Category Archives: Baking

Baking – Daniel Etherington’s bread experiements

Canterbury apple tart

Canterbury tart

My copy of the Roux Brothers on Patisserie is inscribed as a gift from my parents for Christmas 1995. They posted it out to me in New Zealand, where I enjoyed an antipodean summer Christmas. As summer gave way to Autumn, we began the Old Man Mountain apple harvest. In was in that orchard that I got, aged 24, my first ever bee sting. It descended liked a Stuka and stung me just below the eye.

I made a lot of French apple tart that Autumn. Mostly successfully, until the one time when I was helping my host, mentor and friend Nadia with a catering job. I made three or four in large trays, but failed miserably to get the liquid for the glaze to setting point. I’m still ashamed of that cock-up. Nadia wasn’t happy with me. I still love the Roux French apple tart, too. Though these days I’m possibly more keen on Canterbury tart.

We’ve lost so much of our culinary tradition in this country. I’ve said it before, but the combination of urbanisation, two world wars, the industrialisation of farming practices and the rise of the supermarket homogenised much of our food. Furthermore, we have a long history of food fashions and fads, such as royals employing French chefs. More recently, thanks to the work of food writers and immigrants, we’ve embraced Indian subcontinent and Italian-inspired food to the point where most families eat pasta more than they eat traditional British stodge, for example. We probably do. I’m not sure what I’d do without pasta to fill up T-rex most lunchtimes.

It shouldn’t need saying, but British food can often rival anything from our continental neighbours. We had our Dutch friend Annely visiting this weekend, and as she loves cheese treated ourselves to some pricy local fare. One was Lord of the Hundreds, a sheep’s milk cheese as good as any Sardinian or central Italian pecorino. Another was Lord London, a soft cows’ milk cheese as good as any French brie.

So when you discover a recipe like Canterbury tart, it’s worth noting that it’s as good as if not better than a classic French apple tart, and more straight-forward to make too. Now, I’m loathe to say Canterbury tart is an old, traditional Kent recipe as I can’t find much information about it. Several websites cut and past the same blurb saying the first recorded recipe was written by Geoffrey Chaucer in 1381 but I’m doubtful. Kent is certainly the heartland of apple growing, so let’s say it likely has some history. I got the recipe from my mum. Googling, it looks like one from Mary Berry. I wish Berry had told us where she got it from but her recipes are somewhat lacking in preamble.

Pastry
100g butter
225g plain flour
25g sifted icing sugar
1 egg, beaten

Filling
4 eggs
225g caster sugar
2 lemons, zest and juiced
100g melted butter
2 large cooking apples, peeled & cored, about 350g
3 dessert apples, peeled, cored & thinly sliced
25g Demerara sugar

1. First make the pastry. If making by hand, rub the butter into the flour and icing sugar until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs, then stir in the beaten egg and bring together to form a dough.
2. If making the pastry in a processor, combine the flour, butter and icing sugar in the bowl then add the egg and mix until the dough starts to form.
3. Form the pastry into a smooth ball, wrap in plastic and chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
4. Roll out the pastry and line a flan tin, leaving an overhang. Chill the tin for a further 30 minutes (or longer if you need to).
5. To make the filling, beat the eggs, caster sugar, lemon rind and juice together in a mixing bowl. Stir in the warm melted butter, then coarsely grate the cooking apples directly into the mixture. Mix well.
6. Have the dessert apples ready sliced.
7. Preheat the oven to 200C, putting t a heavy baking tray in to heat up. (You don’t bake the pastry case blind, so this will help cook the bottom.)
8. Remove the pastry case from the fridge and spread the runny mixture in the bottom. Level the surface and arrange the dessert apple slices on top, neatly overlapping.
9. Sprinkle with Demerara sugar.
10. Put in the oven and bake for about 40-50 minutes, until the centre feels firm and the apples slices are slightly browned.

Serve warm, with cream or ice cream obviously. Though I would say I prefer it when it’s cooled and firmed up more. Even after a night in the fridge. Yum. The citrus/apple combination works so well.

By the way, I’m aware my pastry looks a bit messy. Although I can be somewhat perfectionist in some areas, I’m long reconciled with my shortcomings as a pastry chef. The important thing here is that it tasted good.

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Banana and date muffins

You know something I hate? The school summer holidays. I used to love them as a child. Unlike today, when we seem to get our best weather in May and June, before schools even break up, in the seventies and eights, summer seemed to really happen in August. It went on and on and was a delight. Thinking about my childhood now, it sounds like something from the thirties or fifties – long games of French cricket, roaming in the water meadows and Downs, chasing round the garden with brother trying to catch stag flying beetles (successfully) and bats (unsuccessfully) with a minnow net attached to our long bamboo laundry prop.

Obviously, my kids are a lot younger, but I can’t imagine them forming any particularly fond memories of this summer just passed. Aside from the summer weather seeming to end the moment school broke up, to be replaced by weeks of grey, the whole experience seemed very unsettling for my three-year-old son, T-rex.

