It depends who they’re polling, I suppose. Personally, I eat bread all the time. I eat it when I should, nibbling on the impeccable bread selection which precedes the stately procession of the tasting menu at The Sportsman; I eat it when I shouldn’t, using a stale end to transfer the last smears of carbonara sauce into an already full stomach. When I need food, I eat bread. Nothing calms the stomach like a cheese-and-cucumber sandwich from the petrol station shop. Now it seems this puts me in a minority. As I said, though, it depends who they’re polling.

It could be pernicious clean-eaters eschewing bread for its gluten; it could be┬ápeople getting all their carbs from elsewhere, from porridges and pastas and potatoes; it could even be those so in love with bread they buy one impeccable loaf a week, and save it for their Sunday. Good bread – real bread, or as it used to be called, ‘bread’ – is expensive, as it should be. Good ingredients are expensive, good labour is expensive, time is expensive. If good food is out of the reach of many, then there are many other things which should be changed, rather than degrading the staff (and indeed the stuff) of life to the point where it barely nourishes. Nearly half of everything baked in the UK is thrown away, for example, a shocking waste which would be considered a crime in other cultures.

Bread in Islam is considered a symbolic food, a synecdochic representation of all nourishment as it comes from God, as it is also, I suppose, in Christianity (our daily bread being hopefully not just bread); they tend to take this more seriously, though. Walk old streets in Morocco and you will see stray khobz stuffed between buildings and in cracks in walls, saved from the street and awaiting charitable redistribution; like the feet of angels, it can not touch the base earth. More prosaically, Istanbul, for all its problems, feeds its populace from subsidised and strictly regulated bakeries, as London used to do. Buy bread from anywhere in the city and it will match in price and quality. The responsibility of government to ensure the poor do not starve has been steadily shrugged off in the so-called developed world.

Even with good flour, bread doesn’t cost that much to make, if you make it yourself, but it is hard, and it takes a long time, which is why we’ve always got bakers to do it, a strange group of people who scuttle about at all hours, covered in flour and little bits of dough. I like making bread, but I lack the skill and the patience to do it every day. I certainly can’t make as much as I like to eat, at least when it comes to sourdough. This sort-of focaccia is a good alternative when I want something fresh-baked, though. The initial rise is so accelerated it seems you’re watching it in time-lapse, and it tastes good, too.

CHICKPEA BREAD

1 tin of chickpeas

1 tsp honey

160g cold water

1 packet dry yeast / 15g fresh

260g strong white flour

14g salt

15g extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp caraway or cumin seeds

 

Empty the tin of chickpeas into a saucepan and bring to a boil, then blitz smooth with the honey and cold water. Let it cool to blood temperature, then blitz in the yeast. Tip the whole mush into a bowl.

Pour the flour over in a layer, then sprinkle over the salt, drizzle over the oil, and, I don’t know, throw in the spices. Leave in a warm place. In about 20 minutes it should have risen significantly; there will be deep cracks in the flour layer with chickpea porridge bursting through.

Beat everything together with a wooden spoon, and use this same implement to knead it – it’s too sticky to do by hand. Just use the spoon to drag up one side of the mix and fold it back down into the middle, a few times until it starts to resist and feel alive. Put the dough in a greased skillet or baking tray to prove for an hour. Heat the oven as high as it’ll go.

When the hour is up, bake the loaf for half an hour, turning and perhaps drizzling with more oil halfway through; it won’t rise a huge amount in the oven, but it will be soft and springy and golden, and, of course, sound hollow when you tap the bottom. Let it cool for 5 minutes before tucking in, for appearance’s sake.

