Nut and cocoa nib cookies

Nut and cocoa nib cookies

I’m the kind of guy who always has to have some homemade biscuits or cookies waiting in a tin at home. Just in case of visitors, or in case of the munchies. So I’m always on the lookout for good recipes. I particularly like versatile recipes that can be tweaked depending on what you have in your store cupboards. I’m also enjoying adding cocoa nibs to things; see, for example, my crystallized ginger and cocoa nib cookies.

This one is based on a recipe for a biscuit Justin Gellatly calls “The nutter” in his book Bread, Cakes, Doughnut and Pudding. His recipe uses blanched almonds, blanched hazelnuts, walnuts, Brazil nuts and macadamia nuts, but he does say you can use whatever nuts you’ve got; I’ve done various versions, and they’ve all been great, with a nice crunch and warm nuttiness (unsurprisingly). You can even use nuts that aren’t technically nuts, like peanuts, which are actually the seeds of legumes.*

200g nuts, unsalted, mixed
50g cocoa nibs (or indeed cacao nibs)
125g butter, soft
125g caster sugar (you could also use soft brown, for a more caramelly flavour)
1 egg
150g plain flour
Pinch of salt

1. Heat the oven to 180C.
2. Put the nuts on a tray and roast for about 12 minutes, until lightly browned. Turn off the oven.
3. Put the toasted nuts in a food processor and whizz to a rough consistency – I like it a bit powdery, and bit chunky for crunch.

Grind the nuts and nibs
4. Add the cocoa needs and give it one last whizz, to break them a bit.
5. Beat together the butter and sugar until light. Beat in the egg. If it starts to curdle, add a little flour.

Form a dough
6. Add the flour and nuts and bring to a dough. It’ll be pretty sticky. Flour your hands a bit if it helps, and form a ball or disc.

Wrap in plastic and rest
7. Wrap in clingfilm and rest in the fridge for a few hours.
8. Preheat the oven again, to 170C.
9. Flour a work surface then roll out the dough to about 5mm thick. It’s quite a sticky dough, so be relatively liberal with the dusting if needs be.

Roll out and cut
10. Cut out biscuits with a cutter. I use a round 65mm one, but it’s up to you – and again, depends on what you’ve got.
11. Gather any scraps, squidge together and roll out again.
12. Put the biscuits on baking sheets, lined with parchment or silicon mats.
13. Bake for about 12-15 minutes until nicely browned.
14. Cool on wire racks.

Enjoy with a cuppa or coffee. We have hot chocolates most evenings in the winter. As the English summer seems to have given up, we seem to be starting to do that again already, and the cookies go well with that too. It’s a bit different to this time last year when we walked the South Downs Way in warm, rain-free weather.

Nut and cocoa nib cookies

* Peanuts are basically beans, but even weirder, unlike other beans, the pods grow underground. Anyway, if we’re being pedantic about nuts, in botanical terms, they are defined as dry fruits with one, or possibly two, seeds.

By this definition, most things we call nuts in English are technically not nuts: Brazil nuts, almonds, walnuts, pecans, cashews, cashews, and as mentioned, definitely not peanuts. However, when we say “nut”, we’re usually defining it in culinary, not scientific, terms, and can therefore include all these. In fact, the only nuts that seem to qualify both botanically and culinarily are hazels.

Many of the culinary nuts are actually the seeds of drupes – but who’s heard that word before, besides botanists and specialists??

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Wheat tortilla and tlayuda, the “Mexican pizza”

Tlayuda, the so-called Mexican pizza

In 2007, Fran and I went to Mexico. We had a few weeks in the city of Oaxaca, in the state of Oaxaca, in the southwest of the country. Wandering the amazing indoor markets there, with their coloured fabrics, leather goods and teetering piles of red grasshopper snacks (chapulines), we discovered tlayuda, or tlayuda Oaxacqueña.

Tlayuda has been dubbed the “Mexican pizza” as it’s superficially similar – a wheat-based disc and toppings including stringy cheese. It’s made with that quintessential Mexican food: the tortilla, an unleavened flatbread, compared to the leavened dough of pizza. And also unlike the most familiar pizzas, with their tomato sauce1, the basis of the topping is beans, refritos.2 The pizza comparison goes further because of that stringy cheese, though real tlayuda Oaxacqueña uses a unique local cheese, queso Oaxaca, or quesillo.

Spun cheeses
Queso Oaxaca is made with the same technique as mozzarella, giving rise to that stringy texture. This involves the heated curds being stretched and rolled into balls, not unlike balls of spun yarn. The technique is called pasta filata, which could be translated as “spun paste”. The queso Oaxaca may indeed be related to mozzarella, there’s a suggestion on Wikipedia (with no sources to back it up) that it was brough by Dominican monks, presumably Italian Dominicans. Whatever the history of the cheese, it’s great. Though not exactly readily available in England. Even Tomasina Miers’ Mexican street food chain, Wahaca (see what she’s done there?) just used mozzarella, if memory serves.

Miers she has a recipe for tlayuda here, and for the base she just suggests “large Middle Eastern pittas, Turkish or Italian flatbreads” in lieu of wheat tortilla. This seems a bit of a cheat to me, never mind the fact that most supermarket flatbreads are full of crap industrial ingredients and palm oil. Plus this blog is all about baking from scratch!

So I’m making my wheat tortilla; it’s pretty straightforward. Traditionally these would be made on a comal – an earthenware or cast iron flat griddle. As my kitchen isn’t equipped with a comal, I’m just using a heavy cast iron skillet. It means the tortilla aren’t that big, diameter-wise, but it’ll have to do.

You’re best off making the refritos first, as they take some time. You could speed up the beans a bit by using a tin, but I prefer to cook from dried.

Wholewheat tortilla with toppings - the tlayuda

Toppings
As with a pizza, you can vary your tlayuda toppings, but I’m trying to re-create what I remember eating.

Although Fran ate hers with shredded meat, I had them with just the refritos, salad – tomatoes, crisp lettuce, avocado – and the cheese.

