Long overdue update

You may have noticed it’s been quiet around here. When I first started this blog, a decade or so back when I was living in Rome, I used to crank out a new post every week. Things were very different then. Notably: no children.

Parenting pre-schoolers can be hard work, and the received opinion is that things get easier when they start school. You can get more work, have some time for yourself or whatever. Which is just poppycock, in my experience. Aside from the fact that Covid has made life more complicated, particularly for younger children whose entry to education was so damaged, I’m just finding things busier than ever.

It’s been a full-on summer, work-wise, while parenting wise, with my children now aged seven and eight, there’s never been more rushing about. Swimming, football, ballet, karate, gymnastics… and now they want to try capoeira. Which is great, but it’s more rushing about for me. Never mind their social lives. You don’t realise how much of a social secretary or PA role you’ll be playing for your children at this age, older than playgroups and easy convening at the playground, younger than having their own freedom and phones.

The other big change to affecting this blog is my diet and lifestyle. I’m 52 now, and while many people were driven to drink more during the Covid years, I went the other way. I rarely drink these days. It’s not like my 18 to 25 teetotal years, but certainly I don’t reach for the booze at home, and as don’t have much of a social life beyond chatting to other parents at football training or the skatepark or whatever, I don’t sink pints down the pub either. Or indeed down our dynamic local brewery taprooms. Frankly, so much of their product is just too strong for me, so even when I’m working their on a pop-up food stall, I decline (and it’s free for the caterers!). Seven per cent beers were fine in Rome, but not now I’m a decade older and my kids challenge my stamina, it’s not something I can relax with. I’ve lost 5kg too, though that may be incidental, more stress-related than beer calories-related.

Although we put on a cake spread for me and Fran’s 100th birthday party back in July (see pic), I’m also not baking cakes as much either, as I’m trying to reduce the amount of refined sugar I eat. A middle-aged spare tyre is never a good look. Much as I adore baking and eating cake (etc), I often find in our household it’s just me and my son eating it, with my wife and daughter eschewing it. I won’t go into how the daughter often seems to prefer industrial junk, one of those phenomena that seems to occur with some children who are fed a lot of home-made, real food.

I do have various bakes I still plan to attempt, and write about, and interestingly, my drift away from strong ale has led me to start exploring the burgeoning world of low-alcohol or so-called “alcohol-free” beers. For decades in the UK, the only low alcohol beer available was dreadful industrial lager. That’s been changing fast the past few years, with the arrival of low alcohol IPAs. And now, breweries like Lowtide in Bath are producing a remarkable range, including a NEIPA and a pleasant take on a Belgian abbey beer. The big craft breweries are in on it too, like Brewdog, with its Nanny State (0.5% ABV), and Beavertown, with its Lazer Crush (0.3% ABV).

I plan to write about this properly at some point. One thing I’ve been wondering about is the legal definitions. A UK government document called Low Alcohol Descriptors Guidance published in December 2018 says, ‘alcohol free’ “should only be applied to a drink from which the alcohol has been extracted if it contains no more than 0.05% abv”, while it defines ‘low alcohol’ as “1.2% alcohol by volume (abv) or below”. Though I haven’t explored it properly yet, Tom the Steady Drinker’s blog both cut through some of the confusion and confused me more, as it seems to be the case that UK legal definitions and licensing laws are somewhat out of sync.

Anyway, that’s what’s been going on – or not going on – on this blog. The other thing to mention about me not updating it as regularly as I used to is that I knackered my phone camera (dropped it after a few strong ales, ironically), so snapping half-decent pics for inclusion has been tricky. Sorry about that.

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Foraged herb quiche, aka weed pie

This past month the weather has gone from cold (the end of winter), to unseasonably warm (a dash of climate change), to cold again, to just about normal for the time of year. Spring. It is definitely spring. The view from my kitchen sink has turned into a wall of fresh green and red, the latter the leaves of an ornamental cherry. The lawn needs cutting, other than the increasingly large area I’m converting into a wildlife friendly wildflower patch, and it’s dotted with dandelions. It’s very green, as only new growth can be.

There’s a very distinct type of middle-aged man here in Britain who obsesses over his lawns – feeding them, blasting them with chemicals, mowing them into neat stripes. I like some neatness, but the favourite part of my garden these days is the unruly wildflower patch. By June it’ll be full of flowering weeds – wild carrot, salad burnet, wild oregano, greater knapweed, red clover, little daisies, giant daisies, yarrow, fleabane, and many many more (I reckon there are 30-plus species in there now). But now it’s mostly about the dandelions. Some wildlife gardening experts recommend you leave them because, as they flower early, they’re an invaluable food for bees. I struggle a bit with this, as if you like a wildflower patch, dandelions can also take over a bit, spreading their seeds effortlessly, their wide leaf crowns out-competing other species.

So they take a bit of management. Not with toxins, but the occasional digging out. And eating. I’ve just used some of their leaves in this quiche, along with herbs foraged on a walk on Easter Monday. It was one of our favourites routes, taking in Knowlands Wood*, a private wood in East Sussex whose owners allow (respectful) access, which at this time of year is carpeted with wood anemones (Anemonoides nemorosa) and native bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta, not the introduced Hyacinthoides hispanica, which takes over parts of my garden). Then heading for the Spithurst Hub café, with its wonderful selection of Swedish treats – cinnamon, cardamom and vanilla rolls. Love that fika action. Walking back, we even saw our first orchids of the season on an old railway embankment, early purples (Orchis mascula, not edible and not to be picked!).

My friend Alex “Kabak” Marcovitch gets fairly obsessive about the foraging at this time of year, notably going for hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) shoots. I went for your basic wild garlic (Allium ursinum), which is very easy to over-pick, and indeed I’m still using up a roll of wild garlic butter I made last year and froze, as well as jack-by-the-hedge aka garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata).

When you get your foraged wild herbs there’s always a question of what to do with them. I’d recently noticed I had leftovers of four different types of pastry in the freezer – hot water crust, almond pastry, puff pastry and cream cheese pastry, from a great pie crust recipe by Dan Lepard. I used some of them in an excellent recipe for oat biscuits, which I will share on here at some point. But for the herbs, I decided to make a quiche or pie, using up the cream cheese pastry. I’m not going to give a recipe here for the quiche as it was pretty freeform but here’s Dan pastry.

