Elaine Explains - The Dame of DoughAs an organisation that could hardly get away with believing that learning is something that stops when you leave school or university, ASK is always proud and happy to support Adult Learners Week (as we did last year) – and to have fun while we’re about it. Recognising that everyone is always interested in making lots of dough, Elaine valiantly stepped up to the mark this morning and led a group of us into the kitchen to make lots of it!

When we say ‘making dough’, we do of course mean it absolutely literally. We might watch it through interlaced fingers, but ASK Towers is not The Apprentice. We mean dough as in bread – in the sense of the staff of life, and we take the opportunity to inject a little yeast into the life of staff while we’re at it. (Is that too many dough puns, or am I off the hook?)

For most of us, a beautiful fresh loaf is something we admire, but at best it’s something we buy in a supermarket. Gillian Folds The BabyAs Elaine pointed out, fresh from her recent cookery school day at The Bertinet Kitchen, most of the supermarket bread we buy is also full of additives, preservatives and all sorts of other “–ives” that might make it last longer, but possibly don’t make keeping it around any more enticing. Proper bread, on the other hand, contains four ingredients – flour, water (at body temperature please, no hotter or cooler), yeast (preferably the live variety) and salt. Some variations contain olive oil, and you can add your own flavourings – we got liberal with the sun-dried tomatoes and parmesan – but no little sachets of anything with a name like a National Insurance number were snuck into the mixture.

Real bread, as we discovered, isn’t about ‘back to basics’ so much as ‘back to doing it right’. Punning aside, no hooks are involved – the dough is worked entirely by hand. Nor is there any extra flour, scattered wildly over every available flat surface, nor a rolling pin – nor any kneading. There are a few basic ground rules to observe – don’t mix the salt and the yeast together before adding to the flour (salt kills live yeast like health & safety memos kill a party atmosphere: instantly), don’t knock back the dough violently after it’s been left to rest – but the process is quick, easy and surprisingly un-strenuous.

Gillian, Yvonne and DianeAs you can see from the photos, several of us bravely rolled up a sleeve, washed our hands and got stuck in. Another important lesson was one Douglas Adams’ fans will recall: Don’t Panic!! The initial dough, after you’ve mixed your ingredients, will seem very wet and sloppy. All is, however, well. Move the mixture around a clean, dry, flat surface with the rounded end of your dough scraper for a few minutes – ‘take your dough for a walk’ was the phrase (and had nothing to with Sarah Jessica Parker or investment advice) – and it will start to look like … well, a ball of dough.

Ainsley and LindaAnd there was another simple technique: lift up one end of the dough till it all leaves the table, allow it stretch down under its own weight, lay the loose end down again, fold over the remainder and wrap the excess round to the sides, before the next short bout of scraper action. (We flirted with the metaphor of lifting a baby up under its arms till we realised that folding the baby in half was a rather disturbing mental image!)

Within ten minutes, a group of novices had turned four simple ingredients in a lovely looking ball of firm but elastic dough. (Once you start working the dough, by the way, ‘the top’ must remain the top. Don’t be so brutal that you flip it over.) We promptly put it back in its bowl – topside uppermost – and covered it with a baking cloth. (Known to you and me as a tea towel.) After resting for an hour in a warm place, the emergency vehicle was fired up and Elaine sped off to her kitchen.

Hold the Olives!Quickly and gently flattened out with fingers, and shaped by making a few cuts with a very sharp knife (a blunt one won’t do, by the way), the rest of us sat by the office door trying not to drool while we awaited her return. (She’d also taken with her two trays of breadsticks with tomato and parmesan that we’d made ourselves under her watchful and helpful eye.)

Less than two hours after we’d gather in the kitchen to learn how to make bread, we were back together, tucking into – ok the, devouring – lovely warm fougasse and some very tasty breadsticks. Elaine had reminded us that learning is about making it interactive – and making it fun, we’d all learned a valuable new skill (there’s a bulk order for dough scraper and bread cloths being put together as I type), half the building had had a great team-building moment – and we got a cracking lunch too. And with an office as jam-packed (sorry) with foodies as this one, there’s a good chance many of us will be turning out fresh loaves by the end of the weekend. If being at school had been this much fun, I’d be lying about my age and trying to get back in …

There’ll be more about our Adult Learning Week activites coming soon on the blog, or you can follow us on Twitter for updates. For more about what everyone across the UK is up to, search for the #learningatworktoday hashtag on Twitter, or visit the Campaign for Learning’s Learning at Work Day website.

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