Miers suggests a combination of mozzarella and pecorino (presumably pecorino Romano) or mature cheddar; I’m going for a combination of mozzarella and a feta-type cheese made here in Sussex called Medita. A nice crumbly Wensleydale might be good too. People reading this in the US, I don’t know enough about your cheeses but similarly something salty and crumbly.3

You can add some salsa to the mix too, or some coriander (cilantro) leaves.

Refried beans, frijoles refritos
Most commonly these are made with pinto or black beans, though I’ve also done them in kidney beans. In fact, all three of these, along with flageolet, borlotti and haricot (aka navy) beans, are the same species, the common bean, Phaseolus vulgaris, transformed into distinct looking cultivars after years of selective breeding. Again, as I prefer to use local ingredients where possible (though we can’t grow avos in England, dammit!), I’m using red haricots from Hodmedod’s.

500g beans
Water
Sunflower or rapeseed (canola) oil. (Traditionally you’d use lard. I’ve even done it with bacon fat, which is good. But not for the veggies.)
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
A few cloves of garlic, whole
Salt
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
Chili (optional)

1. Soak the beans overnight, discard the water, then put in a saucepan along with the coarsely chopped onion and whole garlic cloves, cover with water, bring to the boil and simmer until tender.
2. Drain, reserving the cooking water.
3. In a large frying pan, fry the finely chopped onion and crushed garlic in the oil or fat until soft.
4. Add the cooked beans, and fry over a low heat. If it’s too dry, add some of the cooking water.
5. Squash and crush the mixture with a fork or potato masher. You can make a puree with a blender, food processor or stick blender (aka zizzer) but I prefer the more varied texture you can from hand-mashing. Add more of the cooking liquid to achieve a nice sloppy consistency but not too runny.
6. Keep warm while you prepare the rest of the tlayuda, or re-heat when required.

(I did take some photos of the refritos, but frankly it’s not the most attractive-looking thing on its own and I simply don’t have the inclination or skills to make it look fancy.)

Wheat tortilla
As I understand it, tlayuda is always made with wheat tortilla, not corn (maize) tortilla. I’m using a mixture of wholewheat and white flours, both stoneground, and both low protein. The amount of water I give is just a guide, QB. The exact amount will depend on how absorbent your flour is.

150g plain wholewheat flour
100g plain white wheat flour
2g fine sea salt
60g oil, lard or shortening. I used sunflower oil
100g warm water, approx

Wheat tortilla ingredients

1. Combine the flour and salt in a mixing bowl.

Add the oil
2. Add the oil or fat and combine. If you’re using a solid fat, crumb in it. Either way the result will be crumb-like.

Tortilla dough, moist but not sticky
3. Add the water a little at a time to form a moist but not sticky dough. Bring together as a ball. The dough should weigh about 400g.
4. Wrap in plastic or cover with a cloth and leave to rest for 20-30 minutes.

Balls of tortilla dough
5. Now, the size of your skillet will decree how big you can make your balls of dough to be rolled into tortilla. My skillet is only 23cm wide, so I made 6 balls of dough at about 66g each. Again, once you’ve formed the balls, give them a rest, covered.
6. Warm up the skillet, dry – don’t oil it.
7. On a floured work surface, roll out the balls. The dough should be about 2mm thick.

Cooking wheat tortilla in a skillet
8. Cook the tortillas one after the other turning them over when they start to blister. It’ll only take a few minutes each side. Cook them too long and they go crisp, or hard.
9. Keep the rolled tortillas in a stack, under a clean cloth.

Assemble your tlayuda
Cut up your salad ingredients – dice or slice the tomatoes and avo, shred the lettuce. Bring the mozzarella to room temperature and tear it in rough shreds; crumble the other cheese. Prep some coriander leaves if you want.

Take a tortilla. Smear it with refritos. Dose it with the torn mozzarella. Sprinkle over some of the crumbly cheese. Add some shredded lettuce, and some slices or tomato and avocado. Try not to completely overload it.

I don’t remember the tlayuda we ate being spiced or heated up particularly. But if you like chili, and can’t bear the idea of eating something nominally Mexican but without any chili, feel free to add some fresh slices or chili, or whatever Scovillage your favour. We had such a good chili harvest this week I added a little mild chili (apache) to the refritos, but it’s up to you.

Enjoy!

Some of this year's chili harvest

 

Footnotes
1 Any pizza with a tomato sauce is called pizza rossa (red pizza) in Italy, though it also specifically refers to a very basic pizza – just base and sauce. Pizza bianca (white pizza) refers to any pizza that doesn’t have a tomato sauce, though it also refers specifically to a snack – very popular in Rome – that is just the flatbread itself, seasoned simply with the olive oil and perhaps a sprinkle of course salt.
2 Wikipedia says refritos actually means “well-fried beans”, not “refried beans”, as we’ve been led to believe all these years.
3 So yes, I’ve heard of Monterey Jack, and I’ve encountered a bright orange stuff that often comes in plasticky slices and gets called “Cheddar”. This is problematic if you’re English, as Cheddar is an actual place in the west of the country, and the traditional cheese produced there is a hard, full-fat cow’s milk cheese that is undyed, uncoloured. I don’t know why real cheddar doesn’t have an European PDO (protected designation of origin) status, or similar. I suppose the name has become so synonymous with generic hard cow’s milk cheeses now it’s too late to re-educate people and protect it.

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St Roch’s Fingers – a trifle, of sorts

St Roch's Fingers

Internationally, St Roch, whose feast day is 16 August, is also known has Rocco, Roque, Rock and even Rollox. Rock ’n’ Rollox. He sounds cool. Though actually he’s invoked against things like epidemics and skin diseases. And is the patron of a wide variety of people in different nations: the falsely accused, surgeons, tile-makers, gravediggers, second-hand dealers, wool-carders, pilgrims, apothecaries. As well dogs, sick cattle and bachelors.

He’s pretty multi-purpose.

The story says he was born in Montpelier in France and, after the death of his parents, became a pilgrim, bound for Rome. He didn’t get there (or maybe he did. The whole saga is hardly factual). Instead, he found himself in an area gripped by epidemic. Staying to minister, he apparently performed various miracles before himself contracting the disease, at Piacenza, northern Italy. He retreated to the woods. There, a dog found him, and brought him bread every day, taken from his owner’s kitchen.

