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Our Daily Bread

Last Friday, ias reminded me that a) it had been a very long time since I'd made bread and that b) the nursery's attempt to get the kids to make bread last week had ended in abject failure, so I might as well enlist the garklet's help when I made bread at the weekend.

I like making bread, but it is time-consuming. Elizabeth David's English Bread and Yeast Cookery has been one of my favourite cookery books (along with Jane Grigson's English Food, Diana Kennedy's Art of Mexican Cookery and the first Moro cookbook) ever since the mother-in-law gave me her copy, and I've had success with David's instructions for a tinless Coburg loaf every time.

At Easter, we spent a week in Malta, and my abiding memory of that week is the bread. Maltese bread is a thing to behold: flavoursome and well-textured sourdough. I can offer a pair of anecdotes that explain how seriously the Maltese take their bread:

  • Malta was briefly occupied by Napoleon's forces from 1798 to 1800 (the end of this period marks the start of Malta's status as a British dominion). Napoleon's soldiers decided that they didn't like the local bread, and so imported their own flour to make proper French bread. To this day, the Maltese refer to cheap white Chorleywood process bread as "French bread".
  • During the Siege of Malta in WWII, many Maltese men were conscripted. However, not only were bakers a reserved occupation, but also bread-sellers; bread was considered vital for morale.

I picked up a copy of Anne and Helen Caruana Galizia's Food and Cookery of Malta (on the strength of a quote by Elizabeth David on the back cover, and after a conversation with the Vallettan bookseller in which she tried to persuade me to buy the glossy illustrated books and not the book "for chefs"), which spends a chapter on bread.

So, on Saturday I made a Coburg loaf with the young lad and started on a Maltese loaf. The process for the Maltese loaf is unlike anything I've tried before, and certainly takes much longer: you start with a basic dough, knead and let it prove for six hours or longer, add extra flour and sufficient water to turn it into a very soft dough, knead and let it prove for another six hours, then dissolve the dough in water, add extra yeast and flour, knead and prove for another three hours, shape into a loaf before a final prove, then bake. I finished the loaf this evening.

I can't say that I'll use this method every time, but the results are quite astonishingly good (albeit not quite up to the work of Maltese professionals), and I'll do this again in the future.

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Sounds like an excellent way to get some sourness into the dough! I bet it has a very complex taste.

Would you be interested in trying a dead-simple sort-of sourdough boule? I've been doing the New York Times no-knead bread two or three times per week for about a year now. One blogger says "it's so easy a 4-yr old can make it." I've modified the recipe by substituting up to one cup whole wheat and using only just over a cup of water. The only trick is the timing: you have to plan to be back in the kitchen 18 hours after you start it, and available for 3 hours for the resting and baking.

The taste is excellent, but the dough slumped a bit on the final prove, so it isn't quite as airy as I'd hoped; the authors are very specific that the dough must not be knocked down, but the act of transferring it from mixing bowl to baking sheet after the third prove deflated it a little.

One thing I've had much success with (following David's notes) is undertin baking. I cover my Coburg loaves with a large heatproof Pyrex bowl, which keeps in the steam and gives a better crust. The only problem with this method is that the loaf can stick to the bowl if it spreads too much while baking, but it's nothing that a palette knife can't fix.

I'll try the no-knead bread, but I suspect that the trick of proving on a floured cloth might also work for the penultimate prove of the Maltese bread - it should certainly make the transfer to baking sheet easier.

The no-knead bread slumps, too. The only consistent reason I can find for the sloppy, spready problem is ambient temperature in my kitchen. In the summer, I keep the thermostat at 79 or 80 degrees F, whereas in winter it's at 68 or so. When it's warmer and more humid, the bread slumps; when it's cooler, I get a firmer dough that keeps its boule shape better when it goes into the glass-lidded cast-iron dutch oven I use for a cloche.

It may help also to "show the bread who's boss" and knead it a little before the final proofing. I've found that a little kneading -- just a half-dozen folds and turns -- has helped the shape this summer, despite the no-knead name of the bread.

It had a good knead (ten minutes!) before the penultimate proving; the slumping was entirely due to my cack-handedness. Besides, the recipe was very clear on the no-knock-down before the final proving.

Our kitchen was probably only about 22C (68F) during the day (and possibly as little as 15C (56F) at night) over the weekend, so it could be that the British summer is just not conducive to good rising.

really must go to malta - other than some general coolness the thing I most wanted when coming back from Bulgaria was a decent bread roll. all their bread was a bit heavy and german


Given that I like rye bread, Bulgaria wasn't a problem for me.

Sounds lovely; don't suppose you feel like sharing the recipe? I want to make bread this weekend.

Ħobż Malti (Maltese Bread)

First Stage: 100g unbleached strong flour, 7g fresh yeast (or dried equivalent), 90-100ml tepid water.

Cream yeast with water, add flour and mix to a smooth dough, adding more water if too dry. Knead well for a few minutes, then place in a covered bowl and leave in a warm place for six hours or longer. The temperature should be around 21C, although it can be left overnight at a cooler temperature.

Second Stage: the dough from the first stage (known as ħmira or tinsila), 100g unbleached strong flour, 90-100ml tepid water.

Place the ħmira in the tepid water. Mix in the flour (no salt) and knead into a ball. Cover and leave to rise as in the first stage.

Third Stage: 7g fresh yeast (or dried equivalent), 250ml tepid water, half the ħmira from the second stage, 400g strong unbleached flour, 1-2 level teaspoons salt, sesame seeds or additional flour for dusting.

Cream the yeast in the water, and add half of the ħmira from the second stage (reserve the remainder in the fridge or freezer for your next loaf). Mix the dough with the yeast and water, and dissolve it by squeezing it through your fingers. Add flour and salt and mix to a dough. Knead for a good ten minutes until smooth and pliable. Set it to rise, covered, in a warm place for about three hours, and gently turn the dough over twice during this period, leaving it in the bowl.

Return the dough to a floured table, removing a piece of dough for future baking if needed (substitute for the ħmira produced in the first stage). Do not knock back or knead the dough. Divide into two or more pieces, or leave whole for a large loaf. Dip the top of the loaf into a mound of sesame seeds or sprinkle with flour. Set it to rise in a warm place on a greased baking sheet until double in bulk - about 45 minutes.

Bake at 230C for 30-40 minutes; it should be well-risen when it goes into the oven, in order to encourage a solid loaf and irregular holes.


The long maturation really helps the flavour and helps the gluten develop. I was a bit clumsy getting it out of the bowl for the final prove on the baking sheet (it stuck), which is probably what affected the shape of the final loaf; I probably lost 20% of the volume of the loaf.

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