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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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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.

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