Delicate shortbread fingers

Shortbread fingers

Every family has its funny little games. One I play with my mother is “What’s the most past its best-before-date ingredient in the back of the cupboard?” These tend to be spices, but in this case, at my folks’ place I found a box of cornflour1 that was… well, let’s say that at least it was from this century.

Now, one of the many wasteful habits we have in the modern world, especially in the West, is throwing away perfectly good food. Love Food Hate Waste says that in the UK alone “We throw away 7 million tonnes2 of food and drink from our homes every year, the majority of which could have been eaten.” This may be a massive underestimate though. Other stats3 have it at 15 million tonnes. Think of that. That’s a mountain of food. A mountain of food that was produced with vast amounts of energy, that goes into landfills, when elsewhere people are starving – or indeed, relying on food banks here in the UK, the sixth biggest economy in the world.

So rather than giving it to the birds or the bin, I thought, why not try and use up the cornflour. Certainly, in its long career at the gloomy back of the cupboard, it’s not improved, but nor has it become inedible – it’s probably lost some of its power-to-thicken, but it hadn’t rotted or become toxic or bad for you. It just got stale.

Shortbread/shortcake
I’d been browsing Jane Grigson’s English Food and naturally, given my inclinations, I was in the Teatime chapter. Among the entries is one for Shortcakes. Though these are actually shortbreads, or shortbread biscuits. Grigson, writing in 1974, before the internet made everyone a expert and/or pedant, simply says, “Scottish shortbread is one of the many international variations on the shortcake theme”.

Shortbread is one of those recipes that utilises memorable proportions: 3 parts flour, 2 parts butter, 1 part sugar. For the flour, the Grigson recipe gave an option for either using ground rice or cornflour mixed with flour, so this seemed like a great way to use up the museum piece.

I’ve made shortbreads with ground rice and semolina before, which gives them a bit of crunch, but using cornflour takes them the other way – into a softer biscuit that almost dissolves in the mouth. The delicate texture can be further enhanced by using icing (powdered) sugar wholly or partially for that 1 part sugar.

A note on techniques
Shortbread can be made by either creaming the sugar and butter, then adding the flour, or by rubbing the butter into the flour, then adding the sugar. Grigson’s recipe did the latter, and gave the delightfully in-depth instructions of “Mix to a dough”.

Shortbread isn’t a million miles away from a shortcrust pastry, so the rubbing-in method seemed like a logical choice. As with a shortcrust pastry, try to avoid overworking the flour.

Now, I’ve made these twice in the past week: once with the, er, vintage cornflour, and once with some fresh stuff now I’m back home. Both worked well: the, er, well-aged cornflour resulted in a slightly softer, more powdery biscuit that was perfectly edible and palatable. Stale flour isn’t ideal, but it won’t kill you. So don’t bin it the moment it goes over its best-before date. Think of those 7 – or 15 –  million tonnes.

200g plain (all purpose) flour
100g cornflour (corn starch)
200g unsalted butter
50g caster sugar
50g icing sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 180C.
2. Line a couple of baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats.
3. Weigh out the flours and sieve them together into a large bowl. Or just combine and whisk a bit with a fork if you can’t be bothered with the sieve.
3. Cut the butter into small cubes, add it to the flour and rub it in until the mixture is crumb-like.
4. Add the sugars to the mixture and squeeze to all together to form a dough. It will be crumbly. You want it crumbly – crumbly = short.

Shortbread fingers - cutting the paste

5. Roll out the paste on a lightly floured worktop, to a thickness of about 12mm. I made mine into fingers, cutting pieces about 70 x 25mm.

Shortbread fingers - prick with a fork
6. Put the piece on the baking sheets and prick them with a fork.
7. Put them in the oven and bake for about 15 minutes. The classic shortbread is baked to the point where it’s still pale, but I like mine just starting to colour. Your choice – add or subtract a few minutes from the baking time to suit your tastes.

 

1. What Americans call corn starch and Italians amido di mais. Whatever you call it, it’s a starch extracted from the endosperm – the carby bit – of kernels of Zea mais, maize, or corn in US English.
2. 7 million metric tonnes is 7.72 million short/US tons or 6.9 long/imperial tons. By any measure, a lot.
3. This article in The Guardian is about a new law in France to stop supermarkets wasting so much food. It has stats from Eurostat, with the UK at the top of an EU league table of food wasters.

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Syrupy almond-semolina cake – revani or basbousa

Revani cake

Some time in the late-1990s, I cut this recipe out of a newspaper. The writer was definitely Andy Harris, the paper was possibly The Independent. I went through a phase of making it loads then, I don’t know, it just seemed to get forgotten. I’ve no idea why, as it’s great. Just my sort of thing – quite dense and textured thanks to its use of almonds and semolina and moist thanks to a flavoursome syrup poured over after baking.

The name Harris used was revani, and he wrote about it as a Greek cake. Actually it’s a common through much of the Eastern Mediterranean, Levant, Maghreb and Middle East and is also known by the alternative spelling ravani, and by other names such as basbousa, hareesa/harisa, namoura and kalbelouz. Some versions appear to feature coconut. I don’t fancy this as syrup is spiced up with cinnamon, cloves and orange and in tandem with the flavour of almonds, I think the coconut would be a bit much.

I’ve added a little orange blossom water to the original recipe. In part to boost that orangey-ness, but also as I find it’s the sort of ingredient that gets pushed to back of the cupboard and forgotten until it’s a decade over its best-before date. So I want to keep using it. Harris’s recipe featured brandy, but I don’t have any, I’m not sure what it would add, and I’m pretty certain that when this cake it made in Muslim nations it wouldn’t contain any booze.

