Lekach honey cake

Back in the first 2020 lockdown, when most shops were closed, markets weren’t operating, supermarket delivery slots were like gold dust and actual visits to supermarkets were nerve-wracking disease roulettes, we started getting food deliveries from other sources. One was a catering supplier recommended by a friend. Somehow I managed to over-order honey.

Usually, I like to have two types of honey in the house – good quality local stuff and cheap commercial stuff for use when making big batches of granola and to satisfy the sweet tooth of my son on Sunday mornings, aka “jam day”, when we’re allowed sugary stuff with our toast, pancakes or porridge.

The good stuff I’ve had the past few years has been from my friends Karin and Alex, who keep bees in their garden just across town from where I live.

When I realised I had this surplus of honey, all starting to crystallise, I thought I’d better make honey cake. Most cultures have their own variations on honey cake – after all, aside from dried fruit, it was the main sweetener available before the rise of the sugar trade*. Looking in my cloud recipes, my cookbooks and searching around online, I came across numerous honey cakes, including the Jewish lekach, traditionally made for Rosh Hashanah. Aside from the religious and ritual elements, Rosh Hashanah is essentially a harvest festival – its origins in the ancient agrarian societies of the Near East, where taking in the harvest was a logical time to mark the end of the year; indeed Rosh Hashanah means “the head of the year”.

Karin is a great baker, from a Czech Jewish heritage, as well as a bee-keeper, so I asked her about lekach. Instead, she recommended medovnik, a Russian and eastern European honey cake. I will try that one of these days, but when I was round at their house – I work for Alex’s food business, Kabak – I found a recipe for lekach in their copy of Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish Food. According to Wikipedia, the Hebrew name for the cake is ougat dvash, literally “honey cake”, with the word lekach being Yiddish, and from Middle High German lecke, “to lick” – appropriately, given that my five-year-old daughter was keen to help cook and was ardent about licking the bowl after we’d made the batter but wasn’t terribly interested in eating the actual cake.

Obviously lekach would be better if made with good quality honey, and Roden’s recipe says to use dark liquid honey, but it worked fine using up my cheapo honey – after I’d put the bottles in hot water to soften up the crystalisation. The very presence of so many sugars – honey and refined – as well as spices and dried fruit and nuts makes it clear this is a feast day cake, but that’s not so say it can’t be enjoyed at other times.

Roden says you have to make it “at least three days in advance”.

2 eggs
200g caster sugar
125g vegetable oil
250g liquid honey
2 tbsp rum or brandy
125g warm strong black coffee
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
Pinch salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp powdered cloves
Grated zest of 1 orange
300g plain flour, plus extra to dust
50g coarsely chopped walnuts or slithered or flaked almonds
40g raisins or sultanas

1. Grease and line a 22cm cake tin with baking parchment; alternatively use two 24x13cm loaf tins or even a bundt tin.
2. Preheat the oven to 180C (lower if you have an aggressive fan).
3. Beat the eggs and sugar together until pale and creamy.

4. Beat in the oil, honey, brandy and coffee.
5. Sieve together the flour, raising agents and spices.
6. Add the salt and orange zest to the sifted mix.
7. Gradually add the flour mix to the wet mix, beating well to create a smooth batter.
8. Dust the fruit and nuts with flour (to prevent them sinking to the bottom) then add to the batter.
9. Put the batter in the prepared tin(s).
10. Put in the oven and bake for 1 1/4 hours for the big one or about 1 hour for the loaf tins. You want it firm and brown on top and a skewer to come out clean.
11. Allow to cool in the tin for 10 minutes then turn out.
12. When totally cool, put in a tin and leave for three days.

Obviously, leaving a cake for three days is tricky when you have children and greedy people like me in the house. It was delicious on the day, but better when left before cutting, like many ginger cakes and fruit cakes; like them it also keeps well. The best technique for saving it for three days is to hide it. Then set a reminder on your phone so you don’t forget where you’ve hidden it.

* And of course the slave trade that accompanied the growth demand for sugar. The slave trade is something I think about a lot more these days as an adopter whose children have some African-Caribbean heritage – some slave heritage. We joke about having a sweet tooth, but as the European sweet tooth – sugar addiction – grew, so did the slave trade, and the accompanying horrors and abuse. Britain might be a mismanaged, fading entity now, but in its imperial heyday, much of that wealth – exemplified by those solid buildings and monuments that give London and other cities much of their character to this day, those old maps where red covered a large portion of the globe, the abiding wealth of some families – came directly from sugar, from centuries of industrial scale slavery, from man’s inhumanity to man.

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Filed under Baking, Cakes, Feasts

The Beak Brewery and taproom, Lewes

It’s been a tough year in many respects thanks to Covid-19, and the brewing and pub trade has taken some serious knocks. Lockdown closures and subsequent restrictions and curfews have resulted in substantial job losses and falling sales. For the big chains – Wetherspoons*, Greene King, Marstons, Fullers etc ­– sales are down about a third on the same period last year. As for already struggling independent pubs it’s not looking good for that particular cornerstone of British conviviality.

All of which makes it all the more impressive that brewer and food writer Danny Tapper successfully open a brewery and taproom in the midst of lockdown.

The Beak, based just outside the East Sussex county town of Lewes, opened its taproom just after the long lockdown eased in August 2020. We hiked over the Downs with the kids (it’s child- and dog-friendly) on Saturday 15 August and enjoyed a sunny afternoon sitting on benches in the carpark of an industrial estate, drinking Danny and brewer Robin Head-Fourman’s beers and eating food from a pop-up by Kitgum of Brighton.

Danny Tapper

“We signed a ten year lease two weeks before lockdown”, says Danny with understandable bemusement. They were setting up the brewery in March 2020, just as the country shifted into the new reality of lockdown. “It was a big leap of faith.” Not only given the pandemic, but also the fact that, after a fruitless search for a rural location for his brewery, Danny had visited “this not very inspiring industrial unit” in Cliffe Industrial Estate. Although it’s only a 10-15 minute walk from the centre of Lewes, they had no idea if people would come, walking via a busy road (in desperate need of a toucan crossing) to an industrial unit.

