However, there is much to be said for making your own bread once in a while: a bout of pummelling releases tension and clears the mind, with the bonus that there will be something good to eat at the end of it all. With the right recipe, however, bread-making does not have to be terribly physical or time-consuming.
Bread in Ireland can be among the best in the world and the two quick recipes I rely on are both Irish. Soda bread, raised with bicarbonate of soda rather than yeast, is a doddle to make: particularly handy when all that is in the fridge is a bottle of sour milk. The other is the speediest-ever yeast-raised brown bread, adapted by Myrtle Allen of Ballymaloe House from the original war-time Doris Grant loaf. Both do away with kneading.
When it comes to more standard yeast doughs, however, kneading is of the utmost importance. In my experience, a minimum five minutes of vigorous kneading is the least you can get away with first time round, while 10 minutes are preferable, allowing for a bit of slowing up as your arm muscles weaken.
The type of flour is important, too. For bread-making you need a hard or strong flour, graced with a higher percentage of gluten-forming starch than ordinary plain flour.
A perfectly good loaf can be made with the strong flour sold by supermarkets; ignore anyone who says otherwise. More individual, organic, stoneground strong flours from healthfood stores or mills will usually turn out an even better-tasting loaf, but only if you have a good bread-making technique.
Besides plenty of elbow-grease, I will add one other tip (it may sound obvious, but ignore it at your peril): yeast needs gentle warmth, not tropical heat, to get going. It is better to leave the dough to rise slowly at room temperature than to kill it by overheating it in a sauna-like airing cupboard. Even if left in the fridge overnight, the dough will rise eventually; very handy it you want fresh bread first thing in the morning.
Recipe: Irish Soda Bread
If you do not have any sour milk to hand, either make fresh milk sour by stirring in a tablespoon of lemon juice and letting it stand for 15 minutes, or substitute buttermilk.
Makes 1 large or 2 small loaves
Ingredients: 1lb (450g) wholemeal flour
8oz (220g) strong white flour
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 pint (590ml) sour milk
Preparation: Mix the dry ingredients, add milk and make a firm, even dough. Shape into one large round loaf, or two smaller ones, and place on greased baking sheets. With a sharp knife, make 2 deep slashes from side to side, at right angles to each other, without cutting right through. Cover each loaf with a large metal cake tin. Bake at 230C/450F/gas 8 for about 40 minutes.
Recipe: Ballymaloe Brown Bread
Breakfast at Ballymaloe House in Co Cork is one of the highlights of the day - infinitely better than at a grander hotel - with generous provision of freshly baked bread and home-made jams. This recipe produces a moist and slightly spongy loaf; it is the quickest of yeast-raised breads, particularly with fresh, rather than dried, yeast. If you can hold your finger comfortably in the warm water for a slow count of 10 and no more, it is roughly at blood temperature.
Makes 1 loaf
Ingredients: 1lb (450g) wholemeal flour
about 12fl oz (340ml) water at blood temperature
1tsp molasses or black treacle
1oz (30g) fresh yeast, or 1/2 oz (15g)
Preparation: Mix the flour with the salt and warm it gently in a cool oven. Mix the treacle with a little of the water, and crumble in the yeast (or stir if dried). Leave the bowl in a warm place for 5-10 minutes until frothy. Stir it, then pour into the flour along with the rest of the water. Mix to make a dough just too wet to knead (you may find you need a little extra water). Put the mixture into a greased, warmed 2-pint tin, cover with a cloth, and leave in a warm place to rise. In about 20-30 minutes the dough should have doubled in bulk. Bake in a hot oven, 230C/470F/gas 8 for 45-50 minutes until nicely browned. The loaf should slip neatly out of the tin, and sound hollow when tapped.
Recipe: Beer & Cheese Bread
The cheese expert Julia Harbutt gave me this recipe, though it comes originally, I believe, from the American baker and food writer Bernard Clayton. It is a strongly flavoured, quickly made bread. I have cut down slightly on the original quantity of sugar. Ordinary self-raising flour is fine here, and there is no need to worry about the gluten content.
Makes 1 loaf
Ingredients: 15oz (425g) self-raising flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 oz (45g) caster sugar
12fl oz (340ml) dark beer or good ale
4oz (110g) grated mature cheddar
Preparation: Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas 4. Grease a 2-pint loaf tin. Sift flour with the salt and stir in the sugar and cheese. Add the beer and mix well, but do not overbeat: the mixture will be rather lumpy but that is fine. Pour into the prepared tin and brush with melted butter. Bake for 45-55 minutes until nicely browned. Test with a skewer as if it were a cake. When cooked, brush with melted butter and leave to cool.
Recipe: Sun-dried Tomato or Olive Bread
Very early Nineties trendy, but with justification: sun-dried tomatoes or juicy black olives transform a plain white loaf into a treat. Serve this bread with cheese, or Mediterranean-style hors-d'oeuvre. The small dollop of vegetable shortening is undetectable in terms of taste, but lightens the crumb. 'Easy-blend' or 'easy-bake' yeast saves time as it does not need to be dissolved in warm water before mixing in.
Makes 2 loaves
Ingredients: 1 1/2 lb (670g) strong white flour
1oz (30g) vegetable shortening
1/2 tbs sugar
1 sachet easy-blend yeast
1 1/2 tbs dried oregano
4oz (110g) sun-dried tomatoes or pitted black olives, chopped
Preparation: Sift the flour with the salt and rub in shortening. Mix in the sugar, yeast and oregano, then enough water to form a soft dough. Knead vigorously for 10 minutes dusting with flour if necessary, though keep it to a minimum. Place in a lightly oiled bowl, dust with a little flour and cover with a tea towel. Leave in a warm place until doubled in bulk.
Punch down, then knead again, gradually incorporating the sun-dried tomatoes or olives. Divide into two loaves and settle into well-greased loaf tins. Dust with flour, cover with a cloth and leave to rise again until doubled in bulk. Bake at 200C/400F/gas 6 for 30-40 minutes, until the loaves slip out of their tins and sound hollow when tapped on the base. Cool on a wire rack.