Bakin’ and mess makin’

Not looking

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

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

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

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

Um, no, not really.

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

Small rolling pin

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

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

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

Squishing

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

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

2 Comments

Filed under Parenting

Local grain, local bread

Bread with Sussex landrace flour

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

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

Hearth Lewes

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

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

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

Low protein challenge

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

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

Sussex landrace flour

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

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

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

40% Sussex landrace flour loaves

 

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

14 Comments

Filed under Baking, Flour & grain

Mail, ale and the movies in Lewes

The Depot building site

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

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

I was lucky enough to have a tour of the site last week with Carmen Slijpen, whose passion for cinema is at the heart the Depot cinema project. The site is certainly changing fast, though the finished Depot will reflect its past in several ways, notably by keeping several of the features that look older, but were in fact fitted by Harveys in the 1980s, such as the Harveys signs and the clock tower2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thankfully, the South Downs National Park Authority saw sense.

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

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

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

Looking from screen 2 into screen 1

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

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

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

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

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

Steel and ply

Lewes Depot Cinema, Pinwell Road, Lewes
lewesdepot.org
Facebook
Twitter

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

6 Comments

Filed under Bars, pubs etc, Misc

Moo-cow biscuits

dav

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

nfd

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

15 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Brioche: not just a buttery French breakfast

Sicilian brioche

One of the projects I set myself last year was to perfect brioche. Specifically, I wanted a recipe where I could give a final prove overnight then bake in the morning to have for breakfast. I haven’t achieved that yet as the research is proving seemingly endless.

In many ways, brioche is the classic enriched dough. An enriched dough is a standard bread dough – yeast, water, flour, salt, time – that’s been made into something more indulgent by the addition of sugar, eggs, butter etc. Indeed, I always thought butter was pretty essential. But when I started looking at recipes, I realised there was enormous variation.

I already knew it was a bread that came in many forms – personally I’ve done tin braids, freeform braids (like challah), rings, and the classic Brioche à tête or parisienne, with the smaller ball on top of a large ball, usually baked in fluted tins. The variation, however, goes beyond the shape. I’ve got a list of 20-plus recipes, with the first eight alone coming from the 2011 Phaidon English version of Ginette Mathiot’s The Art of French baking, first published in the 1930s in France as Je sais faire le pâtisserie (“I know how to make patisserie”). There’s classic brioche, rich brioche (lots of eggs and butter), poor man’s brioche (very little butter and egg), brioche with no butter but crème fraîche instead, a brioche leavened with baking powder not yeast (and therefore more cake than bread) and even a Norwegian brioche (no eggs; peel and dried fruit).

The recipe I’m doing here, however, is another variation, from Sicily. Naples and Sicily have historical connections to France – not only did Normans invate Sicily around they same time they conquered England (what an incredible logistic achievement), but there was a 15th century invasion and claim to the throne, and a Napoleonic Kingdom in the 19th century – which in part explains a French influence in their baking traditions. Notably in the presence of brioche. I don’t know these parts of Italy, but I’m aware of the stupendous idea of eating small brioche as a kind of gelato sandwich, or with granita.

Interestingly, this brioche, based on the version in La cuccina Siciliana by Maria Teresa di Marco and Marie Cécile Ferré, doesn’t even contain butter. It’s instead made with lard, strutto. It’s called “Brioche con il tuppo di Nonna Adele”. So many Italian recipes seem to originate with someone’s nonna (grandmother).

A tuppo is a chignon, though it may also be related to tappo – plug, cork, stopper. Di Marco and Ferr also give the dialect variation tuppitieddu, which may be Catanese – from the port of Catania. Which is all getting a bit much for me with my basic linguistic skills.

250g strong white flour
250g plain flour
200g milk, tepid
80g caster sugar
75g lard, softened (or butter, see below)
2 eggs, about 110g beaten egg
15g fresh yeast (or about 8g active dried yeast)
3g fine sea salt
5g vanilla essence, or to taste
1 more egg, lightly beaten, for the glaze

1. Combine the flour, sugar and salt in a bowl.
2. Dissolve the yeast in the milk, then add this to the flour.
3. Add the vanilla and the salt and blend.
4. Add the softened lard and keep blending.
5. Keep working to achieve an elastic dough.
6. Rest the dough in the fridge, covered in plastic, for at least 6 hours, up to about 10.
7. Take the dough out of the fridge. The total dough weight should be about 1kg. Divide into 10 pieces, each scaled at about 100g.