The site, however, is actually rather special. On a sunny evening, the magnificent chalk cliffs behind the brewery radiate light, while gulls, corvids and even peregrine falcons wheel around. On a more practical level, as the other businesses in the estate are generally closed over the weekend, there’s room for Beak visitors to spread out, with socially distanced tables on the shop floor and in the carpark, under shelters as necessary. “A space like this has been a blessing during lockdown,” says Danny.

New brews

For anyone who knows British beer, particularly in the south of England, Lewes is renowned for its strong brewing heritage. For years the town has been synonymous with Harvey’s. The Beak offers a very different experience – a young microbrewery compared to a heritage brewery (which dates itself back to 1790); kegs and cans versus casks and bottles; a craft beer outfit versus a real ale one (though that’s painfully reductive, and personally I prefer to say “real beer” for anything not brewed by the industrial giants). But their relationship seems cordial, you can’t  argue with choice and variety and historically Lewes had a dozen or so breweries.

Most of all, Danny’s business had an agility that’s enabled it to prevail against the Covid odds.

Although the taproom offers a great social experience and enables visitors to develop a bond you don’t get when simply buying a beer from the supermarket or even a pub, 85 per cent The Beak’s business is in direct sales, mostly in the form of cans.

Danny and Robin’s output is currently from three fermenters, each able to produce 15 barrels or 2,000 litres. So a total of 6,000 litres (or 60 hectolitres), which equates to around 10,000 cans. Danny started homebrewing in his early twenties, before switching to nomad brewing so he could produce commercially. He created The Beak brand in 2016, and says previously he’d “probably do in a year what we do in a week here.”

Of the beer they brew, kegs are mostly used at the taproom and a few other local venues, like The Patch and Depot, where Danny first met Robin, who was working at nearby Burning Sky. Danny says the taproom sells about 700 pints on a Saturday. Most of the rest of the beer is shipped around the country – to London and Leeds (where Danny used to be based), Brighton, Manchester, Bristol, Newcastle. During his nomad brewing days, Danny not only worked with various renowned breweries, like North Brew Co, Partizan, Beavertown, Burning Sky and Northern Monk, he also personally drove around doing his sales and deliveries, creating a network. As a business model, it was a “great way to build a brand, but a crap way to make money.” 

Planning ahead

Danny says they’re also talking to exporters. He’s got plans. When they set up, they planned to be able to double capacity. They’ve already ordered a fourth fermenting vessel. “It is a big step for us,” says Danny “We didn’t expect it to happen so quickly.” They’re now also opening the taproom on Fridays, with the plans for  “plant-based Indian street food” on offer. On Saturdays, meanwhile, the pop-up food options will keep on changing. Danny says, “we’re mixing it up all the time”.

So while the brewery will have a core range – Lulla 3.5% session table pale, Parade 6% IPA, Strangers 5% IPA ­– Danny and Robin like to keep experimenting. As an agile microbrewery, they enjoy what Robin calls the “scope to be creative”. They “want the beers to be quite playful”. So while Danny has stepped back from the brewing, they work together on recipes. “Like any good relationship, we talk a lot,” he says. For Halloween 2020, for example, they’re using some refurbished casks from the 40s or 50s to age and inflect some Pencil, Beaks’  6% India porter.

Further ahead things get even more exciting, with Danny having ordered a concrete fermenter from Italy. Traditionally these vessels are used for natural wine making. Danny and Robin will be using them for mixed fermentation beers, an equivalent to natural wines. As they’re surrounded by the South Downs National Park, with Southerham Farm Nature Reserve on the hills above those cliffs, they plan to harvest wild yeasts and create a “mother beer” – not unlike a sourdough madre (mother) or kombucha scoby** – for blending using the Solera method.

The mother beer will be something that’s unique to The Beak, and, alongside their use of London Fog yeast, will further define the character of The Beak’s output. Realistically Danny hopes those beers will be arriving in Spring 2021. Watch this space for my coverage of The Beak’s “These Hills Sing” project. And – geographical and pandemic factors willing – try and visit The Beak taproom for a dynamic real beer and fun food experience. And if you can’t make it, order some from the site. “People always want beer,” says Danny “It’s just figuring out how to get it to them.”

The Beak Brewery
beakbrewery.com
@thebeakbrewery
Unit 14 Cliffe Industrial Estate, BN8 6JL

 

 

Footnotes

* I don’t think I’ve visited a Wetherspoons since I worked in London’s Leicester Square circa 1997. It remains a place I’ve no interest in visiting a) given the alternatives and b) given the founder’s frequent obnoxiousness, but in particular his encouragement of Britain’s absurd departure from the EU.

** Scoby means “symbiotic combination of bacteria and yeasts”. For those who still haven’t encountered kombucha, it’s a drink made by fermenting sweet tea that may have originated in Manchuria. I first had at Old Man Mountain, my New Zealand home in the mid-90s. It’s been popular in certain, shall we say, more hippy-healthfood circles for decades.

 

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Pizza to feed the family

pizza

This is the pizza I make for family and friends. It’s rolled out, thin and crispy, and baked in my puny electric oven on baking sheets. I find this approach more convenient to make over the course of a family Saturday, starting with a sponge (aka preferment) in the morning before swimming lessons, making a dough around midday, then bulk fermenting for about four hours.

Much as I’ve enjoyed the certified Vera Pizza Napoletana – “real Neapolitan pizza”– in Naples, I don’t really feel the need to try and emulate the Neapolitan style pizza, with its wide crust (cornicione). And if I’m honest, I always preferred the thinner crust, no-nonsense Roman-style ones we used to eat in places like Ai Marmi on Viale Trastevere and da Remo in Testaccio anyway. This dough does work opened by hand, slid off a peel onto a baking stone, if you favour the round, pseudo-Neapolitan style, but I prefer to roll, bake four at a time, then sit and eat with my family.

Variation on a theme
Pizza is ubiquitous. It’s Italy’s most successful export. And as anyone who’s eaten pizza in various corners of the world will know, it’s changed a lot in its travels*. Even within Italy, and within the diverse regions, and the provinces within those regions, pizza has enormous variety, not just familiar Neapolitan and Roman. It’s fat, thin, doughy, crunchy, round, square, long (alla pala), stuffed (farcita, or scaccia from Sicilian) or sandwiched (pizzòlo, also Sicilian) or pasty-like (calzone) or pie-like (rustica etc), tray-baked (like Palermo’s sfincione), fried (fritta; they loved fried in Naples). Flatbreads have infinite variety. Populations move, cultures hybridise, and the human experience is constantly in flux. The weather changes (now more than ever), ingredients change, processes change. Food, like language, is always changing.

