Cattern cakes for St Catherine’s day

Cattern cakes

November 25 is the feast day of St Catherine of Alexander. Chances are, St Catherine isn’t someone you’ve heard of, beyond having a firework named after her, or more accurately after her mode of martyrdom – on a wheel. In my childhood, St Catherine was quite a well known figure. Well, not the saint herself exactly, but a hill named after her.

I grew up in Winchester, Hampshire. It was the city that was the capital of the great Saxon kingdom of Wessex, and arguably the capital of England before London. Earlier than this, however, it was a Roman city. And even earlier than this, there was an Iron Age settlement (around 500BC), on a hilltop just outside the city. This hill is known as St Catherine’s and there was a 12th century chapel on the top of the same name, until it was demolished in 1537, I believe at the behest of that great money-grubbing vandal Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries,  in his massive pope-won’t-let-me-divorce royal hissy fit.

Mazes and wheels
When I was young and fitter and my knees worked properly I used to love running up there. It’s a wonderful place, and very much worth a visit. The views are good, there are orchids and other wild flowers, and there’s even a mizmaze, carved into the turf, with the winding path in exposed chalk. The form of such mazes is to an ancient, mysterious pattern, but this one is most likely from the second half of the 17th century. A local legend involves its creation being punishment for a pupil of the nearby privileged seat of learning and abject arrogance, Winchester College.

St Catherine’s martyrdom in 310AD in Egypt on a wheel may also be the reason the hill is named after her, with the Iron Age ramparts forming a circular shape. Or it may just be because she is, among other things – wheels, obviously, librarians, knife sharpeners, hat makers, lacemakers, spinsters, etc etc – patron saint of hilltops. Or something. Such hagiography is a right shambles.

Another Catherine
Anyway, her feast day is 24 or 25 November. The date was also used to honour Catherine of Aragon, first wife of the abovementioned Henry, and the first victim of his desperation for a male heir. After 24 years of marriage, he blamed her for the lack of a living son, and changed the course of history to get shot of her. He had her imprisoned in Ampthill, Bedfordshire, 1531-1533. She became a patron of local lacemakers, and they began to celebrate her support on, naturally enough, St Catherine’s day.

One feast day treat for St Catherine’s day is Cattern cakes. These are closer to what we’d consider a cookie or biscuit today, and are flavoured with cinnamon and dried fruit. I’ve got recipes in a couple of books: Cattern Cakes and Lace by Julia Jones and Barbara Deer and Cakes Regional and Traditional by Julie Duff. Only one includes the peel, while the other includes caraway seeds. I like the idea of both, so here’s my version.

I’m only using self-raising flour here as I’ve got a lot in the cupboard. You could use plain instead, but use around 340g and 10g of baking powder.

350g self-raising flour
2g mixed spice
4g cinnamon powder
2g fine sea salt
50g ground almonds
350g caster sugar
50g currants
50g candied peel
4g caraway seeds
280g butter
1 egg, beaten
Extra sugar and cinnamon
1 more egg and 25g milk, beaten together, for a glaze

1. Preheat the oven to 180C.
2. Sift the flour, spices and salt into a mixing bowl.
3. Add the sugar, ground almonds, dried fruit and caraway seeds.
4. Add the melted butter and beaten egg.
5. Bring together to form a dough.
6. Bring the dough together, form a ball then cover with plastic and allow to rest in the fridge for about half an hour. This will firm the butter content up again.
7. Roll the dough out into a rectangle, about 12mm thick.
8. Brush the top with a little water, then sprinkle with extra sugar and cinnamon.
9. Roll the dough up like a Swiss roll to form a cylinder. It’s a pretty crumbly paste, but don’t worry: just squish it back together.

Space out well on baking sheets

10. Cut into slices about 10mm thick. As above squish back together as necessary. Place the slices on a baking sheet, lined with parchment or silicone.
11. Brush the tops with the glaze.
12. Bake for about 10-15 minutes, until lightly browned.

Cattern cakes

Despite the slightly fiddly dough, I like the results. They’re slightly unusual. One friend says “Christmassy” – but really, most feast day baked sweet treats involve similar spices and ingredients, such as peel, it’s just that we’ve lost so many of the other traditions, with most people’s only relationship with feast day foods being Christmas cake and plum pudding.

They spread as they bake, and come out somewhat wrinkly, like cooled lava. You can see a swirl or spiral from the rolling up, especially underneath. The caraway, or Persian cumin (Carum carvi) is a bit of a divisive flavour though, faintly medicinal and almost medieval. It’s perhaps most commonly found in rye breads these days, but for a long time a great British classic was seed cake – a sweet, teatime cake flavoured with caraway. It’s one of those flavours that’s arguably gone out of fashion somewhat for the British palette. If you don’t like it, just leave it out.

I’ll be in Winchester just after St Catherine’s day, so maybe we can go for a walk up the hill and take some of these for sustenance. Even if number one child, T-rex, has already rejected them, probably because of the caraway (unfamiliar flavour trumps sugary treat). Number two child, Stingray, is rather partial at least.

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Pizza di San Martino for Martinmas

Pizza di San Martino

November 11 is Martinmas, the feast day of St Martin, or San Martino as he’s known in Italian. I talked about St Martin and his feast day here, and one of the related food products I mentioned was pizza di San Martino. This is a kind of enriched bread – as in Italy, “pizza” doesn’t necessarily imply a thing topped with tomato sauce and cheese. There are many variations on the theme.

Do a Google image search, and pizza di San Martino comes in several forms but they’re all basically yeasted cakes. It probably originates from the small Italian region of Molise, which reaches from the east coast into the Apennines, or possibly from the region to its north, Abruzzo. This area of central Italy, along with Umbria, has suffered recently from a series of earthquakes and aftershocks this year, so making this is one way of saying I’m thinking of friends living there, and anyone who’s lost their homes and livelihoods.