These quantities make about 750g, which is quite a lot, hence I had some left in the freezer. You’ll need a food processor with a decent capacity. This makes life a lot easier, though you can make it by hand too.

400g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon fine salt
150g unsalted butter, chilled and cut into cubes
150g full-fat cream cheese
1 egg, beaten

1. Simply combine everything except the egg in a food processor and process until uniform. Alternatively, sieve the dry ingredients into a bowl then rub in the butter and cream cheese.
2. Add the egg and bring to a dough, kneading – but not overkneading – until smooth.
3. Wrap and chill in the fridge, or freeze, until you need it.

So, quiche.  I’ve never much liked quiche. As a vegetarian throughout the nineties and noughties, I was often faced with quiche. Never a nice, homemade quiche, but a deeply dodgy supermarket-industrial quiche that was offered to me as the vegetarian option by people who couldn’t even begin to handle meat-free cooking. Times have changed a lot since then, with the huge rise in vegetarianism and veganism recently, though I expect the supermarkets still sell the same vile quiche, which always seemed to taste just eggy. I know egg is essential for quiche, but the whole idea is you can pack them with flavour to the point where the egg is mainly a binder – not the overall flavour, especially not that that nasty caricature of egg flavour found in industrial food.

Here, I sautéed down a finely sliced onion in some wild garlic butter and oil, added loads of black pepper and a good pinch of ground up dried chillies (the last of last year’s crop) and briefly wilted down the coarsely shredded weeds – about three large handfuls of the garlic, jack and dandelions leaves. Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) would also be good, but the usual patch in my garden hasn’t appeared this year and I forgot to grab any on our walk. Then I beat three eggs and added some chunks of feta and hard goats cheese, as well as a nice teaspoon or so or za’atar. As I said – somewhat freeform. Combine the egg mix with the weed mix.

Meanwhile, I’d rolled the pastry to about 5mm and lined a flan tin. I pricked the bottom, then baked this blind for about 25 minutes in a 180C oven. When the pastry was slightly browned, I took it out then added the filling, and baked it for another 20 minutes or so, until nicely browned. Garnish with any wild spare wild herb flowers or dandelion petals, and enjoy with a salad.

* If you want to visit Knowlands Wood in East Sussex, not far from the county town of Lewes, this What Three Words is right in the middle. We tend to park in a layby outside Holmansbridge Farm Shop and pick up the public footpath there. It’ll lead you towards the woods, either across a field or via an old railway embankment,, forking around a sewerage works. Otherwise, head to the Spithurst Hub and follow the permissive paths from there, initially along a track into fields populated by ewes and newborn lambs at this time of year. The owners of Knowlands, Nick and Harriet Lear, have managed the 30 hectare woods since the early 1980s as a private nature reserve and their work is really paying off. The birdsong – including nightingale if you’re there at the right time in spring – and butterflies are testament to this.

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Filed under Food misc, Misc, Pastry, Pies & tarts

Shrove Tuesday buns

Pancakes are all well and good, but there are other Shrove Tuesday foods in British tradition. Apparently. I was pleased to spot these in the book Cakes Regional and Traditional by Julie Duff.

They’re just my kind of thing – a yeasted sweet bun, with some spice and one of my favourite ingredients, ground almonds. You also slice them in half, remove some of the crumb, and mix that with cream, sugar and more ground almonds, using that as a filling. As such they’re a British cousin to Scandinavian semlor / semla or fastelavnsbolle or bollugadur (the Icelandic variation). I wonder what the historic connections are? Something to do with the Viking diaspora? One day I might learn how to be a proper food historian, though that would require being able to go to big libraries and re-learn how to research academically, something my childcare responsibilities preclude still. Never mind the plague dragging on. (It’s finally arrived in our house after two years of lucky dodges.)

Anyway, here’s a version of Duff’s recipe. One key fault with her original is the lack of a final prove. I left mine a little, but should have left them a lot longer – you can see they weren’t proved enough with all the cracking on the tops.

It is an amusingly old-fashioned recipe for these sourdough days. The book was published in 2003, but is still a real treasure trove. Even if many of the recipes used that trick of rushing the yeast at the start with the addition of a bit of sugar.

Dough
15g fresh yeast or 7g active dried yeast
5g caster sugar
75g tepid water
360g plain flour
6g mixed spice
50g caster sugar
50g ground almonds
2 medium eggs, lightly beaten. That is, about 110g beaten egg
140g whole milk, warmed slightly

Filling
75g single cream
115g ground almonds
50g caster sugar

Makes 12

1. Combine the yeast, 5g sugar and 75g water in a bowl and leave to activate and froth up.
2. In a large bowl, sieve together the flour and spice, then mix in the caster sugar and ground almonds.
3. Add the yeast mix, beaten egg and milk to the dry mix and bring to a dough.
4. Knead until smooth. It’s quite a sticky dough, so add a little more flour to make it more manageable, but not too much. Using the Dan Lepard method makes it easier – short knead, 10 minute rest, short knead, 10 minute rest, short knead, 10 minute rest. Final knead.
5. Form a ball and put in a clean, lightly oiled bowl. Cover and leave to prove until doubled in size. This will take a few hours, and will depend on the temperature. My heating has been broken, so it was a bit slow. (I don’t have a prover, proving drawer or airing cupboard.)
6. Weigh the dough. Mine was about 850g. Divide it into 12 pieces weighing about 70g each.
7. Roll these into smooth balls, then place on a baking sheet lined with parchment or silicon mats.
8. Cover again and leave to prove until doubled in size.
9. Preheat oven to 180C.
10. Glaze the buns with a little milk.


11. Bake for about 20 minutes, checking they’re not browning too much.
12. Cool completely on a wire rack.
13. While they’re cooling, make the filling by combining the cream, ground almonds and sugar.


14. When the buns are cool, split them in two, scoop a little of the crumb out (I find a grapefruit spoon useful for this), then crumble this into filling.
15. Spoon a blob of the filling back into the buns, sandwich them and serve.

