Behind Brilliant Bread

This article was originally published in Shetland Life magazine and was written upon receiving my first copy of “Brilliant Bread”

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Writing a book not long after finding yourself churned from a reality television show, you come to expect a standard set of questions from tabloid journalists: “Has your life changed? How long did it take you to write your book? Did you write it all? Did you bake everything in the pictures?”

If you’re interested, the answers are: yes; two months; yes; yes. But then comes the most inevitable and quickly the most exhausting: “Why bread?” Normally I try to shyly shrug this off with a few mentions of satisfaction and science and with the frequent use of the word ‘awesome’. All of what I say is true and bread really is awesome. But the most genuine answer would take too much time and reveal far more about myself than I’d rather.

For whatever reason, now, here’s why and how I wrote about bread.

 

Soon after we filmed the third season of the Great British Bake-Off, a few of us were put in touch with literary agents. It was put to us: 5 of the 6 previous finalists now have book deals. It was taken as a given that we would follow in a cold new exercise to capitalise on our temporary popularity. It seemed a purely financial exercise in which the production company had a reasonable cut.

It was expressed to me in no uncertain terms that a general baking book encompassing a wide variety of culinary categories would be both easiest to sell to the publishers and to the public. This is what people would expect. But gradually, through meetings and tele-conferences with producers and agents, my own suggestions and ideas were, to my surprise, encouraged. I was tentatively told to start down the route I suggested above all else: bread. If my enthusiasm was to be ignored by those who mattered, we could always re-strategize. That was the theory.

My obsession with the idea of a bread book was that I loved it more than any other baking discipline, but that there wasn’t a single book on the subject that didn’t have irritating faults. I saw them all as both single minded and subjective; they advocated one particular set of techniques and skills and denounced all others, without any evidence to justify it.

Not one approached baking from an evidence-based perspective. But more than that, every bread book so far has been written by a professional baker. The worst contain nothing but toned down commercial recipes without much introduction or thought for what the home-baker can replicate at home. The best contain too much detail on copying professional loaves and so become too complicated and alienating for most.

I wanted to write the best bread book on the market. And the concept I devised, as far as I could tell, was mostly that. I didn’t want to churn out 100 recipes and pose with a superimposed cake on the cover of a glossy book for sale for a fiver in Tesco. I didn’t want to be another reality TV reject, even though that is what I clearly am (and I’ve come to terms with it). I wanted to do something well – nay, I wanted to do something the best; better than anyone else had done before. And that is why I picked bread; I thought I could do it justice and start to make a name for myself that didn’t involve the Bake-Off.

I’m sitting with one of the first advance copies of “Brilliant Bread” and I’m proud to say I’m happy. It’s overwhelming to hold it; it is everything I wanted it to be. And I can’t leaf through it without thinking of how it got here.

The first hurdle is the ‘proposal’. This is where you set out exactly how you see your book looking and what it will contain, in just a few pages. This is sent off, via your literary agent (many publishers will simply refuse to read manuscripts not submitted through agents) to a variety and in turn they send a response. For some, it was a blanket “we’ve got too many bread authors already” and others “we’re not interested in the bake-off”. But a few saw enough potential to get me down to London for a meeting.

All the summits were set for a single day – 5 hours down on the train, 5 hours pottering around from posh parts of London to posher, then 5 hours’ journey back up to Glasgow. A whirlwind of coffee, biscuits and enough free cookbooks in branded canvas bags to scar my shoulder.

Within a few weeks, they come back to you with whether they’d like to publish the book and their rough terms. At this point, every publisher wants to get as much out of you as they can: they don’t offer much money and the contracts are one sided. Long negotiations ensue between agents and editors and one emerges triumphant. In my case, I’ll admit Ebury won me over as soon as I walked in and they said, beaming: “We’re the biggest publisher and we don’t have a bread book.”