The patron saint of protection against earthquakes is actually Emygdius or Emidio, but he’s pretty obscure and I’m not aware of any baked goods associated with his feast day (5 and 18 August). I’ve adapted this pizza recipe from one found in Cooking with the Saints by Ernst Schuegraf; he doesn’t mention St Emygdius.

As I wrote in my previous piece about St Martin, a traditional pizza di San Martino would contain trinkets, favours, much like the inclusion of a silver coin in traditional British Christmas pudding or ceramic baby Jesus in galette de rois. This recipe doesn’t include any. There’s nothing to stop you adding trinkets though, for luck to whoever receives them.

1. Dissolve the yeast in the warm water.

Make the sponge, preferment

2. Add about 150g of the strong flour, and blend to form a sponge or pre-ferment.

Bubbly sponge

3. Allow the sponge to develop until it’s nice and bubbly – an hour or two, depending on warmth.

Combine the ingredients
4. Put the rest of the flour and the salt in a large bowl, then pour in the sponge, milk, beaten egg and melted butter and add the sugar, raisins and zest. I used orange and lemon zest.

Bring together - almost more a batter than a dough.

5. Mix to combine. It’ll be a fairly sticky dough. With just the water and milk, it’s about 67% hydration, but factor in the eggs and melted better too and that’s a fairly high proportion of liquid to flour.

Sticky dough

6. Turn out onto an oiled worktop and bring to a dough. For tips on how to handle sticky doughs, read my notes here.
7. Return to the bowl, cleaned and oiled, then cover and leave to prove until doubled in size.
8. Butter a round cake cake tin, ideally 26cm,  or even larger. (If you don’t have one, you could bake the pizza freeform, shaped like a disc, on a baking sheet.)
9. Turn out the dough and form into a ball. Push the ball down into the cake tin, then cover and leave to prove again.
10. Preheat the oven to 200C.

Put in round cake tin

11. When the dough is nicely risen, put it in the oven.
12. Bake for about 40 minutes. If it’s browning too much, cover with foil or turn down the oven.

Freshly baked pizza di San Martino

13. Take out, turn out and cool on a rack.

It’s not unlike a kind of brioche, so eat for breakfast, or morning coffee, or with tea. If I’m honest, I’ve no idea how an Italian family would eat it. During my time in Italy I never really managed to inveigle myself into households to watch people eating Easter Colomba or Christmas panettone or other enriched feast day breads like this. So any central Italians reading, please do let me know.

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Exmoor in and out pudding

Exmoor in and out pudding

A few years ago, before kids, Fran and I rode our bikes across Devon, her home county, in southwest England. It was lovely as we embarked from Tiverton Parkway in the east of the county, but as soon as we reached Exmoor, having climbed steeply from the village of Dulverton, the wind and rain set in.

Although this pudding is named after the moor, it’s hard to imagine it’s a place where many apples are grown. Sure there are some orchards within the confines of Exmoor National Park, but by and large the moor itself is, along with other West Country moors Dartmoor and Bodmin moor, is about as close to wilderness as you can experience in southern Britain. We certainly didn’t pass any orchards as we fought a fierce headwind.

Another county
I made this pudding with apples from my parents’ tree, in Winchester, Hampshire. It would have been hard to find Exmoor apples. Indeed, for crying out loud, it’s hard enough to find English apples in the supermarkets at the moment, despite it being apple season. I live in the southeast of England, in East Sussex. The adjacent county, Kent, is the historical heartland of apple cultivation – and yet our local supermarkets are filled with apples from France, Chile, South Africa and even New Zealand. This madness makes me want to scream. I suspect I’ve ranted about it here before.

Talking of madness: Brexit*. Will it mean fewer food imports as costs increase? Will it encourage domestic food production? Who knows. No one seems to know what’s going to happen, apart from an abiding smugness from aging little Englanders as we metaphorically unmoor ourselves and drift away into deepening obscurity.

Fall from grace
Anyway, back to the apples. My folks have a magnificent Bramley tree. While picking, I managed to fall off the ladder, knocking over not just my toddler, T-rex, but also my seventy-something dad. Sorry guys! Still, it’s great fruit. We should be celebrating home-grown Bramleys more than ever now following the news this summer that the original Bramley tree in Nottinghamshire is dying of a fungal infection, having been sown in 1809.

This is a lovely variation on the theme of apple pudding involving a cake-like mixture. The mixture has the distinction of by being made with rich, caramelly demerara sugar. It also contains some ground almonds, one of my favourite ingredients. Some Exmoor in and out puddings also contain suet. This recipe, based on one found in the National Trust’s Complete Traditional Recipe Book by Sarah Edington, doesn’t.

500g Bramleys, or other cooking apples
50g demerara sugar
5g cinnamon
60g apple juice, or water

110g unsalted butter, softened
110g demerara sugar
2 eggs
1/2 tsp almond essence
110g self-raising flour (or 105g plain flour and 5g baking powder)
50g ground almonds
Flaked almonds

1. Heat the oven to 180C.
2. Peel and slice the apples.
3. Combine the apple slices, cinnamon, demerara and apple juice or water then put into an overproof dish. Cover with a damp cloth so the apple doesn’t brown while you prepare the topping.

Exmoor in and out pudding

4. Cream together the butter and other portion of demerara sugar.

Exmoor in and out pudding mixture
. Lightly beat the eggs, with the almond essence, and slowly beat into the mixture. If it starts to curdle, add some of the ground almonds.
6. Add the ground almonds and sieve in the flour. Fold to combine.

Exmoor in and out pudding, cover apples with mixture

7. Put the topping on the apple mix.

Exmoor in and out pudding, ready to bake

8. Sprinkle with ground almonds.

Exmoor in and out pudding, baked

9. Bake until the top is nicely browned and the cake is firm to the touch, about 40 minutes.
10. Serve warm with cream, ice cream or even custard.

