I felt sorry for the poor chefs each wrestling to turn four obstinate strands of dough into a neatly-plaited loaf, under the watchful eyes of (the acerbic) Monica Galetti and (the wincing) Michel Roux Jnr., in a recent episode of Masterchef - the Professionals.Herding mice at the crossroads is the expression that came to mind as I watched those seemingly-inanimate strands doggedly resist all attempts to arrange them into neat, braided order.
Although it might seem like it, you don’t need four hands, a degree in juggling, and a black belt in macramé to end up with a rather impressive bread. You just need a little know-how, and to be able to count to 4. (Although, a little practice doesn’t go astray either.)
For a bread with a slightly bitter edge that's perfect with cheese, I used the best part of "a pint of plain", but you could use water instead.
For 1 plaited loaf, you will need...Bread dough
500g strong white flour
1 x 7g sachet of fast action bread yeast
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon caster sugar
330mls porter (Guinness, Murphy’s, or Beamish)
Egg wash1 small egg, beaten, mixed with a pinch of salt
(optional) a few oats, or seeds for sprinkling over the top of the loaf (poppy, sunflower, pumpkin or sesame all work for me)
Add the warm porter to the dry ingredients and mix until combined. If you are using a stand mixer with a dough hook, mix for about 8 minutes. If kneading by hand, knead until the dough is smooth and elastic (about 10 minutes).
Place the dough back in the bowl. Cover with some oiled cling film and leave in a warm place to rise for about an hour or until doubled in size.Next, turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead for a minute or so. The dough will collapse alarmingly but don’t worry, the yeast is still working.
Divide the dough into four even pieces and roll each into a sausage shape approximately 30cm long and tapered slightly at each end.Join the four dough ‘sausages’ at one end, with the other ends fanning out. Number the positions of the fanned ends: 1, 2, 3, 4. The number of the position doesn’t change. Every time you move a strand it takes the number of its new position.
Ok, here goes...
Cross strand 4 over strand 2. Cross 1 over 3. Cross 2 over 3.
|From Top Right to Bottom Right (strands shown in their new position) :|
Fan out the dough strands; cross 4 over 2; cross 1 over 3, cross 2 over 3
When you are ready to bake, pre-heat the oven to 200°C. While the oven is heating, brush the dough with the beaten egg. Lightly sprinkle with oats or seeds if using. Transfer to the pre-heated over and bake for 10 minutes, then turn the oven down to 180°C and continue baking for a further 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and tap the base of the bread. It should sound hollow. If not, return it to the oven for a further 5 minutes. Cool on a rack.