Enjoy. Instead of pancakes. Or just before. To really be greedy on Shrove Tuesday even if you’ve no intention – or indeed concept – of fasting for Lent.

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Filed under Baking, Cakes (yeasted), Feasts

Abyss Brewery and the English – ok, my neighbourhood’s – pub and brewery landscape

If you like British pubs, you’ll be fully aware of the tragic rate they are closing, unable to afford the running costs and compete with cheap supermarket booze even before Covid made things even harder. So it’s always great when somewhere new – somewhere new and selling excellent beer – opens up. Especially if it’s in your neighbourhood. Especially if it’s in your neighbourhood, which historically had plentiful pubs and breweries.

Such is the case for me with Abyss Brewery + Tap, which is not only a ten minute walk from my house, but is also bringing life back to part of Lewes, East Sussex, which has a strong brewing heritage. Indeed, it’s a great example of small town English industry coming full circle. As such, this blog post is hyperlocal, but it’s also about a situation that potentially has echoes across the rest of the country.

Abyss is located in a commercial estate in the South Malling area of Lewes. Along with the Cliffe area, South Malling was historically a separate borough to Lewes itself, over the river Ouse. These days it’s all one authority, but as South Malling is my neighbourhood, and I’ve long wondered why we don’t have any pubs here, in this post I thought I’d concentrate on the beer history of Cliffe and notably South Malling.

Covid Crowdfund
Abyss itself did start over the river, in the cellar of the Pelham Arms pub at the top of town. Andrew Mellor, who is the co-founder of Abyss with his old friend Andy Bridge, leases the pub, and back in 2016 they started brewing there. This is remarkable given that the pub is tied to traditional Dorset brewer Hall & Woodhouse. Briefly, their brews proved popular, so they expanded the old Black Cat brewery at Palehouse Common, near Uckfield in the Weald. Then, in late 2020, they stated a Crowdfunder, and within two months had raised £30,000 to enable them to move into their current site – formerly the malthouse or malt store of Southdown Brewery. Clearly people were crying out for more decent beer, more Abyss. I do wonder how much of that crowdfunding came from locals like myself crying out for a local.

Although their renovation and installation work was slowed down due to Brexit and Covid-related supply chain issues, they were able to open in summer 2021. Prior to that, I’d enjoyed their brews in the Pelham, and more recently had their fresh draft delivered during the lockdowns and Covid restrictions of the 2020 and 2021. Finally being able to go to the taproom was great, especially as not only do their have great beers, but there’s also Mexican streetfood care of Carlito Burrito, who has a restaurant in Brighton. It’s a wonderful revitalisation of the area, though a very different beer experience to what would have happened here in the Southdown days!

Days of yore
Harvey’s is the only historic brewery in Lewes (indeed, in Cliffe) to survive, but there were many others*. Harvey’s has the John Harvey Tarvern in Bear Yard, and the Bear Yard Brewery operated there in the 1700s. In 1817 it was sold to Thomas Wood and Thomas Tamplin. Tamplin was younger brother of Richard, who founded Tamplin & Sons in Brighton in 1821. Tamplins became a huge operation for its time, though it was itself bought by London-based Watney, Combe & Reid in 1953, before brewing ceased at its Brighton Phoenix facilities in 1973. (Watneys didn’t last much longer: 1979. But I digress. Even further.)

John Harvey was a wine importer who brewed at Bear Brewery by arrangement with Wood. When Wood died in 1838, his sons Alfred and George Wood took over, before they in turn were replaced by their brother-in-law Edward Monk in the late 1850s. The operation itself became known as Edward Monk & Sons. Meanwhile, Harvey bought the nearby Bridge Wharf site in 1838 and although the story was troubled, with various family members dying young, in 1881, their fantastic Victorian gothic new premises were built – which is where they brew to this day.

Meanwhile, Southdown Brewery had been established in 1838 by Alfred Hillman and Thomas Street. I believe the nearby Thomas Street is named after him. Surely convention should have dictated it was named Street Street? Anyway, at the end of this street is a building with a fine Victorian neoclassical facade. This was formerly Southdown’s “counting house”, its offices, and is now a Grade II listed building. This grandeur indicates Southdown fared well, though an employee, William Gresham-Wiles, died in 1863 from falling into a tun.

Southdown was bought in 1895 by Augustus and Thomas Manning. Their expansion included buying the Hope Brewery in East Grinstead (founded in 1844). Thus it became Southdown & East Grinstead Breweries Ltd. Southdown & East Grinstead also bought Monk & Sons in 1898. Just to continue with the dangers of brewing, in 1900, another employee, Herbert Bunce of Lewes, was squashed by a brewery traction engine, used for carting beer, while loading from the Southdown & East Grinstead stores in Cuckfield. (The full story is here.)

Fire and direliction
A few winters ago, I helped a friend demolishing a collapsing shed on his allotment in the Coombe, a fabulous valley in Wildlife Trust land to the east of Lewes. I was thrilled to find this sign. Love the idea of “Family pale ales and stout.”

Southdown & East Grinstead had 93 tied houses (pubs) by the time it was sold to Tamplins in 1924. The buildings were bought by agricultural machinery firm Culverwells in the 1940s, who then sold up in 2005. The maltings and other brewing buildings on Davey’s Lane fell into partial dereliction. In the 20-tens (or whatever we call that decade), some were converted into overpriced flats – “the Old Brewery Apartments”, which at least saved the buildings, a wonderful piece of our industrial heritage, from demolition**. There’s a photo gallery of the building’s previous state (with even more ranty blog post than mine) dated 2015 here.

Tamplins was also the destiny of the fourth brewery operating in Cliffe and South Malling in the 19th century. South Malling Brewery was built in 1821 by Alexander Elmsley on Malling Street, then an important commercial and residential road, now largely treated as a bypass by the authorities, with constant speeding traffic. In 1866, it burned down. This seems to be a fairly consistent theme – brewing involved a lot of heating, and that heat in the 19th century was provided by burning stuff (latterly, more efficient but still risky coal-burning steam engines). There’s a reason Tamplins’ brewery in Brighton was called the Phoenix – Richard Tamplin had bought the nearby Southwick Brewery in 1820, only to see the (thatched) building burn down. Hence the name of his replacement buildings in Brighton.