 

 

* As well as the actual process of the UK leaving the EU upsetting me, I detest the ugly neologism “Brexit”. But I can’t come up with a better, succinct alternative, so we’re stuck with it.

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Date and maple syrup steamed pudding

Date and maple syrup steamed pudding

We had a pretty good summer in southern England this year, with very little rain and a reasonable amount of sunshine July to October. But now it’s definitely Autumn, with winter round the corner and that means one thing: steamed puddings!

OK, maybe not just one thing, but I do crave serious stodgy English puddings in the winter. Growing up, a favourite was treacle sponge – actually a steamed pud made with golden syrup. It’s a recipe I revisit regularly, and frequently use as the basis for variations on a theme, adding things like stem ginger, other fruits and spices.

Since the end of last winter, my kitchen whiteboard has featured an increasingly faint scribble saying “date and maple syrup steamed pudding”. This weekend we had a lovely visit from our friend Mary Margaret, who Fran worked with in Rome. She’s Canadian. So of course that’s a good excuse to reach for the maple syrup. MM said she hadn’t had a traditional Canadian Thanksgiving this year (10 October), so our Sunday roast stood in for it. She was very satisfied with my entirely non-traditional date and maple syrup pudding.

The dates were chopped and soaked in boiling water with half a teaspoon of baking soda. This is a technique used when making sticky toffee pudding, another classic stodgy English pudding. Which probably had its origins in a Canadian recipe.

I do include a bit of golden syrup here as it’s thicker than maple syrup and I felt it’d help with the texture but if you live somewhere that it’s not available (the US, I believe), just use all maple syrup. It’s a pretty forgiving recipe.

Date and maple syrup steamed pudding, sliced

100g dates, roughly chopped
2g baking soda
Boiling water
70g maple syrup
20g golden syrup
190g butter, softened
150g soft brown sugar, or light muscovado
3 eggs, lightly beaten that is about 170g
190g self-raising flour
4g baking powder
2g cinnamon
2g allspice
Pinch of salt

1. Put the dates in a bowl, add the baking soda and cover with boiling water. Leave to soften.
2. Grease a 1.2 litre pudding basin with butter.
3. Put the syrups in the bottom of the basin.
4. Beat together the softened butter and sugar until light and creamy.
5. Add the beaten egg a little at a time, continuing to beat. If it starts to curdle, add a little flour.
6. Sieve together the flour, baking powder and spices, then sieve this into the beaten mixture, along with a pinch of salt.
7. Strain the dates and add to the mixture.
8. Fold to combine. If it seems a bit firm, add some of the date liquid or a splash of milk.
9. Put the mixture in the pudding basin.
10. Cover the basin with a piece of foil, with a pleat in it. You can tie the foil on, but I’ve given up these days.
11. Put the basin in a large saucepan with some boiling water, or in a steamer over a saucepan, and steam for about 2 hours.
12. Remove from the saucepan and lift the foil. The top should be fairly firm and cakey.

Date and maple syrup steamed pudding, foil

13. Turn out onto a plate.
14. Drizzle with more maple syrup and serve warm with cream or ice cream for extra indulgence. Preferably on a cold, rainy day. If you feel the need, go for a good energetic walk – before or after – to justify it to yourself…

Date and maple syrup steamed pudding, with cream

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The sheer indulgent excess that is monkey bread

Monkey bread

In my time as a baker and sugar addict, I’ve made or consumed a vast number of rich concoctions and enriched doughs, from multinational doughnut variations to chocolate babkas. But nothing was quite as indulgent as monkey bread, something I’d not heard of until a few weeks back when a recipe by Jane Hornby popped up in a BBC Good Food newsletter.

Monkey bread is basically made with an enriched dough, with balls or chunks dipped in more butter, sugar and spices, and arranged in a ring shaped tin for baking. It is a kind of sticky, cinnamony, buttery, pull-apart, tear-and-share bread that clearly has its origins in traditional sweet, spiced buns and breads of Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and even Britain (eg the Chelsea bun). Those traditions crossed the Atlantic with migrants who settled in America, where they changed, evolved – and had gallons of butter and tons of sugar thrown at them.

The oldest print version of monkey bread is from 1945, and by ZaSu Pitts1, an American actress with a career that spanned the silent and early sound eras. While much of Europe was suffering from rationing, American was producing monkey bread. Goshy.

No one knows where it gets its name, but it’s either because it supposedly resembles the monkey puzzle tree, or because it’s like something monkeys would get in a frenzy over pulling apart. The latter seems more likely to me, as we – four adults, four little monkeys (aged 1 to 11) – ate it together, falling on it with simian fervour.

There are savoury versions or versions with dried fruit, but this one is based on Hornby’s – cinnamon, sugar, butter, some roasted pecans – and it seems closer to the classic US type. My bundt tin wasn’t quite big enough, the whole thing was absurd, and I can’t really imagine being able to justify making it too often, but it’s a pretty awesome thing to have in one’s repertoire.

Recipe

Dough
200g full-fat milk
85g unsalted butter
12g active dried yeast (or 20g fresh yeast)
50g caster sugar
2 eggs (that is, about 110g of egg)
550g strong white flour
6g fine sea salt

Assembly
125g unsalted butter
12g cinnamon
4g powdered ginger
2g grated nutmeg
225g light muscovado or light soft brown sugar2
140g pecans, toasted and roughly chopped

Icing
100g icing sugar
3g vanilla essence
15g milk
5g cinnamon
30g unsalted butter, melted

Method
1. You need a bundt pan or similar ring-shaped tin, ideally 30cm in diameter.
2. To make the dough, first melt the butter and warm the milk slightly. I did this in a microwave. Stir in the caster sugar, scatter in the yeast, and leave it a few minutes to get going.
3. Put the flour and salt in a large bowl, then pour in the yeast mix.
4. Beat the eggs together then pour in too.
5. Bring together to form a sticky dough.
6. Turn out and knead to combine and homogenise.
7. Form a ball, then leave to rest again, covered, for another ten minutes.
8. Give it another knead, then cover and rest again. Repeat this once or twice more until you have a nice smooth dough.
9. In a clean, lightly oiled bowl, cover and leave to rest again, until the dough has doubled in size.
10. Prepare the bundt tin by melting the 125g of butter then using some of it to brush the inside of the tin.
11. Mix the sugar and spices, then sprinkle some of this into the buttered tin. Add a handful of the roasted, chopped pecans.
12. When the dough has proven, you need to divide it into pieces. Hornby’s recipe said 65, I went for 50 as that seemed a tad excessive. The total dough weighed about 1060g, so I divided it into pieces each weighing about 21g.

