Do we really need to be a nation of sourdough home-bakers? I worry about the amount of failed sourdough starters sitting in people's kitchens right about now. Online there are now what you might describe as self-help groups dedicated to people with dodgy sourdough loaves that didn't quite cut it after the days of work that went into them.
I'm all for the benefits of sourdough, but I like to leave it to the artisans, unless of course you really have something to prove to yourself. Perhaps I'm bitter, as I say all this as a self-confessed failed sourdough starter father.
I tried my hand at it a couple of years ago after falling in love with the bread baked at a Swedish organic cafe called Gunnebo on the grounds of an old castle close to where Sofie grew up in Gothenburg. The Swedes are well-known for their baking prowess and armed with the recipe for Gunnebo's crusty chewy loaves, I set about making them at home. Three limp and lifeless loaves later, my patience ran out and I soon reverted back to the breads I learned growing up.
I believe we come to certain things at different stages of life and for me, for now, sourdough will have to wait. Particularly when there are far more instantly gratifying bread recipes out there to occupy idle hands.
I'm excited about the no-knead focaccia recipe I share here. It's based on the one from Bon Appetit's test kitchen, which is doing the rounds online, with a topping (or a more of a slurry) of basil and mashed garlic - my Aunt Erica has been topping her own focaccia recipe with it for as long as I can remember.
Once you have the method down, the dough can be transformed with a number of different toppings or even made into a deep-dish-style pizza with some good passata and mozzarella.
Meanwhile, Japan is maybe not the first port of call you think of when it comes to outstanding bread, but I picked up a recipe for Japanese milk bread during filming for a TV show in Asia. Originally the show was aptly called House Of The Rising Bun but was given the depressingly generic title of Donal's Asian Baking Adventure once it aired.
Japanese milk bread relies on an interesting technique of creating and adding a roux to the dough, which provides the lightness that the bread is known for. It's one of the more complex recipes here but is worth mastering for its show-stopping results.
Inspiration for the other two loaves here comes from a little closer to home. The first is a white yeasted loaf that makes the best sandwiches in Dublin at the brilliant Pepper Pot Cafe in Dublin's Powerscourt Town House.
The second is a potato, cheddar and caramelised red onion loaf that is an evolution of my Irish Cheddar dinner rolls, which I normally make in a casserole in the oven.
So, even if your sourdough dreams are over or on hold, redemption and satisfaction may be found in these globby, yeasty doughs.
Japanese milk bread rolls
Makes 12 rolls
This bread uses tangzhong, a simple roux or starter which is made, and then cooled before incorporating into the bread. To allow the tangzhong to cool faster, transfer to a bowl once it has thickened as the saucepan will retain heat.
Milk bread was developed in Japan in the 20th century, the tangzhong creates a soft, airy texture. This is an enriched dough (butter and egg added).
Back when bread was first introduced to Japan, it was seen as a snack as most households didn't have ovens.
For the tangzhong:
25g strong white flour
100ml full-fat milk
For the dough:
350g strong white bread flour
2 tsp dried yeast
2 tsp fine sea salt
2 tbsp caster sugar
50g butter, at room temperature
1 egg, lightly beaten
1. To make the tangzhong (the traditonal roux used for this bread), in a small non-stick saucepan add the strong white flour and the full-fat milk. Mix well to remove any lumps and then place the pan on low heat, stirring continuously, using a rubber spatula, until it becomes super thick. Leave to cool completely before use.
2. To make the dough, place the strong white bread flour, the dried yeast, caster sugar and salt into a food mixer and mix together.
3. Make a well in the centre of the mix and add the egg, cream, butter and the cooled tangzhong.
4. Mix for a good 5 minutes on medium speed, using a stand mixer with a dough hook attachment, until the dough becomes smooth and elastic.
5. Remove the hook and transfer the dough to a floured surface, dust with flour and knead it into a ball. Then place in a lightly greased mixing bowl and cover with cling film or a damp tea towel. Leave to prove for approx 45 minutes, until doubled in size (the time will depend on the temperature of the room).
6. Grease a 9 x 12inch deep-sided baking tin and set aside.
7. Once risen, place the dough onto a clean, lightly-floured work surface and knock the bread back by pressing down and pushing out any air in the dough.
8. Knead again for about 5 minutes, then roll the dough into a long, sausage shape and divide into 12 portions.
9. Roll each portion into a small ball and place into the greased tin and allow to prove again, lightly covered with cling film or tea towel for 30-40 minutes or until doubled in size.
10. Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4. Tp glazwe, brush each of the 12 rolls with the remaining egg and place into the oven to bake for 30 minutes, until golden and risen.
11. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.
Caramelised Onion, Cheddar Potato Loaf
Makes 1 loaf
The potato adds a light texture to this bread while the caramelised onions add a sweetness that's balanced with the sharp mature cheddar. You'll need to finely grate the cheddar here so it doesn't weigh down the loaf and prevent it from rising.
For the caramelised onions:
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, thinly sliced
For the loaf:
50g potatoes, peeled and diced
250g white flour (warm the flour in a warmed bowl if it has been stored in a cool place)
1 tsp salt
7g fast-action dried yeast
50g mature cheddar cheese, finely grated
75ml milk, plus a little extra to glaze
1. Grease and flour a 2lb loaf tin.
2. To make the caramelised onions, heat the olive oil in a pan, add the onion slices and gently fry for 10-15 minutes, until soft and caramelised. Remove to a plate and set aside to cool completely.
3. Cook the potatoes until tender in salted water and drain, reserving 1-2 tablespoons of the cooking liquid. You can also use leftover mash here.
