Real bread, red bread

Sliced, morning sun

The expression “the best thing since sliced bread” is profoundly ironic. Grain is packed with nutrients, but plastic wrapped sliced “bread” is generally made with flour that’s been ground with hot steel rollers, which damage and degrade the nutrients, and then baked with the Chorleywood Bread Process (CBP), a heinously misguided mechanisation of the bread-making process developed in England in the 1950s.

All that sliced, plastic-wrapped pseudo-bread they sell in supermarkets and cornershops is CBP product. It’s not bread. It’s an insult to bakers, to our baking heritage, to the farmers who husbanded grain over the centuries. It’s an insult to our constitutions.

And yet the CBP “is responsible for over 80% of the bread [sic] produced in the UK and is used in every corner of the world.”

One of the reasons the CBP was developed and became so dominant was because the British population grew so fast in the industrial revolution we couldn’t grow all our own grain, and became reliant on shipments, especially from parts of the then British empire, notably Canada, as well as the US. Since the late 19th century, British bakers also began to prefer using the harder, higher protein wheats grown in such places.

A story, or myth
I’d always been lead to believe that the CBP was developed as two world wars, and a dependence on shipped grain, had seriously compromised British food security. The scientists at the British Baking Industries Research Association at Chorleywood wanted to both mechanise the bread-making process, making it faster (perhaps their greatest folly, see below) and wanted to be able to ease reliance on higher protein foreign wheats. They wanted to make bread again from the soft, lower protein wheats we could grow in Britain.

Flour

Or at least, that was the story. It’s one that’s regularly trotted out, such here, on the site of one of Britain’s biggest organic flour brands. But last weekend I bought a bag of flour from the market stall of Imbhams Farm Granary. It was their latest batch of wheat flour, called Surrey Red Strong Bread Flour. (It’s called red because of pigments in the bran.) It was grown in Surrey, about 50 miles from Lewes, stone-ground to retain the nutrients at a mill a mile from the fields and, notably, very high in protein.

Surrey strong info

The info sheet said 17%, James Halfhide of Imbhams quoted a figure slightly higher, and said it would be even higher if they sifted more of the bran out to make a lighter coloured, less wholegrain flour. For comparison, low protein plain or all-purpose flour might be 10-12%, strong bread flour about 13% plus.

It’s Barlow wheat, a hard spring wheat developed recently* in North Dakota in the US, but James said it grew very well here, especially in the excellent 2013 season. Which quite shocked me, after years of hearing the story – nay myth – that British wheat means low protein.

Wholesomely wholegrain
Although I like and make all sorts of bread, as the Imbhams farm flour is so wholesomely branny – and wheat bran is a great source of fibre, fatty acids, iron and other minerals and vitamins – I wanted to make a 100% wholegrain bread. I also wanted to reduce the amount of yeast I usually use (10g to 500g of flour, or 2%, to about 6g to 500g of flour, or 1.2%) and do a longer fermentation – that all-important factor of bread production that the CBP neglects. Wheat needs long fermentation to be fully digestible – this whole rushed factor with CBP is the main reason so many people say they have dietary problems with wheat-based products these days.

Bread and butter

Wholegrain red wheat bread
500g Surrey Red strong bread flour or similar strong wholegrain wheat flour
350g tepid water
6g fresh yeast (so use about 3g instant/easyblend, 4g granular/ADY)
10g fine salt

This is all you need to make real bread – these four ingredients. Indeed, arguably, you don’t even need commercial yeast, you could just cultivate your own leaven with flour and water and wild yeasts.

1. Dissolve the yeast in the water.
2. Put the flour and salt in a large bowl.
3. Add the yeasty water.
4. Bring together a dough.
5. Knead briefly then form a ball and leave to rest in the bowl, covered with a shower cap or cloth.
6. After 10 minutes, knead briefly again.
7. Rest, covered for another 10 minutes then knead briefly again.
8. Repeat this once or twice more.
9. Put the ball of dough back in the bowl, cover and leave to prove in a cool place. I gave mine a turn (that is, stretched and folded it) after an hour or so, then put it in the fridge for about 10 hours.
10. Remove from the fridge, form a ball, then rest for another 10 minutes.
11. Form a baton shape and put in a tin.
12. Give it a final prove, until about doubled in size and ready to bake. This is where mine went a big wrong (see below).
13. Bake at 220C for about 15 minutes then turn down to 200C and bake for another 25 minutes.
14. Remove the loaf from the tin. Tap the bottom – you want it to sound hollow. If you get a bit of a dull thud, put it back in the oven for another 10 minutes without the tin.
15. Remove and leave to cool – to allow the interior to finish its baking process – on a wire racking.

So yes, I goofed slightly with the final prove, step 12. I left it a little long in the airing cupboard at about 24C, overproving it so that it deflated when I slashed the top and I didn’t get a nice oven-spring (that is, the final burst of yeast activity and dough growth when you put it in the oven).

Proved. Over proved

Deciding when the dough has proved enough and is ready to bake can be tricky. Many people say the to test is gently prod the dough and see if the indentation remains, but I’m not convinced by this, as it might indicate the dough is over-proved and the gluten structure is collapsing slightly. I think it’s better if your prod marks slow re-inflate. It’s not an exact science though and every dough is different, especially with different flours. There’s a good discussion here.

I might have been disappointed with the over-proving and lack of oven spring, but it’s still good stuff. Hearty and slightly nutty. It went very well with a tasty a soup (gurnard, smoked paprika – yum) I made for dinner last night and with Marmite for breakfast. And, compared to how sick, how utterly sullied, you might feel after eating a CBP product, I felt thoroughly brimming with nutrients after eating this.**

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Lardy Johns and the simple pleasures of pig fat-based baked goods

Johns on plate

Here’s another traditional Sussex product that doesn’t really seem to exist any longer. Much like the Sussex plum heavies I did a month ago I’ve never seen the superbly named Lardy Johns in bakeries, and there’s very little information about them online. Also much like plum heavies they sit on the fruit pastry-scone spectrum and utilise that more old-fashioned baking fat: lard.

