Wednesday, 5 February 2014

James Morton - Brilliant Bread

If one of your summer highlights is watching the BBC's Great British Bake Off, you'll remember James Morton from the 2012 final - that nice young medical student from the Shetlands with a penchant for Fair Isle knitwear. 

Following the success of a talk on baking during the Edinburgh Fringe, James was invited to do a Christmas show at The Stand comedy clubs in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Newcastle also boasts its own The Stand, but sadly he wasn't crossing the border.

Undeterred, Newcastle Cake Club ladies did a five hour round trip to see him bake a stollen. Last time I was at The Stand in Glasgow it was to see Daniel Kitson, who shares James' love of knitwear but was no help whatsoever when it came to bread.

James talked the audience (about 98% female) through baking a Christmas stollen and shared his love of baking bread. While there is a whole science to baking, which he clearly understands, he completely demystified baking. He argued that home baking is simple and far better for you than supermarket bread, squishing a loaf of cheap white bread in his hand to prove his point that it is basically raw. As someone living on a student budget, he eschewed expensive equipment ("Don't buy a baking stone, just get a loose paving slab or roof tile and give it a wash"). 

We bought his book Brilliant Bread, took a little  bit of his sourdough starter, had our photo taken and made him promise to come to Newcastle next time.

Unsurprisingly for someone who runs a cake-making business, I bake a lot of cake. But I rarely bake bread. It was time to getting cracking with my new recipe book.

I like to read magazines and books starting at the back, meaning I skip the adverts and know who dunnit straightaway. So I started near the end and the first thing I baked was Peanut Butter Brioche Twists.

But James was waiting for me on page 117: "back to the start you chancer" and I scuttled off to the beginning to make soft white rolls

Meanwhile, I'd been feeding the sourdough starter we'd been given in Glasgow and, like me, it was ready for his favourite chapter: Sours. I've tried making sourdoughs in the past and given up. To be honest I was slightly scared of the starter growing in my kitchen every day, sometimes bursting out of its container and shouting FEED ME SEYMOUR. James' book has changed this: for a start, I've realised that you're meant to keep throwing away some sourdough and that you can keep it in the fridge if you're not baking every day.
An ideal gift
Advanced white bread
Marmite bread. Delicious, especially as cheese on toast 
Staple white sourdough
India Pale Ale and Cardamom Loaf
Seeded sour (yes that is a normal amount of butter)
Proving bread in the fridge overnight has been a revelation for me, as has baking in a cast iron pot. I admit that I can't always get a good shape on a sourdough but the pot helps to support it - baking with the lid on creates steam to help it rise, then taking the lid off during baking helps caramelise the crust.

One excuse I've used for not making my own bread is that I can't eat a whole loaf on my own but this sourdough bread keeps so well that I can easily eat a loaf without it going stale, plus it's so delicious that I want to eat it all straightaway anyway. I've also found that friends are more than happy to accept half a loaf. I bought a supermarket "artisan" sourdough loaf last week and was shocked at how bad it was - no taste, no crumb and it went dry very quickly. It also went in the bin very quickly.

One sourdough that defeated me was the real pannetone, billed as one of the hardest breads there is. After two days' effort, it ended up on the flour and I thought perhaps my sourdough hadn't been active enough

On my second attempt I waited until the sourdough was fizzing like an EDL supporter with a parking ticket, but found the dough was more like batter and it didn't achieve any height at all. If anyone has any advice, please let me know - I've already tried the "consoling myself that I don't even like panettone that much while putting it in the bin" method.

No 'magnificent height' here
I had more success with focaccia bread, challah and stollen.
Wasn't sure I'd manage to eat all this on my own but the olive oil kept the bread moist for days
Four strand challah
Chocolate stollen. It didn't make it to Christmas so I had to bake a second one
Han and I also had a lot of fun deep frying some doughnuts she made and then filling them with jam. The pleasure of eating a fresh, warm doughnut comes a close second to winning Euromillions.

Years of medical training have gone into this injection
James Morton's book is written with warmth, humour and an eye on economy  - no fancy brioche moulds for him ("if you're buying these you've got too much cash to burn") and some tips on making do - I'm pleased with my razor on a stick for scoring the bread instead of a fancy lame,

though after a few weeks of baking I decided to invest in a nice wicker banneton so I could get that swirly pattern on the crust

The recipes have clearly been tested and do work (the blame for the panettone lies squarely with me). It encourages bakers to try their own flavours and offers good sensible advice on the practicalities of home baking, particularly on a budget. Brilliant Bread is already a firm favourite and I recommend it to anyone who wants to start baking at home. Thanks, James, come to Newcastle next time!


  1. That's it, I *have* to get this book! :)

  2. Wow. You have six months worth of blog posts in this one entry! :) Brilliant Breads is a great book isn't it? Well written, clearly more than a TV spin-off, I think he does a great job of demystifying bread making. I am in the process of making his marmite bread today and I fancy the IPA ale and cardamom bread next week...