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Baking bread: a step-by-step guide to making ciabatta, seeded bloomer and cheese and onion loaf

For a change – and to give you ideas for whiling away the (fortunately fading) winter days and nights – I’ll be spending two issues suggesting recipes for one of the oldest, finest and simplest foods: bread.

Seeded bloomer
Seeded bloomer

From the primal physical act through to the heavenly smell it produces, making bread is the pinnacle of home baking. Thankfully it is fairly straightforward, requiring little more than elbow grease, especially if you’re making it without the aid of an electric mixer. Good-quality ingredients are, as ever, crucial – the bread will only be as good as the flour and flavourings you make it with. All leading supermarkets stock good-quality, strong bread flour, the high gluten content and elasticity of which make it especially  good for breads.

Some of my recipes require a pre-ferment (also known as poolish, mother dough or levain), a dough made several hours or even days in advance and mixed into the final dough. Pre-ferments can be stiff or fairly loose; some contain salt, others don’t; and some are made with fresh or commercial yeast, while others are made with wild yeast. Whatever the type, the most significant benefit a pre-ferment  gives bread is a fuller flavour.

As for equipment, a set of digital scales is a good idea. Regularly check the strength of the batteries – if they are a little tired they can give false measurements. You’ll also need a good-sized bowl for mixing the dough and making the pre-ferment in, a plastic scraper for cleaning the dough from the bowl and from the counter after kneading  it, a good pastry brush and some decent  loaf tins. All of these items can be bought  in good department stores.

Any bread made without preservatives will have a short shelf life – about two days – but after that it will make fantastic toast.

 

Seeded bloomer

Makes 1 loaf (omit the seeds for a  plain bloomer)

You can use whatever seeds you like for this  loaf, pumpkin, sesame and poppy being the  most common.

 

Pre-ferment

1.5tsp fresh yeast or 0.75tsp dried yeast

250g lukewarm water

250g strong white bread flour

 

Make the pre-ferment at least a day before you plan to make the main dough.

In a bowl, dissolve the yeast in the water, gradually add the flour and mix well. Allow the dough to prove for 45-60 minutes.

 

Main dough

1.5tsp fresh yeast or 0.75tsp dried yeast

150ml lukewarm water

125g strong white bread flour

125g granary flour

100g pre-ferment

0.5tsp salt

A small pot of flour, for dusting

Semolina, for dusting

50g seeds of your choice, eg sesame, pumpkin, poppy, linseed

In a bowl, mix the yeast with 2tbsp of the lukewarm water until completely dissolved. Combine the flours with the pre-ferment then bring together with the remaining water. Once combined, add the salt. At this point the mixture should be very wet.

Turn the dough out on to a clean, lightly floured work surface and gather it up with one hand or the help of a scraper, then slap it down on the work surface and fold it over itself.

Knead the dough, throwing it down and folding it over, for 5-8 minutes (longer if necessary). Dust with  a little flour if needed. At the end of kneading, the dough should be evenly textured and elastic, feeling soft and smooth. Allow it to rest for at least 20 minutes before shaping.

Shape the dough using as little flour as possible so as not to upset the balance of ingredients and place on a baking tray. If coating with seeds, lightly brush the dough with a little water and sprinkle your choice of seeds over the top. Dust with semolina, cover loosely with clingfilm and allow to prove for up to 3 hours in a reasonably warm place.

Once the dough has fully risen, remove the clingfilm carefully so as not to tear the dough. Set the oven to 210C/gas mark 6.5 and place the baking tray in the oven. Before closing the door, spray a little water into the oven – this will create some steam which covers the bread in a film of moisture, resulting in a deep, crisp crust. Bake for 8 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 180C/gas mark 4 and bake for a further 20-25 minutes.

When cooked, the loaf will sound hollow when you tap the base. Place on a wire rack to cool.

 

Cheese and onion bread

Makes 1 loaf (for a plain white loaf, omit the gruyere and onion)

This is delicious served with a bowl of minestrone, french onion or roasted tomato soup. Alternatively, serve it warm with tapenade or toasted with a few marinated tomatoes. If you can’t find dried onion in the supermarket, try an Asian store.

 

1.5tsp fresh yeast or 0.75tsp dried yeast

150ml lukewarm water

250g strong white bread flour

100g pre-ferment

0.5tsp salt

A small pot of flour, for dusting

Semolina, for dusting

60g gruyere, grated

30g dried onion

 

Make the dough as per the previous recipe, fashioning it into six segments and joining them as illustrated. Sprinkle the cheese and onion over the dough at the same stage as the seeds in the bloomer recipe, and follow the same baking temperatures and times.

 

Ciabatta

Makes 3 loaves

This is a bread for those who like their crusts crisp and their bread chewy and flavoursome. It’s very slack dough, so don’t worry if it appears a little loose.

 

Pre-ferment

250g 00 pasta flour

190ml lukewarm water

4tsp fresh yeast or 2tsp dried yeast

 

Mix the flour with the water in a large bowl then add the yeast. Whisk for 3 minutes to form a paste, cover with clingfilm and leave to rise for at least eight hours, preferably overnight.

 

Main dough

250g 00 pasta flour

2.5tsp fresh yeast or 1.25tsp dried yeast

190ml lukewarm water

3tsp salt

 

Add the flour and yeast to the pre-ferment and mix well. Gradually add the rest of the water to the bread mix. When almost all the water has been added, add the salt and remaining water and mix for 5 minutes until you have a sticky dough. Transfer the dough to an oiled bowl and leave to prove for 1 hour, then place the dough on a heavily floured surface and rest for a further 30 minutes.

Set the oven to 240C/gas mark 9.

Cut the dough into three strips and stretch them into long, flat rectangles. Transfer on to a tray with a baking sheet and leave for 10 minutes.

Place in the oven and bake for 25 minutes or until the loaves have risen and are golden brown. Remove from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool.

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