Tag Archives: bread

To Make a Coburg (or Cob) Loaf

Here’s another recipe to add to the series of posts on bread and bread-making (see main post here).

Coburg loaves are a common sight in traditional bakeries, but are rarely spotted outside of them these days. A Coburg is a round loaf that is not baked in a tin like your basic loaf (see recipe here), but as a round plump crusty loaf on a tray. On the top there are cuts in a cross shape that open up when it bakes. It can be made with pretty much any flour you like – white, whole-wheat, rye, oat, or whatever takes your fancy. I class it as one of the basic loaves because it contains just flour, yeast, salt and water.

Technically, a Coburg is a kind of cob, the only difference being that a cob does not get cut before going in the oven, though these days, there is no real distinction really. There are variations on the Coburg cuts though; sometimes several cuts are made in a chess board fashion which expands to make a porcupine loaf, which is also known as a college loaf or a Manchester loaf. Alternatively, the top of the dough gets quickly stabbed with a piece of wood spiked with lots of nails. A bit hardcore that one.

The Coburg loaf became popular in the Victorian era, and I assumed the loaf was named after Queen Victoria’s hubby Prince Albert Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, as many things were in those days. The British public were fascinated by the royal couple, and really took to many German traditions (especially a Christmastime). However, it may not be the case. There was such a thing as Coburg material; cheap and coarse and used for making mourning clothes that predated Albert so the word is older. The most likely explanation is that a German baker living in London, as many did, gave it his family name, though no baker actually knows who this was. The loaves themselves were certainly around before the Victorian era, centuries earlier in fact. They were made from courser grains than today and went by the name of a Brunswick loaf. So it seems all that occurred was a name change.

The good thing about baking these loaves is that you need no tin and consequently you achieve a good crust all over the surface. The recipe below is based on one from Elizabeth David and I haven’t provided massive detail on the making of the dough as I have already done that in the recipe for baking a basic loaf, so if you are new to bread-making, it might be worth having a little of that post first (you’ll find it here).

Also, this method asks you to put the loaf in a cold oven and then timing the bake from the time it gets to temperature, this way you get an extra-fluffy loaf. There is a little oil or butter to add if you like too; fat helps the bread keep fresh an extra day.

 

Ingredients

up to 15 g fresh yeast or 8 g easy-bake yeast (see method)

400 g strong white flour (or a mix of up to 50% other flour(s) if you like)

10 g salt

25 g softened butter or olive oil (optional)

250 g blood-heat water

 

If using fresh yeast, cream it in a little of the warm water, adding a pinch of sugar and leave about 10 or 15 minutes until it is alive and foaming. Put the flour in a bowl, make a well in the centre and tip the yeast in along with the remainder of the water and the oil or butter.

If using dried yeast, make a well in the flour adding the salt to one side of the bowl and the yeast on the other side. Pour the warm water into the well along with the butter or oil.

Mix together with a wooden spoon and then bring the dough together with your hands. Alternatively, you can use the dough hook on a mixer to bring it together. Knead well until the dough becomes tight and springy, around 5 minutes in a mixer, or 10 or so minutes if kneading by hand. It will be sticky, but persevere, sprinkle a little flour or a smear a little olive oil on your work surface if you like. Bundle the dough into a tight ball and place in an oiled bowl and cover to allow it to double in volume in a warm place.

Knock the dough back lightly and give it a brief knead. If you want, give it another rising.

The super-stretchy dough after its first proof

On a lightly-floured work surface, make the cob shape by forming a ball with the dough by tucking your hands under it, tightening the dough. If you twist the ball of dough slightly as you do this, it will be extra tight.

Place the dough on a floured baking tray and cover with a large plastic bag or large bowl or pot.

Slash the top of the loaf with a sharp serrated knife to make a cross shape and place in a cold oven. Set the oven to 220°C and once the oven has got up to temperature, bake for 15 minutes. Turn the temperature down to 200°C and bake for a further 15 – 20 minutes, until brown and crusty. Check the loaf is cooked by knocking its underside and listening for a hollow sound. Cool on a rack and listen carefully for the sound of the crusts cracking!

A close-up of the cracking crust

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Filed under baking, bread, food, history, Nineteenth Century, Recipes, Teatime, The Victorians, Uncategorized

An Everyday Loaf

All that bread wants is time and warmth.”

After writing a post on bread a while ago, I thought I should follow it up with some bread recipes. I was going to go in a chronological order and find the earliest recipe for bread I could, but then I thought against that idea; a recipe for a delicious, but basic loaf is what we need to start with.

