Quite by accident I came across this article I wrote for my masterclass column in the Times in July 2009 when I was looking for a simple bread recipe. It was prompted by the Real Bread Campaign about to launch Baking A Local Loaf for Lammas, part of a four year initiative to get the country eating real bread, either buying it from local bakers or making it ourselves. For once, I wrote, I’m ahead of the game as my bread bin contains three perfect loaves that I made myself. They are quite different from each other but are equally easy to make. Truly.
I’ve always dabbled with bread making but when my sons were small, I used to make it regularly. Soda bread was initially my favourite, partly because I wanted to avoid yeast, and also because the loaf is ready within an hour and virtually makes itself. Then a friend introduced me to the Doris Grant loaf. At the time he was knocking up twenty-odd loaves a week, getting through big sacks of stone-ground flour and slabs of bakers yeast, and selling the loaves for £1 a pop to make money for the school PTA. It’s a miraculous recipe, producing a densely-crumbed proper brown loaf with a challenging crust. A slice of this with marmalade will set you up for the day, but is particularly recommended with Cheddar and pickles, or to make a lunchtime ham sandwich. I give Myrtle Allen’s adaptation then made daily (as written about by Myrtle’s daughter-in-law who ran and runs the Cookery School at Ballymaloe). You can check out my version of the Grant Loaf here.
While I was checking out the Real Bread Campaign (www.realbreadcampaign.org), I came across other, newer recipes for no-knead loaves. They all seem to originate from one invented by Jim Lahey, chef patron of pizzeria Co in New York. His approach relies on using a very small amount of yeast in what turns into an unpromising seeming sloppy, wet dough that is left to prove overnight, for 18 hours. I followed one of the recipes slavishly but noticed very little change to the proving dough after six hours in my warm kitchen. So I made another loaf. This time I made the mixture after breakfast and baked the loaf at drinks time and bingo, the loaves were identical, soughdough-style with a terrific crust and light, aerated dough. Along the way I made a few refinements of my own for maximum ease of preparation. The downside, though, is that the loaf must be cooked in a Dutch oven or similar casserole-style, lidded pan that has been baked first for 30 minutes at 250C/gas mark 9.
Lammas, in case you’re wondering, takes its name from the Old English for loaf mass, an ancient harvest festival.
Makes 1 loaf
Prep: 15 min
Cook: 40 min plus 2 hours cooling
The secret of light soda bread is minimal handling. This recipe makes a dense, cakey loaf with a rich, interesting and slightly sweet flavour. Good with smoked salmon, Irish, of course, jam and marmalade, makes terrific toast.
250g stone-ground plain wholemeal flour plus an extra cupful
250g plain white flour
1 tsp salt
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
25g soft butter plus an extra knob
2 x 284ml cartons buttermilk
Heat the oven to 220C/gas mark 7. Sprinkle half a cupful of wholemeal flour over a work surface. Rub the knob of butter over the centre of a baking sheet and sprinkle to cover with about 2 tbsp wholemeal flour. Put the remaining cupful of wholemeal in a shallow cereal bowl.Sift the white flour into a large mixing bowl. Add 225g wholemeal flour, salt and bicarb and mix thoroughly. Rub the 25g butter into the flour as evenly as possible. Make a well in the centre and pour in the buttermilk. Quickly mix the flour into the buttermilk, stirring/folding with one hand, working from the inside out (it’s mucky but effective) until all the flour is incorporated but working it as little as possible. Lift the dough onto the floured work surface. Wash and dry your hands then flour your hands from the cereal bowl. Gently and quickly shape into a round shape approx 20cm by 5cm deep with a slight dome in the middle. Place the loaf on the prepared baking sheet. Cut a deep cross across the loaf and prick the corners (to let the fairies out). Sprinkle with a little more wholemeal flour and bake for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 200C/gas mark 6 and cook for a further 20 minutes, or until puffed and golden. Tap the base, if it sounds hollow the loaf is done. If not, return to the oven for a few more minutes. Cool on a wire rack. Break into quarters before slicing.
VERY EASY BROWN LOAF
Makes 1 loaf
Prep: 15 min plus 30 min proving
Cook: 60 minutes plus 2 hours cooling
This wonderful recipe is based on Myrtle Allen’s version of the original Doris Grant loaf, first published in Your Daily Bread, in 1944, and known as Ballymaloe Brown Yeast Bread in daughter-in-law Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe Cookery Course (Kyle Cathie, £30). At the School, they use black treacle to feed the yeast, but molasses, golden syrup, honey or brown sugar give a slightly different flavour. Adding a little plain white bread flour to the wholemeal lightens the texture.
1 tbsp sunflower oil
1 tsp black treacle
2 x 7g sachets dried yeast
425ml tepid water
450g stone-ground plain wholemeal flour
50g strong white bread flour
1 tsp salt
you will need a 13 x 20cm loaf tin
Pre-heat the oven to 230F/gas mark 8. Lavishly smear the loaf tin with sunflower oil. Dissolve the treacle in 150ml of the given water in a small bowl or jug then stir in the yeast. Leave somewhere warm for a few minutes until frothy and creamy, and smelling yeasty. Mix the flours and salt in a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the centre, add both lots of water and stir quickly to make a loose dough; it will be too wet to knead. Scrape into the prepared loaf tin. Place somewhere warm, cover with a tea towel and leave for 15-30 minutes, depending on the temperature of the kitchen, until the dough has risen almost to the top of the tin. Bake in the pre-heated oven for 50-60 minutes until dark brown and risen to the top of the tin. Tip the loaf out of the tin, tap the base and if it sounds hollow the loaf is done. If not, return to the oven for a few more minutes. Cool on a wire rack before slicing.
SOURDOUGH-STYLE NO-KNEAD LOAF
Makes 1 loaf
Prep: 15 min plus 9-18 hours proving
Cook: 45 min
A crusty, golden, round, domed loaf that is good for everything.
150g stone-ground plain wholemeal flour
300g strong white plain flour
¼ (quarter) tsp/1g instant yeast
1 ½ (half) tsp/3g salt
you will need a large sheet of baking parchment and
a Dutch oven or 3-4 litre cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic lidded, oven-proof pot
Mix together the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Stir in the water to make a softy, shaggy dough. Cover the bowl with clingfilm. Leave at warm place for 9-18 hours (see above) until puffed and risen. Have ready a large sheet of baking parchment and a bowl slightly smaller than the Dutch oven. Using a wet, wide spatula, flatten the dough in the bowl and quickly fold the sides to the middle, then the bottom to the top, folding in on itself. Wet your hands and quickly lift the dough, forming it into a ball, inverting and dropping it onto the parchment paper. Lift the paper by the sides and plop into the bowl. Cover with a tea towel and leave for 30 minutes. Turn the oven dial to 250C/gas mark 9 and put the lidded Dutch oven in the oven. When the 30 minutes is up, gather the edges of the parchment and lift it from the bowl into the Dutch oven (which you’ve carefully removed from the oven). Cover again, not worrying about squashing the parchment. Cook for 30 minutes. Remove the lid, reduce the temperature to 230C/gas mark 8 and cook for a further 15 minutes. Cool the loaf on a wire rack before slicing.