I don’t know how many times I have tried to write a blog post about bread. Not a specific bread that I have experimented with, like this week’s Pretzels or last year’s Brioche Feuilletée, but one simply about my journey of discovery baking bread. I know that sounds a bit New Age but it *has* been quite a journey of discovery and an igniting of passion.
Over the years I baked the odd white loaf and a few Irish Soda Breads, but I didn’t really think about what I was doing. Then, about three or four years ago, I started to experiment, using a well know celebrity baker’s recipes. All was good, and I started to get more adventurous, baking laminated doughs for family breakfasts; savoury, flavoured bread recipes to accompany dinner; and differently shaped and plaited breads.
But I knew I was missing something. I knew I was missing a technical knowledge and understanding of what I was actually doing and why certain things worked and others didn’t. My baking friend, Lisa, had been on a Richard Bertinet bread course and couldn’t recommend it highly enough. I Iooked into what he offered and longed to book the week long bread course, knowing that it was unlikely that I could find the money to attend.
Age (and a very generous mum) was on my side, however. I turned 40 in 2013 and my mum gave me enough money to pay for the course, so I started planning and saving so that I could travel to and stay in Bath for the duration of the course. Finally, in October of 2014, I made it. I was nervous, excited and full of anticipation.
By the time I arrived, Richard had reached demi-god status in my eyes and I was anxious to know everything and scared because I knew nothing. I was also nervous about meeting new people, not knowing what to expect from my fellow students. As soon as I arrived, Richard met us one by one with a warm greeting that immediately put us at ease.
I could write for pages and pages about my week in Bath, and had initially intended to do so, detailing everything we were shown and what we learned. I have decided not to do that. Instead, I’d like to write briefly about the course itself and more about what my week at The Bertinet Kitchen has given me and how it has contributed to where I am today.
Each day of the course we focused on a different type or aspect of bread making (one day French breads; another Italian, for example) but they were all underlined by Richard’s deep passion for making bread and for understanding the cultural roots for baking and sharing bread; the old French techniques used for working the dough; the importance of taste and understanding ingredients; and for sharing. At the end of each day we prepared (with help from his very lovely and hardworking assistants) a large spread of late lunch, sharing a meal and our stories whilst the wine flowed. Each day’s labour had been sustained by a morning coffee, Richard’s famed and favoured prunes in Rum, and a beautiful pastry or slice of tart from his bakery. It was not a week to be planning evening meals out, for at the end of each day we waddled out of the school full of bread and armed with even more, proud of what we had made and ready to share them with anyone that would have them. My B&B hosts met me with open arms and smiles every evening, warming through my baked bounty the following morning for breakfast for me and other guests. Each night, I would nibble on savoury bakes that I had brought to my room, sipping wine and reading. It was a most pleasant week, I can tell you.
Now? A year and half later, what has this course given me? A tremendous passion and interest in bread, for one thing. I thought I knew very little when I went on the course. I soon discovered that I knew even less. But I was keen to learn, and have experimented and played with bread in many forms ever since. I have bought some more books about bread; followed lots more bread bakers online, reaching out for advice and been constantly inspired; and turned to Richard and his Head Baker, Brett, for help when it went wrong or I just didn’t have a clue. Last year I Instagrammed my first ever delivery of 15KG of bread flour because it was such a special moment for me. It was! Don’t laugh!
When I go to another part of the country now, I always look for farm shops or delis that may be selling locally grown and milled bread flour. It is exciting to try different flours, as unique as the countryside and environment that they are grown in. I sniff bread in restaurants and examine its crust and crumb like some kind of lunatic. Richard warned us it might happen: I have become a “Bread Bore”.
This is no bad thing though. I have a much wider circle of online baking friends these days, including a flour producer near Newcastle.
I first came across Gilchesters Organics when I was on holiday in Cumbria. I picked up some bread flour, labelled “Unbleached White”, and rather liked the sound of it. It was amongst a selection of bread flours that I brought home and turned out to produce the most lovely, creamy white tin loaf. I tweeted and Instagrammed about it, as I usually do when I find a new product or ingredient, and I struck up a relationship with the owner of the farm and mill.
You could have knocked me down with a feather when she asked if I would be interested in writing a recipe for them using their flour. To say I was flattered is the understatement of my year. We spoke on the phone and I explained to the really lovely Bille, originally from Germany, my baking story and background, how I’d only recently started to bake bread in any serious kind of way, and about attending the Bertinet course, emphasising that I was in no way an expert. At all. I said that I loved to bake, it’s my deep passion, and bread has become integral to that, but that I hadn’t written any recipes before, and was only learning myself. Undeterred, she wanted me to have a go.
