Naan Bread

For an amateur cook, there are some almost impossible holy grails to chase when it comes to making curries:

  • getting a curry to taste just like it does in the restaurant
  • making the perfect naan
  • making the perfect Bombay aloo

When I finally came up with the recipe and method for making a great naan I almost did backflips in the kitchen. Okay, maybe not, but I was very pleased indeed; I must have tried 20 different recipes before coming up with the final refinements.

This is probably as close to perfection as I’m likely to come in my kitchen, short of digging a great big pit in my garden and sinking a tandoor into it. Those who have tasted it say that it is every bit as good as the one that we have in our local Indian restaurant, and theirs is very good indeed.

This recipe makes 6 naan, around 9 inches in diameter. It is hard to cut this recipe down for smaller quantities while still retaining its balance, but once it has risen you can divide the dough and freeze what you don’t want to use. It comes back to life very well and will last up to a month with no ill effects in a freezer.

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RECIPE – makes 6

3/4 tsp dried yeast

3 tsp caster sugar

130 ml tepid water

300g ’00’ flour

1 tsp salt

4 tbsp melted butter (or ghee)

4 tbsp natural yoghurt

To serve:

nigella seeds

chopped fresh coriander leaves


METHOD

Mix the yeast and half the sugar in 4 tbsp of the water and set aside for 10 minutes.

Stir all the dry ingredients together in a large bowl, make a well in the centre and add the liquids, including the yeast and sugar mixture you made earlier. Using a fork, bring the ingredients together into a sticky dough.

Turn out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for 7 minutes. Lightly oil a large bowl, using a teaspoon of vegetable oil; work the dough into a ball and place into the bowl. Cover with a damp tea towel or cling film, set aside for at least two hours.

Heat your oven to its hottest setting and put a large baking tray in the oven to heat up. Allow enough time for your oven to get as hot as it possibly can. At full blast on the hottest fan setting my oven will reach around 270C.

After two hours the dough will have risen to a silky, pillowy texture. Turn out from the bowl onto a lightly floured surface; using your fingers push all the air out from the dough, divide into six and roll each segment into a rough circle (or the more traditional teardrop shape of a naan). If using nigella seeds as a topping, scatter them lightly over the top and gently push them in. Brush the top of each naan with a little melted butter or ghee.

When ready to cook, take the hot baking tray out of the oven and close the oven door. Quickly but carefully lay one naan on the hot baking tray, then put it back into the hottest part of your oven.

Tip: So often I see people heat their oven then leave the door open while they do something else, they end up with a cooler oven and a hotter kitchen.

Especially when using the fan setting, the hottest part is not necessarily the top of the oven – using an oven thermometer you can quickly discover the temperature differences between the various areas of your oven. It’s good to know, especially when baking cakes, because there can be a 20 degree Celsius difference between the hottest and coolest areas of your oven, front to back as well as top to bottom.

Cook the naan for around 3 minutes until the remaining air pockets have bubbled up, it is golden brown and starting to go dark brown in places – as you can see in the picture above.

Brush with a little more melted butter or ghee, and scatter with chopped coriander leaves if you are using them. You can make a garlic naan by infusing your melted butter with a crushed garlic clove.

Chapatis

A quick and easy way to make a slight dish much more filling, chapatis – an unleavened Asian flatbread – can be on the table 15 minutes or so after weighing out the flour. Traditionally eaten alongside curry, where it is often used as a scoop in place of a fork or spoon, chapatis are also excellent with middle eastern dishes and make delicious vegan wraps.

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RECIPE – makes 4, will feed 2 people as a side dish

125g wholemeal bread flour

1/2 tsp fine sea salt

85ml water


METHOD

Weigh the flour into a bowl, add the salt, make a well in the centre and add the water. Using your fingers in a claw-like grip, pull the flour into the water, pulling and kneading with your fingers to get everything off the sides and bottom of the bowl. The dough should start off sticky but quickly become stiff and silky. At this point take it from the bowl to a lightly floured work surface and knead it for 7-10 minutes.

Heat a skillet, or large dry frying pan, until very hot. While it heats up, divide the dough into 4 equal pieces and roll them out into a rough round shape, adding small amounts of flour to prevent sticking as you roll. The chapatis need to be thin, thinner than a penny piece. If you have trouble rolling them out thinly, cut two squares of baking parchment, dust them with flour and roll the dough out between them.

To cook, lay the rolled chapati in the hot skillet and cook on each side for a minute or so. They should scorch and even burn a little; that’s fine, that’s where a lot of the flavour comes from.

Repeat until all four chapatis are cooked, the ones made previously can be kept warm in a low oven under a tea towel.

This recipe is easily scaled up to feed four or more people, just scale all the ingredient quantities up in equal ratios.

Cheat’s Sourdough

I love sourdough; the smell as it bakes, the way it looks as it comes out of the oven, the deep, tangy taste of it. What’s not to love?

Well… There’s all the palaver around looking after your starter. The feeding, the disposing of half the volume night after night, the mess it makes, the sheer amount of dedication it takes. If you don’t work, or your children have grown up and left home, or you don’t spend your life running from appointment to commitment then all of this is probably no problem. If, however, like so many of us your day is full from the second you wake up until the minute you finally get to sit down sometime in the late evening, who has the time or the inclination?

Thankfully, there are ways to get all the benefits of sourdough without having to endure the drawbacks. Purists may be horrified, and I’m not above being judgemental about people taking shortcuts myself, but the fact that you make your own bread is always a cause for celebration and when the results are this good your only critic will be yourself.

This cheat’s sourdough is made just like a regular sourdough, with a starter. The starter used here though is like your fiercely independent eldest child, it doesn’t need mollycoddling yet it will always be there when you need it and it will never let you down.

