There we were, somewhat smugly thinking we had made it to February without any real signs of Winter, when BAM, overnight snowfall has transformed this corner of East Sussex (and most of the country it seems) into a winter wonderland! In the back of my mind I had been thinking just last week that back in New York February is considered the snow month. This is the time when some of the biggest storms dump tons of the white stuff on the city (very) briefly transforming it into a white-blanketed, strangely muffled metropolis before the snowplows and churning traffic triumph once again, piling the snow at the sides of each street, burying parked cars for weeks, and turning the simple act of crossing the road into a mini Himalayan hiking adventure.
Here in the English countryside it's a bit different of course - there being virtually no road plowing near us - even though on my way home yesterday I saw 3 brand-spanking new gritters fitted with snowplows making their way down the A21. It does mean it's lovely and peaceful, and the white snow stays white that little bit longer than in the city, but as an American from the a part of that country used to dealing with snow every year, it never ceases to amaze me at how little priority is given to making the roads and pavements clear of snow when we are hit with a storm (which seems to be an increasingly regular occurance).
For this very reason, we took the decision to ancel our class yesterday. Even though the storm eventually came on Saturday night, the weather forecasts on Friday morning warned of snow during the day on Saturday, and we had to decide about the class then to give the attendees fair warning. Knowing how treacherous the roads and lanes around the bakery can get in wintery conditions, we felt that cancelling the class was the only responsible thing to do, despite disappointing those who were coming. Hopefully we'll get them all onto other classes or try to find a time they can all re-convene and add a make-up date for them.
Now, this winter weather is the perfect opportunity for doing a spot of afternoon baking. Here's a simple recipe for a humble white loaf that you could make in the afternoon to have with dinner:
Classic White Loaf (makes 1 large loaf)
580g Strong White Bread Flour
12 g Fresh Yeast or 6g Active Dried Yeast or 5g Instant Yeast
350g Warm (not hot) Water
Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix together. Once a rough dough is formed, dump the mixture on the table and knead vigorously for 8 - 10 minutes (this willget you nice and warmed up if you've been out playing in snow!). The dough should feel silky and pliable. Oil your bowl and put the dough in it. Cover with cling film and leave to rise in a warm place for 45 minutes.
After 45 minutes, the dough should be nicely risen. Knock it back gently by pressing down in the centre and pulling the sides of the dough into the middle. Turn the mass of dough over (so it's now upside down), cover again, and leave to rise another 15 - 20 minutes.
Pre-heat the oven to 200° C (400° F)
Take the dough out of the bowl and form it into the shape you want - if using a tin, make sure to oil it and warm it first, if you want a more free-form loaf line a tray with baking parchment or silicone paper first. Cover the moulded dough with a teatowel topped with plastic, and leave to prove for about 30 - 45 minutes or until will risen. poke your finger into the dough gently and see if the impression made by your finger remains. If so, the loaf is ready to go into the oven.
Bake at 200° C for about 30 minutes or until golden. Check for doneness by rapping the loaf on its bottom and listening for a hollow sound.
Happy Winter Baking!
PS We are looking for an assistant baker to halp with bread production and to make croissants, etc. The job involves a wroking week made up of 3 nights and 2 days. If interested, and for more details, give us a ring on 01580 831 271.
10 years is a long time in baking - a very long time as any artisan baker will tell you, since one bakery year is akin to two "normal" working years, and our normal day is about 16 hours - and we at the Lighthouse Bakery feel rather proud to have reached such a milestone.
To mark the occasion we have produced a beautiful "manifesto" of phrases and sayings that we use each and every day in the bakery and during classes at the bakery school. We asked Aardvark in St. Leonards-on-Sea in East Sussex to design something fabulous. They have put together a wonderful broadside, hand-printed on a vintage Heidelberg Press using traditional wood and metal type by the printers Adams of Rye. It begins with the phrase "You owe it to yourself to eat good bread", which has been a touchstone term for us over the past decade - and a concept we firmly and truly believe in.
From 1st April, unframed prints will be available to purchase for £35.00 from the Lighthouse Bakery - either on the website of from us directly.
And so it begins. Gently first and then perhaps rising to a persistent but congenial frenzy. The run-up to Christmas.
