Babette Frances Kourelos turned her back on law to pursue her passion for baking bread. She shares her story, artisanal bread recipe and baking tips with Hilary Biller
"In my final two years of studying for my BA LLB at Wits I became obsessed with bread baking," says Babette Frances Kourelos. As her passion developed, her mother stopped having to buy bread. "I was constantly handing out bread to friends and neighbours."
When she graduated, Kourelos was told by a Labour Court judge that "if I wasn't prepared to live, eat and breathe the law, I should consider pursuing another interest, which I did".
I meet her in her bakery in Maboneng, Johannesburg, with her right-hand man, Washington Makoto. Dusting the flour off her jacket, Kourelos says the business is four years old.
"I learnt about artisanal bread baking from a French baker in Vermont - he's been baking bread since he was 12 years old and later started taking on his own bread apprentices," she says.
"Three months later I returned to South Africa with my own sourdough starter named Maggie and she is still going strong," she says .
"Bread baking is tricky because wherever you are in the world, things like flour, weather and ovens are very different and I came back from the US feeling a little daunted, like I was back to square one and had to relearn everything."
She soon got into the swing of things.
"Bread dough, just like cooking, picks up on your vibe and your mood is definitely reflected in the end product," she says.
The Service Station in Melville was her very first customer. Today she bakes for a variety of clients, delivering excellent breads that include baguettes, French sourdough, rustic country loaves, rye and ciabatta. She even bakes mini rolls, which are popular with caterers.
There is a small cafe on the bakery premises that serves coffee and excellent sandwiches - on the bakery's own bread, of course.
HOW TO MAKE BABETTE'S BREAD, STEP-BY-STEP
Makes: 1 loaf
500g quality flour, see tips, left
10g fine sea salt. If you use coarse salt, dilute in a little water first
2g instant yeast
375ml (1½ cups) water - the temperature will depend on the weather; if it's hot, use room-temperature or cool water and if it's cold, use slightly warmer - but never hot
Step 1: Place the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl and mix through with your hands. Add the yeast.
Step 2: Slowly add the water and mix together using your hands, fingers together. Incorporate all the dry bits and if too dry, add more water.
When the dough comes together use a dough scraper to scrape out dough onto a lightly floured surface. Knead GENTLY, and just sufficiently for a smooth dough.
Place dough back in the bowl, scraping off the excess dough and adding to the dough.
Cover tightly with plastic wrap and place in a comfortable place - not too warm nor too cold - and not in a hot oven or on a sunny windowsill - for 4 hours.
Step 3: Tip dough out onto a lightly floured surface, scraping out any excess dough with the dough scraper. Shape the dough by folding it over.
Step 4: Shape the bread - try a round loaf first and later experiment with other shapes. Dust the bottom with flour so it doesn't stick and dust top lightly with flour. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and allow to double in size.
Preheat the oven to its highest heat.
Step 5: Just before baking spray the oven with water, which will help in the development of a crisp crust. Using a very sharp blade, slash the top of the dough, which will give the bread a beautiful design and prevent it from bursting at the seams.
Bake for 30-40 minutes. You want a loaf that is golden to dark brown and nice and crusty. To test the bread, knock it underneath and if it sounds hollow, it's ready.
Remove and cool the loaf on a wire rack. Don't slice the bread too early as it needs to cool completely.
10 TIPS FOR BRILLIANT BREAD
1) Be patient- it takes at least four hours to make a decent bread. The longer the dough has to ferment, the more character and flavour the bread will have.
2) You must be accurate with your measurements so best to use a scale..
3) Use a good-quality stoneground flour that is unbleached. Babette predominantly uses Eureka Mills Flour but also likes to add some of the other local stoneground flours to the mix. She uses almost 10,000kg of flour a month. She avoids using commercial flour, which is bleached and from which the wheat germ is removed - reducing the nutritional content.
4) You can use commercial yeast but Babette recommends trying your hand at a sourdough culture - or leaving a little leftover bread dough to add to your next batch of dough (for extra flavour).
5) You can use mineral water, which can get very expensive, or filtered water. Tap water poured into a large tub and left to stand overnight is also suitable for bread baking.
6) Mixing and baking by hand allows one to get in touch with the dough and you will sense if the dough is too wet or too dry. When mixing, don't allow the yeast and salt to come into direct contact.
7) Don't be too worried about a sticky/wetter dough - it's better than a dry dough.
8) Be gentle on the dough - no need for intense kneading like the old recipe books suggest. Try to keep your fingers together when mixing the dough and never overwork it.
9) Baking good bread becomes instinctive and a recipe is a guideline only.
10) If the dough is happy, the bread is happy and the baker is happy.
VISIT BABETTE'S BAKERY
274 Fox Street, City & Suburban, Maboneng, Joburg. Babette's also offers bread-baking courses for the home baker. See babettesbread.co.za