Category Archives: Recipes

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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Plum shuttles or Valentine buns for Valentine’s Day, 14 February

Plum shuttles, Valentine buns

Me and my wife Fran have been a couple for, blimey, nearly 17 years now. Through the years, Valentine’s Day has always been a bit of an issue for us. I think it’s a load of old bollocks and try to ignore it, she buys into the notion that it should somehow be more romantic than other days and tries to make a thing of it. We usually meet in the middle – with a bit of teasing and bickering. Maybe she’ll give me a card and I’ll feign confusion.

It is a funny feast day, any genuine older traditions now lost into the spoon-fed, commercial morass. It’s the ultimate Hallmark holiday where sales of cards and bunches of red roses have a massive spike.

In Cattern Cakes and Lace (pub 1987), Julia Jones and Barbara Deer talk about the theory that it’s a modern incarnation of the Roman fertility celebrations of Lupercalia, transferred into an association with not one but two characters martyred in Rome in the 3rd century AD. The Catholic Encyclopaedia meanwhile says “At least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, are mentioned in the early martyrologies under the date of 14 February.” How confusing! “One is described as a priest at Rome, another as bishop of Interamna (modern Terni)”. It also says the Roman city gate now known as the Porta del Popolo was called the Gate of St Valentine in the 11th century. “Of the third Saint Valentine, who suffered in Africa with a number of companions, nothing further is known.”

The idea that St Valentine’s day was a Christianisation of Lupercalia was suggested in the 18th century and has been rejected by modern scholars. Instead, it’s suggested that the association of St Valentine’s day with romance arose in the 14th century, notably with Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules, which drew attention to the date as when birds partnered up:
“For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”

Other medieval writers referred to the same avian motif. Clearly, modern society isn’t the only one to generate and perpetuate whimsical piffle. I’m not going to go on about it all here. If you’re really interested in such things, the Wikipedia page is, naturally, respectably comprehensive. Instead, here’s a recipe from Jones and Deer for some enriched dough buns.

Plums but not plums
The name “plum shuttles” might confuse – it doesn’t contain plums and what’s a shuttle? Well, Jones and Deer say “These buns are shaped like weavers’ shuttles”. It’s a nice idea, though if you look at a weaver’s shuttle, it’s longer and pointed at both ends. These are more bun-shaped. As for the “plums”, that’s just an older British English usage of the word used to cover not just fresh Prunus fruit, but also dried fruit such as prunes (dried plums) and raisins and currants (dried grapes).

There’s not that much sugar in this enriched dough but a high proportion of dried fruit makes for a notably sweet currant bun.

Currants

I found their dough a bit tight, so have increased the liquid. It also uses a lot of yeast, proportionately, and has a resulting short fermentation. I’ve reduced the yeast a bit, but if you prefer a really good, proper, healthy long fermentation time, knock it back even more.

450g plain flour (all-purpose, low protein)
5g fine sea salt
4g active dried yeast or 8g fresh yeast
5g caster sugar
60g warm water
50g unsalted butter
160g full-fat milk
1 egg, about 55g
225g currants

Extra egg to glaze

Makes 12 buns

1. Combine the sugar, yeast and water and leave to activate. The sugar really boosts the yeast so it should go seriously frothy.

Frothy yeast mix

2. Warm the milk with the butter until the latter is melted. Leave to cool a little.

Butter, milk, egg, frothy mix
3. Put the flour and salt in a large bowl.
4. Add the yeast mix, milk and butter and egg to the flour mix and bring together to form a dough.

Combine

5. Turn out and knead until smooth.
6. Stretch out and add the currants. Fold the dough over and knead again to combine and distribute.

Smooth dough, with currants

7. Clean and grease the bowl, return the dough, cover and leave to prove until doubled in size.

Doubled in size

8. The total dough weight should be about a kilo (with slightly variation depending on the size of your egg etc). Divide this into 12 pieces scaled at about 84g each.

Divide into 12 pieces

9. Form the pieces into balls, leave to rest, covered, for about 10 minutes.

Form balls

10. Stretch and roll these to form long ovals with pointed ends. Like weavers’ shuttles.

Shaped
11. Place the ovals on lined or greased baking sheets, with plenty of room for expansion.
12. Cover with damp cloths and leave to prove again, doubling in size, or until a finger pushed in forms a slight dent.

