Russell Norman's Guide To Baking Your First Loaf

Esquire's resident chef offers a fool-proof intro to making bread

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I love words. I find language fascinating. I’m one of those annoying people who is a real stickler for correct use and pronunciation, and when I hear or read a clanger, I have a physical reaction like an electric shock. But don’t worry, my therapist says I’m making good progress.

Nowhere is the territory more potentially painful to someone like me than in the world of restaurants. There are some words I simply can’t say. I am unable to utter “croissant” without wanting to gouge my own eyes out. Don’t even talk to me about “pain au chocolat”; it’s impossible to articulate without sounding like a total twat. I’m fed up with having the “do you say restaurateur or restauranteur?” argument (it’s the former, of course), and the next person who pronounces turmeric as “choo-mer-ic” within my earshot will get more than an earful.

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There is another, altogether more insidious and troubling fashion, however, and that is the use of those teeth-jarring adjectives to describe otherwise normal foodstuffs. So often these days you will find burgers described as gourmet. I’m talking about bespoke salads (is there any other type?) and hand-cut chips (how else do you bloody cut them? With your knees?) The most hateful of all is anything described as artisan. It’s meaningless and insulting. Artisan coffee? Artisan bread? Artisan jam? Oh, please...

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Evil adjectives in cooking don’t stop there. It particularly riles me when I read a menu that dares to tell me, in qualitative terms, how good the restaurant’s food tastes. “Our delicious spaghetti carbonara” or “awesome rosemary fries” or “Marco’s scrumptious chicken cutlets”. No, my dear restaurant, it’s not actually up to you to tell me how great the food is. I will be the judge of that, thank you very much.

For a lesson in simple elegance, sparse prose and honest clarity, look no further than the menu at St John in Clerkenwell. For 21 years, with only a smattering of ampersands and commas between them, the words on the menu there have spoken for themselves. “Peas in the pod”, “Pigeon & braised chicory”, “Kid faggots & mash”. When it comes to menus, Fergus Henderson is the David Mamet of the restaurant world.

Now, talking of elegance, honesty and simplicity, I think that every amateur cook, even a reluctant one like me, should know how to make that simplest and most honest of things, a loaf of bread. There is something elemental about the transformation of flour, yeast and water into dough and it is almost alchemic to watch it mutate again into a warm, springy loaf. It is always impressive to emerge from the kitchen though a mellow fog of baking aromas, flour on your apron and fresh bread in your oven mitts.

This recipe is for a simple, fool-proof white loaf. (You can substitute with wholemeal flour if you want to be slightly more virtuous.) Make sure you prepare it in a warm kitchen with warm hands and no draughts. Just don’t dare describe it as artisan.

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A very easy loaf of white bread

Ingredients:

600g very strong white flour
7g “easy bake” yeast
2 level tsps fine salt
1 heaped tsp caster sugar
20g soft, unsalted butter
320ml warm water

Method:

1 | Grease a traditional 2lb loaf tin with a little of the butter. Set aside. Dissolve the sugar in a measuring jug with 120ml boiling water from the kettle. Now add 200ml cold water. Stir and set aside. Place the flour, salt and yeast into a very large mixing bowl and rub the remaining butter into the flour. Make a well and, a little at a time, add the warm water from the jug, pushing the mixture together with your free hand. Continue to work it into a dough, adding water a little at a time so it doesn’t become too wet and sticky.

2 | Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and then, pushing forward, pressing down, pulling back and stretching (all quite vigorously), knead the dough for a good 10mins until smooth and springy. Shape into a fat, rounded oblong and place into the greased loaf tin. Cover with a warm, damp tea towel and carefully transfer to a cosy, draughtless area for at least an hour, until the dough has doubled in size.

3 | Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 220˚C. Carefully remove the tea towel, sprinkle some flour on the top of the loaf, place on the oven’s middle shelf and gently close the door. After 15mins, reduce temperature to 200˚C and turn the loaf around. Bake for a further 20mins until the loaf is fully risen and golden brown. Using oven gloves, remove from the tin and tap the bottom of the loaf. It should sound hollow.

4 | Stand it on a wire rack for 3–4mins and, ignoring what everyone tells you about not eating hot bread, cut a thick slice, spread generously with butter and go for it.

Russell Norman runs a number of restaurants in London and his new book Spuntino: Comfort Food (New York Style) is out now, published by Bloomsbury. Visit russellnorman.co; @RussellNorman_

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MORE RUSSELL NORMAN:

A True Taste Of Venice
Speedy Spaghetti
Risotto Primavera
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