I also bake this sourdough a little differently, using a casserole just like this one:

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All will become clear when you read the method, so let’s get going…


RECIPE 

For the starter:

100g strong white flour

100g organic rye flour

3/4 tsp dried yeast

250ml organic dry cider (or water)

100ml of refrigerated starter (see method below)

For the dough:

400g strong white flour

3/4 tsp dried yeast

1 1/2 tsp fine sea salt

200ml water


METHOD

The first time you make this, the evening before you bake your loaf you will need to make your starter.

Combine all the starter ingredients in a large bowl, stirring with a spoon until thoroughly combined. I like to use organic dry cider in my starter because it adds more flavour and the sugar in it feeds the yeast, you can still use water though and you will not be disappointed.

Cover your starter with cling film and leave in your kitchen overnight.

In the morning your sourdough starter should have significantly increased in volume, will look bubbly and smell tangy. Get a small jam jar or similar (something with a lid) and spoon approximately 100ml of the starter into it; put the jar to one side for now.

Now add the dough ingredients to your remaining starter, in the same bowl. Curl your fingers into a claw and mix thoroughly, it will be very sticky to begin with but keep on pulling and combining for a few minutes and it will get firmer. Lightly flour a work surface and tip the dough out onto it. Knead thoroughly for ten minutes or so, until the dough is firm and silky; you will need to use more flour as you work your dough but don’t overdo it. Your hands will probably be sticky with dough, to clean them simply sprinkle some flour on your hands and rub them together, the dough will come off easily.

*Tip: I have a dough hook for my stand mixer and I have used it a lot to knead my dough rather than getting my hands dirty. It has never really worked as well as kneading by hand though so I don’t use it any more. The advantage of kneading by hand is that you can feel what the dough is doing, and somehow it just makes a better loaf.

If you do want to use a dough hook on your mixer just be careful not to overwork your dough, knead for 5-7 minutes only.

Lightly oil a very large bowl, just use a teaspoon or so of olive oil and rub it around with your fingers – all you are trying to do is ensure that your dough doesn’t stick to the bowl as it rises. Tear off a small twist of dough and add it to the 100ml of starter that you spooned into your jar earlier. Put the lid on the jar and put it in the back of your fridge.

*Tip: The jar that you have just put into your fridge will be an important part of every loaf that you make from now on. It will keep for months without needing any attention, and if it is left for so long that it starts to look a bit mangy just give it a stir to recombine everything. The jar contains a huge a huge amount of flavour which will be transferred to every loaf that you make in future, and the more you use it the better that flavour will be.

From now on, whenever you make your starter tip the entire contents of the jar into it, not forgetting to replenish the jar with starter and a twist of dough in the morning.

Shape your dough into a rough ball and place it into the oiled bowl. Cover with cling film and leave to sit at room temperature for anything between 1 and 3 hours, until it has at least doubled in size.

Take a clean tea towel and dust it thoroughly with plain flour. Gently roll your risen dough out of the bowl and onto the tea towel, be careful so you don’t knock too much air out of your dough and ensure you have used enough flour so it doesn’t stick. The dough has a tendency to spread out, to minimise this I roll the sides of the tea towel up and prop pepper grinders, small mugs and anything else I can find underneath the rolls to contain the dough and encourage it to rise upwards. Dust the top of the dough with more flour and lay another clean tea towel gently over the top. Leave for another hour or so at room temperature for its final rise.

*Tip: You can use a round banetton to hold your dough for its final rise, but it always seemed that no matter how much I dusted the inside with flour the dough always stuck somewhere, tore a hole in the dough and let the air escape. I have never had that problem using the tea towel method.

Put your casserole, with its lid on, in the oven; also put a small baking tray in the bottom of the oven. Heat your oven to 230C/ gas 8. Leave your oven long enough that it gets fully hot.

When ready to bake, using oven gloves remove the casserole from the oven and close the oven door. It never fails to amaze me how many people take the time to heat their oven and then leave the door open while they are mucking around doing other things, while all the heat is escaping into the kitchen. Again using oven gloves, remove the lid from the casserole and lightly dust the inside of the casserole with plain flour. Gently and carefully, but quickly, lift the tea towel holding your fully risen dough, place it into the casserole and gently roll the dough out of the tea towel and into the casserole. You may need to give the casserole a very delicate shake to level the dough, if you do then be gentle. Once again using oven gloves – yes, I am labouring this point but you only have to pick up a red-hot piece of metal with your bare hands once for it to stay with you forever – put the casserole lid back on and carefully place the casserole back into the oven. Bake for 25 minutes.

Oven gloves time again… Remove the casserole from the oven, close the oven door, remove the casserole lid and have a look at your dough. You should emit a gasp of admiration at the beautiful thing that you see.

Fill a glass with cold water, open the oven and quickly pour the water into the small baking tray that you put in the oven earlier, quickly put the casserole back into the oven, this time without its lid, and close the oven door. This will create steam in your oven which will give you a beautifully dark and crisp crust. Bake for a further 15 -20 minutes.

When you remove the casserole from the oven this time, tip it upside down and your beautiful loaf should fall straight out. Tap the bottom of the loaf and it should sound hollow; if so, it is done, so let it cool completely on a wire rack.

*Tip: Until I became experienced at making bread, instructions such as ‘tap it and if it sounds hollow it is done’ used to infuriate me. What does that actually mean? How hollow should it sound? What does hollow even sound like?

A foolproof way to determine if your bread is cooked is to use an instant read thermometer, or meat thermometer. Pierce the bread through the bottom and get the probe into the middle of the loaf, if it reads at least 90C then your loaf is fully cooked. Eventually you will know what hollow sounds like and you can dispense with the thermometer.

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Your finished loaf should look something like this. Believe me, it tastes even better than it looks.