100 Great Breads: Bread #2 – Crusty Cob

Following a bread recipe is very strange. The stipulations for this test, that I set myself, included the demand that I follow the recipe to the letter . . . as you may have noticed from the first blog – this demand has already been ignored. But, I am trying to do it. Today’s test challenged this even further, as I have had J.C. [No, not Jesus] round doing some home improvements. So I have been jumping around the house, holding hatch doors one minute and checking timers the next. Fortunately M.D. is away with her Mum and Grandma or else I don’t think I could have done this!

So, Crusty Cob . . . a strange name for a loaf but there it is. It is a white loaf shaped into a ’round’ and baked for 30 mins at 220 °C, simple enough; but what makes it different to any other white loaf I hear you ask, well not a lot. It uses butter rather than oil, being a traditional English bread, and uses 300ml of water which creates quite a wet dough.

Actually, water is one of the three areas where following a bread recipe to the letter is a bad idea. Due to the varying gluten levels of flour, and the discrepancy in absorption between individual flours, it is impossible for a recipe to give a precise amount of water to add. Whereas a supermarket brand of flour may require 290ml per 500g, I use Marriage’s flour which needs more [for my own recipes I will use up to 330ml of water), so I subscribe to what Paul tells us in this recipe: add most of the water in one go [maybe 3/4], mix, add the rest in increments until you have cleaned the mixing bowl of flour. This means you may not need all of the water, or in my case it can mean you will need a little more.

The other two areas are proving time – this depends on the room temperature, the water temperature, the amount of yeast and how long you like to leave it to rise (I prefer 3 hours, but the crusty cob recipe says 2 hours so that is what I have done) – and baking time; this depends on the reliability of your oven and how crusty you like your loaves, I have found that once you have found your preferred temperature and timing you can bake any basic loaf within the same time frame and with the same results.

Mixing and Kneading

Oh, what a lovely wet dough. I usually knead on an oiled surface but due to the moist nature of the dough, combined with the fatty butter, this lends itself to be worked on a floury surface. I always find this exciting, I don’t really know why; maybe it is because of the mess! I do love a messy kitchen, it shows how much fun has been had, in my opinion at least . . . I don’t think my wife agrees.

Being a pure, white bread, this was an easy knead (only a couple of minutes) and it shaped up nicely. I always have a debate when it comes to butter in a dough: do you mix the butter with the flour first (like pastry) or mix it in after the water has been added (like you would with oil)? I doubt there is an answer, but I am innately lazy so I prefer to mix it once the water has been added.

The Bake

I am betrayed by my Irish roots, I can’t help it. Whenever a book says ‘slash the top’ I have to put a cross in, a shallower version of the Irish Soda Bread cross. There is no real reason why I do it, and I personally think it makes the loaves look ugly, but I always do. I know some people say that the designs on a loaf top were to help identify whose loaf it was in communal ovens, many moons ago. So maybe that’s it, I have a signature for my bread!

Crusty Cob

Crusty Cob

Crusty Cob Crumb (try saying that fast, three times, after a night out!)

Crusty Cob Crumb (try saying that fast, three times, after a night out!)

The bread itself is just brilliant. It tastes so different to the white loaf I made a few days ago. It tastes richer, presumably that is the butter, and tastes more like . . . well, bread. This may be due to the longer prove. Either way, it has produced a lovely soft crumb and a tasty crust that you will fight family members over, the winner gets the nobby!

This is screaming out for a soup or stew that needs soaking up, so that is what I shall do next for dinner.

History of Bread

The importance of bread in society has led for it to be protected under law, on more than one occasion. In Classical Athens it was one of the duties of the corn-wardens (an elected position in Athens) to protect the price of the ingredients and subsequent bread products in the market: [Take a note of what gender the bread-makers were. The Pireaus was Athens’ main harbour]

“Also there used to be ten Corn-wardens elected by lot, five for Peiraeus and five for the city, but now there are twenty for the city and fifteen for Peiraeus. Their duties are first to see that unground corn in the market is on sale at a fair price, and next that millers sell barley-meal at a price corresponding with that of barley, and baker-women loaves at a price corresponding with that of wheat, and weighing the amount fixed by the officials—for the law orders that these shall fix the weights.” Aristotle, Athenian Constitution, 51.3 (trans. H. Rackham)

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