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!



Filed under Uncategorized

Remembrance and St Martin’s Day

Poppies at Cenotaph

Poppies at The Cenotaph (pic: Cameron Cox)

Up in London on Sunday 15 November, we found ourselves alongside a memorial procession taking place in Whitehall, where The Cenotaph, the UK’s national war memorial, is located. This was the remembrance ceremony of AJEX, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women. Among the more elderly participants, adorned with medals and proudly wearing their regimental berets, were representatives of the 65,000 British Jews who fought for the Allies in World War II.

It was a moving event, and I’m surprised I’d not heard of it before. Perhaps it’s somewhat overshadowed by our main Remembrance Day, which takes place four days earlier, on 11 November. The “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” is when the guns officially stopped firing in World War I in 1918.

Poppies and chapels
I’d been meaning to write something for 11 November, as it’s also, in the Christian Calendar, St Martin’s Day or Martinmas. However, I felt somewhat overwhelmed by the number of different feast day bakes that are traditionally made in various countries around Europe, so got a bit stymied.

Among the many bakes are rogale, or rogal świętomarciński (“St Martin crescents”) pastries from Poznań, Poland, which can have a poppy seed filling. This connects nicely with the poppy as the symbol of remembrance, as worn during the commemorative events on Sunday and on the Tuesday beforehand.

The poppy was chosen as a symbol in the UK and Commonwealth countries as it’s a flower that proliferated in the former WWI battlefields of Flanders. Not speaking Polish, I’m struggling to find out if the use of its seeds has any older symbolism in the rogal świętomarciński. Their use may have come about simply as an alternative to an almond-based filling when the nuts became scarce after WWII.

I’m not going to do a recipe here, but did want to write about St Martin’s Day as it’s got all sorts of interesting angles. As an etymology geek, one of my favourite associations with St Martin is how one of his myths gave us the words “chapel” and “chaplain”.

Martin was born in the 4th century, in what is now Hungary, and served in the Roman army before finding his religion. He later became the bishop of Tours, in France. His conversion was inspired by a meeting with a beggar. Touched by his poverty, Martin tore his army cloak in half, giving a piece to the beggar to save him from the cold. Martin purportedly then dreamt of Jesus wearing the half-cloak. The remaining half became a holy relic. The Latin (and Italian) for a cloak is cappa; a small cloak, a cappella. The place Martin’s cloak was kept took the same name, and cappella became “chapel” in English.

Disgrace and favours
Germany produces a similar pastry to the rogale, called Martinshörchen, while there are various products from different regions of Italy. When I lived in Italy I found chestnut flour on the market, and used it for making a chestnut bread. I subsequently discovered this was something that was traditionally done in St Martin’s name: pane di San Martino.

The Sicilians, meanwhile, have biscotti di San Martino, which aren’t biscuits, and aren’t twice-baked, but are instead small yeasted buns, often flavoured with anise or fennel seeds. The one I’m most intrigued by is pizza di San Martino.

In Italy, the word pizza is used not just for thin dough discs topped with cheese etc, but for other breads. Pizza di San Martino is one such bread. It may originally be from Molise and nearby regions of central and eastern Italy, but I can’t be sure. It seems a fairly loosely defined product that be can be sweet or savoury, enriched and flavoured with grated parmesan, and again, might contain fennel or anise seed. The most interesting aspect of this bread is how it’s made is sections or balls of dough, with a different seed or grain hidden inside them.

This hiding of seeds and grains is another example of the habit of hiding “favours” – think of the coin inside the British Christmas day pudding, a baby Jesus in French galette de rois, or an almond hidden in Danish Christmas Eve rice pudding (thanks to my half-Danish friend Kate for informing me about the latter). And many other examples.

Most of these favours are about bestowing good fortune or a special status on the person who finds them, but in the pizza di San Martino, each one symbolises something different. It’s fascinating. So the person who finds a dried broad bean, a fava*, in their portion is the queen (or king) of the household for the duration of the feast day. Who finds the acorn is a pig. A grain of barley? An ass (as in Equus asinus, not the American for arse). Pumpkin seed – liar. Grass pea (cicerchia) – farter. And of course it involves that prime Italian insult, the cuckold – whoever finds the fagiolo, common bean.

This is why I like traditional baked goods. They’re steeped in history. And, often, good to eat too.

All these rich St Martin’s Day baked goods used to be eaten to mark the start of a 40 day fast. I doubt many people observe that now, certainly not in Britain, with its protestant official religion and widespread secularism. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make the breads and appreciate the stories. And, as St Martin’s day and Remembrance Day have been conflated, also spare a thought for all those who’ve died in war. Whatever their religion, or lack of; soldiers and non-combatants alike.




* I wonder if there’s some etymological connection between “favour” in the sense of a hidden charm, and fava?


Filed under Discussion, Feasts

Game pies with hot water crust

Game pies with hot water crust

I don’t feature meat on this blog often but I do eat it, and I particularly like game. The guy selling game has reappeared on our local market. Game season1 offers the omnivore some interesting alternatives to meat from farmed animals. We’ve had some venison, but I’ve also been making some pies. (If you want to go straight to the recipe, skip down here.)

I’d like to think I have a considered approach to consuming meat. It’s not something I do lightly. I grew up with a conventional British diet, which involved roast meat on Sundays. When I first visited New Zealand, in 1990, I was 19 and didn’t really know any different. But when I ended up living at Newton Livery, a small South Island farm owned by heavy horseman Stephen McGrath, he was vegetarian. So I started eating veggie too.

When I got home I saw a documentary about industrial pig farming, which affirmed my vegetarianism. Intensive industrial animal farming is horrifying. I remained a veggie, then later a pescatarian, for about 20 years, with only a few exceptions. I was from the school of thought that I shouldn’t eat animals if I wasn’t prepared to kill them myself. The second time I lived in New Zealand, in 1995, I had a chance to put this into practice.

