Free Weekend: is bread-making really that difficult?

Thought baking an impossible task? Newbie Sarah Fox tackles her fears head on

The breaducated - my classmates at the Bread Ahead stall
The breaducated – Sarah (third from left) and classmates at the Bread Ahead stall

London’s brand new bakery Bread Ahead has gravitated from their Borough Market stall to set up shop and bread school in the vast former store rooms of the food market. So, not content with rolling out rolls and bashing out baguettes, they are starting a breaducation. Boom.

Although I consider myself a foodie, I’m a baker novice. Put off by pals’ tales of moulding starters and non-rising sourdough, I made the decision long ago to leave it to the professionals (or supermarkets) to bake what I dunk in my soup and spread my jam on.

Matt and Emanneul
Matt and Emmanuel

Kitted out in aprons, I arrive as the group are huddled around the table. On my left, a head chef from a top restaurant; on my right, an artisan butcher. Oh crumbs, I thought, have I bitten of more than I can chew?

“Has anyone NOT baked before?” asked Emmanuel, our teacher and master baker. I scanned the room and mistook someone itching their elbow for a hand raising. Too late, mine was gingerly hovering above my head. Busted.

“Don’t worry,” said cheery Emmanuel, all smiles,  “we are here to show you it’s easy!”

Yikes. Our tools got off to a basic start: a transparent plastic mixing bowl, which would provide a window into our bubbling proving dough, a scraper and some scales.

The work-station was slap bang in the middle of the bakery, which we are told is a temporary move. A shame because the whizzing baker action transported me into a scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the bakers like the oompalumpas hard at work, churning out artisan loaf after loaf.

The seven hour course would see us make four loaves of bread. First up? An overnight white where we attempted to mimic pro Emmanuel’s kneading. Fold, press down, flip over. As I got into the rhythm, I scanned my fellow learner baker’s dough and was comforted by the fact mine looked better than the chef’s; and perhaps not so round as the butcher’s.

Shaping the ciabatta loaves
Shaping the ciabatta loaves

My novice nerves calmed, we moved onto our second loaf: ciabatta.

This was life changing. It’s probably my favourite and the hands-off approach taught me bread making’s simplicity could fit into my hectic routine.

After mixing the ingredients – olive oil, yeast, salt, flour and water – we left it and returned in an hour to fold again, like you would a tea towel then repeat twice, each time leaving an hour in between.

Imagine what you could do with those hours at home? Make a soup to dunk in the result? Switch summer wardrobe to winter? Catch up on Eastenders? If all goes to plan, and one episode doesn’t turn into an omnibus, the dough is oven ready when it has an irresistibly poke-able jelly-like texture that wobbles like flab. Appetising?

Emmanuel's tray of soda
Emmanuel and a tray of soda

The final ciabatta hour at bread school was spent making the much anticipated soda bread. Made with treacle and buttermilk, a highlight of the day was dunking the round loaf in a bowl of oats.

Back to the ciabatta. The wobbly dough was divided and stretched into shapes, some resembling bones, others, nobbly puddles. How very artisan. Why should they all be the same shape after all? Another casual rebellion against the strict supermarkets and uniformed restaurants and I like it.

Olive and Cheese bread made by Matt
Olive and Cheese bread made by Matt

The chef asked, is there any innovation in bread? “Yes,”  said Emmanuel, “bread can be a complex thing but when you understand it”. I looked over my shoulder and saw dough being flopped around and what looked like green olives and cheese being twisted in.

We were on a roll now and I felt confident kneading the last loaf, a wholemeal 50/50. The continued simplicity of mixing ingredients, a knead here, leave there made us all scoff at the cumbersome faff of a bread maker. A sensual approach to sniff and prod at every stage is greatly encouraged by Emmanuel and by the end of the day, even I knew that a bouncy, spring texture meant the dough was ready.

nobbly bone shaped ciabatta
nobbly bone shaped ciabatta

Like parents waiting at the school gate, we all gathered around the oven for our little loaves to emerge from the oven. All previously initialled, we scrabbled around trying to find ours.

I packed them all into a flour bag and hopped on the tube, clearly intoxicating the commuters with warming fresh bread wafts. I couldn’t wait to get home and smother mine in the mushroom pate I bought from another stall at lunch time.

Breadhead Matt has 14 years of baking experience: 12 as the founder of Flour Power and two on the Bread Ahead stall. He told me the secret ingredient is the location. “People who come to Borough Market understand what we are trying to do and they are here to buy into it. We want to change the way people see bread, from schools to restaurants, we tell them, no you can’t have white rolls, but you can have healthy sour dough”.

Everything is made by hand on the new site by his hand picked team of master bakers including Justin of St Johns bakery. Despite the two week infancy of the school, the day ran like clockwork. “Being organised is ingrained into you from a baker’s nocturnal life – at 3am it’s very easy to miss out an ingredient.”

Our chat is cut short by Matt leaping off. “Yikes! I’ve just realised I left the salt out of the batch of Hoxton Rye, that was a great batch too.” Doh.

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5 Things I learnt

Bread fail - not phone-ready hands
Bread fail – not phone-ready hands
  1. Don’t over kneed. This is perhaps the most common mistake learner bakers make. Stop when the dough starts resist and tear.
  2. Too much yeast creates a sour or bitter taste. Be sure to measure out ingredients accurately.
  3. When adding your ingredients, make sure your small ingredients (e.g. salt) are on top of the big ingredients (flour) so you can see it. Then you won’t forget anything like Matt and the Hoxton Rye.
  4. Keep your yeast covered up in the fridge or will start to ferment everything.
  5. Only need with one hand and keep the other one clean for the inevitable ring of the phone or doorbell.

Words & photos: Sarah Fox

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Bread Ahead can be found at their stall and bakery at Borough Market. Bread Ahead are offering a introductory limited offer of £125 (usually £175) for a day course at their bread school. Visit their website for details. @breadahead


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