During our time in Rome we also encountered the great Gabriele Bonci, star Roman pizzaiolo. His original hole in the wall pizza place, Pizzarium, located behind the Vatican, doesn’t have a fixed menu, it varies constantly with what’s available. Our very last visit there before moving back to England from Rome, Fran had a pizza with mortadella and Brussels sprouts. Who’d have thought Italians even had sprouts, let alone put them on their pizza? It was inspiring and a long way from the sort of thing that would achieve certification from the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana – and all the more exciting for it.

Sauce and toppings
This post is principally about my pizza dough. For tomato sauce, I often use a very simple one made with a tin of tomatoes, with a dash of dried oregano, black pepper and salt. Sometimes I add a bit of garlic or pinch of chilli. Then I use a stick blender to puree it. Other times, I’ll make a sauce with garlic, basil, a pinch of chilli, salt and pepper in a pan with lots of olive oil, warm that up then add a tin of tomatoes, cook that down, then put the whole lot through a mouli (food mill) to get out any fibrous bits. This is my son’s preferred pasta sauce.

As for toppings – just go for it. Whatever you prefer. This time round I had some local leeks from market for one, roasted first. For another, I bought some taleggio, which I used on a pizza bianca (white – no tomato sauce) with some boiled potato, a good drizzle of olive oil and some sprigs of rosemary from the garden. For my bacon-loving wife, we had some quality pancetta from Beals, renowned charcuterie (or salumi, in Italian) made locally from mangalitza pigs.

My favourite is usually aubergine, sliced longways about 5mm thick, roasted with olive oil and salt and pepper, then add to a pizza rossa (red – tomato sauce), with salty black olives and pecorino – it’s an offshoot of what the Italians would call “alla Norma”, a pasta sauce from Catania in Sicily. We didn’t do that this time. Another one I like is broccoli – cooked to tender, then gently fried in olive oil with garlic and chilli.

My pizza dough recipe
Anyway, this is my pizza dough recipe. Not a whiff of “authenticity”!

It is a 66% hydration dough – ie the weight of water is 66% of the weight of the flour (400g/600g). That means it’s pretty easy to handle, not too sticky.

I use a blend of flours. I find this gives the best extensibility and doesn’t shrink back in on itself. For the light spelt flour, I either use Sharpham Park or Stoates, British, stoneground. You may have a local variation.

Makes 4 pizzas

400g water
4g active dried yeast (or 8g fresh yeast)
600g flour – 200g strong white, 200g plain (all-purpose), 200g light spelt
6g fine sea salt
20g extra virgin olive oil (approximately)
Extra oil for oiling worktop and drizzling

1. Warm the water, add the yeast. Allow to froth.
2. Add about half the flour, mix well to combine, then cover. Allow this sponge or preferment to get nice and bubbly. Depending on the temperature in your kitchen, this can take anything from half an hour to a few hours. Leaving it gives us enough time to swimming lessons and back.

Pizza sponge

3. Pour in a few good glugs of olive oil, around 20g, and combine.

Pizza sponge with olive oil

4. Add the salt and the rest of the flour and mix well. You can do this with a mixer with a dough hook if you have one.
5. If you don’t have a mixer, turn out the shaggy mass** onto a lightly oiled work surface and knead to bring together.

6. Form into a rough ball then put in a lightly oiled bowl, cover (shower caps are great for this) and rest for about 10 minutes.

2020-03-07 12.40.09

7. Turn out and knead briefly. It should be smoother now, and easier to form into a neat ball.
8. Turn out and give it another brief knead. Rest for another 10 minutes.
9. Give it another knead then return to the bowl, cover and rest.
10. Give it a nice long fermentation. You can give it a stretch and fold if you like. This is a good process for helping the dough structure. Simply turn out the dough onto the lightly oiled work surface, stretch out a rough rectangle, fold one third in, then the other third. (Check out my old post on pizza bianca for more details or this technique.) If it’s rising too fast and you want to delay things, you can also put it, covered, in the fridge.
11. When the dough has doubled in size, turn it out. It should weight just over 1kg.
12. Divide up the dough into four pieces, scaled at just over 250g each.

Shaping pizza dough into balls. Bottom two cut off the main lump, top left is tucked, top right is shaped.

13. Tuck any rough pieces underneath then shape into a ball, ideally by cupping in your hand and making circular motions.
14. On a liberally floured area, leave the balls to rest, covered. Alternatively, you can put the balls in a container, cover it with a lid and leave somewhere cool if you need some more time.
15. I give my pizzas a final prove for about half an hour once I’ve stretched then out, but this is optional. Again, it’s about what fits in with your household routine.
16. On a floured worktop, squash a ball of dough down with the heel of your hand, then flatten out. Roll out to a size that fits your baking sheets – mine are 30cm square. (If you prefer round, go for it. If you prefer using a peel and sliding your pizzas onto a pizza stone, go for it. This dough works well for that too.)

Shaping pizza dough

Rolled out pizza dough

17. Preheat your oven. Mine says it’s 220C on the dial, but it doesn’t really muster much more than 210C.

Pizza dough on baking sheet

18. Top your pizzas, helped and/or hindered by children.

2020-03-07 17.28.53

19. Put in the oven for about 8 minutes, then swap around on the shelves and bake for another 8 minutes or so. Your oven will be different to mine, but you obviously want nice bubbly cheese and some colour on the crust.

2020-03-07 17.46.52

20. Turn out onto boards, slice and dig in.

If we’ve got any leftovers, I’ll happily blast them in the oven again for a few minutes then eat them Sunday evening – the one evening when the kids are allowed food in front of the telly in our house. I love a slice cold too.

* What are your most memorable, weird and wonderful pizza experiences? Whitebait pizza in Hokitika, South Island, New Zealand is one of mine. And the abovementioned sprouts.
** This is a Dan Lepard turn of phrase.