Roch survived, and would only die in 1327 when he returned to Montpelier, was taken for a spy and stuck in a dungeon. Maybe. He may have instead died in Angleria, Lombardy, Italy, where he’s patron of two towns, Potenza and Gerocarne. Or he may have been an amalgam of other historical figures, or, like many saints and feast days, the story may have drawn on older, pagan stories. Hagiography does blur with folklore and legends.

As his story features the bread-bearing dog, I would have thought he would have a traditional feast-day loaf. But seemingly not. Instead, Feast Day Cookbook (Burton and Ripperger, 1951) and Cooking with the Saints (Schuegraf, 2001) say one should make something called St Roch’s fingers. The latter book says it’s Spanish in origina. It is basically another variation on the theme of trifle – sponge and custard, a dash of alcohol.

Sponge fingers
St Roch’s fingers requires sponge fingers. Now, you can just go and buy these, but they’re pretty easy to make and cooking from scratch is fun, rewarding, and means you can avoid any nasty additives you will very likely get in industrially made biscuits and cakes bought from supermarkets.

Sponge fingers, ladyfingers or savoiardi, are basically made with the same mix you use for Genoise, or a similar one. I wrote about that, and trifle, more here, but here’s another basic savoiardi recipe.

Makes about a dozen fingers.

2 eggs
62g caster sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch of salt
55g plain flour

1. Preheat oven to 190C.
2. Line 2 baking trays with silicone or baking parchment.
3. Fit a piping bag with a plain 1.25cm nozzle.
4. Separate the eggs. Whisk the egg yolks with half of the sugar and the vanilla. Beat until light in colour.
5. In a clean bowl beat the egg whites. While beating, slowly add the salt and the remaining sugar, continuing to beat until you achieve soft peaks.
6. Gently fold the beaten egg whites into the egg yolk mixture.
7. Sieve the flour over the egg mixture and gently fold it in.
10. Pipe fingers, about 9cm long, 4cm apart.
11. Bake for about 12 minutes until firm to the touch and golden.

Sponge fingers unbakedSponge fingers baked
12. Place on racks to cool.

Crème de la crème
You also need custard. Again, you can buy this in tins, or cheat with a cornflour-based powder, but you simply cannot beat homemade stuff.

145g full-fat milk
145g cream
1 tsp vanilla essence
2 egg yolks
15g caster sugar

1. Heat the milk and cream together in a saucepan, and scald – that is, bring it almost but not quite to the boil
2. In a bowl, beat the eggs with the sugar.
3. Pour the hot milk over the egg yolks whisking continuously. When completely mixed in, return to the pan.
4. Stir over a low heat until the mixture thickens.
5. Pour into a bowl and beat in the vanilla essence. Allow to cool completely.

St Roch's Fingers

To assemble the dessert:
Some brandy. Or other alcohol. To taste.
Some whipped cream.
Some small glasses.

1. If you want to flavour the custard, beat in a little alcohol – brandy for example.
2. If you want to make the custard go a bit further, beat in some whipped cream.
3. Line the glasses with the sponge fingers: a piece in the bottom, and up the side.
4. I’d just made some jam – or indeed jelly – from the cherry plums (Prunus cerasifera) in my garden so I put a blob of that in the bottom.
5. Cover with custard.
6. Add some extra whipped cream on top if you fancy.

Quite why you’d eat this for St Roch’s day I don’t know. But enjoy, while basking in that protection from epidemics and skin diseases.

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Filed under Biscuits, cookies, Discussion, Feasts, Recipes

Michette di Liguria: sweet buns, strange legend

Michetta, michette di liguria, Dolceacqua

After a slice of my torta di Santiago, a friend of my brother’s asked if I knew of any cakes that are traditionally eaten for the Christian feast day of the Assumption of Mary, celebrated on 15 August. I didn’t.

My native England has lost so much of its traditional festival foods, and I hadn’t encountered any Assumption baked goods while living in Italy. So some research was undertaken. The Feast Day Cookbook suggested veal cutlets and shrimps in béchamel. Neither of which satisfies the cake remit. Digging around more though, I came across a sweet bun from Liguria, northwest Italy. Specifically they’re from the town of Dolceacqua.

They’re called michette. Michetta is a term that’s more commonly used in Italy to refer to a type of hollow bread roll, originating from Lombardia; I knew it in Rome as a rosetta. The Dolceacqua michetta is a little different though: it’s a small, enriched bun. It also comes with such a striking, disturbing folkloric origin story.

Once upon a time…
Here’s the story, or an interpretation thereof based on me plodding through various Italian sources and a couple in bad English.

In the 14th century, a Dolceacqua baker had a beautiful 19-year-old daughter called Lucrezia. She was set to marry a young lad called Basso. Unfortunately, Marquis Doria, the ruler of Dolceacqua, enjoyed his droit de seigneur, or lus primae noctis: the supposed right of the feudal ruler to claim peasant brides on their wedding nights. With claim basically meaning rape. Remember the scene in Braveheart? (Fictitious. Apparently droit de seigneur is fictitious too, or at least historians agree there’s no conclusive evidence for it happening in the Middle Ages in Europe.)

Understandably, Lucrezia and Basso were not happy about this and tried to hide. Doria, however, had had his eye on Lucrezia and tracked her down, taking her back to his castle. Desperate, she tried to throw herself from the window of a castle tower. The Marquis stopped her, and to subdue her, locked her in a hot, damp dungeon. She remained steadfast though, and died there of hunger and thirst.

Hearing of the death of the popular girl, the locals had had enough and approached the castle. Basso was able to sneak in and, at knife point, forced the Marquis to abolish the lus primae noctis.

To celebrate – and commemorate – local bakers like Lucrezia’s dad started to make a small, sweet bun – michette.

I’m a bit confused at this point, but some of the sources say the bun was supposed to resemble female genitals – it was like an offering to the feudal lord, an alternative to the rape. It’s the sort of thing that sounds like it has its origins in older, even weirder, stories, but I’m not sure. Some of the source even had quotes in Ligurian language, which really threw me.

Anyway, the day after the Marquis relented was the Feast of the Assumption, which in Dolceacqua also became the Festa della michetta. Since then, “the word ‘michetta’ is still used to define the virginity and the female womb”, apparently. I suspect locals could explain it all better.

