Maslin, and Being Surprised at How Good it Was

Maslin Bread Cross-Section

In the days before we could hop down to a shop buy a loaf of bread — in the days before you could even hop down to the mill shop and buy a bag of flour — us North­ern European folk had to rely on some­thing a bit more basic. That stuff was called maslin and was, in a fash­ion, bread.

The word — maslin — comes from the French mis­celin for mix. A mix is pre­cisely what maslin was. Wheat, the best of flours, was too expens­ive for South­ern­ers to afford and too not avail­able for North­ern­ers. Bar­ley exis­ted copi­ously since it was essen­tial for the pro­duc­tion of ale, and ale remains essen­tial for the pro­duc­tion of just about any­thing else in Bri­tain. Peas were cheap so were gen­er­ally chucked in in some pro­por­tion. Rye’s a hardy old grain that any eejit can grow, and oats really aren’t that bad.

A mix thus chosen, crudely based on whichever star­va­tion rations were most avail­able, a batch of maslin was star­ted. These batches would be noth­ing if not jolly large. The medi­aeval Brit ate nearly one-and-a-half kilos of bread a day — some eighty per­cent of his diet — so a fam­ily of five would have needed about 42 mod­ern bagged loaves a week. That’s a lot of bread.

The really repel­lent thing about maslin is that it’s got a bit of a glu­ten prob­lem. Wheat, not coin­cid­ent­ally, is just about the most glu­ten rich cer­eal out there. Bread with only a very small amount of wheat is thus lack­ing in glu­ten. Bread without glu­ten has a tend­ency to turn into a sort of baked cake of wall­pa­per paste.

This is cer­tainly what I expec­ted maslin to taste like when I first made it. My mis­giv­ings were pretty big. Quite sur­pris­ingly, how­ever, what I got was far from unpleas­ant. In fact, it was rather good. Doubt­ing my own tastebuds, I took my maslin on tour, offer­ing bits of it to every­one I could find (and, ser­i­ously, I gave bits of maslin to more than a hun­dred people by the end) and an over­whelm­ing major­ity of them com­pletely agreed with me.

Fear­ing that I might be ask­ing a lead­ing ques­tion (‘Isn’t this the best bread you’ve ever tasted? Huh? Huh?’) I told them it was dis­gust­ing, that I’d pay them to eat it, that an old woman had tried some and died shortly after­wards. Still they praised and still they raved.

Unlock then your medi­aeval for­bears’ accu­mu­lated memor­ies and make a maslin for posterity’s sake.

Medieval Maslin Bread

Maslin

  • 200g rye or spelt flour
  • 100g gram or chick­pea flour
  • 50g rolled oats
  • 75g other flours: buck­wheat flour, bar­ley flour etc
  • 5g instant yeast
  • 10g salt
  • 200g water
  1. Begin by put­ting all of the dry ingredi­ent into a bowl and mix­ing them together.
  2. Empty onto a board and make a well in the middle.
  3. Pour the water into this well and begin mix­ing with your fin­gers, work­ing slowly outwards.
  4. When a ball of dough has been formed (it’ll have the con­sist­ency of a firm tooth­paste) begin to knead. Use a machine if you like.
  5. There’s not much glu­ten present to activ­ate, so there won’t be any notice­able change.
  6. After five minutes, place onto a small bak­ing sheet (or prefer­ably into a prov­ing bas­ket) and leave in the fridge for 2448 hours.
  7. Pre­heat oven to 230ºC, then put the proofed loaf into it and cook for 30 minutes.

White Bread and some Highlights from its History

White Tin Loaf

It’s a shame to have to say it, but chomp­ing on grey lumps of peas­ant bread is no way to spend a twenty-first cen­tury life. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for that kind of thing and all that — it just gets a bit wear­ing sometimes.

I bet the folks who get to eat up the leftovers at Poilâné and Tartine know what I’m talk­ing about. Occa­sion­ally, betrayal of our dis­tant ancest­ors’ iron con­sti­tu­tions though it may be, us mod­ern­ers want soft white bread.

