Harvest Loaf

Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Medium

  • Makes

    1

    loaf

Appears in

Making Bread at Home

Making Bread at Home

By Tom Jaine

Published 2005

  • About

Bread has always been turned to purposes other than mere sustenance. Just as it is itself a symbol of survival and nourishment, so particular shapes are used to add further layers of meaning: the plaited strands of the Jewish challah recalling the Temple breads, the Greek loaves in the form of a dove at Eastertide, and so on. In England, the most famous modelled loaf is without doubt the harvest sheaf, displayed in church for the Harvest festival. Its apparently complex form is a simple matter of construction, and its message is unambiguous.

Any number of shapes may be constructed out of bread. If they are dried out very slowly (in an oven on pilot light, for instance), they can be preserved without deterioration for a matter of years. It is best if the dough is made stiff, and the loaf should not be underproved when baked, otherwise it runs the risk of rising too much in the oven, so distorting the chosen form.

Ingredients

  • 800 g/ lb unbleached white bread flour
  • 15 g/½ oz salt
  • 15 g/½ oz fresh yeast
  • 400 ml/14 fl oz cold water
  • 1 egg mixed with 2 tablespoons milk for glaze

Method

  1. Mix the flour and salt in a bowl. Make a well in the centre and crumble in the yeast. Add the water and mix with your finger to cream the yeast. Mix in the flour to make a dough. When it leaves the sides of the bowl, turn it on to a floured work surface and knead thoroughly for at least 12 minutes, to clear the dough completely. Leave the dough to rise in a bowl covered with oiled clingfilm in a warm place (24°C/75°F) for 1½ hours, or until doubled in size. Turn out on to the work surface, knock back and form into a ball. Cover with oiled clingfilm and leave to rest for 5 minutes.
  2. Flatten the ball with the palm of your hand, fold the right and left sides in to meet in the centre, and press the join together with the heel of your hand. It should resemble an oblong cushion in shape. Flour the work surface and roll out the dough to a rectangle approximately 12 mm/½ inch thick. It may need to rest for 5 minutes during this rolling, in order not to tear. Cover it with a cloth if it does need to rest, to prevent skinning.
  3. Use a sharp knife to cut out a button mushroom shape (with a large head and short stalk) to fit on a greased baking sheet or upturned baking tray 45 × 30 cm/18 × 12 inches. Lift this shape on to the greased sheet or tray and prick it all over with a fork. This is the base of the wheatsheaf. Brush it with cold water to prevent skinning.

    Using a sharp knife, cut out a button mushroom shape (with a large head and a short stalk) to fit on a greased baking sheet or an upturned baking tray.

  4. Divide the dough that was left after making this shape into two pieces, one twice the size of the other. Reserve the smaller portion under oiled clingfilm. Divide the larger piece into five equal sections, then divide each of those into 16. You should have 80 tiny pieces of dough. Working quite quickly, roll each of these between the palms of the hands to make tapered sausages, i.e. the ears of corn. Use a pair of sharp scissors to snip each ear three times down the centre, and once on either side, as in the illustration below.

    Above left: Divide the larger piece of dough from the trimmings into five sections, then divide each of these into 16. Roll each of these between the palms of the hands to make tapered sausages, i.e. the ears of corn. Use a pair of sharp scissors to snip each ear three times down the centre and once on either side.

  5. As they are done, press the ears of corn on to the top half of the base, arranging first a row lapping over the top edge, then a second row overlapping the gaps between those in the first, and so on until the top half of the sheaf is filled. If the base shows signs of drying out, brush it again with water.
  6. The final piece of dough should be rolled out to a length about equivalent to the stalk of the wheatsheaf base and cut into 20 or 30 thin strips. Roll lightly and stretch these to fit the base to represent stalks. Build up towards the centre to give it depth of modelling. Plait the last three strips and place them across the join of stalks and ears.

    Above: Roll out the final piece of dough to make 20-30 thin strips. Fit them to the base to represent stalks, building up towards the centre to give depth.

  7. Brush the whole loaf with the glaze. Leave it to prove out of all draughts, with a sheet of oiled clingfilm lightly over the top. Watch it carefully to make sure it is put in the oven before it over-proves; conversely, do not put it into the oven too soon, or, it will expand wildly, opening up surface cracks. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 220°C/425°F/gas 7.
  8. Brush the loaf with glaze again just before putting it in the oven. Bake for about 20 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 190°C/375°F/gas 5 and bake for another 20 minutes. When cooked, it will sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. As long as you glazed it carefully, the crust will be a uniform gold. Cool on a wire rack.