The Staff Of Life.

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My whistle stop tour of the basics brings me to bread.  Bread moves in and out of vogue each season, one day we’re being told its the staple of a healthy Mediterranean diet, the next we’re told it’s a wheat, gluten and yeast laden evil which will make us bloated/lethargic/fat/depressed.  Bread might well be suffering in the new wave of intolerances and exclusion diets, and indeed, the supermarket white sliced leaves a lot to be desired, aesthetically, nutritionally, and in taste.  However, my family seems to have no such intolerances (Hurrah!) so bread remains a staple part of our diet.

One thing I do agree with though, is that the western diet often relies far to heavily on wheat, and highly processed and refined wheat at that.  Wheat is in our bread, our pasta, our muffins and cakes, its in our crumpets and biscuits and dumplings and pastries, and we love it and crave it and rely on its convenience.  Wheat does what it’s supposed to, it stretches, it rises, it’s light and it’s tasty.  This in itself is not necessarily bad, but such blanket coverage leaves very little room to explore the huge variety of other nutritious grains out there, and when you step back and take a look, the other flours and flakes and whole grains really do have a lot to offer.  Quinoa, contains one of the very few complete plant proteins  (another good card for getting the protein police off my vegetarian back) and is high in folic acid.  Many whole grains, such as kamut, oats and brown rice are high in trace elements such as selenium, manganese, thiamin (B1) and niacin (B6); whereas buckwheat contains the elusive riboflavin (b2).  All of these grains, which are comparatively rarely eaten in the west are natural sources of essential nutrients more commonly found in sugary fortified breakfast cereals!

So, what does this have to do with bread?

My bread making began as another experiment in frugality, but also out of a desire to make the bread we eat a super nutritious food rather than just empty bulk carbohydrate.  We couldn’t afford two loaves of organic wholegrain artisan bread a week… and even if we could, what has gone into it?  Most probably some unnecessary preserving agents, often milk products, and maybe added extra stabilisers and salt… Also, what was left out,  a loaf of mixed grain bread, upon closer inspection contained 90% wheat flour, a seeded loaf (to take advantage of all those important omega oils) had just a sprinkling of seeds on the crust.  I wanted to create bread that was organic, simple and in which each ingredient offered something nutritionally.  I wanted to take advantage of these interesting grains.  I wanted my slice of toast in the morning to be something more robust, that would set me up for the day… and I didn’t want my children to settle for sliced white.

So I re-homed a disused bread machine from my mother’s kitchen counter and began experimenting, (because, after all, as lovely a hand making bread is, this staple loaf needed to be easy).  In my experience with bread makers, their settings vary wildly and the results are nuanced and typical to the brand, so my bread recipes may not work beautifully first time in your machine.  But I can give you the basics of what I’ve discovered and with a bit of experimenting I’m sure you can make a good loaf out of it.

I started with a basic recipe: water, salt, flour, yeast.   I experimented with different ratios of flour, always using some wheat, but adding spelt, or rye, or buckwheat or oats or quinoa flakes in differing quantities.  I added seeds, (ground up with a coffee grinder when my daughters were just tiny, so the bread still had a soft texture) for essential fats, protein and fibre…. but still, often my bread was dense.  I added some oil to the recipe, and some ‘food’ for the yeast in the form of organic barley malt extract.  There were some improvements, but I still craved the nutrition from the ingredients I was using, with the rise and airy texture of that damned shop bought loaf.

I needed some way of making my dough more glutinous, without adding more white flour and compromising the nutrition…

And then I discovered chia seeds.  I bought them on a whim as a new super-food that would revolutionise my family’s diet, and within about a month of experimenting with their weird and wonderful properties I hit upon an answer to my bread dilemma.  Chia seeds, when mixed with water, make a gel, similar to the consistency of egg white.  I added chia seeds to my recipe, and allowed extra time for the seeds to work their magic in the water before making the dough, the result was a much more elastic dough and a huge increase in the rise of my bread, so much so that now I can add much larger proportions of whole grains and still achieve a tall airy loaf.   The bonus is, chia seeds themselves are a great nutritional boost, containing high levels of protein, omega oils, calcium, and trace elements as well as a whole host of other dietary benefits.

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So this is my basic bread recipe:

  • 370ml water
  • 2 tbsp chia seeds  (45p)
  • 1 tsp salt  (<1p)
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil  (3p)  I tend to use rapeseed, but olive or sunflower oil are fine.
  • 1 tbsp barley malt extract   (12p)
  • 1/3 cup of mixed seeds  (34p) I like a mixture of linseed, sunflower, pumpkin and hemp, but any will do, or none at all if you prefer.
  • 500g of organic flour: (84p)  My preferred ratio at the moment is: 200g wholegrain spelt and 300g mixed malted grain wheat flour.
  • 1 tsp dried quick yeast. (2p)

Put all the ingredients into the bread machine pan in the order they are listed, when adding the flour make sure it floats on top of the water and covers the water completely.  The yeast needs to then be sprinkled on top of the flour so it does not touch the water until the bread cycle starts.  Place the bread pan in the machine and select the basic white setting (usually 3 hours), I’ve found this works better than the wholemeal setting on all the machines I’ve used, as my bread always sank on the longer cycle!  Presuming your bread machine has a delay timer, now delay the cycle for 40 minutes (or more) to give the chia seeds time to form a gel with the water.  If your machine does not have a timer, just walk off and do something nice for 40 minutes before starting the cycle.  I’m sure this would work on an overnight delay too, although I’ve not tried it.

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This is the loaf I make 2-3 times a week, the chia seeds are rather expensive but I think they are worth it as they improve the whole structure of the loaf.  The spelt gives it a slightly chewy texture, which makes it into excellent toast, and the hemp seeds crunch and pop in your mouth.  My 4 year old calls shop bought bread ‘floppy’ bread, and says “it just doesn’t really taste of anything.”  I’m so so proud.

This loaf works out at £1.80 using standard supermarket/health food shop prices, which is fairly steep.  Most of these store cupboard ingredients can be bought wholesale for much less, I think the amount I pay for my ingredients halves that price.  I wouldn’t really recommend relying on making all your own bread without a good bulk source of quality ingredients, not only to cut cost but for convenience, and making the whole process simple and sustainable.

But then, even at £1.80, this organic, wholefood loaf is so much more than just something to carry your jam on.

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