Fitting in with my interest in feast day foods too, it may also eaten by Coptic Christians in Egypt and beyond for their Great Lent and Christmas celebrations. Though this info seems to be lurking on Wikipedia, unverified, and repeated elsewhere by lazy bloggers. Oh, oops. I’m struggling to confirm it, and don’t know any Copts.

Syrup
350g granulated sugar
700g water
1 cinnamon stick
6 whole cloves
Zest and juice of 1 orange
1 tbsp orange blossom water (optional)

Cake
200g granulated sugar
225 g unsalted butter
6 medium eggs (about 300g beaten egg)
110 g plain flour
175 g semolina
1 tbsp baking powder
110 g blanched almonds [or ground almonds, see below]
1/2 tsp vanilla essence
1/2 tsp almond essence
Extra blanched almonds to decorate

1. To make the syrup, dissolve the 350g sugar in the 700g water in saucepan over a low heat.
Revani cake syrup
2. Add the cinnamon stick, cloves and orange zest and juice and simmer for 15 minutes.
3. Take the syrup off the heat and allow to cool. Stir in the orange blossom water, if using.

Revani cake ingredients

4. In a large bowl, or with a food mixer, beat the butter and sugar together until creamy and light.
5. Beat the eggs with the vanilla and almond essences, then gradually add the egg to the creamed mixture, incorporating well.
6. If using blanched almonds, chop them finely – either by hand or in a food processor. Alternatively use ground almonds – you won’t have quite such an interesting texture but it’s easier. I used a mix this time round – 40g ground almonds and 70g blanched almonds, chopped.
7. Sieve together the flour, semolina and baking powder. Add the chopped almonds/ground almonds.
7. Add the flour mix to the creamed mix and blend well.
8. Preheat the oven to 180C.
9. Grease a rectangular tin, about 32x20cm.

Revani cake batter

10. Spoon the batter into the tin, smooth it, and put in the oven for about 30-40 minutes, until firm and browned.

Revani cake - score a diamond pattern

11. Remove from the oven and score a diamond pattern in the top with a sharp knife.

Revani - pour syrup over, straining out the spices

12. Pour the syrup onto the warm cake – through a sieve or strainer to catch the spices and zest.

Revani - decorate with blanched almonds
13. Decorate the diamonds with a blanched almonds.
14. Allow to cool and serve at room temperature for tea or as a dessert. The latter can be souped up by being served with honey-sweetened Greek yogurt or poached fruit.

Revani, basbousa

A note on photography
When I thought I’d broken Fran’s camera last week, actually I’d just broken the lens thread. Phew. So we got a new (well, second-hand) lens. It’s an 18-200mm F/3.5-6.3, so Fran could use it more for landscapes and stuff.

I’m not a photographer, and struggled enough to learn how to use the kit lens effectively, but now I’m struggling again. I can’t quite get in close enough, suspect I won’t be able to rely on the autofocus as much, and doubly suspect I probably could do with a faster 35mm or 50mm prime lens or something with a better macro. Gawd knows. It’s all changed so much since I got my photography O-level in 1986….

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Many ways to bake

Stone and casserole

If my blog is isn’t getting updated quite so regularly these days, it’s because Fran and I are at a pretty intensive stage of a journey we’ve been on the past decade. It’s a journey that’s much shorter for most people: that of starting a family.

The old-fashioned way failed us, so we tried medical intervention. Quackery also failed us, so the past year or so we’ve been involved in the adoption process.

As anyone who’s had similar experiences will tell you, it’s a roller-coaster. The adoption process in the UK is predicated on extending the protection of children in care who may well have had tragic, sad or painful starts to life. So as the prospective adoptive parent, you’re scrutinised to within an inch of your life, every corner of your life checked, considered, evaluated.

You spend months filling in forms, being interviewed. The sheer weight of bureaucracy can make you buckle with its Kafkaesque convolutions as you struggle to prove you can be a good parent – without ever having had the experience of being a parent, thanks to the fickle vagaries of nature. It’s tough, but the end goal is clear – giving a child a good home.

Baking as palliative
When times are tough, baking is gives me solace. Bread-making especially is unique and special: it’s about making a basic food stuff, but it’s so tactile. Plus it’s all about fertility too, in its modest way. You’re reliant on the life incarnate in microorganisms: yeast, and, for sourdoughs, yeast and lactobacilli (bacteria). You need to nurture them, feed them, encourage them to reproduce. Reproduce as fervently as possibly. Unlike us, they shouldn’t need any intervention.

So I’ve been baking a lot recently. I’ve been baking most of my life, and making bread for at least 20 years, though it’s only been the past eight years or so I’ve made pretty much all the bread we eat at home. Although I’ve got a baking diploma, I’m not a professional. The thing professionals have over home bakers is a mastery of skills acquired through repetition. For long baking shifts, often through the night, professional bakers will make their doughs, prove them, shape the loaves, bake them, perfecting the processes.

So although I have a reasonable knowledge of all these things, I haven’t the mastery: it’s a lot harder to achieve when making one or two loaves a week. Especially if, like me, you have an enquiring mind and want to keep experimenting. There are so many variations on basic techniques, so many kinds of flour, so many permutations. So I keep on playing around.

I was a pretty good artist when I was young, but art, like bread-making, like any skill, is something that needs constant practise. Creativity needs nurturing. I carried a notepad and sketched all the time until my mid-twenties, but then it just tailed off. I don’t really know why. Anyway, my creative urges these days mostly go into food, into baking. Talking to my friend Rachel, who knows all about our trying-to-start-a-family saga,  she suggested the baking obsession is also an expression of my creativity, my nurturing instincts. (I’m not a stereotypical macho male, obviously.)

If fate, and the powers that be, allow us to adopt and, finally, start a family, I don’t intend to stop baking. But I suspect I’ll have less time for free-form experimentation as the focus of the nurturing will be very different.

