My personal “go-to” recipe; it starts with making a “sponge” the day before.
Sounds like a faff-around? Actually, it’s virtually foolproof, reliable, and amazingly resilient to mistreatment and delays. It is no accident perhaps that commercial bakers made bread this way, before we were seduced into damp and soggy supermarket sliced white. No more difficult than planning a little ahead.
I have used and collected widely varying recipes. Some call for an improbably wet sponge, some for seemingly impossibly hard and dry sponges; some add all the yeast to the sponge, some only add 1/8th of a teaspoon (yes – I typed 1/8th of a teaspoon; but the recipe adds the rest of the yeast when you come to make the dough); some are precise about the time and temperature needed for the sponge, others airily mention 12-24 hours in a cool place.
Honest appreciation? None of the precision matters. It doesn’t seem to make any difference to texture or taste – what really counts is just taking some of the flour and some of the water from a recipe, with some or all of the yeast, mixing it well, and giving it PLENTY of time to develop slowly – 6, 12, 18, 24 hours, whatever. The time is the trick. Lots of it.
Try different flavours.
- Rosemary and Roasted Garlic (quite the finest tasting bread I have ever made)
- whatever …
Try different flour mixes, and replacements.
- Wholemeal flour, or a mixture of wholemeal and white (any proportion you like)
- Replace 2 cups of the wheat flour with 2 cups rye flour, oatmeal, or porridge oats
- Potato Bread
- Butternut Squash Tea Bread
- whatever …
- By measuring cup (I like using cups to measure for bread-making)
- For the Sponge
- 1½ tsp dried yeast
- 1 cup water (lukewarm)
- 1 cup strong white flour
- For the Bread
- 1½ cups water (lukewarm)
- 4 cups strong white flour
- PLUS another 1-1½ cups to add during kneading. How much depends entirely on the flour you are using on the day, and how much liquid it needs. Now there’s helpful, but it is not so daft as it sounds; it is far easier to add flour to a dough that is too wet, than it is to add liquid to a dough that is too dry.
- 2 tsp salt
- For the Sponge
- Make up the sponge – sprinkle the yeast on the water in a bowl, and leave to stand for about 10 minutes. Add the flour and mix until thoroughly combined.
- Cover with clingfilm and pop somewhere fairly cool (in the fridge, if necessary); leave until it has tripled in volume (12-18 hours, aye – overnight).
- Next day, mix the bread ingredients together, using only 4 cups of the flour, and add your sponge starter. Mix roughly, and knead the dough for a good 10 minutes, adding only as much of the extra cup of flour as necessary to create a smooth and elastic dough.***
- Oil a large bowl, and turn the dough in it to coat; cover with clingfilm or a clean tea-towel, and leave in a warm place to double in volume (3-6 hours).
- Deflate the dough slightly.
- Divide in two, and form into baguette shapes on an oiled and floured baking sheet, and cut 3-4 slashes across the top with a sharp knife;
- or form into loaves, and pop them into oiled and floured tins;
- or divide in 12 equal pieces and form into rolls; flatten to about half their height with a rolling pin, and dip the tops in flour, and place on an oiled and floured baking sheet.
- Cover, and allow to prove – to almost double in size.
- Preheat the oven to 230C/450F/Gas Mark 8.
- For a baguette-style crust, put a roasting tin of hot water in the bottom of your oven as it heats.
- Pop the loaves or rolls into the oven.
- For rolls, reduce the heat to 200C/400F/Gas Mark 6 after 5 minutes, and bake a further 12-15 minutes.
- For loaves, reduce the heat after 10 minutes, and bake a further 30-35 minutes, until the bottom sounds hollow when tapped.
*** A tip worth repeating! [As in, I often forget!] It is easy to add extra flour to a dough that is too wet. It is hard to add liquid to a dough that is too dry.