A home-made farmhouse loaf appeals all senses: the aroma that fills the kitchen as it bakes is unbeatable, the flavour knocks the socks off most shop-bought white loaves, and it looks every bit as gorgeous as it tastes.
The inside track Kneading It’s the gluten in bread that’s responsible for its open, chewy texture. Gluten is formed by two proteins in wheat flour coming together when you knead the dough. It develops into strong elastic strands that stretch and trap in the air when the dough rises. You can be fairly rough with your dough – stretch and pull it, using each arm in turn. It’s energetic work, but once you fall into a rhythmic motion it’s a great way to unwind, and the results speak for themselves.
Fresh yeast This gives a pleasant beery flavour to your loaf and is usually available from good-quality bakeries or large branches of Sainsbury’s. Fresh yeast will keep for at least a week wrapped in foil in the fridge. You can freeze it for up to one month, but it will liquefy once defrosted, so use it immediately. If you can’t get hold of fresh yeast, use 1½ tsp (3.5g) fast-action/easy blend yeast or 3 tsp (7g) dried active yeast (available from major supermarkets) and follow the pack instructions.
Storing bread Wrap the cooled loaf in baking paper or a paper bag (don’t use plastic – it will cause the loaf to go soft). Store in a cool, dry place. In the unlikely event that you don’t polish off the loaf immediately, it will keep for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 3 months.
Other ideas to try
Make it wholemeal Replace half the flour with strong organic wholemeal. You’ll need about 2 tbsp more water. Sprinkle over sunflower, pumpkin and poppy seeds or rolled oats before baking. Or try glazing with whisked egg or milk for a golden crust.
Bake a rustic cottage loaf Simply shape into an oval or round, then bake on a baking sheet.
Go for a super-crisp crust Slash the top of the loaf with a sharp knife a few times before baking, and preheat the oven with a roasting tin in the bottom. Throw in a handful of ice cubes when you put the loaf in – the steam gives a crisp crust.
Experiment with flavourings Try adding flavourings such as nuts, herbs, spices, cheese, softened onion, sun-dried tomatoes or dried fruit. Knead in at the knocking-back stage. Beer also makes a good addition. Simply replace 75ml of the water with your favourite ale.