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I’m baking – what are your lockdown hobbies?

A number of people are getting back in touch with their creative sides during the lockdown. I’ve turned my hand to baking bread – what have you been up to?

Photo credit: Kate Bevan

Last weekend I scored a big bag of white powder from a seller in north London – yes, flour has become increasingly harder to come by these last few weeks.

I started making bread a couple of years ago, and have experimented with various recipes and methods – I make soda bread (dead easy), beer bread and, more usually, a straightforward white loaf.

See all our bread maker reviews

I’ve experimented with different methods, too, but I recently discovered one that starts with half the flour, all the liquid and all the yeast which seems to produce a bouncy, tasty loaf every time. 

I’ve experimented with different types of flour – spelt, wholemeal – and I’ve settled on using strong white bread flour. I’ve also experimented with baking loaves in a Dutch oven and just doing an ordinary dry bake, and I’ve concluded that the best results come from baking the loaf in a steamy oven. 

Empty supermarket shelves

However, flour and yeast have both vanished off the supermarket shelves. That’s because prior to the outbreak, we didn’t buy much flour in the supermarkets: the mills are used to producing it in much bigger quantities for professional bakers.

But suddenly we’re all at home and many of us are unleashing our inner domestic gods and goddesses, and the mills have been struggling to cope with the shift. 

I was lucky: a local bakery has been selling big sacks to its customers, so I was able to buy a 16kg sack of strong white bread flour that should see me happily baking right up until the end of any apocalypse.

If you’re struggling to get flour, it’s definitely worth asking your local bakery if they can sell you some – other friends of mine have had similar luck.

Getting creative

Even if you’re working from home, as I am, the coronavirus pandemic has suddenly given us all much more time to experiment and be creative.

Read all the latest COVID-19 news and advice on our dedicated hub

I’ve seen friends get back into knitting, while others are making videos with their children. I’ve also seen some amazing meals being cooked as people seek to make the best of the time.

And of course we’ve all been getting to grips with technology to help keep us connected: from choirs to Pesach seders, we’re all dusting off old skills and developing newfound tech expertise.

I haven’t quite got to the point of experimenting with sourdough, although if the current shortage of yeast persists, I might well turn my hand to that. 

What creativity have you unleashed and what skills have you been developing since the lockdown began?

Are you getting into baking, or are you breaking out old oil paints? Let us know in the comments what’s getting you through the long lockdown days.

Comments

Making a wet batter initially is called the “sponge batter” method and is used by professional bakers. And as yeast is in short supply, you certainly do not need as much as a tablespoon of dried yeast for 500g of flour. Here is my recipe which I make most weeks, but you can adjust the proportions according to your needs, flour availability and whether you are using a bread maker, stand mixer with dough hook or you are prepared to kneed by hand to get some exercise. If you are making bread for the first time, use half quantities until you learn the techniques for baking larger batches.

INGREDIENTS – enough for two large loaves or 30 rolls.

450 g (1 lb) + 900 g (2lb) of strong bread flour
1 tablespoon or 2 packets (14g) easy-blend “instant” dried yeast
850 ml (30 fl oz) cold water
5 g (1 teaspoon) + 15g (1 tablespoon) sugar
10g (1 dessertspoon) salt
100ml (4 fl oz) olive oil (or substitute corn, peanut, rapeseed or melted butter)

METHOD

We will be using what is known as the sponge batter method, used by professional bakers. This is a good way for new cooks to learn about the important steps in handling yeast – a living organism. Initially, we create a light flour/yeast mixture with just a bit of sugar (which yeast feeds on) and no added salt (which kills yeast). Particularly when using dried yeast, we need to be careful to wake it gently, keep it warm but not hot, and give is easily digestible food. Once the yeast has recovered from its deep sleep, we can start to add all the ingredients that make a workable and tasty bread dough.

1. Mix 450g of flour with the easy-blend yeast in a large bowl.
2. Warm the water in a microwave on high power for 1-2 minutes until just warm to the touch (no more than 35°C – 95°F).

Note that a common mistake with yeast breadmaking is to overheat the ingredients, which kills the yeast.

3. Dissolve 5g of sugar in the warm water and mix the 450g flour/yeast with the water in a large bowl. This should give you a sloppy, pancake-like batter.
4. Leave this to ferment and bubble up until the bowl is nearly full.

If, for any reason, your mix has shown little activity after 30 minutes, the yeast is stale and you will need to start over with fresh ingredients. This rarely happens, but one of the reasons professional bakers prefer this method over “all-in-one” bread recipes is so they don’t waste their time, all their flour and expensive fats making a “dud” batch of dough.