Anyway, Elmsley’s brewery was rebuilt, becoming South Malling Steam Brewery. Old photos show another handsome Victorian industrial building, where Elmsley operated as not just a brewer but also a wine and cider merchant, maltster and agent for other breweries before he died in 1875. Malling Steam Brewery became part of the Tamplins empire in 1899.  The brewery itself became the County Town mineral works, making mineral water, before it too burned down in the 1960s.

Trends, and bucking them
Adajacent to the brewery building was a pub at number 123 Malling Street, once known as the Wheatsheaf, then finally Cleo’s nightclub, which closed in 1976. I believe this had been tied to both the South Malling Brewery and another local brewery, Beard & Co, but is also long gone, simply leaving its name to a modern residential development, the adjacent Wheatsheaf Gardens, gateway to the abovemention Coombe.

Similarly long gone is the Tanners Arms, later Elmsley’s Brewery Tap, at 135 Malling Street. Any of these boozers could have been my locals if they’d survived, as I live just up the road. Meanwhile, in Cliffe, were the Hare & Hounds (38-40 Malling Street) and Foresters (aka Rose & Crown, 30 Malling Street), while further up Malling Street at number 63 was the Rock Inn, and then at number 163, closer still to my house, was the Prince of Wales, which closed in the early 1990s.

Aside from a bar in part of what is now the community centre and children’s centre, the closure of the Prince of Wales then a few years ago the working men’s club, left South Malling – developed since the 1950s into a substantial residential area – without a boozer until the opening of Abyss. So thank you Andrew and Andy.

There may be a tragic trend of pubs closing in England, but thankfully here in Lewes, we have new craft beer bars (like The Patch), breweries (like Beak) and taprooms opening at a wonderfully trend-bucking rate.  Many of these places, opening in industrial buildings, have something traditional pubs can’t always offer – space, which has proved invaluable during Covid restrictions. The stories of pubs closing are sad, a great loss to our traditional culture, but are we also seeing a transition? After years of the brewing trade being dominated by massive multinationals, we seem to be seeing a return to the local, which makes sense on many levels, not least because it’s madness to expend energy shipping a product that’s basically water (transformed by skill and fungus) all around the world.

The story of all these breweries indicates how local booze consumption once was, and now we’re seeing a revival of this taste for the local, and shunning of the generic beers of the multinationals. I hope it’s a trend that continues across the country, as it’s great for local trade and great for the consumer.

* I’m not talking about the ones over the river in Lewes itself, but they included Ballard & Co, Bell Lane, Southover; Verrall & Sons, Southover High Street; Castle Brewery/ Langford, Castle Gate. The Maltings (built 1854-56) of the latter, later sold to the nearby Beards, is extant, on Castle Precincts, just round the corner from the Lewes Arms. I was lucky enough to get a look at the malt kilns in the back a few years ago, but of course I can’t find my photos now. They were pretty gloomy.

** I believe architects and developers are increasingly realising that the more sustainable option for housing and building generally is to re-purpose existing buildings instead of expending vast amounts of energy on demolition and pouring more concrete (as cement is such an environmentally costly material). As this thinking progresses,  hopefully it’ll mean saving more of our architectural heritage.

 

Bibliographical note & acknowledgements

As well as various online resources, for this piece I’ve also drawn from various local history books. These include:

The Chronicles of Cliffe & South Malling 688-2003AD by Brigid Chapman

Lewes Through Time by Bob Cairns

Lost Lewes by Kim Clark

I love local history books like these, with text descriptions and photographic records of how things once were, so thanks and acknowledgements to all, if any of the writers ever happen up my blog.

The book I still need is The Inns of Lewes, Past & Present by LS Davey. When I get that, I may have to update some things here. Or if anyone wants to correct inaccuracies, please do!

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Filed under Ale, beer, Breweries, Discussion

Pandoro mark 1, Christmas 2021

Homemade pandoro

Happy Christmas 2021. I’m writing this on 27 December, which is only technically the second or third of The Twelve Days of Christmas (depending on how you count them). But like many, I’m already a bit worn out by it all. Consumerist Christmas starts in late October, primary school Christmas not long after, then many people have their decorations and trees up for advent. We tend to put our tree up around Santa Lucia, 13 December, but we have underfloor heating in our living room, so that’s total folly – it’s so desiccated now, if you so much as cause a slight breeze walking past, hundreds of needles fall. The other protracted part of Christmas is the baking – if you’re an obsessive baker like me.

This year, I’ve done a Santa Lucia crown (during Advent, not technically Christmas), ricciarelli, ginger biscuits, a couple of chocolate salami, mince pies, game pies with a hot water pastry crust, genoise sponge for trifle, and other stuff I can’t remember. My biggest Christmas baking project this year, however, was that classic northern Italian Christmas cake, pandoro. Quite a lot of food considering the ongoing misery and frustration of Covid curtailed most of our plans. But we managed to eat most of it, with help from my parents, who we were at least able to see this year.

Making the pandoro was slightly bloody-minded. I find homemade bakes are almost always superior to palm-oil infused supermarket products, but the factory made pandoro I’ve bought over the years have been pretty good. Even the cheap one from Aldi. But I bought a pandoro tin last winter, so fancied trying it. I won’t give the recipe here, as I want to try other recipes (over the coming years) to compare. But it was an Italian one, where you started with a biga (a low hydration starter, made with just water, flour and a small amount of yeast).

Pandoro biga

Then made two doughs, over two days. With each dough, you add more enrichment – some acacia honey infused with vanilla and zest, some butter, and eggs, lots of eggs.

With this dough, most of the water came via eggs. One day I may do a hydration calculation as discussed in my previous post, but not now. Here are couple of pics of it in its nice eight-pointed star tin, before and after baking. Apparently, it needs to get to 92C to be fully baked.

Pandoro before baking

All I will say is that it was fun to make, and when eaten within a few days, was good. Though it staled much faster than the industrial ones, so we ended up toasting some – which is apparently non si fa, just not done, or at least according to Giorgio Locatelli writing in The Times. I was wondering if it would be good to use in another trifle, or for a zuccotto – an Italian dessert of Florentine origin that’s a bit like a semi-frozen trifle. But no, we’ve not got enough left now.