After final prove
13. Heat the oven to 200C.
14. Brush the buns with beaten egg.
15. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, until nicely browned.

Freshly baked
16. Cool on a wire rack.

Eat how you like – plain, with butter, with butter and jam or, if you really want to go crazy, add a load of whipped cream and pretend they’re maritozzi con la panna*. And of course, enjoy with your special someone… while arguing about what a lot of old nonsense Valentine’s Day is.

Plum shuttled Valentine bun, split

 

 

* Similar shaped Roman buns. Boy I miss Rome, especially at this time of year when it’s been grey and cold for weeks, and it’s apparently already 20C there. Bloody British winter. If we have a bad October and April, the British winter can last six months. Half the flippin’ year! We had sun today (see pic above) but it’s not due to last. Boo hoo.

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Semi-sourdough, no-knead, casserole-baked bread

No knead, semi sourdough crumb shot

Purists will disdain it, but I’ve not got a problem with using a combination of sourdough starter and commercial yeast. This is semi-sourdough baking. The sourdough gives some depth of flavour while the addition of the yeast helps a baker of my middling ability to control the timings better.

It’s a technique I learned from the essential book The Handmade Loaf by Dan Lepard. It’s a technique that stands me in good stead as, honestly, I never mastered getting satisfactorily consistent sourdough loaves. I probably could master it if I had a real push but it’s not really where I’m at these days. Indeed, mostly I just make a fairly basic tin loaf these days for toast, something my family Hoovers at breakfast time. It involves yeast and a mixture of stoneground strong white and wholemeal wheat and spelt flours.

When I want something a bit more interesting, I reach for the sourdough. This is what I’ve been making recently. It involves the no-knead and Dutch oven techniques. The latter means baking it in a preheated Dutch oven, cast iron casserole dish or even a terracotta chicken brick. I’ve got one called a knuspertopf, my mum’s got one called a römertopf. My German-speaking father tells me topf means pot, while knusprig means crisp or crunchy. Römer means Roman, apparently. They all work well, retaining the moisture, adding some steam to the bake.

Knuspertopf no knead loaf

Combine to make a preferment
100g of sourdough starter at 100% hydration (ie, refreshing it with equal quantities water and flour)
2g active dried yeast or 4g fresh yeast
100g stoneground wholemeal wheat flour
100g water

I don’t worry about the temperature of the water. Leave this mixture at room temperature (about 19C in our place now) for about 6-8 hours. One good option is to make it at lunchtime.

After the allotted time, when the preferment is bubbling nicely, make the dough by adding
500g flour (I used a 50/50 mix of stoneground white wheat and wholemeal wheat)
400g water
7g fine sea salt

1. Just beat it all together until it clears, that is, until the flour is fully mixed with the water and there are no dry bits left. It’ll be a sloppy, wet dough. For those interested in bakers’ percentages, this works out at about 85% hydration. Ie, the total flour comes to 650g, the total water comes to 550g; 550/650 x 100 = 84.61.
2. Cover the bowl; I use a floral shower cap but a plastic bag is fine. Leave the dough for about 12 hours. I’ve been putting it in the fridge for about 10 of that. Overnight is good.
3. Remove the dough from the fridge and allow it to come back to room temperature. I’m not sure how important this is and haven’t scientifically investigated it yet. Some suggest a cold dough is good for oven spring, but I’m not convinced about that, it’d just be a sluggish spring.
4. Set your oven to maximum. Sadly, my electric Rangemaster only musters about 220C, at best. Put your chosen casserole dish in and heat it up for about 20-30 minutes.
5. Using a dough scraper, carefully remove the dough from the bowl onto a floured worktop. Handling it gently so as not to deflate it or damage it structure too much, fold one side into the middle, then the other, like a letter, to form a rough loaf shape.
6. Take the hot, hot dish out of the oven, remove its lid and, gently as you can, er, drop the dough into it. Put the lid back on, put it in the oven and bake for about 40 minutes.
7. Turn the oven down to 180C and bake for another 10 minutes.
8. Take the dish out, turn out the loaf, then return it to the oven for another 10 minutes. One risk with a dough this wet is that it may not cook all the way through. It should do with the preheated dish and a baking time this long but if you’re not sure, over-baking won’t do too much harm, other than thickening the crust a bit.
9. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack.