5. Now thoroughly mix in the additional 15 g of sugar, 10 g of salt and the oil.
6. Separate the batter equally into two large bowls and divide the remaining 900 g of flour between the them.
7. Mix each bowl until all the flour is absorbed and then kneed thoroughly for 5 minutes in a kitchen machine or 10 minutes by hand, until you obtain a smooth elastic dough.
8. A small piece of dough rubbed between the fingers should form a small ball with the texture of an ear lobe, soft and not too sticky. If too wet, mix in a tablespoon or two of flour. If stiff and dry, add a tablespoon or two of water. Note is it is impossible to give exact quantities for flour and water, because each flour grade and brand varies in absorbency.
9. Leave the dough in the bowls to “prove”, covered with a damp tea towel, cling film or plastic bag. It should double in size.

It is not necessary to place the bowls in a warm place unless you are in a hurry. The dough can even be left to rise in a refrigerator overnight.

10. Once the dough has risen, knock all the air out with your fists and kneed lightly to form a smooth ball.
11. Oil the bread tins or trays you will be using to bake the bread. You will have enough dough for two 2 lb sandwich loaf tins, with some over to make a small round loaf, some rolls or add to your next batch of bread (max. 3 days in fridge). You will need 800 g (28 oz) of dough for each sandwich loaf tin and about 75 g (2 1/2 oz) for rolls.

12. Lightly oil your hands and shape each piece of dough into a sausage or round and arrange in the tin.
I prefer to use oil, rather than flour as many recipes suggest, since there is no risk of getting lumps of flour in the mix or spreading it over the kitchen. At this stage, you can also knead in chopped ginger, garlic, olives, berries, nuts, seeds or herbs. Experiment with the leftover dough until you find a taste and the proportions that you like.

13. Cover the tins with damp tea towels, cling film or plastic bags and leave in a warm place to rise. Once the dough has doubled in size, it is ready to bake.

14. Heat the oven to 180°C / 360°F. Remove the covers from the tins, sprinkle the dough lightly with water and place in the oven. Increase the temperature to 210°C / 410°F. The rising temperature and steam produced helps the bread to rise before the crust forms.

15. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes until the crust is golden brown and the bottom of the bread sounds hollow when tapped. Remove from the oven when done.

16. Let the bread cool for 5 minutes and then turn out onto racks to cool fully, lightly covered with tea towels or kitchen paper.

17. When cold, the bread can be bagged and frozen, although the amount of oil used will keep the bread fresh for several days. It also makes lovely, crunchy toast or croutons.

Why the sugar, salt and so much oil?

Well, the initial teaspoon of sugar is to help feed the yeast. The extra tablespoon added later is to help colour the crust. Sugars in the dough caramelize during the baking process to give a golden brown crust. Leave it out if you don’t want added sugar in your food.

Salt is for flavour. If you are on a low sodium diet, reduce or eliminate entirely.

As for the oil, it helps to keep the bread fresh for sandwiches and toast. In fact, you probably don’t need to butter this bread, if you want to reduce your overall fat consumption. Oil is a much healthier option, but you can reduce or omit it entirely. A French baguette does not have any added oil, but you know how quickly that goes stale.

Thanks!

I used to add fat as per the recipes – typically a tablespoon or two. But I experimented with adding more and more oil and found I could get up to 50ml of olive oil incorporated per 500g of flour. You could try that with your recipe maybe?

It is bit of a luxury to add that much oil. Yet we find that not only is the bread delicious, but the very last slice toasts as well as the first. It has a lovely crunchy texture – rather like toasted brioche.

I freeze my bread usually on the third day when it slices easier.

Kevin says:
20 April 2020

Thanks Em, great commentary, explains stuff I didn’t even know I didn’t know, but I’m just a bread machine ‘baker’ [so far].

I’m not convinced about leaving salt out altogether though. I forgot the salt once and the bread was just about inedible (looked fine but tasted foul), even with extra salt added with the butter, and I don’t routinely use salt on other foods apart from rice/pasta cooking water.

I agree with you on the salt! I only mention that you can leave it out, as it is not essential to the bread-making process. Some unfortunate people with dietary restrictions do have to eat foods that might taste foul to an accustomed palate. In that case I would definitely look at adding herbs, garlic or grated ginger to add interest.

One of my bread machine recipes is called Italian Wheat Bread that uses 2 US tablespoons of olive oil (approximately 29.5ml) that I pour over the paddles. I like the idea of increasing the amount of oil so will try an extra spoonful next time whilst decreasing the water the same.

Some of the recipes use less salt for Rapid Rise Yeast, more for Active Dry Yeast.

