Bread 34: Socca from Nice

Nice seems like a strange place to come across a chickpea pancake, but it’s thought (according to, ahem, Wiki) to have originated with Italy’s farinata, which then spread across the coast of the Ligurian Sea. This variety of the chickpea-and-olive oil combination is local to Provence.

My reasons for tackling chickpea pancake was, of course, that it sounded fascinating and that this thin pancake-like version of farinata seemed more my cup of tea than the Italian wedge-like variety that I’ve tried before. But I have also had the terrible baker’s misfortune of falling for a celiac.

Gluten has magical powers that I will be unable to relinquish, but I’m also relishing the challenge of baking without it. So far, it appears that there are a lot of cakes with vegetables in them and lots of cunning blends of rice flour, potato and tapioca. Book-wise, I’ve been heartily recommended Red Velvet Chocolate Heartache and am eager for more recommendations, so please share any secrets below.

On first try (pictured here), these were delicious and easy. I used this recipe, and they had that delicious crispiness that you usually only get from deep-frying something. It’s essentially just a batter of chickpea flour and water grilled in oil on a high heat. My second attempt, though, was disappointingly flabby and leads me to believe that getting the flour-water ratio just right is pretty crucial.

NB: I used gram flour, because that’s what I had in the house. This is a blend of yellow split peas and lentils, rather than chickpeas. So I’m not sure how easy or otherwise getting hold of actual chickpea flour would be.


Christmas Dinner 2014

I can’t resist taking on Christmas dinner, even though last year I ended up with my foot in a bucket.

Christmas is fun to cook because it comes with sufficient scale and budget to make it An Event rather than A Meal, yet it’s a uniquely low-pressure one. Everyone else is relieved that they get to spend the morning eating Quality Street instead, and that makes them an easy audience. You just need to serve up within 3 hours of the predicted time – although I’m proud to say I was less than an hour late this time.

Ah, and the other fun thing about Christmas is the chance to play with tradition. This year, I decided to go Swedish-inspired. (Swedish readers are encouraged to look away now and return for the next blog post, because it was not especially authentic. Especially not the gravadlax, as you will see.) I did throw in pigs in blankets and Brussels sprouts too, as nods to British Christmas. Here’s the menu:

Gravadlax with coriander mustard sauce

Swedish spare ribs
Jansson’s Temptation, a gratin with anchovies
Red cabbage
Pigs in blankets
Brussels sprouts with chestnuts, sage and shallots

Butter saffron cake
Granny Bennett’s Christmas pud

Here’s what the main looked like:

main course

(Pics are by Des. Thanks, Des.)

Jansson’s Temptation was a highlight. Apart from its fabulous name, the dish is very easy, and the kick of anchovies adds interest to a creamy gratin. The ribs were tender, but even after I cut the all-spice by 25% it was still a little too strongly flavoured for our taste. Cabbage, by my sister Susanna, was the crunchy style of red cabbage not the slow-cooked sort and pretty delicious.

dinner table

The starter tasted good, so I don’t count it a failure (hard to fail at raw salmon), but it certainly wasn’t gravadlax. I only read through the recipe properly on Christmas Eve, and found that I was, in fact, meant to cure the raw salmon for about 48 hours and clearly that ship had sailed. I also didn’t have a sharp knife to cut it into the ultra-thin slices required.


The cake was a solid sweet bread-with-marzipan-and-fruit number – other than the middle, which didn’t quite cook through. I’ve found this with large sweet breads before: they need longer than the recipe suggests and are difficult to tell if done or not.

cake 2

I had a panicky half an hour or so about 3 hours before serving time, in which I pondered my pathological desire to place myself in stressful situations. However, this feeling passed and I was reminded of how satisfying I find it to orchestrate a complicated meal. Here’s to more cooking in 2015!

Chopped rye and cranberry loaf

I’ve been doing okay on my sensible New Year’s resolutions this year, but appallingly on my fun one, which was to finish off the 100 Loaves project by the end of this year. But hope is in sight, because I made up a recipe that I rather like. I use the word recipe loosely as there are no measurements involved at present.

rye chops bread 2

This loaf came about because I’ve got far too much chopped rye lying around that has well over-shot its Best Before date. Chopped rye is quite difficult to get hold of in the UK, and I got myself into this situation by buying up far too much of it when I had the chance. Now the thought of binning all that painstakingly-acquired rye when it starts to taste bad has got too painful to ignore.

This loaf has about 150g chopped rye in it, which means it will only take me, oh, 20 of these loaves to finish the lot. I soaked that in some hot water with a sprinkle of cranberries and a tsp of caraway. A tsp of caraway gives quite a strong flavour. The rest of it is an ordinary white wheat dough made with dried yeast and a squirt of honey. The texture is rather like a dense granary, and I like the flavours together.

