Written by Sarah Ledger

Food

I Make the Best… Cheese and Chilli Bread

After a snap poll of Standard Issue staffers, we came to the conclusion that everyone has a signature dish they’re willing to brag about. Strap yourself in. Sarah Ledger’s about to break (cheese and chilli) bread with us all.

cheese and chilli bread on a plateName: Sarah Ledger

I Make the Best… Cheese and Chilli Bread

Fuller dish description: It’s a cheese loaf with a fiery kick.

When did you first make it? I first made it last year when I lost the recipe to Jamie Oliver’s goat’s cheese and paprika flatbread and had to invent my own version.

When did you realise it was the best? (and who has certified it as such?) When my brother – who dishes out fraternal praise sparingly – texted me to say it was fantastic and next time I come over, could I bring double quantities?

How often do you make it? Whenever I get asked to one of those events where we have to contribute to the meal. I go to those things a lot. I like to see the faces of those who thought they were doomed to a night of watery lentil soup light up when I waltz in with an armful of fragrant bread, a plate of roast chicken and a cake.

Have you ever tasted anyone else’s version of this, which had you worried? No. Perish the thought.

Is this the only thing you make well? My cooking is unsubtle. It’s been called ‘hearty’ or ‘rustic’. I’m aware that ‘hearty’ or ‘rustic’ tend to be used as passive aggressive slights by those who think they know all about food and prefer it not to be served in dollops or slabs, who tuck into a quivering bowlful of my stilton soup, discover it’s fucking gorgeous and then are ashamed to admit they’ve enjoyed it. I don’t care.

“Bread making takes time. Like a content baby, you can forget about your dough for a while, but can’t leave it entirely to its own devices.”

The truth is, salt, cream, cheese, chili and olive oil – liberally applied – will make anything taste better. I’m best at food that doesn’t require precise quantities, pinpoint timing or skilled technique. I can’t make hollandaise or pancakes or decent pastry. My party staples are homemade bread, pesto, chicken roasted with lemon and thyme (and then left to cool in its own aromatic juices) and stilton soup.

Ingredients

1kg extra strong flour (The flour has to be extra strong as it allows the dough to rise despite the weight of the added ingredients. However, this flour has extra gluten in and is utterly unsuitable if you’re serving it to friends on a gluten free diet.)
3 sachets dried yeast
250g grated cheddar cheese
100g finely grated parmesan cheese
Dried chilli flakes
1 tbsp hot paprika
I tsp salt
625ml tepid water

Method

Bread making takes time. Like a contented baby, you can forget about your dough for a while, but can’t leave it entirely to its own devices. I mix the dough and leave it to rise in the morning, knock it down and prove it at lunchtime and bake it early afternoon. This bread looks and smells fabulous when just out of the oven, but is better once it’s cooled. It lasts for ages and makes tremendous toast.

Find a really large bowl. (Don’t be taken in by those cooking programmes you’ve seen where a brawny 30-something chap with his sleeves rolled up piles a mountain of flour on the kitchen counter, makes a volcanic hollow and adds yeast and water. It doesn’t save on the washing up; it wrecks your kitchen. Get a bowl, for Christ’s sake.) Sieve the flour into the bowl.

flour and chilli flakesAdd dry ingredients: salt, yeast, paprika, grated cheddar, grated parmesan and mix in. Then hurl in the chilli. The amount you use is up to you. A whole jar (approximately 25g) will give you a zinging hot loaf – but some might find it unbearable. If you’re making this for the first time, use about a tablespoonful. You can always add more next time you make it.

Measure out the water. It should be hand hot, which means when you stick your (clean) finger in it, it’s the same temperature as you. Too cold won’t make a difference – although it may take longer to rise – but too hot may kill the yeast.

Pour in 600ml of the water and mix in with one hand only. The dry ingredients will blend in. If you have loose flour at the bottom of the bowl, add the last 25ml of water and work it in.

bread doughThe dry ingredients should come away from the side of the bowl but you may need a drop more water. If you’ve ignored my advice about using one hand only for mixing, you’ll now have two boxing mitts of dough and unless you have a kitchen companion, you’ll be unable to turn the tap on without leaving great clumps of flour all over the kitchen. I did warn you.

If you add more water, do it a drop at a time. Too much will leave you with a sticky gluey mess. Go easy.

Once you have a smooth elastic dough, put the bowl to one side and knead it on a lightly floured surface with both hands. This is immensely satisfying. The more you knead, the lighter the resulting bread will be, but about five minutes will do it.

Pop the dough back into the big bowl and cover with oiled clingfilm or an oiled plastic bag. Leave to rise. The amount of time depends on how warm your kitchen is, but it should take a couple of hours for the dough to double in size. To test it, press it with a finger and the dough should spring back. If it’s risen too far, it will start to collapse. If that happens knock it back down again* and leave it to rise again.

*Knocking it down means kneading the air out of the dough. Again, do this on a lightly floured surface until it’s (almost) back to its original size.

“When it’s properly done, the loaf will emit a sepulchral knock like Jacob Marley at Scrooge’s door.”

Now it’s time to shape the dough. Roll into a slab, cut into quarters and shape a little loaf out of each piece. Place each loaf onto a lightly floured baking tray and slash a cross into the top of each one. There is a technical reason for this, but I can’t remember what it is.

While the bread is proving, heat the oven to 180°C. This will warm up the kitchen and reduce the proving time.

After about 40 minutes, test the dough with your finger. If it springs back, it’s time to put in the oven. If not, leave a little longer. If it’s collapsing, knock back down again, reshape and allow to prove again.

Place the proved dough in the oven – shut the oven door gently – and bake for about 40 minutes.

Take the loaf out of the oven, remove the baking tray and return the partly cooked bread directly onto the oven shelf. Bake for a further 15 minutes or so, until the loaf sounds hollow when you tap it on the bottom. Don’t settle for a muffled thud. When it’s properly done, it’ll emit a sepulchral knock like Jacob Marley at Scrooge’s door.

At this point, should you have a tentative admirer in your life, it’s a good idea to lure them into the kitchen for the big reveal. The room will be filled with a delicious wholesome aroma as you whip out four red brown loaves and any doubts about you as a suitable partner will be cast clean out of their heads.

bread baking on the oven shelfSet to cool on a wire rack. Sternly forbid your rapturous fans to slice into one until it’s cooled down, although as you have four loaves and a desperate need for instant gratification, if you really must, try one out between you. Still, it’s better cold and at its best two days old and toasted.

It’s wonderful with cheese, chutney and salad, alongside the aforementioned lemon and thyme chicken. But if you want the ultimate in luxury, slice thinly, toast lightly, slather with crème fraiche and add a slice of smoked salmon.

@sezl

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Written by Sarah Ledger

Champion soup maker; of a surprisingly nervous disposition. @sezl & sezl.wordpress.com