Breads 30 & 31: Cornish saffron buns and Greek New Year bread

Both of these are delicately-spiced sweet breads, not the sort of bread I usually bake. I’ve previously avoided saffron on the principle that nothing that is mainly famous for how expensive it is can be worth the price. However, I have some left over from the Medieval feast, and I seized the opportunity to try it out. saffron buns (2)

I made this recipe for saffron buns, which calls for 1 drachm of the stuff. I’m a little baffled, because if I’ve understood the conversion correctly, this is almost 2 grams – far too much of the flavour and equivalent to four pots of it as sold! I used the amount in the bowl above. I’m not sure how much this weighs, but it was half of what I had left (I think about 0.3g, so 0.15g), and the taste came through nicely.

The flavour is warm and woody, and robust. Saffron gently underlines the sweetness and fattiness of an enriched bread. I would use it again for a special occasion.

saffron buns

I spent New Year at a house party on the wind-swept coast of Sussex. The house was a thin-walled wooden one right on the sea front, and its sturdiness in the face of the howling wind and rain of the past few days was remarkable.

I made this Greek New Year bread (vasilopita) for the party. It has mahlepi and mastic crystals in it, which I tracked down in a Greek grocers in Bayswater, the latter labelled as mezdeki (the Turkish word for it, I think). If you can’t find them, they can be substituted with fennel and aniseed. I didn’t have much time to make this on the day I left and sweet fatty doughs are notoriously slow to rise, so I used half of the flour the night beforehand to make a sponge and got the yeast off to a flying start. This cut the whole process down to about 5 hours on the day.

The texture is quite like pannetone: a smooth and confident sweet bread. The bread turned out under-cooked in the centre, which I attribute to being in a rush and also to making a single large loaf instead of two small ones. But I was rather pleased with this overall; it was good fun to make something celebratory and decorative. Please note the inelegant ‘2014’ below. Happy New Year!

Greek New Year (2)

Christmas Dinner

Apparently not taking photos of events I make food at is becoming a habit. Oh, wait, there is one. Here I am in my parents’ kitchen with my foot in a bucket of cold water after pouring boiling stock on it:

xmas dinner

Also in the bucket: ice (for cooling) and lemon (for hilarity).

After much boasting that my Christmas dinner would not be at the usual time of half three, but at 1 PM sharp, I of course reverted to family tradition and served up at the gloriously late hour of half four.

I blame the lamb. I bought two shoulders of it and they were enormous and unwieldy and failed to fit inside things. They also weighed 6kg between them rather than the 1kg specified by the recipe. Needless to say, parts of the skin was still visibly raw at the time they were due to have finished cooking. I exaggerate, but only a little.

The lamb recipe was a slow-cooked casserole by Lorraine Pascale. To speed the cooking, I resorted to putting each shoulder in a deep baking tray with its juices coming up almost to the top, sealed all around with tin foil. This worked marvellously, except when it came to turn them, because it was almost impossible to do so without sloshing stock over the sides. I spilt boiling stock over the floor at least three times, but after the first time I kept my feet clear.

For the pescetarians, we did salmon en croûte, which was amazing despite being dubbed “ultimate makeover”. I would make again in a flash if I can ever afford salmon fillets (i.e.: next Christmas). I used puff pastry rather than filo and didn’t regret it.

The starter was goat’s cheese and red onion filo parcels. I was pretty pleased with this, and enjoyed using filo for the first time. It’s delicate and fiddly – lots of layering and brushing with butter – and gave me a new level of respect for hapless Bake Off contestants who have to make their own. The red onions, though, were quite wet and didn’t turn deep-coloured and solid. My guess is that they are not meant to be covered while cooking, as  the recipe specifies.

Bread 29: Grape Harvest Focaccia from Italy

I made this for a party, and it was oh-so-easy and delicious. Adding grapes and rosemary and some crunchy coarse salt makes it celebratory even though it’s cheap. Which is one of the many things I love about good homemade bread: luxurious eating for pence.