Casserole no knead loaf

Now, this is a pretty easy way to make fairly satisfying loaf. It’s got a good chewy crust and a reasonably open crumb structure. My only criticism is that it can feel slightly rubbery, if that makes sense. It’s definitely worth a try though, for that artisan vibe, and it makes cracking toast. Even if kids do fuss about the crust. Honestly, some mornings it feels like all I eat for breakfast is rejected crusts…

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Mince pies for Christmas

Mince pies

Clearly, I’m interested in traditional feast day foods on this blog. Many, if not most, of our traditional feast day activities have been lost here in Britain. This is due to various factors, notably the 19th century industrial revolution that shifted the population from rural labour to urban industry; then the privations of two world wars and dependence on imported food; then the ensuing embracing of industrialised food production.

Christmassy flavours
When I made the Cattern cakes in November, a friend mentioned that they tasted “Christmassy”. This is interesting, as it demonstrates how the only strong legacy of our traditional feast day foods is at Christmas. It might be grotesquely commercialised, and shifted forward from the Twelve Days (25 December to Epiphany Eve, 5 January) into late November and Advent, but for many it still involves the consumption of traditional foods: mince pies, a heavy fruit cake and plum pudding. All of which feature dried fruits and spices.

We take them for granted now, as jars of dozens of types of spices are readily available from any supermarket, but in antiquity and the Middle Ages they were enormously expensive. L ater, in the age of European empires, their trade fuelled many  economies, notably imperial Dutch and British*. They really were only ingredients for special days, or for the wealthy, until fairly recently.

While spiced (cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, ginger etc), fruity flavours were once more associated with various celebrations through the year, now we just think of them as “Christmassy”.

Mince pies

Anyway, that’s a thought for this post. Mostly, I realised that while I have various multinational feast food recipes here, I don’t have any basic British Christmas ones. That’s partly because I don’t like Christmas cake and plum pudding. I didn’t like mince pies growing up either, but then I discovered a simple recipe for mincemeat and gave them a whirl. They were good. Making your own is so much better. I know Christmas can be stressful for many but this recipe involves just a fruity preserve and some pastry – nothing too complex, and both can be made ahead of time. The mincemeat will sit in a jar, the pastry can be frozen.

Sweet meat
Oh, and many wonder why the filling – sweet, fruity – is called “mincemeat”. Well, in the Middle Ages, puddings and pies would often involve fillings that mixed what we’d considering today as sweet and savoury, notably meat, spices and sugar. I’ve written previously about the term “pudding” – which can still refer to sweet or savoury items in British English. The precursor of Christmas pudding (aka plum pudding), plum pottage, featured meat along with the dried fruit and spices. The legacy of this in mince pie fillings is suet – traditionally a fat from around the kidneys of beef cattle, or mutton (sheep older than two years).

I do tend to use vegetarian suet substitute, partly from force of habit as an ex-veggie, but also because it’s easier at parties when many guests may be too. But it is still a conundrum, as vegetarian suet used to be hydrogenated fat, since deemed a nutritional nightmare, and is now mostly palm oil, an environmental nightmare. So your call on the lesser of two evils.

The mincemeat recipe here was originally from Delia Smith, the pastry originally from Linda Collister.

First make the mincemeat, ideally in October or November – when you can get some fresh homegrown cooking apples. You will need a couple of medium sized jars, washed and rinsed thoroughly. I then tend to put them in a low oven when I’m ready to bottle, to dry them and sterilise.

Fill the pies and top with stars

225g Bramley apples, cored and chopped small (no need to peel them)
110g shredded suet
175g raisins
110g sultanas
110g currants
[total 385g of these]
110g whole mixed candied peel, finely chopped
175g soft dark brown sugar
grated zest and juice 1 orange
grated zest and juice 1 lemon
25g whole almonds, cut into slivers, or flaked almonds
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
3 tbsp brandy

1. Combine all the ingredients, except for the brandy, in a large mixing bowl.
2. Mix thoroughly.
3. Cover the bowl with a clean cloth and leave in a cool place overnight or for 12 hours, so the flavours have a chance to mingle and develop.
4. Preheat oven 120°C.
5. Cover the bowl loosely with foil and place it in the oven for 3 hours. It’ll look fatty. Don’t worry, this is right. As it cools, stir it from time to time.
6. When the mincemeat is cold, stir well again, adding the brandy.
7. Bottle in sterilised jars.

