I have fond memories of this classic British bread form from my childhood, but I don’t recall seeing it in bakeries recently. I was inspired to try my hand at it by a stunning photograph posted on Twitter by Karl Bowyer.
Although my version is not as spectacular, I take heart from the words of Elizabeth David (in English Bread and Yeast Cookery):
“Cottage loaves, as all professional bakers writing for their colleagues readily admit, are notoriously difficult to mould and bake…”
And her recipe doesn’t even include the slashes that seem to me to be so characteristic of this loaf – but do add to its difficulty. So if you want to omit those you are in good company!
One thing you shouldn’t change is the amount of water in the dough. It needs to be quite stiff if it is to retain its shape during proving and baking. In technical terms it has a hydration level of only 57%, as it contains only 57g of water to every 100g of flour.
Ironically I have become very interested in low hydration breads as a result of my attempts to master sourdough over the last six months. I say ironically because, of course, sourdough is typically made with a high or even extremely high level of hydration. I will explain that paradox in a later post.
I was surprised to find that low hydration bread can be light, fluffy and springy. It is unlikely to have large bubbles but it can be packed with small ones. You could say that it is like a foam mattress whilst high hydration bread is like a sprung one. They both work, just in different ways.
Another thing I have learnt from my sourdough experience is the gentle style of “kneading” advocated by Emmanuel Hadjiandreou (Dan Lepard too describes a similar technique). I have used this in the recipe below. For now I would just say that if you have never experienced the magic of leaving a bowl of barely mixed dough for 10 minutes then returning to find it has transformed itself into something soft, homogenous and stretchy, then you really have to give it a try. That is just the first stage of the process, but overall the dough gets much less manipulation than usual, and the result is a crumb that is soft and yielding with none of the rubberiness that other methods can impart.
- 500g strong white flour
- 3g (¾ teaspoon) quick yeast
- 10g fine sea salt
- 30g unsalted butter
- 270g warm water
Melt the butter and leave to cool while you weigh out the other ingredients.
In a large bowl, mix the flour with the quick yeast and salt. Drizzle the butter over the top followed by the warm water. Mix until well combined. A cutting and turning action with a bread scraper is good for this. This is a stiff dough and it may take a while to get all the flour incorporated, but persevere and only add extra water if you really can’t get all the flour to mix in. Even then, only use as much as is necessary to bring everything together.
After the 10 minutes is up, dip the fingers of both hands into the water and shake off any excess. Gently scoop your fingers under the dough to loosen it from the bowl. Keeping it in the bowl, hold down one side with one hand, grab the other side with your other hand and stretch it up and out to about 30cm, then fold it over the other side of the dough and press down gently.
Rotate the bowl a quarter turn and repeat the previous step. Keep doing this until the dough gets noticeably tighter and resistant to stretching and/or starts to tear. This may happen after as few as 4 folds, but in any case do no more than ten folds.
Repeat the 10 minute rest and fold routine another three times, so you have done a total of 4 rests and 4 sets of folds.
Cover the bowl and leave in a warm place for 1-2 hours until the dough has doubled in size.
Scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Pat it out gently into a rectangle then roll it up like a swiss roll. Divide into two pieces, one twice as big as the other, roughly 540g and 270g.
Form each piece into a tight ball. Place the smaller ball on top of the larger one. Flour two fingers and press them right down to the bottom in the centre. Repeat until the balls are well joined together.
With a sharp knife, make 8-12 vertical cuts, 1-2cm deep, from top to bottom of the loaf. You can do this on the baking tray, but it is easier to support the loaf on one hand while cutting with the other. Just be sure to keep your fingers out of the way as you do so!
Put the loaf on a baking tray lined with baking parchment and dust the top lightly with flour. Cover and leave to rise for 45 minutes or so until almost doubled in size.
Preheat the oven to 220C. Bake the loaf for 10 minutes, then turn the heat down to 200C and give it another 20-30 minutes. If possible, get some steam into the oven at the beginning of the bake, by throwing a small cup of water into a preheated roasting tray and/or spraying water into the oven.
I baked the loaf shown above in my La Cloche baking dome, which I preheated with the oven to 220C. I gave the loaf 30 minutes with the lid on and then 5 minutes with the lid off to brown and crisp it up. You could also conceivably bake it in a cast iron casserole, but manoeuvring the loaf into that without deforming it could be difficult.