This recipe is from Daniel Leader’s Local Breads, one of my favourite books, which I have written about before. In the preface to this recipe, he describes an idyllic trip through Umbria with a bevy of bikers, just as the grapes are ripening (yes: jealous). This bread is a seasonal speciality.

focaccia (2)

Ingredients:

300ml tepid water
1tsp active dry yeast
500g plain flour
60g olive oil (I did not measure this)
1.5tsp salt

for the topping
200g red grapes (used extra)
2tbsp fresh rosemary, coarsely chopped
1tsp coarse salt

Method:

1. Mix the dough ingredients and knead until smooth and elastic. Cover and leave to double in size, around 1-1.5 hrs.

2. Lightly grease a rimmed baking tray. Turn out the dough onto the tray and oil your hands. Gently stretch the dough towards edges without tearing it. Give it a 5 min rest or two if necessary. Fully stretched, the dough should be about half an inch thick.

3. Coat the dough in olive oil using your hands and add dimples all over it with your fingertips. Press the grapes into the dough at regular intervals and sprinkle over the salt and rosemary.

4. Cover the dough and leave to rise until it puffs up around the grapes, around 45 mins.

5. Bake for 20-30 mins at 190 C, until the grapes are bursting and wrinkled and the bread is lightly golden.

focaccia (1)

New bread book: Dan Lepard’s The Handmade Loaf

I’ve had The Handmade Loaf for some time but, after reading a post complaining about people who review cookbooks without having tried the recipes, I’ve sat on it for a while. Now I’ve made five, which I think is enough to be getting on with.

I love this book: it is broad, and curious, and pan-European. Dan Lepard doesn’t talk down to the reader: he throws in hard-to-find ingredients and unusual techniques without apology. Don’t want to have to track down barley flour? Dan assumes you have enough sense to switch it for something more obtainable. He agrees you’ll probably want to mail-order malted grains rather than malt your own, but proceeds to tell you how to do it should you want an insight into the process. I haven’t tried the malting, but it makes me feel good that I’d know where to begin.

lentil rolls

This all-in quality means the book is not especially beginner-friendly, but allows him to fill a whole book with interesting bread recipes without resorting to either same-y variations or shoehorning recipes in that aren’t bread… Actually, there are Chelsea buns in here, so Lepard is guilty of this too. But I’ll forgive him as his section division is so charming and convincing. It’s not just the divisions, his themes are well thought-out and satisfying. After the basics, sections are as follows:

  • From water to wine: covers addition of all sorts of leftover liquids like milk, ale, even pickle juice. This sounds like an odd section but it works.
  • From field to mill: different base flours.
  • Seeds and grains: self-explanatory, but includes some surprise recipes, such as the lentil rolls above.
  • Abundant harvest: adding fruits.
  • Herbs, spices and fragrances.
  • The fat of the land.

…which I find a nice and original take on bread. He also scatters throughout little features that focus on a particular country, but I found these less interesting and they would have been better more clearly linked to recipes.

Saffron

In terms of practical usage, all the recipes I’ve tried have been clear, worked, tasted good and in some cases done something pretty original. Some minor gripes / questions.

  • His oven times are often too long for my oven. After 30 mins at 210 C in mine, any loaf is pretty much done and can’t cope with a further 20 mins at a lower temp. The rest of my equipment is inaccurate, though, so it’d be surprising if my oven wasn’t.
  • I don’t think I’ve got the hang of his almost-no-kneading method (10 sec bursts of kneading, interspersed with breaks). My dough just doesn’t windowpane after his instructions, so I usually keep going. I’m going to persist with this, though, probably by giving it more 10 sec kneads, because I’m pretty sick of Daniel Leader’s approach where you knead it solidly for 15 mins. Leader’s seems to be designed with a machine in mind and adapted to by hand.
  • I wish he wouldn’t only give fresh yeast amounts, in tsp. Because I don’t use fresh yeast and it’s a pain to convert.

Any other people called Dan L written a book about bread? Because those are my favourites.