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Filed under Breads, Discussion, Flour & grain, Pizza, Recipes

Ricciarelli – Siennese almond biscuits

When I had my short-lived biscuit stall on a market a few years ago, ricciarelli were my most popular item. Ricciarelli are in the macaron family, kinds of meringue made with beaten egg whites and sugar, and in this case ground almonds. As such, they fit in with the inclinations of those with an aversion to wheat and gluten, of which there are many round here. I also gave this recipe to The Hearth pizzeria in Lewes, and they sold well there for a few years too before it closed down.

Ricciarelli are originally from Siena. Despite me spending two years living in Italy, and indeed doing an art history degree many years ago, Sienna is not a city I know. It’s a place I’d love to visit on a food pilgrimage due to its association with such wonderful baked goodies. Ditto its rhyming cousin Vienna, home to another of my favourite ground almond and egg white concoctions: the Sachertorte. One of these years…

Ricciarelli for Christmas
In Siena, ricciarelli are traditionally made for Christmas. My friend Karin likes me to make her bags every year to give away to her family as presents. I must admit I couldn’t muster the energy to do that this year. December is intense enough with our modern early Christmas hype, never mind the effects of all the pressure on our children. So anyway, I’m sharing this recipe for you Karin! She’s from a Czech family and this Christmas just gone I was lucky enough to experience her lovely plate of traditional cookies. We’re talking about doing a Christmas cookies masterclass next year, so watch this space.

Ricciarelli are distinguished from other almond paste treats by their soft centres, crisp outside and lozenge shape. I’m sure professional bakers in Siena churn them out swiftly but I like to take my time over the shaping, cutting the paste into sausages, lopping this into chunks, weighing these, then using two plastic dough scrapers to form the lozenge. If you do a big batch, this can take a little while, but I find it quite meditative and like the results.

I developed this recipe based on various others I researched. Some call for resting the paste for a day or even longer, but I think it’s fine to rest for a minimum of four hours in the fridge, or overnight.

Some notes
1. You can use whole blanched almonds and grind them, but frankly I think the results are great with ground almonds.
2. This recipe can easily be scaled up and down as it’s a basic ratio of 1 egg white to 100g almonds, 100g icing sugar.
2. Egg whites keep well in the fridge, but it’s best to make the ricciarelli with them at room temperature. So remember to get them out the day you’re baking.

Makes 24

2 egg whites, about 66g
5g lemon juice
200g icing sugar, sieved
200g ground almonds
4g almond essence
2g vanilla essence
Zest of 1 orange (or lemon if you ain’t got orange. Or indeed both is you like the citrus.)

Extra icing sugar for shaping and dusting

1. Line some baking sheets with parchment or silicone sheets.
2. Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks.
3. Add the essences to the egg whites at the end and combine. (Use more or less essences, to taste.)
4. Combine the almonds and sugar (sieved).
5. Add dry ingredients and zest to the egg white, combining to form a sticky paste.
6. Cover or bag and rest in the fridge for at least four hours, or overnight.
7. On a work surface well dusted with more icing sugar, form a rope the cut off pieces, each weighing about 20g.
8. Shape each into a into a lozenge or diamond shape. Using a pastry scraper – or indeed two – is ideal. The ricciarelli should be about 10mm thick.

9. Dust with even more icing sugar, to coat well. Really, don’t skimp.

10. Heat oven to 160C.

11. Place the ricciarelli on baking sheets lined with parchment or silicon.
12. Bake for about 15 minutes until only just starting to crisp up and but not colour too much. You want them soft inside, with a slight crunch to the crust.
13. Cool on a wire rack.

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Ginger snap biscuits for Saint Lucy’s Day, 13 December

The secular, consumerist frenzy version of Christmas may start in November or even earlier these days but in the traditional, ie Christianity based, calendar we’re only half-way through Advent. This was the lead-up to the Christmas, from the Latin adventus, meaning arrival, approach, coming – as in the coming of Christ. It was a period of fasting, but some cultures had traditional milestones during Advent – the festival of Saint Nicholas (yes, him) on 5/6 December, and the festival of Saint Lucia, or Lucy, on 13 December – when they could have a blow-out.

St Lucy’s name comes from the Latin lux, meaning light and her feast day is a festival of light in some cultures, but it’s also a festival of treats, breaking the fast – notably in Scandinavia and Hungary. The former, Sweden specifically, gives us saffron buns, the Saint Lucia crown (maybe*) I made a few years ago, and those classic feast day treats ginger biscuits, gingerbread, or a variation thereon. This recipe is for Luciapepparkaka, “Lucia pepper cookies” and is from European Festival Food by Elisabeth Luard (published 1990).

I get all these books, but not knowing the country, I can never, in all honesty, be entirely sure about their authenticity. But frankly, gingerbreads like this exist throughout northern Europe. And, well, authenticity is elusive and a concept I think it’s pointless getting hung up on. From my experiences in Italy, people will make slightly different recipes not only from town to town and village to village but also family to family and all argue theirs are the real deal.

Luard’s recipe – origins unknown – includes whipped double cream and “treacle”. I assume she means black treacle, but you could use golden syrup if you prefer a lighter result. Similarly vaguely, she also says, “brown sugar” – I used light soft brown, but similarly you could go dark or even muscovado if you prefer a less processed sugar. The recipe also called for a teaspoon – a few grams – of ground ginger. This seemed a bit meagre given you’re using half a kilo of flour so I’ve upped it to 5g, a couple of teaspoons.

Luard writes, “This delicately spiced cream-rich mixtures gives a fine-textured crisp biscuit”. I’d say it was a biscuit that’s all about the great snap and crunch.

Note, the dough needs a long rest – overnight, or for at least four hours.

The recipe makes a lot – depending on your cookie cutters. I made about 80 snowflake cookies.

Ingredients
150g black treacle
150g double cream, whipped to stiff peaks
225g light brown soft sugar
500g plain flour
5g ground ginger
Zest of one lemon
Lemon juice

Icing sugar, for rolling and dusting

Method
1. Weigh the black treacle into a pan, then put on the hob on a low heat to soften until runny.
2. Sieve together the flour and ginger into a bowl with the whipped cream, sugar, zest and the treacle.


3. Combine, then add “enough lemon juice to form a soft dough”. I used the juice of one and a bit small-ish lemons.
4. Squidge together into two discs (it makes it easier to roll subsequently), wrap in a plastic bag and rest in the fridge for at least five hours or overnight.
5. Take out the dough discs. They’ll be pretty firm now from their time in the fridge. She recommends another knead, but I found it too firm so went straight to the rolling.
6. Dusting the work surface and rolling pin with icing sugar, roll out the dough – “as thin as a coin”. What coin? What was the optimal coin thickness in the UK in 1990? I’m guessing go for about 3mm.