It’ll keep for months, even years. I had a jar for two years once and it was fine, indeed it was probably better as it gives time for the flavours to mature.

Pinning out for mince pies

Now, the pastry.

Readers of this blog will know I love ground almonds as an ingredient for cakes. They’re a great addition to sweet shortcrusts too. My mother has just been reminiscing about the mince pies made by her mother, my Granny Buckley, and how “Ground almonds in the pastry was her trick.” So such tastes must run in the family.

This recipe calls for one egg yolk but I’ve also done it with whole egg, and then just used less water to bind. Both are fine.

200g plain flour
30g ground almonds
30g caster sugar
Pinch salt
100g butter
1 egg yolk
2-5 tbsp cold water

1. Sieve flour into bowl.
2. Dice butter and rub in. Alternatively, combine in a food processor.
3. Add ground almonds, pinch salt and sugar.
4. Lightly beat the egg then add to the dry mix.
5. Bring together dough adding enough water to create a soft but not too wet dough.
6. Form ball and wrap in plastic. Rest in fridge for half an hour or freeze.
7. Roll out to about 4mm and cut discs to line the dips in a pie tray.
8. Fill each with some mincemeat.
9. Add lids – either whole discs or star shapes. The latter is easier (no crimping required), and cute to boot.
10. Bake for about 15-20 minutes at 200C, until nicely browned.
11. Dust with icing sugar before serving.

Freshly baked mince pies

If mince pies are a big part of your Christmas, I’d heartily encourage you to make your own. I don’t claim mine are the best mince pies, and they’re certainly not the neatest or most aesthetically pleasing – like everything I make these days, they’re slightly rushed as I’m either waiting for kids to wake from their afternoon naps or I’m knackered at the end of the day. But they’re easy to make and really, honestly, so much better than any of the industrial crap from the supermarkets.

 

* See this blog post by botanist Stephen Forbes for more about the origins and history of spices.

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Cattern cakes for St Catherine’s day

Cattern cakes

November 25 is the feast day of St Catherine of Alexander. Chances are, St Catherine isn’t someone you’ve heard of, beyond having a firework named after her, or more accurately after her mode of martyrdom – on a wheel. In my childhood, St Catherine was quite a well known figure. Well, not the saint herself exactly, but a hill named after her.

I grew up in Winchester, Hampshire. It was the city that was the capital of the great Saxon kingdom of Wessex, and arguably the capital of England before London. Earlier than this, however, it was a Roman city. And even earlier than this, there was an Iron Age settlement (around 500BC), on a hilltop just outside the city. This hill is known as St Catherine’s and there was a 12th century chapel on the top of the same name, until it was demolished in 1537, I believe at the behest of that great money-grubbing vandal Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries,  in his massive pope-won’t-let-me-divorce royal hissy fit.

Mazes and wheels
When I was young and fitter and my knees worked properly I used to love running up there. It’s a wonderful place, and very much worth a visit. The views are good, there are orchids and other wild flowers, and there’s even a mizmaze, carved into the turf, with the winding path in exposed chalk. The form of such mazes is to an ancient, mysterious pattern, but this one is most likely from the second half of the 17th century. A local legend involves its creation being punishment for a pupil of the nearby privileged seat of learning and abject arrogance, Winchester College.

St Catherine’s martyrdom in 310AD in Egypt on a wheel may also be the reason the hill is named after her, with the Iron Age ramparts forming a circular shape. Or it may just be because she is, among other things – wheels, obviously, librarians, knife sharpeners, hat makers, lacemakers, spinsters, etc etc – patron saint of hilltops. Or something. Such hagiography is a right shambles.

Another Catherine
Anyway, her feast day is 24 or 25 November. The date was also used to honour Catherine of Aragon, first wife of the abovementioned Henry, and the first victim of his desperation for a male heir. After 24 years of marriage, he blamed her for the lack of a living son, and changed the course of history to get shot of her. He had her imprisoned in Ampthill, Bedfordshire, 1531-1533. She became a patron of local lacemakers, and they began to celebrate her support on, naturally enough, St Catherine’s day.