Medieval Feast

On Friday, I cooked a four-course meal for thirty people. By the Wednesday morning, I didn’t even have a menu plan. You see, I had been sending the magazine I work for off to print, and it had over-run. Still, after a day of hard shopping and another day of solid and slightly frenzied cooking (with excellent help, thanks, Nix and Livi), it worked. I have a single, solitary photo to show for it:

Medieval feast sml

A true Medieval menu (example) reads like a succession of species names, interspersed with a few sweet oddities like jelly, scattered among the savoury dishes. This feast was not a true Medieval menu. Each dish came from an original source, but the composition veered more towards the vegetarian-friendly and was structured in a way we’d recognise – a separate dessert course for example.

A couple of notable things before I get into the nitty gritty. Instantly, you notice that many things taste a little sweet. The savoury lines are blurred. Then, cumulatively, you notice that everything tastes like Christmas. The food has the spices, the dried fruit, the thick and stodgy texture. Perhaps it’s the case that our most traditional English Christmas dishes have simply endured, unchanged, while everything around them evolved.

This is the menu we served, with my thoughts in italics below.

On the Table

breney with chips, aromatic fruit salsa
15th-century English, very good with some anachronistic nachos

manchet bread and fresh homemade cheese with parsley and figs
Big mistake to home-make both of these, although the cheese was delicious and I would do it again under less pressured circs. Manchet bread was as close to white as you could get in the Middle Ages.

Starter

pottage of swedes
14th-century English, this recipe resembles the diet of average peasant. As befits peasant fare, this was uninteresting and filling

ember’s day tart
14th-century English, traditionally served on religious fast days. A different and very nice egg and onion tart; we didn’t blind-bake the pastry, which you do need to 

Main Course

rummaniyya, meatballs in pomegranate sauce
13th-century Egyptian, in a History of Food in 100 Recipes. Unusual texture with ground pistachios; flavoured with mint, cloves, rosewater

grete pie with beef and chicken
15th-century English; we dispensed with the under-pastry. All the dried fruit makes this taste rather sweet despite no sugar in it

roasted rice with parmesan
16th-century Italian. Cut down on the suggested sugar and cheese quantities here. Didn’t exactly regret this, but it wasn’t esp sweet or cheesy

stuffed eggs
16th-century Dutch. Good, fiddly.

spinach tart with mozzarella
14th-century French. Thought this might taste a bit too similar to Ember’s Day tart, but was totally different. Very cheesy and genuinely savoury, which made a nice change

wortes, cabbage and leek
15th-century English; forgot to add the parsley to this – that would have made it more interesting

Dessert

chardewardon, pear mousse with white wine
15th-century English; popular and for once the dessert-like spices felt at home to a 21st-century palate; better with less sugar.

Breads 27 & 28: Irish soda bread and German pretzels

First, I am cooking a Medieval feast and, Londoners, you should come along. It’s going to be fabulously different and fun. Now, on with bread…

When I was new to bread-making I bought a lot of flour without being at all clear on what I needed. It was all good fun, but now I have about 15 bags that are expiring any week now. Such is the price of  profligate trips to distant mills and Waitroses and Wholefoods.

First, I got going on this excellent recipe for Irish soda bread by Dan Lepard. (I bought the book it comes from, The Handmade Loaf and am in love. More on that another time, I’m sure.) I say excellent, I actually didn’t follow it because I had a neglected bag of flaked wheat to use up. I added 100g of that, cut the 50g of fine oatmeal and upped the buttermilk by 50g.

soda bread

This tasted fantastic: crumbly, rich, oaty (despite no oats!), lovely crunchy crust… Wait, this just sounds like a description of soda bread, doesn’t? Look, I don’t know what it was, but it was just so good and homely. Maybe it was that extra coarse Shipton Mill wholemeal that I’d been saving for so long. This loaf is very quick, a refreshing change from those six-hour sourdoughs. Mix and bake. That’s it.