After nearly a year at nursery, he was thriving. He’d made a lot of friends and by and large seemed settled and happy. He was sleeping well, making decent progress with his food fussiness, pretty much out of nappies, and getting excited about the prospect of “Big boys’ Lego” for his fourth birthday later in the year. Then suddenly all the routine disappeared and things regressed, became increasingly unsettled.

It’s hard to create a routine when you may be away for a spell, may be visited by family, may be able to grab a bit of sunshine, but then get wrong-footed by rain. As most organised summer holiday activities are for ages 5-6 plus, I had to try and create my own. But three-year-old boys aren’t the biggest fans of arts and crafts. Mine certainly isn’t. All he wants to do is watch The Lego Batman Movie.

I try to cook with them, and the Raver, now aged two, enjoys that – well, some “mix-mix” and the licking spoons at least. As T-rex has decided he doesn’t like “nana shake” – one of his long-time breakfast favourites – any more, I had to come up with other solutions for over-ripe bananas. Googling didn’t really satisfy, so I reached for my vintage copy of Fresh and Natural, a New Zealand hippy classic, published in 1980 and gifted to me by my old friend Nadia the final time I saw her at her home in the Malborough Sounds in October 2013, a year before her untimely death. It includes a nice flexible recipe for banana muffins, one I remember using when I lived with Nadia in 1994-95 and helped feed her large family in the Yellow House at Old Man Mountain in the Buller Gorge.

I tried to get T-rex interested in this project, but even before making or seeing the finished product he said “I won’t eat those.” It’s a protest and control tactic he’s using quite a lot currently. Refusing tea before I’ve even put it on the table, before I’ve even made it.

We hoped the return to nursery would settle him, but instead we underestimated the shock of how much his class would have changed. Loads of his friends have gone up to reception. I realise now he’s a boy who feels particularly settled when he slots into a social group of older boys, whose more alpha ways give him guidance and stability. The teachers had said the older kids often get into the role of being in charge, being the guides themselves. I hope T-rex does. I hope he likes these muffins.

This isn’t a parenting or adoption blog, so I want to keep things light, but T-rex is, in the technical term my wife taught me, dysregulated. England isn’t like France or Italy where people may take the whole of August off and hang out at the beach with family. Here, primary carers can face a long slog through the summer and sometimes children struggle. And it’s not like we need this Victorian institution of long summer holidays that freed up children to help with the harvest. The most my kids harvest is under-ripe tomatoes. So anyway, I also dearly hope that politicians move to adjust the length of the summer school holidays. Though if those in power are all wealthy, reactionary deadbeats who never even change their own kids’ nappies, I suspect it’s unlikely.

So yes, a slog – hence this blog has been a bit quiet lately. And even now I’m posting, it’s for something very undemanding. Not sure I’ll be able to muster any fancy stuff any time soon…

Here’s the recipe. Converted to new money, with added dates. The original uses nuts. You can use either or both, or neither.

50g butter, softened
50g golden syrup
1 egg (that is, about 50g without shell)
5g vanilla essence
2 mashed bananas (that is, about 200g)
105g milk
4g baking soda
300g plain flour, ideally stoneground or even wholegrain
5g baking powder
50g chopped dates

1. Preheat oven to 200C. Like a muffin tin with cases, or just grease it if you don’t have any.
2. Beat together the butter and golden syrup until creamy.
3. Add the egg and vanilla and beat well.
4. Dissolve the baking soda in the milk.
5. Mash the bananas.
6. Alternately add the milk and banana to the mixture.
7. Sieve together the flour and baking powder and add.
8. Add the dates.
9. Equally divide the batter into the muffin cases (or not).
10. Bake for about 20 minutes, until nicely browned.

Nice for breakfast, with some butter and maybe a drizzle of golden syrup or honey.

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Peanut butter buckwheat cookies

Peanut butter buckwheat cookies

Our kids are now three and two. The older one has a sweet tooth, the younger one isn’t too fussed. One thing they both do like is peanut butter. But not just any peanut butter, so I ended up in that situation where the shelf was littered with open jars of rejected spreads.

Now, nut butters are a great ingredient for cookies – eg here are some I made a few months ago. So that was the ideal solution for using up some of the extraneous stock. A quick browse of my cookbooks and good old Dan Lepard had a recipe for peanut butter cookies in Short and Sweet. His recipe uses wholemeal or spelt flour combined with rolled oats.  All ingredients I love, but I fancied making some buckwheat flour cookies, not because I’ve suddenly decided I can’t eat wheat or gluten, but just because buckwheat is yummy.

This is one of those great recipes that can handle tweaking. We did a batch that was half buckwheat, half plain flour, then I did another that was 100 per cent buckwheat. They worked very well. I reduced the sugar (as I always do) and used coconut sugar for one batch. Then in this one I used cocoa nibs and chocolate chips.