The problem is that at this point, a contract is concluded and everyone’s celebrating, but the book is still merely an idea. I’ve got a rough plan, jotted down quantities and three months until my exams. I gave myself a month to study, and vowed to write furiously for the first two. This desperate struggle worked out, undramatically; I submitted my manuscript on time and proceeded to pass my exams with comfortable margins.

It’s often pointed out to me that writing 60,000 words in two months on top of a medical degree is a tough ask. It was hard, but it was do-able. If I’d been writing a cake book, though? Patisserie? Nope. I wouldn’t have had the enthusiasm or drive to get it in on time. Because it was bread, I was fervent to get on to the next chapter or the next section. I saved ‘Sourdough’ to the very end as a treat; I indulged in going over and over it and cutting many a superfluous word.

I hope this boyish excitement comes across inside– and I hope I do Shetland justice. Please don’t shout at me for my (girdle) bannock recipe until you’ve tried it, because it’s actually pretty good.

 

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33 thoughts on “Behind Brilliant Bread

  1. I got your book for my birthday yesterday (on my request) and it’s amazing. Your enthusiasm for bread really comes across in the book, and to be honest I haven’t really been able to put it down since it arrived! I can’t wait to try the recipes and revive my rather abandoned sourdough starter (it I haven’t killed it, that is!).

  2. Certainly your enthusiasm shines through as does your maverick nature we saw on Bake Off. I’m definitely ordering your book, I love baking bread and I’m fascinated by sour dough but never made it. Now’s the moment. GG

  3. Christmas present written all over it, for my
    boyfriend, no he doesn’t cook or bake but
    he likes bread – this might inspire him.

  4. Am now a very happy lady, just ordered Brilliant Bread. I await it’s arrival with much excitement. Your mention of bannocks in this blog has brough me to ask some advice – having come back from Shetland last week and inspired by the beautiful baking I sampled at a Sunday Tea and some amazing bannocks I thought I would give them a bash. My granda used to make girdle bannocks and I remember them fondly. Just finished a batch and they are so heavy and underbaked. I used a traditional recipe and don’t know if I made the dough too wet, or if I over handled it, or what happened – not the light fluffy bannocks I’d hoped for. Any advice?

  5. Great post, James. Love that you’re approaching baking as you would medicine (evidence-based) yet trusting your instincts and passion. Bravo. And congrats on exams! Will order this from my local Melbourne bookshop.

  6. I got your book for my birthday and I absolutely love it. Only thing is I made your basic white loaf a couple of times and it always had a dull greyish crust. It tastes fab but doesn’t look too great. Any suggestions?

  7. I got this book a few weeks ago and it is marvelous. It has taught me a lot and I am baking fantastic bread all the time. I have even made a soudough starter and have successfully produced a few good sourdough loaves. I have recently noticed that my starter is starting to smell a bit like acetone. Has it gone bad or is it still ok to use. It seems very active but is this frim bad bacteria rather than yeast?

  8. I love the book, steadily working my way through the recipes. I have been totally flummoxed by the pain de mie, three attempts no success.

    I feel with the initial knead the dough goes tight quickly and it is not a wet dough. I have baked all batches at the bottom of the oven with water flung in, trying both in two small tines and in a big tin. The outcome has been very dark on the outside and dough in the inside.

    Any advice?

    1. Hi there Robert,

      Thanks for getting in touch. I must admit, this surprises me because pain de mie is the recipe I perhaps have the best feedback about!

      The first thing is that every oven is different – if you’re unsure, you can get an oven thermometer but even these can be wildly inaccurate. It sounds like the oven is at too high a temperature, for one.

      The second thing is that it is winter now and temperatures have dropped significantly – make sure the dough is properly proved.

      If you are using honey as opposed to any sugar as in the recipe, please please please do not add any more than stated. This can cause a gooey inside and quick-to-burn crust.

      Finally, check the scales are accurate and all ingredients have been weighed correctly, for often in unsolvable cases such as this, it is by no fault of anyone that disaster strikes.

