Tag: Bread making

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.36: Soda bread from Ireland

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.36: Soda bread from Ireland

So here’s the problem. I’m out of bread, I’m in lockdown and not heading for the shops, and it’s an hour to lunchtime. The solution? The Irish have this right: make soda bread. You can do the whole thing in 40 minutes (of which half is waiting while it’s in the oven), it’s delicious and it requires no particularly high level of skill. In short, I am confident that this will be the easiest of this whole “80 bakes”,  a winner that I keep coming back to.

You can choose any combination of flours you like: 100% white and 100% wholemeal are both fine, but my favourite is 50/50 white wheat and wholemeal spelt. The recipe specifies buttermilk, which definitely helps because of its slight acidity, but you can use milk as an alternative. I suspect that milk with a tablespoon of yoghurt would work well, although I haven’t actually tried.

If we’re all honest, this is closer to an oversized scone than a bread, which is perfectly fine, because scones are lovely. And like scones, once you’ve mastered this plain recipe, you can move on to all sorts of flavourings, sweet and savoury: raisins, honey, nuts, dates are great for sweet versions; bacon, cheese (and also nuts) for savoury.

This recipe is only slightly adapted from the one in Emmanuel Hadjiandreou’s excellent How to make bread.

  • Sunflower or other oil for greasing
  • 125g white flour (plain or strong, it doesn’t really matter)
  • 125g wholemeal flour, plus a bit for the board (I use spelt, but wheat is fine)
  • 6g salt
  • 4g baking soda
  • 260g buttermilk (or 260g milk, or 240g milk plus 20g yoghurt)
  1. Preheat oven to 200℃
  2. Brush a small pie dish with a little oil
  3. Stir together all the dry ingredients in a bowl until evenly mixed
  4. Pour in the buttermilk and mix until you have an even dough with no separately visible flour. Don’t overdo the mixing.
  5. Transfer the ball of dough to a board lightly dusted with flour; with your hands also lightly floured, form it into a firm, even ball.
  6. Transfer the ball of dough to your pie dish and make two gashes across the top to form a cross.
  7. Bake for 20-30 minutes until it sounds hollow when tapped.
  8. Transfer to a rack and cool for 10 minutes or so before eating

Soda bread is best eaten immediately after that initial cooling – but if that doesn’t work out, it’s still great for a day or so. It does NOT keep particularly well.

Around the world in 80 bakes, no. 35: Naan – bread from India

Around the world in 80 bakes, no. 35: Naan – bread from India

The word “Naan” isn’t really Indian at all, nor is it particularly specific: it’s actually just the Persian word for “bread”. However, speak to any English patron of Indian restaurants and of the many wonderful breads that Indians make, naan is the one that stands out. It’s one of the simplest of their breads but one of the trickiest to get absolutely right, pillowy soft and puffy on the inside, with the thinnest of crisp outsides, and the traditional teardrop shape. When you do get it right, it’s a magical accompaniment to curries and lentil dishes.

Since there are a growing number of flatbreads in this journey, it’s worth talking about the differences between them. The first obvious thing is the choice of flour: wholemeal for aish baladi, strong white bread flour for most of the others. Next, there’s the thickness: paper thin for lavash, a centimetre or so for aish baladi or naan, deeper for focaccia. Then there’s the flavour profile: focaccia laden with olive oil and herbs, naan most likely to be flavoured with ghee and nigella seeds. There are other choices to be made, like whether to add dairy products to your dough and whether to use oil (or butter or ghee), but these often vary as much in different recipes for what’s notionally the same bread as they do between nationalities.

As a Western home cook, your inevitable problem with naan is the absence of a tandoor with its intense heat and stone sides. For most of these breads, my recommendation is now the same: put the oven on its hottest setting and use a pizza stone if you have one. If you don’t, use a heavy metal frying pan that you can put in the oven (no plastic handles). Using a frying pan will give you the “slightly scorched in patches” effect that you often get in restaurants.

The Guardian’s Felicity Cloake usually does a great job of trying out many different recipes, so I’ve gone with her ingredient list, matched to my normal flatbread-making drill. 

The quantities here made four good sized naans.

