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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Armenian peda bread

Peda with wild garlic fava dip

A week ago I did a post for a bread recipe I had in an old 1994 notebook called Los Angeles peda bread. It was accompanied by another recipe simply called Armenian peda bread. The former, I subsequently discovered, is probably a version of Armenian flatbread called matnakash. This Armenian peda (their word related to pide and pita), meanwhile, is another minor mystery, with the source of the recipe I wrote down back in 1994 unknown. Similar breads can be seen online, but I’m afraid I can’t find a more specific Armenian name for it.*

Ignorance notwithstanding, like the LA peda, this is another great sharing bread, perfect for tearing up at a family gathering – like we did over the weekend with sister-in-law Sharon, niece and nephew.

As with the LA peda, this version is basically just a conversion and slight update of the one I had in my notebook. I did reduce the yeast slightly, but again, if I revise it further, I’ll reduce it more and do a longer fermentation.

15g active dried yeast, or 30g fresh yeast
80g water
400g milk
20g sugar
6g salt
780g strong white bread flour
50g olive oil

extra olive oil

1 egg
sesame seeds

Peda ingredients

1. Combine the water and milk and warm to about blood temperature. You can adjust the quantities of milk and water if you want, to make up 480g of liquid. More milk makes for a sweeter, richer bread.
2. Stir in the sugar, then add the yeast, crumbling it if you’re using fresh. Give it a whisk.
3. In a large bowl, combine the salt and flour.
4. When the yeast is starting to froth, add to the flour, along with the 50g olive oil (about 4-5 tablespoons).

Peda dough 1Peda dough 2
5. Bring the dough together, turn out and knead until smooth.
6. Form the dough into a ball then put the bowl (cleaned) with a splosh of olive oil and cover with a cloth.

Peda dough 3
7. Leave to prove until doubled in size. Time will vary depending on your room temperature etc but maybe around an hour at about 18-20C.
8. When it’s doubled in size, divide it into two equal portions. Mine weighed 1364g, so each portion was more or less 682g.

Peda pieces 1Peda pieces 2
9. Cut a piece weighing about 140g off each portion, then form all the pieces into balls.
10. Cover with a damp cloth and leave to rest for about 15 minutes.
11. Take the larger balls and put them on lightly oiled baking sheets.

Peda shaping 1Peda shaping 2

Peda shaping 3Peda shaping 4
12. Flatten the balls out slightly, then poke through finger through the middle. Open this hole out to about 10cm. This is fun. If you’re confident, you can lift up the dough ring and stretch it in the air.
13. Take the smaller balls and put them into these holes, flattening slightly.

Peda shaping 5
14. Brush with olive oil then leave to prove again, until doubled in size. Cover with a damp cloth or plastic. Or you could leave them in the fridge, wrapped in plastic, overnight.
15. Preheat the oven to 180C.

Two peda 1Two peda 2
16. Beat an egg, or an egg yolk with 1 tbsp milk, and glaze the breads. Sprinkle with sesame seeds.
17. Bake for about 40 minutes. If they’re browning too much, turn down the heat and/or cover the tops with foil.
18. If your oven doesn’t have much botton heat, you can take them out, take them off the baking sheets and put them back in for another 5-10 minutes.

Two peda 3
19. Remove and allow to cool on racks.

Enjoy. Perhaps with some dips. As with the LA peda bread, I’ve been eating mine with a hummus-substitute made with English grown pulses from Hodmedod’s. I used split dried fava and wild garlic. So much wild garlic at the moment. I love the stuff, but it is a tad pungent, especially when it’s included in every meal for several days running…

 

 

* This peda is not unlike another Armenian bread called choereg or choreg, which is a relative of challah, but made for the Orthodox Christian Easter. Like challah, it’s formed in a braid, though apparently it’s made distinctive by an ingredient called mahlep/mahlab – a flavouring or spice made from the ground stones of the Mahaleb cherry that isn’t what you’d call commonplace in England.

