I opened my mouth to say yes, then caught sight of the raised eyebrows and thought better of it. I muttered something incomprehensible. He gave me an impromptu lesson in how to make dough, his way. And suddenly it all became clear!
Richard’s book Dough is a million miles away from either the worthy or the fake artisan. This is bread in a lighter tradition, infused with colour and sunshine, the crunch of the baguette, the taste of the olive, and it is hugely inspiring.
He says that English home bread makers don’t know how to make dough. We put in the ingredients, flour, water, salt, yeast, and when the mass is incorrigibly porridgy what do we do? Why, we add more flour. This is quite true, I do it myself.
When a recipe says ‘ knead until the dough cleans itself off the work surface’ I know that my dough will not do that as it is far too sticky. I must have done something wrong, or the recipe is not right, or my flour is different, or, or, or.
Richard showed me how to do it his way. The recipe is not wrong. The mixture is extremely sticky. It would be impossible to knead it in the way I have been used to, with the heel of my hand.
“If you add water to flour it gets sticky” he says. “And your natural reaction to sticky hands is to stop them being sticky, you don’t like the feel of the wet dough on your hands. So you add flour until the stickiness disappears. But the job of the flour is to absorb the water, which changes its consistency and structure, and if you add more flour it can’t do that. Think like a dough hook, it starts off working in the sticky mixture but it’s a dough hook so it doesn’t mind.”
Rule No 1: follow the recipe exactly.
500g strong bread flour
10g fresh yeast
Rub the yeast straight into the flour, do not add it to water.
Add the salt and rub through.
Add the water, keeping back a little in case you don’t need it all.
Now, using a flexible plastic scraper like this, or something similar with rounded edges, incorporate the water into the flour. Turn the bowl with one hand and use the scraper with the other. You will end up with a very sticky mixture. Use the scraper to get the mixture out of the bowl.
You cannot knead this mess in the ordinary way. Indeed, Richard dislikes the word ‘knead’, he says you ‘work’ the dough. “Slide your fingers under it, like a pair of forks, with the thumbs on top; swing the mixture (which is sticky enough to be cohesive, just) upwards and then slap it back down, away from you on to the work surface. Stretch the front of the dough towards you, then lift it back over itself in an arc (to trap the air), still stretching it forwards then sideways and tucking it in around the edges. Keep repeating this sequence.”
I have quoted almost verbatim from his book, but having done it myself I have to tell you that your fingers will be stuck in the dough all the time. There is an almost irresistible urge to clean your hands. Don’t do it! You have to keep going, rocking from back foot to front foot so the tension is eased from your shoulders and you get a whole body motion going. Sort of like baking Tai Chi.
Quite soon the texture of the mess changes into a sticky dough with definite dough-like characteristics, and after a while lo! it actually starts to clean itself off the work surface! That’s the time to stop, clean off what little remains on your fingers with flour, and make the still rather wobbly dough into a ball on a floured surface.
From then on it is pretty much business as usual. You don’t slap the dough about to ‘knock it back’, you stretch and fold and tuck, trying to keep the air bubbles going. I let the dough rise for an hour, proved my loaf for an hour, baked it on a stone as usual, and it came out light and perfect.
The book, with excellent photographs, comes with a DVD. I defy anyone who reads it not to reach for the flour bag.
Dough. Simple Contemporary Bread by Richard Bertinet
Published by Kyle Cathie Limited, 122 Arlington Road, London NW1 7HP