Homemade pandoro

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Filed under Baking, Feasts

The hydration of enriched doughs

From that title, you’ll probably be able to tell if this post is for you. There’s no two ways about it: it’s one for bread geeks.

It was the feast day of Santa Lucia on 13 December, and I made my Santa Lucia crown, pictured above, with ravening children. This is an enriched dough, flavoured with saffron, made into a ring shape with two braids, and decorated with icing, sprinkles and candles. The sprinkles aren’t exactly traditional, but it’s what my kids like.

Making it, I felt my recipe still wasn’t quite right. The dough made for a delicious cake, like a super-brioche, but it was a bit soft and didn’t hold its shape well when braided and formed into the ring, or crown, shape. This got me wondering about the hydration of the dough.

Hydration and bakers’ percentages
Dough hydration is the proportion of water to flour, expressed as a percentage. So my standard loaf is made with 750g of water to 1000g of flour: that is, 75% water to 100% flour or 75% hydration (750 ÷ 1000 x 100 = 75). With the Santa Lucia crown, it’s 250g liquid (water and milk) to 500g flour, so I just kinda vaguely assumed it was about 50% hydration. But it’s obviously not as it’s so soft and sticky, due to the eggs and butter, and their water content.

Professional baking recipes use bakers’ percentages* along these lines for all the ingredients. This means giving the proportion of the different ingredients as a percentage of the flour (eg 6g salt to 1000g flour is 0.6% salt; 6 ÷ 1000 x 100). I used to include bakers’ percentages on some of my recipes (eg this challah recipe), and I thought I’d done a whole blog post about them, but I can’t find it, so I guess not. Maybe another day. If you really get into baking, and then really get into percentages and hydrations, you’ll be able to find all sorts of resources online, spreadsheets and calculators and whatnot.

Basic, real bread, is of course just water, flour, salt and yeast, so working out the hydration is easy. But how does the hydration work with enriched doughs? How do you work it out when the recipe includes not just flour and water (and yeast and salt) but also milk, butter and eggs? Working out the bakers’ percentage of milk in a recipe isn’t the same as knowing the percentage of water in that milk. So working out the hydration of the dough is another level of complexity. Read on.

Wondering about how my Santa Lucia crown dough handled also got me thinking how it compared with my brioche recipe, a quintessential enriched dough, and whether I could tweak the former so it’s more manageable like the latter. So here’s an attempt to compare both doughs: by doing their bakers’ percentages and working out the hydrations. I’ve probably lost readers who aren’t bread geeks by this point.

Fats, colloids and water percentages
So. Water is obviously 100% water. But what about milk? Vaguely remembering my O-level science, cow milk is a colloidal suspension of fat and protein molecules in water. Googling around, the consensus is that it’s 87% water.  This will vary with whether it’s full-fat or skimmed or whatever, but let’s go with 87%. Egg, meanwhile, is about 75% water.

It gets a little more complicated with butter, as there’s more variation. Most European butters are higher fat content, less water; indeed, EU law says they need to be more than 82% fat, and some are as much as 90%. I’ll admit I don’t buy posh butter, but both the supermarket brands of unsalted butter I have are 83% fat. Factoring in about 1% protein, let’s go with 16% water.

So:
Milk 87% water
Egg 75% water
Butter 16% water

Also, eggs. Eggs have shells. Domestic recipes don’t usually give egg in a weight, just “2 eggs”. But I know the eggs I use contain on average 55g of white and yolk.

Now, I hope I can handle the mathematics, as I’m a little out of practice.

Here’s my Santa Lucia crown ingredients (excluding glaze etc):
250g strong white bread flour
250g plain (all-purpose) flour
125g full-fat milk
125g water
6g active dried yeast
2 eggs, that is 110g egg
3g salt
50g butter, softened
120g caster sugar
A few sprigs of saffron, about 1g

Here’s a table. Column 1 is bakers’ percentage (as it’s half plain, half strong flour, the 100% total flour is divided in two), 2 the above ingredients in grams, 3 is the quantity of water in those ingredients in grams, and 4 is the percentage hydration. I worked out the figures in column 3 by dividing the wet ingredient by 100 then multiplying by the percentage water content discussed above. Eg the milk, 125 (g of milk) ÷ 100 x 87 (percentage of water in milk) = 21.8. Combining the figures in column 4 gives me the total hydration of the dough, ie the total water content of the recipe as a percentage of the flour (100%).

Ingredient 1 Percentage 2 Quantity (g) 3 Water (g) 4 Water %
White bread flour 50 250 0 0
Plain white flour 50 250 0 0
Milk 25 125 108.8 21.8
Water 25 125 125 25
Yeast (ADY) 1.2 6 0 0
Egg 22 110 82.5 16.5
Salt 0.6 3 0 0
Butter 10 50 8 1.6
Caster sugar 24 120 0 0
Saffron 0.2 1 0 0
Total 1040g 324.3g 64.9%

So I now know my Santa Lucia crown recipe is around 65% hydration. Alternatively I can work this out by totalling column 3, dividing this by 500g, the flour weight, and multiplying this by 100, giving 65%, give or take a decimal point. I just wanted to include column 4 so those percentages were writ large. It’s probably overkill… for the two people reading this post. This hydration isn’t that high, so I should be able to mould it better.

Moving on, here’s my brioche recipe.
90g full-fat milk, warmed
25g caster sugar
10g active dried yeast (or 15g fresh)
400g strong white bread flour*
5g fine salt
100g butter, softened
4 medium eggs (220g), beaten

Here’s another table:

Ingredient 1 Percentage 2 Quantity (g) 3 Water (g) 4 Water %
White bread flour 100 400 0 0
Milk 22.5 90 78.3 19.6
Yeast (ADY) 2.5 10 0 0
Egg 55 220 165 41.3
Salt 1.25 5 0 0
Butter 25 100 25 6.3
Caster sugar 6.25 25 0 0
Total 850g 268.3g 67.2

So the hydration here – either worked out by adding up the figures in column 4, or by 268.3 ÷ 400 x 100, is 67%, give or take a decimal point again. Surprisingly slightly more than the Santa Lucia recipe. Though they are somewhat different, with the brioche getting more of its liquid content from eggs and having more butter. I find this brioche dough easier to mould but that may well be as it has a higher butter content. I rest it in the fridge until the butter has firmed up more. Perhaps I will tweak my Santa Lucia crown recipe next year, and give it a rest in the fridge to firm up the butter. We can resume this fascinating discussion in a year. Here’s another pic of the Santa Lucia crown, cut open.