This recipe is from ‘Sussex Recipe Book With a few excursions into Kent’, a collection of traditional recipes by Margaret Samuelson, published in 1937. Some are her own or her family, many are gathered from interviews, while others are from 18th and 19th century sources.

The book doesn’t provide the source for the Lardy Johns recipe, which is given in the following wonderfully abrupt format: “Quarter pound flour, 2oz lard, 3/4 teaspoonful baking powder, 2 teaspoons sugar and a sprinkling of currants. Rub all together in your hands, and add enough water to make a stiff paste. Cut the paste into squares and bake for about 10 minutes.”

Putting that into a modern recipe format:
120g plain flour
3/4 t baking powder
60g lard
12g sugar
25g currants
40g water – more or less

1. Sieve together the flour and baking powder.
2. Cut the lard into small pieces and rub into the flour.
3. Add the sugar. I used granulated, but caster would be fine while Demerara or other brown sugar would give a slightly richer flavour.
4. Add the currants.

Lardy mixture
5. Bring the dough together with water. It’s 40g, more or less – what Italian recipes would put as “QB” – quanto basta, “how much is enough”.
6. Roll the dough out about 12mm (half inch) thick.

Unbaked
7. Cut into squares of about 50mm (2 inches). This recipe produced six, so if you want more double it.
8. Bake in an oven preheated to 200C for about 10 minutes, until lightly browned.

Baked
9. Eat warm, or let them cool, split and eat like scones (skohn, skon) with jam.

Scone-style

These really are very basic. Ten minute jobs. Simple fare from an era before fancy fats and flavourings. But they are surprisingly good. Slightly sweet, with a texture that’s light, slightly crisp and shorter than you’d get with a crumblier scone, which is likely made with butter and/or buttermilk.

And discuss
In ‘English Bread and Yeast Cookery’, Elizabeth David says, “If you cannot lay hands on pure pork lard, don’t attempt lardy cakes.” Well, I’m not sure of the purity of the stuff I’m use. It’s certainly not pure in a moral sense, being a product of the heinous industrial meat industry, something I try as much as possible not to engage with. But as I said in the heavies post, it seems almost impossible to source lard of good provenance. I’ve asked one of the meat purveyors on our local farmers’ market if she could do me some lard, so hopefully that’ll come through.

My vegetarian younger self 10 or 20 years ago would be horrified, but I’m enjoying these lard baking experiments – never mind the fact that products like these are a big part of the English culinary heritage. David suggests lardy cakes were traditionally made when people didn’t have their own stove and would bulk bake once a week. She explains, “… all the lardy cakes, the yeast dumplings, the buns and small cakes … were made from any extra dough not used for bead.” She goes on to say, “For these lovely cakes and rolls, lard is essential to achieve the proper texture, richness and weight. There is no such thing as a really light lardy cake.”

This suggests the Lardy Johns recipe from Samuelson is fairly modern,  developed from the yeast dough recipes with the advent of baking powder – a 19th century invention. Interestingly, the more common surviving members of the English lardy cake family are yeasted. Central and southern English counties like Hampshire and Wiltshire are associated with lardy cake, and the Wikipedia entry says lardy cake is found in “in several southern counties of England”. David, however, also gives a recipe for a Northumbrian version that neatly defenestrates that anonymous Wikipedia contributor’s theory.

I would hazard that lard, and a bit of sugar, and a few currants, when combined with a basic dough, would have been used by poorer folk throughout Britain to make a treat through from the early modern era to the mid-20th century, when intensification of farming made butter more cheaply available. They’re modest treats, sure, but compared to the absurdity of the cupcake, and suchlike contemporary middle-class obsessions, they have an assertive honesty and simplicity.

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Burger buns with a twist

Beanburger with carrot and cumin bun

Over the past few years, the UK street food scene has improved markedly. Artisan producers, in part inspired by the US street food scene, have started producing real food from food trucks – a world away from the mechanically separated burgers, listeria buffets and industrial crap that has dominated here for so long.

The other day I was in Brighton and went to the Street Diner, a Friday street food market in Brighthelm Gardens, Queen Street, BN1. It started up exactly a year ago and is now operating Saturdays too I believe.

As well as various Asian and Middle Eastern-inspired food stalls, there was enough pulled pork, brisket and burgers to satisfy my carnaholic wife Fran and brother-in-law Al. No street food scene is complete without burgers of course. As much as I adore the form factor of a burger in a bun, I’m not a carnaholic, so went for something Middle Eastern. But the next day, back in Brighton to meet Fran, I thought she might be craving burger, so did some investigation into Brighton’s best.

Burgers in Brighton
This seems to be such an important subject, there’s even an entire blog dedicated to it (here). So yes, we couldn’t possibly hope to get to the bottom of the Brighton burger scene straight away, so just plumped for Troll’s Pantry. They’re one of the most established of Brighton’s burger outfits, emphasising a use of local ingredients and operating out of the Hobgoblin pub. Which is all well and good, but on a Saturday evening, the latter wasn’t exactly a joy. It felt just like some dodgy student pub from my uni years in the 1990s, stuck in grubby aspect. And even though they have half a dozen or so handpumps, most of them were off. Don’t they have any actually trained to change cask on their busiest night?