Peanut butter buckwheat cookies

200g peanut butter
125g unsalted butter, softened
125g caster sugar
140g soft brown sugar
8g vanilla essence
1 egg
250g buckwheat flour
6g baking soda
80g cocoa nibs
80g dark chocolate, chopped into rough chunks

1. Preheat the oven to 170C.
2. Prepare baking sheets by lining with parchment or silicone.
3. Put the peanut butter, butter and sugars in a large bowl and cream together until soft and light.
4. Beat in the egg and vanilla.
5. Sieve together the baking soda and flour then add to the bowl.
6. Add the nibs and chocolate and combine well.
7. Fall balls about the size of a walnut, around 30g each.
8. Place, spaced out, in the baking sheets.
9. Bake for about 15-20 minutes until nicely browned.
10. Allow to firm slightly on the sheets then move to a wire rack to finish cooling.

Enjoy. In our case, quite possibly in a playground or on a walk up the hill.

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Orange honey buns

This is a slight adaptation of a recipe by Valentine Warner, from his book What to Eat Now, published in 2008. I believe I saw him making it on telly, and had a flurry of using the recipe back then. It was forgotten for a few years, but for some reason popped up in my memory. Possibly because, well, it’s for yeasted buns that are soaked in a citrus syrup, and I’m just loving citrus syrup soaked goodies (see also this).

The result is a bit like a rum baba; he does include booze in his recipe, but I didn’t. Beacuse A) we don’t generally stock orange-flavoured liqueur and B) my bambini are the main recipients of these treats and I’m not sure they’re ready for the hard stuff.

It’s a yeasted mix – though it’s more like a cake batter than a dough. You don’t need to worry about kneading it at all. The original recipe involves easy mix yeast, just thrown in and mixed up. I don’t really use easy mix yeast, so I’ve adapted it slightly to be made with active dried yeast or fresh yeast. I also doubled the quantities, making about 18 buns. It’s nice to make them in heart-shaped silicone moulds but if you don’t have such things, normal 12 hole muffin tins are fine too.

6g active dried yeast or 12g fresh yeast
30g caster sugar
60g warm water or milk
300g plain flour
4g fine sea salt
5 eggs, lightly beaten, about 250g
150g butter, melted and cooled a bit

For the syrup
500g sugar (caster or granulated or mix)
250g freshly squeezed orange juice
250g water
Zest of one orange, in long strips
100g honey
2g orange-flower water (optional, to taste)

1. Grease the wells of a couple of 12 hole muffin trays or similar.
2. Activate the yeast in the water (or milk) with the caster sugar then mix in a large bowl with the flour and salt.
3. Beat in the beaten egg and butter.
4. Mix until smooth then cover and rest for about 15 minutes.
5. Divide the dough into the muffin tins, filling about 1/3rd.
6. Cover and leave to prove unit double in size. In a warm place, this may take about an hour. In a cool place, longer.
7. Preheat the oven to 220C.
8. Bake the buns for 12-15 minutes, or until well risen and pale golden-brown.

9. Remove from the tin and set aside to cool on a wire rack.
10. While the buns are cooking make the syrup. Heat the sugar, juice, water and rind in a pan over a low heat, stirring well. When the sugar has dissolved, increase the heat and boil for five minutes or so, until it thickens and becomes slightly syrupy.
11. Reduce the heat and dissolve in the honey. Remove from the heat and add the orange-flower water, if using.
12. Set aside until cooled slightly.

13. Put the buns in a bowl or deep plate and pour over the syrup.
14. Enjoy. Lick sticky fingers. Wipe messy children.

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Buttermilk chocolate cake

Buttermilk chocolate cake

If I’m craving a cake, chances are I’m craving chocolate cake. Were someone, well Fran probably, to ask me what kind of birthday cake I want, I’ll say chocolate. Yes, I like chocolate. I like cake. I like chocolate cake.

But strangely, despite decades of baking and consuming chocolate cakes, I’ve never found a go-to recipe. A recipe so easy, reliable and rewarding that I don’t even have to think about it. Discussing this with my mum the other day, she asked if she’d ever given me an old Katie Stewart recipe called Quick-mix chocolate cake. Not that I recalled.

I like Stewart’s recipes. She died in 2013, and was somewhat out of fashion. But if you’ve ever seen or owned one of her recipe books, chances are it’ll be well-thumbed. She was one of those British writers food writers of a certain age, along with Prue Leith and Delia Smith1, born in or just before the Second World War, who produced practical, no-nonsense recipes.

Sometimes I like my recipes with a little more context and colourful images, but often I just want to reach for the recipe, forgo any preamble, grab the ingredients from store cupboard and fridge and get on with it. Stewart wrote for The Times from 1966, a year before my parents married and four years before I was born. She continued to do so until 1978, and my mum assiduously collected the cuttings in a yellow ring binder and used them a lot during my childhood. She still has it, still uses it. So yes, I had to try this recipe. Stewart was a big part of my upbringing and food education.

What is buttermilk?
Buttermilk is readily available from supermarkets these days – or at least the cultured version, as opposed to the liquid left from churning cream to make butter. This is what I first learned was buttermilk, when making butter while living at Newton Livery then Old Man Mountain farms in New Zealand in the early-mid 1990s. This is called “traditional buttermilk” and is unlikely to be available to you unless you’re churning cream.