7. Heat the oven to 180C and prepare baking sheets with parchment or silicon sheets (which I highly recommend as they’re washable and reusable).
8. Stamp out cookies in decorative, seasonal shapes. My mum’s just given Fran some snowflake cookie cutters so they seemed perfect** albeit fiddly.
9. Put the cut out cookies on the sheets and bake for about 12-15 minutes until nicely browned.
10. Transfer to a rack to cool.
11. Serve dusted with icing sugar and accompanied by coffee, hot chocolate or mulled wine. Good for St Lucy’s Day, Christmas itself or any time in the season (that is, until Epiphany, 6 January – the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas).

 

* I’m not suggesting these authors make stuff up, but that tradition, like authenticity, is an elusive idea. Tradition is mutable. Changes to society markedly change tradition. The move from an agrarian to an industrial society in Britain, for example, changed our folk culture as people didn’t live with the seasons of farming any more, didn’t get together to celebrate and sing in the same way any more. Cecil Sharp, let’s not forget, was driving the folk-song revival in his lifetime – and he died in 1924. The intensification of agriculture after the Second World War further changed things, and the ensuing rise of the supermarkets. Our culture became more generic. So these days, for example, our festivals and feast days, especially Halloween and Christmas are taking on the more US-influenced form, or are forgotten entirely.
* I live in Sussex, grew up in Hampshire, and for a decade or so lived in London, all in the south of England. It rarely, if ever, snows in December or at Christmas in this part of the world, at least not in my nearly-half-century lifetime. We occasionally get a bit of snow in March when we’re all desperate for Spring. A south of England white Christmas is even less likely as the world heats up. Yet, we still give Christmas cards with snow scenes, and are determined to perpetuate the myth of a crisp Christmas. Heck, any movie set at Christmas sprays the fake snow around even if the scene is set in the south of England – think Paddington, Love Actually, Bridget Jones etc. And I dread to think of the carbon footprint of all the ice rinks in the south of England at this time of year, their refrigeration systems fighting the generally mild weather.

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I really want the chocolate cake

We love books and reading. We love chocolate cake. So the past few years, a couple of children’s books have been particularly popular in our house: Chocolate Cake by Michael Rosen with illustrations by Kevin Waldron, and I Really Want the Cake by Simon Philip with illustrations by Lucia Gaggiotti.

Both are wonderfully illustrated, lyrical tales of children’s uncontrollable desire to eat chocolate cake. I say “children’s” as the protagonists in both books are kids, but I can relate. In fact, in our household it’s the boys who are particularly ardent about all things chocolate. I Really Want the Cake includes a recipe on its final page and T asked to make it. So we did.

Baking with kids
Now, as any parent of young children knows, there’s a fine balance to be had in teaching kids to cook and bake. I love to encourage it, but conversely it can make for a lot of mess, and realistically, the kids’ role is often more about stirring – often with a separate bowl to keep them occupied. T is now old enough to read the recipes though, so we’ve reached a new stage – where he can weigh things out, reading the figures on the scales. That’s not to say the main preoccupation isn’t still rushing to get to the point where he can lick the spoons and bowl, but we’re making progress.

The recipe is for a chocolate cake made with cooking oil instead of butter. This arguably makes it slightly more child friendly as it’s a big mix-up job, not a cream together one. Though you do have to melt some chocolate over a double boiler, which is a job for the parent, or at least one that involves close supervision. It’s iced with a simple buttercream icing. This part was tricky as the cake is quite crumbly, and the icing quite firm so the results here aren’t exactly professional – but hey, sprinkles!

I’ve tweaked this a tad. Reduced the sugar etc.

Cake batter
230g plain flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
80g cocoa powder
300g caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
2 eggs
250g full-fat milk
125g vegetable oil
50g chocolate, melted

Icing
150g unsalted butter, softened
20g cocoa powder
300g icing sugar

Method
1. Grease and line two 20cm round sandwich cake tins.
2. Preheat the oven to 180C.
3. Sieve together the flour, raising agents and cocoa into a mixing bowl. Stir in the caster sugar.
4. Melt the chocolate in a bowl over simmering water.
5. Add the eggs, oil, vanilla essence and milk to the dry mix and stir to combine.
6. Add the melted chocolate, and stir till all nicely combined, with no dry lumps.


7. Divide the batter equally into the tins. Allow your child to lick the bowl and spatula.


8. Bake for around 30 minutes, until a skewer or knife tip comes out clean.
9. Turn out and cool on a wire rack.
10. While the cakes are cooling, make the icing. Soften the butter (in a warm place or with a quick nuke in a microwave), then sieve in the icing sugar and cocoa. Mix well. Icing sugar is such a fine powder it can spray everywhere, so use a large bowl and a careful child!
11. Spread the icing between and on top of the cakes. If you’re feeling ambitious and can hold your children at bay, you could even smear it all over the sides but we didn’t get that far as T was poised with pots of sprinkles.

You really got the cake!

If, like us, you like reading and cakes, I highly recommend both these books. Gaggiotti’s illustration especially capture the energy of lively children, something we are gifted with, likewise Rosen’s verse captures the singlemindedness of children, something we see a lot of in our house. Support your local library, or support your local bookshop!

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How to make a basic loaf of bread

Over the years, friends have asked what my basic bread recipe is. As the simple daily bread – that keeps the kids in sandwiches and toast – I just never got round to it, with my flurries of interest in feast day recipes and almond concoctions and whatnot.

So here it is.

This will seem like quite an involved recipe, but I just want to share lots of tips, which I hope will be helpful for any baking newbies who find this post.

Kit
The first thing I’d say for anyone embarking on their first bread-making experience is: get a flexible plastic dough scraper. The dough scraper is the most essential piece of equipment for handling dough: it helps you scrape it out of the bowl, it helps you scrape it off the work surface, it helps you pick it up and move it around, it helps you tidy up.

As you may be able to see from my photos, I use one from Bakery Bits. I’ve used it for years. I’ve had a few smaller ones, but I prefer the shape and size of this one with my average sized hands. It’s a cheap bit of kit, so invest and see how it feels for you.