I bake all my own bread these days, but admittedly, I don’t eat a large amount of it, making a loaf every couple of weeks. However, I do believe that baking your own bread several times a week is possible and not the huge pain the arse you might expect. For many years, I tried to bake bread and it always tasted good, but it was always a little dry and unrisen, and was rather disappointed thinking you had to practise to get the knack. It turns out that I was doing everything correctly, the only ingredient I was missing out was time

…and this is the problem with today’s factory-made bread; it is mass produced to the extreme, hurredly leavened, containing additives that preserve, emulsify and rise. The slices are always far too light and fluffy – “flabby” is the word I think Jane Grigson used. If course you can buy posher factory-made bread, but it will cost you at least £1.30. Of course, these days there are bakery sections in our supermarkets, but Elizabeth David was very suspect of them even in 1977. Now don’t be thinking me a big old snob: I actually like some factory bread, and much instore bakery bread is very nice and crusty, but having realised I can make bread that is better tasting and so much cheaper, I can’t go back (though I am still a sucker for tiger bread). Admittedly, it doesn’t last as long in the bread bin, but then bread shouldn’t!

Here is the recipe I use for a basic loaf – it requires little elbow grease, especially if you have a food mixer with a dough hook and is based on Elizabeth David’s in her amazing book English Bread and Yeast Cookery. The best thing is that it should be made the evening before you actually want to eat it, so there’s no getting up at the crack of dawn. It contains only four ingredients too: flour, water, salt and yeast. There is the option of adding a little fat or oil and the merest pinch of sugar. The former acts as a preservative and the latter gives the yeast a kick start, if you should be using the dried stuff. You can enrich the bread by swapping some or all of the water for milk, but I think there’s no need. There are so many variations on the theme and as I discover them and try to perfect them, I shall add them to the blog.

Ingredients:

20 oz of strong white bread flour, or 16 oz strong white bread flour and 4 oz of wholemeal

a flat dessertspoon of salt

½ ounces of fresh yeast, or a teaspoon of dried yeast

sugar (optional, see below)

12 fl oz water at blood heat (i.e. 37⁰C or 98⁰F)

2 tbs oil or melted fat, e.g. olive oil, sunflower oil, butter, lard &c. (optional)

Mix the flour(s) and salt in a bowl and put it in a cool oven to warm for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, cream the yeast with a little tepid water and a pinch of sugar if using dried. When the yeast has started to froth, make a well in the middle of the flour and pour in the activated yeast along with the warm water and fat or oil, if using.

Using a wooden spoon, start to mix the flour into the liquid, swapping the spoon for your hands to bring it all together. If it seems like the flour and water will not come together easily, add more water.

Important note no. 1: try to make the dough more on the wet side, rather than the dry; just keep your hands well-floured so you can handle the dough. Work it for a few minutes whilst in the bowl. Of course, if you have a mixer with a dough hook, you can simply use that on a slow to moderate speed to mix and briefly knead it.

Cover the ball of dough with some cling film and leave it to rise in a warm place.

Important note no. 2: try to let the dough rise naturally for 1 to 2 hours. Do not leave it near a radiator or anything like that – unequal heat will not do the job – you need ambient warmth. I let my dough rise in the bathroom. If you don’t have a warm place, do not worry for the quickly-metabolising yeast will begin to generate its own heat.

When it is at least double in size, knock it back, i.e. punch all the air out of it, and give the dough a few sharp slaps into the bowl. It should be squidgy and much more elastic. Now knead the dough on a floured surface. This is not as difficult as you may think it is. With the heel of your floured hand or hands,  use your body weight to push the dough out and away from you, stretching it. Bring it back and turn the dough a third of the way around and repeat. The dough shouldn’t be really sticky, though there should be some tackiness when you stretch it. Just make sure the board and your hands are evenly, but lightly floured – remember important point no. 2. Knead for about 5 to 10 minutes. If using a mixer, simply add a little flour whenever the dough looks like it is going to stick.

Now you need to let the bread prove. Bring the dough together so that any folds are underneath and place in a large 2 lb loaf tin. With a very sharp knife make a few confident diagonal slashes across the top – the more you make, the more it will rise. Cover with a billowing plastic bag.

Important note no. 3: a good proving is absolutely necessary; the dough needs to almost double in size again – many recipes say the dough should be just peeping above the tin. This is nonsense. It won’t take anywhere as near as long as the first rising. If you like and have the time, you can prove the dough twice – I would recommend this step as the texture and flavour is much improved, and there is less kneading, er, needed!

Bake in the oven on the middle shelf for 15 minutes at 220-230⁰C (425-450⁰F), then turn the heat down to 200⁰C (400⁰F) for a further 15. Remove the loaf from its tin, and place it on the rack on its side for a final 15-20 minutes at 180⁰C (350⁰F). When ready, the loaf will sound hollow when knocked with a knuckle.

Leave it to cool across its tin and wrap in greaseproof or wax paper or foil. If you have made it in the evening and don’t have time to wait, leave it overnight.

Important note no. 4: do not eat the bread when warm or even on the day you made it – contrary to popular belief, bread will be better the next day, and will not be stale.

