Thursday, 7 February 2008

It's Spelt S-O-D-A-B-R-E-A-D

I’d like to say that my bread making efforts have been something of a failure. I’d like to say that but it would be akin to calling the Peloponnesian War a minor fracas or saying that standing on a upturned plug ‘stings a little bit’. It is an ongoing fiasco that has been well documented upon these pages and I hope has caused some minor ripples of amusement in the face of my own ineptitude. I’ve tried and failed with sourdough so many times that it has become rather a millstone around my neck. Give me a bit of something that used to be alive and I can cope more than adequately. However, faced with something that didn’t used to have a face yet has managed to establish its own sentience independently of any discernable source and it throws me a bit. Flour? Check. Water? Check. I wonder what will happen if we mix these two together and leave it for a while. Good god – it has managed to take on a life of its own and is now rapidly expanding towards my shocked looking face. Suffice to say it has been a while since I bothered trying it given that I have been a little short on time over the last few months, what with having a job and all. I’d just resigned myself to the fact that I will simply never be a baker. Cook maybe yes, baker certainly not. I expect ingredients to act as they should (invariably this is rarely the case) and the addition of an unknown quantity such as yeast throws me off track a touch. Plus there is no room for manoeuvring – the rules are there for a reason and quantities matter and even the slightest, teeniest, tiniest, littlest bit of improvisation puts the stoppers on the whole project – and as a cook who positively revels in manoeuvring I had shelved ‘baking’ alongside other pursuits I didn’t think were for me (catalogued somewhere between ‘Ancient battle re-enactment’ and ‘calligraphy’).

And then I had a glorious, spectacular road-to-Damascus like moment. I discovered that there were breads that didn’t need the accuracy of a microbiologist or the patience of a matchstick model maker. There were breads that didn’t need yeast, didn’t need a starter dough and, wait for it, didn’t even need to be left to rise. It was like I’d been told, after years safely ensconced in the knowledge that he wasn’t real, that Santa Claus actually did exist. Even more amazing was that these little loaves of leavened loveliness were amongst my favourite types of bread in the entire whole world. Sodabread, oh spectacular sodabread. How could I have not known? I can make a mayonnaise from scratch, I can confit a duck, spatchcock a poussin, deftly shuck an oyster and even inject flavour into a packet of Super Noodles but I hadn’t known that there was a bread within my fragile grasp. There was no time to waste.

Except predictably, sighingly, frustratingly, there was the inevitable hurdle. ‘Add 125ml of buttermilk.’ Eh? Whut? Buttermilk? Wassat? Had it not been for the internet I would probably have given up at this point, however, the mighty Wikipedia told me all I needed to know (milk soured with a little yoghurt, lemon juice or vinegar) and I was once again in the fast lane on the way to Sodabread City after a brief stop on the hard shoulder to check the map. And after that it was a very easy journey indeed. For reference purposes I was using Fergus Henderson’s recipe from Beyond Nose to Tail but was even confident enough to use spelt flour in place of the suggested wholemeal. Spelt is an ancient Roman flour with a lovely full and slightly malty taste and I thought it would inject a little bit of a punch to the bread as well as making the resultant loaf slightly healthier. Flour, buttermilk, salt, sugar, water and the all-important baking powder were the only ingredients and it was with hope and trepidation that I slid it into the oven.

There are few things as tempting as a loaf of bread fresh from the oven, steam still rising in soft curls into the air and a scent rapidly filling the kitchen and thankfully this was no exception. It had risen in the oven and a crisp looking crust had set over the whole loaf. The knife crunched through and into the soft, doughy centre and I was greeted with a smell that is incomparable. The only way to eat bread this fresh is to spread on a little too much butter and get stuck in. So that is exactly what I did. Crunchy, soft, warm, a hint of salty sweetness and then the cool butter rapidly melting into the bread. Simple, joyous perfection. It’s official: I’m a baker.

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