I sat down to write this post at 4.30am on a Tuesday morning. It was the first time in months I’d felt any kind of chill in the air, despite it being almost October, for the days are still unseasonably warm here in London. Only those who see the dark hours at this time of year are let in on the secret that winter is closer than you think. If you had suggested to me a month ago that I would be up at this ungodly hour; writing, drinking coffee and listening to the World Service; I would have thought you were mad. And, yet, I was.
It’s a common misconception in our culture that those who get up early are somehow more virtuous, for time moves at the same speed during which ever part of the day you wish to harness. I’ve always found the smugness of those who wear their early rises like a badge of honour extremely annoying for they fail to understand, as those of us who like to stay up late do perfectly, the beauty of night: a midnight walk around the centre of London, perhaps, or a nightcap brandy in an after-hours bar. Despite my predisposition to late nights and languishing in bed until the last possible second, I have been finding the lack of time in my daily routine frustrating. The older I get, the less productive I seem to be in the evenings. No longer am I able to come home, full of energy, and get loads done. These days I tend to cook dinner, collapse in front of the television and remain there until I go to bed.
A couple of weeks ago, scrolling aimlessly through Twitter one typically unproductive evening, I stumbled across an experiment called 21 Early Days. The idea is that you get up at 4.30am for 21 consecutive days to learn to be an early riser (apparently three weeks is the length of time it takes to form a new habit.) I’ve never harboured a particular wish to get up early, but it did occur to me that this would provide me with some extra hours in the day to do all of those things that I never seem to have time for. Writing this blog, for example, which is something that falls by the wayside every time my job gets busy or my motivation wanes.
I won’t lie, getting up at 4.30am, a time I only usually consider when I have an antisocial early morning flight, feels incredibly unnatural. For one thing, nothing in my neighbourhood is open at that time, except for one 24-hour convenience store about a 15-minute walk away. The local shops don’t open until 6am at the earliest, and the cafes a couple of hours after that, so popping out for some bread, or a coffee and croissant, is simply out of the question. Anything you want to eat at that time of the morning has to be brought in the night before. If you live with somebody else, crashing around with pans and noisy kitchen appliances at that time of the morning is probably not the best recipe for domestic harmony, particularly if you live in London where your flat is likely to be the size of a shoebox. This limits your breakfast options somewhat.
I had a day off work on Monday, so decided to bake bread. Bread that could be sliced, put in the toaster and buttered easily, soundlessly and without much fuss so early in the morning. Baking bread does not come naturally to me, even Paul Hollywood himself has berated me on my useless kneading technique (when I asked him for advice, he told me to buy a mixer) but I was inspired to do so after attending the launch of Slow Dough by Chris Young of the Real Bread movement; a group of the best bakers in the country who have definitely never been relegated to the operation of a dough hook. This sour cherry and walnut spelt bread was inspired by a fruit and nut bread I tried at the launch and reminds me of the toasted fruit teacakes my grandmother would give us for breakfast as children. The base is a wholemeal, seeded spelt loaf, to which I added dried sour cherries and roughly chopped walnuts. It’s quite a hearty loaf and, toasted with good butter, with a good cup of tea, makes a fabulous breakfast whilst the rest of the world is still asleep.
Sour Cherry and Walnut Spelt Bread
A little butter, for greasing
500g spelt flour
7g instant yeast
1½ tsp crushed sea salt
45g pumpkin seeds
45g sunflower seeds
100g walnuts, roughly chopped
150g dried cherries
45ml olive oil
300ml warm water
Grease a medium loaf tin with butter and set aside. Mix all of the dry ingredients in a large bowl, before adding the olive oil and water. Mix to a shaggy dough and then turn out on to a lightly floured surface and knead for about 10 minutes. Try not to add too much extra flour to the dough during the kneading.
Shape the dough into a loaf shape and place inside the tin. Make some deep gashes in the top with a bread knife and sprinkle over any remaining seeds you have. Put the tin inside a large plastic bag and leave to prove in a warm place for about two hours, until the dough has doubled in size.
Preheat the oven to 220ºc and bake for 20 minutes. Turn down the oven to 200ºc and bake for a further 20 minutes. To tell if the bread is cooked through, it should sound hollow when tapped with your finger. Leave to cool a little in the tin before turning out on to a wire cooling rack.