The traditional male pastimes of blathering endlessly about footy and pointless tinkering in the shed have recently been joined by a more sustaining hobby. In the past couple of years, several of my cronies have taken to making bread. Men who hitherto wouldn't have known a fork from a focaccia are now baking tasty, characterful loaves on a weekly or even daily basis. In some cases (including, I must admit, mine), the results are more idiosyncratic than magnificent, though they are still about a thousand times more interesting than any loaf you can buy in the supermarket.
A few individuals are, however, producing loaves that are close to perfection. In this category I would include my friend Malcolm Southward, who works as a graphic designer when he is not bustling around the kitchen under a light dusting of flour. Applying his design aesthetic to sourdough – the loaf of preference among hardcore baking converts – he produces golden domes of such immaculate elevation that they would be envied by Sir Christopher Wren. Within the crunchy crust ("You should aim for an explosive quality," says Malcolm), the interior has a lovely springiness on the palate. It also tastes sublime.
Breadmaking has taken such deep root in some chaps that they want to turn pro. Ben Mackinnon started baking in a Neff domestic oven before starting a bakery under a railway arch in Hackney. Now the E5 Bakehouse produces 350 organic sourdough loaves a day. In Slaithwaite, West Yorkshire, DanMcTiernan's obsession with baking – first in his Ikea oven then in an Italian restaurant – led to him setting up the Handmade Bakery, a workers' co-operative that makes 1,400 loaves a week. So many people are fired with the ambition to set up bakeries that the Real Bread Campaign has published a guide, inevitably entitled Knead to Know.
Malcolm used to say that he had no interest in turning pro – "Doing something for a living usually takes all the joy out of it" – but I notice that he is weakening in this resolve. "I baked eight loaves the other day and it was really enjoyable. Maybe I don't want to go back to two loaves a week. I've started to fantasise about it becoming a business. I've already got the logo designed in my head."
"Breadmaking resets your gastronomic barometer," Malcolm says. "Everything benefits from being accompanied by good bread, whether it's cheese, ham or just butter. I'd never go back to buying bread." Many others feel the same. Waitrose says sales of Allinson's strong white bread flour have increased by 45 per cent in the past year, while Shipton Mill reports a tenfold increase in retail sales of organic flour over the past three years.
BakeryBits, a Devon-based mail-order company for home-baking equipment, has doubled its turnover every year since it was established in 2008. Almost 20,000 customers have purchased items ranging from wood-fired ovens to grignettes (scalpel-sharp blades for slashing the skin of risen dough). "People like the creativity of breadmaking," explains founder Patrick Thornberry. "You're nurturing something that you're going to wowpeople with. People who get stuck in want all the equipment to reach some utopian level of breadmaking."
What obsessive man-in-the-kitchen would not leap at the chance to buy specialist kit in order to show off? But Thornberry says that women are also involved (if less noisily). "When we started, I assumed that our customers would be mostly male but it's turned out to be 50:50." Nevertheless, this is a higher proportion of men than you would find in any other area of cookery except barbecuing (where many males incorrectly believe themselves to be innately gifted). I still contend that more men have been drawn to baking bread in recent years than women. As we shall see, many of the new wave of male bakers go for a technique that requires no specialist equipment.
The male association with breadmaking is a longstanding one. In Pompeii, there was an erect penis carved on the wall of the bakery, though this may just have been a visual pun on the rising of the dough. The term sourdough originated in medi-eval times, but its revival in America stems from the wild yeast bread baked by prospectors during the Californian Gold Rush. Ornery gold-panners were so addicted to their notably acidic bread (due to local bacteria Lactobacillus sanfrancisco) that they became known as sourdoughs. They used the trick of adding a bit of dough from each batch to act as a yeasty catalyst in their next baking. By feeding this starter regularly with flour and water, you can keep it going indefinitely. A commercial version called Gold Rush is available, though British artisan bakers tend to use starters (also known as "mothers") of venerable European origin. The E5 Bakehouse uses an ancient Finnish mother, while the Handmade Bakery utilises a mother that originated in Russia more than 40 years ago.
The exotic ancestry of these starters may add to the charm of sourdough bread, but it is equally effective to make your own like Malcolm. It takes some days for the wild bacteria, which in Malcolm's case float around the south-east London suburb of Brockley, to do their job and ferment a sloppy mix of flour and water into an effective starter. This has to be carefully tended, as one book points out, "very much like keeping a pet".
Making sourdough bread is a slightly complicated process lasting up to 24 hours. The 10-minute kneading is a highlight for Malcolm, who relishes "playing with this great, gooey blob". Performing the task, he looks happy as a stretching cat as he follows a protracted sequence in which the dough rises ("an angel's pillow" is the theological instruction in one book) and is knocked back to produce a gentle deflation. Finally the dough is left to prove (rise again) for three hours in proving baskets of bent cane, which produce the lovely rings on Malcolm's loaves. Depending on the temperature it can take longer. Sometimes much longer. "You end up watching old Walter Matthau films on late-night TV," says Malcolm. The domes of risen dough are slashed using the grignette to release surface tension and go into the oven or, rather, a preheated cast-iron casserole with a lid that acts as an oven within the oven. The steam from the water in the dough helps produce a crisp crust and a moist interior.
