Campervan bread

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We have a much loved and underused old VW campervan that sits outside our rain-soaked house patiently waiting for summer adventures. It came all the way from 1970s Australia, and must be traumatised by the brutal Irish weather it is subjected to on a daily basis. But with another glorious summer stretching through July and August, we dusted off the cobwebs, stocked the shelves and headed for a little apple farm in Co. Tipperary.

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Usually our camping epicurean adventures are dictated by the local supply of produce topped up with whatever supermarket supplies come with us. When we arrived at the apple farm with limited provisions in our little van we were cheered to find a farm shop that only stocked the absolute essentials of cider, strawberries and ice-cream. Unwilling to forage for dinner further afield we improvised with a repast of sausages, beans and freshly baked bread.

Normally, bread-baking is not on the agenda on camping trips. The lack of an oven is the main culprit, but also it never really occurred to us that we could bake bread in a campervan. That is until we got a Cobb barbeque. Many a chicken and leg of lamb have been roasted in the little metal wonder, so this summer we thought – why not bread? Ruby had packed all the bread-making essentials – flour, salt, yeast, scraper, tiny cheap scales – and once camp was established we set about utilizing our meagre camping utensils for the art of loafing. But there was one thing we forgot to check before we left….

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Campervan bread.

420g or 3 cups strong white flour
7g or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried yeast
7g or 1 teaspoon salt
20g or 2 tablespoons olive or rapeseed oil
250-260g or 1 1/8 cup tepid water
tiny cheap scales
EXTRA BATTERIES FOR THE TINY CHEAP SCALES

Here’s how to do it properly.
Weigh out your ingredients into whatever camping cook equipment is big enough. In our case the biggest camping saucepan we had. Alternatively (and probably more prudently as we discovered) use the american imperial cup and spoon system if you are without scales, or check that the BATTERIES ARE WORKING in your tiny cheap scales.

Dump your dough on the cleanest flattest smoothest surface available and knead vigorously for 15 minutes. This is surprisingly therapeutic when you are confined in a small space with your loved ones for an extended length of time. Don’t hold back. Put back in the oiled saucepan, cover with clingfilm or a shower cap, put in the warmest place available, and leave to rise for about an hour.

Punch down and mould into a cob shape. Place on an oiled or dusted baking tray/tin and leave to prove for about 30 mins. Meanwhile light the barbecue. We cooked our bread on a Cobb barbecue that only takes 5-10 minutes to heat up, but this bread should cook in any barbecue with a dome once it reaches its optimum temperature.  Place the baking tray/tin on the grill and cover with the dome. You may need to check the bread after about 15 minutes as you can’t control the temperature, and the bottom may get a bit scorched, but the loaf should be ready in 20-30 minutes.

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Here’s how not to do it.
We forgot to check the batteries in our tiny cheap scales. We didn’t use a cup system. We had no idea how much salt we added as the batteries died at this crucial point (but judging by the taste, it was a lot!!). Our dough didn’t rise due to the murderous horde of salt massacring the yeast. It was scorched on the bottom and pale on the crust. But still…we ended up with an edible, nay palatable, if slightly salty cob loaf to have with our dinner. Not bad for our first attempt at campervan bread. And washed down with all that lovely cider, strawberries and ice-cream, it was a treat…

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…..and the next morning, tools out to get us home.

ruby says “i loved kneading the bread in the campervan, it kept rocking. but i was a bit sad when it didn’t rise. tasted nice as toast with lots of butter. and we had strawberries and ice-cream for dessert!!!”

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13/52: Wheaten loaf.

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A little red piece of plastic has revolutionized our lives. It’s a scraper, cutter, dough handler, crumb chaser, residue remover. It’s the bike tool of baking. In fact you could probably mend a puncture with it. It is now our most treasured possession, made all the more iconic in our house because the baking legend Tom Herbert presented it personally.

red scraper800Before our scraper, we were scared of our dough, as it crankily stuck to the table and demanded more flour before it would play with us. The result was always an uptight sulky loaf and two disappointed bakers. And a kitchen table with concrete adhesions that even wire wool couldn’t shift. Anything requiring a soft wet dough was way beyond our courage and capabilities. Now, thanks to our flexible red wrangler, we can herd any gooey mixture from table to tin without a floury fence. 

Emboldened by our newly acquired training, our recent (relative) successes, and armed with our little red weapon, we leapt into making a soggy-doughed brown soda bread. Many of these are often coarse worthy affairs, good for the gut but dull on the tongue. Yet there are some that are sweet and fragrant and soft and tangy, with a certain depth of flavour that can only be achieved with the secrets of a master baker. And one of these secrets happens to be…..sticky black treacle.

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Wheaten Bread (from The Fabulous Baker Brothers Recipe)

450g strong wholemeal flour
50g oats
20g butter
100ml black treacle
1tsp sea salt
2tsp caster sugar
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
200ml milk
200ml buttermilk

Heat the oven to 170ºc/Gas 3. This is a no-knead dough, so it’s going in pretty rapidly. Mix the flour, oats, salt, sugar and bicarbonate of soda in a bowl. In a pan on the hob, gently melt the butter and treacle together. Pour into the dry ingredients and add the milk and buttermilk. Stir up the sludgy mixture until it’s all well combined. It will be rather wet at this point. Grease a 1kg (2lb) loaf tin with plenty of butter and scatter some oats around the bottom and sides. Slop the dough into the tin and scrape all residue from the bowl with your trusty scraper. Smooth the top, sprinkling more oats as you go. Cover it with foil and bake in the oven for 35 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 10 minutes or so, until the top is a dark brown and the kitchen smells deep, sweet and oaty. Remove to a cooling rack. Slather with butter and eat warm, or leave to cool completely and top with a deliciousness of your choice.

