Mums Bread Recipe
When we moved from London to a village in the Oxfordshire countryside my mum started baking bread. Not just the odd batch here and there, but probably close to 99% of the bread we consumed as a household throughout my teens. This was no mean feat.
Mum would order great sacks full of flour from our local mill which would sit on the cool red quarry-tiled scullery floor. We would use a Beachwood scoop to transfer the flour into the largest mason cash bowl available in the house ignoring its cracks and veined enamel. Hand hot water would be put in a measuring jug having been heated first in the heavy old black iron kettle on the Aga. A bit of something sweet would be added, usually sugar, but occasionally honey produced by our bees.
The dried or occasionally fresh yeast would be added and the mix covered for a short while with a saucer. As if by magic a wonderful heady thick yeasty smelling frothy layer would form on top of the water before being added to the flour. Mix with a large wooden spoon, then in with the hands to start bringing the dough together before kneading. The contents of the bowl would be tipped out onto the floured reclaimed marble slab for a full 10 minutes knead this being the one element of the process mum was most strict about. No short cuts here.
The dough would gradually transform from a sticky unwieldy mess to a more controllable substance, a priceless alchemy that would turn my resentment of having been roped in to doing a chore to a feeling of quiet awe. The mix would be put back in the bowl, covered with a tea towel and placed by the Aga to rise, often over-night. Punching back was always fun, a fist into the middle of the inflated dough followed by immediate albeit slow motion deflation. The dough would often feel like it had developed a crust over-night which would then vanish with the short second kneading resulting in a smooth malleable mass ready for dividing and shaping into loaves. The blackened tins would have been greased and floured, ready to receive their offerings.
Back by the Aga the loaves would sit for their second rise to double in size before popping them in to bake. Baking was not a strict matter of timing as it would depend on how hot the Aga was. Not hot enough and there was the risk of a slightly stodgy loaf which would take a while to cook. Ideally it would be nice and hot, though then there was the danger of burning. The ‘B’ word was not used by my mum, rather, ‘nicely browned’ was the correct phrase in her book. Either way, nothing got wasted or thrown away no matter how crusty, blackened and charcoaled. A tap on the bottom of the bread to check for a hollow sound would confirm if the loaves were ready or not or If they needed to be returned to the oven for another five or so minutes out of their tins.
Mum was the prime bread maker but we daughters were all roped in to do some kneading minimally on many occasions and sometimes a whole batch of bread if it was a special occasion with everyone having to muck in. My dad was the real foodie and cook in the house for much of the time but I never saw him make bread apart from maybe some chapattis’ to go with a curry. Some tasks were firmly demarcated, and bread, puddings and cakes were strictly mum’s domain.
Our house in those years was a shifting and moveable feast in many ways. However, the bread was part of the more stable backdrop to my teenage years with a homemade brown loaf or two of mum’s in the large old crock bread bin covered with a handmade wooden lid, ready to feed hungry teenagers and always some back up in the freezer or a batch on the go.
Our homemade bread was not to be envied as far as I was concerned, and only in later years did I grow to appreciate the value of what we had had. We all complained and railed against the tyranny of mum’s brown bread loaves. We secretly and seriously longed for Mothers Pride Mighty White Sliced Bread. Taking crusty brown bread wedges for school sandwiches with a bit of butter, very mature cheddar and homemade chutney along with a windfall apple to school in a brown paper bag compared un-favourably in my eyes to my friends sandwiches. I would nibble at my lunch self-consciously while eyeing with envy other people’s neatly packed Tupperware lunchboxes full of white bread sandwiches neatly cut into triangles with a slice of ham or processed cheese in the middle. These would lie alongside yogurts and wagon wheels, packets of crisps and some juice or even coke.
Treat days at home would be if mum made some bread rolls to ring the changes with more white then brown flour, or even better, some plaited challah bread, celebration time only with its glorious glaze and poppy-seed topping contrasting beautifully with the soft golden colour loaf yellowed by the yolks from our incredibly well-fed free range hens. These loaves lasted about five minutes.
The only bought loaves I ever remember buying were white sandwich loaves from the bakery down the hill which closed soon after we moved. I remember carrying back the still warm bread up Bell Hill wrapped in tissue knowing the feast that a-waited at the top. This consisted of door steps as thick as you could get away with, spread with slightly melted butter from the still warm bread and was topped with one of our own free range fried eggs cooked on the Aga in a heavy black iron frying pan.
The final flourish was of course some tomato ketchup before the second slice sealed the best fried egg sarnies I ever had. The yolk would of course ooze messily out of the edges along with some of the ketchup, but this was part of the pleasure. We would sit either at the kitchen table or outside soaking up the sun on the wooden bench if it was warm enough. There would be general chatter and the clatter of cups as well as the smell of Columbian coffee being brewed by Dad. This was Saturday morning with the whole weekend ahead, the momentary idyll to be enjoyed before the return of the reality of school and brown bread sandwiches on Monday morning.
These days I have to eat a good solid loaf. Too much air and I am suspicious of it. Occasionally I make my own and have in recent years experimented with sourdough breads. Most of the bread I eat these days is either homemade or from Tobi’s ‘Slow Bread’ bakery in Whitstable which you can find at Whitstable farmers Market second and fourth Saturday of the month. He makes a variety of loaves, many with a slow rise and some sourdough, and all with a purist’s zeal. When I had a young family and lived in the town centre Hubbard’s was a favourite and still calls me in when I am passing.
Mum is still making bread today, and you still get a dirty look if you suggest nipping over the road to buy a loaf from the shop, this is an un crossable line, you just don’t go there.
Mums Bread Recipe
4 lb Strong Wholemeal Flour locally ground or a mix of wholemeal and strong white
1 Heaped Tablespoon Allinson’s Yeast
1 scant tablespoon salt
1 scant dessertspoon sugar
Warm Water approx. 2 pints more or less
Put the flour in a warmed bowl.
Put hand hot water in a jug and stir in the sugar.
Add the yeast and cover with a saucer.
Leave in a warm place while weigh out the flour.
When there is froth on the water make a well in the centre of the flour
Sprinkle the salt on the outside of the flour
Tip the water in the middle of the well
Begin to stir the water into the flour
If feels too dry add more water
When you have stirred as much as you can comfortably tip the mix out onto a floured surface
Knead for 10 minutes until smooth
Put back into the bowl and leave in a warm place to double in size or over night
Tip back onto floured surface and have tins to the ready greased and floured
Make approx. 4 loaves depending on size of tins
Knead lightly and then shape into tin shapes
Leave to rise until doubled in size – can sprinkle surface with flour and cover with an old plastic bag or a floured linen tea-towel
Bake in pre-heated hot oven around 220c for ½ hour or so until browned and hollow sound when tapped