One feast day treat for St Catherine’s day is Cattern cakes. These are closer to what we’d consider a cookie or biscuit today, and are flavoured with cinnamon and dried fruit. I’ve got recipes in a couple of books: Cattern Cakes and Lace by Julia Jones and Barbara Deer and Cakes Regional and Traditional by Julie Duff. Only one includes the peel, while the other includes caraway seeds. I like the idea of both, so here’s my version.

I’m only using self-raising flour here as I’ve got a lot in the cupboard. You could use plain instead, but use around 340g and 10g of baking powder.

350g self-raising flour
2g mixed spice
4g cinnamon powder
2g fine sea salt
50g ground almonds
350g caster sugar
50g currants
50g candied peel
4g caraway seeds
280g butter
1 egg, beaten
Extra sugar and cinnamon
1 more egg and 25g milk, beaten together, for a glaze

1. Preheat the oven to 180C.
2. Sift the flour, spices and salt into a mixing bowl.
3. Add the sugar, ground almonds, dried fruit and caraway seeds.
4. Add the melted butter and beaten egg.
5. Bring together to form a dough.
6. Bring the dough together, form a ball then cover with plastic and allow to rest in the fridge for about half an hour. This will firm the butter content up again.
7. Roll the dough out into a rectangle, about 12mm thick.
8. Brush the top with a little water, then sprinkle with extra sugar and cinnamon.
9. Roll the dough up like a Swiss roll to form a cylinder. It’s a pretty crumbly paste, but don’t worry: just squish it back together.

Space out well on baking sheets

10. Cut into slices about 10mm thick. As above squish back together as necessary. Place the slices on a baking sheet, lined with parchment or silicone.
11. Brush the tops with the glaze.
12. Bake for about 10-15 minutes, until lightly browned.

Cattern cakes

Despite the slightly fiddly dough, I like the results. They’re slightly unusual. One friend says “Christmassy” – but really, most feast day baked sweet treats involve similar spices and ingredients, such as peel, it’s just that we’ve lost so many of the other traditions, with most people’s only relationship with feast day foods being Christmas cake and plum pudding.

They spread as they bake, and come out somewhat wrinkly, like cooled lava. You can see a swirl or spiral from the rolling up, especially underneath. The caraway, or Persian cumin (Carum carvi) is a bit of a divisive flavour though, faintly medicinal and almost medieval. It’s perhaps most commonly found in rye breads these days, but for a long time a great British classic was seed cake – a sweet, teatime cake flavoured with caraway. It’s one of those flavours that’s arguably gone out of fashion somewhat for the British palette. If you don’t like it, just leave it out.

I’ll be in Winchester just after St Catherine’s day, so maybe we can go for a walk up the hill and take some of these for sustenance. Even if number one child, T-rex, has already rejected them, probably because of the caraway (unfamiliar flavour trumps sugary treat). Number two child, Stingray, is rather partial at least.

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Pizza di San Martino for Martinmas

Pizza di San Martino

November 11 is Martinmas, the feast day of St Martin, or San Martino as he’s known in Italian. I talked about St Martin and his feast day here, and one of the related food products I mentioned was pizza di San Martino. This is a kind of enriched bread – as in Italy, “pizza” doesn’t necessarily imply a thing topped with tomato sauce and cheese. There are many variations on the theme.

Do a Google image search, and pizza di San Martino comes in several forms but they’re all basically yeasted cakes. It probably originates from the small Italian region of Molise, which reaches from the east coast into the Apennines, or possibly from the region to its north, Abruzzo. This area of central Italy, along with Umbria, has suffered recently from a series of earthquakes and aftershocks this year, so making this is one way of saying I’m thinking of friends living there, and anyone who’s lost their homes and livelihoods.

The patron saint of protection against earthquakes is actually Emygdius or Emidio, but he’s pretty obscure and I’m not aware of any baked goods associated with his feast day (5 and 18 August). I’ve adapted this pizza recipe from one found in Cooking with the Saints by Ernst Schuegraf; he doesn’t mention St Emygdius.

As I wrote in my previous piece about St Martin, a traditional pizza di San Martino would contain trinkets, favours, much like the inclusion of a silver coin in traditional British Christmas pudding or ceramic baby Jesus in galette de rois. This recipe doesn’t include any. There’s nothing to stop you adding trinkets though, for luck to whoever receives them.