The burgers themselves were excellent though. They’re served, US-style, in a plastic basket and a brioche-style bun. Chips – or fries, if you must – extra. I had a veggie one, Gaea’s Bounty, that was tasty, and Fran said her beef job, the Imperial Swine, was excellent.

“All beef comes from Sussex conservation project, where the English Longhorn cattle lead a wholly natural lifestyle,” says the blurb on their site. “The beef is aged for 35 days before being ground into 100% steak patties.” So that at least compensated for the lame pub. Pity Troll’s Pantry can’t find a better place to ally with.

Brioche for breakfast not burgers
Anyway. The brioche thing. It’s had me scratching my head since I first encountered it in Rome, in a venue doing US-inspired burgers. I just can’t quite reconcile the use of brioche buns for burgers.

For me, brioche is quintessentially a breakfast bread. Enriched with egg, dairy and sugar, it lends itself to eating with jam, Nutella (god forbid), coffee and hot chocolate. I don’t get how it’s considered an appropriate partner for the salty, savoury experience that is burger patty and chips.

So when I wanted to make some bean burgers at home, I didn’t want to make brioche buns. I’ll save that for a weekend breakfast, thanks.

Good old Dan Lepard had a good option, a recipe in Short and Sweet, the book that collects his wonderful recipes from the Guardian. His burger bun involves carrot and cumin. And onion. And paprika. In the dough. Yes. Quite odd, perhaps, but it worked well.

In fact, the buns are, like brioche, made with dough enriched with milk, butter and egg. But rather than taking the dough into sweet, breakfast-appropriate territory, Dan takes it into savoury, burger-appropriate territory. With the addition of veg and spices.

If the addition of carrot sounds strange, just think how it helps make for delicious moist cakes. Dan, meanwhile, says, “The grated carrot and corn flour keeps these buns bouncy, soft and moist, helped by the hot oven and a short baking time.”

The original recipe can be found recipe here. The version in Short and Sweet is slightly differnt. Here’s my version,a tad tweaked.

100g milk
120g boiling water
15g fresh yeast
50g unsalted butter, melted
1 egg
100g carrot, finely grated
50g onion (ie a small-medium one), finely grated
500g strong white bread flour
50g cornflour (that’s cornstarch in American)
12g fine sea salt
1 t ground cumin
1 t paprika (I used smoked)
Water and sesame seeds to finish

Ingredients

1. Combine the boiling water and milk in a jug. You don’t want it too hot – if you have a thermometer, no more than body temp, or 37C.
2. Once it’s at a suitable temperature, crumble in the yeast.
3. Whisk the butter and egg into the liquid too.
4. Combine the flour, cornflour, salt and spices in a large bowl.
5. Add the liquid to the powders and bring to a dough.
6. Knead for a few minutes to clear (that is, bring it all together nicely), then leave, covered, for 10 minutes.
7. Give the dough another short knead, then leave for another 10 minutes and repeat. Do this once more.

Dough before proving
8. Form a ball then leave to prove in a covered bowl in a draught-free spot.

Dough after proving
9. When the dough has doubled in size – how long this takes will depend on the temperature of where you leave it – take it out of the bowl.
10. Divide into six pieces. My dough weighed just over a kilo, so each ball weighed about 184g. You could make bigger or small balls depending on what you’re doing with the buns – are you making massive burgers or small ones?
11. Form the pieces into balls, put them on a baking sheet lined with parchment, and leave to prove up again.

Buns before baking
12. Preheat your oven to 220C (200C fan).
13. When the balls are plumped up – the original recipe says “until risen by half” – brush the tops with water and sprinkle with seeds.
14. Bake for about 25 minutes, until nicely browned.

Buns after baking
15. Leave to cool completely.

We had ours with some bean burgers. I like making bean burgers – you can basically just chuck beans and some stodge and whatever flavours and leftovers you have into a food processor. I used butterbeans, some soffritoed onion and garlic, some bread, a bit of mashed potato, some of the wild garlic and nettle pesto I made a massive batch of after a foraging walk on Sunday.

I’m not going to get into veggie vs meat argument here, as obviously a bean burger is a very different proposition to a real meat burger, lacking that juicy, bloody fattiness. But, like a meat patty, bean burgers can exploit the same satisfying format of condiments (in this case mustardy mayo) and additons (cheese, gerkins) all combined inside a bun. The chips here were actually just made from roasting raw potatoes.

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Frappe, chiacchiare, cenci, angel wings – sweet deep-fried pasta treats

Plateful of frappe

One of the many things I’m missing about Rome is the pasticcerie – pastry bakeries, patisseries. Our old neighbourhood alone had four within about a hundred metres of each other, all independent, selling wonderful selections of handmade pastries. And what made these places a particular joy – for a baked goods geek like me – was watching their wares change over the seasons.

Particularly fun was the period of Carnevale, equivalent to our word carnival, and from the Latin to “take the meat away”. That is, stop eating meat for Lent, the period of Christian abstinence before Easter. In the Roman pasticcerie, Carnevale seemed to start pretty much immediately after Christmas and was heralded by the appearance of frappe and castagnole. For the two Carnevales we were in Rome, we indulged in these goodies extensively (check out here, here and here).

Plateful 2

Angelic chit-chat
I never tried making them though – there was little incentive when they were easily available. But now I’m home in Blighty, where proper handmade pastries aren’t quite so readily available. Plus, I was browsing Diana Henry’s book Roast Figs Sugar Snow and found her recipe for bugne ­– which are pretty much identical to frappe but from Lyon, France and take their name from the word beignet, another kind of sweet, dough fritter variable.

Bugne and frappe are simply deep-fried pieces of enriched, sweetened pastry or pasta dough* served dusted with icing sugar. Indeed, good ol’ Wikipedia – the dream of the internet incarnate – lumps bugne and frappe and may other similar international treats under the entry for “Angel wings”, which is presumably the US American English term, as I’ve not heard it in British English.