Bread experiments in the oven
Another thing Rachel’s said to me is: make your blog more personal. But I’ve not really known how to approach this. This attempting-to-start-a-family thing is mine and Fran’s big personal project. Fran’s sort of tried to put me off talking about it, but we process things differently.

The way I see it, with a pregnancy, you get to a point where you can’t not talk about it – it becomes publically obvious. I feel we’ve been involved with the adoption process for long it’s reaching an equivalent to that publically obvious stage. Just without the bump. Without the literal bun in the oven. Instead, there are my bread experiments in the oven.

This is my latest haphazard experiment. I wanted to see how the same dough behaved when baked in two different ways.

Lively sponge

I made a dough using a kilo of flour, a mixture of white wheat flour, wholemeal spelt flour and rivet flour. I combined 400g of this with 650g of water and 15g of yeast to make a sponge pre-ferment.

Full of wheatberries

I let that ferment for a few hours at about 17C, then made up a dough with 15g fine sea salt and about 200g of cooked wheatberries (wheat grains) I had.

Well risen

Then gave all that a prove for about five hours, giving it some turns and folds.

I then managed to break Fran’s camera. We’d had two days of howling winds, 40-50mph (64-80kph), and that frays your nerves somewhat. Clearly it made me clumser than usual. I’d just said to myself, better watch out, the concrete floor would destroy this camera if dropped – then I dropped it while climbing a small stepladder to take an overhead photo. So now my pics are taken with my inferior phone camera. And I need to take a trip to the camera shop.

Divided up

After breaking the camera, both pieces of dough were scaled at the same weight, both were moulded the same way, and both were given their final prove in round bannetons.

Final prove

After the final prove, I put one in a Le Creuset casserole dish, pre-heated in the oven at 220C. Some call this the Dutch oven technique. I used a peel to slide the other onto a baking stone (or, more specifically, my pizza stone). Both were then baked at 220C for 20 minutes, then 30 minutes more at 180C.

Baked

Now, as you’ll see from the photos, despite all these years of baking, I’m still making some errors. Firstly, the two kilos of dough I had was too much for the size of Le Creuset I was using. Oops. Secondly, the one I baked on the stone, not being constrained by a container, did a funny oven spring and opened out sideways. This is frustrating for several reasons as I know the factors full well:
1. I probably didn’t leave it long enough in the final prove.
2. It may have opened up better if I’d give the top some slashes.
3. I quite possibly didn’t get the dough tight enough in the moulding stage.

The latter is one a baking skill I really struggle with. Sometimes I nail it, sometimes I fail miserably. I’ve managed 80% hydration ciabatta, then made a 70% hydration ball that’s turned out a discus.

Cut

Anyway, the real thing I was wondering about with this experiment was whether the crust and the crumb of the bread would be markedly different when baked with the different techniques. I was expecting they would be. They weren’t. Both are lovely loaves, soft, wholesome, good for sandwiches or, when they’ve staled a bit, toast.

For this experiment, I probably should have divided the dough in three, and baked a third on a steel baking sheet. Not sure my oven’s big enough though. Still, it was a fun experiment, a nice distraction from the anxiety and emotional intensity of the adoption. And, heck, one day I hope it’s the sort of bread my kids will like for their school lunches.

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Tippaleivät – Finnish May Day fritters

Tippaleivat

In England, for May Day we all – of course – morris dance around poles bestrewn with ribbons and get drunk on ale*. I’m not sure we have any particular traditional celebration foods. So I was looking around for treats from other nations. I came across tippaleivät (plural) or tippaleipä (singular).

Tippaleivät are eaten in Finland as part of celebrations on Vappu, the Finnish May Day, Walpurgis day. Love that word, Walpurgis. Walpurgisnacht. That’s German of course, though Germany has a relative of tippaleivät, cruller, the US has its funnel cake, while they’re all also arguably a distant relative of the South Asian jalebi. Mmm. Jelabi.

Frying 2

Basically they’re just swirly fritters, which can be flavoured with lemon zest and vanilla, though the latter can come via a dusting of vanilla-flavoured icing (powdered) sugar. I’ve seen recipes for yeasted versions, versions with baking powder, and versions with no raising agent at all. I’ve taken the middle path.

My Finnish friend Tomps tells me that tippaleipä means “drop bread” – as in, you’re dropping the batter. I’ve read lots of tips on how to shape the fritters as you fry them as you just pipe a worm of thick-ish batter straight into the oil. Some people say use a ladle, others a metal ring of some persuasion, or even a tin can with both ends removed.

But using a ladle and a piping bag simultaneously over hot oil seems a tad fiddly to me, whilst most tin cans these days have a plastic lining – not ideal in oil at 180C (360F, for those of you in the 19th century). So I just did mine free-form. They’re perhaps not the neatest, but they hit the spot.

Squeezing, dribbling

Happy May Day! Happy Vappu! And indeed happy Beltane!

2 medium eggs (about 100g beaten egg)
25g caster sugar
200g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp fine salt
100g milk
1/2 tsp vanilla essence [optional]
zest of half a lemon [optional]
Sunflower or rapeseed (canola) oil, for deep-frying
Icing sugar, for serving

1. In a large-ish bowl, combine the egg and sugar, and vanilla (if using), and beat slightly.
2. Sieve together the flour and baking powder, add the salt and zest (if using).
3. Alternately add flour mix and milk to the egg, beating to create a thick batter.
4. Put the batter in a piping bag fitted with a smallish nozzle, max about 5mm. Alternatively you could use a plastic freezer bag and snip off the corner. Just keep it away from the hot oil!
5. Heat the oil to 180C.
6. Drizzle a thread of batter into the oil, forming a nest shape.

Dribbling, frying
7. Cook until golden, about 4 minutes, then take out and drain on paper towels.