  • 300g strong white bread flour
  • 8g salt
  • 5g nigella seeds (kaloonji)
  • 150ml tepid water 
  • 6g sugar
  • 7g dried yeast
  • 100g yoghurt
  • 40g ghee (or melted butter)
  1. Mix the flour, salt and nigella seeds
  2. Mix the water, sugar and yeast; leave for a few minutes until frothy
  3. Add the yoghurt and melted ghee to your wet mixture and mix evenly
  4. Add the wet mix to the dry mix and combine to form a smooth dough
  5. Using the dough hook of your stand mixer, knead for 3-4 minutes
  6. Leave to rest for 15 minutes
  7. Knead for another 2 minutes, then transfer to a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a tea towel and leave to rise. Depending on the strength of your yeast and the temperature of your kitchen, this should take between one and two hours.
  8. Put your pizza stone into the oven and preheat to 250℃.
  9. On a lightly floured board, knock back your dough and divide it into four.
  10. Using a couple of baking sheets, form each of the four pieces of dough into the classic teardrop shape.
  11. Cover with tea towels and leave to prove for another 45 minutes to 1 hour.
  12. Brush with melted ghee (I forgot to do this for the photos) and bake for around 10 minutes
Around the world in 80 bakes, no.34: Chimodho – cornbread from Zimbabwe

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.34: Chimodho – cornbread from Zimbabwe

Chimodho is cornbread from Zimbabwe, where it also goes under the name of Mupotohayi. Many countries have their own versions of cornbread, sometimes several versions each; this is the first one I’ve made and I can’t vouch for it being dramatically different from a cornbread that you might get in the US, Italy or anywhere else. I can’t even vouch for it being the one and only Zimbabwean version: according to Zimbabwean blogger Princess Tafadzwa,  “Chimodho” means pretty much any homemade bread without a recipe. But I will vouch for it being one of the nicest quick bakes on this blog so far: soft, flavourful and impossibly moreish. It’s the perfect accompaniment to an autumnal soup.

I started from a recipe on zimbokitchen.com, which I used pretty much intact apart from halving the sugar content. I’m glad to have done so, since the result was in no way lacking in sweetness, but your taste may differ. I also might try making this as muffins next time rather than as a single loaf, because the crust really is sensationally good.

  • 250ml buttermilk
  • 90ml sunflower oil
  • 1 egg
  • 180g coarse cornmeal
  • 170g plain flour
  • 50g sugar
  • 6g (1 tsp) salt
  • 3g (½ tsp) baking soda
  • 4g (1 tsp) baking powder
  1. Preheat oven to 175℃ fan.
  2. Put the buttermilk, oil and egg into the bowl of your stand mixer; beat with the egg beater until very smooth. 
  3. Mix cornmeal, plain flour, sugar, salt, baking soda and baking powder evenly in a bowl, then sift them into a different bowl. Make sure that the mix is very even.
  4. Add the dry mix to the wet mix, then mix thoroughly with the ordinary paddle of your stand mixer until you have a smooth dough, which will be fairly wet. Leave for five minutes or so.
  5. In the meantime, grease a baking tin with butter.
  6. Pour the mixture into the baking tin and smooth it out to an even shape.
  7. Bake for 40-45 minutes, until a skewer inserted into the bread comes out clean.
  8. Cool on a wire rack.
Around the world in 80 bakes, no.30: Focaccia from Italy

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.30: Focaccia from Italy

With apologies to ciabatta-lovers, focaccia is the Italian bread par excellence. Its pillowy, soft texture, coupled with a crisp outside, a slight crunch of salt flakes and the aroma of olive oil simply can’t be beaten. 

My focaccia recipe is, to be honest, a bit of a mongrel. Prior to this strange year, I was visiting Italy around twice a year, but the best focaccia I have ever had was not made by an Italian but by an Indian chef at a hotel in the mountains of Oman who swore by a triple proving. The softest, most pillowy dough – my ideal focaccia consistency – comes from the kneading method in the Persian flatbread recipe in Sabrina Ghayour’s Persiana. I’ve gone for Giorgio Locatelli’s recommendation for flour (from his Made in Italy, via Felicity Cloake’s round-up recipe in her excellent “The perfect xyz” series in The Guardian), and done toppings as suggested by Italian-American Maurizio, aka The Perfect Loaf. Personally, I think the results are well worth the extra effort, but there are certainly shortcuts available if you’re pushed for time.

Two important variables are the salt and oil content. I eat a fairly low salt diet and the amount in here is about the maximum I can take. For some, even this will be too much; for others, this won’t be nearly enough compared to the salt hit they expect from a focaccia. My focaccia is also relatively low in oil: you may prefer to drizzle on a lot more than me. You’re just going to have to experiment until you get these to your taste.

Also, I’ve opted for a 40cm x 30cm tray, which gives a flattish focaccia with a relatively short, hot baking time. A variation would be to use a smaller, higher-sided tin and a lower temperature (say 200℃) for a loaf with a higher ratio of inside softness to outside crust.

