N othing quite matches the smell, taste and texture of warm, fresh, home-baked bread, but there's no denying it's a challenge to make your own. Don't be put off, though. If you take a little time to master the basics, it's actually a lot easier than you might think.
I would recommend you don't just think that bread-making has to be about creating a big fresh loaf; there are lots of simpler recipes you can try out before you move on to the more challenging ones.
Different cultures across the world enjoy so many varied styles, shapes and flavours of bread, which makes baking it so much fun. There is an incredible amount of choice, from Mediterranean focaccia to French brioche and German pretzels. The beauty is that once you master one recipe you'll find you can apply many of the same techniques to different varieties.
You can also start to add your own favourite ingredients, such as fresh herbs and spices, fruit, vegetables, seeds and nuts or even cheese, so they complement the food that's in season at the time.
Seeds can be a great addition to breads. I like to use a variety, including caraway, poppy or even pumpkin seeds, to give my breads texture and flavour. Once you get the hang of a recipe you can even make a mixed batch so you end up with lots of different flavours.
There are a number of key stages when making bread but the essence is in perfecting the dough, no matter which recipe you try. Kneading dough can be quite hard work but it can also be rather therapeutic. This is the process that encourages the development of the flour and makes the dough smooth and elastic in consistency.
I would recommend that you knead the dough for a minimum of five minutes, but try for ten if you have the time. This means the bread, when baked, will be much lighter and helps to avoid any stodginess.
Once it's kneaded to perfection, the dough must then be left to rise – or prove, as it’s also known. Make sure you check the mixture after about 30 minutes, as over-proving can cause the bread to collapse in the oven. The best advice is to follow the recipe so that you get it just right.
Once the dough has risen, use your knuckles to get rid of any air as you shape it. This is the stage where you can also add your herbs, spices, fruit, vegetables, seeds or cheese to give it extra flavour. After that, you can shape the dough into whatever style you like.
The next stage is to bake your dough in the oven. The best way to test whether the bread is cooked is to turn it upside down and tap the base of the baking tin. If it sounds hollow, you know it's ready. If not, it needs a little longer and you can pop it back in the oven. It's also important to remove it from the tray while it's still warm and leave it to cool a little on a wire rack.
The best time to eat home-baked breads and snacks is on the day they are made. Fresh bread can go stale quite quickly, but the great thing about mastering dough-making for bread is that many recipes freeze really well – so you can make up a big batch and then freeze some so you have it on hand for the busy entertaining season ahead. It’s the perfect solution for any unexpected visitors, and so much more impressive than a shop-bought loaf.
If you feel you're not quite ready to attempt your own home-made loaf, there are some delicious savoury snacks and nibbles you can start off with – a small step toward larger-scale bread-baking.
The beauty of creating your own bread and snacks is that you know exactly what is going into them and you can make them to suit your own taste. You can also have a lot of fun with creating different styles and shapes once you get the hang of it. As the Christmas party season fast approaches, there's no better time to give it a go. n