1. Dissolve the yeast in the warm water.

Make the sponge, preferment

2. Add about 150g of the strong flour, and blend to form a sponge or pre-ferment.

Bubbly sponge

3. Allow the sponge to develop until it’s nice and bubbly – an hour or two, depending on warmth.

Combine the ingredients
4. Put the rest of the flour and the salt in a large bowl, then pour in the sponge, milk, beaten egg and melted butter and add the sugar, raisins and zest. I used orange and lemon zest.

Bring together - almost more a batter than a dough.

5. Mix to combine. It’ll be a fairly sticky dough. With just the water and milk, it’s about 67% hydration, but factor in the eggs and melted better too and that’s a fairly high proportion of liquid to flour.

Sticky dough

6. Turn out onto an oiled worktop and bring to a dough. For tips on how to handle sticky doughs, read my notes here.
7. Return to the bowl, cleaned and oiled, then cover and leave to prove until doubled in size.
8. Butter a round cake cake tin, ideally 26cm,  or even larger. (If you don’t have one, you could bake the pizza freeform, shaped like a disc, on a baking sheet.)
9. Turn out the dough and form into a ball. Push the ball down into the cake tin, then cover and leave to prove again.
10. Preheat the oven to 200C.

Put in round cake tin

11. When the dough is nicely risen, put it in the oven.
12. Bake for about 40 minutes. If it’s browning too much, cover with foil or turn down the oven.

Freshly baked pizza di San Martino

13. Take out, turn out and cool on a rack.

It’s not unlike a kind of brioche, so eat for breakfast, or morning coffee, or with tea. If I’m honest, I’ve no idea how an Italian family would eat it. During my time in Italy I never really managed to inveigle myself into households to watch people eating Easter Colomba or Christmas panettone or other enriched feast day breads like this. So any central Italians reading, please do let me know.

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Exmoor in and out pudding

Exmoor in and out pudding

A few years ago, before kids, Fran and I rode our bikes across Devon, her home county, in southwest England. It was lovely as we embarked from Tiverton Parkway in the east of the county, but as soon as we reached Exmoor, having climbed steeply from the village of Dulverton, the wind and rain set in.

Although this pudding is named after the moor, it’s hard to imagine it’s a place where many apples are grown. Sure there are some orchards within the confines of Exmoor National Park, but by and large the moor itself is, along with other West Country moors Dartmoor and Bodmin moor, is about as close to wilderness as you can experience in southern Britain. We certainly didn’t pass any orchards as we fought a fierce headwind.

Another county
I made this pudding with apples from my parents’ tree, in Winchester, Hampshire. It would have been hard to find Exmoor apples. Indeed, for crying out loud, it’s hard enough to find English apples in the supermarkets at the moment, despite it being apple season. I live in the southeast of England, in East Sussex. The adjacent county, Kent, is the historical heartland of apple cultivation – and yet our local supermarkets are filled with apples from France, Chile, South Africa and even New Zealand. This madness makes me want to scream. I suspect I’ve ranted about it here before.

Talking of madness: Brexit*. Will it mean fewer food imports as costs increase? Will it encourage domestic food production? Who knows. No one seems to know what’s going to happen, apart from an abiding smugness from aging little Englanders as we metaphorically unmoor ourselves and drift away into deepening obscurity.

Fall from grace
Anyway, back to the apples. My folks have a magnificent Bramley tree. While picking, I managed to fall off the ladder, knocking over not just my toddler, T-rex, but also my seventy-something dad. Sorry guys! Still, it’s great fruit. We should be celebrating home-grown Bramleys more than ever now following the news this summer that the original Bramley tree in Nottinghamshire is dying of a fungal infection, having been sown in 1809.

This is a lovely variation on the theme of apple pudding involving a cake-like mixture. The mixture has the distinction of by being made with rich, caramelly demerara sugar. It also contains some ground almonds, one of my favourite ingredients. Some Exmoor in and out puddings also contain suet. This recipe, based on one found in the National Trust’s Complete Traditional Recipe Book by Sarah Edington, doesn’t.

