Crusty Cob Loaf

Homemade cob loaf
Today's baking was inspired by an email I received (thanks Nikki!), asking why free-form bread tends to splurge out flat*, instead of holding its shape nicely.
*Not the exact words in the email, I'm paraphrasing.

Free-form bread (as opposed to bread baked in a tin) does have a tendency to lose its plump, upwardly mobile shape and, well, splurge sideways.

Instead of a rounded, risen loaf, you end up with a flat bread that's not nearly as beautiful as you had imagined it would be.

So, I thought I'd have a go at a free-form loaf of my own, and see how I got on.

Here's my version of a crusty cob loaf. 'Cob' is the name of the shape, rather than anything to do with ingredients, I believe. This one is made from strong white flour.

Crusty Cob Ingredients

500g strong plain flour
5g instant dried yeast
10g salt
40g softened butter (I popped mine in the microwave for 30 seconds because it's pretty cold in my kitchen and butter is usually anything but soft)
300g water

Method

1. Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl. It might feel quite dry but don't be tempted to add any more water because you need quite a firm dough for it to hold its shape in the 'cob'.

2. Tip the dough onto a clean worktop and knead for 10 minutes. I'm recommending a long knead here, because you want the gluten strands to be as long as possible, to help with holding the cob shape as it rises.

Other cob loaf recipes advocate some sort of faffing about with oil at this point. I'm not sure why. I didn't oil the surface, or incorporate any extra oil into the dough.

3. Leave the dough to ferment for about 45 minutes. I pop the upturned mixing bowl over it, to stop it from drying out.

4. Give the dough another little knead to knock the air out of it. Form it into a round shape by pulling the edges into the middle. I've said it before and I hope I don't say it too many more times: I really need to do a video tutorial of this process. Bear with me please...

5. Leave the dough to rest for about 15 minutes.

OK, the resting step may be optional, but this was my thinking: The gluten needs maximum time to develop and letting the dough rest makes it easier to shape. Thus, returning to the rested dough will allow me to further stretch it into shape, with increased support from the gluten.

6. Continue the shaping process, pulling the edges of the dough into the middle, making a tight stretch across what will be the top of the loaf.

7. Turn the dough over so that the 'messy' bit is at the bottom and the stretched, rounded side becomes the top. Use the edges of your hands to coax the dough into a rounder, plumper shape. Place it on the baking tray.

8. Leave the loaf to prove for about 45 minutes. I pop the bowl over the loaf again, to keep the moisture in. Some people like to use a proving basket, to help the loaf keep its shape. I have never used one so this loaf was achieved without.

9. Preheat the oven to about 180oC. My oven is especially fierce. On my bread course, I was advised to bake at a very high temperature - say, 220oC - but at that temperature I find my bread burns on top before it is cooked in the middle. Trial and error have lead me to conclude that it is better, in my oven, to bake at a lower temperature, for longer.

10. At the last minute, before you put your bread in the oven, score the top with a serrated knife, to make the squared pattern, if you like, or just some lines if you prefer. At this stage, I sprayed the bread with water (using a plant spray bought specially for this purpose). This helps to create the crunchy crust. You can also put a dish of water in the oven, or spray water into the oven, to make a humid atmosphere, which further enhances the crust.

11. Bake the bread for about 30 minutes, or until it is nicely browned. You can check if it's properly cooked by knocking on its bottom: it should sound hollow. For this loaf, I sprayed it twice more, at 5 minute intervals, to help develop the crust. If that's a faff too far, there's no need, really.

homemade loafAnd there you have it. I'm pleased with the plumpness of the loaf but, if it's any consolation, it did do this on one side:

A kind of split and an escaped bit of dough - perhaps caused by uneven shaping.

We had this loaf on the hoof, as it were, due to a timing error involving a children's birthday party and a big not-quite-dry-yet pinata parrot. Imagine us crossing town with a large, slightly wet, papier mache bird, stuffing slices of bread into our mouths and trying not to get paint onto our clothes. Fun times ;)

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