Strange things happen when we go into hibernation. Left to our own devices, we find ways to amuse ourselves.
I cannot tell you how rewarding the circuit breaker period was for me. I am certain all introverts feel the same way.
We could be antisocial without anybody asking uncomfortable questions. Say no to invitations because, well, there were no invitations. Having drinks with friends over Zoom was fun, possibly because we were all in our own homes and sort of at arm's length.
This is not to say it was all smooth sailing.
Early on, I developed a ferocious toothache that made me unable to concentrate on anything except that horrendous, throbbing pain. I called desperately around. Dentists were trying to figure out if they could see patients. I popped Arcoxia and Tramadol. The pain persisted.
Finally, I begged my friend, who specialises in root canals, to see me before I dug my teeth out with a fork.
It turned out I needed two root canals. I am not the only one. We teeth grinders went into overdrive at the start of the circuit breaker, when everything was alien and uncertain.
My friend then sent me to see his friend, to get the two teeth crowned. She insisted on fitting me with a mouthguard.
"Why hasn't any dentist done that?" she asked. "It's obvious you grind your teeth."
So, I went home with the silicone guard, snug inside a hot-pink plastic case, put it on that night and slept like a baby.
Yes. My 30-year problem with insomnia vanished.
To be sure, I still wake up too early, but now, I fall asleep and stay asleep. It's a miracle.
Who knew it was bruxism - that's what teeth grinding is called - that had kept me up all those decades?
I also rekindled my love of making bread. I had started with making cookies and cake, but the lure of yeast was too much to resist.
After writing a column here about garden focaccia, my ambitions rose and rose. I am still making bread, even though the world has opened up a lot more.
Where I once kneaded and punched down dough to get through work angst, these days, I see making bread as a way to become more zen and patient. And to be creative.
I have worked through a mind-boggling amount of bread flour and yeast, and the obsession is not going away any time soon.
Right now, I am going through a phase where I feel compelled to make bread in different colours. So, I have attempted spinach bread, purple sweet potato bread and pumpkin bread.
On a whim, I decided to try making charcoal bread - jet black, shiny and a little startling. The activated charcoal powder I use is available in stores where you can buy supplies in small or large amounts.
Usually, I am immune to things like Valentine's Day. But I think this bread is a fun project for Halloween. Which is another "festival" I never think to make anything of.
I made a tray of little charcoal buns, gave most of it to one of my friends and he used it in so many creative ways. He made a delicious-looking otah and omelette sandwich, French toast, and spread the buns with kaya and butter, among other things.
"These buns are quite moist and I was thinking you should put dark chocolate in them," he texted. "Duke Bakery had a dark chocolate bun which I adored. Make the small buns with dark chocolate, pleaseeeee."
So I did.
On my first try, I used a chopped-up chocolate bar with 90 per cent cocoa, and dried tart cherries, which I love beyond reason. When I sliced the bun in two, the chocolate had melted and the filling looked like the inside of a Black Forest cake. Yes!
But I needed a little more sweetness. A 90 per cent bar is just too austere. So, use one with no more than 70 per cent cocoa solids or a bar of good milk chocolate. If you do not like tart cherries, use dried cranberries or raisins instead. Soak the raisins in rum first, I dare you.
Then, I thought about Halloween coming up and wondered if I could make a bun with a pumpkin filling. I did, but filling the buns was needlessly fiddly.
Instead, I turned the filling into a spread, like kaya. The orange colour contrasts with the black bread and you absolutely should slice some cold salted butter to complete your sandwich. Or spread one slice of bread with cream cheese and the other with the pumpkin spread and slap them together.
This bread dough is versatile and quite easy to work with.
I have made Pullman loaves with it and, of course, you can shape it into 10 or 12 buns for hamburgers, egg washed before baking and sprinkled with white sesame seeds; or make 16 buns you can stuff with otah, luncheon meat, cheese, curry chicken, char siew or raspberry jam, sweet red bean, custard or any number of things.
Once you start making bread, it's difficult to stop.
You have been warned.
500g bread flour
80g caster sugar
10g instant yeast
15g activated charcoal powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 large eggs
200g whole milk, lukewarm
70g butter, melted
300g fresh pumpkin, kabocha squash or butternut squash, weighed after removing the skin and seeds
30g palm sugar, or to taste
100ml coconut cream, storebought
1/2 tsp salt
Filling for chocolate cherry charcoal buns
200g dark chocolate, no more than 70 per cent cocoa
120g dried tart cherries
1. Weigh out the flour into the bowl of your electric mixer or into a large mixing bowl. Add in the sugar, yeast, charcoal powder and salt, being careful not to have the yeast and salt touch, as salt can deactivate yeast. Whisk all the dry ingredients together.
