Back to Basics – White Plaited Loaf
After I made the rosemary focaccia last week, I looked back over some of my other attempts at bread and realised something. I was always moaning about the same things; the starter didn’t work, my dough was too sticky, I didn’t know what temperature the oven should be. It was time to stop moaning and sort these things out.
I decided to go back to basics and make some white bread. I parked the issue of getting the starter right for this bake. There was some left from the focaccia but, although it had bubbled at one point, the bubbles had stopped, so I threw it away. This time, my focus was going to be on the kneading. I was going to try it by hand. Would I ever be able to end up with a smooth and elastic dough and relatively clean hands? I could try. If it didn’t work, there was always the mixer.
Whenever I revisit basic techniques, I use Leith’s Cookery Bible, by Prue Leith and Caroline Waldergrave. It’s a hefty tome this, and it isn’t big on food porn, but it’s great for explaining what you’re supposed to do and why you’re supposed to do it. I used the recipe for Basic White Bread, and decided to make a white plaited loaf.
Step 1: Mixing
Even though I was going to knead my dough by hand, the recipe says that you put your strong white flour and salt into a bowl first and, if you’re using easybake yeast (as I was), mix this in with some sugar as well. I made a well in the centre of the bowl and added warm water. For fresh yeast, Prue Leith says that the water should be at 37°C and for fast-action or dried yeast 40°C. My water was around 39°.
I added the water in stages, because I was wary of making my dough too sloppy. The 150ml required by the recipe was just about enough to make a soft dough.
Step 2: Kneading
The kneading started with a floured work surface. How much flour is on a floured work surface? What’s the difference between and floured work surface and a lightly floured work surface? Oh, I know that a lightly floured surface has less flour on it, but how much more do you have to put on the work surface to turn it from lightly floured to floured? Another baking conundrum that has me regularly flummoxed.
I put what I thought was a decent amount of flour onto the work surface and tipped out the dough. I tried kneading it as described in the Cookery Bible by pushing the dough away with the heel of my hand, pulling it back and turning it round. Determined as I was to knead this dough with my hands until it didn’t stick to them anymore, I very nearly gave up. The dough anchored itself to my hands, the work surface and everything else and would not move unless I scraped it off.
I poured a lot more flour onto the work surface. A lot more. This unstuck the dough and I kneaded for the required ten minutes. At the end of the kneading time, the dough was pretty elastic and smooth – but it probably contained a lot more flour than it should.
Step 3: Proofing
I coated a bowl with some olive oil and put the dough into the bowl, covered it with a tea towel and put it into the oven with the light on and the door open. The olive oil had gone a bit cloudy at the bottom. I picked it up and turned it over to have a closer look, and swore when a stream of the stuff shot onto the floor. I hadn’t put the top back on had I?
Anyway, I cleaned up the spillage, and left the dough to rise for a couple of hours.
Step 4: Shaping
Since I was making a basic bread recipe, I decided to try and make it a bit more interested shape-wise. I attempted a plait.
I knocked the dough back by giving it a good poke, then I kneaded it for a minute before leaving it to rest. When I came back to the dough I divided it into three roughly equal pieces, and rolled them into sausage shapes ready for plaiting.
Now, the Cookery Bible plaits bread in a very strange way. You have to arrange your three strands like this and start plaiting from the middle.
I couldn’t for the life of me work out how to do that and end up with a plaint, so I just joined the strands at the top and plaited as though I was doing my daughter’s hair. Bread is a lot easier to plait than hair. It keeps completely still and doesn’t complain that you’re pulling its head off.
Once plaited. I put the dough onto a lined baking sheet and gave it another half an hour in the open oven with the light on.
Step 5: Baking
I glazed my plait with a mixture of beaten egg and a bit of salt and baked it at 180°C for twenty minutes.
Here’s what I ended up with…
…and here’s what it was like on the inside.
Was it Worth it?
It was definitely worth going back to basics and trying to make a decent loaf of white bread. I may not have used any oil or other ingredients that would have made the recipe tricky, but I did manage to overcome my aversion to kneading by hand. I also rediscovered how much better a homemade loaf is than a Hovis farmhouse. Basic white bread is something that I’ll definitely be making again. I don’t think a can say for definite yet, but I may even have been converted to hand kneading.