Not many sweet buns come with such heavy historical and cultural associations though. Take the Chelsea bun – it’s a sweet bun, which was first made in Chelsea. That’s its story.

Michetta, michette di liguria, Dolceacqua

Shapes and notes
The most common shape for the michette seems to be a small elliptical bun. Then on this video (at 1.00 minute) you can see a baker making a version with snakes of dough rolled into three ball shapes. I’ve given instructions for forms. I’ve also read of the existence of a cross form, the crocetta, but I haven’t done these.

Note, this is a very yeasty dough – it’s not a nice healthy long fermentation bread, it’s an indulgent, feast-day bun. Even if you can buy them all year round now in Dolceacqua. It’s also a very rich dough – as befitting a feast-day sweet – containing sugar, eggs, butter and olive oil.

Butter in doughs can be problematic if it gets too warm, it’ll become greasy and ooze. If your dough is getting too greasy, cool it off in the fridge, to firm up the butter a bit.

Also note that Italians may well make the dough volcano-style, that is with the flour piled up on the work surface, a crater in the middle and the liquid ingredients added. I do this for pasta, but I find it easier to use a bowl for bread doughs, as it’s more familiar and gives me a better sense of how it’s feeling.

Recipe
500g flour – 300g strong white, 200g white plain (all-purpose)
40g fresh yeast (or 25g active dried yeast)
100g water, tepid + about 80g more
100g unsalted butter, not warm
2 eggs (about 100g, without shells), lightly beaten
120g caster sugar
2g fine sea salt
Zest of one lemon
40g extra virgin olive oil
Water
Extra caster sugar

1. Mix the yeast with about 100g of the water.
2. Put the flour in a bowl and rub in the butter until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.
3. Stir in the sugar, salt and lemon zest.
4. Add the yeast mix, eggs and oil.
5. Bring to a dough. Add more water if it feels tight. I ended up adding about 80g more, so about 180g total.
6. Turn out the dough and knead. You want it quite moist and sticky – but manageable. Don’t overwork it, or the butter will get to oily. The best way to handle this is a few more short kneads over half an hour.
7. Clean out the bowl, oil it slightly, then put the dough back in and cover. Leave 10 minutes then give it a short knead. Return to bowl, cover, leave 10 minutes then give it another short knead.

Michetta dough, first proveMichetta dough, first prove, doubled

8. Put the ball of dough back in the bowl, cover and leave to prove until doubled in volume. As there’s so much yeast in this mix, it’ll be quite quick, especially if the room temperature is warm.
9. Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface and gently deflate to redistribute the gases.
10. Divide the dough into pieces, scaled at 60g if you’re being accurate.

Michetta dough, scaled at 60gMichetta dough, form balls

11. Form the pieces into balls.
12. Form the balls into the final shapes, as mentioned above, there seem to be two variables. For the basic buns, they’re small ellipses, so just squash and stretch the ball slightly. For the longer form, roll out the ball slightly, then using the karate chop side of your hand, roll slightly to make two indentations all around the circumference of the cylinder (see pic below).
13. Place the michette on baking sheets and allow to prove up again.
14. Preheat the oven to 200C.
15. Bake for about 12 minutes, until lightly browned.

Michette - two shapesMichette, baked, caster sugar

16. While still warm, brush the top with water and sprinkle with (or roll in) caster sugar.

Enjoy as a breakfast bun or for afternoon tea.

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Filed under Baking, Cakes (yeasted), Feasts, Recipes

Great British Beer Festival 2015. Some thoughts – a lot of them critical

Great British Beer Festival glass

The festival guide cover says, “The Campaign for Real Ale proudly presents…”. But one of my strongest memories from the the Great British Beer Festival yesterday isn’t of a standout ale, but of standing near the Harveys bar and handsome delivery van, chatting with Edmund Jenner (of said brewery). Beside us stood a row of an industrial-size wheelie bins. Their contents: a suppurating mix of packaging, food and dregs. There are no specific receptacles for dregs; no water for rinsing or moderating the flow either. No lids for the bins. No recycling.

Now, I’m not relishing being critical, nay negative, here and I’m very thankful to Ed for offering me a ticket to the trade day. I do wonder, however, if CAMRA needs to raise its game a bit for this festival, held annually at the fine Olympia, Kensington, west London. Oozing dumpsters, centre stage of a drink and food event: is this really the best we can do to celebrate our national drink?

Now, some commentators are suggesting that the event, and CAMRA itself, are changing fast, but I’m not sure I got a great sense of that. Sure there were some beers showing the influence of more experimental “craft” brewing (in-your-face hops, apricot juice, US beers in casks etc) but overall the vibe was somewhat tired, staid, mired in convention. Not a showcase of the best of our brewing tradition. And it’s all still very male, very middle-aged, very white to boot.

CAMRA meets US "craft" in casks

Time to move on
This becomes a thorny issue, however, as any discussion of younger beer-drinking demographics brings us to so-called “craft beer”, which the younger, or new-to-real-beer, demographics favour. The purists will dismiss “craft beer” as the product of upstart breweries that most likely keg their beers, and may even pasteurise them. The purists themselves preferring the CAMRA-sanctified virtues of live cask beers.

The Harveys bar under Olympia's fine vaulted roof

This is troubling for someone like me. I do naturally tend towards cask, most frequently drink Harveys, but I’m open to any decent beer that’s made with knowledge, passion and skill – any well-crafted beer. CAMRA’s narrow focus is depressing – especially now.

British beer culture, frankly, is in a bit of a muddle. For people like me – forty-something, neither young craft beer hipster nor aging CAMRA member – the disjunction between “real ale” and “craft beer” is largely irrelevant; for others just dipping their toe into the waters of real beer, it’s probably just confusing. CAMRA saved real beer in the dark times of the 70s and 80s; but it can move on now, surely? Great British Beer Festival should be about all great British beers*. And represent a wider spread of the populace who enjoy real beer.

National pride
As Spain, France or Italy are enormously proud of their wine culture and heritage, Britain should be of its beer.

