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With this recipe you can be as creative as you wish, from simple oval loaves to plaited masterpieces. Or make a whole variety of rolls, from basic round ones to more complex shapes: pretzel-type knots or, if you’re feeling particularly inventive, small animals – snakes, mice, even hedgehogs! Makes 2 loaves.
In a measuring jug, mix the sugar with 150ml (1/4 pint) of the warm water and yeast and let stand in a warm place for 5 minutes until frothy. If using fast-acting yeast, there is no need to let the mixture stand.
Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl. Rub in the butter and make a well in the centre. (If using olive oil instead of butter, pour the olive oil into the remaining water.) Pour in the yeast mixture and most of the remaining water (and the olive oil, if using). Mix to a loose dough, adding the remaining water if needed, plus extra if necessary.
Knead for about 10 minutes or until the dough is smooth and springy to the touch. (If kneading in an electric food mixer with a dough hook, 5 minutes is usually long enough.) Put the dough in a large oiled bowl. Cover the top tightly with cling film and place somewhere warm to rise until doubled in size. This may take up to 2 or even (on a cold day) 3 hours.
Preheat the oven to 220°C (425°F), Gas mark 7.
When the dough has more than doubled in size, knock back and knead again for 2–3 minutes. Leave to relax for 10 minutes before you begin to shape the bread.
Shape the bread into loaves or rolls, transfer to a baking tray and cover with a clean tea towel. Allow to rise again in a warm place for 20–30 minutes, until the shaped dough has again doubled in size. When fully risen, it should leave a dent when you gently press the dough with your finger.
Gently (as the bread is full of air at this point and therefore very fragile) brush with egg wash and sprinkle with poppy or sesame seeds (if using), or dust lightly with flour for a rustic-looking loaf.
Bake in the oven for 10–15 minutes for rolls or 30–45 minutes for a loaf, depending on its size. Turn the heat down to 200°C (400°F), Gas mark 6 after 15 minutes for the remaining cooking time. When cooked, the bread should sound hollow when tapped on the base. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
Slow rising gives bread an amazing texture and flavour, if you have the time I would recommend trying it. Use cold water instead of warm water and at step 3, leave the dough to rise in a cool place (or fridge) overnight. Then, when the dough is shaped (step 6), leave to rise again for 8 hours in a cool place.
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