I have been making bread on and off for many years; since I was a teenager, in fact. Sometimes I bake a lone loaf, made on the spur of the moment, just because; at other times, I fall into the rhythm of regular bread-making and happily turn out a couple of loaves a week for several months (more often than not I make a smug vow that I will never again buy my bread). And then, for no particular reason, I find that the shop-bought bagels, bread rolls, pittas and loaves have made their way back into our lives once more. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to it.
But last month, as I started bottling the first of this year’s jam, the home-baked loaves began to appear with increasing frequency and I realised that there is a cycle to my bread-baking: it follows the seasonal spikes in my jam and marmalade-making. A batch of homemade marmalade prompts a home-baked loaf. And then, as the novelty of marmalade wears off, homemade bread disappears from the menu until I start turning summer fruit into jam.
Over the years it has occurred to me that investing in a breadmaker might be the solution to a more reliable supply of homemade bread. I have many friends who swear by them, and certainly the bread they make with their machines tastes wonderful. Machines are convenient too: a daily loaf, hot and delicious, first thing in the morning with minimal fuss and planning — who could argue with that? But a bread machine would deny me the part of the process I really enjoy. I like to feel the dough change texture: gloopy, resistant and impossible one minute, smooth and elastic the next.
No matter how often I make bread, it never ceases to amaze me that such humble ingredients (flour, water, yeast and salt) can be combined to create something so delicious. And this sense of alchemy is never more powerful than in those first moments when the water is added to the flour to create a sticky, shaggy mess — how, one wonders, will this ever turn into a loaf of bread?
Last year, having baked my way through those jammy summer summer months, I decided to add sourdough to my repertoire — I love its flavour and texture and thought the challenge might sustain my bread-making through the winter months. I had long wanted to try my hand at making a sourdough starter but couldn’t quite muster the courage or energy to get my head around the process.
As with all such things, it really wasn’t very difficult at all, more a matter of planning than skill. And so last winter we enjoyed an unusually long period during which homemade bread was a daily fixture. But although my sourdough tasted good, I didn’t manage to achieve the rise, the lift, I had hoped for. And then, just as my loaves began to improve, I found an uninvited guest in my starter: a fruit fly. Although there was just the one fruit fly, the thought that many more might be lurking beneath the bubbly surface put me off. I lost my nerve and ditched the starter. And as I watched it swirl away down the plug hole I decided not to bother with another starter until I had enlisted a little professional help. I cleaned out the Kilner jar (aesthetically pleasing, but a decidedly wrong-headed choice of storage for my starter as it turns out), and put my name on the waiting list for Laura Hart’s Bread and Breakfast Workshop. The joys of which I will share in my next post.