I was living at Old Man Mountain and Nadia had three roosters, which were fighting in the hen house. One of them had to go. I killed it, plucked it, gutted it, hung it, cooked it and ate it. Such an act is probably nothing for a countryman, but it was quite bloody for a townie. But a chook is fairly low-level butchering compared to a pig, say. When some hunter friends stopped by, I went with them into the bush, hunting pigs (or boar if you prefer).

We didn’t find any that day, but it got me thinking more about game meat. New Zealand is in a difficult position regarding game such as boar, deer and chamois are all non-native2 and have not natural predators. As such they’re highly problematic for the country’s unique ecology. They trash the bush and compete with native species, so arguably humans have a responsibility to control them. This means hunting, and that is a source of food.

The virtues of hunting
New Zealand’s hunting culture is very different to the largely elitist situation here in the UK, but we do have some comparable problems. Whereas the NZ problems concern native forest, here it’s more about farmland. Before you get to sentimental, bear in mind that Britain is a small island, with about 60 million people crammed on it. It’s a place that’s seen increasing agricultural use over the past approximately 6,500 years and as such our countryside is by and large a place defined by human activity. There’s no true wilderness left in Britain3. Like it or not, our countryside is heavily managed, and, for food production, that means controlling the populations of animals that, for example, eat the seeds of newly sown crops.

We have two native species of deer in Britain, red and roe, and several introduced species (fallow, sika, muntjac), all of which may cause problems as they don’t have any natural predators either – we killed all our bears and wolves off years ago, as part of that process of transforming wilderness into farmland. So we cull deer.

Large numbers of other common species, such as wood pigeons (Columba palumbus) and rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus4), can also be problematic for crops, and are similar hunted or trapped. Some of this meat ends up with the sort of vendors who arrive on my local market at this time of year.

Strong meat
The fact that game animals are mostly wild means that they haven’t been fattened up like domestic animals, meaning the meats are leaner. But where fat is flavour in much cooking, game compensates with its distinctive… gaminess. That said, it’s a very varied area of meat: I can’t imagine my parents were the only ones to trick us as children into eating rabbit saying it was chicken, as it’s similarly white and mild.

So anyway, I was vegetarian or pescatarian, until I fell in love with Fran, a dedicated meat-eater. One weekend morning we were making bacon sarnies – real bacon for her, and fake rashers for me – and the absurdity of the situation hit me. Her meat was from an old hippy couple who had a stall on our local farmers market, my “ethical” option was some crap from a factory made with soy of dubious provenance, most likely an intensive, chemicals-doused farm in China or on former rainforest in Brazil. I started to eat some meat then, then relaxed more on a world trip – I mean, quibbling about the stock of my pho in Vietnam seemed similarly absurd.

Coming home, I started to enjoy exploring game. One recipe I discovered early was for game pies, which combine mixed game meats with pig meats, and are flavoured with herbs and juniper berries. The latter are an classic flavouring for many game dishes.

Juniper berries

Who doesn’t love a pie?
I’ve done a lot of vegetarian experiments with pulses and suchlike to try and make a really good pie (a two-crust pie, ie crust all around), a pie that could compete with a classic meat pie. Some were good, but not as good as a pie like this. It’s a very gratifying pie. It’s also a timeless pie; I can imagine something similar being made here for centuries, being stolen off a stall in a market by an urchin in Tudor London or eaten on a tartan rug by a minor Victorian aristocratic on a shooting weekend in the Highlands in Scotland.

The pastry alone is very satisfying. It’s hot water pastry, a hot water crust. You make it my melting fat in water, bringing it to the boil then adding it to flour and forming a dough. After it’s cooled, and the fats have firmed up a bit again, it’s easy to handle and perfect for moulding freeform pies. Don’t be intimidated!

Assembling and forming the pies

Makes 4 medium-sized pies

250g mixture of game, ie venison, rabbit, pheasant, wood pigeon. Many game merchants will sell a ready-made game pie mix.
60g unsmoked streaky bacon, chopped
200g sausage meat
1 egg (about 55g beaten egg)
Small bunch of parsley, finely chopped
Small bunch of sage, finely chopped
Grated zest of half a lemon or orange
5 juniper berries, finely ground (more if you really like juniper)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, lots of black pepper

Hot water crust pastry:
250g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
1 egg
50g unsalted butter
50g lard
85g water

Plus extra beaten egg for glazing

Parsley, sage and lemon zestParsley, sage and lemon zest, chopped

1. First make the pastry. Sift the flour and salt into a mixing bowl.
2. Crack the egg into the flour, beat it briefly and cover with flour.
3. Put the butter, lard and water in a pan and heat. Once the butter and lard have melted, increase the heat and bring to the boil.
4. Pour the boiling water and fat around the edge of the bowl and quickly to combine. Knead the dough lightly until smooth, then wrap in cling film. Allow to cool, then rest in the fridge. You want the fats to start to set again, to firm up the pastry to make it more manageable, so at least 30 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, prepare the filling. Trim the game, then cut into cubes about 1cm-ish. Mix with the chopped bacon, sausage meat, beaten egg, herbs, zest and ground juniper berries, and season with salt and plenty of black pepper.
6. Divide the meat into 4 portions, each weighing around 140g, and roll into balls.
7. Take the pastry out of the fridge. It should weigh about 500g. Cut off about a quarter, wrap it up again and return to the fridge. This is for the pie lids.
8. Prepare some baking sheets, lined with baking parchment or silicone sheets.

Roll pastry and cut discs
9. Roll the bigger piece of pastry out on a floured surface to around 3mm thick. Cut out 4 circles, 14cm in diameter, using a saucer as a template.
10. Place the circles on the baking sheet, then put a ball of stuffing in the middle of each.
11. Roll the reserved pastry to the same thickness as before and cut out 4 lids, 7cm in diameter.
12. Place a lid on the top of the stuffing.

Stretch up the pastry

13. Wet the edge of the base, then stretch up the pastry to meet the lid. Pinch the edges together, with the lid edge on the inside.

