Missing cat, missing sun

Harry1The Turquoise Coast of Turkey basks in sunshine for more than 300 days every year. But not today. Today, we could be renamed The Grey Coast. Or the Perfect-for-Ducks Coast. Or the Ooo-Err-Here-Come-a-Couple-of-Water-Spouts-Heading-Straight-For-Us Coast. You get the idea.

Yesterday was sunny – a rare event this last week – so we were up sharp and early, walking boots at the ready. Unfortunately Harry was missing.

Harry is the Pooh Bear of the feline world – a cat of little brain. We checked his usual hideouts and did a reluctant search of the ditch that runs along the side of the road for the length of our village, hoping NOT to find a fluffy tail poking out. Nothing.

Abandoning the search, we opened the tailgate of the car to throw in the backpacks and there was a loud and indignant meow from the front seat. Cat of Little Brain must have sneaked into the car when Robin had been unloading coal the previous evening. Little tyke had made a nest with the window dusters and settled in for a very long nap. Lives remaining: not very many.

Today, we could have been in a different country. No sign of the sun, not much sign of Meis either, come to think of it – the Greeks have rather disappeared behind a big cloud. So, shutters closed, hatches battened, fire chuntering away – a perfect day for baking bread.

Made only from white flour, yeast and water, Turkish bread is wonderful straight from the bakery, but hopeless a few hours in. Neither is its white pappy inside much good for keeping body and soul together when you’re out for a long walk. Our bakery has started making some wholemeal loaves, but they are so busy being good for you that they just forget to taste nice (and frankly I fear for my jaws).

I love baking my own bread. I love the fact I can control how much salt goes into it, I can throw in handfuls of seeds and nuts and can use whatever flours take my fancy that day (or whatever happens to be in the cupboard, more likely). And now that I’ve found that grape molasses act exactly like black treacle, that gets thrown into the mix instead of brown sugar to give a lovely malty flavour.

We are lucky to have locally-milled flour that hasn’t been mucked about with too much – it has a lot of its own natural yeast, so once you introduce additional yeast, things can get pretty lively. In the summer I prove my bread in the fridge, as it rises much too quickly at room temperature – even in the fridge, I’ve found dough climbing out of the bowl and winding itself around neighbouring items in a rather sinister Quatermass kind of way.

This recipe started life as Delia Smith’s Quick Wholemeal Rolls, but the only bit remaining from her original recipe is the flour to water ratio and the oven temperatures. Sorry Delia, I just got carried away and couldn’t stop.

You can change any of the flours – replace either the rye or wholemeal with white for a lighter loaf, replace some of the flour with ground oatmeal or just go entirely white. In which case, I would add white sugar instead of the molasses. In the UK, you can get other interesting flours, such as spelt, so experiment as you wish. Buttermilk or the juice of half a lemon can be used instead of yogurt or just miss it out completely if you don’t have any of them. If making white bread, you could replace the oil with some melted butter for extra flavour.

Go as mad as you like with the nuts and seeds or other goodies. Chopped walnuts, hazelnuts or pine nuts are all yummy. Poppy, sunflower, pumpkin, Nigella, sesame, flax, caraway or fennel seeds are all good. Sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, chopped olives, cubes of cheese and raisins open up other possibilities, as do freshly chopped herbs, such as rosemary and thyme. If you are adding softer items like cheese/raisins/tomatoes etc, just work them into the dough just before you do the final shaping of the loaves, otherwise they will be lurking at room temperature for much longer than is good for you and will also get smashed up with the kneading.

Happy baking.


Your Favourite Things Bread

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This is enough for two 12cm x 22cm loaf tins or one tin loaf plus 8 rolls

350g rye flour
350g wholemeal flour
425 ml lukewarm water
1 sachet active dried yeast (it comes in 7g or 10g sachets – either is fine)
1 teaspoon salt
150g mixed seeds/nuts etc of your choice (or leave them out)
Herbs/other additions of your choice (optional)
1 tablespoon olive or other oil (or melted butter)
1 tablespoon black treacle or other molasses or 2 flat teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon yogurt or buttermilk or juice of half a lemon

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Put the flours, salt, yeast and nuts/seeds into a large bowl. Give it all a good mix around – I find a table knife ideal for all mixing jobs here. Make a well in the middle and add the water/oil/molasses and yogurt. Start stirring with your knife (or other weapon of your choice, but I promise you I’ve tried them all and a knife is easiest). You will need to grip the bowl firmly and give it some welly, no room for delicacy here.

