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Our Daily Bread
chap
nmg

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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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.

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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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