4. Mash the potatoes very well or use a potato ricer, then cover and set aside.
5. Sift the flour into a large mixing bowl with the salt and rub in the butter. Make a well in the centre and add the sugar, yeast and the mashed potatoes, caramelised onions and two thirds of the cheese, mixing well.
6. Warm the milk in a small saucepan over medium heat until it's just warm - you should still be able to stick your finger into it without it scalding. Add the warm milk, 75ml water and reserved potato cooking liquid to the mixing bowl.
7. Combine the wet and dry ingredients to bring together a rough dough and then tip onto a clean work surface. Knead very well until a smooth dough forms and it springs back when pressed.
8. Shape into a ball and place into an oiled bowl. Cover and leave for an hour to double in size.
9. Knock it back then divide the dough into three even-sized pieces. Shape into balls and place into the prepared tin, cover and leave in a warm place for about an hour, until they have doubled in size.
10. Before the hour is up, heat the oven to 220°C/425°F/Gas Mark 7.
11. Once the balls of dough have risen, brush with a little milk, sprinkle with the remaining cheese and bake for 20-25 minutes until risen and golden brown.
The Pepper Pot's White Yeast Loaves
Makes 3 x 1lb loaves
My go-to brunch spot has to be the Pepper Pot Cafe in Dublin's Powerscourt Town House. Their sandwiches are served on thick, home-made bread and I got my hands on their recipe!
1.5kg strong white flour
1. Line three 1lb loaf tins with silicone paper. Sieve the flour and salt together and then rub in the butter with your fingertips. Make a well with your hand, crumble your yeast into the well and add the water. Dissolve the yeast by swirling your hands in a circular motion.
2. Begin to incorporate the flour, a little at a time. Knead, stretching the dough as you knead. Knead until you develop a smooth dough. Set aside and cover with a large bowl and allow to ferment for 45 minutes during which time it will expand.
3. After 45 minutes, knock the dough back; this releases the gas the yeast have produced. Quickly mould back into a round shape and set aside for a further 5 minutes.
4. Preheat the oven to 210ºC/400°F/Gas Mark 6. After 5 minutes, divide the dough into three and use a weighing scales to measure out each third into 800g. (Or divide again if making mini loaves). Shape into three round balls of dough. Cover again.
5. After 5 minutes, flatten with your knuckles, fold in from the sides, left to right, into the middle and roll from the top towards yourself into a Swiss roll-type shape. Place in lined tins. Dust with flour and place on top of your oven, which usually has residual heat from the warming oven; alternatively, use your hot press. Leave for 30 minutes to rise.
6. After 30 minutes, cut the bread with a knife giving it three traditional vertical slits and place in the oven. After a further 30 minutes, remove from the tins and allow to crisp up in the oven for 5 minutes. Remove breads and place on a wire rack to cool.
Garlic No-knead Focaccia
For the dough:
1 x 7g sachet dried yeast
1 tbsp honey
600ml warm water
650g plain flour
1 tbsp sea salt flakes
4 tbsp olive oil
For the basil paste:
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tsp sea salt flakes
Large handful basil leaves
3 tbsp olive oil
1. Grease a 13 x 9 inch baking tray with olive oil. The tray should be at least an inch in depth.
2. Mix the dried yeast, honey and warm water together in a large bowl. Whisk, then leave for 15 minutes until a foam forms.
3. Add the flour and salt to this and stir to combine with a wooden spoon until you have a rough but evenly-mixed dough.
4. Add 3 tablespoons of the olive oil to a separate large, clean bowl, then transfer the dough into this. Turn to coat the dough in the oil and cover and leave in the fridge overnight (or leave covered at room temp for 4 hours to bake same day).
5. Keeping the dough in the bowl and lightly coating your hands with oil, pull up the edge of the dough and fold over the top; repeat this on all four sides, turning the bowl a quarter turn each time to make this easier. Do this three times in total.
6. Add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil to the prepared tin and tip in the dough spread to the size of the tin. Leave to rise for at least an hour, uncovered.
7. While this is rising, make the basil paste. Bash the garlic cloves in a pestle and mortar with a little salt, until well bashed and a paste forms, then slowly drizzle in olive oil until combined.
8. Preheat the oven to 220°C/425°F/Gas Mark 7. You know when your dough is ready when you poke it and the indentation slowly springs back but stays. Oil your hands, and then, to create the indentations, spread apart your fingers and press into the dough, reaching the base of the tray.
9. Drizzle over the basil paste along with a little more sea salt.
10. Place in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes until golden. Leave to cool for at least 10 minutes then cool completely on a wire rack.
Bread 41, an organic bakery on Dublin's Pearse Street, makes long-fermented breads using traditional ingredients. Their baked goods and pizzas are still available for delivery and collection. The pastries are also divine! bread41.ie; Instagram: @bread41dublin
Soy & ginger pork
This one-pan dish is a winner. Marinate thinly-sliced pork tenderloin with 3 tbsp soy sauce, 2 tbsp apple cider vinegar, 2 tbsp honey, thumb-sized piece of ginger, finely sliced, and 3 garlic cloves. Tip into a hot frying pan and fry for 2-3 minutes before turning everything, adding greens like sugar snap peas and cooking gently until the greens are tender and the pork is cooked all the way through. Serve with rice!
Spring time soups
Perfect for our changeable Irish May weather is an easy-to-throw-together spring soup, a sort of minestrone pasta soup with greens at its core. Peas, courgette, broccoli and a tin of cannellini beans added to sweated onions with good veggie stock and pasta of your choosing make quite a lunchtime feast. Finish with your best extra virgin olive oil, a crack of black pepper and some fresh basil leaves.