If you really can’t find cultured buttermilk, I suspect (though I’ve yet to try. Watch this space*) you could make this using yogurt. A little Googling suggests a ratio of three parts yogurt thinned with one part milk. As you’re using alkaline baking soda as a raising agent, it needs an acid to react with, to produce the carbon dioxide that gives lift. Both cultured buttermilk and yogurt are acids, though they’re fermented with different bacteria giving rise to their different qualities2.

Here’s the recipe. I’ve converted it to new money and reduced the sugar.

225g plain flour
55g cocoa powder
5g bicarbonate of soda
2g fine salt
250g caster sugar
112g butter, softened
140g buttermilk
2 large eggs (about 120g beaten egg)

1. Grease and line two 18 or 20cm. (Smaller will be taller, larger will be flatter.)
2. Preheat the oven to 180C.
3. Sift the flour, cooca and bicarb into a bowl.
4. Beat together the sugar and softened butter.
5. Add the buttermilk and beaten egg.
6. Add the sieved powder and stir in.
7. Beat to combine thoroughly, for about a minute.
8. Divide between the tins.
9. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until firm to the touch.
10. Cool in tins for 10 mins then turn out and cool on racks.
11. “Sandwich the layers with buttercream or chocolate frosting.”

Slices of buttermilk chocolate cake

I had some chocolate frosting in the freezer. I can’t remember what recipe I’d used to make it. I also had some cream cheese frosting left over from the Raver’s birthday. Both needed using up. I mixed them and added a dash more cocoa. Twas delicious, and probably fairly unrepeatable. I love those using-up-leftovers accidents. Any good frosting or buttercream will do.

I’m not entirely sure this will become my go-to chocolate cake recipe. As Stewart said in the cutting, it’s a “light-textured cake”, and sometimes I want rich and fudgy, sometimes I just want the ground nuts goodness of a Sachertorte or torta caprese. But I will be using this again, as it is indeed easy and reliable. Good old Stewart.

 

 

 

Notes
1. Obviously not everything. The earlier stuff by Smith, notably The Complete Cookery Course (c1980) is essential. How to Cheat at Cooking (2008) not so much.
2. Lactococcus lactis or Lactobacillus bulgaricus for buttermilk, Lactobacillus delbrueckii subspecies bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus and others for yogurt.

* I tried it. 105g yogurt mixed with 35g milk. It worked fine. Can’t quite put my finger on how different it was.

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Citrus honey cake

Citrus polenta cake

Fran, my wife of these past eight years and partner of nine more before that, isn’t really much of a cake person. Or a pudding person. Or a chocolate person. We’re quite Jack and Mrs Sprat in our food inclinations. I was a vegetarian or pescetarian for 20 or so years, she’s pretty much always been a keen carnivore.

When we got together, our dietary habits met in the middle somewhere, but I still don’t have a great sense of what her favourite cake is. Personally, I’m all about the chocolate, so a rich chocolate cake is what I always hope for on my birthday. As her birthday approached last week, however, I wasn’t sure what do bake her. I hinted for some guidance, but it didn’t really manifest. So I looked through old recipes and took a punt.

This isn’t exactly what you’d call a celebration cake. It’s not slathered in icing or exactly suitable for candles. But it’s rich and yummy, and a bit different.

Special honey… or not
It’s originally from a recipe by Nigel Slater in The Observer. His piece was all about the honey, which is here used to make the citrusy syrup. I enjoy honey, and always like to have a jar of special honey in the house. A few years ago, some friends from New Zealand came for a visit, and brought a jar of Tutaki Manuka honey, produced by Trees and Bees, up the Mangles Valley, in the Buller Gorge, South Island. This was my stomping ground on and off in my youth, so a mere sniff of the jar is hugely evocative.

Just as that jar was reaching emptiness, my friend Alex “Kabak” Marcovitch gave me a jar of honey from the bees he’d kept on his allotment in the Coombe, just on the eastern side of Lewes, about half a mile from home.

The Coombe is a try chalk valley that cuts into Malling Down, which is a reserve managed by the Sussex Wildlife Trust. It’s farmed to preserve the ancient Downland ecology, an essential task as Britain has lost 97% of its wildflower meadows since the 1930s, when the Second World War food shortages meant vast amounts of grazing land was put under the plough for grain and potatoes.

It’s a special place, especially at this time of year when not only are the orchids (common spotted and pyramidal I believe) out, but the wild thyme and wild marjoram are starting to flower. Before moving to Lewes I didn’t even realise these herbs grew wild in Britain. I grew up on the Downs, but at the other end of this ridge of chalk hills, in Winchester, 80 miles to the west. I don’t remember seeing thyme and marjoram growing wild there. Perhaps Sussex is just that bit sunnier and dryer (it has some of the most sun and least precipitation in the UK).

Anyway, Alex’s Coombe honey evokes Malling Down with one sniff, the thyme, marjoram and innumerable other flowers the bees visited in their time there. Alex subsequently lost the allotment, so the Coombe honey is extra-special, as it was only produced for one year. The bees are now in his back garden, feeding off more domestic flower species, but apparently doing well.

I’ll admit I didn’t use special honey for Fran’s cake. Don’t tell her. I used cheap rubbish, which I buy for making granola. I know, I know, it’s probably made by bees who are fed sugar syrup, but… well, home economics. Plus, I just prefer to keep the good stuff to enjoy simply with a piece of bread or toast; I don’t want to lose its qualities in the melange of cooking.

