The art of bread baking is one of the oldest of crafts. In ancient Rome and Athens, it was a sign of prosperity to have white bread to eat, although Plato and some of his pals felt that wholemeal bread was a symbol of the simple, good life of the countryside.
When I was growing up, everyone made their own bread; big cakes of wholemeal bread, fresh out of the oven each day, served with lashings of home-made butter; it was food fit for a king.
It's lovely to see so many young people back making bread -- and it's only right. Bread is incredibly simple to make, and home-made bread is much tastier and more nourishing than any shop-bought variety.
Wintertime, with its cold, dark days, is the perfect time for turning on the oven and treating yourself and your family to some delicious home-made bread.
HOME-MADE BREAD IN A CASSEROLE
Once upon a time, bread in Ireland was cooked in a pot oven, which was so called because it was a cast-iron pot with little legs and a lid. Its design allowed the hot coals, or the turf, to sit on top of the pot as well as underneath.
Cooking bread in a casserole with the lid on keeps the steam trapped inside, and results in a wonderful, well-risen loaf of bread, which has a thin-but-crisp crust, with no cracks around the sides.
I keep one cast-iron casserole specially for this purpose, but, on occasion, I have also successfully used a Pyrex casserole dish. Even a deep cake tin covered with an inverted sandwich tin will provide the same result. Whatever container you use, however, must be preheated beforehand in the oven until it is piping hot. After the bread is put in, the lid is left on throughout the baking time.
You will need:
600g (1lb 5oz) self-raising flour
25-50g (1-2oz) caster sugar
75g (3oz) butter, diced
75g (3oz) raisins
50g (2oz) chopped almonds (optional but nice)
425ml (3/4pt) fresh milk
Use a 1.75-2L (3-3 1/2pt) casserole. Preheat the casserole in the oven and shake a little flour in its base before putting in the bread.
Preheat the oven to 200 C, 400 F, Gas 6. Cooking time will be about 45-60 minutes.
Put the self-raising flour and the caster sugar into a bowl and rub in the diced butter until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs. Put the raisins and the chopped almonds, if you are using them, into the bowl and mix thoroughly.
Add enough fresh milk to the dry ingredients to make a soft dough. However, be careful you don't add too much -- you don't want a wet, sloppy dough. Shape the dough roughly into a ball in the bowl. Dust a board with some white flour. Turn the dough out on to the board and knead it a little bit. Then turn up the smooth underside of the dough, shape it into a round and place in the hot casserole. Using a sharp knife, cut an X into the top of the bread. Cover the casserole with the lid and bake the bread until it is well cooked.
Avoid opening the lid for at least the first 30 minutes of baking. When it is properly baked, the base of the bread will have a hollow sound when you tap it with your knuckles. Put the baked bread out on to a wire tray to cool.
Variation: Plain Soda Bread
Omit the fruit and sugar from the above home-made bread recipe, and add ? teaspoon of salt with the self-raising flour.
Variation: Savoury Soda Bread
Using the above home-made bread recipe, omit the caster sugar, the raisins and the nuts. The ingredients listed below will add a lovely savoury taste to your bread.
You will need:
1 medium onion, finely chopped
50g (2oz) bacon lardons or chopped rashers
2-3 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon herbes de Provence or oregano
Before you begin to make the dough -- as described in the home-made bread recipe -- fry the finely chopped onion and bacon lardons or chopped rashers, whichever you are using, in the olive oil until they are nice and tasty. Flavour with the herbes de Provence or oregano, whichever you are using. Allow this mixture to cool and then add it to the milk in the original recipe. Make the bread as described previously.
SCONES WITH HERBS AND OLIVES
A perfect introduction to home baking, scones cook so quickly that they are fun to make. Normally I don't bother with a scone cutter -- I simply cut the flattened dough into squares with a knife, or shape the dough into one (or two) circles and cut those into wedges. Unlike yeast bread, where heavy-handed kneading is necessary, the kneading of scones should be light and quick to avoid toughening the flour. Turn up the dough to reveal the smooth underside.
Once cut, the cut edges of the scones should not be handled to ensure they rise evenly.
Instead of the herbs, olives and pesto, why not have fun experimenting with various flavourings -- for example, you could use blue cheese and walnuts, about 75g (3oz) of each, or why not try adding 75-110g (3-4oz) of grated mature Cheddar, and season the milk and egg mixture with plenty of freshly ground black pepper and a good dash of mustard.
You will need:
400g (14oz) self-raising flour
110g (4oz) butter
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs (parsley, chives, oregano)
10-12 pitted olives, chopped
1 egg and enough milk to make 250ml (9fl oz)
1-2 teaspoons green pesto
A little extra milk, if necessary
Sesame seeds (optional)
Butter, to serve
Preheat the oven to 200 C, 400 F, Gas 6. Put the self-raising flour into a bowl and rub in the butter until the mixture looks like fine breadcrumbs -- a food processor will do this in seconds. Season with some salt and freshly ground black pepper, then add the chopped fresh herbs and the chopped pitted olives.