For me they’ll always be frappe as that was the name used in Rome, but even Italian has several other names for them, including cenci (“rags”) and chiacchiere (“chit-chat”).

So anyway, it’s technically Lent now, so I should have done this recipe a few weeks ago. But, well, I’m not religious and I just felt like some. Apologies to any devout Catholics who treat their seasonal gluttony proper seriously.

Frappe recipe

250g plain flour
1/2 t baking powder
30g caster sugar
Pinch of salt
Zest of half a lemon
25g butter, melted and cooled
2 eggs
1/2 t vanilla essence
1/2 T of liquor – grappa, brandy, rum, or whatever depending on your inclinations and what’s in your cabinet. We didn’t really have anything so I added a dash of vodka.
Oil for deep-frying (sunflower or similar)
Icing sugar for dusting

1. Sieve the flour and baking powder together into a bowl.
2. Add the pinch of salt.
3. Add the sugar and lemon zest.

Eggs
4. Lightly beat together the eggs, add the vanilla essence and liquor.
5. I could say “make a well in the centre….” but I’m not convinced you really need to worry about that unless you’re working directly on a work surface so simply add the egg mix into the flour mix.

Added together
6. Likewise add the melted butter.
Mixing

7. Bring together a dough. (You could do all this in a food processor, like making short-crust pastry, or in a mixer.)

Ready to roll
8. Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for a few minutes until smooth and well integrated.
9. Wrap in plastic and leave to rest for at least half an hour in a cool, draught-free place.
Rolled
10. Pin out the dough to about 1mm thick, maximum 2mm. You want them thin so they cook through and crisp up evenly. Ideally, roll it out with a pasta machine. We don’t have one.

Cut CU
11. Cut rectangles about 5 x 10cm. If you have one of those little pastry wheels that gives a crimpedety** cut, perfect.

Cuts
12. Cut two slices within the rectangle. The difference between frappe and bugne is in the cut, nominally. With the bugne, you cut one slice and fold the piece of dough in on itself.

Frying
13. Heat the oil (to about 170C) then deep-fry the dough pieces a few at a time, until golden.

Cooling
14. Take out and put on some kitchen paper to absorb some of the fat.
15. When cool, arrange on a plate and dust liberally with icing sugar.

With hot choc
16. Enjoy, perhaps with a nice rich cup of quality hot chocolate.

After our record winter rains, we had a warm, sunny, dry March, very much spring. But now it’s turned cool and wet again, so I think we can do a bit more hot chocolate drinking before it gets too balmy to really enjoy that most delightful of hot drink. Current hot chocolate of choice is still Montezuma’s Dark, but local coffee-grinders Jaju also sell a very fine Columbia hot chocolate.

I found it very hard to stop eating these last night. So it’s probably better if I don’t make them too frequently.

 

 

* This dish really highlights the fine line between pastry and pasta.
** I am aware this is not a real word.

 

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Le Creuset-baked sourdough

Sourdough baked in Le Creset, straight out of the oven

This is a technique I’ve been wanting to try for ages. Since last year, in fact, when still living in Rome. There, I encountered the blog of another ex-pat baking enthusiast, Krumkaker. She made several of her loaves in a casserole dish. It’s also a technique demonstrated by the ever-enthusiastic Vincent Talleu here.

I didn’t have my Le Creuset, or similar, with me while living in Rome, but now I’m home, I’ve found it. (Though we’ve lost a load of other baking kit in our double move. Particularly sad is the loss of an Eiffel Tower-shaped cake mould Fran bought in Paris with our dearly missed late friend Sara.)

Anyway. I’m not sure baking in a cast iron casserole, or Dutch oven, or Le Creuset, is a Scandinavian technique. It’s likely something that just evolved before Europeans had ovens, and would bake in pots, initially earthenware.

Cracks

On the road
The only other time I baked in a Dutch oven was in New Zealand, 1989, when I was on the road with my old friend Stephen McGrath, his Clydesdale horses and an elaborate caravan of wagons and carts. I made an enormous, heavy-duty loaf in a massive Dutch oven, baking it in the embers of our campfire.

Me driving wagon through Westport, New Zealand, 1989

The logic of baking in a casserole dish is that the cast iron is not only nice and hot – you preheat it – it also traps the moisture of the dough, effectively steaming the bread as it bakes.

Steam is how you get a crisp crust on bread, and can be difficult to create in a domestic oven. Professional baking ovens have steam injectors, but domestic techniques using misting sprays or trays of water are never quite as good. I can’t remember the qualities of my campfire loaf all those years ago (25!!!), but certainly this loaf has a lovely crust – though it wasn’t the crispest I’ve managed over the years in a domestic oven.

It also has a very satisfying shape, and the dish constrains any dough flow if I hadn’t moulded the ball well enough. (I hate it when I make a round free-form loaf, forming the dough into a ball, then it flows out into a discuss shape when it take it out of the proving basket; shaping nice tight balls can be surprisingly tricky.)

My leaven / sourdough starter, healthy again

Rude health
This loaf is also my first sourdough for a while. Although I’ve been making most of my own bread since we got back to England at Christmas, I’ve been neglecting my leaven somewhat.

Now about five years old, my leaven is well-travelled and much changed. It was born in London, then moved to Sussex, then it moved to Italy with us. There, it was fed on many and varied Italian flours – wheat, rye and various things referred to by the much misunderstood term farro.

Then it moved back to Britain. And I abandoned it for a few months. While we visited friends and family in the US and NZ, the sourdough lodged with my mother. Who’s a great cook, but not a bread-maker – she’s doesn’t make bread with easy yeast, let alone have any experience with sourdough.