So yes, I’d love to make this cake with special honey, but I defaulted to the cheap stuff. Don’t tell Fran.

220g butter
180g unrefined caster sugar
300g ground almonds
3 large eggs, beaten, approx 175g beaten egg
150g polenta
5g (1 tsp) baking powder
Finely grated zest and juice of a large orange
Zest of one lemon
12-20 green cardamom pods, to taste

For the syrup:
Juice of 2 lemons, juice of 2 oranges, approx 320g juice
100g honey

1. Grease and line the base of 20cm round, loose-bottomed cake tin.
2. Preheat oven 180C.
3. Beat the butter and sugar till light and fluffy.
4. Add the beaten eggs and combine.
5. Add the ground almonds.
6. Mix the polenta and baking powder, then fold into the mixture, together with the zest and juice.
7. Crush the cardamom pods and extract the black seeds. Grind them to a fine powder. Add the spice to the cake mixture and combine.
8. Put the cake mixture in the tin.
9. Bake for 30 minutes, turn down the heat to 160C for a further 25 -30 minutes or until the cake is firm.
10. To make the syrup, put the honey and juice sin a stainless steel saucepan, bring to the boil and dissolve in the honey. Keep the liquid simmering until it has formed a thin syrup, about 5-10 minutes.
11. Spike holes into the top of the cake (still warm and in its tin) with a skewer then spoon over the hot citrus syrup.
12. Leave to almost cool, then remove from the tin.

Serve with Greek or other thick yogurt, crème fraîche, or even thick cream. It’s up to you. It doesn’t really need the dairy blob though. With its dense, ground-almond texture and dowsing in syrup, it’s not unlike the Greek cake Greek revani or Claudia Roden’s Orange and almond cake, which Rachel Roddy talks about here, or is also available here (scroll down a bit).

Yum. T-Rex, three and a half, rejected it on the first bite. The Raver, almost two, went mad for it. Fran seemed content with it too.

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Chocolate chip nut butter cookies

Choc chip nut butter cookies

This one is based on a recipe by New Zealander Miles Kirby, published in Guardian Cook to coincide with the release of his book Caravan: Dining All Day. Kirby’s version is called salted chocolate and almond butter cookies. They’re basically a variation on the chocolate chip cookie theme, and I’m always up for those.

I’m not sure about the whole salted chocolate thing though. I can see the appeal of salted caramel, and used to Hoover up the caramello di galles – Welsh caramel, that is salted caramel from the idiosyncratic gelateria La Gourmandise down the road from our flat in Rome. Until he stopped doing it – not a popular flavour among the other locals, apparently.

But, salted chocolate? Hm. Last night I went to the Depot, the splendid newly opened independent cinema here in Lewes, which I visited last year when it was a building site. While there, I ate a whole bar of Los Angeles salted chocolate, a gift from my sister. It didn’t exactly win me over, but then it was maybe a bad combo with a pint of overly gassy Harvey’s Golden Bier on keg I bought from the bar. (My first pint of Harvey’s keg beer I think; kegs from Harvey’s are pretty new, breaking with years of cask and bottle-only tradition.)

So anyway, I decided against including the sea salt in my version of Kirby’s recipe. Also, his uses 200g almond butter. The jar I bought was an odd 170g. As we had a jar of peanut butter rejected by my son in the cupboard, I added some of that. Kirby says the recipe works well with any nut butter. We’re getting a whole variety in our cupboard now as we’re not allowed to put peanut butter in school lunches any more.

For the chocolate buttons I used Montezuma’s organic Giant Dark Chocolate buttons. The bag says they’re “58%”, but then the ingredients say they’re 44% cocoa mass. Which I don’t understand, and I’m too tired to try and get my head around it. They’re still a quality button and I’ve messaged Montezuma’s for an explanation. Hope they reply.* They should do, as I eat enough of their product. Me and Fran are addicted (not really) to their Milking Maid truffles at the moment, which is odd as I’m usually a dark choc kinda guy. I digress.

Kirby’s recipe also says, “In a stand mixer, combine the…” Does everyone own a stand mixer? I don’t. They’re hellish pricey and I’ve never been able to justify one or find the funds. Luckily, my increasingly decrepit hand blender has beater attachments. If you don’t have any of these things, you’ll just have to beat by hand. Use some calories before you consume some.

Kirby also said to divide the mixture into 12. Now, as the total dough weight was about 1200g, this would mean some pretty massive cookies, scaled at about 100g each. I pared mine down to about 50g, a good dollop shaped between two desert spoons, and they’re still pretty substantial. I also knocked back the sugar a little from the original recipe, something I do as a matter of course.

