During Lockdown2020 it has often been quite difficult to source strong bread flour and yeast, due to people’s renewed interest in baking when long days at home are often focused on finding things to do with the kids or perhaps to perform a good deed for an elderly or self-isolating neighbour who cannot get to the shops and deserves a tasty treat. Even bread itself has sometimes been in short supply. When shelves are empty of ingredients and you need bread, what can you do? Making bread with all-purpose (plain flour) with added baking powder or, alternatively, by using self-raising flour mixed with water, a little salt and one or two extra ingredients if you like – whatever you fancy and have in the store cupboard – can produce a wonderful bread with delicious results.
Damper bread, or damper, is one of my favourite soda breads to eat. It is quick and simple to make, fuss-free with no ‘proving’ of the dough and very versatile. You can add whatever extra ingredients you like to vary the taste each time you make it; chopped olives or sundried tomatoes, herbs, seeds, a teaspoon or two of turmeric powder, walnuts, dates, finely chopped onions, even dried mixed fruit, the choice is yours. In this recipe, I have chosen to use mixed seeds from a health food store and I am using light spelt flour as it is lower in gluten and has a wonderful nutty flavour.
Traditionally a wheat-based bread, damper originates from Australia, when it was first prepared by the early settlers – swagmen, drovers, stockmen and a variety of other travellers – and cooked in the ashes of a campfire or in a camp oven in the outback. Back then it was a staple part of their diet. The early settlers travelled in remote areas for long periods of time and had with them only basic rations comprising flour, sugar and tea supplemented by whatever meat was available. The basic ingredients of a damper bread were flour, water and sometimes milk, and baking soda could be added for leavening. The damper was then cooked in the embers of the campfire. The ashes were flattened and the damper was placed on them and cooked for about 10 minutes. The bread was then covered with ashes and cooked for another 20 or 30 minutes or until it sounded hollow when tapped on the base. The damper could also be cooked in a greased camp oven instead, but in any case it was usually eaten with dried or cooked meat or golden syrup.
Today, damper still remains a popular Australian dish and might be served at a special occasion such as Australia Day. The basic recipe remains much the same but will sometimes contain melted butter. Damper is also popular in New Zealand and South Africa, where it is cooked on a barbecue and perhaps served alongside a meaty braai, for example.
As a young child I lived in Zambia in Southern Africa in the late 1960s/early 1970s and when I was 6 years old learned to cook over an open fire and fire, be it campfire or barbecue, is still one of my favourite cooking methods. It is possible to cook almost anything in this way and indeed I do when the weather is kind!
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cook: 30-35 minutes
450g all-purpose (plain) flour – you can also use plain spelt or wholemeal flour.
3 tsp (1 tbsp) baking powder – I used Dr Oetker
1 tsp fine sea salt
8 fl oz lukewarm water
1 tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
- Preheat your oven to 200C (Gas Mark 6).
- Meanwhile, in a large bowl, place the flour, salt and baking powder and stir together with a spoon or fork.
- In a jug, combine the olive oil and the water, make a well in the centre of the dried ingredients and pour in the oil and water.
- Add a handful or two of dried mixed seeds and stir in to incorporate. With clean hands, start to knead gently and bring the mixture together into a dough. Add a splash of extra water if necessary if the dough appears a bit dry.
- Turn the dough out on to a clean, floured board and knead the dough until it feels nice and smooth and shape it into a ball.
- Place the dough on an oiled baking sheet and mark out 8 segments with the handle of a wooden spoon. Bake in the oven for about 35 minutes.
- The bread is ready when you tap the underside and it sounds hollow. Leave on a wire rack to cool and enjoy with butter, some balsamic and olive oil, a little syrup or honey and/or as part of a more substantial meal.
Substitute self-raising flour for all-purpose if you prefer or do not have plain flour in the store cupboard but do not add baking powder.
Instead of adding seeds, why not try finely chopped onion or bell pepper, chopped herbs or walnuts, chopped olives or sun dried tomatoes or perhaps some raisins?
Oven temperatures vary so check your bread after 30 minutes if it smells cooked or you have a ‘fast’ oven.