Is actually, the best thing before sliced pan, i.e. real bread, no funny ingredients, straight out of your oven (or the fire at the back of your cave, I hear you say). I’ve talked about this before, but people generally feel that brown/soda bread is much more accessible than white – probably due to the fact that yeast required time and TLC to work its magic.
Honestly, there is nothing quite like your own bread – it will make you feel like the love child of Bear Grylls and Darina Allen. There is a primal, salt-of-the-earth quality to making your own bread – would I go as far as to say that there are only two types of people in the world…? But really, it is an experience that I think all cooks should have, the original and totally smug satisfaction that comes from raising something so wonderful and nourishing from the simplest of ingredients.
For all things yeasty, I refer to the masters – bread is not the type of thing you can successfully wing it with, unless you have years of practice and/or are French. This is the Ballymaloe recipe for plain white bread. With this basic dough, the possibilities are endless – add herbs, garlic, cheese, chocolate, nuts – what ever you like. Equally with the shape, there are endless varieties – from the show-offy twists to the abstract blob, to just lobbing it in whatever tin you’ve handy.
425 ml (15fl oz) warm water
10 g (1/3oz) caster sugar
700 g (1lb 9oz) strong white flour, plus extra for dusting (optional)
2 tsp salt
1 egg, beaten
1. In a measuring jug, mix the warm water with the sugar and yeast and leave to stand in a warm place for 5 minutes or until the mixture is a little bit frothy.
2. Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl, or the bowl of an electric food mixer fitted with a dough hook. Pour the olive oil into the yeast mixture.
3. Pour the yeast mixture into the well and mix to a loose dough, adding extra water if needed.
4. Knead by hand for about 10 minutes (5 minutes in the food mixer with a hook attachment)until dough is smooth and springy to the touch.
5. Grease the bowl with olive oil and put the dough back into it, then cover the top tightly with cling film and place somewhere warm to rise for up to 2 hours until doubled in size.
6. When the dough has more than doubled in size, knock back (push the air out of it) and knead again for 2–3 minutes. Leave to relax for 10 minutes before you begin to shape the bread.
7. Divide the dough in half and shape into two loaves, then transfer to a baking sheet and cover with a clean tea towel. Allow to prove in a warm place for 20–30 minutes or until the dough has again doubled in size. When fully risen, it should leave a dent when you gently press the dough with your finger.
8. While the bread is proving, preheat the oven to 220°C (425°F), Gas mark 7.
9. Gently brush each loaf with the beaten egg, then bake in the oven for 40–45 minutes. Turn the heat down to 200°C after 15 minutes for the remaining cooking time. When cooked, the bread should sound hollow when tapped on the base.
10. Transfer to a wire rack to cool – it is best to leave it at least 15 minutes, it will slice much better.
Note: this is the exact same recipe as I would use for making homemade pizza – the dough is the same, but there is no need to let it prove the second time, just roll out thinly, scatter chosen toppings, and bake quickly in a furiously hot oven (preferably on a pizza stone). Check it, Milanos.