Bread making has always been something I’ve enjoyed but not been particularly good at; I think it all stems from the dismal cookery lessons I had at school where our teacher instructed us to knead rock-solid little balls of dough that baked up so dense not even the park ducks would touch it. Salvation came in March when I finally got to go on an eagerly anticipated bread making course at the Real Food Store in Exeter.
I spent an afternoon in the bakery up to my elbows in dough being instructed by the incredibly talented and friendly (and award-winning) Emma of Emma’s Bread. Emma has a wealth of knowledge and a real passion for baking and local ingredients; it was an absolute pleasure learning from her and I came home armed with tips, recipes and a handy little dough scraper that I hope to put to good use very soon. It was during the course of the afternoon that I realised what went wrong in those school kitchens so long ago – bread dough needs lots of water (more than you’d think) to make it pliable and soft. In Emma’s words, when it comes to bread ‘wetter is better’. Don’t be afraid to add more liquid to bread dough, even if it all seems like a sticky mess at first, given time and kneading the flour will absorb it all and you’ll end up with a beautifully smooth dough and light, fluffy loaf.
The last recipe of the afternoon was for delightful Devonshire splits, a traditional tea-time treat from my beloved home county that’s as light as a feather even when slathered with clotted cream and jam. Despite that fact that a Devonshire split is, in my book, far superior to a scone, it’s nigh-on impossible to find anywhere selling them; the only option is to make them at home which is easier than you might think. They are essentially soft bread rolls enriched with a little milk, butter and sugar; they don’t involve any fussy shaping, you just cut them out like scones. By the time we made these little buns I had taken Emma’s advice to heart and ended up with incredibly sticky dough that wanted to adhere to my hands and the work top more than itself. If you find yourself in a similar situation don’t panic. Use a dough scraper so that you have a clean hand, remove as much dough as possible from your sticky hand and dust it in a little flour so you don’t get covered again. Keep stretching and kneading the dough in vigorous movements, bringing it back towards you with the scraper if it starts to migrate across the counter. With a little persistence you’ll find dough becomes smooth, springy and easy to handle.
I piled my mini splits into a paper bag along with a tub of clotted cream and a jar of my favourite strawberry jam and toted them home to share with my family. They make a very welcome gift, I’m sure you’ll agree!
From Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery
Makes 16 small buns or 8–10 large
- 450g strong white flour
- 15g fresh yeast (or 14g instant dried yeast)
- 5g salt
- 10g sugar
- 30g softened butter
- 300ml warm milk plus a little extra to brush on top
In a large bowl crumble the fresh yeast over the flour (or pour in the dried yeast) and stir. Add the salt and sugar, mix well then add the butter and most of the milk. Stir together until you have a moist dough adding the rest of the milk a little at a time just in case you don’t need all of it.
Knead the dough until it looks smooth and feels elastic, this shouldn’t take too long, 5 to 8 minutes. Don’t be afraid if it seems sticky, scrap as much dough off your hands as possible then dust them in a little flour before handling the dough again.
Place the dough back in your bowl, cover with a damp towel or clingfilm and leave to rise in a warm place until doubled in size. This usually takes about an hour but will vary depending on the temperature of your house.
Once the dough has risen turn it out onto a clean work surface and gently but firmly press it down so some fo the air is squeezed out and the dough is about 3cm thick.
Using a round cutter (approx. 5cm diameter for small buns or 8–10cm for large) cut out as many bus as you can from the dough before pressing the scraps back together, flattening out to 3cm thickness and cutting out the rest.
Arrange the buns on a lightly floured baking sheet leaving space between. Cover with a damp tea towel and leave to rise for another 15 minutes. I generally put mine on top of the oven while it heats.
Heat the oven to 200°C.
Brush the top of each bun with a little milk and bake for 12–15 miutes for small buns or 15–18 mintues for large until they are golden.
Place the buns on a rack to cool before splitting them open and filling with clotted cream and jam.