 

 

 

* Where you put the apostrophe is debatable. I like to think they’re the percentages of many bakers, not just one, hence bakers’ percentage instead of baker’s percentage. But I don’t suppose it matters much. Anyway, the reason professional bakers use this system is to scale up recipes but I’m not going into that here. The purpose of this post was to get my head around hydration of enriched doughs, and compare two recipes.

 

 

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Mannele or stutenkerl, little dough men for St Nicholas’s Eve, 5 December

This is my first attempt at making these. They’re quite crude, but it was a fun project to do with my eight-year-old. I first heard about these as “mannele brioche”, little enriched dough buns from the Alsace baked for St Nicholas’s Eve, 5 December. Turns out they’re more widespread than that, existing with various names and variations throughout a wide band of central Europe from Luxembourg to Switzerland.

The most common name is stutenkerl, a German word made from combining stuten, rich dough, with kerl, a word for “lad” or “guy”. Another name used in other parts of Germany is weckmänner, with weck a type of long bread role and männer meaning man, small man or young man. An alternative translation seems to be watchman, with weck related to the English word wake, as in awake. Or something. I don’t speak German at all, and although my dad does, he wasn’t too sure either, so I’m blundering around online looking at other recipes and dictionaries. Any native German speakers reading this please do comment! I get the impression German is as full of regional dialects and historical slang as Italy (a country I know a little, and the first home of this blog), which is unsurprising, given how both are relatively modern countries created from unification of various states with their own cultures and linguistic histories.*

The word mannele, meanwhile, I assume is related to the word “mannequin”, which is just a Frenchification of the Dutch manikin, meaning a little man or dwarf.

As well as being part of the St Nicholas’s Day tradition in some areas (and can be known as Klausenmänner), they’re also made as part of celebrations for St Martin’s Day, Martinmas, 11 November, in others (and known as Martinsmänner). Either way, they’re enriched dough figures and any resemblance to St Martin or St Nicholas – either the 4th century saint of Greek descent or the jolly fat man in red from modern times – takes a fair amount of imagination. Instead, just see them as fun little edible figures, like a gingerbread men, and as such perfect for kids. Traditionally these would be left out as a snack for St Nicholas on the night of 5 December, and he’d leave gifts. Today, for many of us, all of these other traditions have been subsumed into the Coca-Cola Santa, who’s given a yucky supermarket-bought mince pie or whatever, on 24 December.

You can make them by using a gingerbread cookie cutter, or you can cut and shape a sausage of dough into a figure, or you can cut a template and cut them out with a knife. If you look at some of the professionally, or more expertly, made ones online, some have lovely details like scarves and boots, along with a pipe. Me and the boy made ours with the first two techniques, and they’re pretty basic. But there’s something quite atavistic about them. It’s easy to imagine dough being shaped into basic figures and used as votive offerings in ancient times so while we scoffed them like breakfast brioche, there was a nice sense of continuity, eschewing all the barbarity of modern consumerist Christmas.

1. Warm the milk to about body temperature (37-ish C).
2. Stir in a tablespoon of the sugar then sprinkle over the yeast and leave to froth up.
3. Put all the other ingredients in a large bowl, or the bowl of a mixer.
4. Pour in the yeasty milk, then bring together. It’ll be quite a damp mix as, although there’s not much actual liquid (milk), there is all that melted butter and eggs.
5. Either form a shaggy dough then turn out and knead by hand until smooth, or use a mixer with a dough hook.
6. To give the fats a chance to firm up a bit, put the dough in the fridge for an hour or so.
7. Take out of the fridge, then leave to prove until doubled in size.
8. Turn out the dough and knead briefly to distribute the gases.
9. The total dough weight is about 1040g. Divide this equally and shape into balls. I did 12 balls at 86g each. Or go for 10 at 104g for larger little men.
10. Preheat the oven to 180C.
11. Now, you shape them. You can roll the dough and use a cookie cutter, or draw a template and freestyle, or you can roll the balls into sausage shapes, then using a dough cutter, knife or even kitchen scissors, snip like this:

12. Doing it in a bit of a rush on Saturday evening with my eight-year-old son, we did the cookie cutter and sausage technique, just to try, as it was our first time making these.

13. Tweak out the limbs, shape the head a bit, then brush with milk and decorate with currants or raisins as you would a gingerbread man.


14. Place your little dough men on baking sheets lined with parchment or silicon.
15. Glaze with egg, or milk, or a mix.
16. Bake for about 20 minutes or until nicely golden brown.
17. Cool on a rack.
18. Enjoy, but remember to leave one for St Nicholas. Or indeed St Martin, if you do them then, though I’m not sure if he visits houses and gives gifts.

Oh, and here are some other St Nicholas day food I’ve covered on here: a British steamed pudding; speculaas from the Netherlands; and Polish honey cookies. Ergo, it’s not all about mince bloody pies at this time of year!

 

* Italy was unified in 1861. The German Empire was only formed in 1871. Never mind East and West Germany only re-unifying in 1990.

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Buckwheat tahini chocolate chip cookies (vegan, gluten-free)

Years ago, when I had my short-lived cookie stall on the local food market, I was never entirely satisfied with the free-from options I came up with for vegan, allergic, intolerant and orthorexic customers.

Via my sister in Sydney I’ve recently discovered Lancey Morris, aka Sweet Lancey, a very accomplished vegan baker who does a box delivery scheme over there. Wish I could order one of her treats boxes here! As I already love baking with nut butters (such as in my fave go-to cookie recipe), and use tahini (a kind of seed butter, if you will) in other cooking, both sweet (eg these brownies) and savoury (in hummus of course), it wasn’t a big leap to embrace her tahini chocolate chip cookies.