I use low-salt salt (which contains less sodium chloride) in bread, and a bit less than specified in the recipe. I don’t know why this is not done commercially because it’s important to reduce sodium intake.

I did once try making bread without salt and won’t be repeating the exercise. As Kevin said, it does not taste very good.

@Alfa – I don’t find that increasing the amount of oil decreases the amount of water in proportion. Because I make my bread in a Kenwood Chef I have full control of the consistency, aiming for the “ear lobe” test mentioned above.

Using Waitrose Canadian very strong white flour I need the exact proportions of flour to water given in the recipe above: 1.6 flour to 1.0 water. It turns out OK without any adjustment. Other flours tend to be less absorbent and a couple of extra table spoons of flour are needed to leave the bowl clean.

I add anything from 50 ml to 150 ml of olive oil, depending on what is available and I don’t always measure it either, but make no allowance for the extra oil added by reducing the amount of water.

I only mention this because you may end up with “dry” bread in spite of the extra oil added, if you reduce the amount of water in the mix. Unfortunately, bread making is not the exact science that some bread makers seem to suggest, so good luck with your experiment.

Thanks for that Em, I will keep it in mind.

Lucky you. My nearest mill is twenty miles away. I’d get stopped and sent home. Glad to have some idea as to why there is a shortage – though plenty of bread on sale. Round here it is not on the shelves so there is no panic buying. I dare say it will be in demand when it does return, so there is little hope of any home baking any time soon. That’s sad for those of us who always home baked and would like to continue to do so. I hope it can be rationed.

Try bakerybits.co.uk Their website has been closed for the last week, as they can’t cope with the orders, but they should have flour in stock when they reopen. You need to spend £75 for free shipping, although the DPD courier charge is still better than eBay scammers + postage. I made up an order for some friends and split the flour between us.

I use Marriage’s organic flour. I saw they were offering 16kgs bags but that is rather a lot for most home bakers and I can see much of it going to waste which is a shame when it is in such short supply.

Bakerybits.co.uk website were open this morning. It took several attempts and over an hour to checkout my basket. Kept ending up at the checkout screen with no option to enter delivery address or select shipping. Eventually switched to Microsoft Edge and completed the transaction. Be patient! Clicking too many buttons seems to confuse it.

The website is still online at time of posting, but not much stock. Marriages organic plain white seems to be still available, if you can clear the checkout hurdle.

@alfa – See above.

I have been able to order some flour from Ocado this week (two bags) but will have to wait to see if it turns up. It was soon out of stock again but hopefully flour stocks will get back to normal again soon.

My Wife when she was alive, bought about ten varied1.5Kg bags (med. cardboard box) and it was good flour and Wessex Mills, Wantage is we worth visiting in person.
Aah…. just checked http://www.wessexmill.co.uk are stating their offline for orders, sorry but maybe later….

I’ve just had some leek & potato soup, cooked this morning with some bread baked yesterday. Any vegetables that are looking a little tired get turned into soup and I’m eating soup about three days a week at present.

I use a breadmaker because the village shop is a mile away and their bread is not very exciting. Bread making had been suspended but a friend’s neighbour obtained some dried yeast and passed it on. I had a good stock of wholemeal flour and hopefully it will be back in the supermarkets before I run out.

I will have another attempt at oat cookies this evening. My last effort was a total unmitigated failure. I might also make some shortbread, which always works well.

Before that I will paint the other garage door, which I have been putting off for a couple of weeks having had to order more paint online.

Crunchy Oatmeal Biscuits

Ingredients

250 g softened butter
250 g caster sugar
1 egg
150 g plain flour
100 g ground almonds
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda (or baking powder)
1/2 tsp salt
50 g rolled oats
50 g granola or similar cereal

You can substitute addition flour for ground almonds, or chopped nuts for granola as availability dictates.

1) Cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Mix in the egg.

2) Sift flour, bicarbonate, salt over mixture and fold in. Add other ingredients.

3) Roll into a sausage about 3 cm diameter in greaseproof paper or clingfilm. Refrigerate until firm.

4) Preheat over to 190°C / 375°F. Line a baking tray with non-stick paper, of butter and flour.

5) Cut 1 cm slices off roll and place rounds well spaced out on tray. Flatten each round with bottom of a glass to about 5 cm diameter. Sandwich between non-stick paper if mix sticks to glass.

6) Bake for 10-12 minutes and transfer to a rack to cool.

You can freeze dough at step 3) to bake in smaller batches.

Thanks Em. I have bookmarked your recipe and will give it a go when I have more butter. My previous effort from an old Sainsbury wholefood cookery book included no butter and I’m not surprised the biscuits were awful.

