recipe

Bread and butter

Bread is often the first thing you eat. Not as a child, but as a person really eating – the first thing you have in a serious restaurant. Breaking bread signals the commencement of a meal. There’s a sense of generosity to it, and of ritual – the kitchen sending you something, a gift, a reflection of how much they care. All this is why I get so incensed at being charged $9 for bread and butter. It is the worst insult there is.

For me, bread and butter are serious matters. There’s a reason their names – taken together – form a shorthand for the basis of any business. They complement each other. The freshest bread is undone by average butter, and terrific butter is wasted on average bread.

In this recipe we introduce a culture to the butter – either buttermilk or yoghurt. Because all creams are pasteurised in this country, this culture helps the flavour to develop. In Europe, where butter is often made from raw milk, this is not always necessary.

I get my cream from St David Dairy in Melbourne’s inner-city Fitzroy. My advice is to get the best cream available. A lot of thickened creams have added gelatine, which is best avoided. The cream will have a significant impact on the flavour of the butter. The rule is simple: the better the cream, the better the butter.

As to bread: I find the process of baking it very satisfying. It’s such an important staple, but it’s not instant. It takes time and consideration of both the ingredient and the environment – moisture, temperature, etc. You have to really stop and consider what you are doing and contemplate the process. Timing is the key, and is affected by the conditions of the day. The dough is always in charge.

In all of the restaurants, we try to make our own bread, but often can’t make enough. At the very least we turn out a few loaves just as service begins. It’s good for the customer to eat, but it’s also a really good skill for a chef to learn. Live yeast keeps a person honest.

For this recipe, I’ve used potato to add flavour and also texture. It ensures a wet dough and good crust. I’ve allowed for a dry yeast, to be more dependable at home. The type of potato is important – a boiling potato that’s not too waxy. A good desiree or Dutch cream works well.

There is no smell better than a house where bread has just been baked. It is easy to be overly satisfied by this. Smug, even. But the most important thing about making bread is to be humble.

Potato bread

Makes two loaves

– 650g baking potatoes (desiree or Dutch creams work well)

– 5 tsp dry yeast

– 3 tbsp warm water

– 2 tbsp olive oil

– 500g unbleached plain flour

– 1½ tsp salt

– ½ cup polenta

Boil the potatoes in their skins until tender. While still warm, peel them and weigh out 650g of cooked potato. Mash and set aside.

Mix the yeast into the warm water and leave for 10 minutes until it becomes creamy.

Place the potato, yeast water, flour, oil and salt into an electric mixer. With a dough hook mix for two to three minutes. Initially it will look like fine cornmeal, but with a little more mixing it will clump together. You can add up to one tablespoon of water to help the dough come together if it feels a bit dry. It is a firm dough that doesn’t get totally smooth.

Knead the dough by hand for three to four minutes, place it in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with cling film. Leave in a warm spot to double in size (about one hour).

Turn the dough out onto your lightly floured workbench and cut it in half. Shape each piece of dough into a round loaf and place the loaves onto a baking tray generously sprinkled with polenta.

Dust the loaves with flour and cover the tray lightly with cling film. Leave the bread to rise for about 45 minutes, until doubled in size.

Preheat your oven to 230ºC. Bake the bread for 35 to 40 minutes, spraying the inside of the oven with water three times in the first 10 minutes.

Cultured butter

Serves 8

– 2 cups cream

– ⅓ cup buttermilk or whole-milk cultured yoghurt

Mix the cream and yoghurt together in a spotlessly clean bowl and cover with cling film.

Leave the bowl at room temperature (about 20ºC) overnight. It needs to be warm enough for the live cultures to grow in the cream. It will work if it’s colder, but will take longer.

When the cream has thickened a bit and developed a delicious tang, place it in the fridge to chill.

When you’re ready to make the butter, whip the cream in an electric mixer. Take it past the stage of normal whipped cream, until the fat separates from the water and you have butter. The thin milky liquid that remains is the buttermilk. We reuse this buttermilk in the restaurant the next time we make butter.

Transfer the butter mixture to a fine sieve lined with a clean Chux cloth and bring the edges up to squeeze the last of the buttermilk from the butter. A good pinch of salt can be folded into the soft butter while it is at room temperature. Store in the fridge until ready to use.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 11, 2015 as "Our daily bread". Subscribe here.

Andrew McConnell
is the executive chef and co-owner of Cutler & Co and Cumulus Inc.