The other bit of kit I’d recommend is electronic scales. Sure you can use cups and weights and whatnot, but electronic scales just make life easier, they’re great for scaling up and the tare function will become invaluable.

You also need tins. They’re pretty easy to come by. Manufacturers seem obsessed with giving everything a nonstick finish these days, but I prefer plain steel. Oil it a bit before using and it’ll season nicely to the point where loaves rarely if ever stick.

Stickiness
My basic bread recipe is what’s known as 75% hydration in bakers’ percentages. You don’t really need to get into all that, but it simply means that for every 75g of water, there’s 100g of flour, ie the wet ingredient as a percentage of the dry. A good rule of thumb is 750g of water to 1000g (1kg) of flour. This makes a slightly sticky dough. If that scares you, just reduce the water to about 70% – ie 700g water to 1000g flour.

As we get through a lot of toast, I tend to scale up the quantities so I can make four small loaves (in 1lb or 450g tins) or a couple of large ones (in 2lb or 900g tin). I bake about once a week, and freeze some of the loaves. Some bakers may have reasons to dislike frozen and defrosted bread but for a tin loaf like this it seems absolutely fine. This recipe also works well for freeform loafs but I prefer the tin form these days as it’s easier to process, there’s less fiddling about, which I’ve found particularly useful during the past few years of refereeing parenting small children.

Flour
For the flour, I tend to use a mixture of strong white bread flour, strong wholemeal bread flour and some spelt* flour. You can change the quantities – use all white for example. Using all wholemeal is possible, but it can make for a denser, crumblier loaf, and it may also require a bit more water as the higher bran content of wholemeal seems to make it more absorbent.

Yeast
As for yeast, I used to use fresh yeast, but it’s harder to come by in practical quantities now where I live, so I’m using active dried yeast, ADY, the granular type that you activate in tepid water. I don’t tend to use the powder easy-blend yeast, which you can just stir through the flour, as I enjoy the frothiness of ADY or fresh added to warm water.

Sponge or pre-ferment
My preferred technique, described here, involves making a sponge or pre-ferment – a mixture of all the water and around half the flour. Technically this helps gives the yeast a good start as it can get to work feeding on the sugars in the flour, but in practical terms it can help with timings too.

The sponge can be seen as an easy alternative to a sourdough starter. It won’t have the character you get with wild yeast colonies, but it will help make a tastier bread, and it also means you can use less yeast and do a longer fermentation, which may well mean the bread is more digestible too. The biggest problem with supermarket and industrialised bread is that it rushes the fermentation. I’ve talked about this a lot on here before, but the Chorleywood process, developed in Britain after the Second World War to speed up bread production, has got to a point where the dough has a very short fermentation, less than an hour. I won’t get into it now, but there’s evidence to suggest this rushed fermentation is the key reason a lot of people feel bloated eating modern, industrial bread, or feel they can’t eat bread or wheat.

Kneading
I still knead by hand, despite my recent acquisition of a cheap Aldi mixer. Handling the dough is just so fundamental to the pleasure of making bread. It’s primal. And probably qualifies as quite good stress relief. In short it’s a great activity to help deal with the madness of modern life. I follow a technique described by Australian master baker Dan Lepard in The Handmade Loaf. This was the book that really got me into bread-making a decade or so back. It’s a technique that shows you don’t have to be slavish to one big long knead, you can do short kneads at intervals.

Ingredients
Makes four small loaves or two big ones.

1050g water, tepid
5g active dried yeast (or 10g fresh yeast, crumbled)
1450g bread flour
5g fine sea salt

Method
1. In a large bowl, sprinkle the yeast into the warm water and leave to froth up.
2. Add about half of the flour to the yeasty water and mix well. This is the sponge or pre-ferment. Cover it with a plastic bag, which you can reuse over and over, or even a shower cap. I have a nice floral one. You can leave it for half an hour, or a couple of hours if that’s more convenient for you. You’ll get a nice bubbly sludge. How active it is will depend on various factors, but notably the health of your yeast and the warmth of your room.


3. Combine the salt with the rest of the flour then add to the sponge. I use a silicone spatula to mix it well in the bowl initially.


4. Turn the rough dough out onto your work surface, scraping out the bowl with your dough scraper. I have bamboo worktops which I oil a little first with vegetable or sunflower oil to make it easier to handle the dough, stop it sticking as much.


5. You can oil or wet your hands a bit if you like, but just keep that plastic dough scraper to hand and some flour as the dough is quite sticky. Don’t be tempted to keep adding more loads of flour to make the dough easier to handle as it’ll make the resulting bread drier and denser. Just get stuck in, enjoy the feel, and knead away, pulling and folding. The dough will come together more as the protein structure develops, but don’t agonise. Knead for say five minutes, then scrape the dough off your hands and, using a little bit of flour, rub your hands together as if you’re washing your hands with a bar of soap as this will help remove the remaining dough.


6. Gently but firmly form the dough into a slightly rough ball and put in a clean, lightly oiled large bowl. I tend to use a bigger bowl than for the sponge stage as this is quite a lot of dough and will get quite big as it proves. Cover with the plastic bag.


7. Leave for 10 minutes or so, giving it a chance to rest. You should find it a easier to handle now. Turn out again onto your lightly oiled worktop and give the dough another short knead. Form a ball, put back in the bowl, and cover.
8. Repeat this process a couple more times, every ten minutes or so, then cover and leave for half an hour.
9. Turn the dough out again and you can now try giving it a stretch and fold. This is just another form of kneading. It’s good for trapping some more air in the dough, but it’s also about lining up the protein strands, the gluten orientation. It’s also a method that’s handy with wetter, higher hydration doughs like ciabatta. Just stretch the dough out, then fold in one end, then the other, as in these handy pics.


10. Return to the bowl, cover and leave for its long prove, its “bulk fermentation”. How long this takes will depend on the temperature. My kitchen is about 18-19C. I tend to leave the dough for at least four hours. You can even put it in the fridge overnight or while you’re out. It’s all about finding a technique that fits in with your life and routine.


