Thatcher inspires Cottage Loaf

There has been a thatcher at work in Town for at least a couple of weeks now and as the Kids and I tend to drive by at least once a day, monitoring of his progress has become part of the daily routine. He is fascinating to watch; progress appears to be very slow and, as you are building a roof, is clearly very precise. He doesn’t seem entirely dressed for the job, often wearing something you might throw on for Saturday lunch at the pub if you are male and in your mid fifties. Naturally it’s not a particularly messy business, a bit dusty at best, and on the whole he has been blessed with reasonable weather so doesn’t need sou’westers on, but his attire has, quite frankly, been the most surprising facet. As I understand it the crop used to produce the straw lengths used by thatchers is a different variety to that used to produce grains of corn for consumption. The stems are a lot longer and grown as a rule only in East Anglia, (an area in the East of Britain).

I have been pondering how to work this excitement into a post about food almost from the word go, and of course I have already given away a big clue. Wheat/Corn/Barley, whatever it is the thatcher is using is essentially the ingredient in Bread.

I am very late to the making bread party, bearing in mind the general level of baking which goes on here. It’s my Father who is the expert bread maker, but as with many of his recipes (where’s the Cornish Chicken Curry one Papa, eh?) he likes to maintain an air of mystery and won’t divulge much. I will have to extract some of his signature dishes eventually (if you get my drift) but for the time being I suspect committing recipes to paper is the issue. I cook in a ‘pinch of this and a handful of that’ kind of way too and formalising the process can be a little tedious.

Anyway, bread making on the surface appears to be a bit of an art form. Gadgets to do the job for you are popular, and, whilst they haven’t demystified the process completely they have induced some having-a-go. Perhaps having made that leap, some might fancy this too. Lorraine Pascal finally persuaded me into action. Something about her mesmerising, siren call persona convinced me all would be well. She also has the sort of equipment in her kitchen that I have in mine which is helpful! A Kitchen Aid or a Kenwood Mixer would definitely be a BIG asset here as I wouldn’t really fancy kneading by hand, and food processors rarely produce good results.

Lorraine has a there-really-isn’t-much-to-it air about her and a lot of her tips have been really on the nail. That being said if you have watched or come across her smoothing a cake, IGNORE HER. DISASTER. I will post a video at some point of how to do it properly, or come on a cake decorating course, I’ll post some details soon but certainly don’t copy her. However on the subject of baking bread she is first rate and I have been happily baking it ever since.

First you need to decide what sort of loaf you want to eat.

For the type of loaf I make and by which we are talking a bloomer/cottage-y thing,

looking like this →

the recipe is the same regardless of the flour types you use. And therein lies the charm: completely adaptable, coping with allergies (up to a point), preferences and cravings.

As I tap, I have one in the oven and the flour combination is:

200g strong white, 100g wholemeal spelt and 200g of Allison’s Country Grain (malted wheat flakes, rye flour, malted wheat and barley flour apparently).

What all this means is if you are intolerant to wheat gluten you can substitute spelt or rye or a mixture to suit or if you find wholemeal heavy going and house-brick like you can blending regular white with wholemeal to lighten it. However if regular strong white is not a dietary issue I would recommend starting off with around 200g to give a reasonable chewiness and then experiment with the remaining 300g to find your perfect loaf. All Spelt (the original wheat) gives a loaf with a ‘crumbly texture’ once baked and therefore whilst making good toast can be a bit frustrating if you like to overfill your sandwich, like I do.

So, into the bowl you will need to put 500g bread flour, (all white if you wish or we like the proportions above, or 50/50 white/wholemeal), 8g easy blend dried yeast, 1 tsp salt (don’t skip it!), 1 tsp sugar, 1 tbsp Olive Oil, and 320 ml warm water. Switch on the mixer with the dough hook attachment and off you go. Watch whilst all the ingredients combine and the end point here is a ball of dough attached to the hook whizzing round and the sides of the bowl are clean, if it doesn’t all combine add a little more water (anything up to 20-30ml), if you have added too much water, don’t panic, although the dough will be sticking to the sides of the bowl and the mixer motor will appear to be labouring, just add a little flour and all should be well. Once you are happy with consistency, let it knead for 5 minutes. Then prove for 2 hours with a tea towl over the bowl. This can be in the kitchen on the work surface, doesn’t have to be in the airing cupboard or any of that nonsense and if it does rise too fast because it’s somewhere too hot, there’ll be trouble.

Then, knock back, which means sprinkle a little flour on the work surface and knead by hand for about 20 seconds, shape into an oval sort of shape, sprinkle a little flour on the top and make a couple of small slash marks with a knife. Plonk onto an oiled baking sheet. Preheat main oven to 220°C/200°C and if you have a top oven leave in there towards the bottom for 25 minutes. If no top oven, on the hob or next to will be fine with the tea towel over. After 25 minutes is up pop in the centre of the oven (minus the tea towel) and if you can, put some ice cubes in the bottom of the oven to create some steam and produce a crusty crust. This is a Pascal-ism and is a great tip. Bake for about 30-35 minutes. Then remove and after a minute or two and using a tea towel pick up the bread and knock the bottom. It should sound hollow or so the legends go. I have no idea what I’m listening for, but if it looks cooked, it probably is.

The only problem with this is that it is so tasty and the house smells so great, it’s all gone before it’s cold and you are back to square one.

The day I took the photos I asked the Thatcher’s permission and how long he had left. To my surprise, and despite the fact it looks almost finished, he still had a months worth of work to go!

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