There are a few basic ways of get­ting soft bread. One, a good 500 years old by now, pro­duces some­thing that we used to all call the manchet. Pretty light­ish, scar­ily white in col­our (espe­cially given that it exis­ted at a time when white flour was a pretty ser­i­ous indul­gence) and made more uneco­nom­ical at any cost, manchet loaves were the height of panary sophistication.

Maybe pre­dict­ably, there aren’t many strong themes that run through the sur­viv­ing recipes. Save for the basic shape of the loaf and the fact that it was white, manchets were basic­ally made from whatever was avail­able — given that it was still scarce enough to be expens­ive and desir­able. Typ­ic­ally though, there’ll be an unusu­ally large amount of but­ter or lard, maybe some cream and maybe some sugar. The fat effect­ively softens the crumb, kind of account­ing for the rel­at­ive soft­ness of bready bit in the middle of a good yeasted bun.

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Fam­ously and recently, the Chor­ley­wood Bread Pro­cess has kindly delivered to us the most glor­i­ously, bril­liantly (and, I’ll pro­pose, dis­gust­ingly) squishy, soft, unsub­stan­tial slices. The super­mar­ket bagged loaf. These use all sorts of clever things to stop them from ever being any­thing but soft.

A vari­ety of pre­ser­vat­ives help the slices (why call it a loaf if its been cut into six­teen pieces?) stay as moist as they were when they left the oven. In fact, as soon as the loaves leave the oven they’re sent on a cir­cuit of a great big, humid­ity con­trolled cool­ing cham­ber. The con­sequence is that, rather than evap­or­at­ing a load of that really hot water that formerly sat­ur­ated the dough, it’s just soaked in.

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Improvers give the crumb its del­ic­ate uni­form­ity — my favour­ite is soya flour since no one in their right mind could con­demn it as a ‘dan­ger­ous chem­ical’. For many years, the same people who com­plained about the sorry state of mod­ern bread would chomp on soya beans instead — a mildly (okay, barely) ironic pon­der­ing. In fair­ness, some of the other addit­ives turned out to be probable/possible/potential carcinogens.

My way of get­ting soft bread involves a tin (to save that daily minute of hard cogit­a­tion, try­ing to work out how to deal with yet another banana-shaped slice), flour, yeast, water and salt. [Incid­ent­ally, fast action yeast is fast because it’s got ascor­bic acid mixed in with it. Yeast likes a more acidic envir­on­ment, so works hard and puffs the bread up faster.] These four ingredi­ents (plus acid and plus tin and plus a heap of time) work bril­liantly and in har­mony to pro­duce the simplest and most bril­liantly soft bread I know how to make.

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Bread: Soft, White and Tinned

To make two, 2lb loaves:

  • 1kg strong white flour
  • 650g warm water (use 50-100g more in North America)
  • 5g fast action yeast
  • 20g salt

OR, to make one 2lb loaf:

  • 500g strong white flour
  • 325g warm water (use 25-50g more in North America)
  • 3g fast action yeast
  • 10g salt
  1. Mix together all the ingredi­ents. If you have a machine that can knead (includ­ing bread machines), use it. Oth­er­wise, knead by hand — prefer­ably without adding any flour to the sur­face — for 1015 minutes.
  2. Place in a bowl, cover with cling­film and leave to rise in a warm place for 1 hour.
  3. Remove from bowl. If mak­ing two loaves, divide. Flat­ten each piece to the size of a din­ner plate, then roll tightly up and place in a loaf tin (with the seam facing down).
  4. Cover tins/tin with a large plastic bag and leave in a cool place (even a fridge if it’s warm — nat­ur­ally or due to any amount of cent­ral heat­ing) for 12 hours — overnight works well.
  5. After­wards, the dough in the tins should have risen nicely and filled the tins. Place in the oven at it’s hot­test tem­per­at­ure for up to half and hour.
  6. Eat fresh, but not fresh from the oven.

How to Improvise a Panettone Tin

How to Improvise a Panettone Tin

Yep, panettone’s mar­vel­lous. Unfor­tu­nately — just like most things — it’s not at its best in long-life, vac-packed, slightly stale long-life form. If you’re recoil­ing in hor­ror at hear­ing that, read on.