  • 400ml warm water (around 40℃)
  • 20g sugar
  • 8g dried yeast
  • 375g strong white bread flour
  • 375g OO flour
  • 10g salt
  • 100ml olive oil, plus 30ml for the drizzle
  • A tablespoon or so semolina flour (optional)
  • 12 cherry tomatoes
  • 24 black olives, pitted
  • Half a dozen sprigs of rosemary
  • 20ml cold water
  • 10g sea salt flakes

There are some options as to how to prepare baking trays. You’re trying to get high heat onto the base of your focaccia as soon as you can, so Cloake suggests that you preheat a pizza stone in your oven and “transfer” the focaccia to it. That’s all very well, but it’s difficult to transfer a large rectangle of dough while keeping its shape, without the toppings falling off. I opted for a metal baking tray placed onto the stone: metal is a good conductor and this did the job just fine. An alternative is to lay out your focaccia on baking parchment: if you don’t have a pizza stone, you’ll want to preheat the metal tray and then move your dough to the heated tray while still on its parchment base.

As ever, rising times depend completely on the temperature in your kitchen, and the alternatives should be obvious if you don’t have a stand mixer.

  1. Combine water, sugar and yeast; leave for a few minutes until frothy
  2. In the bowl of your stand mixer, combine the flours and salt and stir until mixed evenly
  3. Add the wet mix and 100ml olive oil to the dry mix
  4. With the standard paddle, mix for a minute or so until you have a smooth dough: you should find that it comes away cleanly from the sides of bowl
  5. Switch to the dough hook and knead for 5 minutes
  6. Leave to stand for 10 minutes, then knead for another 2 minutes. Repeat this.
  7. Brush a little olive oil over the surface of a large bowl, transfer your ball of dough to it, cover and leave to rise for around 60-90 minutes.
  8. If you’re using baking parchment, line your baking tray with it. Optionally, dust a tablespoon or two of semolina flour over this.
  9. Knock back the dough and shape it into a rectangle covering the whole tray, Make it as even as you can: you’ll get some resistance, but you can pull it around with little danger of tearing.
  10. Cover with a tea towel and leave to rise for another 45 minutes or so.
  11. If using a pizza stone, put it into your oven now. Otherwise, slide the parchment sheet off your baking tray and put the tray into the oven.
  12. Preheat oven to 250℃ fan (or as near as you can get).
  13. Leave the dough for its second rise, around 45-60 minutes. 
  14. Meanwhile, prepare  your toppings: chop of blitz the rosemary very fine, halve the cherry tomatoes. If your olives came in brine, wash them thoroughly to remove the salt.
  15. Uncover the dough and with a finger, press a pattern of 6 x 8 indentations into it with a finger, going deep. Press the cherry tomato halves and the olives into the indentations in a chequerboard pattern (that’s why I’ve been fussy about the numbers). Sprinkle the rosemary evenly over the top.
  16. Cover with a tea towel again and leave for another 30-45 minutes.
  17. Prepare a mixture of 30ml olive oil and 20ml water, whisking with a fork until emulsified. Spread this evenly over the focaccia.
  18. Sprinkle the sea salt flakes evenly over.
  19. Now work quickly: open the oven, take out the stone or tray, transfer your focaccia to it, replace it in the oven and close. Now reduce the oven temperature to 225℃.
  20. Bake for around 20-25 minutes until golden brown.
  21. Remove from the oven, slide the focaccia onto whatever board or tray you’re going to serve it on, and leave to cool for a few minutes before eating. This may be the hardest thing in the recipe, but you don’t want to burn your mouth!
Around the world in 80 bakes, no.27: Lavash from Armenia

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.27: Lavash from Armenia

Everyone agrees that Armenia’s national bread is baked in a tandoor-type oven and is called Lavash. Beyond that, however, it gets confusing: there’s yeasted or unleavened Lavash, there’s thick, puffy Lavash or wafer-thin crispbread Lavash. I’ve gone for a thin, yeasted version, soft enough to use as a wrap bread.

The Wikipedia article on Lavash has a fabulous short video of two Armenian women making the bread: they toss the sheets of dough and fold them over forearms before one of them stretches it impossibly thin then places it on a rounded wooden board just suited for slapping it into the oven such that it sticks to the inside. You can’t really come close to replicating that in a Western kitchen, both because a domestic oven doesn’t behave remotely like the large wood-fired Middle Eastern version and because of the years of skill required to stretch the dough the way they do. Still, my approximation wasn’t bad, using wooden boards, a large rectangular pizza stone and a fan oven turned up to maximum.

As with most baking, you can rely on the quantities shown here but you can’t rely on the timings: they’re all far too dependent on the temperature and humidity of your kitchen,  the exact characteristics of your oven and on how thin you dare stretch the dough. Lavash should be pretty tolerant of a half hour or more either way on the rise times, but where you really need to watch it is on the baking time. At three minutes, my first one turned to crispbread: delicious, but with no possibility of using it for wrapping. Two minutes was a bit on the doughy side; two and a half was just about perfect.