Form bigger and smaller balls

8. Take pieces, about 20g, off each ball to form “u tuppitieddu”. Form small balls.

9. Tighten up the balls. Then roll the smaller ones into a teardrop shape.

Form teardop shape and poke a hole in larger ball

10. Form a hole in the top of each of the bigger balls with your finger then insert the teardrops, pointy bit first. Make sure they’re well attached or they can fall off.
11. Put on baking sheets, cover with a cloth and leave to rise until doubled in volume, around an hour, hour and a half in a warm-ish kitchen.
12. Preheat oven to 180C.

Prove up and brush with beaten egg

13. Brush the buns with beaten egg then bake for about 15 minutes.

Now, I must say, I like these little brioche, the shape is fun, and I can imagine they’d work well with gelato or granita. As a breakfast bun, however, the lard quality isn’t half so nice as buttery brioche. It just feels like something’s missing.

Historically, poorer people may have had a pig, and therefore pig fat, as they can be kept in small spaces and eat almost anything. Dairy fats, on the other hand, require grazing – and land ownership was the preserve of the wealthier. So I can see how a lardy brioche might have evolved among Nonna Adele’s ancestors and their demographic peers. But these days, when we can easily buy butter, frankly, I’d use that instead. Unless you particularly like lard.

Oh, and apologies if my blog updating is a little haphazard these days. Not only did my computer just die an unfortunate death, forcing me to try and cope with Fran’s aged, badly maintained old laptop, but we’re also in the process of expanding our family. Big changes afoot.

11 Comments

Filed under Baking, Recipes

Sabbiosa, a cake from Lombarby

Sabbiosa cake

It’s taken me a long time to make this cake from Lombardy in northern Italy, whose name roughly means “sandy” – perhaps a reference to both its colour and its texture. I first saved a page out of the Independent newspaper back in 1999, with a recipe from Simon Hopkinson. He explained how he’d first eaten sabbiosa in 1984 but when he’d first tried to make it there had been some confusion about the type of flour used.

Via an erroneous translation, he laboured under the impression that the flour was corn starch, or what we know in British English as cornflour. Instead, however, it’s a potato flour. In Italian this is fecola di patate, which is translated on Wordreference as both “potato starch” and “cornstarch”. Given that patate is potato, it’s clearly not corn (ie maize) starch – which in Italian is amido di mais.

Adding to the confusion, Hopkinson gives his ingredient as “potato flour” – which some sources, such as this site, say is an entirely different ingredient to potato starch. There’s some logic to this, but Italian sources tend to just refer use fecola as a synonym for farina di patate, potato flour. Italian Wikipedia saysLa fecola di patate is a flour obtained from the dehydration and subsequent grinding of potato.”

Potato or wheat?
Furthermore, a lot of the Italian recipes I’ve seen for sabbiosa are simply made with wheat flour. I’ve had Hopkinson’s version filed for 17 years, so I wanted to stick with potato. I’m not going gluten-free or anything, heaven forefend, gluten is such a marvellous, useful protein* when treated right. But during a visit to Roma last week, I saw some fecola di patate in the shop at the Città dell’Altra Economia, which forms part of the Ex-Mattatoio, the handsome, sadly neglected 19th century former slaughterhouse, so I had to get it. In UK health food shops, the equivalent does seem to be called simply potato starch.

The other distinctive Italian ingredient I’ve used here is Lievito Pane degli Angeli (“Bread of the Angels leaven”!). This is just a brand of baking powder – a chemical blend of difosfato disodico (disodium diphosphate) and carbonato acido di sodio (sodium bicarbonate), much the same as my UK baking powder. Though the degli Angeli brand has a punch of aromi – flavourings. Rachel, who we saw last week, loves this stuff, and was enthusing about its miraculous qualities, but I find the aromi a bit pungently vanilla, and I’m suspicious whether it’s even real vanilla or some synthetic flavouring. Either way, if you’re using non-flavoured raising agent, you can add say a teaspoon or two (to taste) of real vanilla extract if you like.