This interactive map has just been launched to help you source flour locally in larger commercial packs.

http://www.nabim.org.uk/consumers/where-can-i-buy-flour/

Last year I had a go at making wheat-free bread when I thought I might have a problem with wheat. Nearly every loaf was a disaster, mostly turning out as bricks that our almost-resident fox seemed happy with – probably thought they were bones !!!!

Not sure what the recipe was now, but these are the photos I took of one attempt:

@alfa – I’ve had good results with spelt flour, although it ends up a little denser than good wheat flour. Is it wheat or gluten you might have a problem with?

Hi Em, I don’t really know, but am inclined to think it might be what is sprayed on the crops that I am sensitive to. I got some unexplained virus/bug a few years ago that made me unable to eat a lot of foods, bread being one of them.

Since using organic flour, my insides have had no complaints.

Sandra H Brown says:
22 April 2020

Perhaps using a soya based flour with yeast may solve your problem as the mixture will rise once the yeast is added but rested in a warm room with tea towel covering your bowl. I wouldn’t use any wheat flour as it contains gluten (this is why it feels sticky when it sticks to a surface or utensils). A friend of mine can’t eat gluten products and makes her own gluten free bread. Hope this helps, perhaps you could find a receipe on line for wheat free bread on line, hope this helps.

Sandra H Brown says:
22 April 2020

I decided to do some home baking, I could find all the ingredients on my local supermarket shelf except one which was caster sugar using granulated is no substitute because this is coarser and caster is refined. It adds more texture to the cake mix in the mixing bowl, granulated is more gritty and more sweeter. Going to several shops is not an ideal situation as its not advisable just for one bag of caster sugar, in the meantime I will have to use granulated but use less in the mixing bowl until stocks are replenished !

I have noticed that internet baking has risen in popularity recently.

Granulated sugar can easily be converted to caster sugar using a grinder or food processor. I did this regularly when I was younger because I objected to paying more for caster sugar.

@wavechange – Indeed, it’s a good standby. However, I have had less success trying to make icing sugar this way. It tends to have a slightly burnt taste, presumably because of the amount of friction involved.

I’ve also found that rather like trying to pulverize sand, grinding sugar quickly blunts the blades. Not sure it saves any money in the long term. Maybe give the job to someone with a mortar and pestle in their hands, and time and sanitizer on their hands?

I started off using a Melitta coffee grinder and then switched to a grinder with larger capacity. As you say, grinding sugar could blunt sharp blades (such as those on a food processor) but neither of my grinders had sharp blades.

I’ve not tried producing icing sugar but it’s not surprising that the grinding required will create sufficient heat to promote caramelisation.

So what have I been doing during the lockdown? It’s difficult to say really. Nothing creative that’s for sure A bit more housework and odd jobs. Catching up with correspondence and household administration. Making sure our affairs are in order. Wasting time on the computer. The usual mundane existence punctuated by the odd parcel delivery or taking the lawnmower for a walk. Isolation is a splendid pastime.

We’re planning to have a pretend dinner party chez nous at the weekend à la Fawlty Towers: no guests just the residents, food from the substitutes aisle, chipped and odd crockery, wine that was best before 2018, appalling entertainment, and damp fireworks. We shall dress up in our cruise clobber [probably its last outing] and see the floor show through a hole in the carpet. It will have to be self-service because you just can’t get the staff these days, don’t you know. What could possibly go wrong?

John, I think you have certainly been very active on here, doing your best to give helpful advice where you can. At these difficult times, I’m sure many folk coming on here (perhaps for the first time) will have been reassured and comforted by your replies to their posts, so thanks indeed for doing that.

In contrast, my employers have been falling over themselves to give me home IT access for various projects, so I’ve been keeping busy with a few of those.

I’ve also been digging out and revisiting a few old favourite computer games.

Thank you, Derek. It keeps me out of harm’s way.

Good to see you here, Derek. The place has been quiet without you.

Thanks Ian. I pop by when I can, but I’ve been keeping busy in so many other ways, including attempting to tidy up the house and reconfiguring a lot of my PC’s. Somehow, I no longer seem to have much need for light and portable laptops, but my various assorted desktops are being allowed to run riot in my home office space.

I know just what you mean… 🙂

I would love to do some more baking but sadly we only have a halogen oven at the moment that burns everything! I got some buttermilk and will be doing some soda bread later.

I now have my own room in our new house so I have space to not only work but also a place for my sewing and crochet. I am mostly making things for the house. I am currently upcycling some old jeans into baskets and doing some cushion covers. I have converted an old tv unit into a seat and storage for the hall. Must keep myself busy!

Like the seat, Abby, but it may not be the oven that’s burning things… :-0)