Hilarie Stelfox: I’ve finally risen to the bread challenge

ONE of my colleagues is selling his house.

ONE of my colleagues is selling his house.

His girlfriend says that she’s going to ‘house doctor’ it and is planning to bake bread and make fresh coffee when potential buyers arrive to view it.

Having moved around a lot and sold six houses/flats of my own over the years I would say that she’s got the right idea. It might seem a bit contrived, but the old coffee/fresh bread trick is certainly worth a go because we all have a need to see our house as a home, a place of comfort and security. And what says comfort and security more than freshly-baked bread?

This weekend we stand on the cusp of National Bread Week, an industry-invented occasion but, nevertheless, one that is certainly worth celebrating.

The sweet, yeasty smell of fresh bread always reminds me of my paternal grandmother who produced the softest, most tempting bread rolls for Sunday afternoon tea. It was one of the highlights of the week when I was a child going to her house to eat open sandwiches topped with warm, mashed egg and mayonnaise, ham and cheese.

To this day I have never tasted homemade bread that holds a candle to hers.

But it’s not for a lack of trying.

When the Offspring were small I was always dabbling with bread-making because I thought it was important they should witness the magical, time-honoured process of turning little more than flour, water and yeast into something delicious. I suppose I was also hoping to build some wholesome childhood memories.

It fell into the same category of ‘old-fashioned, simple childhood pleasures’ as painting blown eggs at Easter, making chocolates at Christmas and growing mustard and cress on blotting paper.

My efforts were not always appreciated by the Man-in-Charge who complained that by the time he arrived home the bread had already gone stale and tough. I’d say that this was because it didn’t contain the chemicals pumped into shop-bought bread for which he should be thankful. Sometimes, I have to admit, it was because I’d made a leaden doorstep of a loaf.

One of my problems is that I find it almost impossible to follow a recipe. I like to mess about with the ingredients, guess quantities and make my own ‘improvements’. Over the years I have variously made tomato bread (by tipping in a tin of tomatoes); spelt bread (which turned out like a brick); many types of ill-fated nut and seed breads and naan bread (more doughy than delicious).

And then, quite recently, I had a revelatory moment. I would actually try to follow a recipe, word for word, and use the weighing scales. Cookery is, after all, nine tenths chemistry.

Success was mine.

"Did you buy that bread?" said the Man-in-Charge suspiciously after helping himself to a slice of a wholemeal loaf left on the bread board after the first attempt.

He added: "If you made it, it’s the best you’ve ever done."

And now there’s no stopping me. Every time I invite someone to lunch I bake bread and make soup. The house is filled with the wholesome smell of fresh loaves.

I am a born-again baker.

If you’d like to celebrate National Bread Week by taking up this satisfying and useful hobby then I have researched some tips.

Number one is something I learned from an artisan baker in Huddersfield – don’t rush the yeast. Good artisan bread contains much less yeast than commercial bread and is left to rise for 16 hours or more. If using dried, packet yeast you won’t be able to increase the rising time by that much but don’t hurry it along.

Number two is to follow the recipe’s water and flour ratio religiously. Never try to wing it.

Thirdly, knead your dough thoroughly to get the gluten working. If you can’t be bothered then use the dough hook on a food processor and leave it to run for a long time.

Fourthly, if you want your bread to have good keeping qualities then add milk powder to the mixture.

And last, but not least, bake for the full time it says in the recipe. There’s nothing worse than bread that’s soggy in the middle and don’t attempt to cut it until it has cooled down.

It might be too late for me to forge comforting childhood memories of fresh bread for The Offspring but maybe I’ll get the chance to become a bread-making grandma like my own and, to that end, I’m going to enjoy honing my baking skills.

 
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