  • 350ml warm water (around 40℃)
  • 8g dried yeast
  • 20g sugar
  • 500g strong white flour, plus plenty more for rolling
  • 10g salt
  • sunflower or olive oil for coating
  1. The usual start for bread: mix the water, yeast and sugar and wait for it to go foamy.
  2. Mix the flour and salt.
  3. Blend your wet and dry mixes to form a dough, then knead in a stand mixer for around 10 minutes.
  4.  Brush some oil over the inside of a large bowl. Form your dough into a ball and put it in the bowl, then brush more oil to coat the top of the ball also.
  5. Cover and leave to rise for around 90 minutes at room temperature, until the dough is large and nicely stretchy.
  6. When the dough has nearly risen, put your pizza stone into the oven and preheat to its highest temperature (mine was 250℃ fan)
  7. Punch the dough back, divide the dough into eight pieces and put each piece back into the bowl, coating it with oil as you go.
  8. Cover and leave to rise for another 30 minutes
  9. Once the dough is rising, get everything ready for rolling and baking: once you start putting things in the oven, you’re going to want to work quickly. Choose a board that you’re going to roll the bread onto and flour it generously. Have your flour jar, a spoon, a rolling pin and a scraper ready. And have a basket ready for the finished Lavash, lined with a tea towel and with a second towel next to it ready to be used as a cover.
  10. Take a ball of dough and roll it flat: make sure there’s plenty of flour on the board, on your rolling pin and on both sides of your ball of dough, or it will stick. When you’ve rolled it as flat as possible, if you dare, throw it back and forth over your forearm a few times to stretch it further.
  11. Now the tricky part: working quickly, open your oven, pull the stone out, lay the sheet of dough onto the stone, push it back into the oven and close the door. Set a timer for 2½ minutes.
  12. While the first Lavash is baking, roll out and stretch the next one.
  13. Open the oven, take out the Lavash and put it in your basket, lay out the second sheet on the stone, close the oven and reset your timer. Cover the bread with the second tea towel to keep it warm.
  14. Repeat until you’ve done all eight balls.

Our wrap filling, created by my daughter, was a layer of yoghurt and dill, shredded roast spiced chicken, and a salad of finely diced tomato and baby cucumber. The resulting meal was simple, outstandingly full of flavour and worth way more than the sum of its parts.

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.23: Ka’ak Al Quds from Palestine (Jerusalem sesame bread)

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.23: Ka’ak Al Quds from Palestine (Jerusalem sesame bread)

Almost every street corner in East Jerusalem has a vendor with a trolley piled high with hoops of sesame-encrusted white bread called Ka’ak Al Quds: the aroma of fresh baking and toasted sesame is overpowering and irresistible. London-based chef Sami Tamimi, originally from East Jerusalem, has published a glorious book on Palestinian cuisine entitled Falastin (the Arabic language, he explains, does not have a letter “P”, so it should perhaps be “Falastinian”). I cannot recommend the book highly enough and you really, really should go out and buy it, so I hope Sami will forgive me for reproducing my version of his recipe here.

  • 10g dried yeast
  • 20g sugar
  • 300ml lukewarm water (around 40℃)
  • 40g olive oil
  • 250g strong white flour
  • 250g plain white flour
  • 10g salt
  • 15g dried skimmed milk
  • 1 egg
  • 20ml milk (or water)
  • 60g sesame seeds

This will make six of the hoops-shaped loaves: you will be able to fit two at a time onto a typical baking tray (something like 35cm x 25cm). If you have three trays and a big enough oven, you can bake the whole batch at a time; otherwise, you’ll have to do them in two or three batches.

  1. In a bowl or jug, combine the yeast, sugar, lukewarm water and olive oil and stir well. Leave for 5-10 minutes until it’s frothing nicely
  2. In the bowl of your stand mixer, combine the flours, salt and dried skimmed milk and stir until evenly mixed
  3. Add the wet mix to your dry mix and knead with the dough hook until smooth (by the way, Sami’s recipe says 270ml, but I found I needed a bit more).
  4. Form into a ball and leave to rise in an oiled, covered bowl. Usual bread-making rules apply: the warmer the place you leave it, the quicker it will rise, so there’s no point in my giving you a numbers of hours it will take.
  5. Cut three rectangles of baking paper big enough to line your tray.
  6. Once your dough has risen, divide it evenly into six balls. Take the trouble to weigh them to make sure they’re about the same – expect around 150g each.
  7. Take a ball of dough, mould it to a flattened sphere, poke a hole through the middle of your sphere of dough and pull it apart to form an elongated doughnut shape. Pull it to most of the length of your tray, trying to keep the width as even as possible, which is tricky, and place it on one of your rectangles of baking paper; now repeat for the other five balls.
  8. Cover the loaves loosely with tea towels and leave for another half hour or so.
  9. Preheat your oven to 220℃ fan, with your baking tray(s) inside
  10. Lay out the sesame seeds in a dish longer than your loaves (or on a board if you don’t have one)
  11. Beat the egg together with the milk
  12. When you’re ready to bake, brush a loaf with the egg wash, dip it wash side down into the sesame seeds and ensure that it’s thoroughly coated.
  13. Put the loaf back onto the baking paper, sesame side up, and repeat for as many loaves as you’re going to do now.
  14. Take a baking tray out of the oven and transfer the baking paper rectangle with its two loaves onto it. To do this, you will probably either need two people or a tray of some sort.
  15. Bake for 10-15 minutes – you want the loaf to be a deep golden brown but not actually burning.

