I love making bread, but I am not afraid to admit what most cookery writers steadfastly refuse to concede: that it is a bit of a faff. Of course, this depends on the bread - there are some excellent no-knead, straight-in-the-oven versions around (soda bread, for example, or any bread involving the reaction between yoghurt or buttermilk and some form of acid) - but, largely, bread does require a bit of effort. It would probably be unrealistic to say that for the average busy person, baking bread daily is a doddle. Even if it doesn't require much kitchen effort, it usually requires several hours of sitting around waiting for it to prove, then knocking it back, shaping it, giving it a second rise, and finally the actual baking. And while kneading is usually rather enjoyable, it does make a hell of a mess - not just the worktop, but your hands too. My hands are always hideously dry for a couple of days after I've made bread, because I've had to scrub them with a nail brush to remove all the congealed bits of dough. It's also why I never allow my fingernails to grow more than about two millimetres.
So imagine my excitement at the potential of the KitchenAid mixer's dough hook. I've never used a dough hook before, having always made bread by hand (and therefore experienced the aforementioned arid hands and dough-encrusted worktop). I think it may have changed my bread-making habits forever. It's just so easy. I admit I was sceptical at first: how can a piece of metal that is barely even hooked somehow achieve the same results as a pair of pummelling hands? I'm sure KitchenAid have designed it so it does; I wouldn't know the exact details of why, but suffice to say it's very effective.
For my first foray into KitchenAid bread making, I decided upon focaccia, that gorgeous Italian classic. Its name derives from focus, Latin for 'centre' and also 'hearth', because the fireplace was the centre of the home: the bread was cooked on the hot hearth. I love the texture of a big slab of focaccia; an open sponginess ideal for soaking up delicious Italian sauces or pairing with simple meat and cheese. My favourite topping is the simplest: coarse sea salt and rosemary, which I've made before and which is delightful with fresh, milky mozzarella and sharp summer tomatoes. This time, however, I decided to experiment and use fennel seed and garlic, to accompany a fish stew, and because I'm having huge garlic cravings at the moment (coincidentally, I had a dream about vampires last night...maybe the two are linked).
I used a basic recipe from Michel Roux's cookbook, and for the first time in my life had the experience of cooking with fresh yeast. I'm not sure why I haven't before; I think it's because I didn't realise that it's readily obtainable from most bakeries (and also the in-store bakeries of large supermakets), until someone mentioned it to me in passing. I acquired 50g of the stuff from Sainsburys for the lowly sum of 25 pence, and walked home rather thrilled at the prospect of using it. It's funny-looking, crumbly stuff, that looks rather like half-set plaster of paris. The scent of it took me back to the days when my dad used to brew his own beer; a wonderfully earthy, deep, almost living aroma. I dissolved it in some tepid water, and set about making the dough.
For this, I put everything in the mixing bowl and turned on the mixer. It was as simple as that. Flour, olive oil, salt, some fennel seeds, the yeast and water mixture. And then I let the mixer do its work, for about seven minutes until it had produced a gorgeous ball of silky dough. Not a floury worktop in sight, and the texture of the dough was just as it should have been had I kneaded it by hand. I sat and watched the delightful purple mixing machine doing its thing, marvelling at my un-doughy hands and lack of mess.
I then let the dough rise in the bowl for about an hour. I was incredibly surprised by how much it rose: I don't know if it was the fresh yeast, but the dough somehow felt much more alive than it usually does when I use dried yeast, and it tripled in size within about forty minutes, which has never happened before. Clearly delicious things were in store from this recipe. I spread it out on a baking sheet, left it for another twenty minutes, then slashed it in a criss-cross pattern and drizzled over some garlic-infused olive oil. A sprinkling of fennel seeds and sliced garlic, and it went into the oven with a pan of water to create steam. The beauty of focaccia is its versatility: you can top it with anything you like. Michel suggests basil, garlic and anchovies, which I reckon would be delicious, but you can also put things like pancetta or cheese into the bread mix.
The result was one of the most impressive-looking loaves I've ever made (as well as a gorgeous-smelling kitchen). It also happened to be absolutely enormous, easily enough to feed about seven people. I reckon it was the fresh yeast that achieved such a magnificent expansion; it also resulted in a wonderfully light, spongy, open texture. The best part of the whole loaf was the crispy crust around the edges; combined with the garlicky oil and fennel seeds, it was good enough to eat without any accompaniment. However, I had made a French-style bouillabaisse, with haddock, monkfish, clams, prawns, tomatoes, saffron and fennel, to go with it (that's how much I love bread - I design the bread first, then work out a meal to accompany it, rather than vice versa). We sat there with a glass of wine, a huge loaf of focaccia, and a bowl full of gorgeous seafood flavours to dunk the bread into. I think that's about as close to a perfect meal as you can get.
And no need for hand cream. Thank you, KitchenAid.
Garlic and fennel seed focaccia (makes one huge loaf):
25g fresh yeast
350ml lukewarm water
750g white bread flour, sifted
3 tbsp olive oil
1 heaped tsp sugar
2 tsp salt
3 tsp fennel seeds
1 clove garlic
1 tsp coarse sea salt
Garlic-infused olive oil, for drizzling
Dissolve the yeast in the lukewarm water and add to the flour with the olive oil, 2 tsp of the fennel seeds, sugar and salt. Mix to a dough and knead (or use a KitchenAid with a dough hook!) until smooth and elastic - about 10 mins by hand, or 5-7 in the mixer. Place in a bowl and cover with a teatowel, then leave to rise until doubled in size (about 30 mins to an hour).
Roll the dough out on a floured surface to a thickness of about an inch. Place on a baking sheet lined with non-stick paper and leave to rise again for another 20 minutes.
Pre-heat the oven to 220C. Place a roasting tin in the bottom while it's heating up. Slash the dough in a criss-cross pattern across the centre, then drizzle over some garlic oil, a sliced garlic clove, and sprinkle over the remaining fennel seeds and coarse sea salt.
When the oven is hot, open the door and put the bread in, then immediately pour a jug of cold water into the roasting tray at the bottom; it should steam up. Shut the door and bake the focaccia for 20-30 minutes until golden and the bread sounds hollow when you knock on the bottom.
Remove and devour; good with anything tomatoey. It's also wonderful the next day cut in half, topped with roasted red peppers and/or tomatoes, torn mozzarella, and basil, then placed in the oven until the cheese has melted.
(Adapted from Michel Roux's Cooking with the Master Chef)