Mak­ing the stuff — as I’m about to explain in lots of detail — requires noth­ing that super­mar­kets don’t sell and will cost less than buy­ing it, will taste bet­ter and will make a proper present. The prob­lem? They’re a stu­pid shape. Who keeps a cake tin that’s six inches in dia­meter and near enough fif­teen tall? No one sain.

How to Improvise a Panettone Tin

You could make it in a nor­mal cake tin, but that’s a bit of a com­prom­ise. What you need to do is find some­thing — nay, any­thing — that’s metal, round and about six inches wide. I found an alu­minium milk pan. Oth­ers use cut­lery drain­ers, cof­fee tins or just clever arrange­ments of paper and string. I’m not clever, get cof­fee in bags and, as far as I know, our cut­lery drains itself.

How to Improvise a Panettone Tin

So, start with your round con­tainer. Don’t auto­mat­ic­ally write off sauce­pans with plastic handles, by the way — many of them look placky but are actu­ally heat res­ist­ant to some degree. Obvi­ously, don’t try any­thing silly without check­ing with the man­u­fac­turer first… (etc, sorry for the self-interested back-covering babble).

Inside this tin/pan you’re going to need an office stapler and some greaseproof paper. If you’ve got thicker brown pack­ing paper, that’ll help too. Begin by cut­ting about 25 inches (65cm) of brown or greaseproof paper. Fold it in half, along the long edge, then fold over the long, loose edges by about a cen­ti­metre to bind them together. Roll this around a rolling pin to make it easier to fit to the pan. Feed one end of this strip inside the other, so that you get a big cyl­in­der whose size you can change pretty easily.

Put it into your tin and adjust it so that it fits, then take it out and staple it in pos­i­tion — once at the top and once at the bot­tom. Return the paper to the tin then cut a 20 inch (50 cm) length of greaseproof paper. Use this to line the paper col­lar as you would a nor­mal cake tin, fold­ing the bot­tom edge in to give it a base and fold­ing the top over to give it the right height. Staple this in place. Fin­ish with a circle of greaseproof paper at the bottom.

And there you have it. Proof the dough, and through it the oven — just don’t go too hot or you’re paper will start to smoulder. (Below 180°C or 355°F shouldn’t present any issues.)

How to Improvise a Panettone Tin

The Pursuit of a Crunching Crust, and ponderings thereof

French Crusty Boule

Mak­ing bread at home is a supremely incon­veni­ent pas­time. It takes hours, makes the kind of mess I haven’t man­aged for years and pro­duces – too often – a dis­ap­point­ing res­ults. In my new bread bible, Eng­lish Bread and Yeast Cook­ery, Eliza­beth David calls home-baked bread crusts ‘leath­ery’. We want thick, hard, crunchy crusts.

She’s got a point. To under­stand why, we need to return to first prin­ciples. Why does bread get a crust? The crust is the inter­face between the hot oven and the fairly cool bread/dough. It’s a thin layer of dough that gets cooked to high hell by – in a real bread oven – some­thing like 500 Roman Cath­olic degrees of heat. Think of it like a potato. If you boil them, so that the out­side is exposed to noth­ing higher than 100°C, the res­ult is soft and pale. Shove them into a deep fryer and some­thing closer to 190°C and you get a crust. It’ll col­our, it’ll crunch and, hey presto, it’s a chip.

French Crusty Boule

This simply doesn’t hap­pen in domestic ovens because they’re too darn luke­warm. My oven won’t go higher than 250°C (accord­ing to its ther­mo­stat), which – by way if con­text – is a bit like try­ing to cook an egg in hot bathwa­ter. It’ll even­tu­ally hap­pen, just not quite like you’re used to.

I built a wood-fired and brick-built bread oven last sum­mer, and have used it almost exclus­ively for burn­ing things. It uncanny. Put a pizza in the elec­tric oven at full whack and it’ll still be soggy after ten minutes. In the brick oven, it’s burned to a cinder after two.