Squeeze together bottom and lid
14. Repeat with the others and then chill for around 30 minutes, until the pastry feels firm.
15. Preheat the oven to 190C.
16. Make a steam hole in the centre of each pie with a skewer then bake them for 15 minutes.
17. Remove the pies from the oven and reduce the temperature to 170C.
18. Brush the pies with beaten egg then return to the oven. Bake for a further 20-30 minutes until cooked through and nicely browned.

Game pies


1. There is no one “game season” in the UK. It varies between the different countries in the Union, the various species and even sex within a species. There’s also distinctions between species that are wild and those that are bred on estates by gamekeepers (notably fowl like pheasants, Phasianus colchicus, another non-native species, originally from Asia). Broadly, however, we see more game meat available in the winter, although rabbits can be hunted all year (see note 4, below). Deer species can, broadly, be hunted late summer to spring – but only the males. The season for females is shorter. There’s more information here.
2. There are no indigenous land-based mammals in New Zealand. The only native mammals are bats and marine animals (dolphins, whales, seals and sea lions). More information here.
3. Wilderness is defined as land that’s “wild and uncultivated” and “uninhabited or inhabited only by wild animals.” Even Britain’s wildest places, such as Dartmoor, are shaped by human activity, such as woodland clearance, burning and game-keeping.
4. This is something that’s long been debated. For years it was believe that the European rabbit was introduced to Britain by the Normans, after the conquest of 1066AD, but archaeological evidence indicates they were in fact first brought over as a food source by the Romans, who invaded in 43AD. The Normans may have brought over more, after the Roman rabbit population had dwindled. The narrative isn’t entirely certain. What we do know is that “Britain’s estimated 40 million rabbits cost the economy more than £260 million a year including damage to crops, businesses and infrastructure.” (Full story here.)


Filed under Pastry, Pies & tarts

Parkin for Bonfire Night 2015


Parkin is one of those quintessential historic British cakes. Specifically northern English, as it’s most associated with Yorkshire and Lancashire. It’s related to ginger cake, in that it usually contains some ground ginger and cinnamon, popular but expensive spices for much of British history, often reserved for Autumn and winter cakes made for feast days. Parkin is also associated with Bonfire Night, Guy Fawkes, 5 November.

Yes, I realise Halloween has come and gone and I didn’t post anything, but on that count I would say that firstly, when I was a kid, Bonfire was always a much bigger event in England, and it still is here in Lewes, “Bonfire Capital of the World”, and, secondly, I did make a lot of stuff over Halloween weekend, but none of it was exactly suitable for publication. I had my first go an Mexican pan de muerto (“bread of the dead”) and while it all looked relatively OK going into the oven, when it came out the skull and crossbones decorations had slipped and it looked more like pan de tortuga, er, tortoise bread. So I’ll be practising that more for next Halloween.

Anyway, back to parkin and Bonfire Night. Unlike classic ginger cakes, parkin is made with oatmeal, or a mix of oatmeal and wheat flour. For centuries in Britain, oats and barley were staples of the poor, over the more expensive wheat, and this cake is a record of that legacy.

This is another one of those recipes where I can’t remember the source, beyond it being something I wrote down in a notepad while living at Old Man Mountain in New Zealand, this time during a 1997 visit. It’s pretty similar to other recipes you may encounter, such as this one from Dan Lepard in the Guardian, which he reports dates from 1907, this one on the BBC site, and this one at Deliaonline. I’d ignore this one on the Beeb though, as there’s no sign of oats – very inauthentic!

Talking of authenticity, older recipes would also have been made with lard instead of butter, though lard isn’t that popular these days, so it’s up to you really. Reading the moaning and trolling on the BBC site, some find eggs contentious too, but hey, there’s only so far you’ll want to go to recreate that 18th century peasant experience right? Oh, and if you’re in a part of the world where you can’t get golden syrup or treacle, you could try substituting honey for the former and the latter is just a type of molasses.

Black treacle and golden syrup

Ideally, this is made at least a day in advance. Parkin has a pretty dry crumb but becomes moister over time.

Happy Bonfire! I’ll be enjoying this with some Harveys Bonfire Boy ale.

225g plain flour
1/2 tsp bicarb soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnnamon
1 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp ground ginger
200g medium oatmeal
140g lard or butter
110g soft brown sugar
110g golden syrup
110g black treacle
1 egg
140g milk

1. Grease and line a square tin, 20 or 23cm square (8-9 inch) or similar.
2. Heat oven to 160C.

Parkin, sieve flour and spices

3. Sift together the flour and spices into a bowl and toss in the oatmeal.

Combine dry and wet

4. Melt together the fat, sugar, syrup and treacle.
5. Add buttery mix to dry mix then beat in egg and milk.

Pour into tinBaked
6. Pour the batter into the tin and bake for about 1 and a half hours. Cover with foil if top browning too much.
7. Leave to cool.
8. Store in an airtight container for 1 day before cutting and serving.



Filed under Baking, Cakes, Recipes

Pistachio-cinnamon pastries and memories of Nadia

Cinnamon-pistachio pastries with Maghrebi type tea

This time last year, my wonderful old friend Nadia was hospitalised. A few days later she died, surrounded by her family. It was her birthday too, so the end of October is double memorial to Nadia. She is much-missed and I think of her often, especially when I’m cooking.

I lived with Nadia and her family in the mid-1990s, in a kind of long-term WWOOFer role on a farm called Old Man Mountain in the verdant, wild Buller Gorge on New Zealand’s South Island. Although I worked on the farm for its owner, Susie, I spent a lot of time with Nadia in the kitchen of her yellow house, talking about and making food. She was one of the key cookery mentors in my life.

During my year there, Nadia and I went through phases. We obsessed over French patisserie, and I made my first croissants in her oven. We made samosas and curries and south Asian feasts; Nadia was part-Indian, but hadn’t travelled, so my experience of growing up in a country with a huge South Asian food scene were a useful source of information for her. Then we obsessed over Middle Eastern food. I’ve always been more inclined to sweets, cakes and pastries, so I dug out recipes along those lines. Some made it into my journals.