  9. I too love the book.
    Thanks James for showing me that even somebody as busy as an acute medicine SpR with a family can still fit in making bread!!

  10. I too got your book for my birthday James, love it!
    Some very sensible advice, and clear, easy to follow instructions.

    Been making sourdough bread for the last few years after learning of its existence from a guy in Unst.
    Recently tried a 100% Rye sourdough for the first time, used your recipe – comes out Great! Even nicer than Spelt!

    A handy tip I discovered recently – when stirring gloopy mixtures like tealoaf, fruitcake, pancakes, whatever – try using a porridge spurtle – it’s so much easier than using a wooden spoon, and you’re much less likely to slop the mixture over the side of the pan!

    Wishing you the best of luck with your studies, and Career, maybe see you at the GBH some day?

  11. G’day James,

    Thanks for your book – have loved reading it and working my way through a few of the loaves. Just made your raisin & Rye loaf, but used apricots instead as we didn’t have any raisins – it was terrific. My goal this year is to mostly supply our family of 5 with loaves and rolls, and my daughters have loved their school lunch rolls so far. So thank you, your writing and approach to your craft, and the tips about resting in the fridge to fit the baking in to normal life have a been a particularly huge help.

    I live in Perth, Western Australia, but my Mum, who’s parents were from the Isle of Lewis saw an article about you in a magazine she reads, so gave it to me for my birthday.I think she liked the jumper you were wearing on the cover too. The hot weather and the flies here make the proving a slightly different enterprise but most loaves have worked out OK so far. My scoring isn’t too crash hot yet but hoping to get better at it.

    All the best,

    Cam

  12. I love your book, and enjoyed reading the background info about it. Have made several of the recipes, mostly successfully. Looking forward to seeing your show at the Gaiety Theatre, Ayr, next week! One question – if leaving a loaf to prove overnight in the fridge, do you put it straight from there into a hot oven, or let it get up to room temperature first?
    Regards, Angela.

    1. I have the same question Angela – one failure and now doing second prove but dough taking hours to warm up and take action. I also love the book James and taking up a new hobby in my retirement 🙂

  13. James,I bought your book for my daughter but keep borrowing it!I don’t understand why you say it is important to keep the salt and yeast separate, mixing them in at opposite sides of the bowl.Once the water is in the whole thing is all mixed together and the salt and yeast must be in contact.

  14. I have been making bread for years and extolling the virtues of good wholesome food so I am delighted to find a book that is so accessible and full of common sense. I would rather make an Irish Soda bread than eat commercially produced stuff that passes for bread. I cannot bring myself to buy naan bread or pitta bread in the supermarket – I make it every time.
    As a society we have lost contact with what constitutes good food – I despaired recently when I was talking to a health professional who was promoting low fat spreads and no added sugar products.
    Your enthusiasm for bread comes across in the book and the recipes are really good. My current favourite is the rye and raisin bread, and I am in the process of making the focaccia for my daughter as she comes home this evening after two weeks away at music school.
    So, keep spreading the message. Proper bread is nutritious, delicious, and great fun to make. Thank you.

    1. I like the rye and raisin bread too, Maureen, though I did have a problem when I soaked the raisins for too long! Can also recommend the honey and walnut loaf, though James is right when he says he packs in the walnuts – I prefer to halve the quantity, and chop them small.

  15. Love the book. I’ve been a home sourdough bread baker for years, have read Bertinet, Jaine, Lepard et al, your book is by far the best.

    I have just tried your Marmite recipe, which is fantastic. I assume the ingredients have a typo? 2 teaspoons not tablespoons of Marmite, no?

  16. Hi there James!
    I have just got your book and I am certainly not going to regret it! You have put in some really original recipes which I’ve never seen before! I can’t wait to get stuck into all the products form it!
    Cheers for writing it for all of us,
    Georgia

  17. I have always wanted to be good at making bread, and when I came across your focaccia making video on youtube, I wondered what else I could learn from you. I found you so amiable and easy to listen to.

