People have been baking bread since the Middle Ages and what began as a process born out of necessity, has become fashionable again with more and more of us baking at home.
The rise in popularity of home baking is often credited to TV programmes like Bake Off or Nailed It!, but consumers have also become more health conscious and want to know exactly what they are eating.
I too want to be a competent home baker – someone who can just whip flour, sugar and butter into a lovely cake or the likes – and while my offerings taste pretty good, a lack of precision and patience has produced a few not so perfectly crimped pies.
I like to improvise when it comes to cooking – culinary discipline isn’t my thing – and I rarely follow a recipe to the last word (with the exception of recipes on this blog of course).
While this approach might not aid the baking process, I remember my grandmother making bread, pies and rock buns without a recipe or kitchen scales, so can anyone develop that level of baking nous?
Do these skills only fall to the Mary Berry’s and grandmothers of the world? Do I need culinary discipline to be a good baker or is there room for experimentation?
To resolve these burning questions, I met Jennifer Stewart who owns Bread and Banjo – an artisan bakery on the Ormeau Road – to seek expert advice on mastering the art of baking.
Originally from southern California, Jennifer worked in the Science sector before moving to Belfast, where she attended patisserie school, completed a two-year diploma course at Belfast Met and then worked as an assistant pastry chef before opening Bread and Banjo.
Jennifer said: “I’ve always wanted to open my own business and through a lot of research, realised that the whole artisan bakery thing was becoming very popular in the States and I could see the trend happening in the UK and figured it would probably come here eventually.”
Bread and Banjo, now in its sixth year, has gained a reputation for producing high quality, artisan produce and I wanted to find out what makes this bakery unique.
Jennifer, what makes Bread and Banjo an artisan bakery?
“We use all whole ingredients and with the exception of puff pastry we make everything here from scratch. The reason I don’t make puff pastry is because the price of butter has gone through the roof, so we buy in ready roll, but that is a vegan product and now all our veggie rolls are vegan – that’s also becoming a popular trend.
Basically everything is baked here on site and we don’t use any mixes. It is just flour, butter and sugar and that’s what makes us artisan. Right now all of our dough is turned by hand and all of our breads are long slow proved and that’s not happening in all of your big hotels or local bakeries.
It takes 24 hours for us to make a loaf of bread, we do the sponge the day before, it develops overnight and then next day we make the dough, that develops overnight and then we bake it all.”
Do you follow recipes or bake from memory like I remember my grandmother doing?
“I think our grandparents’ generation probably knew recipes so well – they were passed on from their mother and then their mother before – and they had to keep baking because they couldn’t just go to the shops so it became an ingrained recipe.
Here we do follow recipes, but not 100%. Something has to be written down, health and hygiene they want you to know exactly what is in your product. We don’t have to label things with what the fat or sugar content is, but eventually we might have to, this is already happening with cafes in the Republic (of Ireland).”
Do you think there is room for experimentation in baking?
“You can be a little experimental, but need to turn your brain on. You need to know a little about chemistry and use your intuition and that comes from doing it over and over again.
You just know when a dough is done, you can’t really explain it or teach it to someone it comes with experience. You need to know how it looks, feels and stretches. You can’t follow a recipe 100% with bread because it could be a humid day or a hot day, it might take less water or more water than the recipe states.
You need to know there are visible ques and you have to be able to look at bread and just know if it is ready or not.”
What is your favourite thing to bake?
“I just love bread and my favourite is sourdough bread and that’s why we do it. It is becoming really big now and I knew six-years ago it was a great bread, but you couldn’t get it here, but now it is in high demand.
I don’t know that is healthier for you, but I guess it is easier on your gut. When you add loads of yeast to bread, you get a really quick rise, but gluten is a very large molecule and it is hard for the gut to digest.
So when you are making a long prove bread like sourdough, you are allowing the bacteria to work in conjunction with the yeast and it actually starts to break down that protein, making it a little bit smaller and easier to digest.”
Do you have any tips for budding home bakers like myself?
“Whenever you are baking, you really have to turn your head on and think about it. It is so easy to pull something out of the oven and it might look cooked, but it is under cooked. I would say follow your intuition and instinct, if the recipe said 40 minutes but you think it is not done, it is probably not done.
Don’t follow a recipe 100%, you have to use your own brain.”
So there you have it, according to Jennifer practice makes perfect and if I use my loaf maybe my baking nous will improve. If the delicious espresso flavoured croissant I devoured later that evening – a recent creation from Bread and Banjo – is anything to go by, in the right hands baking experiments really can work.