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Digestive biscuits

Digestives, piles

Apparently this type of biscuit was first developed by two Scots doctors in the early 19th century who believed the bicarbonate of soda was the digestive aid. These days, however, we’re more likely to look to the bran, from wholemeal wheat flour, and the oatmeal, for the more healthful qualities of digestives.

This is another one of my recipes from my old notebooks from when I lived at Old Man Mountain, New Zealand, in 1994-95, from my friend Nadia. I’ve no idea where she got the recipe from. If memory serves, it was in one of her notepads. All I know is we were making a baked cheesecake, needed some digestives, and this was a better option than driving 15km to a shop.

This time round I’m making them because I want to try this amazing looking, amazingly indulgent recipe from Kate “The Little Loaf” Doran. Kate has her own, similar recipe, for digestives, but well, I wanted to use mine, another memory of Nadia.

Isometric digestives

A bit of chemistry
This is a slightly tweaked version of the one I’ve got in my notepad. That one used baking soda, aka bicarbonate of soda aka sodium hydrogen carbonate, for a little bit of raising agent. The thing about baking soda, though, is that it’s an alkali and it needs an acid to react with to create the carbon dioxide that gives lift. That’s why US muffin recipes, say, often include yogurt, for the lactic acid. Other recipes might use citrus juice, milk or even vinegar. But my old digestive recipe had nothing acid in it*. So I’ve replaced the baking soda with baking powder. And what is baking powder? It’s pre-mixed combo of baking soda and something acid for it to react with when you combine and bake. In this case, sodium phosphates: that is, sodium salts of phosphoric acid.

A word on the oatmeal: you can use whatever you fancy, though fine or medium are probably best. I didn’t have any, so I just used some porridge oats, which I whizzed in a food processor – to make a medium-coarse meal. Hence the results in this case are especially rustic.

Makes about 30 biscuits

150g unsalted butter
250g wholemeal flour (plain/low protein)
250g oatmeal (fine or medium)
80g light soft brown sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp BP
2 eggs, beaten (approx 120g beaten egg)

1. Preheat oven to 200C.
2. Combine the flour, oatmeal, salt and baking powder in a bowl.
3. Rub the butter into the flour mix until it resembles crumbs.
4. Stir in the sugar.
5. Bind with the beaten egg, to form a rough dough. Don’t overwork it, or you’ll toughen it up. You can wrap it in plastic and give it a rest in the fridge at this point, but I can’t say I noticed the difference.

Digestives, pinned outPinned out, cut out
6. Roll out (or indeed “pin out”, in British baker parlance) to about 5mm thick. It’s quite crumbly.

Rolled out, CU
7. Cut circles of about 70mm diameter. It doesn’t matter too much if you don’t have this size cutter; you could even just use a glass. Bring together any scraps, roll and cut circles to use it all up.

Digestives, prickedDigestives, baked
8. Put on lined baking sheet, dock or prick with a fork. Sprinkle with extra oatmeal if you like, but I find it mostly just falls off.
9. Bake until browned, around 15 mins.
10. Cool on a rack.

Digestives, cooling

They’re excellent with cheese, dunked in hot chocolate, or used for a cheesecake base.

* Food charts seem to vary in terms of whether whole chicken egg is acid or alkaline. Some list them as acidic, but egginfo.co.uk says, “The pH of the white and yolk are different and change differently during storage.  The initial pH of yolk is slightly acidic (reported values range from 5.9 to 6.2) and rises slightly during storage to about 6.8.  Egg white pH is initially in the region 7.6 and rises to 8.9 -9.4 after storage due to CO2 loss through the shell.  The natural ratio of egg white to egg yolk in an egg is 2:1 and therefore when mixed together liquid whole egg has a pH range of 7.2 to 7.9.” (If you can’t remember school science, low pH is more acidic, high pH is more alkaline. The mid-point, neutral, is 7pH, the pH of pure water.)

