I can’t quite remember how I started baking bread. I know my brother visited for Christmas a couple of years back and mentioned he’d been baking, even offering to do a loaf for Christmas dinner. That was my first indication that the making of bread was not some mystical craft one must be born into. I wish I’d taken him up on his offer, I might’ve got started sooner. In March last year, I came across a video of Paul Hollywood making a simple white loaf. “That seems do-able,” I thought. He was using oil to knead, too, which eased some concerns I’d had about how much flour to use and how easy it might be to ruin the dough early in the process.
But as to why I watched a video of Paul Hollywood making bread, and why I decided to actually try it, I have no idea. My only previous attempt at baking (a jam sponge I made when I was 9) had been a catastrophic failure. Cooking is something you roll with, but baking has to be perfect before it goes in the oven. There’s no fixing it, and I think that discouraged me for a very long time.
I gave the white loaf a try, and it was a failure. Quelle surprise. Here’s what I find interesting, though: it was a failure, but not a catastrophic failure. Rebecca insists the loaf was edible. I disagree, but the point is that I saw what I’d made and figured I could easily do better next time. It might have been less of a loaf and more of a baked dough lump, but it wasn’t too far off the mark for a first try. It looked sort of like a loaf, it sort of had the structure of a loaf… it wasn’t enough to make me throw my floured hands in the air and say “fuck it, baking bread isn’t for me”. Worth a second look, thought I, so what’s the harm in another try? It came out like this.
Now, you’re probably looking at that loaf and imagining how it tastes. I’m going to tell you that you’re probably giving me too much credit. That is a very attractive loaf of bread up there, but the picture doesn’t accurately reflect how it tasted. It was leagues ahead of the Baked Dough Lump, to be sure, but it was too soft, didn’t have enough salt, the crust wasn’t right etc. In spite of what amounts to two failures in a row, I found myself even more committed to getting that damn white loaf right.
This, here, is what I love and find so addictive about making bread. It’s something you work on slowly, tweaking and improving every single time. Try a little more or less water, try proving a little longer, try shaping it differently, using more salt, deeper slashes on top. You learn something every single time, and what’s more, you get a fresh loaf of bread for your efforts. It’s not an abstract reward, you don’t have to imagine or estimate at all what effect your tweaking is having – it’s right there in the loaf you baked yourself. It’s a wonderfully immediate response, and wonderfully delicious too.
I’m currently working on my ciabatta, which is pretty good but doesn’t have a great shape (a problem with extremely wet doughs), and I experimented with a roasted garlic loaf recently which was tasty but could be better. My next loaves are going to be a garlic tear-and-share style bread and a focaccia. After those, I might try some other non-bread recipes such as muffins. Who knows. It’s an exciting, bread-y world out there. If you’re looking for something to do, you should get involved.