Leave to cool for a few minutes before eating: this bread is at its best straight out of the oven, but you don’t want to burn your tongue!



Around the world in 80 bakes, no.22: Fjellbrød from Norway

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.22: Fjellbrød from Norway

Two posts in two days, I know, but this one’s really straightforward!

If you think of Scandinavian bread, you think of dark, dense, rye-infused creations to keep you warm in a Nordic winter, or possibly well stoked up for a hike around the fjords: in short, Norway’s fjellbrød (which translates simply as “mountain bread”). I’m not terrifically sure as to how authentically Norwegian this recipe is – I’ve gone for a variation on two posts I’ve seen from Hazel Verden and  Finnish blogger Asli, which both seem to derive from Nigella Lawson – but it’s very easy to make, very full of flavour and agrees with my memory of trips to Bergen.

It’s also the oddest recipe for yeasted bread I know: the only one that involves no kneading, no leaving to rise, and putting your bread into a cold oven. But I can’t argue with the results.

  • 400g wholemeal flour
  • 150g light rye flour
  • 30g porridge oats
  • 100g mixed seeds (I used a seven seed mix including sunflower, pumpkin and linseed; you can use whatever is your favourite)
  • 10g salt
  • 270ml water
  • 270ml milk
  • 20g sugar
  •  7g yeast
  1. Put the sugar, milk and water into a saucepan and warm to your body temperature (around 36℃). Transfer to a jug, add the yeast and stir. Leave until the yeast is beginning to froth (around 10 minutes).
  2. Meanwhile, combine the flours, the oats, 80g of the mixed seeds and the salt in the bowl of your stand mixer (or other large bowl). Stir until evenly mixed.
  3. Once your wet mixture is frothing, pour it into the dry mix, being sure to incorporate any yeast that’s gathered on the bottom. Mix thoroughly with the standard paddle (or a wooden spoon) until you have a smooth but somewhat sticky dough.
  4. Grease a baking tin and pour in your dough.
  5. Sprinkle the top with another 20g of seeds (and perhaps a few more oats); push them into the crust.
  6. Cover the baking tin with foil and put into a cold oven. Turn the temperature to 110℃ non-fan and bake for 30 minutes.
  7. Turn the temperature up to 180℃ non-fan and bake for another 30 minutes.
  8. Remove the foil and bake until done, perhaps another 30 minutes. Use the usual skewer test: a skewer should come out dry.
  9. Cool on a rack
Around the world in 80 bakes, no.20: Aish baladi from Egypt

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.20: Aish baladi from Egypt

Aish baladi is the Egyptian wholemeal version of the bread more generally known in the Middle East as “khubz arabi” (Arab bread) or in the West as “pita bread”. It’s a small, flat bread baked at high temperature which forms a pocket into which you will be stuffing your hummus, ful medames or other goodies.

Traditionally, aish baladi is baked in a very hot, wood-fired, open topped clay or brick oven (the Arab version is called a tabun, the Indian one a tandoor): the bread against the hot sides and left there for a very short time. That’s always going to make it difficult to replicate in a standard Western kitchen, the key requirement being to take your circle of dough from room temperature to high heat as fast as you possibly can. It’s the suddenness of this process that causes the water in the middle of the bread to vaporise quickly; the pressure from the resulting steam causes the two sides of the dough to separate and form the pocket.

The Saveur recipe I started from suggests that you use a pizza stone: I don’t have one, but I do have non-stick frying pans that can go into a very hot oven: these work just fine if I wind my oven up the its maximum temperature. If I start with the bread on a standard baking tin at room temperature and put the whole thing into the oven, the result is perfectly edible bread, but without the puffed up pocket, which kind of loses the point.

The dough is a pretty straightforward yeasted wholemeal dough. I’ve broadly followed Saveur’s method (although I reduced the water content considerably – the dough from their recipe is really wet), but I suspect I could have used my standard method of “start the yeast with a teaspoon of sugar and some warm water” without a problem. Wholemeal wheat flour should be fine; if you want to be historically authentic, use emmer wheat; I used spelt. Do not use wholemeal rye flour, which doesn’t form enough gluten: my first attempt at aish baladi went comically wrong when I opened a packet of dark rye flour by mistake and couldn’t understand why interminable amounts of kneading appeared to be having no effect whatsoever.