Choc chip nut butter cookies mix

200g unsalted butter, softened
200g almond butter, or a mix of nut butters
85g muscovado sugar
40g caster sugar
2 medium eggs, that is, about 115g egg, beaten
Pinch salt
10g baking powder
300g plain flour
30g cocoa powder
200g dark chocolate buttons

1. Preheat the oven to 170C and line some baking sheets with parchment or silicone.
2. Beat together the butter, sugars and nut butters.
3. Add the egg a little at a time and beat until smooth.
4. Sieve together the baking powder, flour and cocoa, then add to the mixture along with the pinch of salt.
5. Combine, along with the chocolate buttons.
6. Form into lumps as described above. How big you make them is, of course, your call.
7. Put the lumps on the baking sheets, flattening them somewhat. Space out as they spread a bit.
8. Bake for about 12-14 minutes.
9. Cool on wire racks.

Eat. The nut butter gives them a light, crumbly texture, but not so crumbly they fall apart when you touch them.

Note to self, next entry probably shouldn’t be more chocolate cookies. This isn’t just a chocolate cookie blog…

* They did. A lady called Jacqui Boyd-Leslie in customer services says, “The Cocoa Mass is 44% plus the Cocoa butter 15% which is 1% over but this is to cover any slight variation. This is a little confusing, the cocoa butter is also known as cocoa mass.”

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Some chocolate cookies from Modern Baker

Modern Baker choc cookies

The latest addition to my library of baking books is Modern Baker by Melissa Sharp and Lindsay Stark. They have a bakery in Oxford of the same name, founded by Sharp in part as a response to a health crisis1 she experienced. As such, the book ties in with the recent “clean eating” movement.

The bakery’s “concept is based on good provenance, great tasting food and promoting healthy living”. This is something I’m broadly in agreement with – provenance is hugely important, and I’m also someone who suspects modern industrial food production is at the core of the rise of food intolerance, allergies etc, not to mention diseases like diabetes that can arise from people eating far too much refined sugar in junk food. But at the same time I’m somewhat wary of “clean eating” as it’s so closely related to orthorexia nervosa. There’s a fine line between trying to eat well, and obsessing to the point where you’re rejecting foods perceived as unhealthy. This obsessiveness is orthorexia nervosa, a term coined in the late 1990s to describe a newly identified eating disorder.2

One notable, nay faddish, food issue that’s prevalent now is the virtual demonization of gluten.

The Modern Baker, I’m happy to report, isn’t entirely anti-gluten. And why should it be? After all, gluten is just protein, or indeed two proteins – gliadin and glutenin. If you’ve not seen the Jimmy Kimmel video that exemplifies people’s ignorance about gluten, here it is. The big problem with modern bread instead is fermentation times. Time is the most important ingredient for bread-making, time for the dough to ferment properly. Indeed, Modern Baker emphasises the importance of fermented foods, notably sourdough. “Long fermentation breaks down the carbohydrates and gluten in the grains, so many find the finished loaf is much easier to digest and the nutrients more easily absorbed.”

Wholesome coconut sugar

Natural sugars
Modern Baker is staunch in its rejection of refined sugar – pure white, made from beet or cane. Instead, it uses other ingredients for sweetening: fruit, maple syrup, and where a direct refined sugar substitute is required, coconut sugar. It’s something I’ve not used before, but I’m happy to try new things. The book just got me wondering about the arguments for “natural sugars”.

Although the research isn’t conclusive, it’s suggested that coconut sugar has a lower glycaemic index than conventional refined sugar and has more nutrients. Though a quick Google suggests that while is does contain iron, zinc and calcium, the quantities are not significant enough to offer your body much.

It does contain some inulin, a type of dietary fibre. According to this Huffington Post article “clinical research finds prebiotics like inulin support gut health, colon cancer prevention, blood sugar balance, lipid (fat) metabolism, bone mineralization, fatty liver disease, obesity, and immunity.”

As for its “sugariness”, coconut sugar breaks down as 71% sucrose (which is itself a disaccharide formed of a combining of glucose and fructose), 3% fructose and 3% glucose: that is 78% sugar, with the rest made up of fibre, nutrients and antioxidants.

As for its GI, well that measures glucose content, not fructose – which makes up around 39% of coconut sugar. So it’s still sugar, and not great when consumed in quantity. Modern Baker does indeed make this point: “The natural sugars we use are still sugar, however, and they should still be regarded as a treat.” This is very much in line with my philosophy – cakes are a treat, not a staple.

I’m not entirely sold on coconut sugar though. I’m also something of a locavore, where possible, so I struggle with the sugar question. In some ways, I do prefer the idea of supporting British farming and British produce by buying sugars made from British beets.

Although they may well be slightly more refined, and slightly more nutritionally dubious, they’re still from a plant, right? I’m not so sure about buying sugar made from a coconut palm grown in tropical climes and imported here. Indeed, the bag I bought is from Indonesia. Is this another example of a commercial crop that, like palm oil, involves rainforest clearance being replaced by a monoculture?

So while I’ll add coconut sugar to my store cupboard until I know more about its provenance, for the bulk of my baking I’ll stick with conventional sugar, ideally from British beet. In part, frankly, as it’s also more readily available. I call it the Ottolenghi factor. I rarely make Ottolenghi recipes as more often than not I’d be forced to resort to buying exotic ingredients online as they’re not available in small-town England.