Frying
8. Serve dusted with icing sugar.

In Finland, they’re eaten with a lemony mead drink, sima. We’re just having ours with coffee and hot chocolate.

Tippaleivat, overhead

 

 

* Or not. Due to the convention of Bank Holiday Mondays, today isn’t a national holiday – that comes on Monday. Which isn’t actually May Day.

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A version of khobz, khubz, khoubz Arabic bread

Khobz, torn open, with ful medames

Recently, I’ve been making various Middle Eastern, Asian and Mediterranean flatbreads, or at least flattish-breads that are leavened but formed into low profile shapes. These include types of Armenian bread (peda and matnakash), naan/nan (which I’ve been experimenting with, but haven’t quite cracked; watch this space) and of course pizza bianca and pizza. So I also fancied having a go at khobz, aka khoubz, aka khubz, aka khobez (all transliterations of خبز).

Now, before anyone says “Those aren’t khobz!” or “Those don’t look like the khobz I buy from my local Arabic deli”, bear in mind that the word simply means bread in standard Arabic, it’s not one particular type of bread.

Baked, wrapped in a cloth

Wikipedia says it’s a synonym for pita, but that’s not quite right. Whereas pita is, generally and most commonly here in the UK, a white wheat flour flatbread with a pocket, I’ve had khobz in various forms. For our wedding, where we had a Middle Eastern-inspired feast, a Yemeni-British friend sourced a load from an Arabic bakery in west London: they were foot-wide, thin and floppy. But I’ve also had khobz that are smaller, discus-shaped, not flat breads, but in this flattish category I enjoy. This latter, I believe, may be more typical to Morocco, but having never been there I’m not sure. Rather than being made with just white wheat flour, these can contain wholemeal wheat flour and semolina.

When I was a kid, semolina was simply a slightly off-putting gruelly pudding we had for school lunches, but it more specifically refers to a coarse flour or meal made from durum wheat.

Durum wheat is Triticum durum aka Triticum turgidum subsp. durum, a cousin to common bread wheat, Triticum aestivum. It’s principally used for making pasta – and not so common in England as a sludgy pudding any more, though I’m sure it’s due for a fancy revival.

Whatever the form the khobz takes, it’s designed for eating torn and smeared with stews and dips.

Oh, and I don’t have a tannuur, or tandoor, so they’re just baked in a normal domestic oven.

12g fresh yeast
320g water, tepid
200g strong white flour
100g wholemeal wheat flour
150g semolina
5g salt

1. Crumble the yeast into the water and whisk.

Different floursAdd the yeast water
2. Combine the flours, semolina and salt in a large bowl.
3. Pour in the yeasty water and bring the mixture together to form a shaggy dough.

Shaggy doughSmooth-ish dough
4. Turn out and knead to a smooth dough, or put in a mixer to achieve the same result with less elbow grease.
5. Put the ball of dough back into the large bowl, cleaned and slightly oiled. Cover with a damp cloth then leave for half an hour.
6. Take out the dough, strength it into a rough rectangle then fold it in thirds. This is called stretch and fold, a useful technique for developing doughs. (See my pizza bianca recipe for more on the process, including photos.)
7. Put the dough back in the bowl, cover and leave for another half hour. Do one more stretch and fold, then put it back, cover and leave until doubled in size.

Doubled in size
8. Take out the dough and weigh it. It should weight about 790g. For six small loaves, divide it into six pieces, each weighing about 130g.

Divide into 6 piecesForm balls
9. Form the pieces into balls, cover and rest for about 10 minutes.

Form discs
10. Sprinkle the worktop with more flour, then, using the heel of your hand, squash down the balls into discs, about 15cm in diameter. Place these on baking sheets dusted with semolina, and cover.

Before baking
11. Leave to prove again, until doubled in size.
12. Preheat your oven to 220C.
13. Bake the loaves until slightly browned. Time will vary depending on how fierce your oven is, but at least 10 minutes and less than 20.
14. Wrap in a clean tea towel or cloth then serve, warm-ish.

Khobz wiuth ful medames

I made this batch to have with ful medames, the broad bean/fava dish that is arguably from Egypt but is found throughout much of the Levant and Arabic East Africa in various localised forms, and a lemony tahini sauce. I love beans, legumes, pulses, and I prefer to buy locally grown, or at least British produce. Sadly, a lot of the pulses we could get in Italy, just don’t grow in Britain, or the ones available in the shops are all from China. Too far, too dubious. At the moment, I’m favouring fava etc from British producer Hodmedods, and they include a regime for ful medames in one of the leaflets that comes with their pulses.

Apparently broad beans/fava – Vicia faba – have been grown in Britain since the Iron Age, that is the period of about a millennium prior to the comprehensive Roman invasion of 43AD. I love the idea of making an Arabic bread, to eat with an Egyptian stew, made with British grown broad beans, known by their Italian name.

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Cocoa nib and crystallized ginger cookies

Plate of ginger and cocoa nib biscuits

The past few years, my favourite chocolate bars have been those that contain both a high percentage of cocoa solids and cocoa nibs. I had a few brands I favoured in Italy, but back here in England I mostly eat Lordy Lord, from local Sussex chocolate company Montezuma’s. It’s “min cocoa solids 79%” and it contains nibs. I love the nutty crunch the nibs provide. Yet it’s taken me ages to get round to trying using nibs as a baking ingredient.

What are nibs?
Before I go any further, let’s clarify what cocoa nibs are. Chocolate is produced from the cocoa beans, the seeds of the tree Theobroma cacao, the first bit of which suitably means “food of the gods”. The pods containing the seeds are harvested then cracked open. The pulp and beans are  piled up and left to ferment, to reduce the innate bitterness of the beans. They’re then dried, before being roasted and cracked – the resulting fragments are the nibs.