Next, pretzels! Inspired, of course, by GBBO. I only made the savoury ones. In answer to your questions: yes, tying a pretzel is as tricky as they make it look on the programme and, no, I did not do mine by flipping the dough in the air. I needed to make the dough snakes a bit longer, which would mean all the pretzels had holes like the bottom lefthand one, but otherwise these were a success.

pretzel

Loaf 26: khachapuri from Georgia

As so often with this project, I began with a bread recipe I fancied trying, and ended up becoming fascinated by a whole cuisine. This was particularly true this time, because a) Georgian food sounds awesome and b) I find it impossible to imagine quite how it tastes. None of my food references fit (Lebanese-Mediterranean-Russian? kind of? no?).

So, what do we know about Georgian food?

It’s enamoured of bold, contrasting flavours. It’s as common in Russia as the curry house is in Britain, but practically unknown in the rest of Europe. There’s a big tradition of supra, feasts consisting of many dishes and accompanied by lots of wine. Like every other delicious ingredient it seems, the Georgians have been growing vines aplenty since ancient times.

In fact, Georgia really has it all when it comes to the essentials for a rich culinary tradition: fertile soil, big mountains, a coastline, trade routes passing through it, regions that are distinct to point of being troublesome. Here is it on a map:

map europe georgia

Khachapuri is a rich, cheese-stuffed bread. It comes in at least nine varieties (there are regions! lots of them!). This is Megruli khachapuri, which is stuffed with cheese and has extra cheese on top.

Making this was eventful, because I substituted the Georgian sulguni cheese (almost certainly not available from a cornershop near me) for a mix of mozzarella and goats’ cheese. This is because I read that sulguni is stringy like mozzarella but with a sharp and salty flavour.

Well, the goats cheese might have been good for the flavour, but it was a disaster for the consistency. The filling is meant to be stuffably solid, and instead I had to stuff my dough with a loose paste. You can imagine how that went. This photo sucks because I was making it for a dinner party and just had to snap and serve, but rest assured it looked a mess IRL too.

khachapuriShown in photo: guest’s foot. Not shown: panic, swearing, cheese filling everywhere.

It was a culinary flop, and everyone loved it. The recipe of how I would make it next time is below. The dough recipe is from here and the filling and shaping instructions from here.

If you don’t fancy attempting a recipe that’s essentially untested, here are two good-looking recipes that I only discovered later:
Recipe from someone who took a class in it.
Nigella Lawson’s version.

This makes 3 khachapuri, and would serve 6-8 people as a side.

Ingredients: 

for the dough
1 cup milk, scalded
40g butter
1.5tsp sugar
0.5tsp coriander
1.5tsp salt
2tsp active dried yeast
3.25 cups plain flour
2.5tbsp water

for the filling and topping
3 eggs, plus an extra egg yolk or two to glaze
600g sulguri cheese (I would sub this with the firm ready-grated mozzarella next time, not the soft balled one. Goats’ cheese = NO)
150g butter, softened, plus extra to melt on top
1tsp paprika

Method:

1. Mix the dough ingredients together roughly and leave to rest for 20 mins.

2. Knead the dough until smooth, then cover and leave to rise til it has doubled in size. Remarkably, this only took mine about 45 mins.

3. Punch down, and let the dough rise again til almost doubled in size.

4. Divide the dough into thirds and let them rest, covered, for about 15 mins.

5. Reserve a third of the cheese for the topping and mix the other filling ingredients together.

6. Take one third of dough and flatten it as you would a pizza. I found stretching by hand worked better than a rolling pin. Put a third of the filling in the middle and pleat the edges around it as you gather them together, moistening with a little water so that they stick. Flatten your bundle very gently into a flat, round disc, being careful not to let the cheese spill out. Your disc should have a very slightly higher border to contain the topping when it melts. Good visuals here.

7. Repeat with the other two thirds, and top with the remaining cheese, leaving the borders around the edges cheese-free.

8. Brush the borders with egg yolk, and bake immediately in a hot oven. Mine took about 30 minutes at 200 C.

9. Once they’re done, melt a blob of butter over the top.