So the past few months I’ve been nursing it back to health. I fed it rye, and local stoneground wheat flour, and filtered water. Finally I introduced some other leaven, from third generation baker Michael Hanson of The Hearth in Lewes. This could be seen as cheating, but I see it more like a kind of marriage. The yeasts and bacteria in my (puny) leaven mixing with those in Michael’s leaven. And after weeks of TLC, it’s finally back in rude health.

Mad science
As with much of my bread-making, this is kinda experimental, not a recipe as such.

I made a sponge with:
300g water
80g wholewheat leaven (at 100% hydration)
200g strong white bread flour
All mixed together, and left, covered with a shower cap – another technique I learned from Krumkaker.

I left it all day, for about seven hours, while I went off and worked in The Hearth.

In the evening, I made up a dough, with a further:
100g white bread flour
150g wholemeal wheat flour
10g salt.

I gave it a short knead, formed a ball, then let it rest for about 10 minutes. I then gave it another short knead, another 10 minute rest, and repeated this a few more times. I then left it an hour, at room temp (about 18C). I then gave it a fold then put it back in the bowl, covered it, and left it in the fridge overnight (4C).

Dough

In the morning, I gave it another fold, resting it at room temp for another hour, then formed a ball, rested it 10 minutes, tightened up the ball, then put it in a basked and gave it a final prove in the airing cupboard (about 24C).

Final prove

I then preheated the oven to 250C, with the Le Creuset inside. After about 20 minutes, with the oven at heat, I turned the well-floured dough out of the proving basket and dropped it into the hot dish – taking care not to roast my knuckles. I didn’t slash the top -  because I wanted to see how it cracked. Or because I forgot.

Before baking

The lid went back on and I baked it for about 25 minutes at 220C. I then took off the lid, dropped the temperature again to 200C, and baked for another 20 minutes or so.

Cut

The results were good. The crust is more chewy than crisp, the crumb soft and moist. We had some for dinner, when I did wood pigeon breasts with a pancetta, thyme and juniper berry red wine sauce. We didn’t eat all the meat, so Fran used the leftovers for a sandwich for work, with a smear of wild garlic sauce. I bet no one else had that posh flavour combo sarnie* for their work lunch today.

Sandwich

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* Any US readers, “sarnie” is British English – possibly even English English – slang for sandwich.

 

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Brazil nut, maple and white chocolate blondies

White chocolate maple Brazil nut blondies

If you’re a baking obsessive and have a bit of a sweet tooth, you’ll know that feeling when you just have to have something sweet and homemade in the house. Call it a sugar addiction, but I prefer to think of it as enthusiasm. (I’m not allowed to say I’m passionate about it though, as that’s Fran’s linguistic bugbear du jour.)

The other day, I was heading home, thinking, Damn, we’ve eaten all the last batch of cookies. I fancied something chocolately, and while some chocolate cookies are quick to knock out and conventional brownies are  easy to make (I normally use a no-nonsense Stephanie Alexander recipe I’ll post here one of these days), I thought I’d veer towards blondies instead.

For those who haven’t encountered them before, blondies are like brownies – a gooey, sweet, tray-bake – but are light in colour and flavoured more by the sugar (something rich like Demerara), and not by cocoa and dark chocolate.

White chocolate maple Brazil nut blondies

Here’s what I came up with.

75g unsalted butter
100g Demerara sugar
80g maple syrup
75g plain flour
1 t baking powder
2 eggs
1 t vanilla essence
100g brazil nuts
100g white chocolate

1. Preheat the oven 180C (160F fan).
2. Grease and line a square or rectangular baking tin. I used a 22cm square.
3. Melt together the butter and sugar, until the latter is starting to dissolve.
4. Add the maple syrup to the butter and sugar and remove from heat.
5. Sieve together the flour and baking powder.
6. Beat the sugar-butter mixture into the flour.
7. Beat the eggs and vanilla into the mixture.
8. Coarsely chop the nuts and white chocolate and stir into the mixture.
9. Pour the mixture into the baking tin and smooth.
10. Bake for about 20 minutes. As with brownies, you don’t want to over-bake blondies, you want them to retain some moisture and squidge. Exact cooking time will depend on your oven.

 

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Thornbridge acronym ale taste test

Thornbridge's Jaipur and Chiron

Very pleasant, somewhat flying visit to Sheffield over the weekend to visit friends, and celebrate a Big Birthday. Said birthday celebrations took place in the Beauchief Hotel, which serves Thornbridge beers. Andrew Drinkwater over at Andrew Drinks classifies Thornbridge as a “big regionals” along with Adnams, and presumably Harveys down here in Sussex.

I talked a fair bit about Thornbridge over here, back when I encountered their Tzara, a Kölsch-style beer at the Cut Bar in London.  It was really good to have a chance to try more of their range though.

Long boozy lunch
It’s said that long, long, rambling, amiable lunches are a more Mediterranean thing, but we – about 40 Brits – managed to do about five hours of eating and drinking and chatting. During this time, I mostly drank Thornbridge’s Lord Marples, a 4%, fairly dark British cask bitter that was toffee apple, slightly spicy, a great winter drink. Yes, it’s been hot for March the past few weeks in England, but it was cool and rainy again on this particular Saturday.

A vs I
I tried several other Thornbridge ales, with the most interesting test being a comparison between their mutli-award-winning Jaipur and Chiron (both from kegs). The former is a 5.9% IPA, the latter a 5% APA. It’s a shame the bar didn’t also have Thornbridge’s Kipling “South Pacific Pale Ale” and Halcyon (“Imperial IPA” – ie stronger) to complete the journey through closely related, hoppy ales.

