It takes 10 minutes to knock up the dough for a loaf of bread. Even less if you use a food mixer instead of your hands. But not to use your hands here is a pity, such is the gratification of feeling the warm, springy dough against your palms. The sensation of silken dough on skin is a sort of cook's answer to frottage.
I should say immediately that I am a hobby baker rather than a fully paid-up member of the Good Life self-sufficiency baking club. Not because I haven't the time, but because there are a couple of hand-made loaves in town that I like even more than home-baked bread. That said, a loaf you make at home is always special. The bread I make in my own kitchen is pretty neat, with a crisp crust that comes from having the guts to put your soft-as-a-baby's-bottom ball of dough into an infernally hot oven. In practice it is just flour, yeast, salt and water mucked about a bit then left to rise before being baked in a searing-hot oven. The word 'doddle' springs to mind.
Rounds of buttered toast aside, bread really comes into its own in our house when it is used, warm from the oven, to scoop up garlicky pastes of grilled aubergine, cod's roe or mashed chickpeas. In other words moutabel, taramasalata and humus. I love them all, but my favourite is the fishily saline tarama, but only when it is the real thing, rather than the fluorescent Barbie-pink slime sold in most so-called delis. Good, freshly baked flatbread and creamed cod's roe is satisfying enough to be declared a meal by all but the most serious glutton.
Kneading a glug of olive oil into your bread changes the texture to something a little more silky to the tongue: the difference between the texture of a cottage loaf and ciabatta. It is what you want for scooping up dips, as the creamy, oily paste sits so conveniently in the extra-large holes in the bread. There is no doubt it can be messy process to knead olive oil into an already sticky dough, so if it all seems too much, then use a food mixer with a beater attachment, which will get the oil into the dough in seconds.
As much as I like a loaf with the nicely rounded dome of St Paul's, there is something appealing about flatbreads, in a basic sort of a way. I like their bubbled, uneven texture, and their gentle slipper shape. I like too the fact they have almost no crust, just a buff-coloured exterior that buckles rather than snaps under the fingers. Their very flatness is essential, making it all the easier to scoop up the cod's roe or chickpea dips - and the simplicity and speed of their execution is one of the kitchen's best-kept secrets.
A simple flatbread Makes 6 small flatbread.
500g strong, white, plain flour 1/2 tsp sea salt 1 x 7g sachet dried yeast 350ml warm water
Put the flour into the bowl of a food mixer (you will need the beater attachment), then add the salt. If it is coarse, crumble it first between your finger and thumb. Empty the yeast into a small glass, pour on enough water to make a thin paste, then stir in the rest of the warm water. (You can put the dry yeast straight into the flour, but I prefer to do it this way.) Pour the water on to the flour and turn the mixer on slow. Introduce the olive oil, mixing till you have a stiffish dough. Tip it out on to a floured board and knead with your hands, pushing and folding the dough until it feels springy and elastic to the touch. Set aside in a bowl covered with a clean tea towel. A warm place out of any draughts is ideal.
To do this by hand, add the yeast and water to the flour and salt, mixing them with your hands or a wooden spoon. Mix in the olive oil - a pleasant, if squelchy, thing to do with your bare hands - then turn the lot on to a lightly floured work surface. Knead for a good nine or 10 minutes, folding the far edge of the dough towards you and pushing it back into the dough. It should feel soft, springy and alive. Keep this up for 10 minutes, then cover with a clean tea towel and leave to rise for an hour or so.
Get the oven hot to 250C/gas mark 9. When your dough is about four times the size it was, break it into six pieces and push each one into a slipper shape. Dust with flour and put them flat on a baking sheet. Bake at 250C/gas mark 9 for 5 minutes, turn the oven down to 220C/gas mark 7, then bake for a further 5 or so minutes until the underside of the bread sounds hollow when you tap it.
Real Taramasalata Smoked cod's roe can be bought at good fishmongers. It is not cheap, but goes a long way when mixed with olive oil. It is salty, so there is no need to season the dip. Serves 4.
100g piece smoked cod's roe 2 thick slices white bread 1 plump clove garlic 200-300ml olive oil juice of a lemon
Peel the skin from the roe, or scoop the eggs out of the skin with a teaspoon. Soak the bread with water, then wring it out. Mash the bread into the roe with a pestle and mortar or put it in a food mixer. Add the garlic, then the oil, pouring it in gradually as if you are making mayonnaise. When the mixture is a thick cream, stir in the lemon juice. Serve chilled, with warm flatbreads and black olives.
Moutabel If you have the chance to cook the aubergines over a hot grill, you will get an even deeper, smoke-tinged flavour. Simply pierce them with a sharp knife, then place them over a medium-hot grill, turning them regularly until they are soft all the way through. This is not a particularly fast option, but gives a smokier result than baking them.
2 large aubergines juice of a lemon 2 large cloves garlic, crushed 2 tbsp tahini paste 3 tbsp olive oil
Slit the aubergines here and there with a sharp knife and bake them until their skin is black and charred and they are melting and tender inside, about 40 minutes in a hot oven. When they are cool enough to handle, scrape out the flesh with a teaspoon. This is a messy business, but try not to get any of the skin in with the flesh. Mash the flesh with a fork, beating in the lemon juice, crushed garlic and tahini paste, olive oil and a good seasoning of salt. It may look a little curdled, but it will taste wonderful.