There’s still a lot of silly, intimidating language that surrounds baking, so the sooner you forget it, the better. Some people will tell you that baking is a science. Ignore them. Humans have been baking for thousands of years, long before modern science. If people could bake sourdough loaves 2,000 years ago then you’ll manage just fine now. Others say it’s an art: it isn’t, and it isn’t magic or alchemy either.
Baking is a simple craft and I honestly believe that learning to bake involves rediscovering how to use a part of our body and brain – a reflex that we’ve neglected and forgotten about, but that we all have. It’s our human need to create: to take two things, put them together and see if we can make something totally new out of them. It’s all there; you only need to bring it back to life. When you knead and work the dough, you’ll be performing an action that connects you to thousands of years of tradition.
1 round loaf of bread, 20-25cm in diameter – any kind you like
1 garlic clove, halved
2 tsp Dijon mustard
4 leeks, finely sliced, dark leaves discarded
100ml olive oil
½ tsp salt, plus extra to taste
½ tsp black pepper, plus extra to taste
5 sprigs of thyme, leaves only, chopped
150ml double cream
250g soft, fresh goat’s cheese, crumbled
400g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
20g caster sugar
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp fine sea salt
100g butter, chilled and diced
1 tsp flaked sea salt
1 tsp each of sesame, caraway, nigella, poppy and fennel seeds and golden linseeds
200g very dark chocolate (at least 70 per cent cocoa solids), chopped into rough chunks
100g dark chocolate (50 per cent cocoa solids), chopped into rough chunks
45g cocoa powder (100 per cent cocoa solids)
1 tsp flaked sea salt
200g caster sugar
120g light muscovado sugar
130g plain flour
80g pecan halves
LEEK AND GOAT’S CHEESE PICNIC LOAF
This should look rather like a quiche, and you can slice it up to serve it in just the same way.
1 Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas Mark 4. Slice across the loaf of bread to remove the upper third, then use your hands to pull out as much of the middle of the remaining loaf as you can, creating a crusty bowl.
2 Bake the bread bowl for 10 minutes, then, once it’s cool enough to handle, gently rub the cut sides of garlic around the inside of the loaf. Coat the inside with mustard using a pastry brush. Set aside the hollowed-out loaf and increase the oven temperature to 200C/Gas Mark 6.
3 To make the filling, toss the leeks with the olive oil, salt, pepper and thyme and roast them for 30 minutes. Leave to cool, then drain off any excess oil. In a separate jug, make the custard by whisking together the eggs and cream, then season well with salt and pepper.
4 Place the bread bowl on a baking tray and spread the goat’s cheese evenly on the base, then top with the leeks. Pour the eggs and cream into the bread bowl in three stages, waiting a few minutes each time before adding more. Once all the custard is added, carefully transfer to the oven.
5 Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 170C/Gas Mark 3 and bake for a further 25-35 minutes until the custard is set. Insert a skewer into the middle; if it comes out wet, give it another 5 to 10 minutes. Leave it to cool for 45 minutes to an hour.
SEEDED BUTTERMILK CRACKERS
Serve with dips or plain, at a casual spread or with a glass of bubbly. These are as versatile as crackers come.
1 To make the crackers, sift together the flour, sugar, baking power and fine sea salt into a large bowl. Scatter over the cubes of cold butter and use your fingertips to rub them gently into the dry ingredients until you have something resembling breadcrumbs.
2 Pour in the buttermilk, mixing with a wooden spoon as you go, until you’re left with a smooth dough. Wrap in cling film and chill overnight.
3 The next day, preheat your oven to 200C/Gas Mark 6 and take the dough out of the fridge. Line two baking sheets with parchment. Lightly flour the work surface, divide the dough in half and use a rolling pin to roll each piece into a rectangle, as thin as you can while still fitting on to the sheets. Work fast, keeping the dough as cold as possible. If it gets too warm, chill in the fridge again before continuing. Wrap each rectangle of dough around your floured rolling pin and unravel it carefully on to a baking sheet.
4 To make the topping, mix the flaked sea salt with the seeds and sprinkle liberally all over the dough, pressing in the seeds gently with your palms.
5 Bake for around 15 minutes (rotating the baking sheets 180C/Gas Mark 4 halfway through to ensure they cook evenly) until they are a light golden colour all over. Leave to cool, then break into jagged shards.
We adore dark bitter chocolate and could happily use the 70 per cent all the way through for a very grown-up brownie. You could use all 50 per cent chocolate if you prefer – perhaps if you’re baking for children.
Makes 12 brownies
1 Preheat the oven to 170C/Gas Mark 3. Line a baking dish or brownie tray measuring about 20cm x 30cm with baking paper.
2 Melt the butter and chocolate in a small heatproof bowl fitted snugly over the top of a small pan of gently simmering water, making sure that its base doesn’t touch the water. Stir carefully until melted and combined, remove the bowl from the pan and beat in the cocoa powder. Pour into a very large mixing bowl and set aside to cool slightly.
3 Sift the flour into a bowl, add the salt and set aside. Whisk the eggs and both sugars together in another bowl, until the sugars have dissolved. Stir the eggs into the chocolate mixture, then fold in the flour, ensuring it’s completely combined to give a smooth, glossy batter.
4 Pour the brownie mixture into the lined baking dish. Scatter the pecan halves generously across the surface, and bake for anything between 15 and 30 minutes. When ready, a small crack will have formed around the edges of the brownie, and the centre will still be a little wobbly. A skewer pushed into the centre should come out with large, gooey crumbs on it, but not coated in wet batter.
5 Leave the brownie to cool in its tin, then wrap the tin in cling film and chill overnight before cutting and devouring.
• Gail’s Artisan Cookbook by Roy Levy and Gail Mejia is out now, £20, Ebury