You will end up with a rough dough that looks a bit like this:

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Sprinkle plenty of flour onto your worktop and tip the dough onto it – if there are bits of loose flour and seeds in the bottom of the bowl, just chuck them on top. Start kneading the dough, by folding the dough into the middle and then pushing it away from you with your fist, moving the dough around as you go. Within a minute or two, you should feel the dough become much smoother and if you gently poke it with your finger, it should feel a bit springy. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s necessary to go at it for hours on end – that is a myth. As long as the dough is smooth and feels slightly elastic, that is absolutely fine. It is the proving time that is important, not the kneading.

Your dough should now be looking a lot smoother, pretty much like this:

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Wash and dry your mixing bowl, then put a few spots of oil in the bottom. Return the dough to the bowl and roll it over so that it has a very light coating of oil all over (you only need about a quarter of a teaspoon of oil). This stops the dough sticking to the bowl or to the clingfilm on the top. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and put in a draught-free place until the dough has doubled in size. This may take an hour or up to two hours, depending on how warm the room is. (You can prove for several hours or overnight in the fridge if you prefer).

Here’s mine, attempting to climb out of its bowl:

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Now tip the dough back onto your worktop and knead it gently (add any dried fruits/cheese/olives etc at this point). All you want to do is push out the air and make sure any additional ingredients are well incorporated – there’s no need to go wild.

Cut the dough in half* (I do actually weigh mine, as I have ended up with one loaf much smaller than the other in the past – I usually give my second loaf to my lovely neighbour Linda, and things could get awkward if she thinks hers is smaller than ours).

Just using the flat of your hands, stretch each piece of dough out into a rough square, then roll it up and place into the tins. Flatten it down and push the dough well into the corners. Brush a little oil onto a piece of cling film (or I usually use the same piece that I’ve used to cover the bowl as it handily already has oil on it from the top of the dough, and there’s no need to even further abuse the planet with yet another sheet of polythene). Cover the loaves with the cling film and leave in a draught-free place to prove – here’s mine having a cosy time near the fire, as it was a very cold day:

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Leave for about 20 minutes, then switch your oven on to preheat to 220C. If you have one, put a baking sheet or shallow tray into the oven to preheat – standing your loaves on this will give you a crispy bottom – the bread, not you.

By the time the oven has reached temperature, the dough should be rising slightly out of the top of the tins – if not, leave for a few minutes more. Once they are ready, very gently remove the clingfilm (you don’t want to squish out any air) and place the tins on the preheated baking tray in the oven.

After 10 minutes, reduce the temperature to 180C and bake for about another 20 minutes. Remove the loaves from the tins, turn them upside down and bake for about another 5 minutes to crisp up the crusts. Take one out and tap the base with your knuckle – if it sounds hollow your bread is done, if not, give it another 5 minutes in the oven. A probe thermometer, if you have one, should show an internal temperature of about 93 – 95C.

Once the bread has cooled, you can slice it and put it in the freezer if you wish. (Tip: turn the bread upside down and slice from the bottom up – much easier and bits of crust won’t fall off).

*If you want to make rolls with the second half of the dough, roll the dough into a sausage or round and cut into 8 evenly sized pieces (if your family are likely to squabble, you can weigh the dough to make sure they are roughly all the same). Place each piece of dough on to a completely clean (no flour) worktop, cup the palm of your hand over it and roll it round and round a few times – you will end up with a perfectly smooth ball. You can leave it this shape for a round roll or flatten it slightly with a rolling pin for a bap shape. For long rolls, obviously roll into a sausage shape and flatten as you wish. If you want the tops to stay soft, taking care to be extremely gentle, brush with milk just before you put them into the oven.

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