Grey skies stretch out over London as far as my forth-floor line of sight will take me. Thankfully, the leaky roof has now been fixed, but the weather is still permeating my Sunday afternoon. Despite the rain outside, however, it is a day to be content in confinement to the house; a day for tea, Radio 4, Sunday supplements, and pottering in the kitchen.
It's dark outside, but my little corner of Hackney is brightened by bowls of late-autumn fruits adorning the room, which I will later turn into a chutney; rust-coloured apples on the table in font of me; bags bursting with dates, sultanas and cranberries; a plate of plums piled so high, they look as though they are planning imminent escape from their porcelain home. On the stove, a smoked ham hock I bought the previous afternoon is making friends with a chunk of Iberico bone in the stock pot. It will form the basis of our supper, in a Basque-style stew with chicken, chickpeas, soft, sticky rice, and plump, jet-black olives.
And to cap it all, the room is filled with the warming scent of freshly baked bread, so comforting it's as if a blanket has been wrapped around the senses. Two loaves sit radiating on the rack. One is packed with pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds, which we'll snack on later, keeping our tummies and tastebuds occupied before the stew emerges from the oven.The other is a sweeter variation, filled with dates, walnuts and honey. It's intended for breakfast, but who could resist a slice or two fresh from the oven, with dough so warm it melts the butter almost before I have spread it from one side to the other...
Date and walnut bread
Despite having made a few loaves in my time, I could never claim my bread is perfect. In fact, baking generally isn't my strong point. That said, there is nothing quite as fulfilling as taking a hot loaf from the oven, that you mixed, kneaded, proved and baked yourself. I use the quick method here, although many swear by proving the bread twice, first to elasticate the dough, then a second time once it's formed into a loaf to rise before baking. Don't forget also, that you can ommit the dates, walnut and honey, for a standard wholemeal loaf, or likewise, try adding any combination of other ingredients, from nuts and seeds, to roast vegetables, olives, herds and even hard cheeses.
This mix makes a robust and wholesome loaf, that is perfect for breakfast, or to keep you going throughout the afternoon. Preferably along with a cup of freshly brewed tea.
Makes one loaf
500g strong wholemeal bread flour (or half wholemeal and half strong white flour), plus extra for dusting
a tsp fast acting dried yeast / one sachet fast acting yeast
half a tsp salt
a tbsp sunflower oil
roughly 2/3 pint warm water
a good handful of walnut pieces, plus a dozen or so walnut halves
a good handful of dates, pitted and roughly chopped
2 generous tsps honey
a beaten egg, for glazing
Mix the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl, including the dates and walnuts, and make a well in the centre. Add the oil, and most of the water, and mix together with your hands. The mix should bind into a 'cloggy' dough, as opposed to a sticky mess. If it's too dry, add more water, if it's too wet, add more flour.
Turn out onto a floured work surface, and knead for a good ten minutes. By this time, the dough should be feeling springy and elastic. Work the dough into a loaf shape, and stud the top with a few walnut halves. Place in a baking try, lined with a lightly oiled sheet of grease-proof paper. Cover with a tea towel, and leave in a warm place to rise for 45 minutes or so. It should double in size. Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees (180 if your oven tends to cook at a high heat).
When the loaf has significantly risen, remove the tea towel, paint with the beaten egg, and put in the middle of the oven. Check it after 20 minutes - you might want to turn it around to make sure it cooks evenly - to make sure it's not over cooking. Turn the oven down to 150, and cook for another ten minutes. Check it by tapping the load - if it's done, it will make a hollow sound. Remove from the oven and leave to cool slightly before transferring to a wire rack, or just eat it!