Two was good though, with the IPA being a classic 19th century style of English ale, now highly influenced by APA, an American style of ale that emerged in the 1970s as arguably an evolution of the IPA, or more specifically as an evolution on American IPA. So what we had here was a modern English take on an older English style of ale, and a British take on a related style of American ale. Broadly, you could say a more traditional, English IPA was defined by its inclusion of English hops, with their subtle, dry, bitter flavours. Jaipur, however, is made with a range of American hops, and as such had a bigger, more overt citrussy flavour along with its crispness.

Yes, but…
The Chiron is bigger though, more aromatic, tangier, more fruity, with more citrus, pine, passionfruit in both the aroma and the taste, as you’d expert from an actual US APA. Both delicious. But I do wonder why Thornbridge call the Jaipur an IPA when it’s so heavily influenced by APA you could just as easily market it as an (English) APA.

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Our friend yeast

Unproved bread dough

Proved bread dough

It doesn’t matter how many times I make bread, I always find the rising, the leavening, of dough enormously pleasing. The quiet industry of yeast it nothing short of a wonder, and our relationship with it remarkable.

Yeast is a microscopic type of fungus. Of course, “yeast” in the baking and brewing senses refers to a varieties of different species of yeast. Predominantly, however, bakers’ yeast is a strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae. The main yeast used in brewing is also a strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae. It’s also a key player in winemaking.

Some etymology
Myco is the Greek for fungus (with mycology the discipline of studying fungus). Saccharo, like saccharine, is also from the Greek, for sugar. So Saccharomyces means sugar-fungus.

Cerevisiae is generally translated as meaning “of beer”, but to go a little deeper, it’s presumably related to Ceres, the Roman goddess of grain, agriculture, and fertility, and the origin of our word “cereal”. (Ceres is also the name of a yucky strong Danish lager much loved by undiscerning Italians, but we won’t go into that.)

Cerevisia / cervisia means “beer” in Latin, and is the origin of the Spanish cerveza and even the obscure Italian word cervogia. Indeed, struggling through an Italian etymological dictionary, the vis is the Latin for “force” or “strength”, so the Latin name for beer seems to literally mean “the drink containing the strength of cereal”.

This is one of those many occasions when I wished I’d studied Latin. I went to a flippin’ Catholic school for crying out loud, but we didn’t do Latin!

Anyway, for most of humanity’s long history of bread-making and brewing, we were oblivious not just to the specific strains of yeast, but even to the whole concept of microorganisms. And yet there they were, helping us access the nutritional qualities of grain through the millennia. Yeast was first observed in 1680, but not recognised as a living thing. Louis Pasteur identified yeast as the cause of alcoholic fermentation in 1857 and the cause of dough inflating a few years later.

Even today, there’s plenty of disagreement about certain aspects of the nature of yeast: according to various figures, in a single gram of yeast, for baking or brewing, there are between 8 and 20 billion cells.

Oh, and after all that Latin and Greek, the word yeast itself is from the Old English gist/gyst, with very similar words in other northern European languages and, it seems, a Sanskrit root – yásati, meaning “(to) boil” or “to bubble”

Fungus fun for all the family
So thanks yeast. Or yeasts, as it’s not just S. cerevisiae. Other Saccharomyces are used in the production of food and drink, such as S. pastorianus (the hybrid strain used for bottom-fermenting lagers and pilsners; formerly known as S. carlsbergensis), S. bayanus and S. uvarum.

Then there’s the whole Brettanomyces genus. This name means “British yeast” and was so-named during investigations into English ales at the Danish Carlsberg brewery in the early 20th century. B. bruxellensis is an essential element in the production of Belgian Lambics and related sour beers.

Then there are other genera like Kazachstania, with K. exigua, found in sourdough cultures and olive brine. Heck, even the Candida genus comes into play. Yes, C. humilis, a yeast from the genus responsible for a lot of fungal infection, and even wine spoilage, is considered the “dominant species” for the production of some sourdoughs.

I like dogs, but with their invaluable services in the production of staple food and drink, to leavening bread doughs and fermenting alcohols, perhaps these yeasts have a better claim to being man’s* best friend(s).

 

 

* Sorry, inherently sexist language. Can’t really sidestep this by putting mankind’s or humanity’s either.

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A pond pudding – Sussex or otherwise

Sussex pond pudding with clotted cream

This was the first nominally, specifically Sussex-in-origin recipe I tried, years ago, when I first bought the ‘The Pudding Club Cookbook’* by Keith and Jean Turner.

In their intro to the recipe (I do like a bit of blurb), the Turners say “Some brisk correspondence exists in the archives over this pudding. Purists declare the edition of a lemon to be the ‘twentieth-century whim of a seriously misguided cook,’ and furthermore ‘the pudding dating from the seventeenth century is served with roast Southdown lamb, and the pudding crust dotted with currants, the centre oozing with butter and sugar’.”

Further variables are recorded. The version in Hannah Woolley’s ‘The Queen-Like Closet’ (1672) has it made with a whole apple inside instead. Certainly apples would have been easier to source, and afford, for many 17th century cooks.

MK Samuelson’s ‘The Sussex Recipe Book With a Few Excursions into Kent’ (originally published 1937, reprinted 2005) does corroborate that the recipe was made without lemon and with currants. Ditto Florence White’s ‘Good Things In England’ (originally 1932), which lists another recipe early 20th century version that involved currants and no lemon. Though the inclusion of currants was vehemently denied by a Wikipedia contributor who said this made it a Kentish pond pudding. (I’ve revised that Wikipedia page.) The lemon seemed to arrive in the recipe in the mid-20th century, with some crediting it to Jane Grigson’s ‘English Food’ (published 1974). “The genius of the pudding is the lemon,” which would be fairly immodest if it was her innovation.

