On Monday I went to an intro to baking course with a friend.  This very good friend of mine, J, had bought me the course as a birthday gift, and – even better – had elected to come with me.  I am a fan of the experience gift, especially when the person who gets it for you comes along, it then isn’t only an often new experience but a shared one, which makes it better.  I must admit though, that when I bought the same friend tickets to an Il Divo concert, I begged her to take someone else (there is only so much standing-room-only opera I can take).  Anyway, off we went to a hard-to-find studio in South Hampstead, with instructions to be there on time.  The pre-course blurb read that we were going to make bread, rolls, soda bread and focaccia and I must admit – even without knowing anything about baking, I thought that was a big ask for a three hour class. 

The course was called Bake with Maria which was hugely appropriate, not only because it was as if it was tailor made for me, but also because all of the stuff sold in the shop had my name all over it and not just figuratively speaking.  We went through the awkward bit of standing around making small talk and then the even more awkward round the table introductions where were supposed to say our names and talk about any baking experience.  I have baked of course, but mostly cakes, muffins etc.  Not a lot of bread.  In fact the only time I ever tried anything remotely bread-like was pizza dough after watching a Jamie Oliver show where he made it look ridiculously simple.  Emboldened, I started making the dough immediately.  About 20 minutes later, I had cemented my hands to the kitchen table and I had to wait for my brother to come home and help me separate myself from the furniture.  He was extremely helpful after laughing himself silly and taking pictures I am happy to report.

Anyway, back to the course.  There were 8 of us, 6 women and 2 men, and one of the guys introduced himself as a complete novice and was visibly nervous that we were all going to point and laugh at him.  It was an intro class after all, I don’t think any of us were closet Paul Hollywoods or anything.  Maria was a lovely lady who obviously knew her stuff, and who had this knack of making one feel at ease even though we were all clearly out of our comfort zones.  So we started with mixing the dough and then kneading it etc.

Kneading dough is hard work.

After 5 minutes, you feel like you have been at it for an hour.  The only thing that gets slightly better is that whereas when you start it feels like the stickiest most unmanageable substance in the world, after a few minutes of perseverance it does tend to start behaving itself.  I did relive my Jamie Oliver pizza experience, but when there are another 7 people in the room with the same uncertain panic in their eyes, it is easier to power through.  Plus which if I was going to attach myself to any furniture, there were people on hand to rescue me immediately, and so I wouldn’t spend too long watching the dough turn from wet cement to dry concrete.  Two things harden like that in the kitchen that I can think of offhand:  dough and couscous.  If you don’t rinse your bowl off after eating couscous then prepare for textured crockery because that stuff clings, hardens and has the properties of obstinate barnacles. Anyway.  There we were, kneading away, and Maria says

“It feels like you have kneaded enough doesn’t it?!  Let me just tell you that you have been going for precisely 6 minutes.”

A collective groan from everyone.  One girl says:

“I think I am beginning to realise why my bread never works out…”

Maria smiled and told us to set a timer when we did this at home to make sure that we would get the right amount of kneading in.  She told us that it was impossible to overknead dough by hand.

“But there is something so relaxing about kneading dough by hand.  You can forget about the world, and just lose yourself in the motion.”

“Yes,” I muttered, “Because this is exactly the same as a cup of tea and the crossword.”

She also mentioned that you can use a KitchenAid with a dough hook and do it in 7 minutes whilst having said cup of tea, but whatever, after a while the motion does become automatic and we all enjoyed watching the dough become springy and easier to manage.  We put them into bowls and left them to prove.  Proving is the easiest part of baking as it requires no involvement from you.  You put the dough into a bowl and go off and do other things for an hour or until the dough has doubled in size.  Sounds great doesn’t it.  Except you had better know exactly how big your original dough ball was before you decide whether or not is has doubled.  We took out the dough, fashioned it into different things, had a conversation about bread and how to perform small variations and they plugged the shop stuff.  (As if the narcissist in me was going to be able to resist stuff that says bake with Maria on it.  Plus which, I’m Greek.  All my female relatives are also called Maria.  That’s Christmas sorted.)

True to their word, in 3 hours, we made a white loaf,  soda bread , bread rolls and a focaccia.  I thought it was pretty impressive and when I went home to my family (picture birds crying in their nest with their mouths open) they thought so too.  The following day, my nieces and sister and brother-in-law gave the final seal of approval.  The proof was in the fact that there wasn’t any left and we threw none away.

What I learned is this:  making bread is easy.  Er, not really, but it isn’t impossible.  And I imagine that home made bread is infinitely healthier than supermarket bread.  So I have been baking away since.  I figure that if I keep practicing and varying things a little I will get better and better at it.  Come on over for sandwiches and baked goods.

Next step – world domination.

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