By now, "Stir-up Sunday" has been and gone. It's a day that's defined in the Anglican church as the last Sunday before Advent, its dedicated prayer beseeching that our wills be "stirred up" and that people "plenteously bring forth the fruit of good works" but, more commonly, the day is associated with Christmas puddings. Puddings and cakes, stuffed with rich dried fruit, need may strong hands to stir them. It's traditional to make a wish! Whatever the calendar says, it's nevery really too late to make a cake or a pudding, though these intensely fruity concoctions can benefit from long gestation. Some people even make their puddings a whole year ahead.
Some of our most treasured traditions are of course relatively recent - dating back, at least in these islands, only until the 19th century or so: the roast turkey dinner; the Christmas tree. The studded puddings and cakes, heavy with fruit and spice, come from further back in time. Northern Europe looks to warming foods at this time of year, for obvious reasons. The disappearance of the sun in winter prompted many ancient rituals, many involving ingredients such as honey and spice which enlivened and warmed the darkening days. A warm and cosy kitchen is the place to be as the weather draws in. Our early brush with deepest winter has reminded many of us that home is the best (and for us and many others in recent days, the only possible) place to be!
Breads too, from all over Northern Europe carry on the traditions of celebration, warmth and luxury - for Christmas is the time to pull out all the stops and spare no expense. At the bakery we are celebrating these long-held customs with our seasonal selection. In addition to our traditional handmade mince pies (original or spelt), we are also making Stollen - the German bread that's somewhere between a loaf and a cake, with a rope of marzipan symbolising the Babty Jesus running the length of the loaf - the surrounding heavily fruited dough is meant to be the swaddling clothes. The whole loaf is brushed with melted butter and dusted with icing sugar. Another of our Christmas breads is the Vánocka, from the Czech Republic. This is a spectacular compound plait topped with flaked almonds. Finally, our Festive Sussex Cob is redolent with cardamom, honey, orange zest, and Harvey's of Lewes Old Ale (those luxury ingredients again) - cheers!
European celebrations surrounding Christmas begin with Advent at the start of December and carry on right through the month and on past the New Year to Epiphany on the 6th of January. Different places celebrate in different ways and on different days - for many it is the 24th of December and not the 25th that is the main event. But no matter the specific ways and varied traditions, across these differences there is a commitment to replulse the darkness and find a light that shines through - whether with deep religious overtones or with the simple conviviality of a meal shared with family and friends. This is true of the winter festivals of other faiths and not only of Chirstianity.
However you celebrate the festive season, we hope you enjoy it to the full, with joy and peace that carries on through the year. Season's Greetings from the Lighthouse Bakery!
Associated with the wise goddess, Athena, owls often appear in the logos of libraries or other seats of learning. They would make an appropriate emblem for the rural baker: solitary and somewhat nocturnal, our two-legged species have much in common, though bakers may hopefully be more competent than Winnie-the-Poooh's Wol when it comes to spelling "buttered toast".
In Pooh's Hundred Acre Wood, part of Ashdown Forest, Owl lived at The Chestnuts, "an old world residence of great charm". Here on the slopes of the Rother Vallery, our surroundings - lowland farmland withits fecund hedgerows and copses - are just the sort of terrain that Little Owls enjoy. Sammy, our very own resident Little Owl, lives in the trees of the field behind the bakery. We often spot him there as he alights on a shed and gazes around. His small body is speckly brown on his back and a bit streaky in front. As Little Owls are (like bakers) partly diurnal, we are able to see the white feathery eyebrows that give him such a stern expressions: he seems to scowl as he scans the scene for potential prey. Rodents is serious business!
Colin the barn owl (see Autumn in the Countryside) makes the occasional return appearance. Barn owls are known as the farmers' friend on account of their ability to devour huge numbers of mice. In this they outclass any cat, especially when a male is feeding a brooding female and their owlettes. Though it's a myth that they can swivel their heads through 360 degrees, barn owls do have very flexible necks, and rely on acute hearing and sophisticated echo-location to hunt down their prey. Once spotted, the sprinting shrew stands no chance.
Back in the bakery, our day often starts with a sort of wlidlife bidding game. Rachel opens with "Today I saw two fox cubs and a badger", to which Andrew might reply, "Well, I saw three suicidal rabbits, two fox cubs and a weasel"! As well as enjoying the undulating landscape and beautiful woodland throughout the changing seasons, the opportunity to spot wild creatures as we come to work has been one of the numerous delights of moving to East Sussex. For Elizabeth, who arrives at the bakery so much earlier than the others, the scorecard is mainly limited to other cars (not quite wildlife) and the rare treat of an owl, a source of quiet pleasure.
While most of the human population is still sleeping Lighthouse loaves take shape, and the other creatures of the night go about their business.