Balls of dough for monkey bread

13. Roll these into balls. You don’t really need to, but I fancied it, just cos, to maintain the technique, which involves cupping your hand over them, and rolling them on a lightly oiled worktop. If you get proficient, you can do one in each hand. Ta da.
14. Leave the balls under a cloth as you work so they don’t dry out.
15. Put the rest of the melted butter in a flat-bottomed bowl or container, and the rest of the sugar and spice mix in another.

Assembling monkey bread

16. Roll the balls, in batches, in the butter, shake off any excess, then roll them in the sugar and spice mix. Place them in the tin.
17. Form a layer, sprinkle with more pecans, and keep going until the tin is full and balls all used up.

Monkey bread, before final prove

18. Cover again, then leave to prove one last time, until bulging and springy to the touch. Push a finger in and the dough should slowly re-expand.

Monkey bread, after final prove

19. Heat the oven to 180C, then bake the bread for about 40 minutes. Turn the over down a bit, or cover with foil, if it’s over-browning before this time.

Monkey bread, baked
20. Leave to cool in the tin, then turn out when still warm but not hot.
21. Whisk together the ingredients for the icing then drizzle over.
22. Eat with for breakfast, with a morning coffee, as afternoon tea, or even as a dessert – which is what we did.

Good. Excessive. Indulgent. But good.

Monkey bread

Footnotes
1. More about her here. Her recipe, and more about monkey bread, can be found here.
2. I find these sugars behave pretty similarly in baking, though muscovado sugars were originally those of lower quality, and have higher molasses content.

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The gingerbread boy

Gingerbread men

Our toddler has been obsessing over the story of The Gingerbread Man recently. So it seemed only right that we started making actual gingerbread men together.

Now, every time he grabs the book for me to read, he points at the gingerbread man on the cover and says, “We make some buttons!” Handling the mixture, rolling out a soft-ish dough, doing the cutting and transferring the pieces to a baking sheet aren’t exactly jobs for a two-year-old (see previous post), but he’s very happy to be given the task of sticking currants in to make eyes and buttons. Nothing fancy. No icing decorations. It isn’t Bake Off, it’s just father-son “do making”, making something he then ardently scoffs whenever we allow.

Cake and biscuit
Gingerbread is a fairly generic name that covers both soft cakes and a cookies, but I’m talking about those distinguished in the UK and US traditions from other ginger cookies by being cut into the shape of a man. One source on Wikipedia says they were first recorded as being made in England for the court of Elizabeth I, who reigned 1558-1603. Though ‘breads’ sweetened with honey and spices are quintessential foods for feast days and celebrations and have probably been made in Europe since the Middle Ages, if not longer.

Various ginger-spiced biscuits and cakes can be found in the traditional feast day foods of much of Europe still, but notably in Britain, Germany (eg lebkuchen), Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Poland etc: that is, more northerly countries. It’s easy to imagine Medieval folks huddling round fires in the winter and very much appreciating feast day treats containing ginger, cloves etc, as such spices have a warming effect.

Dough and cutter

Sentient food
Now, before I get to a recipe, I must talk a little about the story The Gingerbread Man. I love folk stories, fairytales, Märchen. I’ve read a lot, and I look forward to the kids being old enough for me to introduce more to them. I know full well they can be illogical, macabre and confounding to the modern mind, but The Gingerbread Man is downright weird.

Here’s the gist, if you don’t know it, or need reminding. A childless couple (which obviously resonates) decide the way to overcome their sadness isn’t to, you know, visit an orphanage, but instead to bring forth life through the medium of baking. Indulging in some kind of dough-based witchcraft. I suppose it’s not unlike Gepetto carving a son out of a piece of wood in Pinocchio.

The old lady makes a gingerbread man. But rather than being a dutiful son, he leaps out of the oven, out the door, and runs off. The old woman and her husband give chase. Various other people and animals see him and join the chase. The couple want their “son” back, the others want to eat him – despite him being ambulatory and self-aware, as evinced by his taunting song: “Run, run, as fast as you can, you can’t catch me I’m the gingerbread man!”

When he reaches a river, a fox appears and offers to carry the gingerbread man across. The sentient – but none-too-bright – biscuit agrees. But the fox tricks him and in three tosses of his head, he eats him all up. Snap! Snap! Snap! And that’s the end of the gingerbread man.

The moral of the story? Who knows. Maybe it doesn’t have one. It’s suggested that folk stories teach children about life, but it’s not always clear what the lesson is. The lesson here is not to be gullible or trusting of strangers, I suppose. Or alternatively to beware hubris. Certainly, the gingerbread man is a proud fool. Arguably the hero of the story is, instead, the fox. He’s cunning, and gets the snack. Cunning is quality in many cultures (eg the Italian concept of furbismo, which kept Berlusconi in power for so long), and is often exemplified by the fox, an archetypical trickster, in folk stories.

There are other folk stories about runaway food in British, German and Easter European folklore – balls of dough, pancakes, bannocks – but the gingerbread man story appears to be a variation that evolved with migrants who settled in America.

