Five minutes with…Pauline Beaumont, author of Bread Therapy
“There is something magical about the transformation of flour and water.”
By Jo Dunbar
Last week Pauline Beaumont published Bread Therapy, which examines our relationship and history behind making bread and also includes several recipes for different loaves.
High Life North spoke to Pauline about how she began her breadmaking journey, the pleasures you can derive from crafting dough and whether we’ll carry on kneading and folding as we move further away from the peak of lockdown. Pauline lives in Berwick and has six children and works as a therapist.
Photography by Sophie Davidson.
Many of us started making bread as a result of lockdown. Is it something you have always done?
I haven’t always made bread. One of the things I mention in the introduction to the book was that in a growing up as a teenager at the beginning of the 1970s we had this really quite simple idea of feminism. It was as if you felt like had to choose between being a Stepford wife or being like Simone de Beauvoir. That was a powerful influence and suggested that if you were a feminist and wanted to be taken seriously at all you had to shun everything to do with domesticity. I grew up thinking I must avoid these sorts of things. There is something about cooking and baking now which is really cool, that would have been anathema when I was younger.
So what finally prompted to you to start making bread?
It took me a long time to open my eyes to the reality that actually I really liked messing around in the kitchen. As my family grew, I needed to be able to cook and at some point, I started making bread and I had no idea it was going to be as important as it has become in my life. I made my first loaf about 15 years ago. I was working full time and I spent a lot of time rushing around with racing thoughts in my mind and just recognised a desire to make something real, to make something with my hands. I started making bread and immediately I had this sense that there was a whole universe of knowledge to be gained, which is wonderful.
Do you consider yourself an expert now?
Mastering a craft is a bit like climbing a mountain you know you’ll never get to the top of. Breadmaking is a bit like that: I fully expect to go on learning new things until the day I die and that’s rather wonderful. There is something magical about the transformation of flour and water and it’s a lovely feeling to be able to create something from scratch to give to your family and friends but also it’s something that forces you to slow down because you have to respect the materials and the time taken for yeast to work or sourdough to rise. It’s very soothing and grounding, it’s such a basic thing and it helps us get out of our own heads.
Do you think we’ll keep up with our newly-acquired passion for breadmaking?
I think some of the things people started doing in lockdown will persist. People have had a taste – literally and metaphorically – for doing things like baking their own bread. There will be a certain slipping back inevitably, especially if our work patterns go back to anything resembling the way they were before. Having more time available was a factor in people realising they could have a little vegetable patch or make their own bread. But I think there will be a carry over. Hopefully breadmaking is something that will go on.
Breadmaking gained a lot of national interest during the pandemic. Is your book a quick reaction to lockdown or was it always planned that way?
I signed the deal with the publisher a year ago. The book was half-written, and I delivered the manuscript in February and then the editing process began. In some ways the timing was very good but less fortuitous is that my book was one of many others published in September!
There are only four ingredients in this unleavened bread that makes healthy wraps. You will need a mixing bowl, a small pan, a blender and a heavy-bottomed frying pan or cast-iron skillet. If you have a stick blender then use this with a measuring jug or beaker, otherwise use a regular blender. The mixture starts off being bright green but becomes less lurid when cooked.
- 240g wholemeal spelt flour, plus extra for dusting
- ½ tsp fine salt (unrefined sea salt if possible)
- 100g baby spinach
- 60ml water
- Mix the flour and salt in a large bowl.
- Place the spinach in a pan with the water over a medium heat and cook until wilted.
- Transfer the spinach and its water to a blender. You should end up with about 230ml of liquidised spinach; add a little more water to make up the volume if necessary
- Mix the blended spinach with the dry ingredients and knead gently into a ball of dough.
- Form the dough into a log shape and divide into 12.
- Dust your work surface with a little flour. Roll each piece of dough into a ball, then dust it with a little more flour, before rolling out into a thin disc, about 16cm across. The dough can be a little sticky so you can use a dough scraper or spatula to lift it.
- Heat a large, heavy frying pan and dry fry each tortilla for 1–2 minutes on each side. As they cook they will turn darker green and brown spots will appear.
- Wrap in a cloth or foil to keep warm and to stop them drying out before eating. Like other flatbreads, these are best cooked and eaten fresh but the wrapped dough will keep in the fridge for a day or so.
Soda bread (with variations)
The only equipment you will need to make this bread is a mixing bowl, a spoon and a baking sheet (lined with baking parchment to stop the bread sticking). Soda bread relies on the chemical reaction of acid (from the buttermilk) with bicarbonate of soda to produce the gas that raises the bread. This happens quickly, hence there’s no need to knead or prove the dough. In fact it is best to avoid hanging around and get this loaf into the oven as soon as you have mixed it.
This recipe is for a wholemeal version but feel free to substitute plain or strong white flour for some or all of the brown if you prefer a lighter loaf. You could bake it in a loaf tin but the traditional (Irish) way is to form a round loaf and to make a deep, cross-shaped cut in the dough. Apart from any symbolic significance, this helps the bread bake through thoroughly.
Makes 1 loaf
- 450g wholemeal flour, plus extra for dusting (or this loaf works well with a mixture of half strong, white, bread flour and half wholemeal flour)
- 1 tsp fine salt (unrefined sea salt if possible)
- 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
- 450ml buttermilk (or you can use 450ml milk with 1 tbsp lemon juice added to it)
- splash of milk (optional – only if required)
- Preheat the oven to 200ºC/180ºC fan/Gas 6.
- Put the flour, salt and bicarbonate of soda into a mixing bowl and stir. Make a dip or well in the centre of the dry ingredients and stir in the buttermilk.
- Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and use your hands to work it into a ball (it will be about 15cm in diameter). If it is too soft and sticky add some flour. If it is too dry and not all the flour has been incorporated, add a splash of milk.
- Put the ball of dough on the baking parchment on the baking sheet and cut a cross into the top. Cut into the dough quite deeply, about half way down the depth of the loaf. It will immediately start to open up, this is fine and it is time to get it straight into the oven.
- Bake for approximately 45 minutes or until the crust is browned and the loaf sounds hollow when tapped underneath.
- Your soda bread can be cooled on a wire rack, but this is a bread that can also be eaten while it is still warm.
Reflect on how, in under an hour, you have produced a wholesome loaf of bread, an honest loaf, a rustic beauty, to share with people you care about.
There are hundreds of recipes for soda bread. Some recipes include a tablespoonful of treacle or honey, so try them out and see what you prefer. A lovely, savoury version results from the addition of 125g of grated, hard cheese. A teatime, sweeter variation is to add 1 teaspoon of mixed spice, 100g of demerara sugar and 150g of whatever dried fruit you have in the cupboard (you could use raisins, currants, sultanas, chopped dates, chopped dried apricots or mixed peel).
This is a bread to make on impulse or when unexpected visitors arrive; it provides almost instant gratification. Why not invite a friend to enjoy it with you? Soda bread is best eaten on the day it is baked so enjoy it while it is fresh. Soda bread goes wonderfully with butter and jam or marmalade but also with cheese or soups or stews (especially Irish stew).