“How can a nation be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?” Julia Child

The regular baking of bread can, I’m afraid, bring out a certain irritating smugness in me, but that’s something I’ll have to learn to live with because I’m not going back to shop bought now. Once you’ve been making your own bread for a little while you will bring your own techniques to the process without even noticing and the bread will reward you with a character that is a reflection of yourself. It happens. My wife Maureen and I started with basically the same recipe for our regular loaf, but the tastes are quite different.

We began when she discovered this YouTube film by Mark Bittman from The New York Times visiting the Sullivan Street Bakery in Manhattan: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=13Ah9ES2yTU

Watching this film will give you a taste for just how easy great bread making can be. Maureen and I have since departed from this recipe each in our own way, so now I’ll let you have my version. As well as the following ingredients you will need a cast iron casserole dish of the Le Creuset type. Ours is 20cm (8”) in diameter by 10cm (4”) deep, which suits this quantity quite nicely, but there is no reason why you shouldn’t use one larger than that. The crust and crumb should be the same. And once again with flour as your only main ingredient, it stands to reason that you should use the best you can find.

INGREDIENTS AND METHOD:

500 grams of unbleached strong bread flour.

2 tsp salt

¼ tsp dried yeast

325 ml lukewarm water

I like to plan things so that my bread will be ready for tomorrow’s lunch so I’ll run you through my timetable beginning at about 8.00 am:

Dissolve the yeast in the water, and in the meantime weigh out the flour and mix in the salt. Make a well in the flour, pour in the water/yeast mixture and stir together with a spoon until all the flour is taken up. Incidentally, If you’d prefer wholemeal bread I’d suggest 200 grams of wholemeal to 300 grams of white flour. Cover with clingfilm and place out of the way at room temperature for 24 hours. So far, so easy. Five minutes work and no mess.

First thing next morning flour a work surface (and your hands) and gently ease your dough out of the bowl. It should be quite wet. Stretch and fold one side two-thirds the way over and then take the other side across. Turn through 90º and repeat. You will notice at this stage that the dough becomes springy and elastic. This is the gluten doing its job. (This process is clearly demonstrated in the YouTube film). Tip: If you are re-using the same bowl it will need a quick clean to prevent the dough from sticking. Throw in a small handful of flour and rub around with your fingers to remove any dough that has stuck to the sides. A thin smear of olive oil around the bowl at this stage will help to slide it out later.

Lift back into the bowl and leave to rise for a further two hours or so. Pre-heat oven to 230ºC/Gas mark 8 and put your cast iron casserole dish in for ½ hour to get piping hot.

Now tip the dough onto a floured surface, and using oven gloves carefully lift the casserole dish from the oven, and drop the dough into the dish. With a sharp knife, you can cut a deep cross in the top to allow for expansion, replace the lid and pop into the oven for 30 minutes. After that time remove the lid and continue baking for another 10–12 minutes. Carefully roll the loaf from the dish, tap the bottom to listen for the hollow sound that tells you it’s ready, then onto a cooling grid for twenty minutes before tearing into it.

You see, no kneading, no effort, just a bit of patience required, and by 11.00 am you have hot fresh bread for lunch. Magnificent.

UPDATE, 6 MAY 2017: I have been making bread using this method for several years, and I’m now much more relaxed about the method, but that comes with practice. I am more flexible with the starting time for the first mix, and can sometimes leave it until mid-afternoon. (You might also find that different flour types, such as granary, needs slightly greater quantities of water, but only by 10-15ml or so.) The later start still gives you up to eighteen hours for the first proving, which is plenty. But I still start the second process early morning if I want to eat bread for my lunch.

This is such a big day for me. I’ve taken the first steps on the sourdough road and made my first loaf of sourdough bread. There’s no turning back now. It is a kind of commitment as the ‘starter’ needs feeding at least every other day. I’m following the technique in Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall’s River Cottage Everyday book and I began preparing the starter (Italians call it a biga) a couple of weeks ago. Starting with 100 grams of strong flour mixed with enough warm water to form a thick batter which is whisked to introduce air and therefore admit the wild natural yeasts present in the air which is the essence of sourdough baking.

The whole process is fairly effortless but does require a little patience. Every day you pour away half the mix, add another 100g of flour and enough water to maintain the sloppy batter consistency. You will see it begin to bubble in a  day or two but don’t be tempted to use it for at least a week. When the starter is ready to go and smelling very yummy you take 100ml of the mix and combine with 250g of strong flour (white, brown or a mix) and 275ml of warm water. Mix well, cover and leave for about 12 hours. This is your ‘sponge’.

To make the dough you add 300g flour and a couple of teaspoons of salt to the sponge and knead for 10 minutes (or use the dough hook on your mixer). This is really about as near as this comes to hard work. Leave it again to rise slowly, maybe another 8 hours or overnight as I do, in a fairly cool place. The slow rising adds so much taste to the bread.

Knock it back and then prove the dough in a warm place for another couple of hours until double in size. Then tip out onto a generously floured baking sheet, leave covered for half an hour or so then put it into the middle of a cold oven. Place a dish of boiling water on a low shelf and turn oven on to maximum, at least 230ºC, for about twenty minutes, then lower to around 200ºC for a further twenty-five minutes.

Remove the loaf and leave to cool on a wire rack for twenty minutes, then enjoy.

From now on you need to keep the starter ‘alive’ in a warmish place and continue feeding the beast every day or two as before. But with this little bit of effort you will always have the loveliest bread known to humanity. How bad’s that?