The cake recipe also contains booze, which is similarly optional. Also optional is a mascarpone crema, made with raw eggs, much like that used in many tiramisu recipes. If you’re scared of raw egg, serve with cream, custard or even crème fraîche. Or nothing, for a weary nod towards tedious New Year dietary abstention.

The recipe

Ingredients for sabbiosa

400g unsalted butter, softened
400g caster sugar
400g potato starch, aka potato flour, aka fecola di patate
10g baking powder
Pinch salt
4 large eggs, beaten, about 225g
35g brandy (optional)

Ingredients for sabbiosa

1. Preheat the oven to 180C.
2. Grease and line the base of a 25cm tin.
3. Beat together the butter and sugar until light and very fluffy.
4. Combine the beaten egg with the brandy (if using).
5. Beat the egg into the creamed mixture, adding a little of the potato starch if it starts to curdle.
6. When the egg is all combined with the creamed mixture, sieve in the potato starch and baking powder, and add the pinch of salt.

Making sabbiosa with potato starch
7. Fold the fecola through the batter until well combined.
8. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin.
9. Put in the oven and bake for about 45 minutes then, carefully, check the cake to see if the top is browning. If it is, cover with foil, then return to the oven.
10. Continue baking for until a skewer comes out clean, for another half hour or thereabouts.

Sabbiosa - leave to cool in the tin
11. Leave to cool in the tin then turn out onto a rack and cool completely.
12. Prepare the accompanying cream.

Mascarpone cream (crema di mascarpone):

2 eggs
250g mascarpone
70g caster sugar
20g rum or brandy, to taste (optional. Either leave our use some other booze. I used some bourbon as it smelled like it’d be nice… and it was!)

1. Separate the eggs.
2. Beat the yolks with the sugar until pale and creamy.
3. Beat in the mascarpone and booze (if using)
4. In another bowl, whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks.
5. Fold in the egg whites until you have a smooth mixture.

Dust the cake with icing sugar and serve slices with a good pour of the crema. Muse about the potatoes. Ignore new year diets.Sabbiosa with mascarpone crema

 

* Or more accurately, combination of proteins: gliadin and glutenin.

9 Comments

Filed under Baking, Cakes, Recipes

Papassini biscuits – and lard

Papassini biscuits

Let’s be honest: lard isn’t a popular ingredient. It’s not fashionable, even in this era of nose-to-tail eating. Even when the media, from Britain’s Daily Bile Mail to the US Huffington Post, is running articles on lard’s virtues. It’s still got an image problem.

And yet, it’s a fat we cooked with for centuries, especially here in northern Europe, where we can’t grow olive groves and peasants may have had a pig but were less likely to have had dairy. Look at any collection of older – say pre-WW2 – British recipes and lard is ubiquitous. Not just as a fat for frying, but also as the main fat for making pastries and baked goods. The only legacy of this tradition most Brits are aware of these days is lardy cake. I talked about this subject back in April 2014, when making lardy johns, an ostensibly old Sussex recipe that’s a cousin to the scone.

Back then, I couldn’t get my hands on any decent lard. As Marwood Yeatman says in The Last Food of England, “A modern porker has little fat and therefore little lard, so most of it is imported”. The only stuff I could get hold of was from Ireland. Last week on a Sunday market here in Lewes, I was pleased to see Beal’s Farm, our favourite supplier of locally produced charcuterie and salumi, whose pancetta was a joyful discovery when we moved home from Rome, has started selling their own lard. Indeed, I wasn’t just pleased, I was excited! Quality lard! I’d been making a lot of game pies with a hot water crust, and this pastry is best made with lard.

Yes, even in the Mediterranean diet
It’s not just northern European foods that are traditionally made with lard though. The past month or so I’ve been researching and developing products for my Italian-oriented biscuit stall. I wanted to focus on Christmas and festive products last week, and one product I made was papassini.

Also called pabassini, pabassinas, pabassinos and papassinos in various Sardinian dialects, these are biscuits made for not just Christmas but also Ognissanti (All Saints, 1 November) and that other principal Christian festival, Easter. Pretty much all the Italian (nay Sardinian) recipes I read used strutto – lard. Only a few used butter.

