in safe hands
Baker Daniel Stevens puts a personal touch to breadmaking lessons.
LET’S be honest, mass-produced bread is insipid and characterless. Notice how uniform in size and appearance each loaf is? Even some of those so-called artisan breads look the same, and one wonders if they are actually handcrafted.
True artisan bread is flavourful and often has a thick, hearty crust. Different batches may even taste differently from one day to the next.
The basic components of bread are flour, yeast, salt and water – easy enough to pronounce compared to some of those ingredients that you would read on a bag of white sliced loaf. If you want really good bread, it has to be made with good ingredients, loving hands and dough that has been left to rise slowly and by its own accord, not forced into it by artificial means like commercial bread.
As an avid baker, I have read up extensively on bread making but it wasn’t until I went through The River Cottage Bread Handbook (2010, Ten Speed Press) by Daniel Stevens that I realised how misguided I have been about certain factors in the process.
I used to think making bread was a way to get out my aggression, that bread dough needed to be pummelled into submission when in fact yeasted dough should be treated tenderly and with respect. I abhorred a wet dough, thinking that if it stuck to the work surface, it would result in an unsuccessful loaf (but think ciabatta, which starts with an extremely wet dough).
Like Stevens when he first started making bread, I was led by many cookbook writers and TV chefs into believing that all it took were a few simple steps to get a fresh loaf out In a large bowl, whisk together all the ingredients until smooth. At this stage, the batter will seem too thick, but it will thicken as the ground oats swell. Cover and let sit for at least 1 hour, until the batter is really bubbly and frothy.
Heat a large, heavy-bottomed frying pan over medium-high heat, then grease it with a scrunched-up piece of paper towel dipped in oil. Give the batter a good whisk, then pour a ladleful into the pan, tipping and swirling the pan so the batter thickly coats the bottom.
Cook for a couple of minutes, during which time the surface will become pocked with holes. Flip over and cook another minute, then remove from the pan. Wrap in a clean tea towel to keep warm.
Grind oat flakes (such as rolled oats) in a blender or food processor until fine. Keep leftover batter in the fridge or freeze for later. of the oven.
Stevens, “the bread man” at chef, writer and broadcaster Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage HQ in Devon, England, doesn’t tell you that making homemade bread is easy. Instead he guides you, helping you understand the process and technique, which puts you at ease and makes you willing to try. Even if you don’t get it right the first, second or fifth time, you learn along the way and get better with each attempt.
“... being told what to do is simply not enough. There is so much to know, and I really believe that the more you know, the better your bread will be.” That sets the tone for this book. Stevens first breaks down the four basic components of bread and then makes the bread-making process really interesting about 30 pages into the book when he presents “Bread Making Step-by-Step”. This is the chapter to study and memorise like you used to with song lyrics – once you do, the words will always come back to you.
There are the all-important instructions and pictures when kneading by hand, how the dough will look at various stages and even shaping techniques, plus a list of things that could go wrong and why.
Stevens has gone into detail in this book. For that reason, I cannot give you a recipe for even the most basic loaf. The first third of this book is on technique and reproducing a recipe here without including the process would be useless.
But if I can put down a recipe for a basic bread on this page, then it has to be the formula for the “baker’s percentage”: decide how much flour you want to use and make that 100%; the water or hydration is 60%; instant yeast 1%; salt 2%; and a generous slug of fat, which is about 2%.
Once you’re comfortable with these percentages, it will allow you to confidently make bread any time and to adapt the basic recipe: wholewheat flour takes little more than 60% water to produce a workable dough, while a ciabatta has about 80% hydration. Stevens even has a recipe for Empty-the-shelf Bread, with a mixture of whatever bits of flour, cereals and seeds you may have on hand.
He also goes “Beyond the Basic Loaf”, as well as presents recipes on “Buns, Biscuits and Batter Breads”, “Breads Made Without Yeast” and “Using Leftover Bread”. His chapter on making breads from wild yeast is excellent, with a recipe for a sourdough starter.
Stevens ends the book with a 16-page chapter, with instructions and photos, on how to build a backyard clay oven. Not impossible, and certainly something to consider if you have the space.
This is an aptly named handbook – it feels like a manual in content and form, and is compact enough to carry around. The many photos here are rustic but illustrative, often displaying Stevens’ right wrist encircled in a hippy bead and leather band, and you will not mind taking the book into the kitchen with you. I bought the book just a couple of months ago and already, the pages are dusty with flour.
The River Cottage Bread Handbook may remind you of the For Dummies manuals, but with better pictures and more thorough instructions. Stevens is an excellent teacher and not shy to pass on his knowledge, even while he admits to still be learning. He is funny and exuberant, which makes this book so entertaining. If only all textbooks could be as stimulating. ■ Marty bakes often and posts recipes at martythyme.blogspot.com.