Tuesday 23 January 2018

Spring flours: Making the perfect bread

Practice makes perfect when it comes to quality breadmaking, says Brenda Costigan. Evocative of childhood days long since past and at the heart of The Good Life, home-made bread is quick and easy to do, satisfying to make, and simply delicious to eat

For a childhood family holiday, my parents rented a little bungalow in the north of Donegal, near the village of Dunfanaghy. There was great excitement for us children, as we were right beside a farm which had cows, and there was a large beach within walking distance. The downside, for my mother, was that our holiday coincided with a local bakery strike. However, every cloud has a silver lining, and, because of the amount of baking practice she got on that holiday, my mother always made wonderful brown bread.

Nothing beats practice if you want to get the hang of bread baking, or, indeed, any baking. The right amount of milk, the length of time required for kneading and the length of time in the oven will, in time, become second nature. Baking scones is an excellent introduction to home baking, because they are quick to cook and fun to make.

Once you have the oven on, try to be economical and fill it with scones, bread, and cakes — whatever takes your fancy.

Cheese scones

I don’t bother with a scone cutter. I simply shape the flattened dough into a rectangle and then cut it into squares with a knife. The handling and kneading of dough should be light and quick, so as to not toughen the flour.

Once cut, avoid handling the cut edges of the scones so that they will rise evenly. Experiment with various flavours besides cheese, as suggested below. These savoury scones are wonderful with a bowl of home-made soup

You will need:

450g (1lb) self-raising flour

110g (4oz) butter

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

75g (3oz) mature cheddar cheese, grated

1 egg

280ml (10fl oz) milk

1 small teaspoon mustard

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 mix resembles fine breadcrumbs — a food processor will do this in seconds — and then transfer the mixture to a bowl.

Season well with salt and pepper, then mix the grated cheddar cheese into the flour and butter mixture.

Whisk the egg, milk and the mustard together. Add enough of this mixture to the dry mixture in the bowl to make a dough that is neither too firm nor too soft — a little experience will help you make the proper judgement. Ideally, add three quarters of the liquid at one time, then add the remainder if it is required.

Turn the dough out onto a floured board, knead lightly a few times and then turn over to have the smooth underside facing up, and shape into a rectangle about 2.5-3.5cm (1-1½in) thick. Cut into squares or rectangles with a sharp knife that has been dipped in flour.

If preferred, 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.

If using a scone-cutter, gather up the leftover bits of dough and re-knead them, pressing out once again and cutting with the cutter. The scones from this second kneading are never quite as light as the first lot. Place the scones on a lightly greased baking tray and bake in the oven for about 15-25 minutes until they are risen, golden brown and cooked through. Cool on a wire tray. Serve the scones, either warm or cold, with butter.

Variations In both of these variations on the previous recipe, omit the grated cheese and the mustard.

Herb and olive scones

You will need:

2 tablespoons of fresh herbs such as parsley, chives and oregano, chopped

10-12 pitted olives, chopped

1-2 teaspoons green pesto

Following the same procedure as for the cheese scones, once you have added the seasoning to the flour and butter mixture, add the chopped fresh herbs and the chopped olives. Add the pesto to the egg and milk mixture, omitting the mustard, then continue to make the scones as described above.

Blue cheese and walnut scones

You will need:

110g (4oz) blue cheese

110g (4oz) toasted walnuts, chopped

Following the same procedure as for the cheese scones, once you have added the seasoning to the flour and butter mixture, then add in the blue cheese and the chopped walnuts.

Continue to make the scones as described above, omitting the mustard.

Brown bread in a casserole

If you bake bread in a flat tin in a hot oven, the top crust will set hard before the bread has time to rise properly, and it will crack around the sides.

The idea below is inspired by the castiron pots of old, which were put into a hot turf fire in the open hearth, with more hot turf put on the lid. The lid keeps the steam inside, which results in perfectly risen bread with a thin, crisp crust that has no cracks around the sides.

Ideally, use a cast-iron casserole dish or a Pyrex one. Indeed, I have successfully used a deep cake tin of 23cm (9in) with a sandwich tin inverted on top as a lid. Whatever container you use, it must be preheated in the oven.

Bread soda in the mix will give a nice golden colour to the bread. But beware, as too much will result in bread that is unattractively dark in colour and has an unpleasant taste; while adding too little will yield a pale, insipid bread. To give a nice texture and add an extra lift to the brown bread, I also include some baking powder. You may find that a little trial and error is necessary to achieve the effect that you want.