500g Bramleys, or other cooking apples
50g demerara sugar
5g cinnamon
60g apple juice, or water

110g unsalted butter, softened
110g demerara sugar
2 eggs
1/2 tsp almond essence
110g self-raising flour (or 105g plain flour and 5g baking powder)
50g ground almonds
Flaked almonds

1. Heat the oven to 180C.
2. Peel and slice the apples.
3. Combine the apple slices, cinnamon, demerara and apple juice or water then put into an overproof dish. Cover with a damp cloth so the apple doesn’t brown while you prepare the topping.

Exmoor in and out pudding

4. Cream together the butter and other portion of demerara sugar.

Exmoor in and out pudding mixture
. Lightly beat the eggs, with the almond essence, and slowly beat into the mixture. If it starts to curdle, add some of the ground almonds.
6. Add the ground almonds and sieve in the flour. Fold to combine.

Exmoor in and out pudding, cover apples with mixture

7. Put the topping on the apple mix.

Exmoor in and out pudding, ready to bake

8. Sprinkle with ground almonds.

Exmoor in and out pudding, baked

9. Bake until the top is nicely browned and the cake is firm to the touch, about 40 minutes.
10. Serve warm with cream, ice cream or even custard.

 

 

* As well as the actual process of the UK leaving the EU upsetting me, I detest the ugly neologism “Brexit”. But I can’t come up with a better, succinct alternative, so we’re stuck with it.

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Date and maple syrup steamed pudding

Date and maple syrup steamed pudding

We had a pretty good summer in southern England this year, with very little rain and a reasonable amount of sunshine July to October. But now it’s definitely Autumn, with winter round the corner and that means one thing: steamed puddings!

OK, maybe not just one thing, but I do crave serious stodgy English puddings in the winter. Growing up, a favourite was treacle sponge – actually a steamed pud made with golden syrup. It’s a recipe I revisit regularly, and frequently use as the basis for variations on a theme, adding things like stem ginger, other fruits and spices.

Since the end of last winter, my kitchen whiteboard has featured an increasingly faint scribble saying “date and maple syrup steamed pudding”. This weekend we had a lovely visit from our friend Mary Margaret, who Fran worked with in Rome. She’s Canadian. So of course that’s a good excuse to reach for the maple syrup. MM said she hadn’t had a traditional Canadian Thanksgiving this year (10 October), so our Sunday roast stood in for it. She was very satisfied with my entirely non-traditional date and maple syrup pudding.

The dates were chopped and soaked in boiling water with half a teaspoon of baking soda. This is a technique used when making sticky toffee pudding, another classic stodgy English pudding. Which probably had its origins in a Canadian recipe.

I do include a bit of golden syrup here as it’s thicker than maple syrup and I felt it’d help with the texture but if you live somewhere that it’s not available (the US, I believe), just use all maple syrup. It’s a pretty forgiving recipe.

Date and maple syrup steamed pudding, sliced

100g dates, roughly chopped
2g baking soda
Boiling water
70g maple syrup
20g golden syrup
190g butter, softened
150g soft brown sugar, or light muscovado
3 eggs, lightly beaten that is about 170g
190g self-raising flour
4g baking powder
2g cinnamon
2g allspice
Pinch of salt

1. Put the dates in a bowl, add the baking soda and cover with boiling water. Leave to soften.
2. Grease a 1.2 litre pudding basin with butter.
3. Put the syrups in the bottom of the basin.
4. Beat together the softened butter and sugar until light and creamy.
5. Add the beaten egg a little at a time, continuing to beat. If it starts to curdle, add a little flour.
6. Sieve together the flour, baking powder and spices, then sieve this into the beaten mixture, along with a pinch of salt.
7. Strain the dates and add to the mixture.
8. Fold to combine. If it seems a bit firm, add some of the date liquid or a splash of milk.
9. Put the mixture in the pudding basin.
10. Cover the basin with a piece of foil, with a pleat in it. You can tie the foil on, but I’ve given up these days.
11. Put the basin in a large saucepan with some boiling water, or in a steamer over a saucepan, and steam for about 2 hours.
12. Remove from the saucepan and lift the foil. The top should be fairly firm and cakey.

Date and maple syrup steamed pudding, foil

13. Turn out onto a plate.
14. Drizzle with more maple syrup and serve warm with cream or ice cream for extra indulgence. Preferably on a cold, rainy day. If you feel the need, go for a good energetic walk – before or after – to justify it to yourself…

Date and maple syrup steamed pudding, with cream

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