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Los Angeles peda bread, a version of Armenian matnakash

LA peda with pea dip

This recipe is from one of my old notepads, dated 1994. At the time I was living at Old Man Mountain, on the South Island of New Zealand. My hosts there were Susie, who owned the farm, and Nadia, who lived in the yellow house by the highway that wended its way on down the rugged Buller Gorge.

Nadia was one of the great food influences on my life, one of the three women who taught me about cooking, alongside my mother and Delia Smith1.

Despite living in the middle of nowhere in a sparsely populated country adrift in a massive ocean, Nadia had a voracious interest in food, and loved working with young international enthusiasts like me who came to visit, learn and share. She had a great cookery book library too, and we would spend hours chatting about food – either while making meals for Nadia’s large family and whatever friends were passing by or planning parties or catering jobs.

Such conversations, and poring over her cookery books, filled up pages in my journals from the period. Unfortunately, I wasn’t exactly assiduous in providing the sources of recipes. Sometimes I did, but not in the case of the two peda bread recipes I’ve got: this one, and another simply called Armenian peda bread.

Peda, pide, pita
The word peda is clearly related to the Turkish “pide” and the more familiar “pita” but not only do I not know the source of the recipe, I can’t really help with the etymology or relationship between these words as no one is sure.

There are various forms of flatbread that go by these names. Heck, the word pizza may even be in the same linguistic and culinary family, but I’d be spreading internet misinformation if I said that it was with any certainty.

From a little research I do conclude that peda is the Armenian variation on the words pide and pita. And rather than being just a bread developed by Armenian-Americans in LA, this recipe looks like it’s a variation on matnakash. According to that dream-of-the-internet Wikipedia, matnakash means “finger draw” or “finger pull” bread, which fits in totally for this recipe as you stretch and pattern it with your fingertips.

Pre-internet and inauthentic
Mine look a bit different to the ones I can see online now. It’s no wonder though as I’m a white Briton who learned to make them in New Zealand with the encouragement of a Maori-Indian-pakeha woman, from a book with no pictures, in an era when it wasn’t possible to just go online and check something.

My version may not be authentic (a troublesome concept at the best of times) but it is personal, makes for a great sharing bread, and is a reminder of my amazing, energetic, knowledgeable friend and culinary teacher Nadia, who sadly died last year and is sorely missed.

Recipe

Makes 2 large flatbreads

Bakers’ percentages shown in brackets. So this is a 64% hydration bread, with a nice, manageable dough. I would also say that at 4.3%, this recipe contains too much yeast and rushes the fermentation. My normal bread recipe contains 2% yeast. However, I really just wanted to try out the recipe from my old notepad, and convert it into grams from cups.

In future, I plan to try it with less yeast or with a sourdough starter, or a preferment, and a proper long fermentation, for flavour and digestibility.

700g strong white flour (100%)
15g ADY or 30g fresh yeast (4.3%)
450g water, warm (64%)
20g caster sugar (3%)
6g salt (1%)
30g butter, melted (4.3%)

1. Mix the sugar with the warm water, sprinkle on the yeast and leave it to activate.
2. Put the flour in a large bowl, add the salt and mix it through.
3. When the yeast mix is frothy, add it to the flour, along with the melted butter.
4. Bring the dough together, turn out and knead until smooth.
5. Form a ball, put in a clean bowl, cover and leave to prove until doubled in size. With this amount of yeast, it won’t take long. Mine took about an hour at RT of 18C.
6. Divide the dough into two pieces. Mine weighed 1225g, so two at about 612g.
7. Form the two pieces into balls.
8. Grease two baking sheets with oil, then put the balls on them, cover and leave to rest, for about quarter of an hour.
9. Stretch out the balls to fill the shape of your baking tray. My trays are square but the traditional shape for matnakash is more rectagular2. Form a rim, or edge with your fingertips.
10. Cover with a damp cloth and rest again, until doubled in size.

Peda bread stretch and form rimPeda bread brush with water and make pattern with fingertips
11. Brush with water then form a criss-cross pattern with your fingertips.
12. Cover with a damp cloth and rest again, until doubled in size.
13. Preheat the oven – to about 220C if possible. Mine can only really muster about 200C, disappointingly, but it’s OK.
14. Bake the flatbreads for about 15 minutes or until nicely browned.

