It is as hard to achieve the right shape and texture, crust and crumb, of an authentic cottage loaf as it is to reproduce true French baguette bread.Elizabeth David, English Bread and Yeast Cookery, 1977
The cottage loaf is a vintage classic, and as far as I can see, a bread unique to England. I would say that most people have heard of one but have never clapped eyes on one in real life. I don’t think I have, my only interaction being with the salt dough loaf one that was part of the play shop my infant school teacher Mrs Bareham put together in the early 1980s. If you are not familiar with one, a cottage loaf is made up of two cobs – i.e. ball-shaped loaves – stacked one on top of the other, the upper loaf around half the size of the bottom one. The shape is curious, making even slicing difficult, which I suppose wouldn’t matter if you are just tearing off rustic chunks to dunk in your stew.
I’ve been meaning to have a go making one for years, but Elizabeth David writing in her classic tome English Bread and Yeast Cookery talked of how fiendishly difficult it is to make and impossible to reproduce at home. That is, unless you are Virginia Woolf, who made an excellent one. These days we have rather more time at home than usual, so I thought it wouldn’t be too much of a waste of time if it turned out to be a disaster. Then, I saw a tweet alluding to its trickiness from Foods of England, so I considered the gauntlet to have officially been thrown down.
I had a look into the history of it with a little trepidation, half expecting it to be a food with no vintage at all like the Ploughman’s Lunch. I needn’t have worried – it turns out to be an invention of the early nineteenth century at least, and a picture of one a little later in Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861). They were originally baked directly on the bottom of low, flat brick bread ovens like many cobs, muffins and breadcakes are still baked today. There were no shelves in these ovens, unlike modern combi-ovens, meaning one was rather restricted in the area one could bake crusty cobs. That’s where the upper loaf comes in for it made a larger loaf – two really – without taking up extra precious space on the oven bottom. It all makes perfect sense now.
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The trick to making a cottage loaf is to keep that top piece from falling off during proving and baking, though it does need to lean slightly to one side, says Ms David, like a jaunty hat. But, you can’t just sit one on top of the other, you have to fix it in place by taking floured fingers and plunging them through the top and bottom cobs two or three times. That’s what Paul Hollywood says anyway, Elizabeth David does the same, but proves the two loaves separately then attaches them in a similar way but includes extra cuts, crosses and a lot of manhandling. No wonder she found it difficult. Seeing as her baking recipes are hit-and-miss at the best of times, went for the Hollywood method.
I used my basic cobb recipe, but used 500 g of flour instead of 400 g.
For one loaf:
500 g strong white bread flour
10 g salt
10 g easy bake “instant” yeast
25 g oil or softened butter
320 ml warm water.
Place the flour in a bowl, add the salt and the yeast, then make a well in the centre of the flour. 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.
When ready, press out the air and cut away a third of the dough. 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. Repeat with the other piece of dough.
Dust a baking sheet with flour and set aside.
Sit the small loaf directly on top of the large one, flour the first three fingers of one hand and plunge them right down through the dough right to worktop surface. Repeat one more time and your two pieces should be well-fused together.
At this point you can make some cuts with a sharp serrated knife, but to do so you have to pick it up, so avoid this step if you think it might be too risky. Sit in on the floured baking tray and cover with a large bag and leave to prove again, until twice the size and springy to the touch.
To achieve a really good crust, set your oven to 220°C as you wait for the loaf to prove and sit a roasting tin on the bottom of the oven. When the loaf is ready to go in, boil the kettle and place the loaf on the middle shelf, pull out the roasting tin a little and pour in the water – careful of the steam! – and quickly shut the door.
Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, and cool on a wire rack.
As it turns out it’s not that tricky in the end, and it even leaned to one side without falling off just like Beeton’s!
English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977), Elizabeth David
‘Cottage Loaf’, Foods of England website http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/cottageloaf.htm
How to Bake (2012), Paul Hollywood
Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861), Isabella Beeton
The Taste of Britain (2006), Laura Mason & Catherine Brown