What do the following three things have in common?
- The Oldest has been dabbling on the piano at school and on her phone, so The Author thought it might be a good idea to get her a proper keyboard for Christmas. She now sits at it several times in the course of the day and, by ear, picks out the tunes or harmonies to songs that she likes. Sometimes she gets a note wrong, and then she goes back to the beginning and starts over, repeating the same refrain until she gets it right.
- Every birthday or Christmas for the past few years, our youngest daughter, the ever-moving Poppet, has wanted things with wheels. This year, she got her wish for a brand new skateboard. Just one problem: she doesn’t know how to use it. But we went to the skate park, and she rolled around the flat bits, and after a few tries she managed to figure out how to balance properly and how to turn. She even gamely made a few attempts at one of the slopes (while holding onto my hand). She can’t wait to go back and try it again.
- The Son received some LEGO from his American grandmother. LEGO is always on The Son’s wishlist, and he is extremely good at making new things with it. With his new acquisition, he made a little contraption that seems to operate a bit like an old fashioned hand mixer. We all admired it, and his English grandmother said jokingly, “Is that for fracking?” He looked confused, so I asked him if he knew what fracking is. “Blending farts?” he guessed. (Don’t look at me, I have no idea where he gets it from.)
If you guessed that the common thread is Christmas presents, you would only be half right. Yes, they all got something they wanted for the holiday, but what they also got, as shown in these three examples, is a learning curve. They all need to learn how to use their gifts (both the given and innate kind) and so far they have demonstrated a willingness to put themselves out there and give it a go. In other words, they’ve decided to wing it.
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My very first post on this blog was a recipe for bread, and since then, I’ve had many people tell me that bread is difficult, even terrifying, for them. I have to admit, when I listen to professional bakers talk about percentages of hydration, or glutenin and gliadin (two components of gluten) and how they work to form the structure of bread, or how you must mill your own flour or else there’s really no point in eating the nutritionally void product you’re likely to bake, or how sourdough is the only “real” bread, well, then I feel fairly discouraged myself. Let’s put this in perspective. I make, on average, 40 loaves of bread a week, but all this talk makes me feel like maybe I don’t know what I’m doing.
We didn’t make The Oldest read a book of music theory before we got her a keyboard. We didn’t force The Poppet to study physics and centrifugal force before we allowed her a skateboard. We didn’t make The Son study engineering before we allowed him to create machinery with LEGO. So why do we (meaning I) think we need to know everything before we can start making something in the kitchen? (I suppose it doesn’t help that I have been binge-watching Masterchef: The Professionals. How can I feel up to par when I’ve never made anything sous vide! I don’t even vac-pack my meat! I rarely – okay never – make a dessert that has a crumble, a gel, a granita, a mousse and a purée! How can I call myself a professional!?)
But then I make a pretty decent loaf of bread and I remember that if this were so hard, bread would not be one of the mainstays of the culinary world, both 30,000 years ago as well as today. If it were so hard, I might not be able to do it even now, after all these years of practice. And even if I only thought it would be hard (which for the longest time I did), I would never have even tried (and for a long time, I didn’t!)
So here is my new year’s gift to you, and to me, because obviously I need a little reminding sometimes. It’s a quote from Julia Child, one of my favourite chefs, and it holds true for everything, whether it be bread baking, skateboarding, piano playing, current event-knowing, or whatever you want to try:
“The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude…. Learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!”
One of the things I make quite often is focaccia. Depending on my oven, the room temperature, my temperament, and the time I have to do it in, the results can vary. Is that a problem? No, because as long as it has enough oil and salt on it, it’s delicious! Have a go!
- 350ml (11.5 oz.) water, body temperature
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp dried active yeast
- 500g flour (I use only white flour for my focaccia, because I like the end result better, but you could use 400g white and 100g whole wheat, if you feel you must)
- 1 tsp fine sea salt
- small handful of fresh rosemary needles, chopped
- 150ml olive oil
- 1 tsp flaky sea salt (I like Maldon)
First off, you will need a baking sheet or tin about 21cm x 21cm (8″x 8″), but it can be larger if you don’t have the right size. Rub this with a generous amount of olive oil and set aside.
Mix together the water, sugar and yeast, and wait until the yeast has started to bloom. (Note to beginners: make sure your water is definitely body temperature or cooler before you add the yeast; too much heat will kill the yeast before it gets a chance to work its magic. Just feel the water with your hand, and if it doesn’t feel warm or cold to the touch, you’re fine.)
Put the flour and fine sea salt into the bowl of your stand mixer and attach the dough hook (instructions for mixing by hand are in the next paragraph). When the yeast mixture has started to get active, run the mixer while you add the yeast. The dough will look quite craggy. Run the mixer on low for 10 minutes: the dough will start to get smoother and elastic. Turn off the mixer, take out the dough hook, and cover the bowl of dough with a piece of cling film or a lid. (This creates a little proving oven, of sorts, and retains all the moisture, which you want.)
(If you are mixing by hand, add the yeast mixture all at once to the flour and keep stirring until you have a craggy mass of dough. Then turn the entire thing out onto the counter and knead for 10 minutes. This will be slightly difficult, because the dough is quite wet; you may need to use a dough scraper to lift the dough from the counter and fold it in on itself, but don’t be tempted to add more flour. If it all seems hopeless, you can just dump the whole mass back into the bowl and cover it with cling film or a lid. It will take longer to prove without the initial kneading, but it WILL happen!)
After about 2 hours (depending on the amount of time you spent kneading and the heat of your kitchen), the dough should have doubled in size. It will have an airy, open structure, which you will be able to see as you continue with the next few steps.
Using a dough scraper or spatula, scoop the proven dough onto the counter and give it a very quick knead, just one or two turns. Then put the dough onto the prepared baking tin. Put a little oil on the palms of your hands, and gently but quite firmly pull and push the dough to the edges of the tin, being careful not to tear the dough. It will seem to comply with you but as soon as you let go, it will spring back to the centre. Do not be discouraged, just give the dough 30-60 seconds to rest, and then continue. It’s like training a dog (or a child!); eventually the dough will obey your commands, but it will take a while.
If your baking sheet is large, you do not need to pull the dough all the way to the edges; just get it to the point where it is about 2cm (3/4″) high and that will be fine. (Note: a smaller pan will contain the wet dough, so the only way it can expand is up. That means it may rise a little more, and you will have a crisp and tidy edge. A larger pan will allow this loose dough to creep outwards slightly and will result in a sloped edge.)
Because your hands were covered with oil, the dough should now have a nice sheen on top. If not, brush it gently with oil, and leave it in a warm place to double in size. Once it has done that, poke the dough with the tips of your fingers, pushing all the way down to the baking tin but not poking through the dough. Scatter the chopped rosemary over, drizzle with half of the olive oil, and sprinkle with the flaky sea salt. Immediately put the dough into a preheated, 190C (375F) oven.
Bake for 30-40 minutes. (Baking times are dependent on your oven – mine is not very powerful, but when I make this at work, it only takes 20 minutes for a very large pan of focaccia. Basically, you will know it’s ready when the bread is a deep golden brown on top and feels light when you lift it.)
Remove from the oven and immediately drizzle it with the rest of the olive oil. Believe it or not, the focaccia is best left to sit for an hour or so before you eat it.
Here are just a few of the focaccias I have made in the past couple of months. Every one of them is different (different ovens, different flours, different added ingredients, different situations), but they are all good to eat, and isn’t that the point?