The right texture calls for the right technique. Here’s how to get the softest breads

I’ve spent a good part of this week punching dough. And I mean punching. No namby pamby kneading here. I find it surprisingly satisfying to take my anger out on flour and water. Especially since I’m nauseatingly placid in real life. Well, except for my unhealthy fascination for watching bar fights. There’s something Kafkaesque about brawling drunks. Admittedly, my kitchen can be almost as turbulent on the bad-dough-days. Then, my bread is as temperamental as a Disney villain. Blustering promises, inflated threats and, inevitably, a flattened ending.

As with most things in life, it’s more fun if you don’t know what’s in store. The last time I approached bread I did it the same breezy attitude I employ for a night out. Wine, cheese and the Internet radio tuned into a suitably upbeat station. (You don’t want a weepy Portuguese Fado getting your bread soggy.) As always, my cooking was triggered by a food craving. On a trip to Fiji earlier that year, we had a memorable 5 a.m. breakfast. In the muggy morning, before hopping on a speed boat headed back to the mainland, the resort served up homemade granola, chunky with toasted coconut. Juicy slices of papaya from the garden. And soft buttery buns, sticky with coconut milk.

Half asleep, I decided to skip breakfast, and then grabbed a bun for the boat as an afterthought. By the time I realised how good it was, there was a vast carpet of waves between the chef and me. Back home, after much online research I finally discovered they are called Lolo buns in Fiji, and Pani Popo in Samoa and Hawaii. The recipe’s simple enough. It involves making flour, yeast, milk, sugar and eggs into a soft dough, and then after allowing it to rise, punching it down, rolling it into buns and then setting it in a warm place to rise for the second time. Finally, you pour coconut milk over the buns, and then bake them for an hour. Simple in theory. It took the entire afternoon, a good amount of which I spent peering anxiously at the dough.

I’ve realised now that successful baking requires a combination of a good recipe, savvy organisation and time management skills. Of course there’s no guarantee that will go according to plan in spite of all this. My recent struggle with pizza is a good example. Deciding to wing it in a fit of over confidence, I started with a blend of whole wheat and white flour. Then, between trying to read the newspaper and knead (a good reason to make sure you line your work table with boring articles to avoid distractions) I poured in so much water, it turned into slush. Panicking I threw in fistfuls of semolina (suji). It thirstily soaked up all the water, but the resulting base was distressingly crunchy. Telling my guests that it’s an ancient Italian recipe deconstructed seemed to work though. (When in doubt, use the word ‘deconstructed’.)

Along the way, I stumbled upon the autolyse technique. The internet is rife with complicated discussions on the topic, but the bottom line is it involves resting the dough immediately after mixing ingredients. This allows the gluten in the flour to expand and soak in the water, resulting in dough that is easier to handle. More importantly, it means less kneading. (While I enjoy punching, I have to admit it’s not strictly useful as a technique.)

Interestingly, the autolyse technique seemed to work with chapatti dough too — which makes it a useful tool for the Indian kitchen. Just put the flour and water together and let them sit for about 20 minutes before you start kneading. So far I’ve kneaded my way through fluffy phulkas and naans, which needed little other than a dab of ghee as an accompaniment. My parathas on the other hand had the texture of rubber mats. The trick, I’m told, is figuring out the dough. It’s all in the water. And the kneading of course.

My next experiment is pita bread. Ingredients: flour, salt, water, yeast. Again. Incredible when you think of it, really. So many cultures, so many recipes, so many forms: all with the same four ingredients.

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