  • 7g dried yeast
  • 240ml lukewarm water (around 40℃)
  • 300g wholemeal flour, plus more for rolling
  • 6g oil
  • 5g salt
  1. Mix the yeast, the water and half the flour in a bowl and leave for 30 minutes: it should go nicely frothy.
  2. Add in the oil, the salt and the rest of the flour and blend to a smooth dough. Knead for 7 minutes with the dough hook in a stand mixer, or around 10 minutes by hand.
  3. Leave to rise for around 90 minutes
  4. Put your pizza stone (or frying or baking pan) into the oven and preheat the oven to its hottest setting (mine is 250℃ fan)
  5. Flour a surface for rolling with more wholemeal flour. Use a generous amount.
  6. Cut the dough into 8 or 9 pieces, then roll each piece into a thin circle, perhaps 15cm in diameter. You may find it easier to go for an oval than a circle: make sure you know exactly how many pieces of dough are going to fit onto your stone or pan.
  7. Optionally, sprinkle the top of each circle with some bran (if you have it) or some of the excess flour from rolling.
  8. Leave to rise for a further 20-30 minutes.
  9. Prepare somewhere to keep the bread warm: I used a basket lined with a tea towel
  10. Now work quickly: open the oven, take the stone or pan out, and put one or more circles of dough onto it, put it back in and close the oven. The faster you can do this, the more likely you are to get the approved puffiness.
  11. Bake for around 6-8 minutes. Take the pan out, transfer the bread to your basket (or whatever you’re using) and repeat until you’ve done all the batches you want.

Be careful: bread straight out of the oven will be really, really hot: you want to give it a minute or two before allowing anyone to risk biting in or they’ll burn their mouths! But the bread is at its best in the next 10 minutes after that.

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.15: Challah

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.15: Challah

The core of every Jewish family is the Friday night dinner which greets the Sabbath. Even an unbeliever like me is deeply moved by ritual of the blessings over candles, bread and wine that bring my family together with each other and with our culture. And there’s only one bread for this: the plaited, egg-enriched, slightly sweetened white loaf called challah (or cholla, depending on your favourite transliteration of the Hebrew חַלָּה‎). Jewish children are addicted to the stuff from an early age and not just for its ritual significance: good challah combines tastiness and pillowy soft texture in a way that’s hard to beat. Beware, though: a lot of bakeries sell challah that looks the part with its perfect plaiting, but is dry or tasteless or both. Which is a good reason for making your own.

For the purposes of this series, challah counts as the entry for Israel. In truth, however, it’s spread throughout the world and you can’t help noticing that similar breads are baked all over Europe from Germany eastwards by Jews and gentiles alike.

Three strand challah after second rise, ready for baking

There are many ways of braiding your challah and at some point, you need to decide on how many strands you’re going to use: I recommend that you start with 3, but you can go for anything from 2 to 9. You’ve almost certainly spotted from the photographs that I’m fairly rubbish at this part of the puzzle, so I’m not even going to attempt to do a better of job of showing you how than this Czech YouTube video, which shows you how to do all of them. However, my challah is reliably soft and tastes reliably good, so I’ll stand by the virtues of my recipe, which is based on the one in Emmanuel Hadjiandreou’s excellent book How To Make Bread. Hadjiandreou is decidedly non-Jewish, but who’s asking? His recipe has worked better for me than the ones from many synagogue websites.

Four strand Challah after baking

This makes a single small loaf. It takes several hours from start to finish, but that’s mostly waiting time: the amount of actual work isn’t too horrific.

  • 250g Strong while flour
  • 4g tsp salt
  • 15g sugar
  • 3g dried yeast
  • 80ml warm water (around 40℃)
  • 2 eggs
  • 20g sunflower oil
  • Poppy seeds or sesame seeds for dusting the top

Ideally, you want a silicone baking sheet to put over your baking tray (better still if you have the Silpat silicone/fibreglass type, which I don’t). But otherwise, baking parchment will do.

