Knead for bread

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FOOD The passion for baking bread seems to be slowly, but insidiously, infecting the world

This nauseating Domestic Goddess nonsense seems to be catching on. Thanks to Nigella Lawson and her ilk, everyone’s expected to be able to truss up turkeys and apply a double coat of mascara with equal élan. Which could explain this passion for baking bread, which seems to be slowly — but insidiously — infecting the world.

When a friend told me she’s started baking dinner rolls for parties, I laughed for about a week. Most girls I know use their ovens to dry out their jeans (in case of upcoming party emergencies) and their irons to straighten their hair. (It comes out surprisingly glossy, provided you don’t set the heat too high.) After all, if you can buy it, or hire it, then why bother doing it yourself.

So I’m absolutely not sure how I found myself in my kitchen yesterday, elbow deep in dough.

Perhaps it was partly to find out what the fuss was all about. I had heard far too many people evangelising about how deliciously fulfilling the whole process of baking bread is. And not just the Prada in Aprons brigade. From home cooks to Chefs, anyone who’s ever baked waxes eloquent about how it works as a stress-buster, mood-elevator and last, but certainly not least, great arm exercise.

Chandri Bhatt, who recently retired after teaching a good part of Chennai to cook, besides running Winners, Hot Breads’ bakery school for underprivileged boys, is now a consultant for a slew of hotels. And she still bakes her own bread. “It’s very magical,” she says, “You take just some flour, water and yeast, and watch it turn into a beautiful loaf.” But the last straw was really macho muscle-man Matthew Hayden the Australian cricketer, who proudly told me he bakes his own bread on tour, carrying a bread maker in his luggage, and setting it up in five star hotel rooms.

So I began to deconstruct the mysteries of yeast. I added it to lukewarm water, and watched it bubble and rise with horrified fascination. The dough was delightfully pliable, and — I have to admit — beating it up was almost frighteningly satisfying. I punched, I pulled, I pinched, I pummelled. It was fabulous. Think Kill Bill… in a bowl.

Then, I left it to rise. Chandri says most people think bread is exhausting and annoyingly time consuming because of all the kneading and waiting. But that’s actually one of its biggest advantages. “It takes time,” she says, “But it takes its own time. Not your time. You just need to fit it into your routine. Make it. Leave it. And come back and bake it. The important thing is to understand the basics of how yeast works.”

The yeastie-beasties are actually horrifyingly fascinating. (Yeast is alive. It feeds on sugar, creating carbon dioxide that leavens the bread, and gives it that rich, full flavour.) I left the loaf unsupervised, and came back and found it had grown to double its size thanks to them. The whole kitchen smelt lusciously homey by now, conjuring up visions of an Enid Blyton cottage, rampant with honeysuckle.

The result was a dense, delicious (even if I do say so myself) loaf, deep brown and crusty on top, where I had sprinkled sugar and cinnamon in a moment of inspiration. Home made bread always tastes better than factory bread for obvious reason: your ingredients are better, and you can control the fats. Instead of cheap margarine, for instance, my loaf was made with a cup of milk and a dab of butter. Besides, once you get the basics right, there really are no limits to what you can do. The Knead For Bread blog, for instance, includes Chocolate Banana Crunch Bread, Maple Seeded Bread and Cornbread filled with quails eggs!

As for me, I was so thrilled with my crusty loaf that I carried it everywhere, showing it off. My neighbour’s taken to calling me Ma Baker. Criminal antecedents aside, it has a nice ring to it.





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