Such is the nature of debate about historical recipes. And, as I’ve said before, surely any dish is going to be mutable depending on season, availability, what’s in your cupboard, what your family prefers, what your family can afford, how your granny did it, etc.

Pond pudding - flour and suet

A pond of sugar and butter
Suffice to say, the word “pudding” traditionally referred to boiled items that, in Medieval cooking, could feature dried fruits, meats, spices, sugar and spices. This hybrid of flavours isn’t common in English cooking these days though I discussed the whole relationship between pudding and sausages, etc, over here.

Retaining the legacy of meat products in puddings, the fat used for the pastry or dough of  English puddings of a say 19th century and later traditional, when they had evolved into something sweet, was likely suet. Suet is raw animal fat from around the kidneys of cow or, less commonly, sheep.

These days a pond pudding is most likely to be sweet. I would say that what defines a pond pudding is an oozing of buttery sugary sauce, which gestates inside the crust while the dish is steaming and streams out when the pudding is upturned and cut for serving. The Samuelson recipe calls for 1/2 lb (225g) to 1/2 lb of Demerara sugar. I’ve used a little less.

Sussex pond pudding lemon and skewer

Recipe
250g self-raising flour
Pinch of salt
120g shredded suet**
140ml milk and water, mixed. Don’t worry too much about the proportions.
120g butter
120g Demerara sugar
1 lemon

1. Grease a 1 litre (2 pint) pudding basin. The original recipe called for a 2 1/2-3 pint basin, but I found this too big.
2. Sieve the flour and add the pinch of salt.
3. Add the suet to the flour, then bring to a dough, using a knife, by slowly adding the milk and water mix. Don’t add too much, as you don’t want a sticky dough.
4. Turn out the dough and work to bring together into a ball.
5. Roll out the dough to about 6-8mm thick, in a roughly circular shape.
6. Cut a quarter out of the dough, and form this back into another small ball.
7. Line the basin with the 3/4 portion of dough, bringing the edges together and sealing them using a little more of the milk and water mix, or just water.

Sussex pond pudding, butter and sugar
8. Cut the butter into small cubes, and mix with the Demerara.
9. Put half the butter and sugar mix in the basin.
10. Prick the lemon all over with a large skewer then put this in the basin.
11. Cover the lemon with the rest of the butter and sugar mix.

Sussex pond pudding
12. Roll out the final portion of dough and use it to create a lid, closing up the sides, again, dampened with some milk and water or water.
13. Cover the dish tightly. I generally do this with foil, with a pleat in it, though you can use baking parchment, and tie it off.
14. Steam the dish for about 3 hours. I do this in the top of a vegetable steamer, but you can also sit the dish directly in simmering water in a large saucepan. Make sure the saucepan doesn’t boil dry.
15. When cooked, remove the cover and turn the dish out onto a plate with enough of a rim to collect all the butter lemon sauce that flows out.
16. Serve with cream, ice cream or custard. We had clotted cream.

Pond pudding, before steamingPond pudding, after steaming

Apparently, Heston Blumenthal was inspired by this type of pond-pudding-with-a-lemon-inside to create a Christmas pudding with an orange inside. I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t do this recipe with an orange inside either. Or indeed add currants to the crust paste. As long as it gushes butter and sugar, you’ll have your own bespoke pond pudding.

Sussex pond pudding

* The Pudding Club, “‌est. 1985”. Their recipe book was revised in 2012 and is now published as Great British Puddings. Strangely there’s a maternity-wear brand that’s nicked the same name, muddling the British desert curator’s Google viability. Ma dai! Come on! Give over!

** I do eat some meat, but only good quality local, free range products. So here I used vegetable fat suet as I’m struggling to find good quality, non-industrial versions of both suet, and lard, as used in my previous recipe. It’s funny, as the real food movement, and all us (middle-class) consumers, have made sure good quality, free range and/or organic meats are commonplace these days, but lard or suet from well-husbanded animals is less available. Strange really, as you’d think if a farm was rearing free range pigs, it’d have some free range lard. Ditto farms with well husbanded cows – what happens to all that kidney fat? Of course using vegetable fat suet is also ethically problematic as it likely contains some portion of palm oil, and palm oil is notorious for being grown on plantations created in cleared and burned tropical rainforest, one of planet earth’s most important types of ecosystem.

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Sussex plum heavies

Sussex heavies, plum heavies

Seeing some Eccles cakes in Lewes got me thinking. Lewes, SE England, is a long way from the Eccles cake’s origins: Eccles, in Greater Manchester (and formerly Lancashire), NW England.

Why have these small cakes, made with flaky pastry and a currant filling, become commonplace in England when so many other traditional, regional products are virtually forgotten? After all, there’s nothing terribly unique about a product made with flour, sugar, fat and dried fruit. Indeed, other variables not unlike the Eccles cake include the Banbury cake* (Oxfordshire), the Chorley cake (Lancashire) and even the Cornish heavy, which has a distinctive criss-cross pattern on top. Furthermore, surely there’s a Sussex equivalent?

A quick Google lead me to Sussex heavies, aka (as I understand it) plum heavies. Which may once have been made with dried plums (prunes) but seem to have evolved into yet another variation the small curranty pastry-cake.

I’ve never seen these in a bakery, in Sussex or elsewhere. Maybe some places still make them, but I doubt it – a Google image search for “plum heavies” brings up just one relevant image, from the enigmatic Recipewise.co.uk. If they were more of them out there, I’m sure today’s baking enthusiast foodie bloggers would have posted more about them.

Fat and flour

Pastry archaeology
So investigating them is a form of archaeology. Reading about them and planning a recipe is like an archaeologist looking at bones and fabric scraps and trying to envisage what the person must have looked like. You can’t ever be sure, and any idea that what I’m doing here is “authentic” is a bit silly.

