Focaccia and friends

After a bit of a break in which to write a lot of essays, last week marked the continuance of 2014: The Year of Bread. Having pretty much perfected the basic white loaf in Brilliant Bread, I had moved on to rolls in February (which still need a bit of work, but they tasted fine) but hadn’t challenged myself to anything else since.

With the hosting of a Matryoshka Haus meal on the horizon, I decided it was time to get stuck into another recipe. What better to go with a summer meal of chicken and salad than a fresh focaccia?

Baking James’ recipes involve extra proves and less kneading, which means that the actual time spent in the kitchen fiddling with dough is limited. As I discovered when I happened to check the focaccia recipe the day before the meal, in this recipe, you can leave the dough to prove in the fridge for an extended period of time – meaning that I could put it in overnight; stretch it to the baking tray first thing in the morning; and leave it in the fridge until the final prep before baking. It’s the kind of thing that’s incredibly useful if you need to be out of the house all day.

Focaccia dough - 1st proveAfter the first prove…

Focaccia dough - final proveAfter the second prove in the fridge.

Focaccia for the ovenReady to bake.

It has to be said that unlike February’s rolls and the pitta breads I also baked on Wednesday, the focaccia was a success first time round. And the Matryoshka Haus crew was definitely the right group to feed it to – my ego was massaged with plenty of oohs, ahhs and cries of disbelief…

Focaccia doneNot too shabby, even if I do say so myself!

However, the real fun with friends and focaccia didn’t happen until every crumb had been consumed and I posted a photo of it on Facebook. It turns out that as well as having friends who appreciate good baking, I also have friends who love a good bread pun. When I awoke the next morning, I could do nothing but moan at the sight of these comments:

Focaccia CommentsWho needs Mel & Sue’s baking puns when you have friends like these?

2014 – a year of bread?

I have said many, many times that I do not do New Years Resolutions. They’re pointless. Yesterday was January 10th – the day when it’s apparently most likely that resolutions will be broken. I personally subscribe to the theory that new starts (if needed) can happen at any time of the year, all you need is determination. This is why, in the first days of a new year, I prefer to think of things that I’d like to do or achieve over the year ahead. Much more positive!

I’ve been thinking for a while that it was time to up the ante in my baking adventures. Yes, I make brownies that are near perfection (they are one of the few things that I will boast about); yes, I do a good line in scones, muffins, cupcakes and biscuits; but am I anywhere near the standard of GBBO? No. Not that I intend to reach that level, but there are some things I’d like to get the hang of.

High on that list is bread. Until 2014, I had never baked a loaf from scratch (I’d used a couple of those packet mixes you add water to), but surely it’s a good life skill to have? And who better to learn from than my favourite GBBO contestant of all-time – the snuggly jumper wearing, Shetland born, finalist James?

Having followed him on Twitter for over a year, I’d witnessed his passion for encouraging people (even beginners) in baking bread, which even included the publication of Brilliant Bread. Now, a lot of people jump on the “I’ve just appeared on a cookery competition, so I’ll publish a recipe book” bandwagon [it’s rather like celebrity fitness dvds], but this wasn’t one of them. The tweets from people using it clearly had great success, so I added it to my pre-Christmas wishlist – from which it was duly purchased by a family member who may also have wanted the book…

Brilliant Bread book

First things first, this book has the best first chapter of any recipe book I’ve ever owned. It contains no recipes, just explanations of the key ingredients, methods, techniques and varieties of bread making. I’m really not a natural baker, I often don’t understand why we do things, and I need clear instructions – so this was ideal. [I also have an incredible skill in remembering exactly what people, well, usually Mary Berry, have said in cookery shows – and then reciting these in appropriate situations, making it look as though I know what I’m doing. I don’t.]

Secondly, the chapters contain recipes in order of difficulty, so you can confidently progress through different types of bread, without fearing that you’ll suddenly hit one that takes you out of your comfort zone. I like that there’s a focaccia in the first chapter of recipes – I’m sure I’ll have some students willing to test that one.

Thirdly, it’s unpretentious. There’s no fancy equipment needed (the only new thing I’ve needed is a dough scraper that cost £1.99, I have lots of trays and tins) or terribly fancy ingredients. For under £2, I acquired a bag of strong flour and some yeast sachets – at home I had water and salt. Job done.

Fourthly, it appears to work. Admittedly, I’ve only made one of the recipes so far, but Twitter attests to its success.

As proof, here is my First Loaf:

First Loaf in progressFirst prove; second prove; third prove; into the oven; out of the oven…

First loaf - done Not too shabby? Obviously needed more flour to make it look like the photo.

Lessons learnt? Start baking bread a lot earlier than you think is necessary! I got distracted and it was 5.30pm before I got going, meaning it was 9pm before it was done – given that my evening meal plan was leftover chilli plus fresh bread, this was a little unfortunate. I think I still need some work on the shaping technique, but the slices had a good crumb and there was no proving line. (I was too busy eating the bread to take photos once it was done.)

As for baking accomplishments to achieve this year, there’s a list aside from simply working through the book:

  • Chocolate teacakes – you know, the kind with marshmallow inside. (A technical challenge in GBBO 3.) It’s been a dream for a while and now that I have both the moulds and a sugar thermometer, it shouldn’t be an issue – but it is a lot of work for only 6 cakes, and a lot can go wrong… 
  • Macarons – made without resorting to one of the cunning kits I pick up on my semi-regular visits to French supermarkets. (Now available in Sainsbury’s, but honestly, I’ve not found them to be as good as the French ones.)
  • Marshmallows – this is a follow up to the teacakes. Teacakes have smooth, unset marshmallow inside them, but I’m intrigued by the kind you’d put in a hot chocolate. Again, this is where the sugar thermometer comes in.

Obviously, I’ll need tasters/guinea pigs. I definitely need someone else with me on chocolate teacake day, because I would be more than capable of eating all 6 myself. (As an added motivation – if needed – the Lakeland moulds I have fit to the size of a digestive biscuit, meaning we’d have some of those to nibble on during the rest of the process.) Tempting?