It’s our national drink, it fed and watered centuries of British artisans and farmers, workers and traders; it was one of the key fuels of Britain as it rampaged around the globe; it was something we took to colonies and conquered countries. The latter has difficult imperialist connotations, but the point is that Britons were among the key migrants to take the craft and skill of brewing overseas: notably to America. And yet many young British brewers today look to the US “craft beer” scene for inspiration over their own extraordinary British beer heritage.

While the results can be brilliant – The Kernel, Beavertown etc – they can also be crude, with brews overly laden with high alpha hops, resulting in concoctions that are reminiscent of toilet cleaning products. Compare such a thing with the subtle, nuanced blending of British hops and malts in a Harveys ale, for example, and it can be quite shocking.

The splendid new-old Harveys van

Straddling the divide
I live in hope of encountering more British beer that straddles the gap, connects the disjointed cultures – a beer that truly balances and combines assertive hoppiness with full-bodied, warming maltiness. Oddly, I’d say I drank a few beers that fitted this description better while living in Italy – a country whose new generation of brewers happily take inspiration from the US and Britain, or Belgian, or Germany.

Yesterday, I sampled several beers from the hundreds on offer. None of them really straddled the great divide. I wish I could have sampled more, but it’d take days to drink through more, especially as the event also adheres to another frustrating convention. At the GBBF you can only order in pint, half or third measures – that is, 568, 284 or 189ml. Even the latter is a big measure if you’re not sure if you’ll like the beer in question or if you’re a drinker who wants to sample as much as possible but stay sensible and compos mentis.

Triple FFF Brewery's Pressed Rat and Warthog

A few days ago Fran managed to – boo-hoo – break one of our two glasses from the inaugural Fermentazioni beer festival, which we attended in Rome in 2013. The remaining glass is marked in 10, 20 and 30cl measures – 100, 200 and 300ml. Now, sure, a Brit may want a full pint if he or she has found a desirable drink, but I do appreciate the 100ml measure – enough to get a whiff and a taste when there are hundreds more beers on offer. What about introducing a quarter pint (about 140ml)? It’d be especially useful for those beers at 6% plus.

Sample sizes are just one of the ways that CAMRA could revise and, dare I say it, modernise the festival. As far as I’m concerned, the ideal route would be somehow overcoming the differences and enlarging the Great British Beer Festival to include not just cask beers that tick the CAMRA boxes but also the newer wave of “craft beer”. It just seems silly to have separate entities in the form of CAMRA’s GBBF and, a few days later, the London Craft Beer Festival. Surely, they’re all craft beers? I mean, what’s a traditional British brewer doing if not using his (or her) craft? I do not like the distinction.

A bit dusty, not as aromatic as hoped from the Elder Ale, by Flowerpots, from near my home town of Winchester

Sorry but…
I do not like the filthy bins. I do like lack of a small sample measure. I do not like the divided demographics: GBBF I would say was about 70/30 male; Fermentazioni was about 50/50. A wine festival I attended in Italy, meanwhile, was also very mixed age-wise – from youths to oldies, male and female equally. If Italians celebrate their wine that broadly, why don’t we do so with our beer?

Craft beerists – you need to look more to your own country’s heritage. CAMRA – you need to recognise all real beer. Enough of this absurd division! Put them all under one roof, and us consumers can pick and choose as we like. And many might even learn something, overcome their prejudices. And proudly celebrate all our brewing culture, traditional and modern, with more open arms. Oh, and please, sort out the bloody vile dumpsters!

Dumpster

* Real beers that is. Not generic industrial lager etc from semi-British owned multinationals and whatnot.

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Neolithic bread

Back in 1999, an archaeological dig in Yarnton, Oxfordshire, “unearthed two 5,000-year-old pieces of bread – the earliest fragments of bread to be recovered in the British Isles”.

Despite my enthusiasm for history, British food history and bread in general, I’d not heard about this before, so thanks to Jeremy Cherfas and his Newsletter from Eat This Podcast.

It’s a wonderful story. Not only is it amazing to have such fragments, which survived as they were charred and have been carbon dated as from “between 3,620 and 3,350 BC”, but also, in this era of blanket demonisation of bread, it’s a salient reminder of how long humanity has had an important relationship with grain-based foods. Even here in Britain, which was, a long way from the civilisations of the Middle East, central Asia, China etc.

At the time of the announcement, they had identified one of the grains as barley. I wonder if they managed to identify any more of the ingredients and if anyone had a go at re-creating the ancient loaf? It sounds like an interesting challenge, but one would need not only true ancient grain varieties, but also a quern-stones to mill them. That’s not something that’s part of my kitchen kit at this point.

There’s a little more on this 1999 discovery here and here, but I can’t find anything subsequent.

 

 

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Torta de Santiago for St James’s Day

Torta de Santiago, Tarta de Santiago

In Christianity, St James, son of Zebedee, was one of Jesus’ Twelve Apostles. Western Christianity celebrates his feast day on 25 July.

Although it’s spread across the globe now, in part thanks to tourists and pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago, the chief dish for celebrating the Feast of St James is the torta de Santiago, from Galicia, northwest Spain.

Legend has it that St James’s remains are at the cathedral of Santiago de Campostela in Galicia. Iago is one of many Iberian variations on the name James, which is itself the English version of the Hebrew Jacob, Yaʿqob. In ancient Greek it became Iakobos, which was Latinised as Iacomus, which came Iacobu in Vulgar Latin, which in turn evolved into the Galician Iago – hence Santo Iago, Santiago.

Cake or tart?
Although torta (Galician, also the same in Italian), tarta (Spanish), tarte (French), torte (German) are related to the English word “tart”, in the sense of open-top fruit pies, they all derive from the Late Latin torta, possibly meaning a small bread. By Medieval Latin the word had come to mean a cake or a pie/tart. The full etymology isn’t certain, lost in the mists of time and the convolutions of Latin evolving into various different European languages. It’s salient in the case of torta de Santiago though, as it’s a product that breaks down those pie/tart/cake distinctions: it can be made with or without a pastry case.

The defining characteristic of the torta is a slightly citrusy mix of ground almond, egg and sugar. And, if you’re going for a bit of decorative iconography, a cross of St James on the top in icing sugar.