I made my first batch with Beal’s lard, and they were great. The mix is pretty much a pastry, enriched with fat, sugar, spices and some fruit – sultanas or raisins. The name papassino, according to Italian Wikipedia, comes from papassa or pabassa, Sardinian for uva sultanina, a type of grape, that is dried to become sultanas1 . The lard gave them a nice fairly delicate crumb. I also made them using Trex, hardened vegetable oil. Where vegetable means palm.

This is the sort of ethical conundrum we face in modern life – eat a meat byproduct from local, well-husbanded pigs or eat a veggie alternative made from an ingredient that’s most likely grown in a corporate plantation that required the destruction of rainforest. The results weren’t as good either.

So I experimented with butter versions too, notably for the market, where I didn’t want to have to worry about repeatedly explaining why certain products weren’t vegetarian. Which seems faintly daft, but we live in complex times for food. In many ways, industrialisation and intensification have thoroughly messed up our relationship with food, resulting in innumerable dietary inclinations, phobias, rampant orthorexia nervosa, intolerances, allergies and imagined allergies. A whole slew of first world worries.

Papassini on my market stall, along with riciarelli, pangiallo and others

Anyway, butter was pretty good too. I mean, I love butter. I would say the result was similarly crumbly, slightly sweeter. But then all the biscuits were sweet once I’d iced them. I just iced them with a basic water or glacé icing – that is, icing sugar2 and water, or lemon juice. More “authentic” recipes would be topped with an Italian meringue glaze, but that wasn’t entirely practical for me.

Another note on “authenticity” – the grapiness of these biscuits would also have been enhanced with sapa/saba. This is a kind of grape syrup, also known as vino cotto (“cooked wine”) and mosto cotto (“cooked grape must“). It’s an ingredient that has been made for millennia. Imagine a grape cordial, or a kind of sweet cousin to balsamic vinegar. You can produce a semblance by simmering grape juice to thicken it, but frankly almost none of the papassini recipes I researched used it so I didn’t bother.

So yes, these are in no way authentic, but I’m not Sardinian. That said, as with any Italian recipe, every family or baker or pasticcere would have differences of opinion and ingredients, so I would like to think mine are just another variation on a theme. Ideally made with quality Sussex lard.

250g plain flour
6g baking powder
80g ground almonds
100g caster sugar
120g lard or butter
50g walnuts, chopped fairly finely
80g sultanas or raisins
Zest of half a lemon
Zest of half an orange
2 eggs, lightly beaten, QB3 (about 120g)
4g cinnamon
4g fennel seeds

Icing
Icing sugar, sieved
Water or lemon juice
Hundreds-and-thousands, sprinkles

1. Soak the sultanas or raisins in hot water for about 10 minutes then drain and squeeze out any excess water.
2. Sieve together the flour and BP.
3. Dice the fat and rub it into the flour, or blitz in a food processor, until the mixture is crumb-like.

Papassini mixture
4. Add the ground almonds, sugar, walnuts, sultanas and zest.
5. Add the egg and bring the mixture a dough. If it’s too dry, add a little more egg or some milk.
6. Form into a disc or slab then wrap in plastic and leave to rest for at least half an hour.
7. Preheat the oven to 180C.

Cutting papassini dough into diamonds
8. Roll out the dough to about 10mm thick.
9. Cut diamond shapes.
10. Reform the offcuts and keep cutting more diamonds.
11. Bake for about 10-12 minutes.
12. Cool on a rack, then ice. If you’re doing the easy option like me, just sieve icing sugar and add a little water or icing sugar to form a smooth mixture, not too runny. Dip each biscuit in the icing, then sprinkle with hundreds and thousands.

 

 

Notes
1. I think; I never really got my head around English-Italian translations for sultana, raisin, etc. I believe a raisin is uva passa – literally “past” or “spent” grape. I’m more confused by uva sultanina, which may be both the grape and the sultana. I’m not sure, and I can’t go to an Italian dry goods store or supermarket or market to check very easily from here in Lewes. Hope to get back to Roma after Christmas, so I’ll have to try and remember to see if I can work it out then. Heck, all this confuses me, even in English. Until embarrassingly recently, I though currants were dried black- or red-currants, when they’re actually also dried grapes too. I suspect the Italian words are often fairly generic – so uvetta (literally “little grape”) can be used for currant or raisin, or people use different words in different regions.
2. Powdered sugar, confectioner’s sugar, zucchero a velo.
3. Quanto basta, “how much is enough”. Ie you may not need all of it, just enough to achieve the desired consistency.