Cutting out

Melt or rub
Whatever the origins or moral of the story, the boy loves it. Finding a recipe we could easily make together has been a minor challenge. Pre-children, I probably would have tried half a dozen recipes, but today, with two under-threes, I tried just three recipes. One from Dan Lepard’s Short and Sweet, one from Leith’s Book of Baking by Prue Leith and Caroline Waldegrave and one from Geraldene Holt’s Cake Stall (a hand-me-down from my mum with a wonderful dated 1980s cover, where Holt looks like an Edwardian).

The two main approaches for making gingerbread men involve melting together butter and sugar, then combining with flour etc, or rubbing the butter into the flour, and adding the sugar etc. The latter is easier, but frankly, the best one of the three I tried was Leith one, which involved melting. The dough was trickiest to handle, but the resulting cookies had a proper snap – suitably enough considering the gingerbread man’s fate in the jaws of the fox.

Making the dough (or paste), then cooling it in the fridge to firm it up and relax the proteins isn’t exactly ideal if you have a small child chomping at the bit to “do making” right now! I tried to lull young T-rex by putting The Jungle Book on (it was a rainy day) but it still wasn’t ideal. So I suggest making a batch of the dough in advance, then freezing some or leaving it in the fridge until the optimal “do making” moment in your day.

Decorating

Recipe
This is based on the Leith version, but tweaked somewhat.

If you’re doing this with a small child, make the dough in advance to give it time to cool, so you can do the rolling, cutting and baking in one hit.

225g unsalted butter
200g caster sugar
160g soft dark brown sugar
350g plain flour
6g baking powder
3g fine sea salt
3g ground cloves
12g ground ginger
2 eggs, beaten (that is, about 110g beaten egg)

1. Melt together the butter and both sugars, stirring and cooking until the sugar has all dissolved.
2. Take off the heat, allow to cool slightly, then beat in the egg.
3. Sieve together the flour, baking powder, spices and salt.
4. Put the sieved mixture into a bowl then gradually add the butter, sugar and egg mix, combining to form a homogenous mixture.
5. It’s a very soft dough, so put the bowl in the fridge to cool it completely. Then you can divide the mixture into slabs, and keep one in the fridge for a day or so until you want to do the baking. You can also freeze it.
6. When you’re ready to roll, heat the oven to 180C and line baking sheets with parchment or silicone.
7. This dough warms up easily and gets soft, so to cut out the gingerbread men, do it in portions. Roll to about 4-5mm thick and cut out your men. We have a cutter about 13cm tall by 8cm armspan. Decorate with currants for eyes and buttons if you like.
8. Place on baking sheets lined with parchment or silicone, with enough room for some spread, and put in the oven. Note, this dough will spread slightly, especially if you’re oven isn’t quite hot enough. (What the knobs says and the actual temperature inside are very likely to not be the same if you have a domestic oven, so I recommend an oven thermometer.)
9. Bake for about 10-12 minutes until nicely brown. Leave to firm up on the tray for a few minutes then transfer to cooling racks and allow to cool completely. They should crisp up as they cool.

10. Satisfying the obsession of toddler. Briefly.

This is, obviously, a tricky area. I love to bake; he loves sugar; I try to be a responsible parent and not allow him too much. I want to nurture a sane relationship with food, where sweets are treats. This is a challenge as refined sugar is so addictive small children rapidly get a crazy-eyed for it, something that’s exploited by the food industry and insufficiently regulaed. Just look at breakfast cereals, some are a third sugar. But that’s another story, another rant. Run, run as fast as you can, I’m a two-year-old on a sugar rush….

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Bakin’ and mess makin’

Not looking

As we recently started a family, people assume I’m keen to get our toddler involved with baking. As much as I want to be a good father, I’m struggling slightly with this. Toddlers are just so flipping messy. Not to mention disgusting. I really don’t want a kitchen assisant who sneezes in the mixture. Or picks his nose before “helping” with the kneading.

I’ve been called many things over the years, many of them not exactly complimentary: Virgoan, control freak, anal. Thing is, if you meet a lot of chefs and bakers, many of them are control freaks. It’s almost a professional requirement. If you work in a busy kitchen, you need to control it tightly so it runs smoothly and efficiently. I’m not a professional – I think of myself as semi-amateur – but I do like the idea of running an efficient kitchen: neat, well organised, generally clean.

So bringing a toddler into this environment isn’t easy. Yes, yes, I know, baking with kids isn’t about efficiently turning out food products for sale in a restaurant or bakery – or indeed on a market stall – but I still tend to approach my baking with certain standards.

Baking with dinosaurs
So it was with some misgivings that I embarked on my first baking-with-the-kids exercise the other day. I’ve done it before with family or friends’ kids, but this felt different. This was me introducing my son, let’s call him T-rex, to something I love, and obsess over, something that’s hugely important in my life. The experience needed to be fun, and encouraging. But could I let go enough to cope with the mess, the unhygienic inclinations of toddlers, the sheer inefficiency?

Um, no, not really.

I mean, we got through it. But boy was it stressful. I mean, toddlers are control freaks too, they want to do what they want, they want to do it now, and they have no concept that throwing the flour around is messy. I try to explain that much of “making” involves getting ready at the start, then cleaning up at the end, but he gets that glazed look parents, or even standup comics, will recognise, when you’re losing your audience. I try to explain that kitchens are dangerous – hot ovens, hot pans on the stove etc – but he gets that glazed look again. Rules and instructions just aren’t fun. Waving the wood spoon and yelling “I do mix-mix now Daddy” is fun.

Small rolling pin

Be consistent!
Most of all, it’s just hard to let go, acknowledge that cooking something on your own, and cooking something with a small child, will be very different experiences, with very different results. Results that won’t be up to your (well, my) standards. Or those of my old teacher on flour confectionary at bakery school, Tom, who insisted that products need to be consistent. Fat chance.

