I've gone back to making bread lately. I don't think much of the bland stuff you can buy from the supermarket, and I'm not even that fussed with bakery breads, but fresh homemade bread? Warm from the oven? Toasted the next day? Yes please!
For a while I made a loaf every few days using Lauke bread mix and a breadmaker. The big advantage was being able to use the delay function so the process started in the wee hours of the morning, and we woke to the smell of fresh bread, ready for breakfast. It was quick and easy - the machine did all the work, with reliable results, and the bread was an improvement over anything we could buy locally.
Then along came Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. Wonderful stuff - and very impressive as it did the initial huge rise in a container on the kitchen bench. Very easy, but a little more hands on (which was a good thing). Still very quick once the batch was mixed, and a delicious taste that only improved as the dough aged. A little messy because it was so sticky, and the container took up a lot of room in the fridge.
Then I discovered the One Minute Ciabatta recipe. A very simple, rustic loaf. A bit like the Artisan Bread in 5, but you just make a single loaf batch of dough. While it took me a little more than a minute (but not much more) to mix it up, it was completely hand made and full of flavour, having been allowed to rise overnight on the bench. And it made fabulous toast! We loved it with fresh rosemary and sea salt sprinkled on top.
And then there's the latest recipe I've been using, from a friend of a friend. It's made in the Thermomix, so the hard work - kneading - is taken care of, although you could certainly make it entirely by hand - it would just mean kneading for at least 8 minutes in stage 3 (below). It promised a crunchy crust, and a soft lightness inside. And it was nice, but not that great. Others did have great results though, so I tried again. Still good, but a bit dense. So I did some research, found some helpful tips, and tried again today. It came out of the oven a few minutes before the rest of the family walked in the door, and half the loaf disappeared rapidly, meeting with loud approval all round. Success!
So this is my slightly modified version. I've included some explanations of why I've done things in a certain way - understanding how the chemistry works certainly helps me in the kitchen!
Basic bread (in the Thermomix)
1. Activate the yeast: Pour 280ml warm water into the Thermomix bowl, and add 1 teaspoon of yeast and 1 teaspoon of sugar. I keep the yeast in the freezer, so this gives it a chance to warm up and start doing its thing, and the little bit of sugar gives it something to feed on. After a few minutes it should start looking frothy.
2. Add dry ingredients: 500gm flour (plain or baker's - either is fine), 1 teaspoon of bread improver (apparently this is optional, and I've heard some negative things about bread improver lately, but I have some here so I'll use it up, and then look at alternatives like ascorbic acid or leaving it out altogether), and 1 teaspoon of salt (don't skimp on the salt - it's not a lot, and it makes a difference BUT keep the salt away from the yeast until it all starts mixing together. Apparently straight salt will kill yeast) into the TMX bowl.
3. Mix: Close the TMX, and gradually increase to Speed 6 for 6 seconds or so to mix everything together. Set to closed lid position, and knead on the interval setting for 2 minutes. Tip the dough out onto a board or mat and knead for a minute to form a nice smooth ball.
4. First rise: Put the dough into a lightly oiled/greased bowl and cover with cling wrap or a damp tea towel - make sure it's touching the dough's surface, as this will help prevent the surface drying out and allow the dough to rise more. The dough needs to be in a warm, draught-free spot to rise well. It's been getting colder here in Canberra, so I searched around for ideas and came up with heating a glass of water to boiling in the microwave, then placing the bowl of dough in with the glass of water and shutting the door. The insulated microwave works well as a proofing box! This first rise could take anything from 30 mins to a couple of hours, depending on the conditions, but wait until the dough has doubled in size before proceeding.
5. Shape and second rise: Punch the dough down on a mat or board, knead for two minutes ('push' the dough away from you, fold it back on itself, turn a quarter turn, repeat), roll it out into an oval about 40cm x 20cm, and then roll it up into a big sausage shape (or shape it any other way you like - I don't think it matters too much - get creative!). Transfer to a bread tin or oven tray. Dampen the top with water and add sesame seeds (again, use whatever you like - we just happen to like sesame seeds), pressing them lightly onto the dough. Cover and allow to rise again for at least two hours.
6. Bake: Preheat your oven to hot - mine goes up to about 250 deg C (a hot oven will allow the loaf to rise quickly by turning moisture in the dough into steam, before it forms the crust, so you get a nicely aerated and soft bread). Remove the cling wrap or tea towel, sprinkle on a little more water (this makes a lovely crunchy crust) and put the loaf in the middle of the oven. Bake for 6 minutes, and then turn the oven down to 200 deg C and bake a further 20 mins. Keep an eye on it the first time you bake it - all ovens are different, and you may need to adjust the timing a little.
When it's done, tip the loaf out into a cooling rack and WAIT: if you give it at least ten minutes to cool it will be much easier to cut. Then try not to eat it all at once :)