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Rachel Allen: 'Baking is a primal thing'

It’s so easy to bake your own bread — not to mention incredibly satisfying, says Rachel Allen, who shares three of her favourite tasty, nutritious recipes


Rachel Allen

Rachel Allen

Easy soda focaccia with red onion, olive and rosemary

Easy soda focaccia with red onion, olive and rosemary

A Sense of Home by Helen James

A Sense of Home by Helen James


Rachel Allen

At the cookery school, when I see a student’s happy face as they take their first loaf of bread out of the oven, it never fails to give me joy.

Baking bread is a primal thing. It’s deep-rooted at the most fundamental level in kitchens, cultures and history all over the world. Of course, part of the magic of baking bread is the bewitching transformation that takes place in the oven. That chemical reaction happens when just a few ingredients are mixed together and placed under heat.

Whether it’s yeast, bread soda, or, indeed, baking powder (which is a combination of bread soda and tartaric acid) that you use, you can make a delicious loaf of bread.


Easy soda focaccia with red onion, olive and rosemary

Easy soda focaccia with red onion, olive and rosemary

Easy soda focaccia with red onion, olive and rosemary

Our traditional Irish soda bread uses bread soda (bicarbonate of soda) as a leavening agent, on which this easy soda ‘focaccia’ recipe, right, is based; but there’s also a fantastically quick yeast bread recipe here, far right. We started making it at the cookery school a couple of years ago.

Based on the Ballymaloe brown yeast bread that Myrtle Allen started making over 50 years ago, this recipe uses white flour. While it is less nutritious than the original brown version, it might just convert some staunch sliced-pan eaters to a healthier regime. There is no kneading involved in this recipe, and only one rising, so it is a brilliant introduction to using yeast.

Sue’s oatmeal bread recipe, also far right, is one that surprised me from the start. When Sue Cullinane, one of our great teachers at Ballymaloe, told me about this simple bread made from oats, yoghurt and a couple of other ingredients, I wasn’t so sure!

I was even less sure the first time I tried making it myself, as I tipped the heavy, dense dough into the tin. But, hey presto, after one hour of wizardry in the oven, I had a gorgeously nutty, nutritious loaf. Now that’s hard to beat.

Rachel's top tip

If you want to make the soda focaccia bread dairy-free, then replace the buttermilk or sour milk with the same amount of almond milk, rice milk or soy milk, to which you’ve aadded a tablespoon of white malt vinegar or white wine vinegar.

Easy soda focaccia with red onion, olive and rosemary

Makes 1 loaf

You will need:

• A good drizzle of extra-virgin olive

oil, about 75ml, plus a little extra for greasing the tin

• 450g plain flour, plus a little extra for flouring your hands

• ½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (bread soda)

• 1 teaspoon salt

• 400ml buttermilk, or sour milk (for dairy-free, see my Top Tip, above)

• 1 red onion, cut into 8 wedges

• 12 black or green olives,

stones removed

• A few sprigs of rosemary, broken into 12 little pieces

• A pinch of sea salt flakes

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1 Preheat the oven to 230°C, 450°F,

Gas 8. Generously brush the inside of a small Swiss-roll tin with some of the extra-virgin olive oil.

2 Sift the plain flour and the bicarbonate of soda into a large mixing bowl. Mix in the salt, and make a well in the centre of the mixture.

3 Pour the buttermilk or the sour milk, whichever you’re using, into the well in the centre of the mixture. Make one hand into the shape of a claw, and mix in the flour from the sides of the bowl until the mixture comes together, adding a splash more buttermilk or sour milk, whichever you’re using — about 25ml — if necessary. The dough should be soft, and a bit wet and sticky. When it all comes together, turn the dough out on to a floured work surface. Wash your hands until they are free of dough, then flour your hands. Turn the dough over on the floured work surface once, but make sure not to knead it in any way or you will make it tough. Gently roll it out so that it will fit into the prepared Swiss roll tin.

4 Use both hands to transfer the dough into the prepared tin. Use your fingertips to make dimples in the dough — these will serve as wells for the extra-virgin olive oil.

5 Place the red onion wedges, the pitted black or green olives, whichever you’re using, and the rosemary sprigs onto the raw dough, pressing them all down gently so that they don’t fall off the bread when it is baked. Generously drizzle the dough with the remaining extra-virgin olive oil, and sprinkle it with the sea salt flakes.

