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Paul’s Classic Cottage Loaf

Makes 1 large loaf

Ingredients

500g strong white bread flour, plus extra for dusting

7g instant dried yeast

7g fine salt

50g lard, cut into small pieces, softened

300 – 350ml water

oil, for greasing

Step 1 – Tip the flour into a large bowl and add the yeast to one side and the salt to the other. Add the lard and pour in about three-quarters of the water. Turn the mixture around with the fingers of one hand to mix then continue to add more of the water, a little at a time, until all the flour is incorporated. The dough needs to be soft but not soggy. (You may not need all the water or you may need a little more)

Step 2 – Tip the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for 5–10 minutes. Work the dough through the initial wet stage until it is smooth and silky.

Step 3 – Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a clean tea towel and leave to rise until doubled in size. This will take at least an hour and can take 2–3 hours or longer, depending on the room temperature. Line a baking tray with baking parchment.

Step 4 – Tip the dough onto a lightly floured surface and fold it inwards repeatedly until all the air is knocked out. At this stage, you are starting to form the structure of the dough so it rises upwards rather than spreading outwards. This is especially important in a freestanding loaf without a tin to support the bread’s rise.

Step 5 – Tear off a third of the dough and set aside. Shape the larger piece into a ball. To do this, first flatten the dough into a rough rectangle then roll it into a thick oblong. Turn the dough so that the longer edge is running away from you and flatten it slightly. Now fold the two ends in towards the centre and press them down, so you end up with a chunky, squarish shape. Turn the dough over, so that the join is underneath.

Step 6 – With your palms turned upwards, put your hands on each side, slightly under the dough. Move the cob around, tucking the dough neatly under itself as it turns. You are gently forcing the sides of the dough down and underneath, to create a smooth, taut top and a rough underside. Try to avoid using too much extra flour during shaping if you can. Place the ball of dough on the prepared baking tray.

Step 7 – Shape the other piece of dough into a smaller ball, using the same technique. Place the smaller ball on top of the larger ball. Flatten the top slightly with the palm of your hand, then dust your middle finger and forefinger with flour and push them through the centre of the loaf all the way to the bottom. This helps and to join the two pieces firmly together. Use a sharp knife to make 8 slashes in the surface of both the top and larger lower part of the loaf.

Step 8 – Place the tray inside a large, clean plastic bag and leave the dough to prove for 1 hour, or until well risen. When prodded lightly with your finger, the dough should spring back quickly. Meanwhile, heat your oven to 230C/fan 210C/gas 7 and leave a roasting tray in the bottom of the oven to heat up.

Step 9 – Remove the proved loaf from the bag and dust with flour.

Step 10 – Fill the roasting tray with cold water to create steam and put the bread into the oven. Bake for 15 minutes, then lower the oven setting to 190C/fan 170C/gas 5 and bake for a further 20–25 minutes, until crusty and golden brown. When tapped on the bottom, the loaf should sound hollow. If not, put it back into the oven for another 5 minutes.

Step 11 – Transfer the cooked loaf to a wire rack to cool.