After Nadia’s death, I revisited those journals and transcribed more of the recipes. This is one of them. It’s called cinnamon pistachio crescents in my notes and it says it’s of Middle Eastern origin. I’ve no idea if it is a genuinely Middle Eastern recipe either, or the Arabic name of these pastries. They may well be related to croissants though, given the shape and the high butter content, so perhaps they’re a hybrid of Arabic food heritage and French imperialism. A terrible lack of information, I know. All I know is that they’re a bit like croissants, but there’s no lamination here, so they’re a lot easier to master. Perhaps they’re related to the Jewish rugelach. If anyone does know the name of Arabic pastries like this, please do enlighten me!*

The recipe, now somewhat tweaked by me, may well be from a Middle Eastern cookbook my mother sent out to me in 1994. I saw it last, in October 2013, just after we’d left Rome and had gone travelling to see international friends and family: on a shelf in Nadia’s house in the Marlborough Sounds. Perhaps it’s still there. One day I may be able to check it, when we next visit NZ. Who knows? With the recent eleventh hour failure of our adoption match, I don’t really know what life holds next. While we nurse our bruised dreams I know at least there will be more baking.

Baking of things like these. I’m making them thinking of Nadia, bustling around her kitchen at Old Man Mountain, twenty years ago. I wish I could email her to ask her to look in that old recipe book. It’d take her a week to find the time away from her precious, precarious garden and connect to her agonisingly slow dial-up, but I miss her communiqués, her snatches of life, her ardent discussion of food.

48 cinnamon pistachio pastries, with Nadia

10g ADY or 15g fresh yeast
60g water
25g caster sugar
125g strong white flour
125g plain flour
4g fine sea salt
200g unsalted butter, melted
2 eggs, beaten (that is, 120g beaten egg)

6-8g cinnamon (to taste)
80g caster sugar
50g pistachios, roughly chopped or quickly broken up in food processor.

Roughly chop pistachios

Makes 48

1. Mix the yeast with the water. You can use tepid water to get the yeast going if you like, but as these have a long prove in the fridge it doesn’t really matter.
2. Stir in sugar.
3. Combine the flours in a bowl, add the salt, then mix in yeasty water, melted butter and egg.

Mix the damp doughFirm up the dough in fridge
4. Mix up to a dough. It’s very moist from all the egg and melted butter so it really is a case of mixing, with a spatula. Cool the dough in the fridge a bit to firm up the butter then you can give it a knead, just to make sure everything is nicely homogenised.
5. Return the dough to a clean bowl, greased with a little oil, cover, then put in the fridge and leave for at least three hours, or even overnight.
6. Take the dough out of the fridge and allow it to come back to room temperature. (The butter will have set hard again, so it’ll be difficult to handle until it’s warmed up a bit again.)
Cinnamon and pistachio filling mix
7. Combine the cinnamon, sugar and chopped pistachios to make the filling.
8. Preheat the oven to 180C and prepare several baking sheets, lining them with parchment or silicone sheets.
Cut the dough into 6 piecesForm 6 balls
9. Divide the dough into six balls, each weight about 111g, then cover and let them rest for 10 minutes.
Disc 20cm in diameterSprinkle filling
10. On a lightly floured surface, roll out each ball into a disc, keeping them moving to avoid sticking. Roll to about 20cm in diameter.
Divide into 8 segmentsRoll up the segments and form crescents
11. Sprinkle the filling onto the discs, then cut each one into eight segments.
12. Roll up the wedges, starting from the wide end, and shape into crescents.
Place on lined traysBake until browned
13. Place on baking sheets, cover and prove for about 20 minutes until slightly risen.
14. Bake for around 12 minutes, until nicely browned.
15. Cool on a wire rack.

Pistachio cinnamon crescents

I imagine these would go very well with a nice strong, short cup of coffee, but as I don’t drink it, I can’t say! I can say they also go nicely with tea, black or green. But the ideal drink to have them with would be that sweetened blend of black and mint tea, served in glasses, as drunk in Arabic world, especially the Maghreb. I like to think that whewn I first made them at Old Man Mountain in 1994, me and Nadia sat down to try them with a with a cuppa, critiquing them. Nadia probably said they were good, but she preferred savouries.




* Since writing this, I’ve done a little more research. In Arabic countries, such a pastry might be referred to as a sanbusaj, sambusak, sambosak. It’s the same in Hebrew. And similar in many other languages across the Middle East, western and southern Asia. Indeed, they’re probably all from the same Persian root word: sanbosag. A more familiar related word here in the UK is the Indian Subcontinent samosa.

But, you may be wondering, what’s a usually savoury, deep-fried parcel got in common with a crescent, yeasted dough, buttery pastry? Well, broadly, there’s all just variation on a theme of filled pastries. This recipe, for example, is savoury, but uses a similar technique to mine here, and as such nicely bridges the gap.



Filed under Baking, Pastry, Recipes

Pear, ginger and dark chocolate cake

Pear, ginger and chocolate cake

Last year, while we were making a lot of changes to our house and garden, I planted some fruit trees. One was a pear, a skinny little thing barely and metre and a half tall. Remarkably, this year it bore a good couple of dozen fruit. So many, in fact, a few branches broke from the weight. I probably should have shaken some off in June. Those from the broken branch, small and unripe, were poached in a red wine concoction back in August. Now, the rest have ripened and been picked.

The variety is Concorde, which the RHS describes as a “fine, compact dessert pear” and they’re very pleasant eaten straight. But browsing the Honey & Co Baking Book by Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich, I came across a pear cake so it seemed a perfect opportunity to bake with some of my harvest.

I’ve tweaked the recipe a bit, and added some chocolate chips, as I had some dark chocolate in a jar that I’d already cut into rough chunks. Pear and ginger is a great pairing. So is pear and dark chocolate. So is dark chocolate and ginger. So why not all three?

2 pears
Juice of half a lemon
Zest of 1 lemon
180g caster sugar
150g olive oil
2 eggs (that is, about 115g, excluding shells)
60g crystallised ginger, roughly chopped
100g dark chocolate, roughly chopped
350g plain flour
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch salt

1 more pear
Demerara sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 170C.
2. Grease and line a 1kg loaf tin with baking paper.

