“A cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Oscar Wilde

Whilst revisiting a charming recipe with which to provide my daily bread (Breakfast Baps – Elizabeth David’s oft overlooked gem in her publication English Bread and Yeast Cookery of 1977), a trickle of unrelated thoughts prompted a rash of self-sufficient, financially prudent, supermarket-lite, culinary goals.

Although I have long since forgotten chapter and verse that was once Sunday school’s unwavering chant (Lord’s Prayer. Matthew 6:9-11), I still cling to the secular notion that instead of us being given our daily bread, it is more the making that has long been one of the essential portals to self-sufficiency. A gateway to more earth-bound habits…well, one walks in hope.

I’m all too aware that simple home-made bread rolls, as Ms David calls them in her imperious, matter-of-fact way, have, in my hands, proven to be something far less than simple. Prompting the unlikely view of a 16th century physician, Thomas Muffett, and a bleak note I found in his Health’s Improvement – “All of which circumstances I most willingly prosecute to the full because Bread is the best nourishment of all other; being well made. So, it is simply the worst being marred in the ill handling”.

“…simply the worst being marred…” although hinting at some cack-handed baking procedure nearly half a millennia ago, his words surfaced as a cautionary prompt to my own handling methods – ill or otherwise – as I reached gamely for a bag of flour and a sachet of dried yeast.

And whilst getting carried away with notions of home-spun culinary and financial independence, my master plan somehow got ensnared with Adam Smith’s Labour Theory of Value (1762), ending with “the price of a commodity is determined by the average number of labour hours required to produce it”.

Well, you’re probably ahead of me here, but when I faced up to the erratic nature of my yeast-based success rate, the years I have spent in its service, the fuel costs of my range oven, the purchase price of first-rate ingredients coupled with what purports to be a minimum hourly rate in a consumer-driven society, and, lest one forget, the fiscal depreciation of some of the above, I dare not even glance at the bottom line. As a rough guide I wouldn’t be at all surprised, that were I to commission Deliveroo to convey a batch of  bread rolls from Fortnum and Masons in Piccadilly to my Norfolk cottage, it wouldn’t be far off the price of that home-baked commodity in my rose-tinted, self-sufficient master plan.

But these algorithms, dressed as fact-and-market-forces, don’t mention quality, or, more importantly (thank you Oscar) value. Nor do they legitimately venerate that most contested of all the seven deadly sins – Pride.

All of which, I’m pleased to report, impact on my wistful ambitions when home baking manages to hit the mark.

The theory runs that bread is not difficult to make (after all we have been making it for more than 8000 years) and although I have on occasion made bread with some bragging rights attached, I must come clean and admit that until very recently, consistency has eluded me. I have tried a wide range of recipes from an even wider range of recipe books, and have occasionally stood by as the bread displayed less of a determined rise, more of a disconsolate slump, fueling the dawning realisation that some recipes blithely assume a skill-set I don’t always have to hand.

But, by way of faultless optimism and newly summoned determination, I pledged to move bread-making exclusively to the weekends – even at the risk of the initial financial calculations now having to absorb overtime as a result. I chose this path because somehow I feel a little more ambitious as the weekdays taper off and with uncommon pragmatism, I can spend time in the kitchen with only the most minor day-to-day interruptions – exemptions naturally granted for messrs Coltrane and Mozart.  A constructed ambiance with which to promote productive kneading and invoke potential rising. Still a work in progress of course, but here I think you’ll agree with me; so much better than sliced bread.

So when I patch together the remnants of my baking know-how and the propitious runes align, yeast-based pitfalls recede and the word ‘temperature’ in my draft- prone kitchen is preceded by the word ‘room’ – dough is often known to rise majestically.

And even though I know we’re only half way there (counter-intuitive ‘knocking back’ of the dough deserves a whole other tale) such chemistry can fill me with unbridled pleasure – frequently prompting that earlier vice, Pride. Ms David would doubtless have shared in that too.

Comprehensive proof, if ever it were needed, that my generation, raised on BBC’s Arcadian sit-com The Good Life, has thankfully never quite regained its grasp of reality.

Breakfast/Dinner Baps

7 grams active dry or quick rise yeast

240 ml whole milk

25 grams granulated sugar

480 grams bread flour plus more for dusting and kneading

7 grams fine sea salt

85 grams unsalted butter, softened

2 large eggs at room temperature

Egg Wash:

1 large egg

15 ml water

Preheat the oven to 190°C

Warm the milk to about 43°-46°C. In a large mixing bowl add the warm milk, the yeast, and ½ teaspoon of the granulated sugar and stir to combine.

Let sit for 5-10 minutes until you see some bubbles and foaming.

Add 480 grams of flour, the rest of the sugar, salt, butter, and eggs to the mixing bowl.

If kneading by hand, turn the dough out onto a floured countertop. Dust flour over the top of the dough and knead the dough by hand for about 8-10 minutes until smooth and elastic.

If kneading with a stand mixer, fit the mixer with a dough hook and knead at medium speed for 6-8 minutes. Add more flour as needed while kneading the dough. When the dough is finishing being kneaded it will be slightly sticky to the touch, but feels smooth and elastic and should stand tall when rounded into a ball.

Move the kneaded dough to a lightly oiled bowl, turn to coat, and cover with a tea towel or a damp cloth, until doubled in size, about 1 hour for rapid dry yeast and 2 hours for active dry yeast.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured and using a bench knife, divide it into 12 equal pieces

To shape the rolls, pull down on the sides of the dough creating a seam at the bottom.

Place the piece of dough seam side down on an un-floured part of the countertop. Cup your hand over the dough and roll it under your palm to form a smooth piece of dough.

Place the shaped rolls in a 23 x 33 cm baking dish (I didn’t have one as you can see) that has been lightly greased or on a parchment lined sheet pan. Cover the baking dish tightly with plastic wrap.

Proof the rolls for about 45 minutes if using quick rise yeast and about 1 hour and 15 minutes if using active dry yeast.

Position an oven rack to the centre position.

Prepare the egg wash by whisking together the egg and water until well combined. Brush the tops and exposed sides of the rolls with egg wash.

(I then sprinkled liberally with a bagel seasoning – up to you).

Bake for 15-20 minutes, rotating the pan halfway, or until golden brown. Serve warm.