I am pleased to say it is not all about cakes, all of the time. Bread making has also entered my life (along with its near cousins, pastry making and cheese making).
For some years now I have eschewed watching broadcast television and so it is often only by chance that I find out about TV programs. One such chance occurred at work when a friend told me all about The Great British Bake Off, and after watching one series my descent into obsessive baking was greatly accelerated. I watched each and every episode of every series, I watched the Masterclass episodes, I watched The Great Australian Bake Off (nowhere near as good), I bought truckloads of damned expensive pastry, bread and baking books, I bought more baking equipment (I already had loads) and I began to bake, bake, bake.
Bread making in the past has always been a deeply dissatisfying experience for me, because I did not take the time to find out how to do it well. I have a bread machine which I suppose does what it is meant to, but I have never liked the size and shape of the loaves, nor the texture of the bread it creates. I have only kept it because it is pretty good for making pizza dough. And attempts at making bread by hand seemed always to result in great looking loaves that had a dense and distinctly un-bread-like crumb. These typically ended in the trash after a brave attempt to force a few heavily buttered lumps down my gullet. (sorry for that image…)
My first go at making it by hand this time around was just as bad, but I made good use of all those books, especially one called How Baking Works, by Paula Figoni, and learnt a lot about flour quality, yeast temperatures, ideal conditions for rising and proving, and so forth. As good as all this knowledge was, the best thing I did was visit a store here in Perth called All About Bread, where the very obliging store owner set me on the right track. I had thought that it was the type of yeast I was using, but he assured me it was the crappy supermarket flour I was buying. Harbouring an erroneous suspicion that he was just trying to get me to buy his shop flour, I relented on buying some white bread flour and scurried home to give it a go. Now I am quite ready to kiss the ground he walks on ( after some thorough sweeping, scouring, disinfecting and laying down of sterile plastic… oh, but you know what I mean).
This loaf (pictured) came out looking and smelling great, and the texture was exactly as white bread should be. I nearly overdosed on butter as I laid slab after cheese-like slab of butter on warm slices of that beauty, and now I am hooked! The best thing he told me (the store owner – I wish I knew his name) was to keep kneading until my dough felt as soft and as smooth as my own cheek. No, that was definitely not a pick up line.
The most gratifying thing about the whole process is the transformation that occurs during the kneading. Typically I set a timer for 10 minutes and for about 8 1/2 minutes the dough looks like it has a terminal case of cellulite. Then suddenly it is silky smooth. I love it! It’s almost a shame to ruin a good dough by flinging it into a hot oven.
And so began a love affair with hand made bread. In honour of this love, and my unnamed temporary friend from All About Bread, here is Dylan Thomas’ poem, This Bread I Break.
This bread I break was once the oat,
This wine upon a foreign tree
Plunged in its fruit;
Man in the day or wind at night
Laid the crops low, broke the grape’s joy.
Once in this wine the summer blood
Knocked in the flesh that decked the vine,
Once in this bread
The oat was merry in the wind;
Man broke the sun, pulled the wind down.
This flesh you break, this blood you let
Make desolation in the vein,
Were oat and grape
Born of the sensual root and sap;
My wine you drink, my bread you snap.