Peel the pears
3. Peel, core and dice (about 8mm pieces) the two pears. Ideally they should be firm, but ripe.
4. Put the pieces in a bowl and add the lemon juice and zest, stirring it about to coat – this helps to stop the fruit browning while you make the batter.
5. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the sugar and oil.

Whisk in the eggs
6. Add the egg and whisk until you have a thick mixture.
7. Add the diced pear and lemon, crystallised ginger and dark chocolate chunks. Stir to combine.
7. Sieve together the flour, ginger and raising agents then add this to the mixture, along with the pinch of salt.
8. Fold in until reasonably well combined. The Honeys say “try not to overwork the mixture – it is OK to have a couple of lumps.”
9. Pour the batter into the prepared tin and, with a damp knuckled, smooth the top.

Pear, giner and dark chocolate cake ready for baking
10. Cut the final pear into wedges, arrange these on top, and sprinkle with Demerara sugar.
11. Put in the oven and bake for about 45 minutes. It’s a moist, fruity cake, and will take a long time to cook, but so you don’t burn the top, take it out, cover with foil, then return to the oven for about half an hour.
12. Insert a skewer to check if it’s done: does it still have damp batter on it? If so, return to the oven for a bit longer.
13. When fully baked, cool in the tin.

Pear, crystallised ginger and dark chocolate cake

You can have it as a dessert, while still warm, with a blob of some indulgent dairy product (vanilla ice cream, clotted cream, double cream). Or cool fully and enjoy for breakfast or afternoon tea.

[Apologies for the photography in this post, which is even shoddier than normal. The days getting so short has caught me almost by surprise, and I was making this as night fell, resulting in some dubious non-natural lighting.]


Filed under Cakes, Recipes

Fruit cobbler

Fruit cobbler top

Autumn has seized us now in the south of England with its cool, slightly soggy grip. We’re also going through a disheartening time in our adoption process, so it’s definitely time to embrace the comfort foods.

One such stodgy autumnal comfort food is cobbler. Cobbler is simply a variation on the theme of a pie – that is, a sweet or savoury filling covered with a flour-based topping or crust. But in this case, the crust consists of a scone-type mixture. A lot of cobbler recipes use a moist dough, put on top of the filling in the form of rough blobs. Somewhere along the way, however, I latched onto the idea that the mix should be a drier dough, rolled out, and cut like scones, then put on top of the filling in a form more like shingles or roof tiles. Maybe it came from an old Katie Stewart recipe.

Stewart is one of Britain’s more unsung food writers, but her recipes in The Times in the 1970s and early 1980s, which my mother collected in a yellow binder, were another key part of my cookery education. Stewart even has a book called Wild Blackberry Cobbler and Other Old-Fashioned Recipes, published 1984. I don’t have it, so can’t verify my hunch that the tiled-style cobbler comes from her, but I am using some wild blackberries here.

It’s been a good year for blackberries, and we’ve had a few productive foraging sessions. This weekend just gone Fran and my mum gathered some more blackberries, along with rosehips and sloes, which we used to make hedgerow jelly.

They got the blackberries on the last day you’re supposed to pick them, according to one strand of British folklore: 11 October. Others say 10 October. These dates used to be when St Michael’s Day, Michaelmas, was celebrated. The Catholic calendar was, however, revised in 1752, and Michaelmas became 29 September. So some say that’s the last day you should pick blackberries. Michaelmas is supposedly the day when St Michael kicked Lucifer out of Heaven. Some say he landed on a blackberry bush and, angered by the thorns, cursed it, spoiling the fruit.

Either way, I’m using some of my blackberry jam made in August in this one, so I think we’re safe from any demonic saliva.

Fruit mix
1. Vary the fruit according to season, what trees you’ve got, what trees your friends or family have got, or what you can forage. Right now, in the thick of the apple harvest, I used 800g Bramley apples from a tree in my folks’ garden.
Peel, core and cube the apples, then stew in a pan with a dash of water and sugar to taste (I used 40g).

Bramley apples to stew downBramley apples, stewed
2. Cook until softened but not completely broken down.

Fruit filling
3. I mixed the apple with a few tablespoons of blackberry and plum jam.
4. Spread the fruit mixture in a 20x25cm ovenproof dish.

Preheat the oven to 180C.

Cobbler topping
330g plain flour
7g baking soda
Pinch fine sea salt
40g caster sugar
60g butter, unsalted
150g milk
90g yogurt
Extra milk
Granulated sugar

1. Sieve together the plain flour and baking soda in a bowl.
2. Add the pinch of salt and caster sugar and stir to combine.
3. Cut the butter up into small pieces, then rub in until the mix resembles breadcrumbs.
4. Mix together the milk and yogurt (you could use 160g buttermilk instead) then add this to the mix.

Cobbler dough
5. Bring together to form a dough, kneading very briefly. If you handle it too much it’ll toughen up.
6. Roll out the dough to about 12mm thick.
7. Using a cookie cutter, cut discs. I used one 65mm wide, but use whatever you’ve got.
8. Cover the fruit mix with overlapping discs of cobbler dough.

Cover the fruit mix with tiles of cobbler mix
9. Brush the dough discs with milk and sprinkle with granulated sugar.
10. Bake until browned, about 20 minutes.

Fruit cobbler with cream

Serve with cream or vanilla ice cream.


Filed under Puddings, Recipes

Quintuple chocolate chip cookies

Quintuple chocolate chip cookies

Lots of bloggers and columnists have offered recipes for “the ultimate chocolate chip cookie”. I’m not sure it’s entirely possible to nail a perfect version of the quintessential US cookie and, well, it’s fun to play around with recipes. I’ve been experimenting with adding more chips and nibs. Others before me have taken the triple chocolate chip cookie as a starting point for quadruple and quintuple, so I’m not claiming any originality here, just having fun.

