Baking challenge: eight-strand plaited loaf

This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the technical challenge for week two (bread week) of series three: an eight-strand plaited loaf.

Baked loaf

Any ordinary cat has nine lives, but not every loaf of bread has eight strands, plaited together to form an impressive-looking bread centrepiece. This was a series three technical challenge for the Great British Bake-Off, and while some of the bakers certianly struggled with it, I thought it was a rare example of a task that looks quite challenging but actually came together fairly easily (which is not the same thing as saying ‘perfectly’).

I don’t want to sound overly blasé about it, but the making of the bread dough for the plaited loaf posed no significant challenges. It’s a very simple, indeed basic, white loaf; made with instant yeast and white bread flour, it puffs up quickly and rapidly becomes springy and elastic to the touch. It’s easy to handle and – compared to the sourdough breads I often make – an easy pleasure to knead and prove.

Eight-strand plait step by step_sm
Plaiting the rolled-out strands is a bit like weaving together an octopus, but as long as you follow the instructions slowly and carefully, and apply even pressure when tucking the strands over and under one another, it works quite well, although I’m sure it’s certainly a skill that improves on practice and is best cultivated outside of the pressures of a time limit. You can see in the images how my plaiting became tighter and more even at the bottom compared to the top. The thing that makes weaving the strands easier is that the number assigned to each strand is dependent on its position and is not carried depending on its moves; that is to say, the first strand in the plait will always be strand number one, even if it started off life as strand number seven.I did go wrong a bit in overproving it on the second rise, which is not an error the Bake-Off contestants usually have time to make; indeed the main criticism is usually that their bread is underproved, which is unsurprising given the time constraints applied to the challenges. However, yoga waits for no woman and I prioritised going to my class rather than coddling the dough to the point of perfection. I came home a bit later than intended and, although a bit too puffy, leading to the strands losing some of their definition and deflating more than desirable in the oven, the overproving wasn’t too destructive of the bread’s actual structure and eating quality; like many white bread recipes, this one is actually quite forgiving.

Braided loaf

The breads judged in the show rasped loudly when cut into (doubtless this owed quite a lot to sound effects), but in my oven the crust remained quite soft, with a slightly leathery, resilient chew. This is pretty typical unless I use the fan setting on the oven. The glorious bronze of the baked loaf – a similar shade to that achieved by 1970s sunbathers on the Cote d’Azur – is achieved by means of a simple egg wash.

Recipe below the jump as always.

Eight-strand plaited loaf
Very minor adaptations (method) from Paul Hollywood’s recipe on BBC Food
  • 500g strong white bread flour
  • 7g sachet fast action / instant dried yeast
  • 10g coarse sea salt
  • 340ml water
  • 1½ TBS olive oil
  • extra flour for dusting
  • 1 free-range egg, beaten lightly with a pinch of salt
  1. Place the flour in a large bowl. Add the yeast on one side of the bowl and add the salt on the other side. Stir the ingredients together until evenly mixed.
  2. Add a good splash of olive oil. Add three-quarters of the water to the flour mixture, and mix together by hand, then add the rest of the liquid.
  3. Turn the dough out onto a work surface and knead by hand until the dough looks silky and stretchy. This will take approximately 10 minutes.
  4. Oil a medium-sized mixing bowl and place the dough into the bowl. Cover with cling film and set aside to rise, for about an hour, or until the dough doubles in size.
  5. When risen, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead, to knock the dough back. Shape the dough into a ball.
  6. Weigh the dough, divide the total by eight, and then divide the dough into eight equal pieces of that weight (electronic scales are really helpful for this – otherwise, you can eyeball it). Roll out each piece into a strand about 40cm long.
  7. Lay the strands out on the lightly floured surface like an octopus, fanned out from a central point at the top. Stick all the ends at the central point to the table with your thumb (see image, above)
  8. For the following braiding sequence, number the strands of dough from 1-8 from left to right. Every time you move any strand it will take the new number of its position in the row.
  9. Step 1: place 8 under 7 and over 1
  10. Step 2: place 8 over 5
  11. Step 3: place 2 under 3 and over 8
  12. Step 4: place 1 over 4 Step 5: place 7 under 6 and over 1
  13. Repeats step 2-5, until all the dough is braided
  14. Tuck both ends of the loaf underneath to give a tidy finish
  15. Place the plaited dough onto a floured baking tray, and leave to prove for another hour, until doubled again.
  16. Preheat the oven to 200C.
  17. Brush the loaf with the beaten egg wash and bake in the oven for 20-25mins.
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