Being a conservative (with a small C) kind of person, I can get absurdly attached to the way we do things round here, and after a couple of successful outcomes with loaves, for instance, I have to almost force myself to try something different. There has to be a strong reason for me to change; and happily a strong reason came along just at the very moment I’d grown a bit tired of circular bannetons which I’ve been using for years after an even longer period of using nothing but tins. You may call it boring, but for me it’s a way of taming an unforgiving and unpredictable world. Of course I know perfectly well that the fact there’s a familiar shaped and flavoured loaf on the table with some home made marmalade at breakfast time – doesn’t guarantee that the roof won’t fall in by lunchtime, but ….. well most of the time it doesn’t!
So it was the impossibility of cutting two slices the same size from a circular loaf that finally pushed me towards the sandwich maker’s friend, a broadly rectangular loaf that yields lots of similar sized slices. Nothing else changed at all; same recipe, same proving time, same baking times. However it wasn’t all that simple to achieve because clinging to the lifebelt of a banneton I bought a rectangular shape without thinking through the obvious problem of getting the dough out of the banneton and on to my improvised peel without at some point turning it over. The resulting loaves were fine tasting but looked like baboons bums by the time I’d deflated them by clumsily handling them. And so I bought a linen couche cloth to line the banneton so I could gently lift the risen dough out and slide the peel underneath it. Nice theory but there was one problem. I’d got very used to producing soft, sticky doughs and baking them on a cast iron griddle plate heated to 240C – smoking hot – so that they wouldn’t spread out and pancake in the oven. Even in the short time it took to transfer the loaf from the couch cloth to the peel, my infant loaves were spreading like regency ladies when they removed their corsets. Good fortune intervened when I had to knock out a couple of batches of morning rolls and I discovered that proving them on the couche cloth firmed the outsides and bases just enough to make it a breeze to transfer them to the oven; and if you could do it with rolls, I thought to myself, why not a whole loaf? I just needed to make the dough a tiny bit stiffer.
Consequently the familiar everyday loaf has suddenly mutated and changed its shape. The slashing was a bit iffy and needs to be a touch deeper next time, but given the new shape it occurs to me I could bake two or even three – side by side – if I could lay my hands on a larger cast iron sheet or baking stone. Then I’d probably need to get a proper peel instead of my improvised cake tin base, because the rectangular loaf overhangs the tinned sheet by about three inches. You see how this baking business sucks you in! before you know where you are you’ve graduated from the occasional recreational loaf to full fledged addiction and the purchase of quite unnecessary accessories like waxed cotton aprons. Luckily Madame has an abundance of common sense which she shares with me whether I like it or not.
I’m perfectly prepared to admit that my loaves would rarely win a beauty contest, but on occasions that we give in to the temptation of a shop loaf we’re almost always disappointed. As I wrote a couple of days ago; when style and ease of manufacture triumph over flavour, food declines. I’m always reading that bread makes you fat, but our experience suggests that the better the quality of the food we buy or prepare, the less of it we actually eat; and in any case when bread making, a little extra time can mean you are able to incorporate more wholemeal flours. 100% wholemeal sourdough can be very hard to bring to life, but our everyday bread has a combination of wholemeal wheat flour, dark rye flour and also strong organic white flour. It tastes, as I’ve said before, like the granary and wonderfully complements a piece of raw milk farm Cheddar. Expensive, yes of course, but the bread comes in at a third of the shop price and the cheese is so well flavoured you need much less of it to satisfy your appetite. It’s junk food – sugar, salt and fat combinations that make us overeat, then makes us sick and overweight. Am I sounding a bit evangelistic? Sorry!
Properly made bread is good food – we can’t emphasise that too much. The process of milling and then fermenting grains outside the body enables us to easily digest a truly amazing source of carbohydrate, protein, vitamins and minerals. Wonderful stuff even if – like me – after years of exploration you’re still wandering around in the foothills!