There would be a small cash fee and as much flour as I needed in return for a recipe. This recipe was to use their Unbleached White, which is a thirsty flour with a lower protein content that other industry big boys, so needed a recipe tailored to suit. The recipe would be published on their website and possibly on the packaging of the flour. Gulp!
I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that a professional supplier wanted me to work with them and trusted my baking skills. I was well and truly made up. Chuffed. Pleased as punch.
So, I started experimenting and experimenting. I was so nervous that I’d come up with a recipe that was a total flop. After baking and tweaking and practising I finally got there. Well, I hope I got there, because here it is, and I have taken lots of photographs of the stages of production. I use the Bertinet method of working the dough (Here is a link to a clip of him demonstrating his method). Some people call this Slap and Fold. When he taught us this method at his school, it felt so alien compared to traditionally kneading the dough, and switching technique was much like a process of learning to tie my shoelaces an entirely different way. But, during that week, I dreamt of the new action with my hands and arms during my sleep at night, and was a firm convert by the time I came home to Glasgow with my course certificate, my lame, a portion of the sourdough starter that we created, and a freshly signed copy of Richard’s latest book.
You could use a dough hook in a mixer if you would rather, but I urge you to finish the dough off by hand using the folding over method. This will give the dough a smooth and silky exterior and top.
500g of Gilchesters Unbleached White Flour
10g of Sea Salt
10g of Instant Yeast (you could use fresh but I know a lot of home bakers prefer dried)
20g of Caster Sugar
30g of Butter, soft
330g of warm Milk (Richard taught us to weigh our liquids for a more accurate result)
Put the dry ingredients in a large bowl, keeping the yeast separate from the salt. Briefly rub in the butter then add the warm milk and start working the dough in the bowl with a bread scraper.
The dough will seem unpromising and scraggy, but fear not.
Tip it out onto a clean worktop. Do *not* add more flour at this, or any other, stage of working the dough.
Once the dough has reached this stage, very lightly flour the bowl and place the dough, smooth side up, in. Cover the bowl with a clean cloth and allow to prove for an hour to an hour and a quarter. It doesn’t need to be somewhere hot, just somewhere where there is no draught.
Before turning out the dough, sprinkle the worktop very lightly with flour, then using the scraper, turn out the dough so that the smooth top is facedown on the worktop and the rougher side or bottom is facing up.
Then, with the flats of your hand, knock out any air bubbles that have formed in the dough. You can be fairly rough but don’t go daft: it only takes two or three bashes with a flat hand to de-gas the dough.
Then lift the top third of the dough and fold it towards yourself, sealing the edge with the heal of your hand.
The bring up the bottom third and seal with your hand again.
Turn the dough by ninety degrees.
Then roll the dough up towards yourself, applying as even pressure as you can, especially with your thumbs, tucking the roll in on itself.
Once rolled up, place it in the buttered loaf tin with the join facing down. Sprinkle the top lightly with flour and cover with the clean cloth and leave it to rise again for another hour. Before this hour is up, however, get your oven on so that it is pre-heated and ready for the bread as soon as it has risen and been slashed. I bake my bread at 200C in a fan oven, so a regular oven should be heated to 220C.
Once the bread has risen for an hour, slash it in which ever fashion you fancy and bake in the pre-heated oven for 35-40 minutes until it is golden the outside and sounds hollow when you tap it. I tend to remove my tin loaves from their tins for the last 5-10 minutes and place them directly on the oven shelf to ensure a good crust all round. Once baked, allow to cool completely before slicing up and enjoying.
So, this recipe is for a Milk Loaf, a closer, more tender crumb than one made with water. It is slightly sweet and will appeal to children, and makes great toast too. The Unbleached Flour creates a warm colour to the interior. I really hope you give the flour a try and enjoy making my recipe.
Bille from Gilchesters and I have spoken about me travelling to Newcastle to visit the farm and see the mill in action. I am so excited by this prospect and hope that we can organise something around our busy schedules for Spring of this year.
Does the fact that I have written a recipe for bread make me a proper baker yet? I am so far from professional level and so painfully aware of the gaps in my knowledge and experience. But I love doing it: I love researching different breads, reading recipes, trying out new flours and sharing techniques.
I will keep practising and asking questions and learning. Surely that is all that matters? My kids love to eat whatever bread I have baked and have started to show an interest in making it with me. It is a skill that I would really like them to have as it brings a greater appreciation of one of life’s fundamental joys and forms of nutrition, and it encourages eating and sharing around a table. So, no, I am not a professional baker, but I do bake bread. And the bread that I bake isn’t too bad at all, and I know it will get better the more that I do it. I’m happy with that.
I am an amateur baker, but a baker nonetheless.