11. Leave the dough until it’s doubled in size. This is a nice simple rule of thumb. You should see some nice big bubbles of CO2 produced by the yeast.
12. Using your scraper, turn out the dough onto a lightly floured worktop. Give it a gentle knead. This is called “knocking back”, but that sounds so violent. All you’re doing is regulating the structure, reducing any of the bigger gas bubbles to produce a more even crumb in the resulting loaf. This is important for basic sandwich and toast breads, but some breads, like ciabatta and artisan sourdoughs want nice big holes. But that’s another story.


13. Lightly flour the worktop then give the dough another rest, covered with a cloth, then after about 10 minutes weigh it. The total dough weight here is about 2450g. To make four small loaves in 1lb/450g tins, divided it into four pieces each weighing about 612g. Form these pieces into balls by folding the edges to the centre, then chafing by cupping your hands underneath slightly and rotating. This tightens up the ball; if you’re making a boule, you need it tighter so it holds its shape when baked freeform but as we’re doing tin loaves you don’t need to agonise.
14. Place the balls on a more liberally floured area of worktop, cover and leave to rest for another 10 minutes or so.


15. Now, you want to shape them into tube-ish shapes to put in the tins. There are various techniques to do this, but the one that stuck with me is, again, from Dan L. Flatten the balls into discs. Imagine four quarters, and stretch out one quarter, then fold the end into the middle of the circle. Repeat with all four quarters.
16. Now you’ll have a rough diamond shape. Fold one point into the middle, then another, so the points meet. Now fold in half again and use the heel of your hand to seal the join. You can then fold the ends in and drop this into the loaf tin, with the folds underneath.
17. Repeat with all the balls, then cover and leave to prove. Again, this isn’t an exact science but I tend to go for doubled in size again. You can also use a poke test – if you gently push in your fingertip, the dough should spring back slowly, meaning the protein structure is holding the gas nicely. If it springs back too quickly, it’s under-proved, if it slumps, it may well be over-proved, so give it another knead, and repeat the process from step 13.


18. At the end of this final prove, heat your oven to 220C.
19. Slash the top of the loaves with a sharp serrated knife or special tool called a lame or grignette (if you feel like another little investment). Put the loaves in and bake for 20 minutes, then turn the oven down to 200C and bake for another 20 minutes.
20. Turn the loaves out. You can tap the bottom and listen for a slightly hollow knock, and this give some indication they’re done, but with loaves this size, the 20/20 minute bake should be fine. If in doubt, put the loaves back in, without their tins, for another 5-10 minutes. “Under-prove and over-bake” is a rule of thumb from my old teacher Leslie Gadd**.
21. Cool the loaves on a wire rack. Resist the urge to cut them while hot. Sure the smell is amazing, but essentially they’re still baking. If you try to cut them while hot, you’ll mangle the crumb and it can get all gummy. It can be OK with buns and it’s best with (“English”) muffins, steaming and smeared with butter, but not with tin loaves. When they’ve cooled completely, the steam will have all escaped and the crumb will have firmed up. The flavour will be better too. So just enjoy that aroma and have some patience!
22. When cooled, store in a bread bin in a paper or cloth bag, and freeze any extra loaves.
23. Enjoy! When it’s fresh, my kids demand “soft bread”, after a day or two we go for toast.

Drop me a line with any questions!

* Spelt is just another, older variety of wheat – Triticum spelta, as opposed to the more common bread wheat, Triticum aestivum. There are quite a lot of species of wheat, the Triticum genus of the Poaceae or Graminea, or grass, family.
** Leslie was teaching at the National Bakery School at London South Bank University when I did a baking diploma there back in 2010. He now seems to be operating out of Grantham, Lincolnshire, as Lovely Loaves.

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The lords of bread

Many of my posts here include a bit of etymology. I love a bit of etymology. I’m currently reading The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal OBE (etc), arguably the UK’s foremost and most popular writer about linguistics.

The entry about the word loaf tickled me. The origin of the word is the Anglo-Saxon hlaf.

Prof Crystal writes “The head of the household was seen as the person who provides bread for all, a hlaf-weard, literally a ‘bread-warden’… A lady was originally a hlæfdige, ‘bread-kneader’.” I love this idea in relation to my contemporary household – where Fran is the breadwinner and I’m the bread-maker. No medieval gender roles for us.

Crystal continues with this intriguing bit of linguistic evolution: “Hlaf-weard changed its form in the 14th century. People stopped pronouncing the f, and the two parts of the word blended into one, so that the word would have sounded something like ‘lahrd’. Eventually this developed into laird (in Scotland) and lord. It’s rather nice to think that the ‘high status’ meanings of lord in modern English – master, prince, sovereign, judge – all have their origins in humble bread.” Despite bread’s demonisation by popular orthorexia and debasement by the Chorleywood process, it’s also nice to think of people making real bread today as food lords.

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Mexican almond cookies

Now we’re in the mire of a soggy autumn, our school summer fete feels like ages ago, not mere months. They had so many second-hand books there they were almost giving them away and I was able to get a couple of baking books. Just the type I like: big, generic, unfashionable ones, proper compendia put together by diligent writers and recipe testers and totally lacking in a celebrity marketing boost or coffee table arty photography.

One was The Great Big Cookie Book, credited to Hilaire Walden, who has turned out 45 books over 45 years apparently. Respect. One of the recipes it contained was for something called Mexican almond cookies. Readers of this blog or those who visited by short-lived Italian biscuits market stall will know I love almondy confections.

No amount of research (OK, Googling) is giving me any real history or heritage for these cookies, but they’re likely related to Spanish, or specifically Andalusian, polvorónes – crumbly baked concoctions that take their name from pulvis, pulveris, the Latin for dust (and origin of the English words powder and pulverise). The presence of chopped or ground nuts, notably almonds, indicates to me they’re likely part of the Arab Mediterranean legacy, like Italian paste / pasticcini di mandorle and Maltese figolli. Another modern member of this diaspora seems to be US-Mexican cookies called snowballs or Mexican wedding cookies.

The texture here is crisp and crumbly. They crumble to dust. Hence the above assumption. As such they’re very different to my beloved pasticcini di mandorle and Sienna’s ricciarelli, which I make for Christmas and must put on here soon. Those almond confections are much closer to the almond paste we know here in the UK – marzipan sweetmeats. Every sweet treat made with ground nuts is a winner in my book though. Just try not to over-bake these or the icing sugar caramelises just a bit too much. I’ve reduced the oven temperature and baking time from Ms Walden’s original recipe and also used ground almonds, not her finely chopped, just cos I had some that needed using.

