If I were on The Great British Bakeoff (and I would be -- producers, you hear that??), Bread Week is the week I would be dreading from the beginning. Not that I'm scared by bread. Or that I don't know how to work with yeast. Or I'm afraid of the elbow grease of kneading (isn't that what mixers are for?). But just because so much can go so wrong, and I'm never quite sure why it does. When something goes wrong with a cake, like it sinks in the middle and looks like a butthole, I know the few things that could cause that: overmixing the eggs, too much leavening, or prematurely opening the oven door or poking the cake. But with bread? Who the hell knows? Just make sure your water is the right temperature, and pray (if that's your jam) is some of the rare advice I have to give.
And on GBBO, they talk up Paul so much, to be working with his recipe is a bit of pressure.
Anyway, yeast is always the place to start. I guess one other tip I have is: keep your yeast and your salt separate until your yeast is activated and working. Salt, allegedly, kills yeast, and at this point, you need all the help you can get--or at least I do.
So, after you make sure to keep your yeast far from your salt, you have to "activate" your yeast, if you're using "active dry yeast," like I do. Paul's original recipe calls for rapid rise yeast, where you can just dump it in with your dry ingredients, but I happen to like the added suspense of activating the yeast, and the smell of yeast activating, so I go old school. For this, the beginners (ahem, and me...) can whip out a thermometer. First, make sure your water is between 95F and 115F. That's what most people would call "lukewarm," but because I'm perpetually cold, and have a terrible sense of, well, anything, I whip out the digital thermometer and get precise about it. Once you sprinkle the yeast and mix a little, then sit for 10 minutes, you get this foamy, bubble, delicious-smelling (unless you're fiancé--he thinks it smells like feet) liquid. Mix it into everything else, and you get what they (the bread-making people) call a "shaggy mess."
And this is when I would throw it into my mixing bowl with the dough hook attachment on and leave the room for 5 minutes. But, alas, GBBO wouldn't make things quite that easy. Paul Hollywood, Mary Berry, and those two foxy minx hosts are nefarious. The one rule they had was: no mixers. Hands only. So, I got to kneading.
But I'm not that good at kneading. You're supposed to knead until the dough is stretchy enough where you grab a piece, stretch it taught in four directions, and see light shining through--it's called the "windowpane" test. I wish I had a picture of this test to show you, so you can see what to look for, but I didn't take one. Because I never got to that stage. Mine stayed pretty weirdly pock-marked and rough. I tried to let it do its thing and rest for 5 minutes, but it never got better. But because I don't want to waste ingredients (I'm not bankrolled by Channel 4 here), I threw it in a container, covered it, and went to go watch Little Women: LA. When I came back: it had risen!!!
Things were working. So I went about shaping the dough: Pro-tip (am I allowed to call them "pro-tips" if I'm an amateur?): take your risen mass and punch it down, then roll it around on your counter and gather everything at the bottom of round, so the top is taut, shiny, and smooth.
One of the most fun things there is in making bread is slashing it right before you put it in the oven. Besides the foaming yeast and the growing dough, this is where you can really see how alive the dough is. When you make the slashes, the bread opens up like the San Andreas fault. With some flour topping it off -- heaven.
I think I maybe made too many slashes too close together, because my bread came out with nubbins hanging out on top. It was just so fun to do though. And I actually enjoyed plucking them off and crunching them in my gaping maw.
Anyway, the bread came out delicious. Paul Hollywood would say it needed another 3 minutes in the oven, since the inside, while done, was only just done. It was just what you could want in a regular white bread loaf: it had a tight crumb, a springy texture, a chompy crust (is that a descriptor?), and a mild taste. It was soft thanks to the butter, and even better thanks to the salted butter I slathered on top of it (butta' is betta').
Much as I hate bread, I didn't hate this challenge. But I think GBBO is starting me out easy. Next week, we stop being polite and start getting real.
Paul Hollywood's Crusty Cob Loaf
makes 1 loaf
500 grams (1 pound, 1 ounce) BREAD FLOUR
40 grams (1.5 ounces) SOFTENED BUTTER
12 grams (2 sachets) (3 teaspoons) ACTIVE DRY YEAST
10 grams (2 teaspoons) SALT
300 milliliters (1 1/4 cups) WARM WATER
1. Mix the YEAST with half of the WARM WATER in a bowl and leave for 10 minutes to activate -- it should get frothy and bubbly and smell yeasty
2. Put the FLOUR into a large mixing bowl and add the BUTTER and SALT
3. Add the yeast mixture and begin to turn the mixture with your fingers to combine
4. Continue to add the remaining water a little at a time, until you've picked up all the flour from the sides of the bowl -- you may not need to add all the water, you may need to add a little more (you're looking for a dough that is well-combined and soft, but not sticky or soggy)
5. Use a teaspoon of oil to lightly grease a clean work surface and begin kneading by folding the far edge to the middle, turning, and repeating until covered in dough
6. Knead more aggressively by pushing the dough out in one direction with the heel of your hand, then fold it back in on itself, turn, and repeat for 4-5 minutes until smooth and stretchy
7. Clean and oil your bowl and put the dough back into it, cover, and leave to proof until doubled, about 1 hour
8. Line a baking tray with parchment paper or a silicone mat
9. Knock the risen dough back, roll it up, turn, and repeat several times, then smooth into a round loaf shape
10. Place on the baking tray, cover, and proof again until doubled in size, about 1 hour
11. Preheat the oven to 425F, and put an empty pan in the bottom of the oven
12. Sprinkle some flour on top of the risen dough round, and use a sharp knife to make shallow cuts 1 centimeter deep in a diamond pattern across the top of the loaf
13. Put the loaf and tray in the middle of the oven, and pour cold water into the empty tray at the bottom, close the door quickly, and bake 30 minutes
14. The loaf is cooked when it's risen and golden, and sounds hollow when tapped underneath, cool on a wire rack
A personal challenge to conquer every technical challenge, and select signature bakes, from The Great British Bake Off
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