Before we get started into this recipe that I've been promising to write up for about a year, you might also enjoy reading a much easier bread recipe that I did as a guest post for the ever-glamorous French for Cupcake blog. The lovely Claire asked me to do a recipe for her website while she went off on her adventures, so I put together my very simple soda bread recipe for her. Let me know if you enjoy it.
This loaf is one that you might see some version of in churches across the country at this time year. A harvest loaf makes a striking centrepiece for a autumn display at an harvest festival or a harvest dinner in your home.
The recipe for this bread is very straightforward; the difficult bit is putting the whole loaf together. However it is worth the effort, if only for all the compliments you will get on your amazing loaf!
I'm going to work through the making of the bread first and then actual shaping, just as it was taught to me by Sylvia, a member of our local church. I advise that you read all the way through the recipe and method before you get going so that you can spot any potential pitfalls before you start. If you have any queries or find anything unclear please let me know, by commenting or sending me an email.
Measure out the flour and yeast into your roomiest bowl.
Add salt and sugar and mix together.
Put 600ml of cold water into a measuring jug. Add the oil and top up 900ml with boiling water.
Stir the water and oil together briefly and pour into bowl with the dry ingredients.
Time to get your hands dirty. Stick your hands in the bowl and carefully mix the liquid and dry ingredients together until you have a rough dough. Make sure you've removed any rings and that your hands are clean before getting stuck in.
Sprinkle a lot of flour on your worktop and tip out the rough dough on to it. Knead for 10 mins (about 3 songs on the radio), until the dough becomes smooth and elastic. You can be really rough with your dough, take out all your anger and stress on it. The more you pound it, the better the finished dough will be. You can watch how to knead the dough in the video below.
Clean the bowl that you made the dough in, unless you have a second giant bowl, and pour in a drop of sunflower or vegetable oil. Rub this around the bowl until it's thoroughly oiled.
Put the kneaded dough into the oiled bowl and cover with cling film. Put in a warm spot, like my mum's hot press (airing cupboard), and leave the dough to rise until it has doubled in size and springs back when prodded. This should take about an hour.
That's the dough made, now we're onto shaping the loaf itself, this is easier than you would think, though there is a little bit of counting involved.
While the dough is rising, prepare the baking tray that you're going to use for the loaf. You will probably need to use one of your shelves from the oven and the size of the finished loaf is very big. Cover the tray with tin foil, tucking it in around the sides. Add a drop of oil and rub it over the top of tin foil to grease it.
Preheat the oven to 220°C.
Retrieve the, by now gigantic, bowl of dough from your warm place and knead it again for 2 mins until it becomes smooth and firm. Keep the dough you're not working with at any one time, in the bowl and covered with the cling film.
Cut off 450g of the dough and roll it out into a 20cm round. Place it on the baking tray at one end. Do use a weighing scales for this, as there is a lot of dough to measure off as we go along and you don't want to guess wrong and run out of dough.
Cut off another 450g of the dough and roll out into an oblong that is 18 x 10cm. Put this onto the tray, slightly overlapping the first bit of rolled out dough.
Now we are into the slightly complicated bit, cut off a third of the remaining dough and divide it into quarters. Put one quarter to the side and divide the other three quarters into 8, so that you have 24 pieces.
These 24 pieces are going to become the stalks of the sheaf. Take each piece and roll it out until you have a stalk approximately 20cm long.
Brush the oblong part of the base with water to stick down each stalk. These should cover the whole of the oblong part of the base and run over the bottom edge. Lay out all the stalks until the whole base is covered. It doesn't matter if some overlap as this adds to the illusion of a real sheaf of wheat.
Split the remaining quarter of dough from above into three equal pieces, and again, roll into strips 20cm long.
Connect the three strips at the top and weave them into a plait. This should be wrapped in cling film and left to one side for the moment.
Take the remaining dough, divide it into quarters, then divide the quarters in three, and finally divide the thirds into four. This should leave you with 48 pieces of dough.
Roll each piece of dough into a ball and flatten, so that it forms an oval about 4cm long. Then, with the scissors, snip two diagonal cuts on each side so that the dough looks like an ear of wheat.
Brush a little water on the top of the base and starting from the top stick down each ear of wheat. As you work down the loaf the new layer of ears should overlap the bottom of the layer above. Repeat until the whole top part of the loaf is covered.
If you are feeling particularly traditional you can retain one of the 48 pieces of dough and use it to make a mouse to sit on the stalks at the end. If you do make a mouse, whole cloves make great eyes and flaked almonds make good ears. I've not made one in this version as my mouse always ends up looking a bit deformed.
Once you have placed all the stalks and ears on the loaf it's time to unwrap the plait, brush some water across the divide between the two and place the plait on, tucking the ends around the sides.
Beat the egg in a bowl and brush over the whole loaf, making sure to get into all the crevices.
Put in the oven and bake for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 160°C and bake for 40 - 45 mins until golden brown. If it starts to get too brown, cover it with tin foil.
When the loaf comes out of the oven, turn it over and knock the bottom, if it sounds hollow then the bread is done. Leave the loaf to cool.
Once cool your loaf is ready to eat or be part of a fantastic harvest display, while you sit back enjoy the compliments (or bread)!