Lancey’s original recipe uses wheat flour, and that version is great. But I love using buckwheat flour too. Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) flour is just so tasty, and handily gluten-free if you’re of that inclination. It’s not even related to wheat, it’s related to rhubarb, sorrel and, er, Japanese knotweed.

The result is one of those great free-from recipes where you don’t eat them and muse about what’s missing.

These days, I’m finding Naturli’ Block is a great vegan butter-alternative here in the UK, as it doesn’t even include problematic palm oil* like most of the previously available non-dairy fats. It’s made with shea, coconut, rapeseed and almond. The tahini, meanwhile, is a great binder and enricher, so does a lot of the work of egg in other cookie recipes.

The other complication with vegan baking is chocolate. A lot of dark chocolate doesn’t contain dairy in the ingredients, but comes with the caveat “May contain nuts and milk”, due to potential contamination in the factory it’s made in. In terms of big brands available in British supermarkets, I got some Green & Blacks dark chocolate that was marked as vegan but this seems inconsistent across their range.

If you’re not vegan, this recipe works fine with dairy butter and whatever chocolate you prefer.

120g vegan butter, I use Naturli’ Block
65g caster sugar
50g light muscovado sugar, or light soft  brown sugar
115g hulled or unhulled tahini
155g buckwheat flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 tablespoon non-dairy milk, soy, oat, almond etc – though if you have particularly runny tahini, you may not need this
200g vegan chocolate chips, or chocolate cut into small pieces
Sea salt and sesame seeds, to taste

1. Cream together butter and sugars.
2. Add the tahini and keep beating until smooth.
3. Sieve together the flour, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda and add to the mixture, along with the salt.
4. Combine to clear, ie no visible bits of flour.

5. Add the milk and chocolate.

6. Wrap the dough (total weight approx 700g) and rest in fridge for half an hour or so.
7. Heat the oven to 180C and prepare baking sheets with silicon or baking parchment.


8. Make balls of dough. If you scale them at 40g, the recipe will make 18-ish.
9. Put the balls of dough on the prepared trays and push down slightly. Leave space, as they will spread.
10. Bake for around 18 minutes until nicely browned.
11. Cool on a rack.

I’ve also done another version where I chocolated them up even more, using 135g buckwheat flour, 20g cocoa and added some cocoa nibs. I do love trying to get as many chocolate products as possible into the same cookie. See my quintuple chocolate chip cookie recipe.

* This is of course a big topic, but palm oil production is deeply problematic. It’s often grown on huge plantations that have been created where tropical rainforest has been cleared, notably in Indonesia and Malaysia (which between them produce 90% of the world’s palm oil). So a hugely diverse natural environment has been destroyed and replaced by monoculture agriculture, where very few wild animals can survive.

Yet again, humanity deprives our fellow residents of this planet of their home. Just so we can have a cheap ingredient in our cheap supermarket biscuits. And indeed most supermarket biscuits do contain palm oil. Its use is very widespread in artificially cheap industrial foods – artificially cheap in that the cost to the consumer doesn’t factor in the cost to the planet. Which is soomething that has very much come back to bite us on the arse the last few years. Destroying rainforest exposes us to zoonotic organisms – that is, pathogens that jump from animals to humans, eg with SARS-CoV-2, which scientists mostly agree now jumped from bats or other mammals to humans.

Some products say they contain “sustainable palm oil” but I’ve never seen a credible explanation of what that means.

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Filed under Biscuits, cookies, gluten free, Recipes, Vegan

Chocolate beetroot cake (vegan)

As my previous post patently indicated I’m not a vegan. But I am keen to keep building a repertoire of good plant-based bakes for when vegan friends visit, or just because reducing reliance on the environmentally problematic meat and dairy industry makes sense.

Not that consumer choices really make that much difference in the grand scheme of things. If only we had a political system where our elected representatives genuinely got on board and introduced the far-reaching environmental and energy policies we need, right now*. I’m deeply cynical that anything meaningful will come out of COP26. And deeply worried for the future. What a world we’ve created for our children.

In the meantime, as humanity continues to fail to galvanize in the face the climate emergency*, I’ll continue baking.

Anyway. In the same way carrots make for a nice, moist classic cake, beetroot does a great job of creating a moist, one-of-your-five-a-day, chocolate cake. I do chocolate beetroot muffins already, but this is another option. You can ice it with a (vegan) butter cream too. I had a little vegan margarine left so just added a layer of raspberry jam and choc butter cream in the middle, using some Chococo baking drops my mum had given us a while back.

I’ve had this recipe a while and originally used soya milk, but it’s a lot easier to get more vegan milk alternatives these days, and we always have oat milk. We prefer oat milk, and there are a couple of places in town now where you can get refills**.

400g vegan “milk”. I’ve used soy and oat.
30g white wine vinegar
200g vegetable oil
425g plain flour
75g cocoa powder
11/2 / 6g teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 / 4g teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
180g caster sugar
About 2 medium beetroots, peeled and grated. That is, about 300g before peeling, 250g peeled.

1. Oil and line two 20cm sandwich tins. Alternatively, use one larger tin if you don’t want a layer cake, say 25cm round or bundt.
2. Preheat the oven to 180C.
3. In a large bowl, combine the oat milk, oil and vinegar.


4. Sieve together the flour, cocoa powder and raising agents.
5. Add the flour mix, pinch of salt, and grated beetroot to the bowl and stir until well combined, with no patches of dry flour.


6. Pour the batter into the tins and bake for about 40 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean.
7. Cool in the tin for 10 minutes then turn out and leave to cool on racks.
8. When cool, decorate how you like. As well as a filling, I dusted the top with cocoa and icing sugar. Previously I’ve done it and served it with a vegan chocolate custard made with soya milk, sugar, cornflour and cocoa.

It’s a pretty good cake. This particular one I made then fed to four kids after school. They ate it without batting an eyelid. We didn’t mention the beetroot. One thing I would say about a cake such as this compared to a non-vegan one is that it’s crumbly and not as rich. Butter and egg yolk give a fatty richness that I’m still working on finding with a vegan cake, plus they’re also better binders.

