THE first rule of baking is you need to show the dough who’s boss.
That’s according to Bill King, 60, my bready mentor for the day, who assured me I would leave the kitchen competent in the arts of kneading, scoring, flouring and making the mixture rise. It was a fun assignment, especially as the day’s first lesson was one in tasting.
Bill sat me down at his conservatory's wooden table at his home in Coed Eva, Cwmbran, and placed a plate of scones and butter in front of me. I also had a knife, but he told me that had his batch gone to plan, I wouldn’t need that for the first stage. The bread should just pull apart in my hands if I gripped it in the middle. It passed the test, falling in two even circles on the plate ready for the butter.
As an aside, butter is the reason I was so excited about this task. It can transform something which is, to my mind, pedestrian, such as a slice of dry bread, into something you wake up craving. It has to be real butter though, no artificial spreads. I like to think I have an open mind, but butter is something you should never compromise on.
So I was pleased to note Bill shared this philosophy and as we enjoyed our generously buttered scones he outlined the process for our baking lesson.
He said there is no use being soft and gentle with a white bread dough, because it needs strong handling if it is to bind together properly and rise into a delicious loaf. The best way to learn is by doing, they say, so we got started immediately - that is, as soon as we’d finished our second helping.
I was pleased with most of the fruits of my labour, but the low point of the day came after Bill and I had sculpted a magnificent loaf from seven individual balls of dough, arranging them in a flower shape in a dish then leaving them to rise for an hour or so until each ball was just about touching one another. To gild our piece de resistance we cracked an egg into a dish and Bill set me to work brushing the glaze over the surface of the dough, so it would have a deliciously golden brown crust with poppy seeds when it emerged from its oven cocoon.
However, as with many of man’s best laid plans, my good intentions were thwarted when we tried to remove the loaf from the tin and realised it was stuck fast. We held it upside down, jiggled it, shook it, ran a knife around the edge and even shouted at it, but the dough was wedged inside.
Meanwhile on the surface of the dish there was a substance that looked suspiciously like omelette. It immediately became clear than in my enthusiasm for the task I had overzealously applied the egg glaze, to the point it had run down the dough and on to the surface of the mould, where it had proceeded to fry and stick the bread to the bottom.
It was disappointing because the bread looked so delicious, but I knew I would not be able to take it back to the office and show off in the way I had hoped.
What I had instead was a raggedly collection of lone bread rolls which had once been part of something beautiful and bigger than the sum of their parts, and which now also tasted suspiciously of egg.
Bill, being resourceful, found a packet of cocktail sticks and we attempted to stick the loaf back together for the purposes of a photo, the results of which you can judge for yourself.
I can reveal that the white rolls were still delicious, however hamfisted my cooking attempts may have been.
The rest of the day was surprisingly successful, and I came away with two small brown loaves, the aforementioned white rolls and two delicious Irish soda bread loaves.
The soda bread loaves made an interesting comparison, as one of them was Bill’s demonstration piece and the other was my imitation. Although they had, to my eye, looked basically identical when going into the oven, Bill’s emerged looking professional and scored into neat quarters while mine was rather lumpen, like something Shrek might have in his cupboard. Nevermind, the proof was in the eating and it turns out you should not judge a bread by its crust.
Well, actually you technically should, as Bill says the best bread has a crusty outside and a more chewy inside.
He laments modern bread such as the bagged up, pre-sliced loaves you might find in Tesco, saying they have the texture of cotton wool.
It’s true that the home baked bread had a much denser, chewier texture and you felt like you were eating something more substantial.
Bill pointed out to me why it might be that supermarket loaves have such a different texture to homemade bread. For example, in a typical mainstream loaf, the ingredients list might stretch to: “Wheat Flour, Water, Yeast, Salt, Soya Flour, Fermented Wheat Flour, Emulsifiers: E472e, E471 (made from Vegetable Oils); Vegetable Fat, Flour Treatment Agent: Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C).” For the loaves we made, we used just flour, salt, yeast and water, with some added Irish buttermilk for the soda bread. No e-numbers, added enzymes, emulsifiers or flour treatment agent. Common sense dictates it must be healthier to eat the simplest and most natural ingredients possible, to my mind, without the industrial ingredients needed to keep the bread shelf-fresh for longer.
Personally I found the home-made bread tasted even better as toast, when it became incredibly crunchy and absorbed the butter (the king of condiments) like a dream.
Looking back, I’m not sure how Bill would have rated my skills. He had to reassure me a lot that everything takes practice (of course) and stepped in on several occasions to rescue my kneading.
Apparently many people are afraid of the dough, but it’s necessary to manhandle it a bit in order to form the chains of gluten that are needed for it to stick together and rise.
To this end it was necessary to slam the bread down on the surface on occasion, which I did warm to, hurling the bread down to the shock of our photographer, who had not heard the earlier pep talk on the urgency of showing the dough who’s boss.
Bill showed me his trick of kneading, which was to hold the dough at one end in the left hand and then push it out with the right hand, repeating this again until the dough comes together.
I wasn’t always getting this right and at one stage had a “raggy” dough, where instead of forming a soft and spongy mixture the dough remained in straggly little pieces.
Bill rescued this by forming his hands into a “claw” and mixing around the bowl, then kneading it all together with, of course, some slams of the dough back onto the counter from a great height.
He reminded me it was very important to get the mix of ingredients right, as even an extra 20 grams of flour could totally offset the balance of the loaf, making it too dry, or vice versa with too much water. I could be somewhat slapdash with my measuring, he feared, after I had cut a piece of dough in half and ended up with about two thirds on one side and one third on the other so that when we weighed it one was almost 100 grams heavier. Eh, they looked the same.
All was salvaged with a quick transplant from one piece to the other.
But it was very satisfying to watch something I had (with a little help from Bill) created with my own hands, knowing exactly what was in it and how fresh it was.
I think I could have enjoyed being a baker in another life, except for just the one thing: the early mornings. I’m more of a night owl, so getting up at 3am to bake the day’s baguettes and cottage loaves is something I think better left to the pros. That being said, Bill did leave me with a packet of yeast and a recipe book, so just maybe I’ll eat my words as well as my bread.
Bill King sells bread at various markets including Llanyrafon Manor Market in Cwmbran as well as offering lessons in baking.