Let’s be clear, the quintuple here means there are five types of cacao-based product: three types of chocolate chunks, nibs and cocoa powder. When I say cacao-based product, I mean things derived from the Cacao theobroma tree. The tree is a native of Central and South America, famously beloved of the Aztecs, appropriated by imperialist Europeans and now grown from Ghana to Vietnam. I talked more about Cacao theobroma and nibs in this post, so won’t go on about them again.

Three types of chocolate chunks and cocoa nibs

Into the woods
We ate this batch while having a lovely walk in the woods: Friston Forest in East Sussex. After saying in my previous post about how awful the weather has turned, we’re having a week of gorgeous sun. Friston Forest is lovely; I particularly enjoyed a moment where we walked up a shady path then were suddenly in a clearing that offered a view that was full to the horizon with trees. This isn’t something that happens very often in East Sussex, a part of England that’s fairly populous, heavily farmed or defined by open Downland scenery, not forest.

Quintuple chocolate chip cookies in Friston Forest

So it was a day of treats – cookies, sunshine, woody views and even a pretty decent pub lunch at The Tiger Inn in East Dean (not to be confused with the East Dean in West Sussex), opposite Sherlock Holmes’ retirement house no less.

Sherlock Holmes' retirement house

The only disappointment was the lack of edible fungi. Perhaps the woods – largely a mix of beech, sycamore and ash on thin soil over chalk – just aren’t that suitable. But that’s OK, it’s all part of the process of finding a good spot for foraging.

Fridge-aged dough
This recipe is based on Dan Lepard’s dark chocolate chunk cookies, in his book Short & Sweet. Rather than using the following technique and baking them straight away, he says you can also use the US or even German technique1 of forming the dough into a cylinder and fridge or even freezer for later.

An article in the New York Times in 2008 asserted that this improves the quality of the finished cookie, allowing the flour to soak up the liquids and fats. Felicity Cloake in the Guardian did her own tests on this and said the dough kept longest in the fridge (48 hours) resulted in a more “caramelly” cookie, while those kept 12-24 hours had a preferable texture. I’m not entirely convinced though, especially when you’re adding cocoa powder to the mix.

125g unsalted butter, soft
190g light soft brown sugar
2 tsp vanilla essence
1 medium egg (about 52g), at room temperature2
175g plain flour
25g cocoa powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda (6g)
Pinch of salt
60g dark choc, roughly chopped into chunks
60g milk choc, roughly chopped into chunks
60g white choc, roughly chopped into chunks
50g cocoa nibs… or indeed cacao nibs

1. Preheat the oven to 180C and line some tray with baking parchment or silicon sheets.
2. Cream together the butter and sugar.
3. Add the add and vanilla essence, and beat to blend.
4. Sieve together the flour, cocoa powder and bicbarb then add this to the batter, along with the pinch of salt.

Quintuple chocolate chip cookie mix
5. Add the chocolate chunk and nibs and bring to a dough.
6. Form balls. I scaled mine at 35g each, which resulted in 22 cookies.
7. Place the balls on the prepared sheets, well spaced about as they spread.

Room to spread while bakingBaked
8. Bake for about 12-14 minutes. Less = chewier, more = crunchier, according to taste.
9. Allow to firm up slightly on the trays then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Enjoy. Not necessarily on a walk in the woods. With a teatime cuppa or evening hot chocolate in the comfort of your own home is good too.

Plate of quintuple chocolate chip cookies

1. In the Oxford Companion to Food, in his entry for “Cookie”, Alan Davidson writes “The American habit of making rolls of cookie dough and and keeping them in the refridgerator or freezer may have come from Germany; the doughs for some German biscuits such as Heidesand are made into rolls and chilled before slicing.” He adds they’re sometimes known as “‘icebox’ cookies”
2. Always bake with your eggs at room temperature. I’m not sure 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 even 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 and off won’t make any difference.


Filed under Biscuits, cookies, Recipes

Harveys’ Old Ale and the end of the summer

Rev Godfrey Broster of Rectory Ales (left), Edmund Jenner and Robin Thorpe of Harveys (behind the bar)

In my last post I mentioned it was the autumn equinox a few days ago. This is the moment when day and night are the same length. And now the nights are, officially, getting longer. We’ve had a fairly poor summer here in southern England. May and June were lovely, but since then it’s been unsettled, frequently cool. After my two and half summers in Rome, where summer generally runs from April to October, I feel somewhat cheated.

That said, there is one bright side to the nights drawing in and the prospect of dark and damp from here through to March: Harveys’1 Old Ale.

I love Old Ale. It’s quite possibly my favourite of Harveys’ 20-odd beers (I think I’ve tried them all now; nearly at least). It’s dark and sweet and warming. If a beer can be cosy and reassuring, it’s Harveys’ Old Ale. It’s a beer that’s perfect to drink in a warm pub, preferably with an open fire, on a long winter evening. Robin Thorpe of Harveys called it the “classic winter beer”, and added that as September has already turned so cool and wet it’s fine to be drinking it already. Which suits me.

We got to try the first of this year’s Old Ale at a Harveys tasting last night, hosted by Robin and Edmund Jenner. The evening was billed as a Seasonal Beer Tasting, and was a highly informative run-through of the beers – and how and why they fit with certain seasons.

A trend of the past 30 or 40 years may have seen a diminishment of seasonal beers, with many ill-informed drinkers just quaffing the same generic industrial brews all year round, but Harveys is among the heritage breweries that maintains the tradition of varying production through the year.

The evening started, however, with Wild Hop, a 3.7% ABV light ale that’s a perfect light summer drink. I mentioned Wild Hop back after my tour of the brewery in June 2014, but Edmund told us more about the gestation of this beer, which they first produced in 2004 “in response to what we now call blonde ale.”

It’s made with Fuggles and Goldings hops in the boil, then dry-hopped with English grown Cascade, which are more modest in flavour and aroma than their New World counterparts. It also contains Sussex variety hops – which are a recent domestication of a wild variety, first discovered on the Sussex-Kent border. Ed explained how most wild hops simply don’t have the qualities required for brewing, but this hybrid proved perfect.

