A Cottage(-style) Loaf

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As kids, my brother and I ate a lot of good bread. We were spoiled rotten to be honest; not only did mum make a fresh sandwich loaf twice a week (for pack lunches), but we also lived, for most of our childhood and teenage years, next door to the village bakery. Although tiny, the couple somehow managed to churn out bread, croissants and tarts – custard, jam and lemon I seem to remember – every morning from 7am. Of course when I was much younger I didn’t appreciate all this; I just enjoyed the thrill of buying warm croissants in my pyjamas (which was very often the case).

Now that I’m older, and slightly wiser (about bread at any rate), I realise how lucky we were. I used to moan at the sight of my school lunch; my ‘homemade’ wholemeal bread never looked as appetising as my friends’ thick and fluffy ‘pre-sliced’ white Hovis. I’m ashamed to admit now, but my pack lunch would, more often than not, sit squashed at the bottom of my rucksack until homework began. How I kick myself now! These days, I can safely say, I appreciate my mum’s fresh bread more than any other.

Back to the village bakery…..the croissants were nothing like the hundreds I scoffed in Paris, but they were fresh, local (!) and a damn-site tastier than Shredded Wheat. One thing they did make very well, and that dad always used to snap up when they were really fresh (I think he secretly craved white sandwich bread too), was Cottage Loaf. Super soft, super fluffy, and generally just super simply spread with butter and Marmite (or Bovril I suppose, but I’m not getting into that family debate at present).

I love the cloud-like, slightly lop-sided shape to them, which according to some experts, may have come about as a way of saving oven space. You don’t see too many around nowadays; unfortunately so many people prefer their bread sliced and wrapped in plastic.

The following recipe was translated for me by a friend – find the original in the book available from bakery Signifiant Signifié, Tokyo: “酵母から考えるパンづくり”. I was shocked at the amount of detail the recipe states – it specifies pH, water temperature, proving temperature AND humidity level…..most of which I’ll admit I guesstimated. The translation below is the more basic, home-baker-friendly version so-to-speak! I’ve also altered the quantities; the following should make two large cottage loaves.

This recipe took three days in total – it could be rushed along a little, but if you have the time to play with, the flavour of the bread will be notably better if you use it. I made the ‘old dough’ on the first day, the final bread dough on the second, then shaped and baked on the third. As the photo above shows, my loaf turned out a little on the flat side – the two separate sections so characteristic of a traditional Cottage Loaf sunk into each other a little too much, perhaps because my dough was not quite as stiff as it should have been. The flavour, texture and crust however, were all exceptional.

1.5kg strong white bread flour
30g fine salt
45g soft brown sugar
15g malt extract
60g sourdough starter
30g ‘old dough’ (see following recipe)
150g cool milk
885g cool water
105g unsalted butter (softened)

‘Old dough’ (I’d suggest making this the day before):
250g strong white flour
5g fine salt
1.5g malt extract
1g instant yeast
165g cool water (the recipe specifies 22°C)

1. Firstly prepare the ‘old dough’ – mix all the ingredients together and knead lightly (if you’re using an electric mixer, beat on medium speed for 4 minutes).
2. Cover the dough and leave to rest for 1 hour, at approximately 26°C (80% humidity).
3. Flatten the dough out lightly using the palms of your hands (this will also expel some of the gas) – fold the dough up like a letter (it should overlap in the middle), then rotate by 90° and repeat the fold (this is just to help build dough strength).
4. Cover and leave for a further 70 minutes at 26°C (80% humidity).
5. Transfer the covered dough to the refrigerator – it can be kept at 6°C for up to 24 hours – weigh out 30g for the final recipe (I used my leftovers to make a small pizza, but you could always freeze it for another day).

Now to the final dough:

6. Mix together the milk, water, salt, sugar, malt extract and sourdough starter.
7. Turn the machine to low speed – add the flour, then the ‘old dough’ (break it apart into chunks and add it piece by piece).
8. Now add the butter, again a little at a time until it is well incorporated.
9. Mix the dough at medium speed for 2 minutes, then at high speed for a further 3.
10. Rest the dough in the mixing bowl – cover and leave for 10 minutes at 26°C (80% humidity).
11. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and flatten out to a rectangle with the palms of your hands. Fold the rectangle up like a letter (in exactly the same way as the ‘old dough’ was folded earlier, although this time do not repeat the fold).
12. Transfer the dough to a large rectangular container or mixing bowl (big enough to contain at least four times the current volume of dough) – cover and leave to rest at 21°C (80% humidity) for 18 HOURS.
13. The dough should be very active at this point – mine had risen to the top of the container and was bubbling quite dramatically! Transfer in one sticky mass to a floured work surface. Dust the surface of the dough lightly with flour, then divide into two 700g pieces and two 300g pieces (the tops and the bottoms). Shape the pieces of dough into smooth balls; the dough will be quite sticky, but be careful about how much flour you add – too much will only toughen the dough, and prevent the pieces sticking together when it comes to building the loaves. Leave the balls to rest (on the work surface is fine, just cover loosely with cling film) for 20-40 minutes at 26°C (80% humidity).
14. Now for building – carefully place the two 700g rounds onto a large tray (or two smaller trays) lined with baking parchment. Gently sit the two 300g rounds on top of the larger bases (try to place them as centrally as possible). Dip your forefingers in flour, then one loaf at a time, push your fingers directly through the centre of the top piece and down through to the larger piece below, binding the two sections together.
15. Cover the finished loaves with a tea towel or loosely with cling film, then leave to rise one final time, for approximately 60-90 minutes at 27°C (80% humidity). My loaves seemed to expand outwards as opposed to upwards (I guess because of the strange distribution of weight), and so they looked a little flat when I eventually put them into the hot oven. The initial blast of heat did the trick though, and they looked fantastic when they came out, if a little different from the perfectly proportioned shop-bought versions I’m used to seeing. The recipe states a cooking time of 50-60 minutes at 200°C – I seem to remember taking mine out after about 40 minutes, as they coloured so quickly I thought they might burn. It’s important to get that dark crust though – the flavour was UNREAL.

The dough after 18 hours at room temperature…..

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The tops and bottoms waiting patiently…..

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Light AND full of flavour…..

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