2. Add the eggs, milk and butter. If using an electric mixer, screw the bowl onto the mixer fitted with the dough hook and knead at low speed for two minutes. Stop the machine. Use a bench scraper to scrape the dough off the hook. Scrape the sides of the bowl to gather all the dough in the middle and flip the dough over. This is to make sure there are no pockets of dry flour in the dough.
3. Knead at low speed for 12 minutes, stopping the machine every three minutes to scrape the dough off the hook. Gather the dough in the middle and flip it over. This is to make sure the dough is evenly kneaded. At the end of the kneading, you should have a shiny, smooth and sticky dough.
4. Detach the dough hook and unscrew the bowl. Scrape the dough off the hook into the bowl. Scrape the sides of the bowl to gather the dough into a ball. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and proof 60 minutes. There is no need to oil the bowl.
5. If kneading by hand, mix the dry and wet ingredients in the mixing bowl until they come together. Remove from the bowl and knead 12 to 14 minutes, until the dough is smooth and shiny.
To make a charcoal loaf
1. Prepare a Pullman loaf tin by lining all four sides with baking paper so the paper extends beyond the top of the tin by about 2cm. This is insurance against the bread sticking to the pan. The pan I use measures 19.5cm x 10.5cm x 10.5cm.
2. After the first proof, gently deflate the dough in the bowl and scrape it out onto a smooth work surface. There is no need to flour the surface. Roll the dough out into a rectangle measuring about 18cm x 15cm.
3. Starting at the top, roll the dough towards you, pulling gently upwards as you go along, to make a tight coil. Pinch the edges firmly to seal and transfer the dough into the prepared pan. Cover with a tea towel and let it rise 45 minutes.
4. About 30 minutes into the second proofing, preheat the oven to 180 deg C. Position the oven rack at the bottom third of the oven.
5. When the bread has had its second proof, place it in the oven and bake 30 to 35 minutes.
6. Let it rest in the pan for five minutes after baking, then lift the loaf out using the paper over-hang. Remove the paper and place the bread on a metal rack to cool completely.
7. Store up to two days in an airtight container at room temperature. To store longer, slice the bread once it has cooled completely. Wrap each slice in plastic wrap, place the wrapped slices in a resealable freezer bag and freeze up to one month. Before eating, unwrap and toast from frozen.
To make pumpkin spread
1. Cut the pumpkin into chunks and steam over high heat until a fork pierces through the pieces easily, about 20 minutes.
2. Pour out the liquid that has collected in the bowl. Mash the pumpkin with a fork and place in a saucepan, preferably non-stick. Slice or grate the palm sugar. Add that to the mashed pumpkin, together with the coconut cream and salt.
3. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly until the ingredients are well mixed and thickened, about 20 minutes. Transfer into a glass or ceramic container with a cover. Cool and refrigerate up to five days.
To make chocolate cherry charcoal buns
1. Chop the chocolate into chunks and place in a bowl. Weigh out the cherries into another bowl. Line two large baking trays with baking paper.
2. After the first proof, gently deflate the dough. Divide into 16 portions, each weighing 58 to 60g.
3. Place each portion onto a smooth work surface - there is no need to flour it - and pat out into a circle. Pile pieces of chocolate in the middle, top with five to six dried cherries.
4. Using a bench scraper, gather up the dough and pinch firmly to seal. Flip the dough over and make it round by cupping your hand over the dough and moving in a circular motion, much like you would use a computer mouse.
5. Repeat for the rest of the dough and divide the buns between the two trays. Make sure the buns are 5cm to 6cm apart. Cover with a tea towel and let them proof 45 minutes.
6. About 30 minutes into the second proof, preheat the oven to 180 deg C and arrange two oven racks at the bottom and middle of the oven.
7. When the buns have proofed, place the trays in the oven. After 10 minutes, swop the trays so the bottom one is now on top and the top one is at the bottom. Bake another 15 minutes.
8. Remove from the oven and transfer the buns onto a metal cooling rack. Keeps up to three days at room temperature. Reheat one to two minutes in a toaster oven before eating.
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