There it is – sorry it rather long, but hopefully it is a good guide to baking proper bread. If anyone has any extra tips, let me know…

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Our Daily Bread…

Recently I have very much gotten into bread-making so I thought I would try to tackle a post on its history. Within about 3 minutes of researching, I realised that there is quite literally volumes off stuff and there is no way I could do it any justice in a single post. But I have to start somewhere, so I thought the symbolism of bread and its early beginnings might be a good place to start…

Bread was the one food that everybody depended upon, and it has been the focus of our daily lives for hundreds of years. We talk of ‘earning a crust’ and ‘dough’ is a slang word for money. When taxes get too high, we complain that we are having ‘the bread taken from our mouths’. Bread itself meant food.  Our lives are so linked with bread that many of our words have roots in bread or bread-making: the word lord is from the Anglo-Saxon hlaford, meaning ‘loaf ward’ and lady from hlaefdige, or ‘loaf kneader’; companion and company come from the Latin companio which means ‘one who shares bread’. Jesus’s flesh is bread, and when we pray, we ask Him to give us ‘our daily bread’ and should we get it, we’re ‘truly thankful’.

The Infant Jesus Distributes Bread to Pilgrims by Murillo 1678

I am not a religious person and don’t say Grace or anything like that. In fact, I don’t know anyone who does, but I remember as a child when we had to say the Lord’s Prayer at assembly, thinking that it was strange that we wanted bread (‘Give us this day our daily bread’). Surely there were much better things than boring old bread like cakes and fizzy pop. Plus we would get dinner anyway, so what was the point?

The Georgian essayist, George Lamb, brings up this very point:

The indigent man, who hardly knows whether he shall have a meal the next day or not, sits down to his fare with a present state of the blessing, which can be feebly attached to the rich…The poor man’s bread is his daily bread, literally his bread for the day. Their courses were perennial.

Do such people exist still today? I don’t think so. I’m not suggesting that there is no poverty of course, but the food of the poor is no longer bread. There is certainly more variety of food if you are poor in this modern age, but cheap food is pretty bad. Is it best to spend your money on a load of insipid flavourless food full of additives, or to buy the ingredients for a few loaves of proper bread? I actually don’t know the answer to that question.

You need only four ingredients to make bread: flour (though not necessarily wheat flour), water, salt and yeast. The first three ingredients were not that easy to come by; producing flour was a labour-intensive activity, salt was expensive and good quality fresh water might not even have existed in your town or village. Yeast, however, was easy, it could be found happily residing naturally on wheat. When dough is left for a certain amount of time it will begin to naturally ferment and rise as the yeast grows and anaerobically respires to produce bubbles of carbon dioxide. The earliest evidence for making leavened bread comes from Egypt and dates 4000BC, though it didn’t reach Europe until 400BC in Greece where barley flour was used over wheat. According to Aristotle barley bread was bread so white that it out does the ethereal snow in purity. Tone it down, ‘Totle.

Baking Bread by Helen Allingham, 19th Century

Bread wasn’t always sustaining; in the cities, we have been guilty of baking notoriously bad bread. Its peak was during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, bakers were displaying very fraudulent behaviour. Additives for whitening were very common; London bread was a deleterious paste, mixed up with chalk, alum, and bone-ashes; insipid to the taste and destructive to the constitution. One pamphlet author even accused the bakers of using ground human bone! We reached this level state because flour wasn’t available to everyone and so there was no choice. Today there are food standards, but for the main part, most of the bread we consume is in no way near what bread could be. However, perhaps we shouldn’t expect it – millions of people need mass-produced foods, so perhaps this is the best, and only way, to do it.

Peel’s Cheap Bread Shop, Punch cartoon from 1846

According to Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, the French food historian, there were four evolutionary steps that led toward the ‘invention’ of leavened bread.

  1. Pounded grains: raw or fire-roasted grains were eaten crushed or whole.
  2. Decoction, mash or porridge: the raw or cooked grains were pounded or ground and mixed with water to make a dough. The mixture was then either eaten or drunk.
  3. Maza: a thick dough is moulded into the shape of a flat cake and baked on embers, a griddle, an oven or in a glass dome. These were common in the Stone Age and their little-changed descendants still exist today in the form of pitta and chapatti.
  4. Bread: cereals suitable for bread-making are used such as wheat, spelt, oats, rye and buckwheat. Left over dough from a previous baking – the leaven – is added and the dough is left to rise and improve in flavour and texture. It is then cooked in a preheated oven or a glass dome.

So bread is what one’s world revolved around, and it has – in the most part – become a flabby mass-produced pre-sliced affair that somehow turns back into dough when you squash it. In the past, a huge amount of effort was required to bring together the four ingredients and bake them. Future posts will tackle those ingredients and the ways they were cooked, the machines built, the microbes or chemicals used to flavour or leaven, the holy days they were often baked for, and how village and city life depended on the producers of the ‘staff of life’.

Bread recipes added so far:

An Everyday Loaf

Coburg

Hot Cross Buns

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