Bread, for starters

Funny thing about making bread. If you succeed, people look at you as if you have just taken a set off Steffi Graf. But the great irony here is that cave dwellers were making bread before they discovered there was more to communicating than grunting and pointing, and screaming and hitting people over the head with clubs. Which probably means that John McEnroe is a pretty hot baker.

Five thousand years on: the fast world, and nobody makes bread. Sad, isn’t it? The pace of life has made it more convenient to buy the staff of life in plastic bags, and the need to earn an even bigger quid has turned professional bread makers into merchants of air and strange, sliced, flavourless rubbish.

I have a vague memory of the introduction of sliced bread. I remember kicking and yelling and screaming at my mother — which probably explains why I like John McEnroe — that my sandwiches had to be made with sliced bread since all the other kids had sliced bread and why shouldn’t I? For much of the sixties, seventies and early eighties it seemed that sliced bread was all you could get – thus the now passe saying: ‘The best thing since sliced bread.’

But somewhere through those times, a few hankerers for old times started making old-style bread, and people liked it, and supported them, and now it seems that here and there sliced bread is fading away. Such are the twists and turns of progress.

But still there are very few of us who make bread at home. Most of that is to do with time, or the lack of it; but not to be under-rated is the difficulty in buying flour with enough protein (gluten) to allow for the dough to come together happily and then flex its muscles. Complicated thing flour, for what looks like no more than an inert white powder. Not so.

Whenever I bring together flour and yeast and liquid and salt into a dough, I can’t help but think of that marvellous ’sperm scene’ in Woody Allen’s Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex … The sperm are hanging around waiting for action, and suddenly it’s all go, go, go … (Please, if you haven’t seen the movie, use your imagination for the climax, etc.)

Bread making is pretty much the same. Add yeast and water to flour, flavour it with a little salt, add a little muscle, and suddenly all these molecules start working up to a frenzy — creating powerful bonds, then a silky smoothness, and finally a slow expansion as the yeast produces carbon dioxide. We then have the first stage of a loaf.

The variations are up to you. Start with the right ingredients, follow the basics, then enlarge your repertoire as you gain confidence. Persist, fail, examine, persist, succeed. The only rule I concern myself with is this: the final size of the loaf depends on the amount of liquid you start with. Lots of liquid, plenty big loaf. A little liquid, itsy-bitsy roll. So start in a haphazard way, pour some liquid into a bowl, add some yeast, and then make it into a ball with some flour and salt and sugar, and see what happens. When you get really serious, buy a book like The Italian Baker by Carol Field, and try as many of its recipes as you can.

2 teaspoons sugar

2 teaspoons yeast — Use the dried version. It keeps well and works well.

1 cup water at room temperature

enough flour to bring the mixture into a firm ball — It will be somewhere about 2 cups. Remember it must be ’strong’ flour, meaning flour with at least 12 per cent gluten. It is usually marked ‘bread flour,’ often available only at health food shops. (If you are making a wholemeal loaf, mix the wholemeal flour with a high percentage of unbleached white flour. This is where the muscles come from.)

2 teaspoons salt

1 dessertspoon caraway seeds or poppy seeds

egg yolk and a little milk, mixed together for the glaze

You don’t need an electric machine to make bread, but it helps — Make it by hand the first time, mixing and kneading by hand, then leave it to the machine next time.


Mix the sugar and yeast with the water, and add the flour, salt and caraway seeds.


Turn on the machine, with the dough hook in place, and mix until it shapes into a ball, or something like it. Feel the dough with your finger. It should be smooth and a little glossy, and have come away from the sides of the bowl. If it feels wet and sticky, add a little more flour and mix again. The more you make, the more experienced you will be with the feel. (If you are doing this by hand, mix first with a spoon until it comes together, then by hand, on a well-floured bench, kneading until it is glossy and smooth.)


Leave to prove in a warmish place. The best temperature is 27°C, but cooler is okay and warmer is not too bad. It should double in size in about 2 hours.


When it has doubled, punch it back and knead it briefly. (You can tell when it has had enough — if you press it with your finger, the indentation will hold its shape. When the yeast is still working, you will see it push back.)


Now that it’s back to its starting size, shape it and place it in a well-oiled tin. Allow to rise until doubled again — this takes about half the time the first rising took. Paint the top with the egg yolk and milk mixture. Sprinkle some caraway or poppy seeds (or sesame seeds) on top.


Bake in a 200°C oven for about 20 minutes, then remove the loaf from the tin. Return to the oven, and continue baking for another 5-10 minutes.