The easiest and most flexible dough uses a strong white wheat flour and the packet ‘instant’ easy-blend yeast you can buy in any supermarket in boxes of foil-wrapped sachets. This does not need to be activated separately in warm water, but is simply mixed in with the dough.
Good bread begins with a high-gluten wheat flour, ideally with a 14 per cent protein content. Waitrose are at last selling Canadian wheat flour, the higher-than-average gluten content of which traps more carbon dioxide from the yeast, so producing a lighter loaf with a terrific crust.
A traditional baker uses a wooden peel, a long-handled paddle, to transfer the risen dough into the oven and the finished bread out of it. Pizzas and many breads benefit from being baked in direct contact with heated stone, which is what gives them their crisp base crust. You can buy baking stones to go into domestic ovens but, if you do, you will then have to work out a technique for sliding the dough on to them, as the baker does with a peel. While the loaf will never be quite as good as the bread baked in direct contact with hot stone, heavy baking trays will give good results.
The incredibly versatile dough given below will make loaves, rolls or pizza. Leave the dough in a zip-lock bag and it will make very good focaccia after being knocked down and left to rise a second time at room temperature. Press in slivered garlic and dress with more oil for a garlic bread or roll out as pancakes to make wheat flour tortillas in a hot dry pan on the hob. It also makes brilliant pittas. That which you don’t use the first day will keep happily in a zip-lock bag in the fridge for three days.
Put the warm water in the bowl of a mixer fitted with a dough hook, and add the yeast, sugar, salt and olive oil. Turn on at the lowest speed, pour in the flour and work for 10 minutes. Increase the speed to maximum and finish for 1 minute.
Turn the sticky dough out on a floured surface and knead for a minute or two. Form into a ball and put to rise at room temperature in a lightly oiled bowl covered with cling-wrap for 2 hours, when it should have more than doubled in size.
Alternatively, use a food processor though you will not get such a good result. Put all the dry ingredients in the bowl and, using the metal blade, process to a crumb texture. In a thin stream, pour in approximately three-quarters of the warm water, adding the liquid more slowly as the dough begins to ball. There may still be a tablespoon or so of water left at this point. Only add this if the ball starts to break up. Once the dough is holding in a ball, continue to process on full speed for about 2 minutes. The dough will be elastic and slightly sticky and, as it begins to adhere to the sides of the processor, switch off. Turn out on a floured surface, knead for 2 minutes, then shape into a ball. Brush a large bowl with olive oil, put in the dough, push down to flatten and brush the surface with more oil. Cover the bowl and leave to rise.
People think yeast needs to be put somewhere hot for dough to prove. This is not true and too hot an environment can be counterproductive. Dough will rise in a cold place, even in the fridge, though this of course takes longer. Somewhere in the kitchen away from drafts and away from direct heat is best. After 90 minutes to 2 hours it will have trebled in bulk and, once you have removed it and knocked it down, you will have a versatile bread mix to experiment with.
Preheat the oven to 220°C/425°F/ gas 7. Shape the loaf as you wish and bake for 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to 200°C/400°F/gas
© 1998 Alastair Little and Richard Whittington estate. All rights reserved.