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.

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)


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


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.


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.