8 Comments

Filed under Baking, Biscuits, cookies, Feasts, Recipes

St Nicholas pudding

St Nicholas' pudding

Christmas is looming. Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, is waiting to do the impossible and deliver gifts to millions of kids on Christmas Eve. Santa is a slightly baffling modern evolution of St Nicholas, who was in fact born to a Greek family, in what is now part of Turkey but was then part of the Roman Empire, in the late 3rd century.

St Nicholas’ feast day is actually 6 December (in Western Christianity; 19 December in Eastern Christianity) and in many cultures that date is still a big deal, with celebrations and special baked products: speculoos biscuits in the Netherlands; ciastka miodowe, honey cakes, in Poland; and vanilkove rohlicky, vanilla crescent biscuits, in the Czech Republic, among others. Even here in England there was apparently1 a traditional pudding – though I can’t imagine many people still make it for 6 December. Which is a shame, as it’s rather good, and could even make a good alternative to the traditional British Christmas pudding – a heavy, alcohol-infused concoction I’ve never liked.

Traditional British Christmas pudding is often called “plum pudding” – though its main fruit component is raisins, not plums. It gets the name as in older English “plum” was used to mean raisin, or dried fruits in general. St Nicholas pudding, on the other hand, is a genuine plum pudding.

I’m slightly confused by this as the plums on our Victoria tree were all ripe in August, and while there are later varieties, any fresh plums in early December would surely have been imports – but importing fruit was a less commonplace activity in Olde England than it is now in our industrial, seasonality-quashing modern world. More likely, it used prunes – dried plums. This recipe uses both. Luckily I had 3kg of our plums stoned and frozen from August.

Prunes and plums

Like Christmas pudding, this is a steamed pudding2 so it’ll need a good 2 hours cooking time. Plan ahead!

125g butter
125g caster sugar
1 orange, zested and juiced
2 eggs, lightly beaten
90g plain flour
8g ground cinnamon
4g ground cloves
4g baking powder
50g breadcrumbs
200g plums, stoned
60g prunes, stoned and chopped
80g golden syrup
About 6 more plums or prunes, stone and halved

Sauce
750g plums
240g caster sugar

1. Cream together the butter and sugar.
2. Add the zest of the orange.
3. Add the egg a little at a time.
4. Sieve together flour, baking powder and spices, and add to the mixture, along with the breadcrumbs.
5. Fold to combine.
6. Add the orange juice, plums and prunes and mix gently until well-combined.
7. Grease a pudding basin, then put the 80g (two generous tablespoons) of golden syrup in the bottom.
8. Arrange the halved 6 plums or prunes in the syrup.
9. Spoon the batter onto the top.
10. Seal with foil and tie.

Seal the pudding basin with foil and string

11. Steam for approx 2 hours.
12. Make the sauce by slicing plums into saucepan, with a little water. Simmer until well softened then puree by putting through a mouli, or blending and putting through a strainer.

Caramelise the sugar
13. Dissolve the sugar with about 60-80g water. When it’s dissolved, turn up the heat and boil to caramelise slightly. Remove from the heat, stir in about 60-80g more water – carefully, as it’ll spit.
14. Add the plum puree to the syrup, and stir well to combine. You can add some booze if you like – port, Kirsch, a dash of brandy.
14. Check if the pudding is cooked by lifting the foil and sticking in a skewer; it’s basically a moist cake, so the skewer won’t come out clean – but nor should it come out with bits that still resemble batter. If it’s still battery, keep steaming.
15. When the pudding is cooked, turn it out onto a plate and serve with the sauce.

You could even serve with some cream or vanilla ice cream, if you’re feeling really indulgent. It’s a lovely pud, with the orange, and possibly the caramelised sugar, tempering the sweetness of the sugar and syrup and adding some bitterness.

Portion of St Nicholas' pudding

1 I say apparently as although a recipe appears in my 1997 copy The Pudding Club Cookbook, and that one is essentially copied in Cooking With the Saints (Ignatius Press, 2001), I can’t find any mentions of the pudding in my books of older traditional British recipes.
2 OK, some Christmas puddings are boiled still. See this post for more discussion of just what is meant by “pudding” and its history.

