The best thing since...

There are few tasks in the kitchen that I don't feel confident doing. From perfectly poaching scallops to prepping a duck ballotine for 12 hungry diners, not many things cause me a headache.

There are, however, a couple of things that I try to avoid where I can and baking is one of those things.  Don't get me wrong, I make a mean pizza dough and have, on occassion, been able to whip up pretty successful chocolate cake.  I'm just more of a "chuck it all in" kind of cook and baking, needing a lighter touch (and a certain adherance to recipes), is left up to my wonderful other half.  Most weekends I am treated to loaves of soda, spelt or wholegrain, warm from the oven (yes I'm spoilt).  This arrangement works great (for me) but an offer from Elisabeth, owner of the new Pontcanna-based One Mile Bakery, to attend one of her new baking classes was too good to turn down.

Taking place in Lis' home, myself and fellow bloggers Mark, Bev and Nikki were first of all introduced to some familiar loaves from two UK-based bakeries.  We marvelled at the list of ingredients - ascorbic acid (vitamin C to you and me), vinegar and soya flour, then compared it to our ingredients for the day - flour, water and yeast.  That's it.  In my reluctance to get kneading I'd forgotten how simple bread actually is - just three basic ingredients, time and a bit of elbow grease.

My "beast" white loaf [Photo: Cardiff Bites]
Over the course of the day Lis introduced us to a variety of flours and how to bake with them confidently.  Little things like knowing that rye flour will suck up more water to produce a wetter dough or that spelt, whilst being super friendly to sensitive tums, doesn't rise as much as other flours took some of the fear out of the process.  So many times when I have baked I've worried that my dough isn't right - too wet, too dry, rising too much or too little.  With a little gentle guidance and encouragement from Lis we were soon turning out doughs to be proud of.

My rye with fennel and sunflower seeds [Photo: Cardiff Bites]
The day ran from 10am to 4.30pm and included a light lunch and plenty of tea. At the end of the day we each had four finished loaves to take away along with the recipes for us to recreate them at home. For those who are, like me, novices to baking and living outside the "golden mile" covered by One Mile Bakery this is a fantastic way to experience some of the OMB magic and gain some confidence baking what is an essential foodstuff. 

The fruit of our labour [Photo: Cardiff Bites]
Lis' Top Tips

1. Don't use "fast" yeast - it's a false economy
I recommend using dried yeast for several reasons. "Instant" yeast is all about speed and that's the opposite of what bread-making's about for me - the slower and longer dough ferments, the better the flavour - and also many brands of instant add things to aid the quick development of dough, or recipes using instant will do.  Dried yeast is slower but surer: you can see if it's working with the sludge test and you know it's just yeast.
The "sludge" test - dried yeast will produce a sludge when used correctly [Photo: Cardiff Bites]
2. Use lukewarm, preferably filtered, water
Water at as close to body temperature as possible is the ideal: it will activate the yeast well and begin the fermentation. Too hot and it kills the yeast; too cool and it will slow the process right down - you'll end up with a tasty flavoursome loaf, but not for quite a while! I recommend filtering water if you can to remove some chemicals which may inhibit fermentation and this is especially important with sourdough cultures: chlorine kills bacteria and you want your bacteria to flourish in your starter: if you don't have a filter, leave a bowl/jug of water out overnight and most of the chlorine will dissipate.
3. Don't add more flour when kneading, it dries everything out
This is a really common mistake: dough is almost always sticky when first mixed, so the natural response is to flour your work surface like billy-o and your hands too. You can easily add 10% or more flour this way to the recipe without realising, and all that extra flour will just dry your loaf out. Don't flour your surface for kneading: work the dough until it gets less sticky. A dough scraper can really help here.
4. Kneading is important - time it and make sure you knead for the allotted time.
There are different schools of thought on kneading, including many advocates of the non-knead method (uses gentle folds over an hour or so instead of kneading), but if you are going to knead - and I think it's always worth learning this basic skill as it connects you to how the dough feels and changes - you need to knead for long enough. Set your timer for 10 minutes; you may need a few more mins to get to an elastic dough you can stretch out and almost see through.
5. If using a fan oven, turn the fan function off for better results.
Fan ovens do tend to dry the surface of the bread out and leave it a slightly paler colour. The taste of the loaf won't be affected but if you can swtich the fan off, the crust will benefit.
and most importantly 6. Use the best flour you can afford. 
Like any other cooking, it makes a huge difference if you use the best ingredients. Stoneground flour has bags more flavour and character than milled flour (which is the norm - and hot-milling, which is used to make mass-produced bread, removes/kills many of the nutrients in the grain), so it's worth looking out for that in delis/shops - I use Felin Ganol from west Wales, Shipton Mill from the Cotswolds and Bacheldre Mill.
All bloggers attending the day were guests of Lis and as such the class was complimentary.  If you'd like to attend a class you can find more info on the website.  Prices start at £50.


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