So obviously the abovementioned sneezing etc is unacceptable. More minor infractions I just have to let go; we’ve all licked utensils as children right? OK, OK, let it go Dan. Experienced parents will already know how to handle other areas of working with toddlers in the kitchen. So, for example, when given a cookie cutter, T-rex just gleefully shouts “Cut! Cut! Cut!” and goes over the same piece of dough repeatedly. Which isn’t much use. So you have to do that part together.

Instruction, meanwhile, has to be very basic. Very basic indeed. So when I gave T-rex a jug and said “Pour that into this bowl”, a bowl inches in front of him, he still managed to try to pour it into another bowl, just out of reach along the worktop to his right. So, not basic enough. Maybe pouring can’t be accomplished till three, or four.

Squishing

Tricks
Otherwise, there are a few tricks. I’ve got a small rolling pin that’s used for cake decorating; I can give this to T-rex, wtih a small lump of dough, and he can muck about to his heart’s content while I do the actual pinning out myself. Ditto, I suppose he can just squish a small lump of dough and pretend he’s helping with the kneading. Though this piece will then be too unsavoury to bake and may, sadly, wastefully, end up in the municipal compost.

So yes, T-Rex seemed to enjoy it. Every time I put my apron and hat on now, even if it’s to just heat some pasta, he says “Daddy, I do making too?” and asks for his apron and hat. It’s sweet. Sweetly infuriating. Especially when I say, “No,  why don’t you play in the garden for a bit”. But perhaps I am instilling him with a love of cooking, of baking – even if I’m not exactly being gracious about it.

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Local grain, local bread

Bread with Sussex landrace flour

Once upon on a time in Britain, we grew our own grain, milled it locally, and used the flour to make bread in bakeries and village ovens across the land. These days, most of the flour we use for real bread* comes from North America and Central Asia. I’ve made bread with more locally grown flour before but never with locally grown flour made from landrace heritage wheat. So I was interested to hear from Michael Hanson of The Hearth pizzeria and bakehouse in Lewes, East Sussex (which recently featured in Dan Saladino’s Food Programme show about pizza) that he was using locally grown grain to make flour for their products.

Michael has been using heritage grains in Hearth products for a while now. He’s friends with John Letts, a Canadian archaeobotanist and key figure in a movement to try and restore a diverse bank of British landrace grain varieties. Letts looked at the grains found in thatched roofs to learn what varieties were farmed around Britain, as the straw used in places dated back to Norman times. Michael now has a small crop of about 20 acres (8 hectares) of wheat, rye and barley at South Farm at Rodmell, just outside Lewes, utilising seed from Letts and the farming expertise of the owners, the Wetterns.

Hearth Lewes

Ancient locals and micro-malting
Michael refers to the crop as a Sussex landrace mix including “maybe 40 or so varieties [of wheat], ditto the barley and rye, ancient varieties.” Michael’s also hoping to start a “micro-malting” operation from his base in the old Lewes bus depot. It’s certainly exciting – at least for people like me who are bakers, and into food provenance and history. Michael says they’re now using flour ground from the grain for the bread they sell in the Hearth bakehouse, as well as combining it with strong white flour to make the dough for the pizzeria. There can’t be many bakeries or pizzerias in Britain that can say that.

It’s not exactly milled locally, being transported to Offley Watermill in Staffordshire. There are several working wind and watermills more local to Lewes, such as Ashcombe Mill near Kingston, or the watermill at Michelham Priory, or even the mill at Jimmy Page’s old house, Plumpton Place, but Offley offers expertise from the Howells, who have been milling in Stafford since 1840 and at this location since 1943. Michael said they’re “seventh generation millers”. He’s yet to find anyone with such qualifications locally. Incredible really, considering, again, about 150 years ago, every town and village had numerous mills.

End of first prove on 100% Sussex landrace wheat flour bread

Low protein challenge

But what is the flour – stoneground, about 80% extraction – like to work with? Well, I must admit, I found it challenging. Some of today’s most respected bakers, like Chad Robertson of Tartine in San Francisco say, work wonders with ancient grains. But this whole question of making light, open-crust breads with low protein flours is tricky. As we’ve been getting much of our bread wheat in Britain from North American and Central Asia the past 150 years or so, our baking tradition has markedly changed. Due to climactic factors, wheats grown in Britain generally produced lower protein flours, “soft”. These foreign flours we’ve been using are from higher protein, “hard” wheat, and our baking has become dependent on it, has been shaped by it.

When we learn to bake in Britain these days we’re told you need the high protein flours, so you can develop the gluten (gliadin and glutenin proteins) to give it structure. High protein flours can contain as much 15%, whereas lower protein flours (plain or all-purpose) generally contain around 10%. Tom, the baker at the Hearth bakehouse, reckons the Rodmell flour could be as low as 8% protein.

Sussex landrace flour

Other countries, such as Italy, haven’t become so dependent on high protein flours. During my years in Rome I’d buy various farro flours from the farmers markets and made some very tasty breads with them, but they were mostly dense affairs. These days I do mostly use a mix of strong white, likely grown in Central Asia but stoneground in Dorset by Stoates, and spelt flours. Using Michael’s flour reminded me of my experiments in Italy with farro flours grown by umpteenth generation contadini (loosely, “peasants”) in the hills of Lazio. The 100% Rodmell flour bread I made (65% hydration, basic bulk fermentation) was very tasty, with a sweet, nutty flavour, but it was a dense proposition. The kids didn’t turn their noses up, but it was a hearty meal in itself (a valuable quality for peasants of old).

My second attempt used 40% Michael’s flour, 60% Stoates strong white, and it’s great. Relatively open but even grain. This is perfect for the kids’ toast. Much as I love the wildly uneven, massively open grain you find in hip “artisan” breads and ciabatta say (ie high hydration dough breads), it’s not ideal for toast! Anyway, I reckon I could increase the mix to 50/50 with Michael’s flour. That’ll be my next test.

In the meantime, it’s been wonderful to be part of this experiment to restore some Sussex landrace grain. Anyone else who fancies trying it, visit The Hearth in Lewes! Or if you’re a landowner, get in touch about growing your own grain!

