in safe hands

Baker Daniel Stevens puts a per­sonal touch to bread­mak­ing lessons.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIFESTYLE -

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.

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