Conall Ó Fátharta was ready to rise to the challenge when it came to taking baking lessons from author and baker extraordinaire Valerie O’Connor, in the company canteen.
THERE was a time that the only bread I either bought or ate came packaged and cost as little as possible. The good old sliced pan has been the staple of an Irish man’s life down through the generations.
It’s quick, easy and throw some ham and cheese between two slices and you have yourself a meal — an honest-to-goodness sandwich. It has served us well and who was I to go against the grain.
However, for the modern Irish man, that no longer cuts the mustard. A modern Irish man has to be able to do the lot now — cook, wear an apron and even bake.
In my few years working at the Irish Examiner, I have been thrust into the role of guinea pig quite a few times. When it comes to culinary ventures, being 32 years old and male means you are the go-to guy for throwing in at the deep end when it comes to the kitchen.
A few years back, it was cooking. I passed that test with flying colours. Now I have to add, I was in college long enough to learn how to cook a few things.
I would say I am reasonably handy in that department. I’m no Jamie Oliver but I can rustle up the basics and not starve.
Baking is a whole other kettle of fish. Baking was something my grandmother did. It was from another world, another era. It involved technicalities and accutrements that made no sense to me.
Things had to be measured, weighed, rolled and kneaded. Flour had bizarre names — almost aspirational. It self-raised.
So when it was mooted that baker extraordinaire Valerie O’Connor was coming into the office to show a novice how to rustle up her Soda Bread ‘Foccacia-ish’, I could feel some eyes turn to me. A less than gentle approach was made and within minutes, I was roped in to get my hands in a mixing bowl — at least I think that’s what its called.
There was a time when you’d do your bit, embarrass yourself for the cause of journalism, and then just write about it. No one had to see it in real time. However, now that we live in the modern age, video is king. The readers must also be the viewers.
So if you’re the shy, retiring, easily embarrassed type, it’s perhaps best you don’t pick a job with a newspaper. Just sayin’.
But back to baking. Armed withthe memory of a handful of episodes of the Great British Bake Off and my girlfriends refrain to “just leave it alone” anytime she bakes, I stepped gingerly rather than jumped into my focaccia challenge.
Ignorance is bliss, but nothing strikes fear more than partial ignorance. I knew enough to know I would likely make a mess of this baking lark — and on camera too. Luckily, Valerie is a pro and put me at ease immediately. A straight talker and a good laugh, I knew I could fail in comfort.
Baking in the Irish Examiner canteen also presented challenges. Not for Valerie, but for me. I had the usual procession of colleagues wandering in to laugh at me up to my elbows in flour, buttermilk and whatever else Valerie was telling me to add.
My first lesson was the claw. That all important shape to make with your hand while you mix the dough. It’s pretty tough mixing dough and, being honest, I wasn’t very good at it. But I soldiered on, ever the professional.
Valerie took me out of my misery in spots and took over when she could see I was struggling. Cameras were rolling so it wasn’t the time to make a mess of something. In general, we just had some fun with it and rolled along.
Before you knew it, she was cutting into a foccacia and we were tucking in. I wouldn’t say it was easy but it wasn’t all that hard either. And for very little cost, you can rustle up a pretty damn tasty bite in 40 minutes or so. Plus, it was a bit of fun.
Confidence suitably high, I proceeded to parade through the newsroom to offer the fruits of my labour to a hungry newsroom. Invariably the only question asked was “Did you make it?” I answered firmly in the negative, stressing that Valerie baked it. Otherwise I’d have had no takers.
“Putting potatoes in bread works so well; it’s something Irish people have always done, from potato cakes and farls to this beauty here — a classic white loaf,” Valerie explained later.
“This is much lighter than you’d expect and has a lovely springy texture. The toast is the best ever and the potatoes seem to keep it fresh for longer, not that it ever lasts long.
“There are often a few spuds left over from dinner and if you get into the habit of keeping the water — which adds to the starchiness and springiness of the bread — you’ll have no excuse not to throw on a loaf of this.
“Try and get your hands on a nice, deep 2lb loaf tin, and you’ll have a decent sized, ‘normal looking’ pan, perfect for sandwiches and to convert those who like packet ‘bread’.”
The following recipe makes one large loaf:
225g/8oz cold, boiled potatoes
600g/1lb 5oz strong white flour, or you can use a mix of white and wholemeal if you want a brown loaf
1x7g sachet fast-action yeast/15g fresh yeast
10g/2 tsp salt
225ml/8floz leftover potato water (or regular water)
In a large bowl, mash the potatoes, then add the flour, crumble or sprinkle in the yeast and the salt. Mix these together and add the water until you have a craggy dough, just like any normal white bread dough.
Tip it out onto the table. You may need to add a bit more flour to get a workable dough, so just keep doing that until it starts to come together.
Knead the dough for at least 10 minutes until it becomes smooth and elastic, then pop it into a clean, oiled bowl and cover with a tea towel or a piece of oiled cling film and set aside for an hour or until the dough has doubled in size.
Tip it back onto the table and knock the air out of it by punching it gently a few times. Prepare the tin by oiling or buttering the inside well and pop your dough into it, covering the tin with a tea towel. Preheat oven to 220C/430F/Gas 7.
After 30 minutes the dough should be risen, so put the tin in the centre of the oven and bake for 10 minutes before turning down the heat to 200C/400F/Gas 6 and baking for a further 30 minutes.
Check the loaf is done by tapping it on the bottom — if it sounds hollow, it’s ready.
Once it’s out of the tin, you can put it back in the turned-off oven for a few minutes to ensure an all-over crispy crust.
Slice, slather with butter, make toast or make sandwiches.
“This is the bread that was suggested to me by several seasoned bread bakers, so the foccashish was born”, says Valerie.
“I use the much loved but not very Irish sun-dried tomato as it goes so well with rosemary and a goat’s cheese that I got from Gabriel Flaherty who makes delicious Aran Islands’ Goat’s Cheese.
“You can use any combination of flavours that appeal to you, cheddar cheese and sage or cheese and caramelised onions — enjoy the simplicity and impressed sighs of your friends.”
The following recipe makes one flat loaf about 30x20cm
500g/18oz plain white flour/white spelt flour
1tsp bread soda
1 tsp salt
100g/4oz goats cheese
100g/4oz sun dried tomatoes in oil, drained and roughly chopped
50ml/2floz olive oil or rapeseed oil
3-4 springs of fresh rosemary
Sea salt to finish
Make up the soda bread to a loose dough and crumble in the cheese and add the tomatoes and oil and mix with your hand to combine, it should be slightly sticky.
Flatten the mixture out onto a baking tray, covered with baking parchment, and press it out gently with your fingers until you have a rough shape about 2.5cm/1inch thick.
Make some little dents in the dough with your fingers and pour over some extra oil to fill the holes and drizzle it over the dough, sprinkle with sea salt and press the rosemary springs into the dough.
Bake the bread in a pre-heated oven (200C/390F/Gas 6) for 25-30 minutes until it is golden brown all over and looks deliciously inviting with lots of little crumbly edges just waiting to be nibbled off. This bread loves wine.
* Note: if you are using dried sun-dried tomatoes be sure to rehydrate them in some just boiled water for 30 minutes before draining and chopping to add to the dough
* Irish Bread, Baking for Today by Valerie O’Connor is published by O’Brien Press.
* See Valerie O’Connor show Conall how to make a Foccashish
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