You will need:

2 teaspoons of bread soda

450g (1lb) wholemeal flour

75g (3oz) oatflakes, optional

225g (8oz) white flour

2 teaspoons of baking powder

75g (3oz) raisins, optional

50g (2oz) chopped walnuts, optional

1 egg, lightly beaten, optional

50g (2oz) butter, melted, optional

425-570ml (¾-1pt) buttermilk

Note: You can substitute 75g (3oz) oatflakes for 110g (4oz) of the wholemeal flour.

You will need a casserole with a lid, at least 1.75l (3pt), or up to 2.8l (5pt).

Preheat the oven and the casserole to 200°C, 400°F, Gas 6.

Put the bread soda in the palm of your hand and smooth out any lumps. Then put it, with the wholemeal flour — and oatflakes, if using — the white flour and the baking powder, including the raisins and the chopped walnuts, if using, into a bowl and mix thoroughly. Make a hole in the centre of the mixture.

In a separate container, mix the egg and the melted butter, if using, with the buttermilk. Pour most of the liquid into the hole in the dry ingredients. Mix well with a wooden spoon, adding more liquid if necessary to make a mediumsoft dough. Shape roughly into a ball in the bowl, or, alternatively, knead on a board that you have floured lightly with wholemeal flour.

Sprinkle some wholemeal flour in the base of the hot casserole dish and lightly butter the sides. Put in the dough and pat it down to smooth the top and fill the container. Sprinkle a little wholemeal flour over the top. Using a sharp knife, cut a cross, 1cm/½in deep, from side to side into the top of the bread. This ensures that the bread will rise evenly. Cover with the lid and bake for about 35- 45 minutes.

Avoid opening the lid for as long as you can to keep the steam inside. It can be lifted quickly to check after about 25 minutes. The bread will brown inside the closed lid, but if you want it browner still, remove the lid for the final 5-10 minutes.

When properly cooked, the bread will have a hollow sound when rapped on the base with your knuckles. Turn out of the casserole and cool on a wire tray. Eat within two days, or freeze in sections.

White soda bread

Buttermilk combined with the bread soda makes the gas inside the dough, which enables the bread to rise. Pasteurised milk that has gone sour is not suitable.

If no buttermilk is available, simply add lemon juice to some fresh milk — use two tablespoons to 425ml (¾pt), and leave it to stand for a few minutes before using.

This bread is excellent toasted.

You will need:

500g (1lb 2oz) white flour

½ level teaspoon bread soda,

½ teaspoon salt

1 level teaspoon baking powder

25g (1oz) butter,

melted 425ml (¾pt) buttermilk, or fresh milk with lemon juice

Use a casserole with a lid, and a capacity of at least 1.75l (3pt), or at most 2.8l (5pt). Preheat the oven and the casserole to 200°C, 400°F, Gas 6.

Put the flour into a bowl. Put the bread soda in the palm of your hand and smooth out any lumps, add to the flour with the salt and baking powder. Add the melted butter to the buttermilk, or the milk and lemon juice, if using, and pour about three-quarters of the mixture into the dry ingredients. Mix to a fairly soft but not wet dough. Turn out onto a lightly floured board and knead just a little, then turn over — you will find the underneath side is smoother. Place in the hot casserole, smoother side up. Cut a cross on the top and cover with the lid. Bake for about 45 minutes until golden and cooked right through. Follow the same instructions as the previous recipe concerning the lid, and testing to see if the bread is cooked.

Ham and cheese loaf

Baked in a loaf tin, this tasty loaf can be served warm or cold, with butter.

You will need:

300g (11oz) self-raising flour

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

50g (2oz) mature cheddar cheese, grated

75g (3oz) cooked ham, chopped into 1cm (½in) pieces

2-3 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

½ teaspoon herbes de Provence

1 large egg

225ml (8fl oz) fresh milk

1 small teaspoon mustard

Preheat the oven to 200°C, 400°F, Gas 6. Lightly butter the base of a non-stick loaf tin, approximately 23cm x 12.5cm, (9in x 3in) Put the flour, salt and pepper, cheddar cheese, ham, parsley and herbes de Provence into a bowl. In a separate bowl or measuring jug, whisk the egg, milk and the mustard. Add enough of the wet mixture to the dry one to make a softish dough. Turn into the prepared tin. Spread evenly, using a fork. Bake in the oven for about 45 minutes until well risen and golden brown. The base will sound hollow when cooked. Serve warm, cold or toasted the next day.

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