40% Sussex landrace flour loaves

 

* That used in industrial pap is different matter. It’s an interesting story I’ve touched on before, but as pap – indigestible pseudo-bread made with the Chorleywood process – is such an execrable product I’m not talking about it again here.

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Mail, ale and the movies in Lewes

The Depot building site

For years, people arriving by train1 in Lewes, the county town of East Sussex in southeastern England, were met by a sign that said “Welcome to Lewes, Home of Harveys Brewery”. This sign is in the yard of the former Harveys Depot, which sits just to the north of the railway station. Currently, the depot is a building site, the sign, and much of the building, swathed in scaffolding. In Spring-Summer 2017, it will open in its new incarnation: the three-screen Depot cinema.

The very name of the cinema is a nod to the heritage of the building, and indeed of Lewes itself, so synonymous with Harveys Brewery. Though interestingly, the site was originally owned by the Royal Mail. The current depot was built in 1937, replacing a 19th century one..

I was lucky enough to have a tour of the site last week with Carmen Slijpen, whose passion for cinema is at the heart the Depot cinema project. The site is certainly changing fast, though the finished Depot will reflect its past in several ways, notably by keeping several of the features that look older, but were in fact fitted by Harveys in the 1990s, such as the Harveys signs and the clock tower2.

Clock tower and hoardings, featuring film characters - including one of my favourites, Princess Mononoke

A town needs a cinema
In a former life, I was a film journalist and I have a master’s in film and TV studies, so the Depot cinema is enormously exciting for me. Not only does it revitalise a neglected corner of Lewes, it connects my loves of cinema and ale, albeit loosely!

Lewes hasn’t had a cinema for years. Cliffe, at the bottom of town, lost its Odeon in 1971, with the building sadly demolished in 1982 (another, the Cinema de Luxe on School Hill, closed in 1963; an even older one, the County Electric Theatre, didn’t even make it into the sound era!). And while Carmen and others have been running the Film Club, with screenings in a theatre and a former church the past decade and a half or so, a town of Lewes’s status needs a proper cinema. Furthermore, the Depot will be a kind of community hub. Alongside three state-of-the-art auditoria, there will be a café, bars, education facilities and an editing suite, as well as outdoor terraces, and a publically accessible garden. Indeed, the garden will hold even older echoes of the site’s history. Prior to the post depot, it was an orchard, and Carmen says they will be planting some fruit trees, alongside various other intriguing schemes, such as structures with climbing plants (I suggested they plant some hops).

Finding the Depot
Carmen, who trained as a projectionist in Amsterdam before becoming a film programmer, embarked on her quest to create a cinema in Lewes in 2011. Within a few weeks, she found a funder in the form of Robert Senior, a local with a love of cinema. Senior established a charity for the project, Lewes Community Screen.

Finding a suitable site was a challenge, as cinema auditoria have particular requirements, notably height. They considered the former magistrates court, but it wasn’t right, and has since been demolished. Carmen says that, strangely, the nearby Harveys Depot site had “become invisible”, despite its central location. Harveys had moved to their new depot in Malling Brooks, and it just sat there, empty. At the end of 2011, Harveys were looking to sell the site. There were plans to build a Travelodge there, or a Tesco Metro with flats above, but luckily all fell through and Lewes Community Screen was able to buy the whole site.

London-based architects Burrell, Foley, Fischer, who had previous experience with other cinemas, were chosen from six who pitched. Plans were drawn up and, by 2014, Lewes Community Screen got planning permission.

It sounds a close-run thing though, as, bafflingly, Lewes Town Council voted against it, despite how much such a project will offer the town and community. Even the Highways Agency had concerns. The three auditoria will be 140 seat, 130 and 37, the education room is for a maximum of 40, and the cafés etc will have a total of about 100 seats, so the Depot will have a theoretical capacity of nearly 500. The Highways Agency panicked that all these people would be arriving simultaneously, individually, by car. Which is patently absurd. For starters, cinemas stagger their screenings. Never mind the fact that the Depot is centrally located, and within walking or cycling distance for most Lewes residents. Furthermore, there are bus stops nearby – and the station!

Red brick 1930s walls being reformatted for the new Lewes Depot cinema

Thankfully, the South Downs National Park Authority saw sense.

Indeed, several aspects of the project are entirely suited to celebrating a town at the heart of a precious national park. Not only will the Depot be powered by ground-source heat pumps, using heat transfer from 200m below the surface, it will have a living roof – planted not with generic sedums but with flora found in the South Downs. Such details make the Depot special.

Old and new
Aside from bureaucracy, there have been other challenges. Not only did postal then brewery storage have very different requirements to a cinema in terms of how the space is used, but the site is at risk of flooding, so the cinema has effectively been raised 800mm.

It’s been a test to retain the history of the buildings while converting them to new usage. Much of the old red brick structure is being retained, to be visible through new glass walls. It’ll form a handsome contrast to the advanced elements. Carmen talked us through the high specs they’ll have in the auditoria, with screen 1 having 4k digital and Dolby Atmos with 36 speakers in the ceiling; screen 2 having 2k digital with 3D; and screen 3 also having 2k digital. Screen 3 has a small bar adjacent, which Carmen says will have a “dark, private members’ bar feel”.

Looking from screen 2 into screen 1

What’s on
Carmen says they’ll be screening “a healthy mix of arthouse and mainstream cinema.” Certainly, screen 1 sounds like it’ll be able to handle anything a modern movie with elaborate digital production can throw at it, while the more intimate screen 3 will be a delight for smaller films or rep. Carmen says, “We’ll be running lots of strands, which are series of films that run alongside the main programme – the main programme being films that we book on a weekly basis and are the newly released films.”

