hree sisters, elders in my family, taught me to knit, each a variation on the next, adding to what I’d learned from my grandmothers as a child. All of these teachers contributed to my style of knitting, just as so many drawing teachers in art school changed my drawing, and musicians altered my playing. I’m ever so pleased to develop my baking in the same way, revisiting River Cottage Cookery School and studying with a passionate baker, Aidan Chapman from The Phoenix Bakery in Weymouth. He taught a great friendly group of us, enthusiastic cooks, and we had a glorious time making biscuits and breads together.
Aidan’s approach to breadmaking is improvisational, working by feel more than by measurement, and he talked to us about developing our own style and making a recipe our own. We observed a sourdough begun in the morning and very gently turned through the day, with great ideas about fitting breadmaking into busy lives – bringing the dough through its rising, proving, forming it into shapes, then possibly setting it in the fridge, to bake in the next day or two, whenever we’re ready. I was amazed at how wet a dough Aidan uses, fascinating ideas about the grains absorbing all the water and gaining firmness and structure as it develops, I never would’ve thought such a sticky dough could be so successful. Usually he would work with a long, slow ferment of about eighteen hours, which we didn’t have time for in our little class! But some of the sponges had been started the day before, it makes a huge difference. One of the most amazing suggestions from this baker is to use the sourdough culture in many other forms of baking, so that when I remove half of my starter when I go to feed it, if I’m not baking bread with that starter, instead of tossing it I could make pancakes with it (which Aidan did – gorgeous ones) or throw it into Yorkshire puddings, add it to yeasted breads, anywhere, to increase the depth of flavour and help with healthy digestion. I love this!
We made a beautiful fruit & nut bread using raisins and walnuts, but cranberries and pistachios might be gorgeous, or dates and almonds to ring the changes. This one is a yeasted bread. Most folks used a combination of flours, while I used spelt, which is a little more reserved in how it rises, but still produces a wonderful bread.
We mixed our ingredients very gently at first, then kneaded the wet dough in long pushing forward and pulling back movements, made a well, dropped the fruit and nuts into it, and tucked them in.
Then kneaded it all some more. Aidan surprised me by suggesting that I don’t knead spelt as long, as it has lower gluten, it doesn’t need it. I’ve been taught the opposite! So I’ll experiment there.
After covering with cloth and leaving the dough to rise;
We gently knocked it down with fingertips;
And Aidan showed us a few ways to shape the dough. I’m already very fond of making boules, so I thought I’d try out his plaiting technique. It reminds me of my Finnish grandmother’s traditional braided pulla which I shall have to ask my mother how to make!
Let me see if I remember this style. Cross the lower two. Move the upper right across, between the upper and lower left. Move the upper left between the lower two. Repeat.
Turn upside down into the floured proving basket. Oh, how I want these proving baskets! Three, please, to fit the boules of my regular recipe. They give the bread perfect support and allow it to breathe just enough. And the spirals are awfully pretty. Aren’t they gorgeous, rising?
Those wonderful spirals. We sliced the boules that weren’t plaited just before baking, to allow the bread to open up and give it a strong structure as it rises in the oven. I love these details, not unlike the specifics of wedging and throwing clay.
Our winter bread turned out beautifully, I took mine home to my little family and it’s gone, though it would’ve kept beautifully for days. Beautiful bread and pizzas, flatbreads, biscuits, and most gorgeously, our pannetones. Those were a dream to make, intoxicating citrus scents. I’m saving mine for Christmas. If you’d like to make one, Aidan’s pannetone recipe is here! If you’re in Weymouth, you’re a lucky person, for you can visit the Phoenix Bakery. As ever, River Cottage was a delight.