My friend Emma and I always recommend shows to each other. From Downton Abbey to Top Chef, we tend to have each other’s numbers. When she recommended the Great British Bake Off to me, I was skeptical. A show that’s just about baking? I’m the one that’s always bored to tears in the Top Chef episode where they have to make dessert.
Once I tried the show (on a Winnipeg > Toronto flight where I had forgotten my book), I was hooked. It’s got that classy BBC vibe that makes you realize how ridiculous the music on a show like even Top Chef can be. The hosts are charming, the recipes are interesting and challenging and well, the accents.
The highlight of the three seasons I’ve watched in the past month (…) is always bread week. Ciabattas, twisted olive fougasse, bagels, flatbreads and more. Everything those bakers make looks damn delicious.
Bread baking has always eluded me. It’s too yeasty. Or it doesn’t rise at all. Or, worst, it’s raw in the centre. I can never get a good crust, and really all this adds up to no one wanting to eat it and it’s a waste of like, an afternoon because it takes SO long to make.
Since watching the GBBO, I decided it was time to try again. One Saturday morning, on a complete whim, I thought I would start with Montreal-style bagels (laugh now, it’s fine). I had to be out of the door at 11:30am and at 8:30am I was ditching my yeast and water dissolving in my stand mixer as I ran to the Shoppers Drug Mart near our house to try and find bread flour (again, take a moment). The 24-hour Shoppers, as monsterous as it is, of course did not have bread flour. Though surprisingly, neither did Pusateri’s (an extremely overpriced North Toronto grocery store). I literally ran back to my apartment, resigned to using regular flour, while I hoped my yeast hadn’t sat for too long.
To make a long story short, I didn’t use the right flour, I didn’t let the dough rise for long enough, then for it’s second rise, once they were formed as bagels, I let them rise for TOO long and they formed a sad, hard crust almost everywhere. Alas, I still boiled, then baked them and they tasted… okay. Not great, that’s for sure. But good enough for me not to give up and want to try again. With more time. Because what that attempt taught me is that the real key to bread baking, as simple as it sounds: the right ingredients and patience.
My next attempt was pretzel rolls from this to die for recipe I obviously found on Pinterest: warm skillet pretzel rolls with queso dip. This time, I had the whole day to make them and wasn’t going to rush! I mixed the dough, kneaded it, left it for a first rise, rolled the dough into small balls, left it for a second rise, then came the boiling.
You bring a pot of water to a boil and then add 1/4 cup of baking soda. Remember that baking soda experiment from childhood where you add vinegar to baking soda and it explodes everywhere? This was reminiscent as the boil gets more furious. You boil 3 buns at a time for 30 seconds on each side, then drain. Once the buns dried a bit, I brushed them in an egg wash, then sprinkled them in coarse sea salt. Then they baked in the skillet (of course) and came out looking, well, like pretzel buns. As silly as that sounds, I’m always blown away when I’m baking something I’m unfamiliar with and it turns out looking exactly perfect. Just goes to show that if you follow instructions, you’ll be just fine. These buns were tangy on the outside (the baking soda boil, I realized), salty, and light and doughy on the inside. I would certainly make them again. (Though not the queso dip – that was underwhelming and not spicy enough.)
I had never made focaccia before, but I was itching to try some. At my house, we love dipping rosemary focaccia in a bowl of goat cheese covered in really good olive oil, oregano and surrounded by olives. I wanted to make this for a dinner party I had, so I found this recipe on Williams Sonoma (of all places). I know you shouldn’t play around with a recipe the first time you make it, but I figured that since it was only the topping it would be fine. I swapped out the olives and onion (would get soggy overnight) for fresh rosemary and coarse sea salt.
This recipe was easy and the result was perfect and HUGE. I gave half of the loaf (I would make two smaller rounds next time) to my dad and he forgot to mention to my mum that I’d baked it. She called me right away to tell me how delicious it was – she had been convinced it was store bought and, apparently, the best she’d ever had.
Over the holidays I plan on starting a new tradition of making special bread on New Year’s that I don’t make any other time of the year. Hello, meat and cheese stuffed bread > casatiello.