Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Let me eat bread!

Silver linings and all. I'm working from home this week so that somebody is here at 'guard' the flat at all times until the new security measures are in place.

Fortunately, my editor was good enough to agree readily to the plan – and equally fortunately, this is a comparatively light week.

So in my campaign to turn negative to positive, I'm spending my screen breaks in the kitchen. Yesterday, it was mayonnaise. Today, it's some really quite serious baking.

The plan sounds simple (and French) enough: bake some bread and then, later on, embark on a first effort to make quiche.

To be fair, I've baked bread before, at the most basic level, while I have occasionally made pastry with reasonable success.

But I'm stepping up the challenge a tad.

Firstly, this will be a first attempt at using a starter dough – I'm trying a baguette. Then, since The Other Half doesn't like cheese, the quiche will be adapted from assorted recipes, and will have shallot and smoked streaky bacon as a filling, and sans the cheese.

The first step is to don an apron. My mother used to make me wear a pinny at meal times until ridiculously late, so I've hated them since, but occasional bursts of baking do render it necessary if I don't want to be coated in flour.

Then there's the measuring and sifting of the two flours (strong bread flour and plain flour, plus salt), followed by dissolving the yeast in warm water and letting it have 10 minutes to get going.

Yeast is amazing – a miraculous, living thing. It doesn't look alive – but it most certainly is.

So, beat the yeast with half the sifted flour and salt, and then cover and leave for four hours.

I had my doubts about how alive that yeast was on 30 minutes – nothing seemed to be happening. So I transferred the bowl onto the shelf in the airing cupboard. Three and a half hours on – presto! It's risen and then collapsed – just as the books said it would.

Mix the rest of the flour in and then kneed for a bit – getting everything messy, if you're me. Pop into a clean bowl, cover and leave in a warm place for a further hour.

And whilst waiting, one can contemplate (in true Francophile fashion) the question of bread and France. I love the idea that, by law, every single town or village has to have a proper bakery that bakes proper, fresh bread every single day.

Of course, to get an idea of just how much bread is a part of French culture, one only needs think of Marie Antoinette, who famously said of the peasantry: "Let them eat bread!" Except that, apparently, she didn't. She actually said: "Let them eat brioche", which makes a modicum more sense, since brioche requires less flour than bread.

Such contemplations over, the dough has to be 'knocked back' (thumped a few times to get the air out of it) and is then placed on a floured tray and covered with a cloth for another hour.

It smells extraordinary – like beer. That's that lovely old yeast working away.

Then we bake, with a roasting tin of boiling water in the bottom of the oven.

And while that cooks, it's time to start part two of today's culinary adventure: the quiche.

The pastry is not difficult, but it takes time and patience to 'peck' the chilled, diced butter into the sifted flour. Since it's now gone 5pm and I'm no longer 'at work' too, on to the little kitchen stereo I put Gershwin's Lady Be Good (the Tommy Krasker restoration of the original show) and soon find myself singing along. Almost dancing too, although that's not quite as easy when you're up to your elbows in flour, water, eggs and butter.

Then that goes to rest just as the bread comes out of the oven, crisp and golden. And thus a bottle of cheap but always pleasingly gutsy Tempranillo is opened. I'm an ineffably good mood – I feel as though it's a sort of total 'fuck you' to the burglar. Food, wine and music are a good combination for such statements.

After leaving the pastry a decent time, half of it is rolled out and then placed in a small, fluted quiche dish, before being placed in the freezer for 10 minutes (that's a Jamie Oliver hint). Then the base is pricked (because I forgot to do it before chilling it) and the oven is heated. In the meantime, thinly sliced onion and smoked, streaky bacon are cooking gently in some ordinary olive oil.

This is already the most amount of baking I've done in a single day – but at no point has it felt onerous. Quite the opposite. There's something enormously rewarding about baking – perhaps particularly bread. It's so earthy; so ancient and real.

The egg and cream mixture has been whisked and seasoned. We're just waiting for the pastry case to finish the blind baking.

Oops. The case has shrunk – I trimmed the pastry around the top too early. Memo to self: don't trim until after the blind baking in future. Still, it takes all the onion and bacon, and most of the egg and cream mixture. Just 35-40 minutes to cook now.

Gershwin’s Girl Crazy is my accompaniment now … irresistible music. How can people claim that Cole Porter was the greatest composer of the era?

Here we go – almost ready now.

I’ll let you know tomorrow how it turned out! I’ve got some serious eating to do now!


  1. Oh wow! I haven't baked bread for ages, but now I want to. Ummmm...fresh bread...with butta, real butta!

    Great entry, Syb!!!

  2. Mny thanks, Lunablu.

    The bread and the quiche both turned out really well. There's nothing quite like baking your own bread.