A cheerful kneader makes for a cheerful loaf
I always jolly myself up first, prior to amalgamating yeast, water and flour
Friday 06 November 1998
You see, although my mother did teach me everything she knew about cooking, it only took about 25 minutes. She knew very, very little. She had grown up in America in wealthy circumstances, the sort of circumstances in which the cooking is done by someone else. By the time her father had gone crash in 1929 she was already 17 years old and ignorant in the kitchen. The only four dishes I can remember her making with flair and confidence were corn beef hash, Swiss eggs, kedgeree, and bacon and marmalade on toast.
(Corn beef hash was something she inherited from her New York childhood, but where did bacon and marmalade come from? I have never come across it elsewhere. It didn't really involve any cooking, just what chefs now call assembly. She claimed that if you put bits of crispy fried bacon on toast and marmalade, it tasted wonderful. And she was right. It is still my favourite breakfast dish. Thanks, mum.)
Men are often accused of marrying their mothers, but where cooking is concerned I have married well above my mother's station. Both my wives have been terrific cooks. Neither, however, has been able to make bread, so when there was a bakers' strike in London in the 1970s, and bread suddenly disappeared from the shops, it was no use turning to my current spouse or indeed my old mum. It was in those dark days that I turned to the maternal star of Delia Smith, shining in the London Evening Standard. Not yet a TV celebrity, she had a daily column in that paper from which pulpit she dispensed calm and wisdom and knowledge.
She did not let us down on the bread front. In a sea of striking bakers she appeared like a heavenly vision holding a recipe for loaves (no fishes) which would enable us all to bake bread at home. It was called the Grant method, named after the female scion of the Grant whisky family who devised it, and it was wonderful. It's easy - maybe 15 minutes work end to end, spread over two hours, and the bread only has to rise once - and kneading the dough doesn't half get your finger nails clean...
Although the bakers went back to work two decades ago, I haven't been back to any bread shop on a regular basis. I still use the recipe, twice a week, and it still makes better bread than anything I can buy, except the bread from the baker's in Chipping Sodbury, which is the best anywhere. I have modified the recipe since I learnt it from Delia. I don't use brown or wholemeal flour, I stick to strong white flour on a tip picked up from Elizabeth David's book on bread. I always make bread cheerfully...
That sounds odd, but I was buying bread once at a bakery in Broad Street, Bath, and the woman said it was odd to see me buying bread, as she thought I baked my own. Yes, I said, but I've lost heart a bit because I've had some dud batches recently. "We get those too," she said, "and we finally worked out why. It's almost always when the baker is in a bad mood. It sounds crazy, but there seems to be some connection between the baker's mood and the lightness of the bread."
So now, even if I'm feeling stressed, I always jolly myself up first prior to amalgamating yeast, water and flour. Sing, tell a joke, do a soft shoe shuffle and hit the dough when it's not looking. I also use a wooden bowl for mixing. I was trying to teach the next door children how to make bread one day, and their loaves came out better than mine. Couldn't figure it out. Then I remembered that I had used a glass mixing bowl and they had used wooden ones. From then on, always wood.
So there it is. My public vote of thanks to Delia Smith for having shown me the basics all those years ago. And it also gives me a chance to make a pitch for my own TV cookery programme. Anyone out there think there's room for another TV programme? Well, here's the idea. It will be called Cooking Like Mother Used To Do, it will cover four recipes in the first programme (kedgeree, corn beef hash, Swiss eggs and bacon 'n' marmalade on toast ) and there won't be a second programme.
Get in touch if you're interested.
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