Baking challenge: Paul Hollywood’s cob loaf

I was excited to notice this week that the very first series of the Great British Bake-Off is being rerun by the BBC! This is great news for me – I get to watch it again and remind myself of the details of some of the challenges, since I am relying on Wikipedia’s summary of the baking challenges for the first and second series (I started writing them down in fairly significant detail during the third series). Watching it, I was also somewhat touched and amused by the slightly clumsy sweetness of the show. Being new, it was still finding its feet, and the challenges were slightly more gentle than in later series (particularly the third). It was also a bit more random in the introduction of the bakers: they were just introduced as ‘Britain’s best’ with no real idea of the process behind selecting them. Some of them were really simply habitual home bakers rather than champing-at-the-bit semi-professionals.

Re-watching I also noticed a few different things, namely that Paul Hollywood certainly did some to have favourites from the get-go (he was jokey with Edd and almost flirtatious with Ruth), and that Miranda was never going to win since from day one it was clear Paul wasn’t a fan of over baking style (but why! Brownie meringue cake with amazing raspberry icing – do not understand what’s not to love!). Paul’s alleged favouritism is often discussed in reviews and message boards about the show and while I acknowledge that there’s an editing process, it certainly does appear that he likes some people a lot and then backs them all the way – slightly (though in fairness not dramatically) disproportionately. I was also reminded of how great a baker Edd was from the get-go, really impressive and accomplished though in an understated way at first.

The technical challenge for bread week in series one was Paul Hollywood’s cob loaf. The recipe called for dry yeast, which I haven’t used in ages. While I don’t think the crumb of the loaf had the deliciousness and complexity compared to when made with fresh yeast, the flour rubbed into the crust, which caramelised in the heat of the oven, was fantastic. It made the bread truly addictive. Also, I appreciated the tenderness of the crust; much as I enjoy the crispy, crackly crust of a sourdough, which breaks into gum-splintering shards, it can make for difficult eating, especially the next day! And also, this loaf was beautiful to look at as well. Truly, Paul has knocked it out of the park for me with this recipe, even if his judging occasionally causes me to raise an eyebrow…I can’t wait to rewatch bread week so I can find out if my effort matched the ideal!

Paul Hollywood’s cob
Recipe from the BBC website. You can watch the how-to video there as well.

  • 500g strong white bread flour, plus a little extra flour for finishing
  • 40g soft butter
  • 12g fast-action dried yeast
  • 2 tsp salt
  • about 300ml tepid water
  • a little olive or sunflower oil
  1. Put the flour into a large mixing bowl and add the butter. Add the yeast at one side of the bowl and add the salt at the other. Stir all the ingredients with a spoon to combine.
  2. Add half of the water and turn the mixture round with your fingers (I did this by turning the bowl). Continue to add water a little at a time, combining well, until you’ve picked up all of the flour from the sides of the bowl. You may not need to add all of the water, or you may need to add a little more – the dough should be well-combined and soft, but not sticky or soggy. Mix with your fingers to make sure all of the ingredients are combined and use the mixture to clean the inside of the bowl, picking up the dough and flour around the side of the bowl. Keep going until the mixture forms a rough dough.
  3. Use about a teaspoon of oil to lightly grease a clean work surface (apparently using oil instead of flour keeps the texture of the dough consistent). Turn out the dough onto the greased work surface (make sure you have plenty of space) and pat out into a rectangle.
  4. Fold the far edge of the dough into the middle of the dough, then turn the dough by 45 degrees and repeat. Do this several times until the dough is very lightly coated all over in olive oil.
  5. Knead the dough by pushing it out in one direction with the heel of your hand, then fold it back on itself. Turn the dough by 90 degrees and repeat. Kneading in this way stretches the gluten and makes the dough elastic. Do this for about 4 or 5 minutes until the dough is smooth and stretchy.
  6.  Clean and lightly oil your mixing bowl and put the dough back into it. Cover with a damp tea towel or lightly oiled cling film and set it aside to prove. It should take about an hour for the dough to double in size, depending on the temperature of your room (don’t put the bowl in a hot place or the yeast will work too quickly).
  7. Line a baking tray with baking paper (not greaseproof). Once the dough has doubled in size scrape it out of the bowl to shape it. The texture should be bouncy and shiny. Turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knock it back by kneading it firmly. Use your hand to roll the dough up, then turn by 45 degrees and roll it up again. Repeat several times. Gently turn and smooth the dough into a round loaf shape (I did this by tucking the ‘corners’ of the dough into the centre and then smoothening it out).
  8. Place the loaf onto the lined baking tray, cover with a tea towel or lightly oiled cling film and leave to prove until it’s doubled in size. This will take about an hour, depending on the temperature of the room.
  9. During the last fifteen minutes or so, preheat the oven to 220C. Put an empty roasting tin into the bottom of the oven.
  10.  After an hour the loaf should have proved. Sprinkle some flour on top and very gently rub it in. Use a large, sharp knife to make shallow cuts (about 1cm deep) across the top of the loaf to create a diamond pattern.
  11.  Put the loaf (on its baking tray) into the middle of the oven. Pour cold water into the empty roasting tray at the bottom of the oven just before shutting the door – this creates steam which helps the loaf develop a crisp and shiny crust.
  12. Bake the loaf for about 30 minutes.The loaf is cooked when it’s risen and golden. To check, take it out of the oven and tap it gently underneath – it should sound hollow. Turn onto a wire rack to cool.
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