On what may well have been the hottest day of the year so far, what better way to spend 6 hours can there possibly be than baking bread in a working bakehouse where the ovens are huge, the customers hungry and the pace fast?
None obviously, so off I trotted to undertake one of J’s Christmas gifts to me (and by proxy I think, himself!) of a sourdough breadmaking class at the gorgeous e5 Bakehouse set in the arches of Hackney.
e5 Bakehouse was started several years ago by a man. A man named Ben. A man named Ben who, while searching for a more fulfilling job, baked a loaf of bread. That loaf was the first of many and e5 now prides itself on hand-crafting and creating, delivering and serving baked goods far and wide.
Organic? Yes. Artisan? Yes. Delicious…oh dear lord yes.
Arriving on a bright sunny Saturday, the outside tables were rapidly filling and inside, an excited-but-satisfyingly-chilled-because-it’s-Saturday hum of chatter filled the air, air which FYI smelt incredibly warm and fragrant.
Loaves and cakes and muffins were already piled high and being purchased with greedy anticipation by those clever locals in the know and as I was led through the kitchens, there was a well-organised frenzy of activity everywhere; dough was being kneaded, onions were being caramelised and tray upon tray upon tray of golden topped, floury dusted loaves were being handled with ease by a team perfectly synchronized and un-spokenly in tune with each other.
This was the first of many lovely things about the day – it takes place in a working environment and is led by people who walk the walk, talk the talk and bake the sourdough. Oh and anyone who thinks, ‘yeah, I reckon I could be a baker’? Set your alarm for 3am, then let’s talk…
The freshest of breads with butter and homemade spreads awaited us upon arrival and everywhere you turned there was an indication of the love that this place has for what it does.
Our teacher Will was, to be blunt, fantastic. Passionate about his calling in life and generously keen to share that passion with us all, he made the science easy to understand and the processes simple to follow.
I’m pretty sure that while most people have probably heard of sourdough, many might still be unsure as to what it actually is, why you’d want to eat it or if it’s really possible to make it yourself in a way that delivers all the flavour and satisfaction of an artisan bakery baked bread?
More digestible than a ‘normal’ loaf, sourdough is bread created using a starter – a mixture of yeast and bacteria growing in a paste of flour and water. Some of the starter is used to create a loaf while the rest is saved for future baking and can be added to when needed.
Thanks to the acid in sourdough, it’s much easier for the body to digest and can often provide a welcome alternative for people who struggle with strains of gluten intolerance. It has a lower glycemic index than other breads meaning you won’t get a sudden sugar drop and frankly, it tastes amazing. The slightly sour flavour with the chewy texture is incomparable with other breads you’ll have tried – smeared with butter, honey, jam or Nutella it makes the perfect breakfast whilst a thick blanket of creamy cheese and sweet chutney make it ideal for supper and when it gets a tad old? Chuck it into a soup or salad as the perfect crouton. Sourdough – we salute your luscious versatility.
Our aim for the day was to understand a little more about the sourdough process, to bake some of our own bread there and then and to take some starters away with us to continue baking at home. We were also going to be fed with an amazing assortment of the bakery’s own goods so it was no surprise that our perfectly sized group of 10 looked so happy and ready to get going.
e5 are well known for their Hackney Wild sourdough and this was on the agenda along with ciabatta, bagels and a 66% rye, all using sourdough starters and all unashamedly feeding my addiction to bread.
The 66% rye was the first to be created and the darkest and heaviest looking of the doughs although the finished product itself was nowhere near as weighty but every bit as hearty in flavour as you might imagine…
…and then we embarked upon the ciabatta, seen here in it’s infancy, learning as we went about the different breads that result from different amounts of starter mixed with different volumes of warm water and oil and combined with different flours…
…and before long our ciabatta base was unbelievably soft and glossy, drizzled with oil and one of many among a sea of bowls filled with their bounty of proving and rising dough.
Lunch was beautifully prepared and provided for us…vichyssoise with seeded bread, salads, cheeses, beetroot and asparagus…and served at a table in the kitchen from where you could observe a) how ridiculously hard the staff work and b) how utterly wonderful the things they make are.
Kicking off the afternoon were our beautiful bagels which we formed in two ways – the first involved rolling the dough into a sausage and folding the ends over each other to seal together into a circle. The second, as displayed by the slightly lumpier ones on show below, required the stabbing of your finger through the ball of dough and spinning it round until it became somewhat bagel-esque!
Poaching in boiling water, with a touch of baking soda or lye added to it, for barely 30 seconds each side sets the crust of the bagel before they go into the oven to be baked until delightfully brown and then scattered with poppy or sesame seeds.
If you’re doubtful about this process, fear not. The addition of the soda or lye helps to produce a lovely colour on the bagels as they bake and the water doesn’t have time to penetrate the dough in a way that will damage it as the external starch forms a barrier. Also, because the crust is already setting by the time they go in the oven, it means they don’t rise as much as other breads would hence their gorgeously chewy interior.
Back to the 66% rye…keeping a close eye on 4 different doughs, at various stages of kneading and resting throughout the day is as challenging but ultimately rewarding as the actual bread making itself.
Shaping the bread and placing it in the well floured banneton for the final rise means that it will have a lovely rustic looking spiral pattern on the outside once turned out onto the tray for baking…love this little army ready for their stint in the oven!
And aftewards? Even better. Tapping the loaves on their hot little bottoms has always been the way I thought you checked whether they were ready but Will, in his expertise, advised a few moments longer in the oven and checked their temperature when they came out to ensure complete perfection. It’s hard to judge the readiness of something when you can’t see inside it but having baked enough loaves in his lifetime to build his own edible bakery, it seemed a pretty safe bet to leave the fate of our goods in his hands.
Then just in case we’d not gorged ourselves enough at lunch, along came afternoon tea to recharge the batteries; the eclair and chocolate moussey-cheesecake were particularly hard to force down…
Then it was time for the Hackney Wild to be popped into its own banneton ready to be transported home and completed.
Will demonstrated two methods of baking our loaves to show the difference it made and it was pretty amazing. Most people, myself included, will only have ever baked bread plaited or laid out on a tray, or in a loaf tin and the results are generally fine. Doing it in the lidded pan however allowed the shape of the bread to remain much cleaner without oozing everywhere and perfectly sealed the heat in.
It’s much harder than you imagine to get your own, regular, non-bakery oven hot enough to really do the bread justice but using a pan with a lid is something I will absolutely be trying in the future – another lovely pointer from today, you really only get the best tips from the bakers when it’s the bakers themselves who teach you.
Seeing the finished articles laid out was like dying and ascending to some pearly, carbohydrate gates…who could ever (or would ever want to) give up bread? It’s something that has rather unfairly acquired a negative reputation in some circles over the past few years and whilst I’d agree that yes, eating cheap white sliced every single day probably isn’t going to do you much good – even if it does taste like heaven when slathered with butter and wrapped around crispy, ketchup smothered bacon slices – how can something that in its purest form has been around for over 30’000 years be bad for you?
This was a one day workshop that I really can’t recommend enough for the bread lover in your life, be that you or some other lucky soul. What we made tasted every bit as more-ish and comforting as you may know or imagine home-made bread to be. Doing it in a bakery instead of a cooking school gave us both a taste of what the staff undertake every day but also, actually how much the simple act of baking bread and sharing it with others can really build a community in a way that not many other things can. There’s something beautifully universal about people coming together to share and appreciate good ingredients and good food right on their doorstep that I absolutely love.
You will go home laden down with bread. You will be eating it for the next week. You will love every mouthful.