Gimbobread: loaves eight and nine

Loaf 8 was dedicated to the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga. Coincidentally, I forgot to go to my ashtanga yoga class the next day.

Loaf 8-4: after second rise Loaf 8-8: and the other side Loaf 8-9: slices!

Loaf 9 was dedicated to Ganesha. Ironically, it was the smallest loaf I’ve yet made (except for the first one, which wasn’t intentional). I reduced the amounts by a third to try to avoid the “blooming mushroom” shape of earlier loaves, and ended up with a nice regular-shaped loaf with good sandwich and toasting properties.

Loaf 9-1: 2/3 the usual size Loaf 9-2: good size for sandwiches & toasting

Gimbobread: The First Seven Loaves

I recently started baking my own bread. I’ve always been slightly in awe of people who did so, partially because I had no idea how it was done. Of course, it’s actually quite straightforward and, having been encouraged by friends I met last summer, I finally got cracking back in January. I’m doing it by hand: no bread machine — it’s easy and satisfying. I can see the appeal of a bread machine if you’re mainly interested in the end product, i.e. “I want fresh home-made bread”, but I’m just as interested in the process, in taking out three hours to make this thing, in pummelling it with my hands, in seeing the loaf evolve through the steps. I love it!

Since January I’ve made seven loaves in total, and pretty much each one has been better than the last. While it’s easy to bake bread, you of course learn little tricks and details as you go, I guess. Here’s a retrospective, then, on my first seven loaves.

First loaf, Sunday 25th January 2009: as I tweeted, it was smaller than I’d expected, but when I made the next loaf I realised that I’d simply not made enough dough! I was following the recipe on the flour bag, and it targetted two loaf tins, whereas I only had one, so I halved the quantities; however, my loaf tin is in fact quite large, so that was unnecessary. Thus, the lesson of loaf one is how much dough to make. I just used a plain wholemeal flour, which was worthy but a little dull, and only a single rise, which may have made it a little dense. Still, pretty good for the first attempt.

First loaf First loaf, interior

Second loaf, Saturday 7th February 2009: certainly an improvement, largely thanks to some really good advice from my friend Ann. She cleared a few things up for me, and also encouraged me to give it two rises: one long one, then punch it down to expel CO2, then a shorter rise in the loaf tin before ovenating. Using an appropriate amount of ingredient probably helped too! This served as the template for every other loaf since then. The end result was much more like I expected a loaf to look, although a bit charred on the top; thus, the lesson of loaf two is to lower the shelf in the oven.

Second loaf and stew Second loaf and stew (2) Second loaf

Third loaf, Friday 20th February 2009: “a bit hurried, slightly odd, probably fine“. It was fine. I really hurried the latter stages, because I had to go out and time was running short. Thus, I didn’t pay much attention to shaping before putting it in the loaf tin — I just “whacked it in”. So the shape was a bit weird. I’d bought some white flour, and fixed it with the remaining wholemeal to produce this hybrid. No interior shots, sadly, but I’m sure it tasted fine. The lesson of loaf three is to plan ahead more, so you can take it easy, enjoy yourself, and not hurry; also, that if you fail to do that, it’s still bread: win.

Third loaf

Fourth loaf, Sunday 1st March 2009: I made this rounding off a lovely weekend of singing and being sung at in Narberth, which concluded with a Bulgarian singing workshop with Dessislava Stefanova of the London Bulgarian Choir. I should blog about that too but oh, my blogging skills are far from mad these days. This loaf was all white, and all right, although had some strangely shattered geometry. Looking back, I think I just didn’t pay attention to where the fractures were in the dough before I put it in the loaf tin, and probably ended up with one on the side, which then stretched up leading to this strange shape. To confuse matters further, I turned this loaf round in the oven after 15 minutes, to try to not burn it (and in the naive hope that the other side would rise: I have since learnt that heat kills yeast, so all rising happens outside the oven). So, the lesson of loaf four is to be careful where the seams are in the dough when you put it in the loaf tin: put them on the bottom! However, sometimes we don’t learn lessons the first time we meet them; when that happens, life just keeps on patiently giving you the lesson until you get it…