Whisk the egg, the milk and the green pesto together. Add enough of these wet ingredients to the dry ones to make a dough that is neither too firm nor too soft. A little experience will help you make the proper judgement. Ideally, add most of the liquid at one time, keeping back some, and then adding it as required. Dust a board with some flour and turn the dough out on to it. Leave the dough whole or divide it in two. Knead it just a little and then turn up the smooth underside. Press or flatten out the dough to a depth of about 2.5-3.5cm (1-1?in), shaping it into a rectangle -- or two circles, if you have cut it in two. Now cut the dough into squares or wedges as required.
If you prefer, use a round scone cutter 5cm (2in) in diameter, being sure to cut the scones as near to each other as possible to minimise spare bits of dough. Gather up the spare bits of dough and re-knead them, pressing out once again and cutting with the cutter. (This second kneading tends to make these scones a little tough.) Brush the tops of the scones with a little milk, and sprinkle with sesame seeds, if you are using them. Place the scones on a lightly greased baking tray and bake them in the preheated oven for about 15-25 minutes until they have risen and are golden brown and cooked through. Cool on a wire tray. Serve warm or cold with some butter.
Because yeast dough must rise before it goes into the oven, baking yeast bread is not as quick or simple as bread made using baking powder or bread soda. Without my electric cake mixer with its strong dough hook, I'm not so sure I'd bother making yeast bread. When I read a recipe that says "knead for 10 minutes" my eyes glaze over. However, the resulting bread is always delightful. Try using the dough to make buns. If you'd like to have a go, the basic recipe on the back of a packet of fast-action bread yeast is a good place to start. Use strong flour to hold the expanding yeast inside.
The smallest amount of yeast that can be used is the 7g sachet which is capable of rising 750g (1lb 8oz) of strong flour. It is worth using all that flour; extra dough can be frozen and used some days later.
You will need:
750g (1lb 8oz) strong white flour
40g (1 1/2oz) butter, soft
1 teaspoon salt
1 sachet fast-action bread yeast (McDougalls)
1 egg, beaten
200ml (7fl oz) fresh milk
110ml (4fl oz) boiling water
110ml (4fl oz) cold water
A little beaten egg, to finish
Step one: put the strong white flour, the soft butter, the salt and the fast-action bread yeast into a bowl. Put the beaten egg into a separate small bowl with the fresh milk. Make a tepid mixture by adding the boiling water to the bowl, then add the cold water. Pour the liquid ingredients into the bowl of dry ingredients and mix well. Knead for a good five minutes in an electric mixer with a dough hook. Occasionally scrape the dough off the hook to ensure an even mix.
After five minutes, turn off the mixer and cover the bowl with a damp cloth. Leave the dough for about half an hour or more to swell -- it should nearly double in size. Remove the cloth and knead the dough again -- doing this should reduce it to its original size.
Step two: divide the dough up by cutting off one-third of it. Shape the larger piece into a greased loaf tin -- for a 2lb loaf, the tin should be 23cm x 12.5cm x 7.5cm (9in x 5in x 3in) deep.
Put the tin into a plastic bag that has been very lightly oiled on the inside and leave it in a warmish place to double in size. Alternatively, put the tin into the fridge and leave it overnight; in the morning it will have risen perfectly, ready to pop into a hot oven.
Before baking, brush the top of the loaf with a little beaten egg and add a sprinkle of sesame seeds. Bake in a hot oven -- 210 C, 425 F, Gas 7 -- for about 30 minutes. Tap the base of the loaf with your knuckles to check for the hollow sound telling you the bread is ready. Cool on a wire tray.
The remaining third of the dough can be put into a freezer for a couple of weeks. Alternatively, you can shape it into eight little round buns. Place these on a baking tin and cover with a very lightly oiled plastic bag. Leave in a warm place or refrigerate overnight. When the buns have doubled in size, brush the tops with some beaten egg and sprinkle with sesame seeds.
Bake in a hot oven -- 210 C, 425 F, Gas 7 -- for about 15 minutes until they are golden. Tap the base of the buns with your knuckles to check for the hollow sound. Cool on a wire tray.
Focaccia is a flat, savoury bread from Italy. It can be baked on a flat tin in a round or rectangular shape and looks very attractive with various ingredients baked on the top. Choose ones that will give good flavour.
You will need:
Use the same ingredients as for the yeast bread, but omit the beaten egg and the sesame seeds. Prepare the dough as described in step one of the yeast loaf.
For the topping, you will need:
4 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 tablespoon lemon juice or balsamic vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Generous pinches of dried oregano
Generous pinches of coriander
75g (3oz) feta cheese, finely diced
1-2 tablespoons red pepper, finely chopped
10-12 black or green pitted olives, halved
A little sea salt, to sprinkle on top
Having made the dough according to step one of the yeast loaf recipe, divide the prepared dough in two. Roll out one piece quite thinly and place it on a rectangular or round tin. Cover it with a lightly oiled plastic bag and leave it in a warm place to double in size.
If you are not using the remaining piece of dough immediately, store it in a lightly oiled bag in the freezer until it is required. Meanwhile, in a bowl, mix all the topping ingredients together, except for the sea salt. When the dough is well risen, using your fingers, press little dimples down into the dough. Spoon the topping mixture evenly over the top and sprinkle sparingly with the sea salt.
Bake in a hot oven -- 210 C, 425 F, Gas 7 -- for about 30 minutes until the bread is nicely golden. Cool on a wire tray.
Sunday Indo Life Magazine