8 Comments

Filed under Feasts, Puddings & desserts, Recipes

Pangiallo, primitive cakes and winter festivals

Pangiallo

Pangiallo is a cake I encountered in Rome, and indeed one of the last posts I wrote before leaving there in October 2013 mentioned it. But I’ve only recently started to make it, and discovered a quite a lot variation in recipes. Which might seem quite surprising, until you consider it’s a cake that purportedly has roots in Ancient Rome.

Pangiallo, or pancialle, is a Roman, or Lazio, cousin to panforte, “hard bread”, the better-known dense fruit and nut cake of Sienna, and panpepato (“pepper bread”). All three can be arguably be classified as “primitive cakes”. It’s easy to imagine the first cakes were compressed discs of nuts, seeds and dried fruit bound and sweetened with honey.  although food historians suggest pangiallo’s origins are ancient Roman, and panforte is comparatively recent, possibly from the 13th century, people have probably been making these kinds of things for millennia.

Spice trails
There’s debate about what spices the ancient Romans had, but they almost certainly used cardamom, cloves, coriander, black pepper, ginger and nutmeg, and possibly cinnamon too. Such spices, many of which arrived in Europe via the Silk Road, maintained a role as important for feast day foods through the “Dark” and Middle Ages. As they had travelled so far they were expensive, so were used only for special foods on special days.

Britain, of course, has a very similar tradition of rich, spiced fruit cakes for midwinter celebrations in the form of our Christmas cake and Christmas pudding. Their characteristics have similarly ancient origins, though spices were even more scarce and valuable in northern Europe, compared to Italy. Ports such as Genoa and notably Venice were the western extremes of the maritime Silk Route, the dropping-off points for such valuable cargo; spices still had a long way to go before they reached Britain.

Pangiallo spice mix

Festival of light
Today, Pangiallo is eaten to celebrate the feast day of Santa Lucia, St Lucy, and also for Christmas. Both of these Christian feasts are associated with older winter solstice celebrations. The ancient Romans had Saturnalia, when the ancestor of pangiallo may well have been eaten. When Rome took Christianity as its official religion, many of the pagan festivals were Christianised too, and the consumption of special spiced cakes continued.

The calendar change of 1582 has confused things somewhat as St Lucy’s Day is now celebrated on 13 December in the Gregorian calendar, with Christmas Day closer to the solstice of 21-22 December. In the earlier, Julian calendar, however, St Lucy’s Day would have been closer to the solstice, the day when the night is at its longest. To dispel the darkness, it’s a festival of light, and indeed the very names Lucy and Lucia derive from lux, lucis, the Latin for light.

One Roman blogger suggests the yellow, saffron-tinted glaze of pangiallo is symbolic, looking forward to the new light of spring. The only problem with this theory is that pangiallo doesn’t always feature a yellow glaze. Many versions don’t seem yellow at all, but instead more brown from the dried fruits, caramelised sugar and honey, and even cocoa and chocolate.

Testing times
At the weekend I made the version in Rachel’s book Five Quarter’s: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome. It’s closer to the version by the blogger mentioned above and does feature a rich glaze, coloured with saffron and egg yolks. Although they all contain flour, Rachel’s version is not leavened, with yeast or chemicals. So I was intrigued when I read the recipe in Oretta Zanini de Vita’s The Food of Rome and Lazio. Hers features a yeasted bread dough. That said, the dough only forms about 20 per cent of the total mass: which is predominantly raisins. Her original recipe is huge, with “1.8kg (about 4lb) zibibbo (seed raisins)”, with the whole formed into a loaf and proved for 12 hours.

For my testing process, I can’t really do such enormous bakes, so I halved the recipe and tweaked it. Hers included pine nuts too, for example; I love them, but they’re so expensive and the ones in the shops here have all travelled from China, which seems crazy. I’ve also favoured the disc-shaped form. Half quantities still produced four cakes, each scaled with 400g of dough. So I’ve halved it again here.

Pangiallo ingredients

5g fresh yeast, or 4g active dry yeast
50g plain flour
50g strong white flour
35g caster sugar
100g water, warm
20g olive oil
2g fine sea salt
250g seedless raisins
100g dried figs, quartered
120g whole or blanched almonds
20g candied peel
Spices: a mixture of ground cinnamon, coriander, black pepper, nutmeg, cardamom to total about 8g, to taste

1. Dissolve the sugar in the water.
2. Make a preferment with some of this sugar-water, the yeast and about 25g of the flour.
3. Leave to get bubbly.
4. Put the rest of the flour in a roomy bowl.
5. Add the preferment, the rest of the sugar water, the olive oil and salt.

