Jane Mason started Virtuous Bread last year to get everyone to start baking and eating good bread and in the process, also bring about social change. As I understand it, there’s the commercial side with bread baking classes and her Bread Angels, people she teaches to start their own bread businesses, and there’s the charitable side where she gets involved with prisons, schools and shelters with baking classes. She’s got a blog, a newsletter and recipes on her site too; it all makes for an interesting read and one can believe that bread can bring people together. I had received an invitation to attend a class from Emmeline Westin who is currently helping with PR for Virtuous Bread and I chose to attend one last Saturday to learn about baking Celebration Breads – in particular, brioche and hot cross buns.
Jane has a fantastic flat in Hammersmith and an absolutely magnificent kitchen from which to teach. The small size of the class (only four students that day), the fact that Jane teaches from her own home, and Jane’s own warmth and friendliness gave a cozy feeling to the lesson and made for a wonderful day. Jane started by plying us all with coffee and then explaining the idea of celebration breads (breads made with richer ingredients) and how making them differed from baking regular white or brown breads.
It wasn’t all talking and listening to the class (though Jane is a fount of knowledge when it comes to baking and I learned so much that day) – it was hands on too. We first learned to shape brioche using a batch of dough that Jane had prepared earlier as this dough needs to rise for quite a while. You can see a traditional loaf shaped as an S shape and one made of small rolls that would bake into a pull-apart loaf.
We did learn how to make brioche dough but got to take that with us raw to bake in our own homes; the brioche dough has to rise for much longer than the bun dough and there wasn’t enough time during the class. As there were four of us in the class, we were split into two groups, one to make brioche and the other to make hot cross buns; I was assigned the brioche. Both doughs started with pre-doughs to activate the yeast before all the rich ingredients are added. (Totally unrelated but those stainless steel bowls are fantastic. And so light too!)
When the yeast had activated, which you could tell by the mixture bubbling ever so slightly, we added the butter, eggs, and more flour (and spice in the case of the hot cross buns), mixed it all together, and then started kneading.
That’s me (well, my hand) below… kneading! It was surprising how wet the dough is even with all the butter and egg and working it was certainly challenging; amazingly, it did all come together to a smooth dough. Jane was on hand to give us all a hand if we tired – about 15 minutes of hand kneading were required for the celebration doughs.
While all this was happening, the brioche loaves were rising and then were ready for baking. After about 30 minutes in a hot oven, they came out looking and smelling absolutely fantastic, all buttery and sweet.
We were sent to the dining room where, surprise!, we found a table set for lunch. Jane had prepared a beautiful and delicious quiche with leek, endive and ground elder and served it with a couple of salads. And, of course, we had the freshly baked brioche to go with it; it was indeed buttery and fantastic but could have been a bit lighter had it had a bit longer to rise during its second rising.
The bun dough was ready by the time we had finished lunch and so soaked raisins were added and it was on to learning to shape buns. Jane showed us how to roll the dough portions lightly against the table to shape each bun.
Hot cross buns aren’t hot cross buns without their crosses! We all had a go at piping them on. The poor piping bag broke halfway through and so some got thin crosses while others got fat ones.
After another rising, the buns were popped into the oven. About 25 minutes later, hot cross buns! They were light and fantastic and I surprised myself my liking the flavour of cloves in them. We had them unglazed, being easier for transport, but were given instruction on how to glaze them at home.
And that was the end of the class – we took away the recipes, the leftover baked brioche, our portions of brioche dough for baking at home, and quite a few hot cross buns, and, of course, our newfound knowledge of baking rich breads. As I mentioned previously, Jane is very warm and friendly and a great teacher and the timings of the class were excellent with lunch in between the baking activities to give us a rest and the bread a rise.
It’s a little late now for hot cross buns but details of Jane’s other classes (including one on basic bread baking and another on sourdoughs) can be found on her Virtuous Bread website. If they’re anything like this class, they’ll definitely be fun.
Thank you very much again, Emmeline, for the invitation and to Jane too for having me along!
All my photos from the class can be found in this Flickr photoset.