If anything makes me believe in magic in the kitchen it is making bread. The verb make is, of course, somewhat inappropriate in the context of magic, since you are not, alone, in control of the process. As in any magic spell intended to come to fruition, you pick the right ingredients, set up the right circumstances, focus (focus softly: hard focus is too dense, impenetrable to imagination and, consequently, a magic-repellent) and let… the rest ensure it all turns out right.
In the Chinese practice of QiGong, you achieve your greatest result by using 70% of your energy. Push yourself to 100% and you have no reserves left for your next endeavour. 70% leaves room for elegance, which is a sibling of effortlessness and of grace, in every sense of the word. 70% allows you to focus softly, allowing inspiration to flow in.
Magic. Mixing just some yeast, water and flour with a pinch of sugar, letting it rest for a couple of hours and returning to find the mixture swollen two- or threefold. If that doesn’t give you a sense of magic, I don’t know what will.
Like so many other people, I learnt to bake bread during the first Lockdown. I joined the scores of amateur bakers with enough time on their hands to post photos of their loaves on Facebook, then count the number of Likes.
Sourdough is still a spell beyond this apprentice’s skills. My numerous starters have yet to start. Perhaps, by the time this blog, Feasts & Fancies, is completed, a year from now, I will have graduated with a Pass grade in the art of sourdough baking. In the meantime, I love working with fresh yeast (dried or fast-action never responds to me).
I bake our bread in what the British call, in deference to our French neighbours, a casserole, and North Americans a Dutch oven– a name I prefer. A Dutch oven brings to mind tall, narrow houses mirrored in straight, narrow canals, and the crow-stepped gables of my beloved West Flanders. I imagine a hearty stew made up of glossy, colourful vegetables being spooned out of a casserole, and the lid of a Dutch oven being lifted to release the bear-hug-like aroma of freshly baked bread.
Possibly because I always bake very small loaves, enough for one or two meals, in our large Dutch oven, or maybe because of a fault in my modus operandi, my bread tends to sprawl during baking, and often looks more like a focaccia than a loaf. Still, Howard, my husband, says it tastes good. And I like it, too.
Three-Seed Brown Bread
(all measurements are approximate, see https://scribedoll.com/2023/01/15/new-blog-feasts-fancies/)
● 300g wholemeal flour
● 250-300 ml tepid/lukewarm water
● a piece of brewer’s yeast
● one tablespoon date syrup
● a small handful of sunflower seeds
● a small handful of pumpkin seeds
● a third of a handful of caraway seeds
● extra-virgin olive oil
In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in the lukewarm water, with the date syrup.
Add the flour, a couple of tablespoonfuls at a time, whisking gently with a fork until you have a dough of the right consistency. You’ll know when that is, and if you need to tweak the amount of flour or water.
Using a spatula, lift the dough from the sides of the bowl and flip it over a few times, creating a homogeous mass. Leave it for 10-15 minutes, then do it again. Scrape it off the sides of the bowl, turn it, flip it, toy with it, tease it. And once more.
Once the third game is over, it’s time for your dough to enjoy a good night’s rest: it has a feat to accomplish the next day. I cover the bowl with a silicone lid and, if it’s winter, place it in the bedroom, where the heating is on and it’s nice and warm, overnight. If it’s a very hot summer, the dough sleeps in the fridge.
With a little luck, by morning, the dough will be awake before you are, grown threefold, pushing against the lid, bubbling to burst out of the bowl, demanding your attention.
Prepare your work surface (I use a large wooden board), a small amount of flour so the dough doesn’t cling to your fingers too much, and the remaining ingredients.
Scoop the bread dough onto your work surface and start kneading it gently, incorporating the salt, seeds and olive oil, making sure these are distributed throughout the mixture as evenly as possible. Stretch, fold, turn, massage, then form a ball and place it in the Dutch oven, lined with baking parchment.
Just like the human body after exercise, the dough must now be kept warm and not catch a chill. I usually put the Dutch oven on the bed, wrapped in a woollen jumper or blanket, on top of a not-very-hot hot water bottle. I live in England. In warmer climes, this is not necessary. In the summer, I stand the Dutch oven in a sunny part of the room.
After a couple of hours, the dough will usually have risen enough (twice its original bulk) for you to put it into a preheated oven at about 200ºC (180ºC if, like me, you have a fan oven) for about 20-30 minutes. After that, remove the Dutch oven lid, turn up the heat by 20 or so degrees and let the bread become brown and crusty. If, like me, you have used date syrup, don’t be surprised if the brown of your bread has a reddish glow about it.
Take the Dutch oven out of the oven, scoop the bread out with a long-handled spatula or wooden spoon and let it cool on a wire rack before you cut the first slice and perform the how-does-it-taste-with-butter test. Inhale the reassuring aroma of your freshly baked bread. Fill your lungs with its goodness.
I like to give thanks after the first bite, reminding myself that this alchemical process was a team effort between me and all the ingredients. I just find that it makes the bread taste even better.