January. The time for new beginnings. The time for feeling lost in the space reclaimed after putting away the holiday decorations. For starting resolutions. For cozying up indoors. For getting back to basics.
And what can be more basic than bread? When storms threaten, we run to our local shops to purchase bread and a jug of milk — bland, store-bought emergency rations to get us through the worst of times. And yet, bread — good bread, home baked and served straight from the oven — can be so heavenly, so soul satisfying it needs little else but a slather of creamy butter to feel like a meal. Serve it alongside a bowl of soup or a salad and a light lunch or dinner becomes a hearty repast. Pile it high with cheese, leftover meat, and crunchy veg and it becomes that humble, yet filling, school and lunchbox staple, the sandwich. Or dip it in egg, fry in butter, and drizzle with syrup for a sweet breakfast treat or late night sofa supper.
Bread is a universal staple food. Indian naan, German pretzel, Jewish challah, Venezuelan arepa, Ethiopian injera, Caribbean roti. Bread symbolises a society’s abundance, a lack of bread it’s poverty. And ‘breaking bread’ with someone is a global act of community, friendship, and even intimacy.
It’s no wonder that, from the Bible to The Hunger Games, literature is rife with references to and descriptions of bread, bread baking, and (my favourite!) bread eating. In between battling the windmills that grind grain into flour, Cervantes’ Don Quixote declares that “All sorrows are less with bread.” In I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, Cassandra Mortmain observed, “I shouldn’t think even millionaires could eat anything nicer than new bread and real butter and honey for tea,” while Julia Child once decried packaged American white bread with the lament, “How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like kleenex?” Omar Khayyám waxed poetic over the virtues of “a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough, A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou.”
And how boring would Wonderland be without its bread-and-butterflies? Or Paddington without a marmalade sandwich tucked under his hat?
I realise, also, that January is the month for dieting, but if you can work a modest slice of bread (you can share or freeze the rest of the loaf) into your New Year regimen, you’ll find kneading and baking bread to be quite a relaxing and rewarding way to spend a cold snowy — or rainy as it is here Bristol — winter’s afternoon. Plus, your house will smell fantastic.
Please note that although I strive to provide my own recipes on this blog, bread baking is such an exact science that I’ve yet to devise a recipe of my own that I feel is as successful and delicious as that of Jacques Pepin’s Country Loaf from his 2015 cookbook, Heart and Soul. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). I’ve baked this loaf dozens of times since acquiring the book and in three different kitchens on two continents and it has never failed me. I hope you can say the same!
Country Wheat Bread
3 cups/475g unbleached bread flour
1 cup/175g whole wheat flour (I used Waitrose Seeded Wholemeal Bread Flour. Whole Foods in the States and Canada feature a similar product)
1 envelope/sachet of active dry yeast
2 teaspoons salt
2 cups/500 ml lukewarm water
1 tablespoon unbleached bread flour for kneading
Place the bread flour, whole wheat flour, yeast, and salt, into a large bowl. Mix the dry ingredients together well. Using a hand mixer with the dough hook attachment, slowly add the warm water and mix until the dry ingredients are fully incorporated into the wet and a soft, sticky dough is formed. (You may need to scrape down the sides of the bowl several times with a rubber spatula to ensure all the flour is absorbed.)
Tear off a piece of plastic wrap/cling film large enough to cover the bowl and give one side a coating of oil. Place the plastic –oil side down so dough won’t stick to it– over the bowl and place bowl in a warm draught-free part of the kitchen to rise. (I put mine in a cold oven and shut the door. Just remember not to use the oven!). Allow to rise for approximately 3 hours or overnight. The longer this rises, the greater the size of the air bubbles in the bread and the tangier the crumb.
Push the dough down, bringing the outside edges in toward the center to create a compact ball. If needed, sprinkle the bread flour on the dough to prevent it sticking to your hands. Place seam side down on a baking sheet. Shape into a round loaf and cover with the bowl to allow to rise another hour.
Preheat the oven to 425F/220C/Gas Mark #7. When the bread has risen, sprinkle the flour over the top of the loaf, if you haven’t already used it (I usually use it to shape the dough) and, using a serrated knife, cut a few parallel slashes 1/4 inch/6mm deep into the top of the bread. Place in oven and mist with water from a spray bottle. Bake for about 4o-50 minutes or until the bread is browned to your liking and the loaf has a hollow sound when thumped on the bottom.
Cool bread on a rack until just warm before slicing and serving. This bread also freezes well. Simply slice and place in a large freezer bag and store for no longer than three months.
COOKIN’ THE BOOKS is currently available in UK hardback:
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