Add nibs to dough

Cocoa vs cacao
Now reading about this online, I’m coming across the usual internet disagreement and misinformation about the difference between cocoa nibs and cacao nibs. Some sites insist the latter are the version where the beans bypass the roasting process; some health food sites say this results in a product that’s higher in antioxidants. This may well be true, but I can’t find any scientific reports. Plus, the words cocoa and cacao are often used as synonyms. Both words are translations, transliterations or fluid (mis)spellings of the word in the languages of the Mesoamericans (Mayans etc) who first cultivated the tree and added the term to European languages via the Spanish.

Indeed, in most Romance languages (Spanish, Italian, French etc), the English “cocoa” is simply translated as cacao.

I’m using Organic cocoa nibs from Naturya, and they describe the product as “simply unprocessed cocoa beans, broken into little bits. Nothing more, nothing less.” With no mention of roasting. Or cacao.

Chocolate cake with coca nib sprinkles

Sprinkles and chips
So I’ve been using the nibs as sprinkles for chocolate cake (above), or as an ingredient for biscotti and cookies. Cocoa nibs are funny as, strangely, they’re reminiscent like carob, which, for those of us who remember the 1980s, was another fad food that health foodie types tried to promote as an alternative to chocolate. I like carob, as carob, but as an alternative to chocolate, it just doesn’t cut it.

So if I want a chocolate chip cookie, I have to use chocolate. But my cocoa nib cookies are great – as something distinct. I’m enjoying playing around with a recipe for cookies that uses the technique where you form a cylinder of dough then cut it. This can be called “slice cookies”, or “icebox cookie” (from keeping the dough in the freezer, or fridge). I first encountered it years ago via the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook, but the ever-informative Alan Davidson, in the Oxford Companion to Food, writes, “The American habit of making rolls of cookie dough and keeping them in the refrigerator or freezer may have come from Germany; the doughs for some German biscuits such as Heidesand are made into rolls and chilled before slicing.”

Crystallized ginger

Crystallised ginger
Adding crystallised ginger was just a hunch I fancied playing with, and I’m pleased with the results. Ideas are rarely new in this day and age – seven billion plus humans, the internet – and I’ve definitely enjoyed ginger and dark chocolate combined before, so that led me to nibs and crystallised ginger, an ingredient I enjoy in steamed puddings and pear cakes.

Ginger is the root of Zingiber officinale, but rather than being dried and powdered, it’s boiled in syrup, rolled in sugar – another name for crystallised ginger is candied ginger. As such, it’s a cousin of things like candied peel or candied angelica (the stems of Angelica archangelica, a somewhat out-of-fashion ingredient).

Recipe

140g plain flour
100g self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp powdered ginger (optional)
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
150g unsalted butter, softened
100g light brown sugar
100g granulated sugar [test with caster also]
1 egg, beaten (at room temperature*)
100g cocoa or cacao nibs
120g crystallized ginger, roughly cut up

1. Sieve together the flours, baking powder and powered ginger – only use the latter if you like the cookies a little bit more gingery. Stir in the salt.
2. In another bowl, cream together in the sugars and butter. Cream until light and fluffy.
3. Add the beaten egg, a little at a time.
4. Add the flour mix to the creamed mix and bring together, adding the nibs and chopped ginger.

Cookie dough

5. Bring the whole mixture to a dough. It should be a little sticky, not too much.

Dough cylinders
6. Form the dough into two cylinders, using slightly floured hands if you find it too sticky.
7. Wrap each cylinder in plastic and put in the fridge, for at least an hour. The cylinders will be fine in your fridge for a day or two, though the dough will dry and become slightly crumblier the longer you leave it. Some say this deepens the flavour, but that’s another discussion.
8. When you’re reading to make the cookies, preheat the oven to 180C.
9. Line a couple of baking sheets with parchment.

Slice the cylinders
10. Cut the cylinders into rounds, about 8mm thick. The mixture may crumble a bit, if it does, just gently squeeze back together. You won’t achieve perfect rounds, due to the nibs and chunks of ginger.
11. Place the rounds on the sheets, leaving some space for expansion between then, about 4-5cm.
12. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, until nicely coloured.
13. Transfer to wire racks to cool.

Cocoa nib and crystallized ginger cookies

 

* Always bake with your eggs at room temperature. I doubt it makes any difference to taste but it does help when beating eggs into a creamed sugar and fat mixture, reducing the chance of curdling. It’s also better when making things that require the egg, or the white, to be whisked, as the warmer egg incorpates air more effectively. Personally, I don’t generally store eggs in the fridge. Eggs have a great storage system already – it’s called a shell. If the egg is off, having it cold won’t make any difference. And, frankly, when was the last time you had an off egg? I’ve encountered them once or twice in my life. Plus, as I bake so much, and like omelettes and whatnot, eggs never last long in my house, so are are generally fresh, usually from these guys.

 

 

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Challah

Challah torn 2

Not being Jewish, I don’t have an iota of authority making challah, aka chollah, challa. But it’s a bread I love, and I’ve made a few times before, so I wanted to revisit it.

Quintessential for Sabbath and Jewish holidays, challah is not only a delicious enriched bread, a religious cousin to the secular brioche, it’s a great shape. I love the braid format, it’s handsome, fun to make and satisfying to tear.

I believe one of the reasons it’s a braid is that it’s easier to tear and as such doesn’t require cutting, thus avoiding introducing a knife – a weapon – to Sabbath and holiday proceedings.

Challah torn 3

I also believe the strands of the braid are symbolic of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Being a pretty amateur braider, I’m not ready for a 12-strand version yet, so I am sticking with the more commonplace four-strand form. It’s not something I’ve done for a few years, so excuse any clunkiness in execution. Heck, I can’t even practice plaiting my wife’s hair, as she’s wearing it short at the moment.