Jewish or Christian?
Claudia Roden posits the torta may have its origins in Jewish food, writing: “The Galician city of A Coruña is on the Jewish tourist route. There is a synagogue and an old Jewish quarter there. Jews from Andalusia, fleeing the Berber Almohads’ attempts to convert them, came to Galicia in the 12th and 13th centuries.”

Something related to the modern torta de Santiago may have emerged in Christian 16th century Galicia with the torta real (“royal tart”) or bizcocho de almendras (“almond cake”). A more recognisable modern incarnation is generally traced to an 1838 book by one Luis Bartolomé de Leybar, as a tarta de almendra.

The bottom line, as ever, is to take the notion of ancient traditions with a pinch of salt – so many things we like to imagine were practised fully-formed in the middle ages were instead more likely invented or at least consolidated in the 19th century.

Some versions include grape marc, aka grape pomace – ie the leftovers from pressing – which is interesting and makes sense if you have a vineyard. I don’t. The version in the Moro cookbook, meanwhile, adds membrillo (quince paste); I don’t have a quince tree either. Almonds and citrus is enough for me.

6 eggs, separated
250g caster sugar
1 lemon, zested
1 tsp orange blossom water
Almond extract, a few drops
250g ground almonds (either pre-ground or grind blanched almonds in a food processor)

Plus
Butter, for greasing
Icing sugar, for dusting cake

Torta de Santiago ingredientsZest of one lemon1. Preheat oven to 180C.
2. Grease a 25cm loose-bottom tin with butter and line with baking parchment.

Beat the egg yok and sugar until pale and creamyAdd the ground almonds

3. Beat the egg yolks with the sugar to a thick pale cream, ideally in a mixer or with handheld beaters.
4. Beat in the zest, orange blossom water and almond extract.
5. Beat in the ground almonds.
6. Whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks. Note – if you’re using the same beater attachments them spotlessly, as any fat will stop the whites beating properly!
7. Add a blob of the egg whites to the almond batter and beat it in. It’s a thick mixture so this is to lighten it up slightly to make it easier to add the rest of the egg whites.

Add the egg whitesTorta de Santiago batter

8. Add the rest of the egg whites and fold in. Don’t beat! You want to retain the airiness.
9. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin.

Ready to bakeBaked
10. Bake for about 35-45 minutes, until the cake feels firm.
11. Let it cool in the tin then turn out.
12. Before serving, dust with icing sugar. You can cut out a cross of St James/Santiago to decorate the top. Have a look online for a shape to give you a template.

Torta de Santiago template, dusted with icing sugar

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Filed under Cakes, Feasts, Pies & tarts, Recipes

Kubaneh – Yemeni Jewish breakfast bread

Kubaneh

The latest addition to my cookbook library is Honey & Co’s The Baking Book, by Sarit Packer and Itomar Srulovich. It has the same UK publisher as my friend Rachel’s Five Quarters (which boasts a couple of my recipes), so I went along to the launch event a few weeks ago, bought a copy, got it signed and have been trying out the recipes since.

I love enriched doughs, so I was drawn to the recipe for kubaneh. Sarit’s family has Egyptian and Yemeni connections, and this bread is from the latter culture, specifically it’s a Yemenite-Jewish Sabbath breakfast bread. Reading more about it now, it’s traditionally baked overnight in a sealed tin. While Sarit’s version bakes for a fairly long time, it’s not overnight.

Some versions include whole eggs, and can be eaten as more savoury affair, with tomatoes or a tomato dip, or skhug, Yemeni hot sauce*. This one is sweeter. It’s rich in butter (or smen/semneh fermented sheep or goat milk butter; or margarine, depending on your dietary restrictions and inclinations and shopping options) and drizzled with honey, which caramelises together slightly.

Why haven’t I heard of this before?! Just my kind of thing.

Notes
I’ve tweaked the process slightly and given the ingredients in a more consistent format, so as to also include bakers’ percentages (below).

It’s a fairly moist dough – the original recipe says 300-350ml water, but I split the difference at 325ml: 325g. That works out at about 65% hydration, so quite wet and sticky. Check out my post on handling sticky doughs.

For this baking vessel, they use a “traditional lidded aluminium pot” but say you can also use a 20cm fixed bottom round cake tin, with a “lid” made of foil.

I used fresh yeast. You could use 10g active dry/granular yeast instead. If you only have instant/powdered yeast, you don’t need to mix it with liquid first – just combine it with the flour.

The dough
60g light soft brown sugar
15g fresh yeast
325g water, at about body temperature
250g strong white bread flour
250g plain (all-purpose) white flour
6g fine salt

Plus
Vegetable oil
Unsalted butter, softened (or margarine or smen, if you can get it. Very unlikely here in England!)
Runny honey

Here is it in bakers’ percentages (rounded):

Ingredient Quantity Percentage
Light soft brown sugar 60g 12%
Fresh yeast 15g 3%
Water 325g 65%
Strong white flour 250g 50%
Plain white flour 250g 50%
Salt 6g 2.5%

1. Mix together the water, sugar and yeast. Stir to dissolve the yeast.
2. Weigh out the flours into a large bowl and add the salt.
3. Add the yeast mixture to the flour and bring together a dough. I don’t have a mixer, so my instructions are for doing it by hand. If you do, just mix until well combined and smooth.

Kubaneh shaggy doughKubaneh - kneading doughKubaneh - smooth dough
4. Turn out the shaggy mixture onto a lightly oiled work surface and knead. I used the Dan Lepard technique of not kneading too much, then returning the dough to the bowl, cleaned and oiled, leaving for 10 minutes, then kneading briefly again. Repeat this twice more, then return to the cleaned, lightly oiled bowl.
5. Cover with plastic or a clean, damp tea towel and leave to prove for a couple of hours, or until doubled in size. The time will depend on the ambient temperature. It’s about 20C in my kitchen on a mild English summer’s day, and it took about two and a half hours.

Kubaneh dough - proved
6. While it’s proving, liberally grease the cake tin with butter, and grease the underside of the foil lid too. If you have a lidded pot, grease that similarly.

Kubaneh dough - slapped around
7. Sarit describes the next step as “the strange bit” – you moisten your hands then “flip the dough about in the bowl to knock it back”. Do it three times, keeping your hands moist.

