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The Key to a Simple Dinner Party? Homemade Bread

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Present a good loaf of homemade bread and your dinner guests won't notice you're serving scrambled eggs.

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Few things speak as profoundly and as eloquently of domestic prowess as the soft scent of bread baking in the oven. You can make the finest of pastries, butcher the fiddliest of birds, fillet the boniest of fish; you can sautée, julienne, roast, and slow-cook all you like.

But still, at the end of it all, I have found that none of it—nothing really—competes with how satisfying it is to make a loaf of bread with your own hands. And how pleasing it is to eat.

How absurdly easy it is to make bread is, in my view, one of the best kept culinary secrets. Somehow, I find, guests at the table are always terribly impressed by homemade bread. So much so, they never seem to notice if I keep the rest of the meal simple. A good soup, scrambled eggs, charcuterie, maybe a green salad—that kind of thing is all you need. Sometimes, it's attention to the smaller details that matters most.

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So this is what I do: 

  • Pay attention to the timing. You want to serve bread still piping hot from the oven and for your guests to enjoy that delectable smell of it baking. Time the loaf’s baking time so that it is ready when you want to sit down at table. 

  • If I’m keeping the dinner menu super simple, I like to make a little effort with the table: fresh flowers—just a few. I use whatever is in season and style them prettily in jugs and jars and pitchers. Linen napkins instead of paper. Maybe a few candles. I might even splurge on a good bottle of wine.

  • If I’m only serving one very simple main course and no starter, I like to draw the meal out by serving drinks before dinner. Just a simple cocktail, a bowl of salted almonds, and a few olives. Nothing particularly fancy. It's more about the ritual than the food and drink.

Of course there is bread and there is bread. And if you’re not already an avid baker, you might want to start with a simple loaf—one that requires little kneading and no yeast. My favorite is "damper." I used to eat damper as a child, on summer holiday in Australia. It’s a campsite bread, the idea being that you can make it with basic ingredients and in one bowl, then wrap the dough in aluminum foil and cook it slowly among the embers of the campfire. I’ve found this translates quite nicely to the kitchen: no floury surfaces and very little mess to clean up, which is all very handy when you’re expecting company. It's so quick and simple to make that it fits in very nicely with the business of day to day life. 

Should you have the time, do try to make a proper bread, too. A favorite of mine is focaccia, which, of course, involves yeaste and proofing. But don’t be put off. You need to allow a little more time before dinner to make it (so it’s more of a Sunday night bread, rather than a Monday night after-work loaf), but it is truly worth it. And if all you’re doing is making a good loaf of bread, you can take all the time you like with it.

A Couple of Menu Ideas

An Autumn Supper

Menu:

Timing Tips:

  • A few days before, make the butter. Of course, you can just as well serve good, store-bought butter, but it’s a very nice touch to make your own (and it's very easy to do).
  • The day before, make the pumpkin soup and the chocolate tart and store both in the fridge.
  • Two hours or so before your guests arrive, make the damper dough and store it in the fridge.
  • Lay the table and preheat the oven.
  • Take the chocolate tart out of the fridge and crumble the amaretto biscuits over the top and sprinkle with fresh thyme.
  • Pour the soup into a saucepan and set it on the stove to heat.
  • When your guests arrive, put the bread in the oven and mix up the cocktails.
  • While everyone is having drinks, gently warm the soup.
  • When the bread is ready, serve it alongside the soup and homemade butter; finish with the tart for dessert.

A Relaxed Kitchen Supper

Menu:

  • Scrambled eggs (lightly beat the eggs and pour into a saucepan with a dollop of butter; set over a very low heat and stir constantly while they cook; take them off the heat while they are still runny and serve immediately)
  • To make the meal a little more fancy, top the eggs with either shavings of black truffle or serve them with smoked salmon (if you’re feeling indulgent, do both)
  • A fresh green salad
  • Vanilla ice cream with warm chocolate sauce and chopped crystallized ginger

Timing Tips

  • Make the chocolate sauce a few days in advance and store in the fridge.
  • Two hours or so before your guests arrive, make the damper dough and store in the fridge.
  • Roughly chop the crystallized ginger and set it aside.
  • Lay the table, preheat the oven, and bake the bread
  • Toss together the green salad.
  • Pour the chocolate sauce into a saucepan and set it on the stove.
  • When everyone is seated at the table, cook the eggs and serve them with the warm loaf of bread.
  • When you are ready to serve dessert, gently warm the chocolate sauce, scoop out the ice cream into bowls, and set it on the table along with the chocolate sauce and the ginger so that everyone can top the dessert as they like.

Damper Bread

Serves 6

450 grams self-rising flour
2 teaspoons salt
30 grams butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon caster (superfine) sugar
350 milliliters water
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon milk
1 teaspoon Maldon salt flakes (optional)

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Skye McAlpine