Keeping it real
This post is getting far longer than intended. The point I’m trying to make it that while I’m broadly in agreement with Modern Baker about eating well, taking care of your enormously important gut flora, and avoiding the most industrially refined foods, I also need to be realistic about feeding my family, and that may mean a few more conventional, readily available ingredients here and there.

Plus, well, I’m just not as good a baker as the team at Modern Baker. My sourdough never quite seems feisty enough to reliably turn out my weekly bread requirements. By and large, I’m half-way there – from the pics and glossary in the book, I use the same flours as them (Stoates organic stoneground from Dorset) but I still rely on commercial yeast.

Oh, and as a matter of course, I always knock back the sugar quantities in recipes. I even did that here for their recipe modestly called “The ultimate chocolate biscuit”, reducing it by 10%, and the results were still good. Indeed, these are remarkably light, crumbly, moreish biscuits considering they’re made with spelt (Triticum spelta) flour, which can tend towards a slightly heavier result in cakes and biscuits than normal wheat (Triticum aestivum) flour. Indeed, as much as I like to use older, more nutritious wheat varieties in my bread-making, it’s great to discover a recipe where they’re used in really yummy biscuits.

Using a 60mm round cutter, makes about 60 biscuits

170g unsalted butter, softened
180g coconut sugar
Pinch salt
2 egg yolks (that is, about 38g)
60g coconut oil
200g spelt flour3
120g raw cacao4 powder
Cacao nibs

1. Melt the coconut oil in a pan on a hob or in a microwave.
2. Put the butter, coconut sugar and salt in a large bowl and beat until fluffy.
3. Add the egg yolks and coconut oil and beat again.
4. Sieve together the spelt flour and cacao powder and add to the beaten mix.
5. Combine to form a dough with no lumps or dry bits.
6. Bring the dough together, form a disc and wrap in cling film.
7. Put the dough in the fridge and chill for at least an hour, to help it firm up. Modern Baker says it will keep in the fridge for up to five days.
8. When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 200C.

Cut out
9. Roll out the dough to about 3mm thick, cut out, put on baking sheets lined with parchment or silicone.
10. Sprinkle with cacao nibs. Or don’t, if you’ve got fussy kids like mine who reject these lovely additions. Honestly, they’re crunchy, nutty and chocolaty! What’s not to like?
11. Bake for about 12-14 minutes. Watch out for over-baking the bottoms.
12. Leave to cool on the trays then transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling.

Very good. Not sure they’re the “ultimate chocolate biscuit” but there are solid pleasures to be had here. Bravissime Sharp and Stark! One “however”, however – in true toddler fashion, my sweet-toothed chocoholic three-year-old doesn’t like them. Not enough refined sugar and chocolate perhaps? Oh dear.

nfd

Footnotes
1 In her introduction, Sharp refers to her “aggressive, triple-negative, grade 3 cancer”. Alongside radiotherapy and chemotherapy, she revised her diet. She also says she was “someone who spent much of her life fighting an eating disorder.”
2 For more information, as always, start with the Wikipedia entry.
3 I used Stoates Organic Light Spelt, which has been bolted – sifted – more, removing more of the bran and making it lighter for cakes etc. I use this flour a lot, it’s great in my pizza and my everyday bread doughs. Available here.
4 I’ve still not found a satisfactory explanation of any difference between “cocoa” and “cacao” in the English language. I’m coming to the conclusion that the latter is simply used in a more health foody context. I talked about this more here.

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Chocolate beetroot muffins

Beetroot chocolate muffin

If you try to eat local and seasonal produce in England, you will have had a lot of brassicas and root vegetables recently. It might be have been dry, warm and sunny the past few weeks, but we’re only just in Spring really. Spring produce – sprouting broccoli, fennel, spring onions, green garlic – has been arriving the past month, but it’s still the tail end of the root veg season, notably that of finger and chopping-board staining, love-hate relationship beetroot.

As much as my tastes were in part shaped by old skool school dinners in the 1970s and 80s – oh, the stodgy puddings! – I never really clicked with beetroot. I eat it now and can enjoy it, especially braise-roasted with thyme, bay and citrus zest but frankly, as a cake man and a chocolate lover, I like these. The recipe was originally from Jill Dupleix but is now tweaked somewhat.

250g beetroot
3 eggs
5g vanilla essence
200g cooking oil – corn or sunflower
75g cocoa powder
180g plain flour
10g baking powder
200g caster sugar
Pinch salt

Preheat the oven 180C
Put 12 cases in a muffin tin

1. Boil 250g beetroot until tender. (You can do this in advance.)
2. Peel the beetroot then purée. You can do this in a food processor, though I’ve found the best way to achieve a smooth result is in a liquidiser with some of the oil.

Colour4

3. Pour the purée into a bowl, then add the eggs, vanilla essence and the rest of the oil.
4. Stir in the sugar and a pinch of salt.
5. Sieve the cocoa, flour and baking powder into a larger mixing bowl.
6. Pour the beetroot mix into the dry mix.
7. Mix until smooth and combined.