Peda fresh out of ovenPeda brush with flour glaze
15. Make a flour glaze by putting 2 teaspoons of flour in 100g of water and bringing to the boil, whisking. Brush this onto the breads as soon as they come out of the oven, and sprinkle with seeds, such as sesame or nigella/kalonji.

LA peda bread x 2

I enjoyed mine with a dip (top pic) made from dried English peas. I’ve noticed since coming home from Italy, where I was able to buy Italian-grown lentils, chickpeas and other dried legumes, that most available here are imported from China. That seems crazy: it’s too far, too dubious. Sure different crops grow here compared to Italy or France, which also grows a lot of lentils, but pulses were a staple here for centuries: just think of generations of Britons partially subsisting on variants on pease pudding.

Luckily, a young-ish British company was thinking along similar lines, and now grows peas and various beans, including broad beans (sold as fava), here. They’re Hodmedod’s and I wish then every success, as not only are they supporting British food production, they’re reinvigorating ancient culinary traditions. And they have cute branding too, even including little recipe booklets in their packets of produce.

 

Footnotes
1. Delia Smith is not fashionable now – in fact, she was never exactly trendy. But in the Complete Cookery Course, since its first appearance in print in 1978, taught me so much. It was the default book for a child growing up in that period interested in learning the basics in pretty much any area of cooking, from stews to pastries.
2. In Armenia, matnakash and the unleavened lavash would be made in a tonir, the Armenian equivalent of a tandoor.

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Zeppole di San Giuseppe, St Joseph’s Day fritters

Zeppole San Giuseppe 2

March 19th is the feast day of San Giuseppe – Saint Joseph, husband of Mary, Jesus’ mum. For this feast day Italians eat various goodies including bignè and zeppole, types of sweet fritter.

This recipe is a modern take on zeppole di San Giuseppe. Or are they bignè di San Giuseppe? The two terms seem to sometimes be interchangeable, but one distinction between the two seems to be as follow. Bignè are choux balls filled with pastry cream (crème patissiere, or crema pasticcera in Italian). Zeppole on the other hand are choux piped in nest shapes that are then filled with pastry cream. Both are cooked by deep-frying. Except when they’re baked.

Different regions and dialects may use the words bignè and zeppole differently. Furthermore, in Gillian Riley’s Oxford Companion to Italy Food, she says in her entry on zeppole: “The sfinci of Sicily are similar”. She doesn’t discuss the similarities or otherwise with bignè. The word is clearly related to the French beignet though.

Ah, the confusing world of the taxonomy of traditional foods!

St Joseph’s Day
Either way, these fritters are made and eaten for St Joseph’s Day. Except, however, I recall seeing them in Rome several weeks before St Joseph’s day, sitting alongside castagnole during Carnival and, if memory serves, remaining available until Easter. So much for the Lenten fast. It’s not unlike the modern British habit of eating hot cross buns for the six weeks preceding Easter, when originally they were made and eaten only on Good Friday to celebrate the end of fasting.

The site Italy Revisited features various different versions of zeppole and bignè in its fascinating collection of recipes. On one of the zeppole recipe pages it says “North Americans often think of ‘zeppole’ as cream puffs because that’s what pastry shops sell in March round the Feast Day of Saint Joseph. However, the cream puff style of zeppole is a rather modern take on this recipe. Apparently, prior to the 20th century ‘zeppole’ was just another donut-shaped fried dough that was sweetened with sugar.” As with all these food traditions, it has mutated over time (see my discussion of simnel cake.)

I was planning to make something that would these days, in Rome at least, be called bignè – a filled choux-ish item. But as I fancied practicising my (very rusty) piping skills I sidestepped to what would now most likely be called zeppole. If any Italians are reading, please tell me what your family calls these things!

