The Joy of Baking (Bread)

May 18, 2014 at 10:07 am | Posted in Aunt Fanny, Eating and Drinking | Leave a comment
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breadsFor last year’s Christmas gift countdown challenge, I suggested the gift of a Bertinent bread-making class for Aunt Fanny. Well, I should have actually recommended the classes run by my local bakery, the E5 Bakehouse. After some (I thought quite subtle, but apparently not, hints), my very own Quentin got me a day of learning the secrets of sourdough for my Christmas present. I booked some time ago but due to the popularity of the classes only embarked upon this initiation on Thursday. Anyway, it was brilliant.

We had a very good teacher called Pete. Pete is is a baker at the Bakehouse. Over the course of the day he taught us how to make 4 different breads, all with a sourdough starter. The breads were a 66% rye, ciabatta, bagels, and the Bakehouse’s signature loaf, the Hackney Wild. The bagels and ciabatta use the same white starter, but the rye and Hackney Wild have their own made with different proportions of rye, wholemeal and white flour.

The class assembled at 11am for coffee, bread and marmalade. A couple of us were locals, but many people had travelled from afar, including one gentleman who had left Darlington at 5am to make it to London in time. We spent the morning getting our different doughs going, giving them the occasional fold, and learning more about the history of sourdough, bread in general, and the heritage wheats that the Bakehouse likes to use (since the 50s, a hybrid, bred, type of wheat is generally used for bread-making, but many smaller growers are trying to revive older grains). One thing I didn’t know was that the name ‘ciabatta’ (meaning ‘old man’s slipper’) was only coined fairly recently, as an Italian reaction to the invasion of other foreign breads (baguettes and the like) into Italy.

rye breadAfter a bread for lunch (locally foraged and grown salad, including delicate and delicious wild garlic, and sandwiches made with Bakehouse bread, of course) we began shaping our loaves. We learnt how to be gentle with the bread, shaping round loaves with a little gentle lift and squeeze (oh yes) before popping them in a banneton (a cane basket that helps the bread develop and keep its shape during the time it takes to prove).

Bagel were interesting to make. Pete, our teacher, showed us two techniques for this. One involved rolling a sausage of dough and then squeezing this firmly together and giving the dough a roll with the palm of your hand until the join is sealed. The second was fun too. This consisted of poking a hole into a round piece of dough and then using your index fingers to roll and stretch the hole out from the inside. After the bagels sat and proved for a bit we poached them in boiling water and bicarbonate of soda before dressing them with salt, sesame or poppy seeds and popping them into the bread oven to bake.

3 startersThe ciabatta, rich with olive oil, was silky and slippery to roll and stretch out, while the Hackney Wild and the 66% rye were nice and firm and satisfying to shape. One valuable lesson we learnt was about to how to recreate some of the qualities of the bread oven at home. Key to this is introducing some element of steam. This prevents a crust forming too quickly which restricts the development of your loaf. Some ways to do this are by putting a tray of water, or some ice cubes, into the bottom of your oven while the bread bakes. Another interesting method that Pete demonstrated to us is to bake the bread inside a cast iron cooking pot. The bread produced its own steam and is able to swell and rise evenly before you take the lid off for the final 10 minutes of cooking time. Pete made two loaves – one in the pot, one just on a tray –  and the difference was remarkable.

my haulI came home laden with lots of bread and three pots of starters (plus a snazzy E5 scraper/cutter). As I write, there is still one ciabatta, a quarter of rye and two bagels left, plus a frozen Hackney Wild dough in the freezer. Whew! But to keep in practice, I’m currently creating a new rye leaven from my starter (you add a bunch more flour and water and leave it out of the fridge to spring to life) so I can bake some more tomorrow.

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A pre-Christmas visit to Rye (aka Smuggler’s Top)

December 24, 2011 at 12:19 am | Posted in Anne, George, Travel | Leave a comment
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Anne and I popped down to Rye yesterday for a pre-Christmas break. As some readers may know, Rye was the inspiration for Smuggler’s Top, the setting of the fourth Famous Five adventure. It’s a lovely cobbled town, built on a hill and once the home of smugglers as well as many literary types including Henry James, Radclyffe Hall and E F Benson.

We stayed in the cosy and splendidly decorated Jeake’s House. It was built by an astrologically-minded Samuel Jeakes and a plaque in the wall records the position of the stars at the time the foundation stone of the building was laid in 1689. After various travails across the centuries, Jeake’s house was bought by the American poet Conrad Aiken in the 1920s, and in the 1980s taken over by Jenny Hadfield who has turned it into a very nice place to stay. The bedrooms are now named after Aiken and various literary and artistic luminaries who visited or lived in Rye. We were in the snug and ceiling-beamed ‘T S Eliot’ room but you can also bed down with Radclyffe Hall and Malcolm Lowry amongst others.

It’s ideal for a winter’s stay as there are plenty of communal spaces in which to relax including the parlour (pictured above) and the theatrical-looking bar which is well-stocked with board games, newspapers and alcohol (just write down what you have and it’s charged to your room). Breakfast was in part of the house which was formerly a Quaker chapel. Anne had the full English; I had my current favourite morning repast – a boiled egg with Marmite soldiers.

Top (cold and wet weather) things we did during our brief visited included: a drink by the Giant’s Fireplace in the legendary Mermaid Inn (hangout of smugglers in the 18th century); a trip to the Rye Art Gallery to see an excellent little exhibition on animator John Ryan (creator of Captain Pugwash and long-time resident of Rye); and a look around the Lion Street Store, a wonderful emporium of prints, jewellery, stationery and much more, showcasing work by makers and illustrators such as Emily Warren, James Brown, Nicholas John Frith and Alice Pattullo. A great place for last minute gifts for people with good (nay, excellent) taste.

It’s now officially Christmas Eve and I’m back in London, typing this in the glow of the Christmas tree lights. Tomorrow we collect our bird from the butchers – not a turkey from Kirrin farm, alas – and stock up on Brussels sprouts.

Good luck to everyone who still has presents to buy!

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