Kubaneh dough - pieces
8. Oil a tray, then divide the dough up into eight pieces and place them on the tray. The dough weighs 900g, so eight pieces at around 112g.
9. Oil your hands a bit then take each piece, stretch it slightly, and put a blob of butter in the middle. I used pieces at about 10g, half a walnut size.
10. Smear the butter a bit then wrap the dough around it to form rough balls.

Kubaneh dough pieces in tin
11. Put the balls in the prepared tin, one in the middle, the rest equally spaced around it.
12. Put some more flecks of butter on top, drizzle with honey then cover and prove again until the dough “almost reaches the top” – too high and it’ll “overflow when baked.” I drizzled a bit more honey and added a bit more butter before baking.

Kubaneh dough ready for baking
13. Preheat the oven to 220C.
14. Put the tin, with its lid, in the oven and bake for half an hour.
15. Reduce the heat to 200C and continue baking for another half an hour.
16. Reduce the heat again to 180C and continue baking for another half an hour.
17. Turn the oven off and leave in the oven “for at least an hour”.
18. It’s best served warm, so if you’re an insomniac and have been doing this all night, or proved it overnight in the fridge and baked it early, enjoy it thus.

It’s surprisingly soft and chewy, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get nice caramelised bits. I won’t be doing it every week, but it’s a great addition to my enriched breads & breakfast bakes armoury. It’s also reminiscent of English lardy cakes, particularly the fruit-free versions from my part of the country, Hampshire and Sussex. Though obviously the fats used are a bit different for that gentile bake.

It’s also got me thinking about that most indulgent of fatty-sugary-doughy caramelised concoctions, the Breton kouign amann, which is more a pastry than a bread. Still, I might have to revisit that soon.

* Aka zhug, zehug; the Honey & Co The Baking Book also has a recipe for this, to accompany their lahooh, Yemeni pancakes.

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Filed under Baking, Breads, Cakes (yeasted), Recipes

Toxins in our bread

An email from the Soil Association arrived in my inbox yesterday. It’s a petition…. no, no, don’t stop reading! This is important, especially if you eat grain-based foods* and, you know, don’t want to completely kill the environment and poison the food chain. It involves bread, and poisons therein.

For those who don’t know, the Soil Association is a UK charity that campaigns to promote organic farming as well as providing certification to farmers. Now, I broadly support organic practises for the common sense reason that using chemicals designed to kill living things in farming cannot be healthy for consumers – we are, after all, living things ourselves.

But nor do I completely reject non-organic farming, for a few key reasons. Firstly, people may be farming in a more traditional way but not want the strict restrictions that accompany certified organic farming. Secondly, I’m dubious about large-scale certified organic farming: it doesn’t seem dissimilar to non-organic industrial farming in its heavy use of fossil fuels, food miles etc. Thirdly, strictly organic systems may not be viable for feeding a global population of seven, eight, nine, ten billion.

Weedkillers in food
I’m not getting into these arguments now though as they’re complex. Instead, I want to promote is an awareness of this current Soil Association campaign. The email I received had a title “Not in our bread” with a subtitle that says, “Government tests show nearly 1/3rd of UK’s bread can contain weedkiller”. This figure is credited to a 2013 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) Pesticide Residues in Food (PRiF) report. After the same report, a news story last year said “63% of the loaves analysed in 2013 contained traces of at least one pesticide and that contamination has run at these levels for at least a decade.”

That’s shocking by any reckoning. Shocking, though probably not surprising. Since the two world wars, those of us in industrialised countries, then since the so-called “Green Revolution” those in developing countries, have embraced industrial farming methods that rely heavily on chemical inputs. We’ve known for a long while that such things are toxic, and such toxics are having an effect on the environment – getting into the water table, changing (damaging) the ecology of waterways, effecting animal and insect populations**. But we’ve been complacent about the effects, as if increasing crop yields and pushing down food prices are the only things that matter. Well, sure they matter – but poisoning ourselves and our environment matters too. Just a bit.

Is cheap, plentiful food worth it at the cost of our health and that our the environment?

Damaging our genes
The problem being addressed by this petition relates to glyphosate, a weedkiller. The chemical was discovered in the 1950s then Monsanto recognised it as a weedkiller in 1970. (A great way to commemorate the year of my birth; thanks Monsanto.) It was considered to have a comparatively low toxicity to animals, and became the key ingredient of commercially available weedkillers, most notably in Monsanto’s proprietary weedkiller Roundup.

Now, I never eat shitty industrial faux-bread and wheat-based products and I try to buy organic flour for my bread, but when I’m skint, I do resort to cheaper flours. And these will almost certainly have come from wheat crops nuked with such toxins. It’s a worrying thought.

The Soil Association says, “Government figures show its [glyphosate’s] use in UK farming has increased by a shocking 400% in the last 20 years. Nearly a third of UK cereal crops (over 1 million hectares) were sprayed with glyphosate in 2013.” It’s used on crops too, as well as in parks and gardens.

The Soil Association email also says, “Farmers spray the weedkiller pre-harvest, in order to kill and dry the crop and reduce weeds for easier harvesting. But, The International Agency for Research on Cancer [IARC] – part of the World Health Organisation – has recently identified glyphosate as a probable carcinogen.”

Professor Christopher Portier of the IARC says, “Glyphosate is definitely genotoxic.” That is, it damages your DNA. Furthermore, proprietary weedkiller mixes may be even worse. Dr Robin Mesnage of the Department of Medical and Molecular Genetics at Kings College, London, said at a Westminster briefing, “We know Roundup… contains many other chemicals, which when mixed together are 1,000 times more toxic than glyphosate on its own.”

It sounds like most of us will already be consuming products containing these toxics, and it’s unlikely that’ll stop any time soon. Some nations have already moved to ban glyphosate products, though in the UK, the Soil Association is initially just trying to exert pressure to stop the pre-harvest spraying, which would be a step in the right direction. If you would prefer to reduce the amount of toxins and carcinogens in your food supply, sign the petition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* Like any sane, non-coeliac, person should.
** Insects that are food for other animals and insects that are pollinators. Such side-effects of large-scale industrial farming are quiet catastrophes that are already proving to have consequences. Another group of toxic chemicals used in agriculture, neonicotinoid insecticides, has been connected with the severe decline of bees recently. No bees to pollinate = no crops such as fruits, brassicas (from broccoli and cabbage to mustard and oilseed rape), coffee, onion, sunflowers, various beans/peas/legumes etc etc etc etc. Check out a comprehensive list here.