ETA: any ideas on how else I can finished my chopped rye? There is always pumpernickel, which is why I bought it, but I’m not a huge fan as an everyday bread.

rye chops bread

Starting again

It happened to me, the mistake you think only other people would be careless enough to make: I baked all my starter.

Fortunately, I still had some dried starter from about a year ago tucked away in the freezer. We’ll see if this has some life in it yet.


My house is warmed

I had a belated housewarming for my new place last night. My North London friends came down to distant south-east St Johns, which was really touching. Here’s what I cooked:

Chorizo in red wine, with the wine switched for cider
Halloumi with chilli
Farinata, an Italian dish made of baked gram flour
Saffron rice
Chickpea and cashew tagine from The Food For Thought Cookbook 1987 (similar… suspiciously so, in fact)
Ratatouille, also from Food For Thought

The star was the chickpea tagine, which was an intriguing mix of sweet and sour and spicy. The chorizo was good too, but it’s quite hard for chorizo not to be. The farinata was interesting – oddly creamy for something that only contains one ingredient – but quite strange for my palate and I probably wouldn’t make it again.

On a geeky note, I discovered my new favourite system for managing many-dish meals: a white board. It’s a simple solution, but writing up a list of the dishes and the cookbook page numbers made a huge difference.

I took a disposable camera for a walk around my new surroundings the other week, and this is what I saw:

Lewisham Market is its own street-ful of stalls.  Three bunches of coriander for a pound = a bargain. Lewisham has a bad rep for crime, but there’s a sense of community here that the stats don’t tell you about.


My way home goes through Tesco’s car park and I couldn’t resist a shot of this car.


The alley that leads to my house.


In the other direction from Lewisham, you end up in Blackheath


and eventually out by the river at Greenwich.


I wonder if anyone knows what this is… There’s a patch of water that’s full of brick tiles, worn smooth by the waves of the Thames. Could there have been a tile factory on the site?


It seems appropriate to end on my favourite adopted cooking pot. It’s. So. Big.


Bread 33: Bulgarian tutmanik

I don’t have any nice pictures of the bread itself, because this was for dinner and I was in a hurry. However, we were on holiday in the Lake District, and here is the view out of the window: Lake District Gorgeous, and gloomy. We were staying in the Langdale Valley, which is right in the middle. It’s not as popular with tourists as many parts of the Lake District as there in no lake in the valley, but beautiful. While we were there, I made tutmanik using this recipe. It’s a Bulgarian cheese bread where crumbly cheese is (usually) wrapped tightly in swirls and baked in the oven. A number of other recipes I checked all contain yoghurt, which mine did not. So I wonder if yoghurt is a must, generally? Does anyone know? Other recipes say that it must be leavened with baking powder, which is certainly not universal. Tutmanek With this one, the dough is divided into balls, which are placed in a bath of olive oil. You must then pick the slimy balls out of the bath, flatten each one like a pizza base , then add feta and roll and twist and coil it up. The finished bread is moist and cheesy. It retains a strong flavour of the olive oil, and a hint of being fried. I found that I needed around 180ml less water than the recipe specified.

As an ignorant Western European, I had always thought Bulgaria sounded much in a similar place to Hungary and Slovakia. No, it is as far south as Italy! How had I never noticed that? Accordingly, the cuisine is Mediterranean in flavour, and famous for its yogurt and cheese. I am regretting more and more not adding yoghurt to this recipe.

Loaf 32: Romanian pasca

I’ve moved house! You can see three train lines from my window. Here they are:

57c view 2

The first is obvious, the second is the dark railway bridge just below the tree-line, and the third is directly beneath that and invisible until a train goes by. I am very happy here, sandwiched just between Greenwich and Lewisham. Not everything is perfect (there are mice, taps gush, the oven is bad), but everything feels right.

Ah, yes, the oven. Turns out, the temperature gauge doesn’t tell you how hot it is, and it leaks heat at the top. It’s a sad come-down from the powerful oven I was used to before that went very nice and hot. I have bought a ceramic tile to use as a bread stone and will see how that does. It didn’t matter for this loaf, because it likes things rather moderate.

Romanian Easter bread

This is a Romanian Easter bread, recipe here. It’s a sweet bread plaited around the outside, and then baked cheesecake filling in the middle. Delicious. I’ve had it on my list for a while, but I always supposed it would be fiddly. In fact, it felt rather easy. You make a sweet dough. While it’s rising, mix up the filling (just cream cheese, egg, sugar and vanilla extract). Plait, dollop the filling in the middle, bake.

Oven temperature is the tricky thing because the cheesecake likes it cool, and the sweet bread likes it moderately hot. I baked it at the bread-friendly temperature, because I have no idea what temperature my oven is anyway and tend to err on the side of high. The subtle approach is to bake at 5 mins high, then turn it right down. That way you avoid the cracked cheesecake top mine so elegantly demonstrates.