Week 3 on the Great British Bake Off was bread week, and Paul Hollywood had us making snowman-looking loaves called cottage loaves.
The recipe is pretty traditional, using lard and suggesting that you knead it all by hand rather than using a mixer, as it would have been made in the olden days. I used butter (as there’s no point buying lard just to use 50g of it on a single loaf) and actually, I did use my kitchen aid to knead it (because, let’s face it, this is the modern age after all) but I don’t think either of those things affected my bake.
500g strong white bread flour, plus extra for dusting
7g instant dried yeast
7g fine salt
50g lard, cut into small pieces, softened – I used butter instead, I think it had the same effect
300 – 350ml water
oil, for greasing
Step 1 – Tip the flour into a large bowl and add the yeast to one side and the salt to the other. Add the lard and pour in about three-quarters of the water. Turn the mixture around with the fingers of one hand to mix then continue to add more of the water, a little at a time, until all the flour is incorporated. The dough needs to be soft but not soggy. (You may not need all the water or you may need a little more)
Step 2 – Tip the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for 5–10 minutes. Or use your electric mixer… Work the dough through the initial wet stage until it is smooth and silky.
Step 3 – Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a clean tea towel and leave to rise until doubled in size. This will take at least an hour and can take 2–3 hours or longer, depending on the room temperature. Line a baking tray with baking parchment.
Step 4 – Tip the dough onto a lightly floured surface and fold it inwards repeatedly until all the air is knocked out. At this stage, you are starting to form the structure of the dough so it rises upwards rather than spreading outwards. This is especially important in a freestanding loaf without a tin to support the bread’s rise.
Step 5 – Tear off a third of the dough and set aside. Shape the larger piece into a ball. To do this, first flatten the dough into a rough rectangle then roll it into a thick oblong. Turn the dough so that the longer edge is running away from you and flatten it slightly. Now fold the two ends in towards the centre and press them down, so you end up with a chunky, squarish shape. Turn the dough over, so that the join is underneath.
Step 6 – With your palms turned upwards, put your hands on each side, slightly under the dough. Move the cob around, tucking the dough neatly under itself as it turns. You are gently forcing the sides of the dough down and underneath, to create a smooth, taut top and a rough underside. Try to avoid using too much extra flour during shaping if you can. Place the ball of dough on the prepared baking tray.
Step 7 – Shape the other piece of dough into a smaller ball, using the same technique. Place the smaller ball on top of the larger ball. Flatten the top slightly with the palm of your hand, then dust your middle finger and forefinger with flour and push them through the centre of the loaf all the way to the bottom. This helps and to join the two pieces firmly together. Use a sharp knife to make 8 slashes in the surface of both the top and larger lower part of the loaf.
Step 8 – Place the tray inside a large, clean plastic bag and leave the dough to prove for 1 hour, or until well risen. When prodded lightly with your finger, the dough should spring back quickly. Meanwhile, heat your oven to 230C/fan 210C/gas 7 and leave a roasting tray in the bottom of the oven to heat up. I found that my dough stuck to the bag so I would recommend oiling the inside of the plastic bag first.
Step 9 – Remove the proved loaf from the bag and dust with flour.
Step 10 – Fill the roasting tray with cold water to create steam and put the bread into the oven. Bake for 15 minutes, then lower the oven setting to 190C/fan 170C/gas 5 and bake for a further 20–25 minutes, until crusty and golden brown. When tapped on the bottom, the loaf should sound hollow. If not, put it back into the oven for another 5 minutes. I found it browned a lot more than as shown in the pictures by Paul, so I’m not sure whether these oven temperatures and times are quite right. It seemed too hot, as the bread was at risk of catching.
Step 11 – Transfer the cooked loaf to a wire rack to cool.
Sooo… how did it go? Well. On my first attempt, I underestimated how much proving time it took, so I did my first prove overnight in the fridge, then shaped the dough in the morning and proved for the second time in the fridge too, and baked it after work. I was pretty sure it would be ruined, and I was tempted to throw it all away, but I decided to bake it anyway when I was bake from work, and in fact it turned out okay, if a teensy bit dense in the middle:
The second time I made it, my proves went really well. The first prove took about 2 hours… and when I reshaped it, it looked perfect. Look at it…
It was the silkiest, softest, but not sticky dough – it seemed so great. But then, after the second prove, it flopped everywhere…
But THEN my friend Sarah made me bake it anyway, and (although completely the incorrect shape), it did seem to spring up and bake nicely. Take a look…
So I’m not really sure how it went. Neither bake was a perfect cottage loaf, but for different reasons. And I’m not really sure what I learned, if anything. Don’t try proving in the fridge, as even after 8 hours it doesn’t work? And then… what? What did I do wrong the second time? Maybe overproved it? I don’t have the desire to make it a third time (I’ve got stroopwafels to get to!) but it was interesting as I’ve never over-proved anything before. So that’s new at least.