This loaf is now officially the best wheaten loaf we have ever tasted, made all the sweeter because we managed it ourselves. It will feature heavily in our future lives. And the smell in the kitchen as it bakes….

Oh yes, we got so cocky half way through that we made our own butter too…

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ruby says “scrumbly delishious, but it was a bit heavy for me to eat every day, i think we did a good job though! it was fun whisking the butter!”

8-9/52: St. Patrick’s Day Bread.

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Looking at other people’s bread creations for St. Patrick’s day produced an abundance of green tinged loaves and rolls, some of which looked tasty (pistachio bread definitely) and some simply barmy. We were trying to get inspiration for a St. Patrick’s weekend bake, when Ruby asked the question “what bread would St. Patrick have eaten on St. Patrick’s day?” Good question Ruby. Ignoring the fact that there was no St. Patrick’s day when the man himself was around, we decided to bake an authentic loaf from the time of the early monks. But there was a distinct lack of early Irish bread recipes in cyberspace….did they even eat bread, or just bowls of watery gruel? So while researching another job, I diverted a little time to more scholarly articles on early breads. Turns out bread was definitely on the monks menu, but it seems that baking, like everything in Ireland, was fraught with politics and social jostling that dictated what kind of bread you made and ate. There were flatbreads and leavened breads, barley breads, oat breads, rye breads, wheat breads, maslin (mixed grain) breads, women’s bread and men’s bread, festival breads and penitent breads.

Now strictly speaking, it being the middle of Lent, St. Patrick would have eaten a penitent loaf. But from what we could glean, these were heavy, grey flatbread loaves made from barley, oats and water, meant to sustain rather than excite the palate. So we thought we’d make two different loaves – St. Patrick’s Penitent Loaf, and a secular Bairgen Banfuine, or woman’s bread, a maslin leavened loaf that included wheat (so much more palatable). And we decided to indulge in a little experimental archaeology too, and prepare and bake them in true early medieval style. Flatbreads were cooked on a griddle on the open fire, and although there were no built-up ovens in that time, raised loaves could be cooked on a griddle covered by an upturned pot, or in the equivalent of a modern Dutch Oven – a clay pot with a close-fitting lid, surrounded by embers from the open fire.

There’s a distinct lack of information on the exact ingredients in early medieval bread, let alone the quantities and ratios, so our recipes and methods were cobbled together from an article written by the Irish culinary historian, food writer and broadcaster Regina Sexton. Barley flour seemed to be the staple ingredient in a lot of breads, but Ruby and I could not get a bag of it in Dublin for love nor money. So in keeping with our authenticity, we ground our own! Just enough for our two loaves. We’re on a promise from the Dublin Co-op that they’ll source some for us next time (thanks Amy!).

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St. Patrick’s Penitent Loaf.

200g barley flour
200g oat flour
250g water

Combine the barley and oat flour in a bowl. Add the water and mix to a pasty dough. Turn out onto a floured surface and shape into a circular flat loaf or four smaller loaves. Sprinkle with oat or barley flour. Heat an oiled flat griddle pan over an open flame (or an electric ring, your choice). Cook on a high heat until the outside is browned. Leave to cool and for the interior to cook.

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Bairgen Banfuine (Women’s maslin bread)

100g barley flour
100g oat flour
100g rye flour
100g wholewheat flour
10g yeast (or barm yeast if you can get it)
150ml buttermilk
100ml water

Combine all the flours in a bowl. Add the yeast, buttermilk and water and combine to create a claggy dough. Tip out onto a floured surface and knead vigorously for 5-6 minutes. Return to the clean, oiled bowl and leave to prove for about 2 hours (or longer if it’s struggling). Tip out and form a round domed loaf on a flat griddle pan covered by an inverted ceramic pot, or in a dutch oven. Place in the centre of the fire, and heap the hot embers around the pot. This is where any baking advice from us ends…….

burnt bread

Obviously we had no control over the temperature of the fire, and subsequently, our makeshift oven, so our timing for the maslin bread was completely made up. We left ours for 30 minutes. When I tried to take it out, the griddle pan was a fiery orange colour, and my oven gloves were melting! Needless to say, this did not bode well for the loaf. In hindsight, we should have left the griddle and pot on the fire for about 10 minutes, then taken it off and let it cook under its own heat. That said, once we chipped off the outer charcoal shell, there was some decent tasting (if a little smoky) bread in the middle. The flatbreads were more successful from a baking point of view, though they were largely lacking in any kind of flavour and were distinctly gritty.

burnt bread interior

platter

Final impressions? Both breads were definitely edible, and while we wouldn’t want to eat them every day (for every meal), they were certainly palatable enough when piled high with our authentic(ish) early christian condiments (one historical source recounts that St. Colman buttered his Lenten loaf on both sides. I don’t blame him). On the whole the process was hilarious, if a little tedious in sections (hand-grinding barley grain until someone more quick-witted pointed out the spice-mill), and the results were….hmm, interesting. Still, we’ll definitely give this one another go.

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ruby says  “nice, but let’s not burn it next time!”