The result can be glorious, as Malcolm's output amply demonstrates, but it is a demanding procedure. In her book English Bread and Yeast Cookery, published in 1977, Elizabeth David dismissed sourdough: "The bread takes about five days. I find the whole process rather unrewarding." If sourdough sounds an unlikely technique to recruit an army of applause-hungry but essentially lazy men, you would be spot on. The loaf produced by most of the new wave of male bakers does not involve wild yeast or a folkloric starter. No-knead bread, invented a few years ago by New York baker Jim Lahey, requires a very small amount of commercial dried yeast and a large amount of time.
My friend Chris Grice, a retired cameraman, was an early devotee of no-knead. "I've tried lots of other methods but I've always gone back to no-knead. It's so incredibly easy for such tasty bread." He introduced me to a YouTube video in which Lahey demonstrates his easy-peasy method to New York Times food writer Mark Bittman. It involves measuring 400g flour, 300ml tepid water, a teaspoon of salt and a quarter-teaspoon of dried yeast into a large bowl. This is stirred by hand for a few seconds. The bowl is then covered in clingfilm and the gooey mix is left to rise for 18-24 hours (depending on ambient temperature) until it fills most of the bowl and the elastic gluten erupts in bubblegum-like globules.
At this stage, the sticky dough is removed from the bowl, folded a few times on a floured surface and loosely wrapped in a floured tea-towel (linen is best). The video omits to mention that the dough should then be left to rise a second time for another couple of hours. Half an hour before this time is up, turn on your oven to 250C and place an empty cast-iron casserole (with lid on) inside. When the two-hour rise is completed, remove the lid from the hot casserole (use oven gloves!) and flip in the floppy, floured dough. Replace the lid (don't forget oven gloves!) and bake for 30 minutes. Another 20 minutes with the lid off (be careful with hot lid!) produces a lovely round loaf that should be "dark chestnut" in colour.
The technique pushes all the right buttons for the average male cook. It is undemanding in the extreme, the result elicits an eruption of ego-boosting applause and there is a thrilling element of danger from the scorching heat of the casserole (you may recall that it was a male baker on Pudding Lane who started the Great Fire of London). Moreover, it is far cheaper than artisan bread. If you use Lidl's white bread flour at 59p for 1.5 kilos, a loaf costs around 17p (electricity aside). No wonder the video has enjoyed 1,441,721 hits at the time of writing.
Any chap tempted to have a bash at the no-knead method should be aware of another thing omitted from the video. If you happen to have borrowed a Le Creuset casserole from your wife for this exciting endeavour, you should unscrew the knob from the lid and block the resulting hole with a screwed-up bit of kitchen foil. The ferocious temperature required for no-knead bread is liable to destroy the knob and thereby cause ructions in the marital home. "Not long after my basic recipe was published," Jim Lahey reports in his book My Bread, "a spate of petty thefts at cookware shops involved these handles, presumably to replace ruined ones."
Lahey says that his technique was inspired by the "carbonised bread excavated at Pompeii". Pondering the round loaves baked under the symbolic phallus, he concluded, "It didn't seem likely to me that ancient Romans did any kneading at all." Though Elizabeth David's bread book came out three decades before Lahey devised no-knead, she anticipated several elements of the procedure, including the long wait ("One of the best loaves I ever achieved... was with a dough left overnight to rise") and the use of an oven within the oven: "The increase in volume of a loaf is quite dramatic, the quality of the crust is much improved, and the crumb moist and evenly baked."
Malcolm has tried the no-knead method and describes the result as "absolutely stonking bread. If you're happy with that, there's no need to go further." Apart from making excellent toast, it isperfect for Italian dishes like ribollita and panzanella. My wife is so taken with it that she hasalmost come to terms with the dark scorch marks seared on the enamel of her Le Creuset casserole. A small price to pay for the bread of heaven.
Breadmaker's kit – the essentials you need to get started
1. Large bowl in which to mix ingredients plus clingfilm to cover.
2. Medium-sized cast-iron casserole with lid (remove handle to prevent disintegration in hot oven).
3. Flexible spatula to remove dough from bowl (there are special dough spatulas but an ordinary kitchen one works fine).
4. Cooling rack so that air can circulate around loaf for at least an hour after baking.
5. A scalpel (known as grignette or laine) or serrated knife to slash the skin of the formed dough so it can expand during the baking of sourdough loaves.
6. Proving basket of bent cane to keep shape of formed dough during proving stage
7. Dutch oven, cast-iron casserole or ceramic domed pot as made by La Cloche, which acts as an oven within the oven and retains the loaf's moisture.
8. Oven thermometer – oven thermostats are notoriously ineffective.