We all know the usual pre-Christmas restaurant outing/outrage. Desperate office boys and girls around London huddle around overpacked restaurants, eat restrictive bland 3-course menus with 2 choices of main, 2 of starter and (if you're lucky at all) 2 choices of dessert. Add to that the embarrassment of having to quickly wolf down everything so you can be out of there before the minus two hours of the booking are finished (and your double-decker has turned again into a butternut squash). And what about having to pay anything from £35 to £extortionate, upfront when you make the booking, AND getting charged full price if one unlucky sod happens to fall ill in the snowstorm? There you go…now you've got your typical London Christmas party. And "due to extreme popularity, we are only able to accommodate your group for a Christmas dinner on the 19th of November". Don't tell me you haven't heard this one! Christmas is Christmas, and whether you like it or not, a dinner in November does-not-a-Christmas-party-constitute, in anyone's (and much less a foreigner's) book.
Hence, this time my international colleagues and I went for an alternative Christmas dinner. One where you get your hands dirty (and sticky!), one that requires at least one full body apron per person, no loose hairs and future wonderment on how flour has managed to end up everywhere (including the inside of your underwear!). What I'm talking about is an evening spent making bread (and eating it) in the e5 Bakehouse. Ben McKinnon's love child is a lovely bakery squished under one of the London Fields train station arches, which dishes out yummy organic loaves. The master feature is the wood fire oven that Ben and his sister designed and built from scratch, using information found on the internet and reclaimed materials. Despite being mismatched, it's extremely pretty, sitting there and puffing fire like a gentle ancient dragon.
We ended up in the bakery after my friend Natalia (who lives nearby and met Ben when she was passing by and smelt the bread, leading to a small coffee-making day collaboration) thought it would be a good alternative idea and a great chance to avoid the usual pre-holiday restaurant rat-race. And what a fantastic idea it was. After we confirmed numbers, Ben kindly booked us in to come and make some great ciabatta breads on a freezing Thursday evening. Thinking that we would be eating only the bread, we brought along some nuts, olives, cold meats and LOTS of cheese and wine to go with it. However we were in for a surprise...(or two!)
We started with Ben showing us around and passing on the recipe for the ciabattas, and while we got messy measuring water, flour and leaven he showed us the next steps, which involved a lot of waiting for the dough to rest, and not as much kneading as I actually expected. After an initial mixing and resting we folded the dough by lifting it off the edges of the bowl with a spatula, from the outside towards the centre, something that was repeated again two times after intervening rests and cheese-and-cracker-nibbling.
After the few times of folding and resting were over, we transferred the dough into a well-floured surface, where we stretched it, and finally decorated it with rosemary, olives or sundried tomatoes, and - following the example of the Italians in the team - drizzled it with olive oil and spread a few salt flakes on top.
Then we moved on to the long table that Ben's girlfriend had cutely decorated with tea lights and where all our cheesing and wining was previously performed, and heard something about "dinner". Thinking that was the bread we had just baked, we were shocked to discover that the guys had even made some vegetarian lasagne for us which were followed by dreamy mince pies (I had been eyeing those earlier when they were patiently sitting in the bakery shelves, but I had no clue some of them were meant for us!)
After being totally filled up to the brim with food, we finished off with some freshly brewed coffee from Square Mile that Natalia had brought with her and went off into the frost with our little bags stuffed with leftover ciabatta and some of the signature Borodinsky rye bread that Ben had also made for us and which we "styled" into the bread tins.
An amazing night overall, and an amazing bakery, go in and get a loaf any time you're around Hackney, or visit the Bakery's facebook page to stay updated on future events and baking classes, which take place usually on Saturdays.
Arch 402, Mentmore Terrace
London, E8 3PH
Update: 10 March 2011
I was really stunned and delighted to see last night that Ben's bread featured in the BBC's Great British Food Revival. Michel Roux Junior even exclaimed that his bread "turned him on"! I don't think even I expected such quick progress when I wished Ben "even more good luck in the New Year", but he definitely deserves it and I'm really glad to know his bread keeps on selling out.