I've mentioned a few times my increasing dissatisfaction with the Observer newspaper. But like a bad romance that just won't die a dignified death, every once in a while there is a spark to remind me why I fell in love in the first place. A couple of weeks ago, the Critic brought back a copy of the Observer Food Monthly from a trip to the UK. And this time, instead of filling the magazine with reviews of each others' new books and restaurant information that could easily be culled from ten minutes on the web, the editors actually decided to include some good recipes. (What a novel idea, eh?) Tucked among them (they were all along the lines of "The Perfect...") was this recipe for the perfect loaf of bread. And having tried the recipe, I have to agree. It's not the perfect yeast loaf, mind you. But then for this busy pregnant mother, a perfect loaf does not include three to four hours of mixing, kneading, proofing, shaping and baking. The dough can be made up in about as much time as it takes your oven to preheat and then it bakes for 35 minutes, while you make the rest of the dinner. On a cold early winter work night, what could be more perfect?
Not only is this bread quick and easy (notice the four simple ingredients?) but it is also exceptionally light and tasty. When you have this few ingredients, it's an especially good idea to make sure each one is the best you can find. I used an organic flour from near Auxerre, some organic buttermilk that the Critic bought by mistake (for the second time - some day he'll work out that lait ribot means buttermilk) and salt from the Guérande region of the South of France. It was delightful: airy and full of flavour (and, incidentally, capable of absorbing copious amounts of butter from Charentes-Poitou).
The Perfect White Soda Bread by Paul Gayler, as interpreted by yours truly
(makes one loaf, a generous accompaniment to soup for two plus leftovers for lunch the next day)
500g plain all purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
Preheat the oven to 220C. Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Pour most of the buttermilk in and mix gently. Add more buttermilk if necessary. The dough should be soft but not wet.
Turn out onto a floured surface and knead lightly for a minute.
Shape the dough in a round, about 2.5 cm high and place on a floured baking sheet. Cut a cross 2 cm deep on the top of the loaf. Place in the oven and bake for 20 minutes, then reduce the heat to 190C and bake for a further 15 minutes or until golden and crisp. Transfer to a cooling rack to cool slightly before eating.
Personal notes: Paul Gaylor recommends kneading the dough as little as possible to keep the bread light. Next time, I may try kneading in my KitchenAid anyway. Kneading by hand was very messy and did not make a loaf as pretty as the one in the Observer photo. (Theirs is smooth and not at all lumpy looking.) Also, judging by the photo, I'd say they dusted the loaf with flour before making the cross, which meant that when the loaf split the cross stood out prettily against a smooth flour-dusted background.
In any case, it's a bread that begs to be eaten warm with copious amounts of butter and maybe even a little home made jam. In our case, it was served with a very simple vegetable soup I made by defrosting some home made stock and adding sliced carrots and onions, cubed potatoes, frozen peas and green beans and a can of corn. We've been all suffering from nasty colds lately and often the simple things are the best when you are unwell.