So, here´s what I think is the problem with bread:
If you want to buy bread, you are lost between either industrial, cheap, pre-frozen or plastic stuff on the one hand, and artisanal, wonderful, insanely expensive things on the other.
If you want to make bread you find things that look easy but are only edible to earth-mother types who live mainly on sprouts and peanut butter. Or else you have to wade through weighty tomes written by people who all seem to have biochemistry degrees from the MIT.
I tried making Laurie Colwin´s bread, and Nigella Lawson´s simple white loaf. And they were fine, and they of course produce that magic buzz you always get when you take bread out of the oven. Sometimes they were better than others, and I didn´t know why. Now I think I do, and here´s what I´ve learnt:
They will tell you about yeast being a living organism, and fragile, and precious, a being to be treated with all the respect due to your firstborn. Well, I take my darling one-year-old to the park in mismatched socks, and give her ice cream in public, and sometimes salt her food, and sure I get dirty looks, but she´s survived so far. So, accomodate the dough to your schedule. Leave it to rise overnight, or up the yeast a little to make it quicker. Don´t suffer. But if you don´t have time to let it rise, don´t go the yeast way, make biscuit dough instead.
Strong bread flour really makes a difference. I can´t always find an obliging baker to sell me some, but Guru stepped in to the rescue and told me to buy gluten from a health store. A spoonful of powder and voila, you have strong flour (I calculate around 10% of the four weight, a bit less, maybe, nothing to get hung up on).
The oven really really has to be hot. I mean HOT. So wait for it. But don´t bother with quarry tiles or trays of boiling water or anything that might put your life in peril. Do want a Bocuse d´Or or a loaf of bread?
That "will sound hollow when it´s done" is true, but it will also sound hollow when it´s slightly underdone, so watch out. And whatever you do, wait for the bread to be cold to slice it. I know it smells good, I know you want a piece. Believe me, I know. But wait.
Dough can stay around for a week in your fridge. This means you can pull out a ball and cook just what you need each day. And it´s where the flatbread thing really comes in handy. For feeding lots of people the oven is still best, but for one or two quick naans or pizzas, go the stovetop way.
My bread recipe
One day, maybe, I will try all those sponge methods that involve stirring a dough a hundred times in the same direction, and I will knead by hand, and I will locate caraway seeds. But for now, this is how I do it, in my trusty old Thermomix.
Put 500 grams of all-purpose flour, a teaspoonful of salt, a heaping tablespoonful of gluten and a teaspoonful of dry yeast in the bowl. Give it a whirr so they mix well.
Now add 300 grams/ml of water. Mix on 6 until it clumps into a ball. See if you think it needs more water or more flour. Irritating sort of instruction, I know, but you just have to eyeball things sometimes.
Now put it on kneading position for two and a half minutes.
Turn it out into a bowl and either dust it with flour all around or give it a coating of oil. Leave it to rise, covered with a tea towel or plastic wrap. I usually make this around midday, when I remember, and leave it to rise over a few hours.
When it´s doubled in size, punch it down (that´s fun) and knead a little. Shape it and leave it to proof if you can. That just means you leave it to puff up a bit again, and then bake it as you will.
For pizza or focaccia I add a good glug of olive oil to the dough. For naans I substitute some of the water for yogurt (125 ml, since that´s the size of yogurt pots in Spain). Sometimes I make half wholewehat half white, and others I add wheat germ, and of course you can go the way of the seeds and nuts. It´s all fairly loose.
That amount makes four pizzas the size of a dinner plate, or eight naans. It can be kept in the fridge and pulled out as need be, so it´s as well to make the full amount, but the recipe can be halved easily.
The illustration if for Abe´s Penny.