Years ago Mr M bought me a breadmaker. All shiny and new and guaranteed to provide us with an endless supply of freshly-baked bread with the minimum of effort from yours truly. I think I made three loaves then it was relegated to the back of a cupboard along with several other gadgets that I had imagined would be life-changing yet didn’t quite live up to the hype.
Fast forward five years and I’ve noticed a growing trend of people around me making their own bread. Maybe it’s Bake Off, maybe it’s a growing need for some kind of yeast-based therapy in my generation’s lives. Who knows, but I’m definitely not complaining. What I have also noticed, though, is that none of them are using bread makers. They’re all going old school and doing it the tried and tested handmade way.
Since my abilities in the kitchen aren’t that great, while I’ve been intrigued and tempted to see whether I could actually manage to make bread myself, I haven’t been brave enough to try it myself. Until I had an invitation to try out a breadmaking masterclass with PAUL – you know, the French boulangerie and patisserie peeps that have outlets all over the place now, including Grand Central. Never one to turn down a challenge, I decided to give it a go. I mean, if pros can’t teach me then who can?
And so it was, on a sunny Thursday evening I headed to Grand Central with a bunch of other bloggers to learn all things bread from one of PAUL’s experts. I’d love to include a blow-by-blow account of exactly how we did everything we did, but a) I don’t remember every single bit, b) it would make for a loooooooong blog, and c) you’d have far more fun going along to one of their classes yourself.
With that in mind, I’ll keep it brief and to a bit of a general synopsis. We started with our basic ingredients that had luckily all been laid out ready for us. Flour, water, salt and yeast (oh god, I hope I got that right!).
It turns out kneading isn’t just chucking or bashing the dough around but there’s actually a method – at least when you’re learning with PAUL – to it. I hadn’t really believed people when they told me I’d find it therapeutic, but there’s something rather great about whacking a lump of dough down on the table. Even more so when you’re in the middle of a shopping centre 😉
As I said, I’m not going to give you step by step instructions because you’d be far better off learning from them direct, but it’s all about getting your hands in certain positions on the clock face ie 3 o’clock and 9 o’lock, then moving them around as you lift the dough off the surface so they’re at 12 and 6. And so on. And so on.
Kneading done, we put our babies to bed in their bowls to go through the fermentation process. For ages. They don’t do the knocking back thing at PAUL – it’s all about leaving the dough to get all light and aerated. I have to say, I think the whole waiting game could possibly be my downfall when it comes to bread. I was super tempted to mess with my dough and fiddle around – exactly what you’re not meant to do.
Lucky for us, bread guru Richard had prepared plenty of other dough earlier in the day so we could move straight on to the ‘shaping’ phase. You know all those pretty different shapes loaves you see in bakeries? Big round rustic loaves, long batons, and the little sort of teardrop-shaped ones that PAUL do. Well, they all need to be individually shaped, and trust me, it isn’t as simple as you might think.
With a bit of show-and-tell from the big man, we eventually vaguely got the hang of shaping loaves, and mucking about with the ‘key’ of the loaf. I’m not even going to try to find the words to explain what we did. This is definitely something you need a demo of – not a description – to learn from.
We got there in the end, albeit rather more ‘rustic’ in style than the ones you’re used to seeing in your local PAUL branch, but passable I reckon. We had a few goes with various different styles, from traditional dough to a lovely Mediterranean-style olive bread. Once shaped, they got laid gently in special little baskets to sit and prove before we could bake them. Yep, more waiting. Be warned, if you’re impatient and over-excitable like me, this could prove slightly testing (didn’t meant to pun there, sorry).
As a little extra bit of info, we had a good look at some of the different flours that PAUL use so we might understand the different consistencies and textures that different flours create and how they react differently to yeast and all that jazz. You know, like when Paul Hollywood gets all technical in Bake Off and starts talking about structure and gluten and stuff?
I think I got some of it, but I’ll confess I was far too excited about actually baking and eating my own loaf by that point that some of the technical knowledge went right over my head. Oops.
Despite having breathed a sigh of relief that I’d survived thus far, I was slightly bemused to discover that even putting the loaves in the Big Bertha-style oven required a bit of expertise, from the way the loaves are carefully poured out of their baskets to the precisely-administered slashes on the top and even the way they’re put into the oven with a special wooden paddle thing. Yep, nothing’s simple folks.
I couldn’t stay to see the outcome of the loaves so had to blow them a kiss through the glass door as they basked in 200-odd degrees of heat. But Richard did kindly wrap up my dough that had been sat fermenting so I could try my hand at shaping and baking at home. Eek, talk about pressure.
If you’ve never seen what bread dough does when it’s fermenting and proving, then I can highly recommend a journey on a warm London Midland train from Birmingham to Rugby to give you a graphic example. By the time I trotted through my front door, my neat ball of dough was bursting out of its clingfilm clothing and slowly filling my bag like some kind of alien life form. I managed to get the beast into the fridge and under a damp cloth just about in time to prevent myself being engulfed by the dough and perishing at the hands of an uncooked Pain de Campagne.
The next day I plucked up enough courage to practice my shaping skills before they disappeared from my small brain forever, and managed to fashion myself two oval loaves and a round one in a style not too dissimilar from the ones Richard had shown us. Yeah, so I didn’t have any lovely little baskets like we’d used before but found some alternatives.
Once shaped and slashed, they were popped in the oven – if you’ve got a fan oven you should try to turn your fan off and bake at 235C but if you can’t, you bake at about 220-225C. Richard said we should try to use a stone to bake the bread on, but I had to do without. I did however follow his advise to put a roasting tin of boiling water in the bottom of the oven to make it steamy. Brownie points there, surely?
Now, since I knew I was going to blog about this, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a bit of pressure to produce something half-decent (at least in appearance so you could be impressed by my good-looking loaves). On top of this, I’d stupidly declared to the friends and family we were going away with for the weekend (camping of course) that I’d be bringing some bread, so had somewhat added to my pressure.
And so……… voila!
I’ve got to say, I was pretty chuffed. For my first-ever attempt they don’t look half bad do they? I reckon Richard would be proud of my efforts and even if he isn’t, I blimin am. In all honesty, when we tasted them they were a little bit tough which I think is probably a reflection on my amateur kneading skills and the slightly disjointed fermenting and proving process I put my poor babies through. Maybe a sweaty train journey isn’t the best environment to nurture your bread to light airiness.
Nevertheless, while I may not be a professional baker just yet – or anywhere near – I walked away from my lesson feeling like I might want to try this breadmaking malarkey again. I hadn’t quite believed people who raved about the joy of taking a few ingredients and creating something that has been a symbol of both sustenance and social interaction from time immemorial but I can kind of see their point.
Yes, I know it sounds a bit cheesy but the concept of ‘breaking bread together’ has continued through the ages and I don’t think you have to be of any particular culture or religion to experience the joy of sitting down with your fellow human and sharing a loaf. And if you’ve made that loaf yourself? Well, that’s even better!
I was invited to PAUL in Grand Central with a bunch of other bloggers to try their breadmaking masterclass for free. They do the classes in other branches around the country and are bringing them to Birmingham. Check their website for details.
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