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It’s week three, it’s raining and Paul’s being particularly brutish. It can only mean one thing… It’s Bread week!

As I said last time, I have always considered bread one of my weakest areas of baking, mainly because it is the area that I have had the least experience of over the years. In anticipation of this year’s bakealongwithGBBO, I did spend the summer practising though, so hopefully this year, the challenge won’t be quite so horrific!

In one of the most innuendo-ridden shows in Bake Off history, Paul challenged the bakers to craft a traditional cottage loaf in two and-a-half hours. Now, I am a bit of a conspiracy theorist when it comes to Bake Off technical challenges – I have already stated that I think they do sometimes give the bakers flawed recipes, perhaps to check whether they have the baking know-how to pick up on these (mini rolls with an insufficient chocolate covering and too-low-a-temperature for the fortune cookies spring immediately to mind). However, on viewing the official recipe for this week’s technical bake, the issues are not even subtle. Paul’s recipe, permalinked on my recipes page, calls for two proves – one of at least an hour (but possibly even 2-3 hours), a second also of an hour and a total baking time of 40 minutes. Now, I don’t think you need to be a maths teacher to figure out that that is already a total prep time of two hours and 40 minutes without any time for making the dough or kneading it… The bakers were given a paltry two and-a-half hours. Hmmm.

To cut some corners, in the interest of time-saving, I decided to prove my bread dough for 45 minutes each time, as I think an under-proved loaf is preferable to a raw one.

In the tent, many bakers also fell foul of the timing issues and suffered a variety of problems as a result. Everyone’s favourite amateur blacksmith Kate suffered the ultimate cottage loaf disaster when her top fell off her bottom, earning her the dreaded last place, while Stacey’s superior understanding of Paul’s ‘two-finger’ technique finally gave her the chance to shine and propelled her to the elusive first place spot.

Back in the Mr Baker’s Cakes kitchen, I FINALLY remembered to assemble my ingredients before starting the timer and immediately faced my first conundrum: Paul’s recipe called for 50g of lard. As a vegetarian, it’s not something I keep in the house and I’d be damned if I was going to go to all this effort and not be able to taste the results. My first thought was to substitute with Trex, but unfortunately I was out of stock of the trusty vegetable fat so beloved of my grandmother, so after a quick dither between vegetable oil and butter, I settled on the latter.

With the timer on, I started by throwing all of the ingredients into my (now famous) Kenwood mixer. Bake Off bakers always seem to prefer doing everything by hand when it comes to bread week and this week it was actually insisted upon by the judges, but after watching the majority of bread experts in my twitter timeline question the sanity of this when there was a perfectly good stand mixer ‘sat right there’, I figured why work too hard…? Naturally I finished off my knead by hand though – if nothing else, it allowed me the chance to take a couple of ‘floured work surface’ pictures for the blog… 😉

Then it was into a lightly-oiled bowl topped with cling film and time for the first prove. I don’t have a swanky proving drawer here and to be honest, have had mixed results when trying to force too much heat into the proving process, so instead I just popped my dough into the airing cupboard to give the unfortunately short first prove a little bit of a helping hand.

After 45 minutes, which gave me ample time to write the first part of this post, the dough had risen pretty well (well enough for me to press on with my planned shortened proves) and so it was time for knocking back and shaping. I followed the instructions to the letter for this part of the recipe, in fear of a Kate-like toppling disaster, and made sure to replicate Stacey’s failsafe two-finger technique. The recipe also calls for eight slashes to be made in both layers of the loaf and, in the absence of some form of swanky razor tool that the tent bakers are always so kindly supplied with, I chose my least favourite kitchen knife (hoping that least-used means most-sharp) and slashed away. I have no idea if what I did was right, but they seem ok?

The final prove required the loaf to be placed inside a large clean plastic bag and I searched the house to find something suitable, sadly drawing an almighty blank. I must admit I eyed the bin bags for a second or two longer than I should have done, but I’m sure I read somewhere that they coat the plastic with chemicals to kills germs or something, so I wimped out and did the best I could with a combination of cling film and kitchen appliances to build a sort of plastic tent around the loaf. Sadly, I forgot to take a picture at this point, so let me know if you need help recreating my countertop polytunnel.

During this final prove, I preheated the oven, placing a roasting tin in the bottom. After another 45 minutes, it was time to dust the loaf with some flour and in it went. I opted for the suggested 15 minutes at a high heat (with cold water added to the roasting tin in order to steam the loaf and develop a good crust) and then a further 25 minutes at a reduced temperature. During the initial blast, I have to admit I was pretty glued to the oven door – it was certainly a sight to behold! The loaf rose like nobody’s business and I even had to perform an emergency shelf removal to avoid my burgeoning beast consuming the shelf above on its apparent quest for the top of the oven.

Finally, it was time for the obligatory ‘tap test’ – which reminds me, does anyone actually know what a ‘hollow sound’ actually sounds like? I always tap, but I’m honestly never really sure what I should be hearing…

Anyway, here it is. With reduced proves and a complete lack of any serious bread-baking know-how, my Traditional Cottage Loaf. It’s a bit asymmetric, but my bottom didn’t eat my top, nor did it make a bid for freedom, it has a good rise and it smells wonderful. A job well done I would say and I’m certainly looking forward to trying a slice or two of it later on.

Next week, we return to the tent for the first ever caramel week. I didn’t get a good look at the technical bake in the previews, so it would appear that this time we are going in blind. Can somebody hold my hand…?

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