  1. Preheat your oven to 50℃
  2. Weigh out and mix the flour, salt and sugar in a bowl
  3. Weigh out and mix the warm water and yeast in another bowl
  4. Separate one egg and set aside the white in a bowl; mix the yolk with the whole of the second egg, beat lightly and add to the water/yeast mix
  5. Pour the dry mix into the wet mix and combine until it’s beginning to feel like dough. It will probably still be a bit gritty
  6.  Add the oil and mix until you have  a smooth dough
  7. You could at this point proceed directly to kneading. But you’ll save yourself time and elbow grease by leaving the dough for 10 minutes (a process called autolysis), giving it a quick fold or two and then repeating this a couple of times
  8. Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface. You’ll only need a bit of flour on your hands and on the surface – don’t be tempted to flood the dough with raw flour at this stage. Keep kneading until the dough is elastic and springs back when tugged or prodded.
  9. Turn your oven off. Put your ball of dough back into the bowl, cover it and leave it to rise in your turned off oven. You’ll probably want it to rise for a couple of hours: you have to judge this by eye and experience. 
  10. Punch the dough down, transfer it to a lightly floured surface, divide it into equal parts: as many as you have chosen for your braid. Roll each part into a sausage, stretched out as long as you can reasonably make it while keeping all your strands the same length.
  11. Braid the dough as per the instructions in the video – either on your board or, preferably, directly onto the baking sheet.
  12. Transfer the baking sheet onto your tray (or, if you didn’t have a baking sheet, transfer the braided loaf to your lined tray). Brush the loaf with some of the egg white that you reserved in step 4, and sprinkle a generous helping of sesame or poppy seeds over the top.
  13. Cover the challah with an inverted bowl or domed lid that’s large enough so that the challah won’t touch it when it expands. Now leave it in a warm place until it is well risen: this can be anything from 30 minutes to a couple of hours depending on the ambient temperature and on how strong your yeast was in the first place.
  14. Make sure you turn your oven to 200℃ fan in plenty of time: the oven could easily take 15-20 minutes to come to temperature and you don’t want your challah sagging horribly while you’re waiting for it.
  15. Bake the challah for around 20 minutes. The crust should be a medium to dark golden brown and if you stick a skewer into the bottom, there should be no sign of stickiness upon removal.
  16. Leave the challah to cool on a rack.

Notes: 

For step 9, various authorities on bread-making say that you will get a better flavour by using a much slower rise at much lower temperature: perhaps 8 hours at a room temperature of 20℃ or so, or even longer in the fridge. I’ve never tried.

For step 13, if you have two ovens, you can use the same trick as step 9: preheat one oven to 50℃, then turn it off and use it as a proving drawer. Then use the other oven for the actual bake. If you only have one oven, you can’t really do this: if you have a boiler cupboard or airing cupboard that’s warmer than your kitchen, you can use it. Otherwise, you’ll just have to do the second rise at room temperature and be patient.

Some recipes recommend that you preheat the oven to 250℃ and then turn it down as soon as you’ve put the bread in. This gets a slightly better crust, but runs the risk of you forgetting to turn the oven down, something that’s now happened to me sufficiently often that I don’t go for this any more.

The usual in-process shots:

And here’s a quick look at the braiding process. But truly, use someone else’s!

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.9: Char siu bao from China

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.9: Char siu bao from China

Quite simply, Char siu bao are the best street food ever. These steamed, yeasted dumplings filled with sticky barbecued pork may have started life in the heat of Southern China, but they’ve migrated to every corner of the country (and much of Asia and the rest of the world). In Beijing and Shanghai, there are whole shops devoted to them, not least because they make a fantastic warmer in the cold winters. People argue about the finer points of whose version is best.

None of this is a secret, but there are two surprises. The first is that bao are relatively easy to make, if you’re used to baking: you mostly use standard bread-making techniques, the difference coming only at the end when you use a steamer instead of an oven (there are baked versions of bao, but the steamed ones are far more common). The second is that they’re as good a dish to make at home as they are to eat on the street or in a dim sum joint: they freeze wonderfully and 20 seconds in a microwave will get a bao from fridge temperature to a delicious and warming snack.

A few subtleties before you start:

  • You will need a steamer, either purpose-built or jury-rigged. The ideal is to have one or two Chinese bamboo steamers set over a wok with a couple of centimetres of boiling water (they stack). But you can use anything you like that gets steam flowing around your bao without them ending up in a pool of hot water.
  • The bao you buy off the street in China or in dim sum joints are preternaturally white. That’s because they’re made from highly bleached flour (if you’re in a Chinese shop, ask for “Hong Kong flour”). Personally, I’m not bothered.
  • Tracts have been written on the best way to achieve maximum fluffiness of the bun. I’ve still got room from improvement here: when lockdown ends, I’ll be trying some different types of flour and technical variations on when to add the baking powder, whether to do a second prove, etc. For now, I’m going with a 5:1 mix of strong white bread flour to cornflour (it’s what I’ve got). Ideally, use a white flour with a low protein content.
  • The filling given here is an example. Use your favourite Chinese flavourings: bean pastes, oyster sauce, whatever; add chili if want it spicy. The choice is yours.
  • Choose your favourite spelling: Char siu vs Char siew vs chāshāo. And choose your favourite recipe for making it: I’ve given you one below.