Fourth loaf: odd Fourth loaf, pretending to be normal Fourth loaf: still a bit charred Fourth loaf: actually really good to eat

Fifth loaf: Thursday 5th March 2009: I’m not sure, and historical records are inconclusive, but this may have been made entirely using Allinson’s “seed & grain”, which is rather nom — or it may have been a hybrid. Not sure. Anyway, it came out very well, although once again was quite strangely shaped thanks to not learning the seam-placing lesson of loaf four. I think the reason was that I was concentrating, at this time, on solving the burnt-on-top problem, and experimenting with turning after 15 minutes; I don’t think it really helped, so it was after this loaf that I thought that maybe the oven was too hot and I should try a lower temperature. Thus, the lesson of loaf five is honestly, pay attention to where that seam is; also, pay attention to oven temperature.

Fifth loaf: before rise Fifth loaf: after second rise Fifth loaf: pretending to be normal Fifth loaf: bags of character Fifth loaf: bread inside Fifth loaf: crumbs!

Sixth loaf: Thursday 12th March, 2009 — “the one that got away”. There are two innovations here: carefully putting the seam at the bottom, and not turning the oven quite so high. I had baked everything with the oven at 230C so far; for this one I put it more like 210C. Success, I think: it’s a nice round smooth loaf, and it’s not too crispy. However, I didn’t get to taste any of this one, or even see its insides, because I gave it to my friend and colleague Markus for his birthday. I haven’t received any feedback yet; hopefully he’s still alive. The lesson of loaf six: yes, turning the oven down seems to help.

Sixth loaf: the one that got away Sixth loaf: most normal looking yet! Sixth loaf: wish I'd got some

Seventh loaf: Saturday 14th March, 2009. Now you’re talking: I have never enjoyed bread more than this loaf. It’s absolutely delicious. I really feel like I’m getting into stride now…

Seventh loaf: new tin! Seventh loaf: best yet Seventh loaf: can't stop eating it

Having given away the last loaf, I needed to make another. I’d decided to look for another loaf tin — initially thinking a smaller one would be good, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised that what I needed was a deeper one, to try to get a more “classic sandwich” shape rather than the florid cross-section seen on loaf five (say). Thus, a new tin, and a non-stick one to boot. The mix is about half strong white, about a third seed/grain, and the rest wholewheat — with the surprise addition of a few pinches of thyme, as suggested by Carys, peering over my shoulder admiringly. A fantastic idea! I also put some on top, which entailed glazing it gently with olive oil so they’d stick; that didn’t exactly work, in that they fall off easily (I should have pushed them in more) but the crust on this loaf is deliciously chewy, like, just right, so I wonder if the glaze helped that.

However, this loaf also involved another “innovation” which may have contributed there. The spot in the airing cupboard where I put it to rise is up high, and a little precarious. After the second rise, when I opened the cupboard door to get it out, the tin and loaf fell down, because they’d slipped (with the growth of the dough) to rest against the door. I caught them but they’d collapsed, and I feared I’d ruined the loaf. Carys thought I should just put it in the oven and hope, but I knew it wouldn’t rise again, so thought I should knead it again, and try for a third rise — the very idea! After a few minutes it didn’t look like it was rising, but after 10 it clearly was, so with professions of love for the loaf we left it to do its work. I have to say, the end product was absolutely no worse for it, and possibly better. I shall have to think about this. Thus, the lessons of loaf seven are twofold: first, don’t drop it! Second, if you do, all is not lost. :-)

There’s one thing I’m still a bit dubious about. The bread is delicious, but it is quite yeasty smelling, and tasting, I guess. I quite like that in fact, but I wonder how to get rid of it. I bought an oven thermometer yesterday, and it turns out the oven is in fact colder than it says it is, not hotter as I thought: loaf seven was baked at about 190C, whereas the recipe calls for 230C. So perhaps there’s some tweaking still to do there… But aha, according to some handy troubleshooting tips, it’s more likely the bread over-rose, which makes sense: I am leaving it a long time anyway, even without a third rise! OK, next time I’ll try a 60 minute first rise and not dropping it after the second. :-)