    I make the bread that I’ve always dreamed of now, and it’s largely because of you.

    So, thank you 😀

  18. I purchased your book a few months ago, the kindle version and I also want to get the printed version later on.

    I now make my own bread thanks to you. Dutch bread is horrible and it has been the hardest thing to not be able to afford proper bread which is very difficult to come by and when you do find one bakery which sells good quality bread, you need to fork out 4 euros. Ouch!

    I can’t wait until I start making sourdough bread but first I want to become proficient in the basics section. I bake basic white bread every three days, make foccacia once a week and pizza once a week and the occasional scones. My dad makes wicked scones but with your recipe it comes out right every time.

    Thank you so much James, you have made my life so much better with something as simple as making bread. You have given me a lifestyle, healthy living and homemade food. I am a fan! I can’t wait for your second book. One thing, I wish you could offer some videos too.

    Good luck with sales!

  19. Hi James, got the book for Christmas and I love it. Just tried the raisin and rye and my kitchen smells amazing but the bread is on the bin. It totally flopped once it went in the oven, did I over prove? The mixture seemed really wet all the way through. Thanks, Emily.

  20. Dear James,

    Recently I got both your books, I read them cover to cover and I really enjoy your style. Yesterday and today I tried making your ‘soft or crusty rolls’. It didn’t completely work out however, and I now *think* the problem is that I overproofed them. Yesterday, it was quite hard to score them and I had no ovenspring at all. The buns were somewhat densely textured but cooked (but I’m not sure how they are supposed to be). Today I thought to experiment and bake the buns at different lengths of proofing. In the end however I kind of forgot about them so they proofed for an hour anyway *sigh* and the first three I baked turned out the same as the ones yesterday. So I decided to let some proof longer and two other I kneaded again and reshaped them and let them rest a really short while . The ones that I rekneaded did have a considerable ovenspring (though they were still somewhat small of course), the other were again the same as before. So is it safe to say that the buns were overproofed? How large should these rolls become?

    Best,
    No (located in the Netherlands)

    PS. I also made a carrot cake based on your basic cake recipe and it turned out great!

  21. Hi James – I bought your book a few months ago and I love it! It is so informative, especially on the more difficult bakes. The chapter on sourdough is particularly good in my opinion.
    Since reading your book, I have become fascinated by the science behind bread and baking. Are there any books you would recommend that explain the science behind breadmaking, or baking in general?

  22. Hi James, love the book. The writing style is perfect and instructions are easy to follow. Working through some more simple breads first, I have made a few sourdough loaves which have turned out great, and I have recently made a new batch of sourdough starter. I tried to make the Advanced White Bread and found the recipe far too runny (and I think I attempted this the first time I tried to make sourdough and ended up binning the mixture for the same reason). This time I added a decent amount of additional flour and even then it was still batter like, but just about kneadable. Although ledt alone it would have spilled over the side of my board. I allowed 12 hours on the second prove and although risen, was still very wobbly in the tin! It actually turned out ok, but curious to know if there’s a misprint in the measures in the recipe as Ive not experienced the same problem with other recipes in your book.

    Best wishes

  23. Hi James, what a great book Brilliant Bread is, I have a question Basic white bread which I baked yesterday why has it come out sponge please. Don’t know where I have gone wrong. Many thanks Janet

  24. Love your bread book
    You gave me the confidence to stop using a machine. Just a very quick question in the revival recipe you use no liquid except to soak the old bread, is this correct

  25. Hello James. Along the years your book has become my baking bible. I have been baking your wonderful white sourdough recipe on a regular basis for more than 3 years with a lot of success from day 1. However, even though I haven’t changed a thing and dough looks exactly as before, since the end of the Summer I don’t get the magic oven spring anymore. The crumb still has small and bigger holes, the bread still tastes great but is a bit flat. I thought you may have an idea why. Thank you for your help.

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