Crusty French BreadWe’ve always loved bread and, where possible, we’ve bought it from a local baker rather than from a supermarket. However, there’s nothing quite like the smell and taste of freshly baked home-made bread and having watched Bake Offs on the TV and seen that it’s not quite as complicated as he imagined, Paul decided to bake our own bread on a regular basis. Here’s how he goes about it:


“Baking bread seemed daunting at first but I soon found out that it’s really just a case of establishing a consistent, basic technique and then varying the ingredients to come up with different types of bread. It turns out to be a very satisfying and pleasurable pursuit, made even better by knowing exactly what’s in something we’re eating every day.


“Which technique to use, though?


“Despite bread having been made since time immemorial by kneading by hand for about ten minutes, quite a few different ways of working the dough have been developed over recent years. I’ve tried a number of these and settled on a technique that works for me from a physical perspective (I’m not that keen on my arms going numb after about ten minutes of arm wrestling) and from an emotional perspective (dough’s alive and I’m not sure that pummelling a living thing until it does what you want is really appropriate).


“I started out using our KitchenAid stand mixer and found that after mixing the ingredients for about a minute, then kneading with the dough hook for about 4 minutes on speed 1, followed by a further 4 minutes on speed 2, it gave a smooth and silky dough, ready for the first rise.


“However, although it worked well and my arms didn’t go numb, I felt I was missing something. There was no involvement.


“I explored different hand kneading methods and settled on a combination that worked for me. The first uses an autolyse stage which was first introduced by Professor Raymond Calvel, a French chemist who revived bread making in France after many years of decline. The second is a series of gentle folds and turns, spaced ten minutes apart, as recommended by Dan Lepard, the Australian celebrity baker.*


“So here’s an outline of what I do. (Details are in the individual recipes)


  1. Pour the flour into a bowl and make a well in the middle. Add most of the liquid (usually water at room temperature or milk at about hand heat) and mix thoroughly with a wooden spoon or a plastic dough scraper. You can do it with your hand if you want to be really involved! If some flour is left in the bottom, add the remainder of the liquid. It may even need a bit more. If so, that’s OK.
  2. Cover the bowl with a tea towel and leave it to stand for 20–30 minutes. This is the autolyse stage. You can leave it for longer — some people recommend 2 hours — but I’m afraid I’m not that patient!
  3. Then add the remaining ingredients, making sure that the yeast doesn’t come into contact with a wodge of salt, and mix well.
  4. Cover with the tea towel and leave for 10 minutes.
  5. Lightly oil the work surface and your hands, and tip the dough out. Take the edge of the dough that’s furthest away from you and fold it towards you to meet the near edge. Push it into the dough with your fingers or the heel of your hand, stretching it gently away from you. Give the dough a quarter turn and repeat. Do this 8 to 10 times, then rotate the dough into a ball and put it back in the bowl.
  6. Cover with the tea towel and leave for 10 minutes.
  7. Repeat step 5.
  8. Cover with the tea towel and leave for another 10 minutes.
  9. Repeat step 5 again.
  10. Cover with the tea towel and leave for about an hour. The dough should roughly double in size.
  11. Tip out the risen dough onto a lightly floured surface, gently flatten it down and shape into a rectangle. Take the far edge and fold it halfway towards you and press the edge into the dough. Then take the near edge and fold that halfway away from you and press in again.
  12. Then shape the dough. If you’re using a loaf tin, roll the dough tightly into a sausage shape and pop it into the lightly oiled tin, making sure the seam is on the bottom. If making a natural-shaped loaf, say a cob or a boule, shape it how you want it to end up and place it on a baking tray lined with baking parchment. Alternatively, divide into portions to make bread rolls.
  13. Lightly dust with flour and cover with the tea towel and leave to prove for about an hour. The dough should have doubled in size again. Meanwhile preheat the oven.
  14. Dust with flour again and slash the top with a sharp knife. Bake until the top is nicely browned and the bottom sounds hollow when tapped (usually 20 minutes at 230°C/450°F/gas mark 8, followed by a further 20 minutes at 200°C/400°F/gas mark 6). For a really crunchy crust, add about 250ml/½ pint of boiling water to a roasting tray and place it on a rack at the bottom of the oven just before putting the dough in.
  15. Allow to cool on a wire rack.”


*For further reading on these techniques, try The Taste of Bread, by Raymond Calvel, Ronald Wirtz, and James MacGuire, and Short and Sweet: The Best of Baking, by Dan Lepard.