Makes 10-12

Crème patissiere / crema pasticcera

250g milk (full fat)
2 egg yolks
30g cornflour (cornstarch in the US, amido di mais in Italia)
60g caster sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
1 tsp vanilla essence (or fresh vanilla seeds, if you’re so inclined)
1 tbsp Strega liqueur (optional)

1. Put the milk on to heat up.

Mix sugar, yolks and cornflour 1Mix sugar, yolks and cornflour 2
2. Beat together the egg yolks, sugar and cornflour. Add the vanilla, lemon zest, and Strega if using.
3. Bring to the boil. (If you prefer to use a vanilla pop, scrape out the beans and add them to the milk before you heat it.)
4. Allow the milk to cool slightly then pour it onto the egg mix, beating.
5. Put the mixture back on the heat.

Heating cremaCrema cooked
6. Heat the mixture up again, gently, stirring all the time, and keep cooking on a medium heat until it thickens. This shouldn’t take long – a matter of minutes.
7. Pour out into another clean, cool bowl. To prevent a skin forming, dust with icing sugar and/or put some plastic film on the surface.
8. When cool, refrigerate until you need it.

The paste

Let’s not beat about the bush. From looking at various Italian recipes really is basically a choux paste.

80g butter
200g water
3 medium eggs, beaten (QB), approx 150g
150g flour – plain, all-purpose or low-protein 00
Pinch of salt
40g caster sugar
Zest of half a lemon

1. Put the butter, water and salt in a saucepan and heat up.

Butter and waterButter and water melted
2. Bring to the boil, stirring with a wooden spoon.

Butter and water, flour addedMixing in flour
3. When the butter has melted and the water is simmering, add all the flour (ideally sieved first), beating until you have a smooth paste.

Cooking flourCool bowl
4. Keeping cooking the mixture, on a low heat, for a few minutes. This gelatinizes the flour, ie makes the mixture gelatinous and jelly-like – it shouldn’t be sticky, and should come away cleanly from the sides of the pan.

Add sugar and zestAdding eggs
5. Remove the mixture from the heat, beat in the sugar and lemon zest, then put in a clean, cool bowl.
6. Allow the mixture to cool. If it’s too hot when you add the egg it will scramble.
7. Beat in the egg slowly and gradually. Each time you add some egg, mix it in completely. You may not need all the egg (QB). You want a thick paste, not runny. If you have a mixer, that’s great for making this type of paste. Mix well.
8. Allow to cool and rest.

To make the zeppole

The crema
The paste
Sunflower oil
Sour cherries in syrup or glacé cherries… or not. See below.

1. Put the paste in a piping bag fitted with a star nozzle.
2. Cut out squares of baking parchment or foil, about 8cm square.

Piping nestsPiped nest CU
3. Pipe nest shapes onto the squares. The older type of zeppole was simply a ring, but as we’re adding crème pat to these, you need a middle – so start by piping a spiral, then build up a slight wall around the edge.

Frying
4. Heat sunflower oil in a pan to about 170C and add the nests, paper and all. Don’t overcrowd the pan.
5. The square of parchment or foil will come away. Remove it with tongs.
6. Keep cooking until the zeppole are a golden brown colour.

Fried
7. Remove and cool.
8. Once cool, pipe the crème pat into the centre of each.
9. You can top with a cherry. I hate cherries – sour, preserved, glacé or even fresh. Frankly: yuck. That would spoil it for me. So instead, I just dust with icing sugar.

You may notice in the above pic my batches came out different sizes. The ones on the left puffed up best, on the right worst. It’s shoddy work I know. I suspect it’s to do with the oil not staying a constant temperature. Really must get a decent thermometer. Being a boy, obviously I want one of those ray gun ones  (er, infrared). I’ll add it to the list of kitchen kit I covet.

Zeppole San Giuseppe

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Hande’s pear, chocolate and hazelnut cake

Pear, choc, hazelnut cake, with clotted cream

Hande Leimer is the founder and owner of Vino Roma, a wine studio – with an absurdly historic cellar – located in the centre of Rome. Not only is she an expert sommelier and polyglot wine educator, she’s an excellent cook too. And baker. When she posted a pic of her pear, chocolate and hazelnut cake on her Instagram a few weeks ago, I had to try it.