It’s particularly tricky in this case as there seem to be various different interpretations. Such diversity is not unusual with any traditional recipe of course, but quite often, as with Eccles cakes, the simple fact of their popularity, and their larger-scale production, means they have become more standardised.

Flour, fat, currants, sugar

Elizabeth David’s ‘English Bread and Yeast Cookery’ put me on to another book called  ‘Sussex Recipe Book, with a Few Excursions into Kent’ by MK Samuelson. Although originally published in 1937, I’ve acquired a 2005 reprint. It contains two different recipes, acquired from a pair of 1930s Sussex ladies, one for “Sussex plum heavies” and one for “Plum heavies”. The former is simply “dough”, lard, currants and brown sugar worked together and formed into buns. The latter is much more like a scone, with lard and butter rubbed into flour, with sugar and raisins added, and a dough formed with milk. They’re rolled, cut into rounds, brushed with milk and baked.

“You have got plum-heavies for tea”

Other information suggests heavies were snacks for outdoor workers like famers and shepherds, as well as for children. Recipewise says “they were also commonly given out at Halloween to trick or treaters”, but I’m dubious. Trick or treating wasn’t a widespread English activity before recent commercial cash-ins on the US tradition (though arguably that had its origins in Celtic culture).

Recipewise does quote another nice source though, an 1875 Lewes publication with the wonderfully Victorian title of ‘A dictionary of the Sussex dialect and collection of provincialisms in use in the county of Sussex’ by Rev.WD Parish, vicar of Selmeston, Sussex. The full text includes this definition of the plum heavy: “A small round cake made of pie-crust, with raisins or currants in it.” It also includes this anecdote: “Dr JC Sanger, of Seaford [Sussex], when Government Surgeon at the Cape of Good Hope, was sent for to see an English settler. Reaching the house at tea-time, he joined the family at their meal, and on sitting down to the table he said, ‘You come from Sussex.’ ‘ Yes,’ was the answer, ‘from Horse-mouncies (Hurstmonceux), but how did you know that?’ ‘Because you have got plum-heavies for tea,’ said the doctor, ‘which I never saw but when I have been visiting in Sussex.’” (p88).

Sussex heavies, plum heavies

Anyway, all sources online agree they were called heavies as they were dense concoctions made with plain flour, quite possibly in the form of leftover scraps of pastry. In some modern recipes they’re more like a scone, in others more like an Eccles cake, with the paste given extra flakiness by the use of lard ­– a key cooking fat in traditional English baked goods, despite how out of fashion it may be now. I found a few recipes that even involved some basic lamination. So that’s what I’ve based mine on. And I’ve used self-raising flour, to make them slightly less heavy heavies.

Recipe

225g self-raising flour
1/4 t salt
85g lard
85g butter [170g fat, total]
100g currants
50g soft brown sugar
100g milk, QB
Beaten egg to glaze

Method
1. Sift together the flour and salt.
2. Cut the fats into small pieces, or even grate it coarsely.
3. Rub 50g of the fat into the flour.
4. Add the currants and sugar and, using a palette knife, bring together with milk. Don’t pour all the milk in at once – use just enough to combine. What Italian recipes call QB, quanto basta, “how much is enough”.
5. Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead lightly. Like with pastry, if you overwork the dough, it’ll toughen up.
6. Form a rough slab and roll it out to form a rectangle about 30 by 12 cm.

Rolling out
7. Flake one-third of the remaining fat (40g) over the bottom two-thirds of the dough.

Adding fat
8. Fold the un-fatty top third down onto the fatty middle third, then fold the fatty bottom third up.

First fold
9. Rotate 90 degrees then roll out again to about the same size and repeat the process with another 40g of fat.

Second fold
10. Give it one final fold in the same way with the last 40g of fat.
11. Wrap the dough in plastic and leave to rest in the fridge of about 45 minutes. More won’t hurt.
12. Preheat the oven to 200C (180C fan).
13. Roll out the dough about 6mm thick
14. Cut out 6.5cm rounds. (Or whatever size round cutter you have. This is all I could find. Lost loads of kitchen stuff in our double house move, including a large portion of Fran’s cookie cutter collection. *weep*.)

Cutting rounds
15. Place on baking sheets (greased or lined with parchment) and brush with beaten egg. Or milk, which is easier.

Before baking
16. Gather the scraps and roll out again. Cut more rounds, until you’ve used all the dough.
17. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until a nice golden brown.

Baked
18. Cool on a wire rack.

This recipe, with a 6.5cm cutter, produced about 14 rounds, then another 8 or so from the scraps. The ones made from the scraps rerolled have a slightly different consistency. The first rolling retains the lamination, but recombining then re-rolling the scraps mean it will be shredded. These ones, however, are probably more like the historical Victorian Sussex heavies, simply made with pastry scraps, some fruit and a sprinkle of sugar. Both are yummy, short, flaky and not too sweet.

Sussex heavies

A very enjoyable bit of food archaeology. Now I just wish some 90-year-old Sussex native would see this and reply with a description of the real things they ate as kids.

 

 

 

 

 

* The April 2014 issue of ‘Great British Food’ magazine has this intriguing story: “It’s possible that the recipe for Banbury cakes was brought to England by crusaders in the 12th century – a similar type of cake is known to have existed in Syria at the time, and the soldiers would have been able to acquire dried fruit and spices at a reasonable prices.” It’s a credible theory, as Midle Eastern delights like baklava and ma’amoul are in the same broad family of sweet-pastries-filled-with-dried-fruits-and-nuts. As are fig rolls, an industrialised incarnations of an (ancient) Egyptian pastry.

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