As I wrote this blog, I found out that the sister of my sister’s boyfriend in Sydney is an accomplished vegan baker called Lancey Morris. She has a page on her site about egg alternatives. I know about a lot of these things, it’s just learning how and when best to utilise them. I’ll be visiting Lancey’s site a lot in future I suspect.

* We galvanized to face Covid-19, producing a vaccine in record time. Even in the face of all the nonsense, lies, misinformation and false news (ie not news). The climate and environmental crisis (of which Covid is a factor, the result of our rapaciousness exposing us to more zoonotic organisms) is sadly accompanied by an even bigger barrage of lies and misinformation. But there’s some deeper psychology at work that seems to be stopping us from doing what we need to do. We’re a bizarre species, seemingly so determined to indulge in epic self-harm.
** Refills are expensive compared to just getting more in Tetra Paks from the supermarket. As with so many ethical food decisions, you pay more to do the right thing, which is a hard sell when so many people are suffering financially anyway. I did struggle with why oat milk refills are expensive – the producet itself mostly just oats and water, not expensive ingredients. But supermarkets have the economies of scale on their side, and sell diary milk as a loss leader – totally unrealistically price to keep customers loyal, but drive farmers into worse and worse practices trying to make a living themselves. Likewise they can offer Tetra Paks of oat milk, say, at a lower price than the small refill shops. Our agricultural and food supply chain is so riven with problems, even before Brexit and Covid made things even more difficult and expensive. Anyway, for us, avoiding some Tetra Paks at least means we’re using less wasteful packaging. It’s hard to even recycling Tetra Paks. Our local council doesn’t include them in kerbside recycling, and even if a carton recycling option is available to you, it’s a false economy. Tetra Paks and similar laminated cartons are made of such an awkward mix of foil, card and plastic, “recycling” them is arguably pointless. It’s highly energy inefficient to transport them to specialist recycling facilities then disassemble them. Even when they’re broken down, the resulting materials can’t all be recycled anyway. The Tetra Pak company does have environmental corporate social responsibility policies, but when its core product is so problematic, can such policies really compensate? Or is it just more corporate greenwash?

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Pear tarte tatin

For those not familiar, a tarte tatin is the pastry equivalent of an upside-down cake. Fruit is caramelised in butter and sugar, topped with pastry, baked, then inverted to serve. It’s a format that is forever associated with Stéphanie and Caroline Tatin, the Demoiselles Tatin. These sisters ran a hotel in France in the late 19th century and the story goes that Stéphanie accidentally invented the tart when she cocked-up making a traditional apple tart one day.

It’s probably hokum, and such a pastry format may have existed beforehand, but an inverted, caramelised apple tart became the signature dish of the Hôtel Tatin.

These days, there are numerous variations on the theme. I’ve done savoury versions using onion and beetroot. But my mainstay became a pear version, thanks to the fact that in our old house we had a prolific pear tree. I planted a pear tree in our garden when we moved here to Lewes about 10 years ago. I pruned it a few years ago, and it had a year off fruiting last year, but this year it had 30-plus healthy pears, despite only being an unsubstantial thing less than two metres call. A good height for my seven year old to help with the picking.

You can make a tarte tatin with shortcrust or puff pastry, but I prefer the former, especially when it’s made with the addition of ground almonds.

I think I could have packed more fruit into this version, and it’s not exactly elegant. But frankly, it’s delicious – butter, sugar, caramelised fruit. So good. My pastry skills are basic, but when you tuck the pastry in and it bakes, it creates possibly the best bit of the whole concoction – thick bits of pastry coated in caramel.

For the pastry
200g plain flour
30g ground almonds
30g caster sugar
Pinch of fine salt
100g unsalted butter, chilled and diced
1 egg, lightly beaten
A little cold water

For the fruit and filling
About 1 to 1.5kg pears, ideally slightly under-ripe. Comice, Williams, Conference are all good.
115g unsalted butter
200g caster sugar

You will also need an ovenproof pan or skillet. I use a cast iron skillet 26cm in diameter.

1. First, make the pastry. This is very easy in a food processor. Put the flour, ground almonds and sugar in the bowl the whiz briefly to combine. Add the butter and whiz until it looks like breadcrumbs. Add the beaten egg, then a little water. Not too much. Just enough to create a firm dough. If you don’t have a food processor, rub the butter into the flour until it resembles crumbs then stir in the sugar and ground almonds. Bring to a dough with the egg and a little water, if necessary.
2. Wrap the pastry and leave in the fridge until you’re ready to use it.
3. For the filling, slice the butter thinly and arrange on the bottom of the pan.


4. Sprinkle the caster sugar in a layer over the butter.
5. Peel, half and core the pears. I used a melon baller to core them, but you can use a teaspoon if you don’t have one.
6. Put the pear halves in the pan, core side down, rounded side up.
7. Put the pan on a medium heat and cook, melting together the butter and sugar, which will then start to caramelise.


8. Meanwhile, heat your oven to 220C.
9. When the butter/sugar mix is starting to caramelise, roll out the pastry to a rough circle a little larger than the diameter of the pan. Timing this is tricky, and I think I took mine off the heat a little early. You don’t want to burn the caramel, but you want your fruit nicely tinged.
10. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the bubbling to subside slightly before covering the fruit mix with the pastry.
11. Tuck the edges of the pastry into the pan and prick all over with a fork.


12. Put in the oven to bake for around 20 minutes or until the pastry is nicely browned.
13. Take out of the oven and allow to cool a little.
14. This is the tricky bit. Run a knife around the edges of the tart then invert it onto a large plate. Some of the fruit may well stick, so just carefully ease it out of the pan and put it back in its slot in the pastry.
15. Serve warm or at room temperature, with a blob of thick cream or vanilla ice cream. Try not to agonise about the calories or cholesterol.

Oh, and although this was delicious, I think I could have packed more pears in. You can also put the fruit the other way up, so you have the rounded bits upwards when you turn it out. The Roux Brothers do it that way with apples in their classic Roux Brothers on Patisserie. Prue Leith and Caroline Waldegrave, meanwhile, in Leith’s Book of Baking, do thick slices of apple. An image search online shows many variables. Frankly, such arrangements are up to you. All delicious and indulgent.

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Filed under Pastry, Pies & tarts, Puddings & desserts, Recipes