Dough

  • 8g dried yeast
  • 50g sugar
  • 180g warm water (around 40℃)
  • 20g oil (I used sunflower oil, any fairly neutral oil will work)
  • 300g white flour
  • 60g cornflour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  1. Preheat oven to 50℃ (you’ll be using it to prove the dough).
  2. Combine water, sugar and yeast; stir well to dissolve; leave for 10 minutes or so
  3. Combine flour, cornflour, salt and baking powder and mix thoroughly
  4. Once your wet mixture is nicely frothy, add it to the dry mixture. Mix thoroughly into a ball and then knead for around 5-10 minutes – you’ve kneaded it enough when the dough is very elastic and bounces back nicely when you stretch or punch it.
  5. Put the dough into a large bowl with a damp tea towel over it. SWITCH OFF THE OVEN and put it in. Leave the dough to to rise for around 60-90 minutes. I can never figure out what people mean when they say “until it’s doubled in size”: I leave the dough until it’s mostly filled the bowl.

Filling

You’ll have time to make your filling while the dough is being left to rise.

  • 200g Char siu (see below for recipe)
  • 90g red onion or banana shallots
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 3 spring onions
  • 1 tbs oil (I used sunflower oil, any fairly neutral oil will work)
  • 1 tbs hoisin sauce
  • 1 tbs dark soya sauce
  1. Chop the Char siu very finely (around 3mm dice would be ideal). Chop the onion, garlic and spring onions very finely also.
  2. Heat oil in your wok to high heat. When hot, add the onions and garlic, stir-fry for a couple of minutes
  3. Add spring onions, stir fry until onions are transparent
  4. Add Char siu, hoisin sance and dark soya sauce, mix thoroughly, then turn the heat down and stir fry for a minute or two until everything is combined and fragrant.
  5. Remove from heat and let cool while your dough is rising. If you’re going to use the same wok for steaming, you’ll now need to decant the filling to another bowl and wash up the wok.

Assembly

  1. Cut twelve squares of greaseproof paper, around 8cm square.
  2. Take the dough out of its bowl and divide into twelve portions, as evenly as you can manage (the easiest way to get them even is to roll the dough into a cylinder, chop it into half, chop each half in half and then each remaining piece into three).
  3. With a floured rolling pin on  floured surface, roll a portion of dough out into a flat disc, around 12cm in diameter.
  4. Spoon a dollop of filling into the middle (don’t touch it with your fingers or you’ll then stain the dough)
  5. Pinch up the dough into pleats, ensuring at each stage that the filling isn’t being allowed to drop out. You end up with a shape a bit like the onion dome on a Russian church.
  6. Put the completed dumpling on a square of greaseproof paper and transfer it to your steamer.
  7. Repeat for the remaining bao. Depending on the size of your steamer, you may have to do this in several batches.
  8. Steam the bao for around 12-15 minutes until fluffy and cooked through.

Making your own Char Siu

Char siu is barbecued, marinated pork. The first thing you have to decide is what pork to buy. My preferred cut is shoulder, which has some fat in it but not too much. Fillet (aka tenderloin) or loin is OK, but has so little fat content that it tends to dry out. Belly is the opposite: your char siu will be beautifully soft but you may find it rather fatty.

There are a million different recipes for the marinade. They pretty much all involve soy sauce, garlic, five spice powder, a sweetener (sugar / honey / hoisin sauce) and something to make it sour (vinegar / tomato puree). Shaoxing rice wine is a popular addition. Quantities can vary wildly according to taste.

The best suggestion I’ve found for simulating the way the Chinese make char siu comes from Woks of life: set your oven to its highest setting (probably 250℃ fan) and roast your meat on a grid over water. I’ve gone for a simplified version of what they do.

By tradition, char siu is red. In practise, this is typically achieved by using red food colouring. Personally, I can’t be bothered, so my char siu is brown.

  • Pork shoulder – 1 kg
  • Garlic – 3 clove, crushed
  • Five spice powder – ½ tsp
  • Dark soya sauce – 1 tbs
  • Hoisin sauce – 1 tbs
  • Shaoxing rice wine – 1 tbs
  • Tomato puree – 1 tbs
  1. Cut the pork into large strips (around 6-8 cm in diameter). If you’re using tenderloin, that’s pretty much the width of the whole thing, so just cut it in half.
  2. Mix all the marinade ingredients in a bowl big enough to hold the pork, dunk the pork into the marinade and make sure it’s all properly coated, cover and leave overnight.
  3. Preheat oven to 250℃, with an oven shelf near the top.
  4. Use a deep oven dish half-filled with water. Place a grid over the oven dish, then put the pork on the grid. 
  5. Put the whole lot into the oven and roast for around 40 minutes. You want the pork to be cooked through, but not dry. You may want to baste the pork with any remaining marinade every 10 minutes or so.

The quantities given are for 1 kg of pork, which is over three times what you’ll need for one batch of bao. The idea is that you’re going to eat some freshly cooked for a main meal, and then use the leftovers for bao a day or so later, freezing any you have left after that.