French Crusty Boule

The weird thing is that these thing actu­ally cook, prop­erly and all the way through, in this extreme heat. Part of the reason is that the heat is radi­ated – that’s to say it flies invis­ibly through the air like the sun’s rays or the heat from a grill/broiler – rather than simply being mashed about by a breeze of very warm air. This heat comes from all dir­ec­tions, not just the base, not just the fire, but the whole great domed roof.

Best of all, it makes steam. Steam, slightly counter-intuitively, is the vital factor in mak­ing a decent crust. Steam gives the baguette (inven­ted in 1920) its delect­ably glazed, crackly crust. That steam is totally arti­fi­cial though. In some­thing called the Vienna pro­cess, a heap of super­heated water is dashed into the very long indus­trial ovens they use. Wood fired ovens are so quick they don’t even need that. The mois­ture from the loaf itself provides a quick, loc­al­ised steamy ball that looks after crust development.

Get­ting good crusts at home should demand two things: lots of heat and lots of steam. This is harder than it sounds. Firstly, turn­ing the oven to the abso­lute most com­pletely highest tem­per­at­ure set­ting its got is a must. That’s nowhere near high enough, but its the best we can do.

French Crusty Boule

[Look at the thick­ness of that bot­tom crust. That’s the crunch…]

Next comes steam. The pre­vail­ing wis­dom for a long time now has been to put a dish of hot water at the bot­tom of the oven. This works to a cer­tain extent, and can cer­tainly help crust devel­op­ment, but is often a hindrance. Firstly, the chosen dish needs to be pretty heavy and extremely hot. The water needs to be a recently boiled a pos­sible. Put­ting cold things into a hot oven will not make it any hotter,

The other sug­ges­tion is to fill a plant sprayed with water and give your oven a good squirt before clos­ing the loaf in to do its busi­ness. Bright sparks like Richard Bertinet prefer this way of doing things, but again I can’t help but think that – though that might be bril­liant in a supremely hot bakers’ oven – some­thing more ingeni­ous is needed to over­come out tem­per­at­ure issues.

Whatever method you choose, let­ting the steam out is the oft for­got­ten but pretty damned import­ant bit. Crust form­a­tion has a lot to do with evap­or­a­tion of mois­ture from the out­side of the dough. Put­ting steam in the oven pre­vents that from hap­pen­ing, so – to get proper crust – let­ting the steam­ing bread dry out for a bit is just about essen­tial. The folks at the Week­end Bakery make a big point of let­ting out the steam five minutes before finishing.

French Crusty Boule

Eliza­beth David has a very dif­fer­ent, very effect­ive and very well informed method of her own. She recom­mends cov­er­ing the loaf with a large, ceramic bowl. The exact type of unglazed ter­ra­cotta she recom­mends (and she is very spe­cific) seems a little like overkill to me, but the premise of mak­ing a fake oven within and oven is very valid an idea indeed. This is how the first ovens worked. People put upside-down pots over loaves on hot stones, then stacked hot embers around them. In Corn­wall, ‘bakers’ and ‘kettles’ as they were known, were in com­mon use as recently as the 1930s.

My inter­pret­a­tion of her method is to put the bread into a thor­oughly pre-heated cast iron cas­ser­ole – some­thing that David doesn’t recom­mend. Unfor­tu­nately, this bears a dis­tinct sim­il­ar­ity to Jim Lahey’s ultra-hyped no-knead bread (I rather knead than spend a whole day proof­ing, but that’s just me). Nev­er­the­less, it seems to work won­ders – espe­cially with very high hydra­tion doughs that are apt to spread and tumble.

Drop the proofed loaf into the hot cas­ser­ole, slash, cover and cook for about half an hour. Take off the lid for the last fif­teen minutes and, whatever you do, don’t for­get to have greased, floured and semolina’d your pot.

French Crusty Boule

The spe­cific bread pic­tured is my latest 75% hydra­tion, French-ette kind of a dough. Work­ing it by hand has taught be a great deal about hand­ling moist doughs. Between you and me, a wet dough is a lot easier to knead than a dry one — once you get the hang of it. Art­icle to follow…

In the mean time, bread-fanciers, go yeast­spot­ting