The recipe (since some people have asked): for every loaf except the first I’ve followed this same basic recipe, given to me my friend Ann Huehls, as she answered my questions about what might have gone “wrong” with the first loaf. I’m sure she has forgotten more about baking than I will ever know, and has much else to tell me. Anyway, approximately:

  1. In a big bowl mix 7g of baker’s yeast, 1tsp of sugar or a good squeeze of honey, and 420ml of water in a 1:2 boiling/cold mix (that’s 140ml boiling, topped up to 420ml with cold: mix the water before adding to the yeast). Let it stand for about 10 minutes and it should go foamy: that’s the yeast activating. If it doesn’t, your yeast is dead, so buy some more!
  2. Gradually add 650g of suitable flour (see below), along with 2tsp salt and 15g of butter. On Ann’s advice, I add about a quarter of the flour first, mix it well, then mix in the salt and butter, then the rest of the flour. (I keep my butter in the fridge, so I melt the 15g in a pyrex dish lid sat on a small saucepan of boiling water.) Mix well, with a wooden spoon.
  3. Once it’s reasonably well mixed, or the spoon no longer seems effective, start mixing it with your hands too; at some point turn the mix out onto a lightly floured surface and segue from mixing to kneading. If the mix is too wet, just keep going, possibly adding a little more flour to the surface as you go, which the dough will then pick up and assimilate. Knead it for 7-10 minutes; its getting good when the texture is sorta earlobe-like.
  4. Lightly oil the bowl (I use olive oil), put the dough in it, cover it with a tea towel, and put is somewhere warm for 60-90 minutes (for wheat flour, anyway). This is the first rise. I’ve been using the airing cupboard, and turning the heating on to make sure it gets nice and warm in there. After the rise it should have doubled in size or more. Look online for more advice on rising locations, and times: varies with the flour used, and it’s possible to overdo it, apparently. Some people do cold rises too, though I haven’t tried that yet.
  5. Lightly dust your fists with flour and “punch down” the risen dough, to expel built-up carbon dioxide. You should hear it hiss and see it collapse. Nice. Turn it out onto a lightly floured surface again for a second knead: shorter and more gentle than before. You really don’t want to be ripping it at all at this stage. After a couple of minutes, start getting the dough into approximately the shape of your loaf tin, i.e. rectangular. The knead cycle goes “fold, pummel”: it’s good to end on a fold, and have the seam you’ve just created at the bottom — this contributes to a nice clean surface up top, avoiding the weirdness of loaves four and five.
  6. When it’s a good shape, pop it into your loaf tin and maybe gently push it into place, but don’t overdo it because you don’t want to tear it, and it will expand anyway. Depending on your loaf tin, you might need to lightly oil it before putting the dough in. My first six loaves used this non-stick tin where that wasn’t necessary, but number seven used a more traditional one where it was (and I’ve a hunch the oil helped condition the surface of the bread).
  7. Put the loaf tin back into your warm place for 20-30 minutes: this is the second rise. The rising should be visible after a few minutes, and by the end it should really be in its final shape. Pre-heat the oven now, too — about 210-230 Celsius, though I’m still kinda working out what’s best here. Experience has shown that you might need to put a post-it note on the oven saying “do not switch off” if you have zealous housemates who assume empty ovens have been forgotten (though now I’ve got an oven thermometer, which might help).
  8. After the second rise, put the loaf in the oven, not too high up (don’t want it burn on top), and bake for about 30 minutes. Then turn it out onto a wire cooling rack and wait for it to cool down before enjoying, lest thy tummy be upset.

Flour: lots to choose from, and I’ve been doing a lot of hybridising. I really like mixing the Allinson’s “seed and grain” flour with white, I must say. I don’t think I’ve tried it on its own, so I should probably do that some time. I should use wholemeal more as well, I think. I did for the first couple, but was a little disappointed; not sure if that was the flour or my technique, so I should revisit. Newbies: make sure you get “strong” flour, not regular white flour, say. Mmmkay?

Weapons of choice