Introduction to an alternative bread

I had many, many failures when I first started baking my own bread - I had everything from house-bricks to the legendary Blob on my initial attempts. They were full of holes, or totally devoid of holes. Some were rock-solid, others empty shells. But they all tasted so good and I persisted, found what I was doing wrong and as if by magic, one day got the perfect loaf!

I experimented, found that are many variations on the basic recipe for bread, and discovered that my own preference is for a denser loaf. I also add oatmeal and rye flour to the mix, which subtly alters both the taste and texture, giving a nuttiness which is very appealing! For a different texture, I prove the dough only once, adding it to the bread tins after one thorough kneading. This produces a slightly heavier bread, with a coarser texture; it is also somewhat tastier, as the volatile oils in the flours are retained in the dough.

The Importance of preparation and ingredients

The choice of ingredients is critical - regular baking flours do not contain sufficient gluten to allow the bread to rise (prove). It is best to obtain a proper bread flour - I have been fortunate enough to find a bakery which sells 1½ kilo bags of specialist flour, although you will find a suitable flour in most supermarkets. In addition, if you can find a source of 'live' baker's yeast, you will find that the proving process is faster, as the yeast is working efficiently from the outset. Never use yeast designed for wine or beer brewing!. Oils and fats are a matter of choice - I prefer extra virgin olive oil or pressed sunflower oil.

Watch where you work, too. When preparing the dough, the temperature should be moderate - too hot and the crust may dry out, too cold and the yeast is not working at its best! In either case, your bread will not rise, or will collapse in the oven. Most bakers agree that 18-22°C (65-75°F) is ideal - kneading is also hard work, and the temperature will suit you better, too!

My own recipe, then, is as follows (apologies for the imperial measures rather than metric or US cups). It makes three loaves of about 2lbs each:

1½lbs strong wholemeal flour (all flour should be at room temperature)
1lb strong white flour
3oz fine oatmeal
3oz rye flour
1 oz fresh yeast (barm)
1 tablespoon molasses (or honey)
1 oz fat or oil
1 heaped teaspoon of salt
1½ pints lukewarm water (about 1¾ US pints)
Heat the oven to 425°F (220°C or Gas Mark 7) before you start anything - a cool oven spells disaster! Dissolve the molasses in the water, then add the yeast and stir thoroughly. Leave in a warm place for about 5 minutes (longer if you use dried yeast) until frothy. Mix the flours and salt in a large bowl, and gradually add the water/yeast mix, stirring thoroughly. Do not add all the water at once - I usually add about 90% of it, as some flours take up water at different rates. Mix in the oil or fat as you add the water, and incorporate it well.

Now comes the fun.

Take it out of the bowl. Throw it onto a floured worktop. Knead. Pull. Push, Tug, stretch, pull and push again. Squeeze. For the best effect, think of your boss/ex-partner/housemate from hell. Get serious with it, show it who's boss. This is the secret - the more you pull, stretch and tug, the better the bread will be. The principle here is to stretch the gluten, as this supports the bread and provides the open texture.

I normally knead for about 5-10 minutes, until I end up with a smooth dough. You may find you need to add a little flour or water to get it right - if it is still slimy, more flour! You will learn the qualities of the flour you use, but you may need a couple of attempts to get it right.

Once you have the right texture, and are suitably tired, divide the loaf into three lumps and place each into a greased 2lb loaf tin and leave, covered with a damp cloth, until the dough has doubled in size. (You can do anything with it at this point - I often plait loaves, and bake them as they are, or pop the plaits in the tins for a nice finish. Garnish with poppy seeds or other stuff like cracked wheat or oats.) It should need between 35 and 40 minutes in the oven - rotate the loaves after about 25 minutes, then check they are done by tapping the base of the loaf. If it sounds hollow, it's done! Leave on a wire rack to cool off, then serve with a little butter and honey - wonderful - enjoy!