Pangiallo mixture
6. Form a dough, adding more water if necessary, then turn out onto a lightly oiled surface and knead until smooth.
7. Rest 10 minutes, then add the spices, nuts, raisins and peel.
8. Combine. I can’t really say “knead” as it’s all fruit and nuts. It’s more a case of getting your hands in there and squishing it all together.
9. Cover and rest again, for about 6 hours.
10. Form the desire shapes. I recommend a couple of equal balls.
11. Put the balls onto baking sheets lined with parchment or silicone, and squash them down into discs, about 25mm high. If it’s too sticky, flour your hands a bit as you form the discs.
12. Cover and leave again, for about 4-6 hours. Less if it’s warm, more if it’s cold.
13. Heat the oven to 180C .

Unbaked pangiallo
14. Make a batter with 15g flour, 15g water, 15g oil and 15g sugar. De Vita’s glaze wasn’t coloured yellow, but if you want to, you can add some saffron to the (warm) water and leave it to infuse for half an hour or so. Or cheat and sprinkle in a little turmeric, a spice that’s only mildly flavoured and is more used for colouring.

Unbaked pangiallo, with saffron glaze
15. Brush the glaze onto the loaves.
16. Bake for about 30 minutes, until coloured, but without burning too many raisins.

Pangiallo, baked
17. Allow to firm up on the trays for 20 minutes or so, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

Two pangialli

Comparisons
Considering pangiallo is defined by spices, raisins, figs and nuts, the two recipes I tried this week are remarkably different. De Vita sweetens hers only with the fruit and some sugar. Rachel’s uses honey.

I’m struggling a bit at the moment as I keep wondering about vegan stuff for my stall, and honey is a ahem sticking point. Many vegans are staunchly anti-honey. I love the stuff, and beekeeping friends have explained to me it’s a more symbiotic relationship with the bees, not the wholly exploitative one Donald Watson suggested in his 1944 edicts on the founding of the Vegan Society.

Anyway, Rachel’s (on the left in pic above), which uses mixed nuts and more candied peel alongside the honey, has a more pleasing texture. She describes it as like a “soft, chewy, heavily spiced nougat with a whisper of cake”. Which is spot on. De Vita’s, on the other hand, is surprisingly bready, considering the yeasted dough forms such a small proportion of the whole. It’s like a dense, more traditional, fruit cake, even one we’d recognise here in Britain. It’s good, but not as good. So I’m going with honey, more peel, more varied nuts. No yeast. And possibly even egg yolks in the glaze. Though whether it really needs to be quite so yellow is something I’m still undecided about. I need another research trip to Rome!

11 Comments

Filed under Baking, Breads, Cakes, Cakes (yeasted), Discussion, Feasts

Quiet week

 

If it’s been a bit quiet round here this week, that’s because I’ve been baking even more than usual – preparing to open a stall on the market.

I’ve been thinking about such a venture for years, so I’m giving it a try, starting tomorrow. I’ve done some catering work over the years with my friend Dom, and we operated as The Wolf from the Door. I’m continuing to use that name (which Fran came up with) as I love the expression.

If you don’t know what it means, it’s a great English idiomatic expression meaning to keep hunger at bay. My mum – who has an idiom for pretty much every occasion – used it all the time when we were growing up, as me and my brother were constantly asking for something to eat, while we both shot up to be six foot-plus.

If you live in Sussex, specifically Lewes or even Brighton, please do come along and try my wares, have a chat. I’ll be in – or possibly outside – the Market Tower in Lewes as part of the Lewes Food Market, initially every other Friday, from about 9am to 1pm.

It’ll be a biscotteria – with an emphasis on Italian, or Italian-inspired biscuits and cookies, notably biscotti and almond-based items. But I’ll also be doing some other items, inspired by flavours from other cultures. A couple are even gluten-free, and I’ve made my Christmas biscotti vegan, so hopefully something for everyone.

Bit nervous. It’s all very well writing about this stuff online, but there’s a different kind of interaction, and feedback, in the real world!

 

14 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized