EASY WHITE BREAD
With a little effort and barely any kneading, you can conjure up an impressive crusty white loaf. If flavours are your thing, then toss in up to 200g of cubed Cheddar, or a little crispy bacon or some well-drained pitted olives and a handful of chopped herbs and you’ll have one of those ‘wow’ breads you see in the best bakeries. If you’re going to be at home for 3 or 4 hours, this recipe will take barely 20 minutes of your time, without you ever breaking into a sweat.
400g strong white flour, plus extra for shaping and dusting
1 teaspoon fast action yeast
1 teaspoon fine salt
300ml warm water
oil for kneading
Put the flour, yeast and salt in a bowl, pour in the warm water and stir everything together into a sticky shaggy mass. Scrape the dough from your hands, cover the bowl with a cloth and leave for 10 minutes. Lightly oil a 30cm area of the work surface and your hands, and knead the dough lightly for 10 seconds, repeating twice more at 10-minute intervals. Return the dough to the bowl and leave it for 45 minutes. Wipe the work surface, dust it with flour then pat the dough into an oval. Roll it up tightly, give each end a pinch to keep it neat then place the dough seam-side down on a floured tray, cover with a cloth and leave until the dough has increased in size by a half – about 45 minutes. Heat the oven to 220°C/200°C fan/425°F/gas 7. Flour the top of the dough, cut a slash down the middle and bake for 35-40 minutes.
Take a small handful of rye flour and mix it with some warm water into a soft dough that you can form into a ball. Place this in a bowl, cover it with more rye flour and leave at room temperature for four or five days. What you’ll see happen is that the crust of flour over the dough ball starts to crack as the natural yeast and bacteria found in the flour start to aerate the dough. If you then take the ball, mash it to a soupy consistency with water in a very clean jar, add more flour to get it to a soft paste then leave it another day, lightly covered, you will – in the most basic way – have created your first leaven (or sourdough ‘starter’).
At first the mixture has very little acidity and aeration, but if you encourage the micro-organisms’ competition for nutrients, then in a week or so it should be bubbling well and have taken on a distinct sour aroma. Each day, stir the mixture, then discard most of it and replenish it with equal quantities of fresh flour and water. Don’t cover the jar too tightly, it may need – quite literally – to be able to let off a little pressure. Adding a little acidity when you first mix your sourdough leaven, like a scant teaspoon of yoghurt, will make the mixture slightly sour and should stop bad-smelling bugs taking hold. Occasionally they still do, as there’s a ‘pot luck’ element to what organisms you get in your leaven to begin with, in which case it’s better to start again with a clean jar. But usually it’s enough to keep discarding and refreshing the mixture, and, like with regular exercise for us, it will gradually get stronger (and more acidic) over time. Once you’ve got it into a sturdy state where it can double in volume in six to eight hours, you’re ready to bake.
REPLACING COMMERCIAL YEAST WITH LEAVEN
As long as you refresh your leaven each day with equal amounts of flour and water (e.g. 100g flour and 100ml water), the basic rule when adapting a recipe is then to omit the fast action yeast and reduce the flour and the water in the recipe by 75g/75ml, adding instead 150g of leaven. But measure the remaining water and add it to the dough gradually, to allow for any variations in the consistency of your leaven, and make sure your leaven was last refreshed between 8 and 24 hours before you make your dough.
So, to turn the Easy white bread into a loaf with a much more complex acidic flavour, reduce the flour to 325g, omit the yeast, keep the salt the same and add 150g leaven to the flour and salt. Measure out your water but only use about 225ml – enough to mix everything to a soft dough. Then follow the recipe, but allow much longer for the first and final rise. The key thing is to shape the dough when it has risen by half, then bake it when it has risen by half again.