Breaking into bread with Liz Wilson

On my way to meet the owner of Ma Baker, I listened to the Boney M song of the same name, wondering if when I got to the door, I would be aggressively greeted with its opening lyrics: “Freeze, I’m Ma Baker, put your hands in the air and give me all your money.”

Instead, I was met by the warm Liz, who with open arms and a soft Australian accent, welcomed me into her beautiful home in Parsons Green, West London.

I was expecting this bakery school to be in a big industrial kitchen, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. The class takes place around Liz’s kitchen table – surrounded by photos of her family.

“I think that’s why the classes are popular,” says the mum of two. “You leave knowing you can replicate this all at home.” On every surface in sight sit awards for Liz’s creations.

“My buckwheat crackers have just won a Great Taste Award,” Liz proudly tells me. I wonder where she will find the room for it.

Breaking into bread

Standing around the kitchen table with two other novice bakers, our ingredients laid in front of us and our aprons on, Liz began to teach us all about bread.

“I did a bread course around six years ago, but I wasn’t expecting to fall in love with it as much as I have. I used to be a primary school teacher, and baking bread was just something I did for fun.”

It’s easy to see Liz’s previous career shine through – she is a natural teacher.

“Did you ever expect to be teaching people how to bake bread?”, I ask.

“It was the biggest shock of my life,” Liz laughs, “I love teaching because there is something so special about sharing something you love with other people.”

After she took her initial bread course, Liz volunteered in bakeries and schools to learn more, before baking for customers every Saturday and teaching bread classes herself for one day a month. Then, as her business grew, she went part-time at the school, before eventually deciding to “take bread full-time”.

Having to focus on one thing is really good, it's like mindfulness in dough

Breadmaking and stress busting

The first thing Liz taught us was how to make the perfect basic white dough, which we could use to make a loaf, some rolls and a focaccia. Priding myself on my amateur cake baking, I expected to take to bread naturally and confidently. As I looked down at my clay-like dough, I realised that just wasn’t going to happen.

“There will be no bread envy in this kitchen,” Liz says, but as she finished kneading her dough a good five minutes before the rest of us, I was rather envious. As I persevered, the dough eventually took its form, and we left it to rest in a bowl – topped with a shower cap, which she recommends for allowing the dough to prove.

One of the other bakers, a self-employed research consultant, said: “This would be great to do when you are working from home.” I agreed. Breadmaking can be therapeutic, and kneading can certainly be a way to release stress. I remarked to Liz that the stress of a late payment would do wonders to the dough. She replied: “Well, if people are paying you late, at least you will have something to eat.”

If you work from home, breadmaking is a fantastic way to break up the day.

“When you’re kneading the dough, your hands are entwined in the dough so you can’t answer the phone or reply to an email. Having to focus on one thing is really good, it’s like mindfulness in dough,” Liz says.

“Every time you revisit the dough it has changed a bit. Then, when you get it out of the oven you have a lovely loaf of bread to eat and your home will smell delicious.”

The white dough recipe is a four hour-long process, but you’re only actually doing anything for about 20 minutes of those four hours, making it the perfect way to break up the working day.

As our dough proved, we headed into the lounge, where we sat and enjoyed coffee with some of Liz’s homemade cookies. Liz talked us through the recipes and the science behind breadmaking, such as how sourdough is formed.

The rewards are worth the work

The more time I spent with Liz, the more I wished I lived next door.

“I make bread to order in the week and deliver it around the local area. One lady likes hers without salt, so I make sure she has a special batch,” she adds.

As our white dough rose, we stopped for lunch. Liz provided a generous spread of cheese, chutneys and, of course, some of the bread we had just made. There is nothing quite like the satisfaction of eating something you have just made from scratch.

After lunch, we headed back into the kitchen to form our white dough into a loaf, some rolls and a focaccia. The focaccia was a highlight – so easy to make and delicious.

“A lot of people who go on my weekday courses are self-employed, because they have that flexibility,” Liz says, and quite rightly as both the other women there were freelancers.

“This is why you work as hard as you do as a freelancer: so you can come and do fun things like make bread in the middle of the day.

“It also gives you the chance to see how other people work. I have had people who meet on a course and come back and do another class again together.”

Speaking of self-employment, how did Liz find the transition from employment to working independently?

“I had to do a lot of learning. I have probably never worked harder, but I’ve also never been happier,” Liz smiles.

“I get to work from home, which means my kids always know where I am, and if I want to stop, I can just shut this down, go away for a few weeks, and reopen when I come back. I don’t have the worry about premises, or having people work for me. I have that lovely flexibility.”

Liz clearly works hard, but the flexible attitude she has towards her work is reassuring, and it’s clear that her role as a mum is never far from what she does.