Symbols and meanings
Talking of the symbolism and heritage of challah, I do get the impression that there are different interpretations. So while Alan Davidson in the Oxford Companion to Food writes, “… the meaning of the word challah in biblical Hebrew is this bit of dough, ‘the priest’s share’.” Claudia Roden writes, “The name challah was given to a bread in South Germany in the Middle Ages, when it was adopted by Jews for the Sabbath… John Cooper (Eat and Be Satisfied) notes that the first mention of the bread was in the fifteenth century and that the term was coined in Austria. Before that the bread was called berches, a name that is still used by Jews in some parts today.”

Other sources suggest berches – at least today – is a water-based challah, with potato in the dough. Fascinating. I love these baked-goods family trees.

Anyway, my challah is a dairy version. I’ve read about enough American-Jewish versions to know they exist, with butter instead of oil and milk instead of water, but not enough to understand the kosher restrictions. Indeed, none of my friends with Jewish heritage seem to understand these things either, so I shouldn’t kick myself too much for being an ignorant gentile in this case. Adapt as fits your requirements, eg replace the sugar with honey.

Recipe

As with all my recipes, it helps if you have electronic scales. And I use grams. They’re simply easier and more accurate. Plus, it’s the second decade of the 21st century, folks!

I’ve included baker’s precentages too, as they’re handy for conversions, scaling, comparisons etc.

This recipe uses a pre-ferment, a sponge. It’s a very pleasing technique, as you feed the yeast on some of the flour and some, or all of the liquid, and create what becomes a lively bubbling mass. Andrew Whitney also says it’s an important and useful technique for enriched doughs as “Yeast cannot feed on ingredients like fat, egg and spice, so it is a good idea to get it working vigorously before mixing it with these things.”

Make 2 medium sized, 4-braid loaves

Ingredients

Ingredient Percentage Quantity (g)
White bread flour 60 340
Plain white flour 40 225
Milk 42 240
Yeast (fresh) 2 12
Egg 20 110
Salt 1 6
Butter 12 70
Caster sugar 4 25
Total 181 1028

Notes
White bread flour – that is, higher protein.
Plain or all-purpose flour – that is, lower protein.
Use 6g of active dried yeast or 5g of instant yeast instead.
110g of beaten egg was exactly two medium eggs for me, though sizes vary. I wouldn’t agonise too much, bit more would be fine as it’s quite a dry dough.

Method

1. Warm up the milk and crumble in the yeast. In a medium bowl, mix the yeasty milk, the sugar and 200g of the white bread flour and beat together to make a slurryish mixture.
2. Cover and leave to get bubbly. This will take about an hour, depending on temperature. You could leave it in the fridge overnight.
3. In a large bowl, combine the plain flour, the remaining bread flour and the salt
4. The butter should be soft – at least at room temperature. If it’s not, warm it up a bit. I tend to nuke it for a few seconds in the microwave.
5. Crack a couple of eggs into a bowl, whisk briefly, then weigh out the necessary amount.

Combine egg, butter, sponge and flourBring together
6. Put the butter, egg and sponge in the large bowl with the other flour and bring to a dough. Alternatively, just combine in a mixer with a dough hook, and form the dough.

Turn outKnead till smooth
7. If working by hand, turn out the mixture and knead until you have a smooth dough.

Prove till doubled
8. Form the dough into a ball, then put it in a large, clean bowl, cover and leave to prove until doubled in size. Time will vary depending on the air temperature but mine took about two hours.
9. Turn out the dough, then form it into a ball again. Leave to rest, covered, for five minutes.

Divide into pieces
10. Weigh the dough. It should weigh around 1000g. To make two medium loaves, divide it into eight pieces, each weighing about 125g. Alternatively, you can make one large loaf – just divide into four pieces, each weighing about 250g.
11. Form the pieces into balls, cover and rest for five minutes.

Form balls, form strands
12. Form each ball into a snake or sausage or rope. You get the gist. Each needs to be the same length. Mine were 50cm, but I’m actually thinking it looks better if they’re shorter. Your choice.
13. Take four snakes and pinch one end of each together firmly, tucking the end under and laying the strands out in front of you like half a tired octopus.

Lay out strands

14. There are plenty of videos online for braiding four strands. I remember it like this: 2/3, 4/2, 1/3 and repeat.

2 over 34 over 2

So take 2 (the second from the left) and put it over 3 (the third from the left), see above left. Then take 4 (the furthest right) and put it over 2 (the second from the left), see above right. Then take 1 (the furthest left) and put it over 3 (the third from the left).
Note, you’re not numbering the same strand itself, you’re numbering the position the strand is currently in, from left to right. Repeat to the end, then pinch together and tuck under again.

BraidingBraiding 2
15. Put on a baking sheet, cover and leave to prove again until doubled in size.
16. Preheat the oven to 220C.

Final prove - beforeFinal prove - after, egg wash
17. Brush the risen loaf with the remaining beaten egg. (At this point you can decorate it with seeds: poppy and/or sesame. Dip a wet knuckle in the seeds then press it onto a segment of the braid. Repeat until each segment has a patch of seeds on it.)

Baked
18. Put in the oven and bake for about 10 minutes, then lower the temperature to 180 and keep baking for another half hour or so. You want a nice golden colour.
19. Transfer to a wire rack and leave to cool completely.

2 challah

 

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Pastiera Napoletana – Neopolitan grain and ricotta Easter tart

Blur

“On sale now – and only in this season – is a pagan springtime cake, pastiera Napolitana, made with soft grains of all kinds, removed from their husks months before ripe, and cooked with orange blossoms. There is a description of it by one of the Latin authors.”