Fran, in her usual unique way, said the Wild Hop reminded her of Sindy dolls or Tiny Tears. Something in the aroma reminded her of nuzzled dollies as a child. I can’t say I could relate; maybe Action Man smelled very different.

Harveys beer tasting

Although Harveys vary their production during the year, their main year-round brew is their Best Bitter. It accounts for about 90% of their production now. Bitter and Best Bitter are quintessential English beers, and it would be easy to imagine we’ve been drinking them here for centuries. But Ed gave us more history. Harveys’ Best wasn’t produced in 1945 (instead they brewed 75% mild, 25% pale), only accounted for 7% of their production in 1955 and 45% in 1965. Today’s Best Bitter, in fact, only “re-evolved” after the Second World War.

Two wars seriously threatened Britain’s grain supplies, with convoys from North America harried by U-boats. When grain did get here, the priority was food, not booze. So barley wasn’t used in brewing so much and what was produced had lower gravity, and alcohol by volume. Brewers were required to keep gravity low, and indeed, the wars even resulted in the introduction of licensing hours to keep the war effort population more sensible in their booze consumption. Trends and tastes in beer change – mild is way out of fashion now – but war and law have also played a significant role too.

At the end of the evening we had a blend2 of Best and the Old Ale, and it was a cracker. I may be asking for this again, see if I can help encourage some pubs to start this practice again. Blending was the norm in British beer drinking until fairly recently.

As much as I love the Old Ale, the most pertinent beer we tasted last night was the South Downs Harvest. Like the wheat sheaf in my previous post, this is a celebration of the harvest, of autumn. It’s a light, biscuity golden ale – which is made with green hops, just harvested. As Ed said, it contains “something of this year’s summer.”

Among the other beers we tasted was Armada Ale, which was first brewed in 1988 to commemorate 400 years since the Spanish Armada. Harveys are great at such commemorative brews. Among their recent ones was the fascinating Priory Ale, brewed last year for the 750th anniversary of the Battle of Lewes. I talked about this herby, historical brew here.

Last night Robin raised their Celebration Cocktail – with Priory Ale – and said it was to celebrate numerous things happening in 2015: 800 years since the Magna Carta, the birth of Anne of Cleves (who had a house in Lewes, which you can still visit, and was born 22 September 1515), 75 years since the Battle of Britain, 50 years since the development of the famed Maris Otter malt and even Harveys’ own 225th birthday.

So much history, mediated through the medium of beer. Harveys’ production of such beers encapsulate various elements of local and English history. Furthermore, as Ed reiterated, their beers get their character from their yeast, the same strain since 1957, and the water, taken from a borehole into the chalk aquifer. It’s rainwater filtered through chalk and as such has a unique mineral character. Have a pint of Harveys and that liquid is our history, our heritage and our environment. It’s a wonderful thing. With all this on offer, how anyone can drink characterless industrial beers I don’t know.

1. They’re called “Harvey’s”, though it’s more generally rendered as “Harveys” these days. Luckily, as a double possessive apostrophe is a bit painful: Harvey’s’.
2. I’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating. Blending beers is also out of fashion, but not at The Jolly Tanners in Staplefield, West Sussex, where Ed says they call the practice “tosspotting”. For those who don’t know this minor English word, a tosspot is an idiot or a drunkard. With “to toss” British slang for “to masturbate”. Apparently tosspot has its origins in the 1560s.


Filed under Ale, beer, Breweries

Harvest festival wheat sheaf loaf

A bread wheat sheaf for a harvest festival

Beside my primary school was a church, St Stephen’s. In the summer, house martins built their nests under its eaves and whizzed over our heads as we came and went or played in the yard on wet days. Just as the house martins were leaving at the end of the summer, the autumn term started. Soon after, we had a harvest festival.

The abiding notion in Britain is that school summer holidays freed up children to help with the harvest. This may be a myth, but certainly the biggest grain harvests start happening here in the middle of school holidays, around the festival of Lammas, 1 August.

Harvest festivals continue through late summer and autumn, notably occurring around the time of the nearest full moon to the autumnal equinox. This year, the equinox is today, 23 September, the full moon 28 September. Though our local primary school is doing its harvest festival on 16 October. I’ve not seen how they do it yet, but I’ve got strong memories from a couple (several) decades ago of the festivals at St Stephen’s, with the altar piled high with foods, to give thanks and for charity. There were tinned foods, but there was also fresh autumn produce, and possibly even a wheat sheaf: real or made of dough.

Stalks and symbolism
A sheaf is a tied bunch of grain stalks after they have been harvested. It was a common sight at this time of year during the centuries when harvests were done by hand with scythes. I did it this way when I lived on a small farm in New Zealand in 1990, and I know people these days growing heritage grain varieties that still do in England, but mostly harvesting is done now with combines: so no more sheaves.

An old "wheatsheaf" pub sign in Dorset

It’s a shame really, as they’re an ancient symbol and one that you’re more likely to encounter now in pub names. Symbolically, however, the wheat sheaf represents plenty, a good harvest, fertility and even resurrection, as the cycle of seasons has once more given grain for bread. Indeed, the sheaf infers bread, and bread is of course a quintessentially important symbolic food in some religions. The heart of Christianity is the eucharist: the eating of bread to reiterate the Last Supper, where Jesus prepared for his sacrifice by shared bread, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:20).

Back to school
Although I’m not religious, I enjoy the symbolism and stories, and most of all appreciate the tradition, so I thought it was about time I had a go at a bread wheat sheaf.

It’s based on the recipe in The Bread Book by Linda Collister (1993) which is in turn based on a recipe in The Modern Baker, Confectioner and Caterer (1907) by John Kirkland, a former head of The National Bakery School (founded 1894), then at Borough Polytechnic and now part of London South Bank University. I did a diploma there in 2010, but we didn’t make anything quite this ornate.