These three ingredients make for a classic combination. I’ve always loved pear and chocolate, and indeed pear with chocolate sauce was a pudding I grew up with. But I also love anything made with ground nuts, so this really was a cake for me. Furthermore, Hande developed the recipe with the aim of balancing them, so no flavour dominated the other but each was clear and evident. The individual flavours are sharpened and delineated further with the judicious inclusion of some hot spice.

She included piment d’espelette / esplenette pepper, but as that’s not easy to source in the UK, changing that is one of the tweaks I made. I think Hande also made hers in a loaf tin, but I favoured a round tin.

I suspect my version is a little moister than Hande’s. I used local Concorde pears (a hybrid of Conference and Comice), which were firmly ripe, but still added a fair bit of moisture to the mix. Hande said “I aimed for a batter that is not too runny but not too stiff either, when you pour it into the pan it does hold for a couple of seconds before gently flowing to all corners”, giving an optional 1 tablespoon of breadcrumbs if your batter was too runny. I didn’t do this, but instead increased the flour slightly.

I also suspect I assembled mine in a different manner to Hande, but it’s one of those forgiving batters where the ingredients could be combined in various orders. It’s not the sort of cake where you’re trying to achieve a super-light texture, instead it’s got a texture that’s defined by the nuts – crunchy, slightly oily – and the pears – moist, with the whole concoction shot through with bursts of dark chocolate.

500g pear
125g hazelnuts
100g dark choc (at least 70% cocoa solids)
115g unsalted butter, melted
70g light muscovado sugar
40g caster sugar
1 egg
2 tsp vanilla extract
Pinch salt1
1 tsp cinnamon
Pinch of cayenne pepper and a few grinds of black pepper
130g plain/all-purpose flour, or low protein 00
2 1/2 tsp baking powder

1. Grease and line a 20cm round tin.
2. Preheat oven to 180C.
Skinning hazelnuts
3. Lightly toast the hazelnuts, rub off the skins (using a tea towel or cloth; I wasn’t too assiduous about this – too many skins can be bitter, but a little adds flavour) and grind in a food processor to a medium meal.
4. Coarsely chop the dark chocolate.
Peeling pears
5. Pear, core and coarsely grate the pear.
6. Sieve together the flour, baking powder and spices to mix.
7. In a large bowl, beat together the sugars and melted butter. Add the egg, vanilla and pinch of salt and beat again to blend.
8. Add the nut meal, pear and chocolate to the bowl and combine.
9. Fold in the flour.
10. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin.
11. Bake for about 45 minutes, or until firm to the touch and lightly browned.
12. Cool in the tin for 10 minutes then turn out. Serve warm with cream2 or ice cream, or allow to cool completely. Hande had hers for breakfast. But then she lives in Rome and the sort of cake us Brits would treat as a tea-time treat or pudding gets eaten for breakfast there.

 

 

Notes
1 So yes, I’ve made a point of saying “unsalted butter” then added a pinch of salt. Why? Well, salt is essential for all foods, unless you have no sense of taste or somehow like your food bland. Put simply, it’s the ultimate flavour enhancer, so even sweets – especially sweets like this with a variety of flavoursome components – benefit from a bit of salt. A pinch. Too much and you may get a salty taste, but too little and it won’t be there to do its work. In the words of renowned London-based chocolatier and pâtissier Paul A Young salt “lifts and balances the sweetness and brings out other flavours.” I have used salted butter in cakes in the past, especially when I’ve not got any unsalted, but the problem with that is that you can’t control the quantity effectively as you can’t be sure how much salt is already in the butter. So it might seem perverse to use unsalted butter then add salt to the mix, but there’s a logic to it!
2 We had clotted cream. I could eat the stuff every day… if I was a bit more blithe about my arteries.

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