It was Bread Week on the Great British Bake Off this week, and the technical challenge was a cottage loaf. Not my favourite. I’ve had limited success with bread, especially Bake Off Bread. My fougasse from the last series was a disaster, as was my attempt to bake baguettes. Perhaps my cottage loaf would be an improvement.
This is what I ended up with. Perhaps not technically a cottage loaf, but it was a loaf of sorts, and, better than that, it was edible.
I used Paul Hollywood’s recipe, which is available on the Great British Bake Off website.
I put strong white bread flour into a bowl and added a sachet of instant yeast. It’s been a long time since I made anything with instant yeast and it was out of date. More than a year out of date in fact. It still looked and smelled like instant yeast though and, since I didn’t have time to go to Tesco, I decided to risk it. I added salt to the opposite side of the bowl and then some lard. I poured about three-quarters of the recipe amount of water into the bowl, rolled up my sleeves, took off my rings, made a bit of a face, and mixed it all up with one hand.
I’d never choose to make dough by hand. I hate the squishiness of it, and the way I can never seem to get to the stage (as seen on TV) where the dough just drops off your hands so you can just dust them off. I always end up having to scrape off the dough, then wash the unscrapable bits off which turn to the most disgusting slimy mess that clogs up the sink, and covers the tea towels… I’m starting to rant, I know. I apologise.
Anyway, I was attempting the technical challenge and no mixers were allowed, so I had to get my hands dirty. I mixed my dough and added some more water, a bit too much I think because my dough ended up on the soggier side of soft.
I put some flour onto the worktop and scraped my dough onto it. The recipe tells you to tip the dough out of the bowl, but mine wasn’t going anywhere without help. I kneaded it for 15 minutes. The recipe says that kneading should take between 5 and 10, but (a) I don’t think my kneading technique is very good, and (b) I was aiming for something smooth and silky and, at ten minutes, my dough was nowhere near.
This is what I ended up with after 15 minutes. It wasn’t particularly smooth and silky, but if I wanted to get my loaf into a cottage loaf shape before school finished, it would have to do.
I covered the bowl with a clean tea towel and put it in a warm place. The aim was to leave the dough until it had doubled in size. The recipe says that this will take at least an hour, but could take three or longer depending on the temperature.
So, time to kill then. What should I do? I could catch up on a few episodes of Home and Away, I am almost a year behind after all. With both of the children at school now, I do have time for some serious watching. I watched one episode and then the guilt set in so I changed the fish tank water and put a wash on. I did re-watch some of the Bake Off to see if I’d missed anything in my cottage loaf making and whether I could pick up any tips for the shaping.
Generally, I am quite enjoying the Bake Off on Channel 4. In fact, Noel Fielding had, very nearly, made it onto my secret crush list (you know, the list of people who you’d be a bit embarrassed to admit having a thing for, Alfie Boe, for instance, or a fair few of the experts from Bargain Hunt). Then Noel only went and hid in the fridge. Oh My God Channel 4! Isn’t there anyone on the production team who’s old enough to have seen this? It may not be as terrifying as the film where the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water warns the children of the 1970s of the dangers of open-water swimming, but it’s not something you forget. Get out of the fridge Noel you idiot. He’s no longer a contender for my list.
By the time Bake Off and Home and Away were over and the fish tank was clean, my dough had been proving for about 2 hours 20 minutes and it looked like this.
I’m not sure whether it had quite doubled in size but I decided to shape it anyway. I tipped it onto the worktop and folded it inwards a few times. This, the recipe says, is to knock the air out of it. I split off around a third of the dough and made the bottom part of the loaf with what was left.
Usually, I wouldn’t pay much attention to the correct method of shaping bread but, with a cottage loaf, it is quite important. I carefully followed the recipe and made a rectangle and folded the ends into the centre. Next, I turned the loaf over and pulled the sides down and underneath until I had a smooth dome. I put it onto a baking tray lined with baking paper, shaped the smaller piece of dough in the same way and put it onto the top. Following Paul Hollywood’s instructions, I made a hole through the centre of both pieces of dough with flour-coated fingers, and slashed the sides with a sharp knife. Finally, I covered the baking tray with clingfilm which I kept off the dough with two cans of soup.
I left the loaf under the clingfilm for about an hour before I dusted it with flour ready for the oven.
I had a few problems here. The recipe says the loaf should go into the oven at 210° fan. My oven is a fan oven but it doesn’t go up that high. There are other options, so I used the “top and bottom heat” setting. The setting does allow for a higher temperature, but did start to smoke me out of the kitchen. I supposed there was fat on the grill element again. I settled for “bottom heat” and crossed my fingers.
Once my oven was up to temperature, I poured a jug of water into the roasting tin that I’d put in there and put the loaf in. After fifteen minutes, I lowered the temperature to 170° and gave the bread another 20 minutes. I could see through the oven door that I wasn’t going to end up with a cottage loaf. As the minutes went by my loaf got flatter and flatter. There was still a distinction between the top and bottom when I got it out of the oven, but not much.
Not when you compare it with the picture that goes along with the recipe anyway.
Was it worth it?
Yes, I think it was. I didn’t have a perfect cottage loaf but it tasted like homemade bread which, to my mind, always beats shop-bought. There were a lot of things I could have done better: used yeast that was in date, added the water more carefully so that my dough wasn’t too soggy, kneaded better and for longer, given the dough a longer proving time… The list does go on, but it isn’t off-putting enough to say that I’ll never try again. As far as Bake Off bread goes, this has been my best yet.