Chocolate beetroot muffins before baking

8. Divide the mix equally between the muffin cases.

Chocolate beetroot muffins after baking

9. Bake for about 25-30 minutes and nicely risen and firm to the touch.
10. Cool on a rack.

Enjoy. Ah, the benign deceit of sneaking vegetables into fussy children! We had some sitting on a fine outcrop of Malling Down, looking over the Weald towards the North Downs, with my friends Russ and Saira and their eight-year-old daughter, Selvi. Selvi said they had beetroot brownies at school, then reeled off several other cakes with vegetables. Each one of their ten a day.*

Enjoying on the South Downs

 

* I’ve got an issue with this whole three a day, five a day, ten a day rhetoric. I try to scratch make as much food at home as possible, or at least do things like make fresh pasta sauces. But most Britons don’t, apparently; most of us, and indeed most in western Europe and North American, rely on packaged food, ready meals etc, something I consider almost synonymous with junk food.

This article talks about how the “UK eats almost four times as much packaged food as it does fresh produce”. This is quite depressing. You can make excuses about busy modern lifestyles and time poverty, but to me it just represents a massive disconnect between people and real food. Not to mention inconceivably vast, vast amounts of packaging that ends up in landfills, where it’ll lie for thousands of years, a record for alien archaeologists who arrive long after our civilisation has driven itself into unsustainable oblivion.

As we’re a family that doesn’t rely on packaged food, I don’t buy into the ten-a-day line. If you live on packaged junk, then maybe the ten a day is aimed at you, to offset the damage done by an estrangement from real food. But if you live on real food, with nutritious wholegrains in real bread for example, I don’t believe you need to sit and assiduously eat ten apples or whatever.

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Real beer barm bread mark II

Barm bread

A few years ago, I was given a bottle of barm by my brewer friend Michele Sensidoni, of Mastri Birrai Umbri. For those who don’t know, barm is the yeast, and yeasty foam, formed by vigorously reproducing yeasts during the fermentation process in brewing. I used it to make some bread. Last week, I was lucky enough to visit Holler Boys, a new Sussex brewery, and meet its owner and brewer Steve Keegan.

Steve is a friend of a friend, and former managing director of Late Knights Brewery, which he set up in south London in 2012. It expanded fast and they opened several pubs, but things drew to a close in Autumn 2016. I’ll tell that story in another post soon, in the meantime, here’s another experimental barm bread.

I got up this morning – well, I was woken up by the Raver, 19 months, at the not too uncivilised hour of 6.50 – and found the dough crawling out of its proving basket. So, yes, this is one of those blog posts that talks about a bit of a cock-up, not an expert success story.

Barm

 

When we visited, Steve was busy making new brews and one of his conditioning tanks, named Wayne, was bubbling away. I asked Steve if I could have a scoop of the froth, the barm.

Barmy starter
Back home, I mixed with flour and water over the course of three days, much like you would feed a sourdough starter. It wasn’t that vigorous, but it was alive. The barm I’d got from Michele had involved a lot more liquid and yeasty bits. This scoop of bubbles, however, was a bit of a gamble, as it obviously didn’t contain quite such a density of yeasts.

Barm starter

In the evening of the third day – sounding a tad Biblical – I made up a dough. Here’s the recipe.

350g beer barm starter, at 100% hydration (ie, I fed it on equal quantities of flour and water)
8g fine sea salt
300g water
500g strong white bread flour

Ignoring the small amount of liquid in the initial scoop of barm, the total liquid in the dough was about 475g, the flour 675g, making a dough hydration of 70% (475/675 x 100).

1. Bring the barm starter, salt, water and flour together to form a soft dough in a roomy bowl.
2. Turn out onto a lightly oiled work surface and knead. Knead it briefly, form a ball, then put back into the bowl, lightly oiled. Cover and leave 10 minutes.
3. Knead again, put back in the bowl, cover and leave 10 minutes again.
4. Repeat a few more times then put back in the bowl, cover and put the fridge for 24 hours.

Before final prove

Now, this is where I went wrong. I wanted to give it a final prove in a proving basket, but I misjudged the liveliness of the dough – the barm starter had turned out to be more vigorous than I thought. I thought I could give it a final prove at room temperature (in this case 17-18C), overnight, for about 9 hours. I probably should have done it in the fridge.

Oops

The dough spilled over the edges of the proving basket, which was too small for the amount of dough, and stuck. It was overproved and had a bad skin where the dough had dried out. I was forced to prise it out (destroying stucture) and reform the ball, give it a short final prove, then resort to baking in a preheated casserole dish, rather than slid off a peel onto a hot baking stone as I’d planned.

I don’t think there’s any point continuing with a numbered recipe now, as it went wrong. But when I say “wrong”, I mean that I learned a lesson. If I can get hold of some more barm, I’ll know to trust it more for leavening.

The result isn’t what I was aiming for, and its crumb structure is a slight disappointment, but the flavour is good. Fran says she can taste a beeriness, a bitterness. T-Rex, three, enjoyed it too, until he decided he didn’t, and said “Yuck”. I’d like to think this wasn’t an entirely failed experiment: all I had to start with was a few grams of foam, it was fun and the results are tasty. I just got the timings wrong. Hey, I’ve only made real barm bread twice!

Barm bread crumb shot

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