6 Bake the bread in the preheated oven for about 25-30 minutes, or until it is cooked. If the bread is a good golden colour halfway through the baking time and you don’t want it to darken any more, turn the oven down to 200°C, 390°F, Gas 6, and continue cooking. When the bread is fully cooked, it should be nice and golden on top and on the bottom.

7 When the focaccia is cooked, take it out of the oven and, while it is still hot, drizzle a little more extra-virgin olive oil over the top. Allow the bread to cool slightly before cutting it into squares to serve.

Ballymaloe simple white yeast bread

Makes 1 loaf

You will need:

• A drizzle of sunflower oil

• 450g strong white flour

• 1 teaspoon salt

• 1 teaspoon honey

• 300ml water at blood heat (37°C, 99°F)

• 25g fresh yeast

• A sprinkling of sesame seeds (optional)

1 Brush the inside of a loaf tin with sunflower oil.

2 In a mixing bowl, mix the strong white flour with the salt. The ingredients should all be at room temperature.

3 In a small bowl or Pyrex jug, mix the honey with the blood-heat water, and crumble in the fresh yeast. Sit the bowl or Pyrex jug, whichever you’re using, on your worktop for a few minutes to allow the yeast to start to work. After about 3-4 minutes, it will have a creamy and slightly fizzy or frothy appearance on top. When it is ready, stir it and pour it into the flour and salt mixture to make a dough.

4 Scoop the bread mixture into the prepared tin, levelling off the top. Sprinkle the top of the loaf with sesame seeds, if you are using them. Put the tin on your worktop and cover it with a tea towel to prevent a skin from forming — make sure not to press the towel onto the dough, just lie it over the top.

5 Now preheat the oven to 230°C, 450°F, Gas 8.

6 When the bread rises over the top of the tin — this will take about 30 minutes (the time will vary depending on the room temperature), remove the cloth and pop the loaf into the preheated oven for 20 minutes. Then, turn the oven down to 200°C, 400°F,

Gas 6, for another 40-50 minutes, or until the bread looks nicely browned and sounds hollow when it is tapped. The bread will rise a little further in the oven. This is called ‘oven spring’.

7 I usually remove the loaf from the tin about 10 minutes before the end of the cooking time and put it back into the oven to crisp all round, but if you like a softer crust on your bread, there’s no need to do this.

8 Allow the bread to cool on a wire rack.

Sue’s oatmeal bread

Makes 1 loaf

You will need:

• A little sunflower oil to grease the tin

• 425g rolled oats (not jumbo oats or pinhead oats)

• ¾ teaspoon salt

• 2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda (bread soda), sifted

• 2 tablespoons mixed seeds (such as

sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and poppy seeds)

• 1 egg

• 500g natural yoghurt

1 Preheat the oven to 200°C, 400°F, Gas 6. Line the base of a 900g (2lb) loaf tin with parchment paper and brush the sides with a little sunflower oil.

2 In a large bowl, mix the rolled oats, the salt, the sifted bicarbonate of soda and the mixed seeds. Make a well in the centre of the mixture.

3 In a jug, whisk the egg and the natural yoghurt together. Pour the yoghurt and egg mixture into the dry ingredients in the large bowl, and mix well. The dough is meant to be dry and sticky at this stage, so don’t worry.

4 Scoop the dough into the prepared tin and bake the bread in the preheated oven for 50 minutes. Turn the bread out of the loaf tin and bake it in the oven for a further 10 minutes. When the bread is cooked, take it out of the oven and allow it to cool on a wire rack.

Rachel recommends

When using bread soda, make sure to sift it well — and to avoid a greeny colour to your loaf, don’t use too much.

A sense of home


A Sense of Home by Helen James

A Sense of Home by Helen James

A Sense of Home by Helen James

With autumn, comes the feeling of hunkering down and making our homes cosy for the winter ahead. I never tire of Helen James’s book, A Sense of Home, in which she gives brilliant, non-lofty advice on how to make the best of the space that you live in. There are delicious recipes, too, including a brilliant recipe for a Great White Loaf.

‘A Sense of Home’ by Helen James, is published by Hachette

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