Give Us This Day

I mentioned last month that I had been getting into baking, particularly sourdough baking, with the qualification that I was pretty new to the whole game – I didn’t, then, feel qualified to offer up any kind of recipe, as all I’d been doing was following other people’s. Well, I’ve made quite a bit of bread since then, with varying degrees of success, and have hit upon a method which seems to work for me. I am in no way claiming this as ‘my’ recipe – I have strong feelings about that sort of claim – but rather a set of minor variations and techniques, suited to my own particular cirmcumstances. It is basically the (handmade, home-baking) techniques of Dan Lepard applied to the (professional standard) recipe of Justin Gellatly.

A few disclaimers – yes, you will need your own sourdough starter, and no, I am not going to tell you how to make it; it is time-consuming, but easy, and you can find a recipe online. Once you’ve done that, the bread still takes two days to make, and probably doesn’t work out much cheaper (certainly not if you value your time) than buying it. That’s not really the point, though. It is deeply satisfying, and freshly-baked sourdough is incredibly delicious. With all that in mind, I find it odd how many baking recipes insist on electric mixers, proving baskets, and so forth – the whole thing’s intimidating enough as it is. Other than the starter, this recipe requires nothing more specialist than your hands and some bowls.

I know all the resting seems like a pain in the arse, but it does make everything much easier. This is a recipe for a lazy, pottering day at home.

 

SOURDOUGH

400g strong white flour

50g strong brown flour

50g rye flour (this mix, as used by Gellatly, gives a great taste, and a satisfying, workable texture to the dough.)

200g sourdough starter

2 big, multi-fingered pinches of salt

300ml water

a little sprinkle of polenta

a splash of oil

extra flour of some kind, for sprinkling

In a bowl, mix together the flours, starter, and water, then stir in the salt until well combined. Oil your work surface; oil your hands, and with them, oil the surface of the dough, which will be quite wet. Turn it out onto the oiled surface, and knead briefly, in ten fluid movements. Oil the bowl and scrape the dough back in. Leave it to rest for ten minutes. Repeat this knead and rest twice more. It should now be fairly pliable and dry.

Now wash, dry and flour your work surface; turn the dough out onto it, lightly flour, then pat out into a rectangle. Fold the top third of this towards you, and the bottom third over that, like a letter. Do the same lengthways, left-hand third over, and right-hand third over that. Flip over, onto the fold, dust with flour, and cover. Leave for an hour. Repeat this for the next three hours.

This process, tedious as it may seem, it what starts the process of fermentation and rising in your loaf. Don’t try to rush it, don’t try and kick-start it by putting it somewhere warm. Sourdough yeast is not the same as commercial yeast, and won’t be hurried along. At the end of the three hours, take a sharp knife and make a deep slash in the unfolded side of the dough – you should see lots of little bubbles within it, like a Wispa. If not, leave for half an hour or so and try again.

When happy with the bubbles, roll your dough into a nice tight ball. Heavily flour a tea towel, then use it to line a nice deep bowl, a bit bigger than the dough. This is your proving basket. Place the ball of dough in it, fold over the rest of the tea towel, and put in the fridge overnight. Yes, overnight. I told you it won’t be rushed.

Next morning, take it out of the fridge, reshape into a ball, and put back in the bowl. Leave at room temperature until roughly doubled in size. This will take at least 3-4 hours, but at least you can get on with something else now. When you’re sure it’s ready (I can never remember how big the damn thing was in the first place; I had to start measuring it against the bowl), preheat the oven to Gas 7/220C/425F. Hot, basically. Sprinkle a tray with polenta, turn the loaf out onto it, and neatly slash the top in a circle or square. THIS IS NOT JUST FOR DECORATION. It will rise weirdly, and won’t have that distinct, chewy crust, if you forget to slash it. Use a good, sharp knife, and cut like you mean it.

Open the oven, put in the tray, and splash or spray a little water on the oven floor, closing the door immediately. This, again, is for the crust. Bake for half an hour, then take off the tray, put directly on the oven shelf, and bake for ten minutes more. Turn it down a little if it’s colouring too much. Tap the bottom of the loaf; if it sounds hollow, it’s ready. Cool at least slightly on a rack before devouring.