There are a million and one things people fail to warn you about before you have children. The fact that you won’t be able to help with their maths homework beyond the age of about five because, firstly, they do things differently now and, secondly, you never bothered to learn you times tables, especially not the sevens; the fact that they will get nits; that YOU are the tooth fairy (she’s not real you see) so you have to remember to be her, even if by bedtime you have drunk your own bodyweight in Rioja, otherwise there will be a MASSIVE MELTDOWN in the morning; oh and did I mention they WILL get nits?
Some things will come back to you as faded memories from your own childhood – like the permanently itchy head, or the tooth that remained uncollected under your pillow (even though you wrote the fairy a really lovely letter) but then miraculously turned into 50p while you were crying into your sugar puffs (‘it’s magic darling’). But there will be a myriad of things that had never even crossed your mind before you became a parent, simply because as a child, they were not your problem. Things that just happened and you never thought to question why or how. Things like packed lunch.
If like mine, your kids refuse school dinners (and who can blame them?), you will, during the course of their primary years, make nearly 1,200 packed lunches per child. That’s an awful lot of sandwiches. Given that my youngest is in Year 5 (the eldest is in secondary school so is responsible for buying his own lunch, which, when I last checked seemed to consist mainly of croissants) you would have thought I would have got the hang of it by now.
I don’t have a problem making a sandwich every morning – I could do this blindfolded and frankly, may as well be, at 6.30am – and I don’t have much of a problem filling said sandwich because the 9yo, at least until recently, never asked for anything but cheese. (In response to years of me pestering him to try something different, he has now started requesting spicy chicken, or sausage, and lately, rare roast beef. WTF? I’ve only myself to blame, but a rod for my own back I have well and truly made.)
No, the beef (pardon the pun) I have with packed lunch is with bread. I am always running out of or forgetting to buy bread. Yesterday morning, the 9yo watched in horror as I tried to hack through the tail end of a loaf which had seen better days to make his sandwich.’You can leave the crusts’, I say apologetically, ‘if they’re a bit hard.’ Just the other day, he caught me with my head in the freezer, scrabbling around in the hope that I might find a stray roll or bagel. ‘I know you’re in here somewhere,’ I say, elbow deep in petit pois. ‘Gotcha!’ I exclaim gleefully, emerging triumphantly clutching a pitta which has worse frost-bite than an arctic explorer. He does not look impressed.’Cold pasta today then?’ he says.
Again, the words rod and back spring to mind. You see, I refuse to buy pre-packed sliced bread, which would probably do a week’s worth of sarnies, because my husband spent two days temping in a bread factory when he was a student and is still scarred, physically and mentally, by the ordeal (you really don’t want to know). The other option near me is bread from one of the artisan (read extortionate) bakers at £3 a pop (£6 should you opt for the ‘local’ sourdough) which is delicious but goes stale in the blink of an eye, so needs replacing almost daily. I haven’t done the maths (see comment above re times tables) but over the year that would be an obscene amount of money to be spending on what is essentially flour and water.
So what I try to do, but should do more often, is make my own. If I plan it properly, I will make a sourdough, but this is an epic task and no good if you need bread for tomorrow morning (I will post a recipe for lazy sourdough (an oxymoron if ever there was one) here in due course). What I make most often is a simple white sandwich loaf and/or a batch of rolls which can then be bunged in the freezer. It’s actually pretty easy as I use a no-knead recipe, and if you start the process when you get back from the school run, you can have a loaf on the table by midday – quicker than using a bread machine and with a far superior end product. The most difficult bit is resisting the temptation to scoff the lot, with lashings of salty butter, before the kids get home from school, thereby landing yourself straight back at square one, but with additional guilt and muffin-toppage.
Of course, if you actually have to go out to earn your crust (sorry!), this recipe might not be for you, as you kinda have to be around for about 3 hours, albeit doing very little, but then you will probably be able to justify the cost of that artisan loaf.
Easy sandwich loaf
This recipe uses a technique based on one developed by Dan Lepard (I recommend his lovely baking book Short & Sweet), where the dough requires hardly any kneading. The amounts given make enough for an 800g loaf or about 10 rolls depending on how big you make them. You could always make a double quantity and make both. I use a good organic bread flour, but it still only works out about 40p per loaf – billy bargainous!
- 500g strong bread flour (you can use white or wholemeal – although I find wholemeal tastes a bit worthy – or a mixture of the two)
- 5g fast action yeast
- 10g fine sea salt
- 300ml warm water
- oil for kneading
- Mix all the ingredients in a large bowl until combined, cover with clingfilm and leave to rest for 10 minutes.
- Knead the dough on an oiled work surface for 30 seconds, pushing it away from you, folding it over, turning 90 degrees and repeating until you have done a full circle. Smear the bottom of the bowl with a little oil to prevent sticking, return the dough to it and cover.
- Repeat the 30 second knead after 10 minutes, and then once again after another 10 minutes, returning the dough to the bowl and covering with cling film after each knead. After the final knead, shape the dough into a tightish ball and leave to prove in a warmish place for about an hour or until the dough has doubled in size. (If you would rather get all the kneading out of the way straight away, at stage 2, knead the dough for between 5 and 10 minutes until it feels quite elastic and can be shaped into a smooth ball, then continue to prove).
- After the first prove, tip the dough out onto the oiled surface and shape into a fat sausage, by folding the dough in on itself as if you were wrapping a present and squeeze the ‘seams’ tightly together. Place, seam side down, in a loaf tin, dust the top with flour, cover loosely with clingfilm and then a clean tea towel. Leave to rise for another hour.
- Half an hour before you want to bake, preheat the oven to 225° C (fan). When the loaf has risen nicely, make a slash along the top of it with a sharp knife and place in oven. Bake for 15 minutes.
- Turn the oven down to 200° C and bake for a further 20 mins. The loaf should be nicely browned and feel hollow when you tap the bottom of it. (If it doesn’t, return to oven for a further 5 mins.) If you have made rolls, bake for 10 mins at the higher heat and 10 mins at the lower heat.
- Remove from oven and tin and leave to cool on a wire rack. Beware: tempting though it may be, if you try and slice into it too soon you will spoil the texture.
- Allow yourself two slices max before hiding the loaf out of sight and, more crucially, out of smell, until tomorrow morning.
(TIP: For a better rise and crust, put a baking tray in the bottom of the oven and fill it with boiling water from the kettle immediately before you put the loaf in on a shelf above.)