Indeed, the Depot sounds unique on a number of levels, not just for the site’s heritage. As Lewes Community Screen is a charity, it does “not exist to make a profit necessarily (but will strive to, as that will give us options for further, more exciting programming).” This may also mean they have a slightly different relationship with distributors, who can be quite, shall we say, demanding when it comes to big releases.

Carmen continues “If we don’t do what is stipulated by distributors we will often have to wait for one or more weeks before we can get hold of a film. We will have to see how our audience responds to that. I think it is realistic to expect it will take us two years to understand how [people] will react and respond to having an independent cinema in their vicinity.”

I imagine running a truly independent cinema is very challenging3. But if it can be done right anywhere, it’s Lewes.4

Oh, and just so this post doesn’t seem too far outside the normal remit of my blog I’d like to reassure Lewesians that Carmen tells me the Depot bars will be serving Harveys. And though she says most of all that “I want to be selling films”, a quality ale and a good film is a perfect evening out for me.

Steel and ply

Lewes Depot Cinema, Pinwell Road, Lewes
lewesdepot.org
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Footnotes
1 Currently a grotesque proposition as rail operator Southern (Govia Thameslink) continues to abuse and disrespect its customers with a cavalcade of late, delayed, cancelled and overcrowded trains, while continuing to charge absurd prices for tickets.
2 The clock itself is being restored by local mechanical wiz John Downie. I love a public clock myself, and this one is a far more handsome proposition than the other one in Lewes I use regularly, which adorns the increasingly tired looking Tesco supermarket on the Malling side of the river. Funnily, another public clock adorns the Market Tower, where I used to do my biscuit stall, but I rarely look up at it as it doesn’t have clear lines of sight. I don’t believe it works. Another Lewes public clock  that does work sticks out from St Michael in Lewes church at 158 High Street, in the Bottleneck. A place of worship for 800 years apparently, though the clock is a bit more modern than that.
3 The UK has proportionately few independent cinemas these days; most of our cinemas aren’t even British. We all grew up with the Odeon chain, but that’s a subsidiary of the US AMC chain, itself owned by the Chinese Dalian Wanda. Vue is Canadian owned. Cineworld is owned by Cinema City International, which is based in the Netherlands. Cineworld also owns the superficially more indie Picturehouse chain. Everyman Cinemas are owned by Everyman Media Group PLC.
4 Though Uckfield, just up the road, also has an independent cinema, it’s not quite as diverse a venue as the Depot will be. Plus, I live in Lewes and dream of being able to walk or bike to the movies on my own or with my family. I’ve almost always lived in places where I could do this – London, Newcastle, Rome – so it’s something I’ve really missed. Indeed, I can’t wait for my kids to be old enough to start properly enjoying the cinema too.

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Moo-cow biscuits

dav

Since my last post, my life has changed a lot. We went from a couple to a family of four, with the adoption of two under-threes. I’m still baking a lot – all our bread, pizza night once a week, a lot of flapjack, and various things – but I don’t have the time or mental energy to blog as regularly, as I’m really not used to sleeping in fitful hour segments when repeatedly woken up by screams and the flashing lights of the baby monitor, or misery disco as we call it.

Anyway, our toddler came to us with a very sweet tooth. We’ve tried to wean him off the industrial rubbish, but I’m not going to completely deprive him of biscuits and cake. Especially as I know what goes into what I make – and I almost always reduce the sugar in recipes by about 25 or 30 per cent. A comparison between my flapjacks and a batch made by my mum really highlighted this!

As well as eating a lot of flapjacks when we were little, we also ate a lot of Malted Milks – or “moo-cow biscuits” as they were known by myself, my big brother and my little sister when we were kids. I’m not interested in giving our toddler the factory version of these, but was intrigued to try a recipe called “The mega milky malt” in Justin Gellatly’s Bread, Cake, Doughnut, Pudding.

These are one of those biscuits, or cookies, where you make the dough then refrigerate it overnight. I made mine early on Sunday morning, in time for a walk up our local hill in borderline-freezing temperatures – as winter seems to have reappeared this late-April. I did reduce the sugar: some bakers would say changing the proportions of fat to sugar affects the caramelisation and crunch, but the results still seem pretty good. I also cut them with a rectangular cookie cutter, in memory of the shape of the industrial moo-cow biscuits I ate so often all those years ago. Sadly I don’t have a stamp to add a cow design to to them.

The one vaguely unusual ingredient in these is malt syrup, which can usually be found in health food shops, and may be called malt essence.

250g unsalted butter, softened
100g caster sugar
100g soft light brown sugar
2 eggs
5g (1 tsp) vanilla essence
50g malt syrup
20g golden syrup
50g milk powder
400g plain flour
Pinch fine sea salt

1. If you have a mixer, or a handheld beater, it’s easier, but you can still do it with a bowl and a wooden spoon. Start by creaming together the butter and sugars.
2. Lightly beat the eggs and vanilla then beat into the creamed mixture.
3. Beat in the syrups, then add the milk powder and combine.
4. Add the pinch of salt, sieve in the flour then mix to form a well-combined dough.
5. Form the dough up into a slab or disc, wrap in plastic, then put in the fridge for about eight hours.
6. Heat the oven to 160C and line baking sheets.
7. Lightly flour the work surface, then roll out the dough – there’s quite a lot, so you might want to do it in pieces – to about 5mm thick. Stamp out with your cookie cutter of choice.
8. Place on the baking sheets then bake until golden-brown, about 15 minutes – this will vary depending on the fierceness of your oven.
9. Leave to cool for a few minutes on the trays then transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling.
10. Store in an airtight container, or freeze until needed.

Our toddler seems happy with the results; I just wish he’d spontaneously incorporate a “please” into his demands occasionally. “Want bickit! More bickit!!” But we’re working on that. Amongst other things.

nfd

And thanks to Will “Mabel Jones” Mabbitt for the use of his lovely lighting for the top pic and for having our toddler over to play with his, an event I can’t quite bring myself to call a “playdate”.

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