This is slightly tricky to do in a domestic oven as it won’t be as capacious as a commercial oven. Mine can cope with baking sheets 35cm wide. It’ll mean your sheaf isn’t as grand as those professionals might make for harvest festivals, but even the comparatively stumpy results can still be very pleasing.

It’s a fairly time-consuming project. Not only do you have to make the dough and wait for it to prove, you also have to shape a lot of small pieces of dough. Notably to make the ears of corn. (And when I say corn, I’m using it in the Old English sense meaning any edible grain, though particularly wheat grain, not the modern American sense – which is taking over here in Britain – meaning maize.)

1350g strong white bread flour
20g salt
8g caster sugar
15g fresh yeast
750g tepid water (approximately, see below)

1 egg
Pinch salt

1. Combine the yeast and most of the water. Hold say 100g back.
2. Put the flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl and mix to combine.
3. Add the yeast mixture and bring to a dough.
4. It will be quite a tight, firm dough as you want it for sculpting, however if it feels too dry add a little more of the water. How dry your dough feels will depend on how absorbent your flour is. As I’m using a stoneground flour, which contains more bran than an industrial steel roller-milled flour, it’s quite absorbent.

Turn out the doughKnead to a smooth dough
5. Turn the mixture out onto a lightly oiled surface and knead until smooth and well combined. These days I rarely do long manual kneads, but as this is quite old-school, go with it. I added water to a total of about 750g – meaning the dough is 55% hydration.

Before provingDoubled in size

6. Return the ball of dough to the bowl (cleaned and lightly oiled), cover or put in a plastic bag, then leave to prove until doubled in size. At an ambient temperature of about 18C this too about two and half hours.
7. When doubled, turn out. My total dough weighed approximately 2150g.

Deflate the dough
8. Give the dough another short knead to deflate and redistribute the gases. Again, this isn’t a loaf where we’re after a nice pleasing crumb, it’s a medium for sculpting.
9. Divide the dough up into pieces: two at 320g, one at 400g and the rest, about 1110g. Don’t worry too much about total accuracy – you’re making a wheat sheaf, an organic thing, not something geometric.
10. As this is quite a protracted process, you might want to keep the pieces you’re not working on in the fridge, so they don’t keep proving and swelling too much. Too much proving and the resulting shape may crack where you don’t want it to.

Wheat sheaf base layer
11. Take the two 320g pieces and form two rough rectangles, approximately 22x13cm. Use one to form the trunk of the sheaf, the other the top. Place both pieces on the largest baking sheet you have (that’ll fit in your oven of course). Stretch the head out slightly. You want a kind of cartoon tree or mushroom shape. Prick all over with a fork and brush with water to stop a crust forming. Cover with a damp cloth while you do the next bit.

30 pieces30 pieces into sausages
30 pieces as stalks

12. Take the 400g piece and divide it into 30 pieces, each scaled at around 13g.
13. Roll these pieces into snakes, again about 22cm long.

Add the stalks
14. Place 27 of the snakes on the base, making the wheat stalks. Twist or braid the remaining three to form a sheaf band, tucking its ends underneath on each side.
15. Cover or bag this and place it in the fridge as the next bit is the most time-consuming.
16. Take the large, remaining piece of dough. This is to create to ears. Divide it up into about 70 pieces, each scaled at 16g-ish. Do more, smaller pieces if you want daintier ears.

Make the ears
17. Roll each piece into a ball, then roll out, rolling one end to a point.
18. With a pair of sharp-pointed scissors, make snips in the small piece of dough, three or four, on three sides. Cut down and inwards towards the rounded base. It’s a bit like making dozens of mini versions of the French pain d’épi – meaning ear or cob bread.
19. You could make all of them in advance, but I got the main part out of the fridge again, and started positioning them on the top. Place them loosely to give a sense of them having grown out of the stalks.
20. While you’re doing this, preheat your oven to 220C.
21. Keep adding the ears, layering slightly, with the thickest point in the middle.

Position all the ears
23. Beat the one egg with the pinch of salt and use it to – carefully and lightly – glaze the sheaf.
23. Bake for 20 minutes, take out of the oven and brush with more egg glaze.
24. Turn the heat down to 170C and bake for another 40 minutes or so until nicely browned.


At this point, you can decide whether you want to eat it – it’s a perfectly serviceable, albeit low hydration, bread – or use it as a decoration. If you want it for the latter, turn your oven down to 140C or 130C and leave it in for a few hours longer to completely dry it out. Collister says six hours and if you have a wood or oil range, maybe you could just leave it in, but using electricity this seems a bit excessive in terms of energy consumption.

Collister decorates hers with a blobby little mouse on the stalks. If I’d been doing this with children in the house I might have been tempted, but as our adoption process continues to drag us along on its emotional roller-coaster, and we still haven’t been able to expand our family, I wasn’t inclined.

It’s easy to make a mouse though – just save 30g or so of the dough used for the wheat ears, make it into an eggy shape, snip a few ears, skewer a few eyes and add a snaky tail. I don’t think the mouse has any particular symbolism, though I could be wrong. Maybe it today it could symbolism how biodiversity is so tragically compromised by modern industrial farming techniques.

Wheatsheaf, detail

So I dried out the wheat sheaf loaf – every time I used to oven for other things, then turned it off, I put the loaf back in to dry while it cooled.

I gave it to the local primary school, where I volunteer, and they used it as part of their harvest festival display. It’s a nice echo of my own memories of harvest festival at my primary school, all those years ago.

School harvest festival display









A few notes
1. Here’s a film of a British master baker making a wheat sheaf in 1957. His wheat ears are a bit finer than mine!
2. Out of interest, Fran, my wife, works at Kew Foundation, at Kew Gardens in London. As I was doing this, she was working on a document that contained this remarkable statistic. While the human genome contains 3 billion letters, that of bread wheat (Triticum aestivum L. ) contains 17 billion. I’m not a scientist – clearly – but that’s boggling. The human sense of superiority leads one to imagine a sophisticated, sentient animal organism like us would be that much more genetically complicated.



Filed under Baking, Breads, Discussion, Feasts, Recipes