Norman Lewis includes this description in his entry for 28 February in his book Naples ’44. Lewis was a sergeant in the British Army Intelligence Corps and kept a diary of life in the war-torn city. It’s hugely evocative – largely of the privations of impoverished Neapolitans, but it also includes rich records of Naples’s seasonal traditions, including its unique foods.

Pastiera slice

I first encountered pastiera when we visited the city in June 2013, and was drawn in by the cute olde style packaging of a bakery that specialised in this special pastry. Although that bakery seemed to sell it all year round, pastiera is more specifically associated with Easter. Though its origins – as Lewis says – are pagan, ancient Roman. It may have been eaten as part of celebrations of the goddess Ceres (Demeter to the Greeks) who oversaw agriculture, grain and fertility.

Or something like that. The modern pastiera is likely decidedly different to the ancient Romans’ concoction, though both probably featured eggs and grains, symbolic foodstuffs for pagans and Christians alike.

The other important ingredient is ricotta. In England the stuff you get is a dense, slightly characterless cow milk blob rammed into plastic tubs. In Roma – ah, the ricotta of Roma! Fresh stuff is sold every day in the city, curdy delicacies that sit, plump and proud, in little baskets in the displays of market stalls, cheese shops and alimentari. Some are made with sheep milk (the classic), some cow milk, some a mixture.

I do wish I’d made this back in Rome, so I could have at least tasted the difference. I suspect made with real, fresh ricotta it would have been a somewhat different proposition.

Anyway, it’s about time I tried making one!

Pastry

300g plain, all-purpose or low-protein 00 flour
140g unsalted butter, cold
100g icing sugar
2 eggs

1. Sieve the flour.
2. Cut the butter into cubes.
3. Lightly beat the eggs.
3. Put the flour in a food processor, add the butter and blitz quickly until it resembles crumbs. Then add the icing sugar and blitz quickly again to combine. Alternatively, rub the fat into the flour by hand until it resembles crumbs then sieve in the icing sugar and mix.
4. Add the egg a little at a time, until the dough comes together. Again, you can do this in the processor or by hand. You may not need to use all the egg; you don’t want the pastry too damp.
5. Briefly knead the dough until it’s smooth. Don’t do it too much.
6. Wrap in plastic and leave to rest in the fridge.

Ricotta mix

Filling

The grain is the most distinctive ingredient here. You can usually get whole wheat grains from health food shops, and they will need simmering in water. Some may need soaking before cooking – follow the instructions on the packet. Make sure you could them enough as undercooked grain, like undercooked pulses, isn’t great for your digestion. You may be able to source pre-cooked grain in a can. Once cooked, drain, reserving the cooking water – it’s great for bread making.

Pastiera is also called pastiera di grano, with grano meaning grain in Italian, but it’s also used as a synonym for wheat. If you prefer, you could use another type of grain – such as one of the older varieties of wheat like spelt, einkorn or emmer. You could even use barley or oats. Or a mixture, as Lewis mentions.

300g wheat grains (cooked weight)
350g milk
30g unsalted butter
1 lemon, zest
1 orange, zest
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla essence
500g ricotta
250g caster sugar
2 whole eggs (about 120g beaten weight)
1 egg yolk (about 20g)
100g candied peel [ideally orange and cedrocitron, but latter not common in UK]
2-3 tbsp orange blossom water – optional, to taste

Uncooked wheat grainCooked wheat grain

1. Firstly, cook the wheat grains. Or open the can…

Wheat with milkWheat with milk 2
2. Combine the cooked grain, the milk, the butter, the zest, the cinnamon, the vanilla in a saucepan, cook gently for another 30 minutes or so. Again, you don’t want to turn it into a porridge, so keep an eye on it, as you would a stove-top rice pudding.
3. Blend the ricotta with the eggs, egg yolk and sugar.

Add grain to ricotta mixAdd peel to ricotta mix
4. Add the grain mixture to the ricotta mixture, then stir in the peel and orange blossom water, to taste. This stuff can be quite pungent, so go easy.
5. Grease a 25cm pie or flan dish or even a spring-form cake tin then line it with the pastry.

Pastry casePastry case, pricked
6. Prick the bottom with a fork and trim the edge roughly. We’ll tidy it in a mo.
7. Pour the filling into the pastry case. (Mine was a bit full – but I only had a 24cm tin. Hence I suggest using a 25cm tin.)
Pastry strips

8. Gather up the pastry offcuts, roll out again, and cut strips about 15 wide. If you have a pastry wheel with a serrated edge, this looks cute, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t.

Trim edges
9. Create a criss-cross pattern on top of the filling with the pastry strips, with the pieces of pastry set at an angle so you get diamonds, not squares. Tidy the edges.
10. Preheat the oven to 180C.

Baked
11. Bake the pastiera for about 1 hour and a quarter, keeping an eye on it. If it starts to brown too much, cover with foil and turn the heat down to 160C. It should be firm and set, if not, leave in the oven for another 15 or so minutes.
12. Allow to cool completely, then dust with icing sugar and serve at room temperature.

Happy Easter!

Pastiera cut

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White tin loaf

Bacon sarnie

Look, I believe in the nutritional, virtuous and downright soulful qualities of wholegrain as much as the next right-thinking foodie, but sometimes you just need white bread. And sometimes you just need white bread baked in a tin. For sandwiches, for picnics, for easy lunches or – most importantly – for bacon sarnies1.

I didn’t really eat meat for about 20 years, and only had my ways corrupted by my carnaholic wife, so I thought I’d revisit meat abstinence for Lent 2015. So, for Easter Saturday, I’m officially breaking my fast with a bacon sarnie. And some white bread.