Just as I wrote this, we had some (more) terrible anti-sustainability news here in the UK: the government has ignored scientific advice and softened rules on neonicotinoid use. They’ve granted a derogation, allowing farmers to spray it on oilseed rape crops. More info here. It’s a difficult one as farmers have got used to this chemical-industrial approach to cultivation, and struggle when they’re banned, but such toxins aren’t the answer. Surely with a combination of traditional knowledge garnered from millennia of farming and modern science we can find sustainable solutions?

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Acciuleddi – Sardinian deep-fried sweet pasta

Acciuleddi, drizzled with honey

We first encountered acciuleddi on our holiday in Sardinia a few weeks ago. They’re a form of sweet, deep-fried pasta and as such are a cousin to frappe, which are found on the Italian mainland. I ate a lot of frappe in Rome, when they would appear in shops for Carnevale – the blow-out before the fasting period of Lent, the run-up to Easter in the Christian calendar.

Pasta, deep-fried then sweetened? What’s not to like? Well, perhaps such things aren’t brilliant for your arteries so it’s good they’re just eaten for Carnevale. Except of course it wasn’t Carnevale in June for our holiday, so I think the proprietress of the Gallurese (northern Sardinian) bakery we bought them, La Panetteria del Porto in La Maddalena, from was bending the rules slightly.

If she can do it, so can I. Though I wouldn’t normally endorse eating celebratory seasonal or feast-day foods at the wrong time of year. It’s as obnoxious as British supermarkets stocking hot cross buns all year round. They cease to be special if they’re on the shelves all the time.

Sweet pasta
The very concept of sweet pasta may be a bit weird for staid Brits, but I just couldn’t resist a crack at these, given my love of frappe.

Looking at Italian – and Sardi – recipes, the pasta generally seems to be made with semola rimacinata di grano duro – that is fine, “re-milled” semolina (Triticum durum) flour. That’s not something it’s terribly easy to source here in the UK, so I went for a mixture of 00 flour for the fineness, and normal (ie medium milled) semolina for some robustness.

Also, the pasta does seem to have been traditionally made with strutto – lard. Now, I don’t have a problem with lard in principle, as I do eat some meat and as it was a key ingredient for older, traditional British baking (such lardy johns, or the more well-known lardy cake). The thing is, I try to only eat meat where I know the provenance, and generally that means from people we trust who have a farm nearby. I hoped they’d do some lard, but they just don’t have the demand. Instead, the only readily available lard in small-town England is foul crap spat out by the grotesque industrial meat machine, and I don’t want to use that. Instead, I’m going for all eggs, which some of the Italian recipes I researched also did.

So really, it’s just a pretty basic egg pasta – with the familiar ratio of 1 egg to 100g flour. Though with a little added sugar and some lemon zest.

Then deep-fried.

Surface & tension
The best surface for making fresh pasta is marble, the next best is stainless steel. I don’t have either, so I just used my bamboo worktop, rubbed with a bit of oil, as I do when making bread. It worked fine.

150g 00 flour
50g semolina
20g icing sugar (or caster)
Pinch salt
Zest of half a lemon (optional), finely chopped
2 medium eggs (about 110g total yolk & white)
Extra water, or egg, if mixture is too dry
Oil for frying

1. Sieve together the flours and icing sugar, add the pinch of salt and lemon zest.
2. Form a mound on your work surface.
3. Create a hole in the middle of the mound, much like the gaping mouth of a miniature volcano. Or like when you’re making concrete by hand.
4. Crack the eggs and put in the hole. You can of course do all this in a bowl, but there’s something very satisfying about eggs in a mound of flour..

Making acciuleddi pasta 1Making acciuleddi pasta 2
5. Using a fork, whisk up the egg, then starting combining the flour. Try to keep that wall around the edge intact, and add the flour bit by bit.
6. When the dough is starting to get quite thick, bring the rest of the flour into it by hand.

Making acciuleddi pasta 3Making acciuleddi pasta 4

7. Knead the dough until smooth, then form a ball, wrap in plastic and rest in the fridge for about half an hour.
8. Take the dough out and cut off small pieces. Mine weighed in at about 15g.

Acciuleddi pasta ballAcciuleddi cutting pasta
9. Take a piece and roll it out to form a long snake. Mine were about 300mm long, 5mm wide.

Acciuleddi, roll outAcciuleddi, roll out
Shaping acciuleddi 2Shaping acciuleddi 3

10. This is the tricky bit, so I’ve also made a video. It’s my first video and it’s not exactly slick, focus is an issue, going out of frame is an issue, and it is entirely un-edited, sorry. But it might help.


11. Anyway, you take the snake and join the two ends together.
12. Gently roll one end, while holding the other end still, to form a spiral. There will be some tension in the spiral – retain it.
13. Now, join the ends together again and that tension should cause it to spiral around itself again – creating a kind of double helix. Help it on its way as needs be.
14. Squeeze together the join.

Acciuleddi ready for frying
15. Put the acciuleddi on a tray or plate, lightly dusted with flour or semolina, and cover while you make the rest so they don’t dry out.
16. Heat oil for frying. I used sunflower oil, though I imagine the most authentic, original ones were fried in lard too. You want it at 180C or thereabouts, if you have a thermometer or fryer with a dial. If not, throw a small piece of dough in. If it bubbles, bobs to the surface and browns within a few minutes, you’re good to go.
17. Fry the acciuleddi in batches until browned.
18. Drain and put on some absorbent paper.

Acciuleddi, drizzle with honey
19. While they’re still warm, pile them up and drizzle them liberally with honey. I used some from our friends’ hives, from when they were in south London. I’ve been saving it for a special occasion. This seemed like one.

The results were good. Sweet, crunchy and simultaneously indulgent and undemonstrative. They were a bit chunkier than the ones we bought from La Panetteria del Porto, so if you want to make more refined, smaller ones, use pieces of dough weighing about 10g and roll that snake even thinner!

I want to go back to Sardinia now.

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