In this case, I’m enriching the dough by using milk instead of water. I also use a mix of strong white and plain flours. This makes it sweeter, possibly softer, and slightly more indulgent. It’s not as rich or sweet as a brioche or babka say, which have eggs and more sugar in the dough, so it’s still versatile enough to go as well with jam as it does with bacon.

This is a nice basic loaf that’s good for beginners: it’s not too high hydration (64%), so the dough is quite manageable.

300g strong white bread flour
200g plain/all-purpose flour
10g fine sea salt
320g milk
10g caster sugar
10g fresh yeast (about 6g/1 tsp ADY)
20g thick cream or unsalted butter, melted

1. Warm the milk to about body temperature.
2. Add the caster sugar (about 2 tsp) to the milk then the yeast. Whisk it up then leave to activate.
3. Put the flours and salt in a large mixing bowl.
4. When the yeast mix is frothy, add to the flour, along with the cream or butter.
5. Bring the dough together, turn out, then knead until smooth. You could do this in a mixer or even a food processor with a dough attachment. Form into a ball.
6. Clean the bowl and oil it slightly, then put in the ball of dough, cover, and leave for 10 minutes.
7. Give the dough another quick knead, put back in the bowl, cover and leave for another 10 minutes. Do this once more, then leave it to prove until doubled in size.
8. When doubled in size, take the dough out and form into a tight ball. Cover and rest for 10 minutes.
9. Lightly oil a 1kg loaf tin.

Final prove, beforeFinal prove, after
10. Form the ball into a baton then place in the tin.
11. Cover and leave to double in size again.
12. Preheat the oven to 200C.

Slash the topBaked
13. Slash the top with a sharp blade in a pattern of your choice2, then put in the oven.
14. After 20 minutes, turn the oven down to 180C.
15. After another 20 minutes, take it out, remove from the tin, and put back for another 10 minutes.
16. Allow to cool completely on a rack before cutting.

 

Notes
1 English slang for sandwiches.
2 I’ve read that in the old days when a village shared a communal oven, the slashes on top of a loaf were a type of signature, a way to identify your bread once baked.

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How to handle a sticky bread dough

Stretching sticky dough

Tomorrow is Good Friday, the day when, traditionally, western Christians ended their Lenten fast. In Britain, this was marked by eating hot cross buns. So I’ve just made a batch, from my recipe. It’s a day early, but what the heck, the local supermarket has been pumping out its fake hot cross bun smell for at least two months already and most people probably aren’t even aware of the old traditions any more.

My recipe involves handling quite a sticky dough, so that got me thinking – perhaps I should have included some more advice about how to handle it. But it’s quite an important subject for making, so here’s a whole post on it.

When I talk about sticky doughs, this generally means doughs with a higher proportion of liquid to flour. These are called higher hydration doughs, and they often make for the best breads, especially with wheat. They can be softer, with a more open crumb and a better crust. If you’re doing an enriched dough – for a brioche, challah or any number of feast day bakes such as hot cross buns – the stickiness can also be further exacerbated by extra sugar, fats and egg.

A typical error inexperienced bakers make is to keep adding flour to such sticky doughs – putting lots on the work surface and adding more to the mix itself until it stops being sticky and feels easier to handle. This isn’t great, as it will make the crumb dense and dry. And if you add too much extra flour later on, it’ll miss out on the fermentation, being essentially raw – and indigestible.

Anyway, Ecco! Or voila, as we say in English: here are my tips for handling sticky doughs.

1. Get yourself a plastic dough scraper.
Seriously, after a bowl – and an oven of course – this is the most useful bit of kit for making bread dough. As a sticky dough adheres to your worktop, use the scraper to keep freeing it. You can also use it to make sure any bits of dough that go astray from the main lump are reincorporated. This the type I use. It’s a reasonable size and has a straight edge – good for the worktop – and a curved edge – good for freeing dough from bowls.

Scrapers

2. Get a metal dough cutter/scraper
Not quite as essential as the above, but it can be used a similar way. One option is called a Scotch scraper.

3. Oil the work surface
You can sprinkle your worktop with flour, but on the initial knead I prefer to oil the worktop. If you have a stainless steel or even marble surface, it’s not so relevant, but if your worktop is wood or bamboo (like mine), smear your work area with a few drops of oil. Generally I’ll just use sunflower seed oil, but if I’m doing an Italian or Middle Eastern bread, I may use a bit of olive oil. The oil stops the dough sticking… quite so much.

4. Clean and oil the bowl
After your first knead, and before you put the ball of dough back in the bowl, clean it. Dry it then add a dribble of oil and rub it around. Again, this’ll stop the dough sticking to the bowl, so it’ll come out more easily when you do your second knead. It’s not essential, but it’s helpful.

5. Knead with quick, confident movements
Watch a professional baker or an experienced home baker in action, and they don’t mess about with the dough. It’s handled with quick, confident movements. Indeed, even if you have a sticky dough, and are kneading it by hand, as you develop it, it will strengthen, become less sticky and start to form a ball. I would recommend getting hold of Richard Bertinet’s book Dough, as it comes with a DVD that shows this process. Someone has posted that video on YouTube, though I’m not sure how long it’ll stay up. He starts kneading from about 4 minutes in.

6. Flour your hands
Some people like to wet their hands, but I like to put a bit of flour on mine, not unlike weight-lifters dusting theirs with talcum powder.  It’s not something I do assiduously, but it can be a handy way of making things a bit easier without resorting to adding loads of extra flour to the dough. Also, towards the end of the knead I’ll clean my hands with some flour. OK, I’m not exactly cleaning them, but if you rub some flour between your hands as you would a bar of soap, it helps to get any dough off. My tactic is to do it directly above the sticky dough: the extra flour falls onto and around the dough, and I can then use the plastic scraper to tuck it under the lump, making it easier to form into a ball and put back into the bowl.

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