Ingredients
115g plain flour
175g icing sugar
50g ground almonds, or almonds ground in a food processor
2g vanilla essence
1g almond essence
115g unsalted butter
Icing sugar for dusting

Method
1. Heat the oven to 170C.
2. Sieve together the flour and icing sugar.


3. Dice the butter and add to the sieved mix along with the essences (using a tare function on electronic scales to weigh them in, or just go for 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1/2 teaspoon almond).
4. Rub the butter in and bring to a dough. Form into a ball.
5. Cover and rest for about half an hour.
6. On a lightly floured surface, roll out to about 3mm thick.


8. Stamp out with a cookie cutter. Round is suggested, but we (me and my helper, the Raver, aged 4) went round and heart as you can see. Squish back together and reuse any offcuts – this is the bit the Raver liked best.


9. Put the cookies on baking sheets lined with non-stick paper or silicone then bake for about 20-25 minutes until nicely browned.


10. Cool on a rack then serve, well dusted with icing sugar.

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Back again and more brioche

That was a long hiatus. The past few years have been quite intense on the parenting front, and the blog was a victim. Last month we underwent a significant transition though – our younger one started school. So now I have a bit more time and headspace to get this blog going again.

One thing I have been doing the past few years is making brioche. We all love brioche in our family. As much as I like to support my friend Einat’s Mamoosh bakery, with its top quality pittas and brioche, I enjoy making our own. It’s cheaper too, obviously, and times is tough financially for us normal families as the years of moronic, shambolic Brexit suicide drag on. Never mind how the climate crisis is going to affect food supplies and costs.

All and sundry
Anyway, as I mentioned in a post back in 2016, when I started my brioche experiments I found more than 20 recipes in my cookbooks and notepads. I hadn’t realised quite how much variation there was. The Art of French Baking by Ginette Mathiot in its 2011 might have unreliable recipes but it’s good for highlighting the differing types, with the quantities of egg, butter, milk and all the things that enrich the dough varying enormously. After trying several Mathiot ones, I’ve tried, among others, the Roux brothers, Prue Leith and Caroline Waldegrave, Dan Lepard, Justin Gellatly, Andrew Whitney, Paul Hollywood, and one from the National Bakery School, an alma mater. The one I ended up preferring came from River Cottage Handbook No 3 by Dan Stevens.

One thing they have in common is that the dough is sticky and fatty from all the butter and as such can be messy to process with warm human hands. To bypass the sticky kneads, I simply mixed it with a spatula then left it in the fridge for a few hours, then kneaded again when the butter had firmed up.

Finally, a mixer
Something else makes made it all a lot easier though – the acquisition of a mixer. I’ve wanted one for years, but the classic KitchenAids and Kenwoods you see on Bake Off are beyond our means at £250 to £500. I’d seen one a lot cheaper in Aldi, which was originally £100 I believe then came down to £50. Which is great price-wise, but what of its quality? If it’s so poor that it lasts only a tenth of the time a £300 one does, it’s a false economy.

Then suddenly, there in the offers aisle, was an Aldi Ambiano mixer, the last one, for just £20. Which I couldn’t refuse. Now, it’s clearly not as robust as the big brands, it’s a bit noisy, and the attachments don’t do a great job of reaching the sides of the bowl. But it’s not bad, and has transformed my relationship with brioche dough.

Saturday night and Sunday morning
My goal was to come up with a recipe I could do during the day on a Saturday, bake in the evening, then have for Sunday breakfast, as Sunday is “Jam day” in our house, when the kids are allowed sugary spreads. With a few tweaks the Daniel Stevens one works well in that time – start Saturday morning, bake in the evening. You can even leave the dough in the fridge for longer to fit in with your day’s activities.

As for the flour: usually I make breads with Stoates, which is organic and stroneground – which is great nutritionally thanks to the higher content of bran and germ, but has given a greyer, crumblier result to some of the brioche. So now I’m using whiter, more industrial, more finely bolted strong white from the supermarket.

Ingredients
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

Egg/milk to glaze (optional)

Method
1. Stir the sugar into the warmed milk then sprinkle on the yeast and leave it to froth up.
2. In the bowl of a mixer, combine the flour and salt.
3. Pour in the frothy yeast mix, add the beaten egg and soft butter, then mix on a slow speed until well combined. Alternatively, mix all the ingredients in a bowl and combine by hand with a silicone spatula. With both approaches, make sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl so everything is combined.
4. Cover the bowl and put in the fridge for a few hours to firm up the butter.
5. Turn out of the bowl onto an lightly oiled worktop and give a it a bit of a knead by hand, forming a nice neat ball.
6. Put the bowl in a clean, oiled bowl, then cover and leave to prove at around 18C. It doesn’t need a warm place, as you want a nice long fermentation time.
7. When it’s doubled in size, remove from the bowl and decide how you want to shape it.
8. Sometime I use classic fluted, tapering brioche moulds, sometimes I form a long snake then twist it before putting it in a loaf tin, but this time I went for the tear and share approach. The total dough weight is about 820g, which I divided into 10 pieces at 82g each. You could do more, for smaller tearing pieces – say 14 at about 58g each. Form these pieces into balls, leave them to rest, covered, for 10 minutes, then put them in a long loaf tin. I use one that’s 29cm long, 10cm wide, 7cm deep.
9. Cover the tin with a cloth then leave for a final prove. Timing will depend on the air temperature, but leave until nice and swollen.
10. Preheat the oven to 200C.
11. You can glaze the loaf with some egg, or a mix of egg and milk, but frankly it’ll get wolfed even if you don’t.

12. Bake for 10 minutes then turn the oven down to 180C and continue baking for about 30 minutes. Make sure you don’t have an oven shelf above it, as it rises quite a lot when it the yeast experiences the oven heat (this is called the oven spring).

13. Turn out onto a wire rack to cool.
14. Wrap it in a cloth or put in a cloth bread bag until you’re ready to eat it.
15. Serve with jam and butter. (Though my kids demand honey.)

* During the 2020 lockdown, when everyone got into baking and flour became scarce, I managed to score a sack of T55 flour. This is a French flour, equivalent to Italian type ‘0’. Although the wholesaler I bought it from listed it as “Strong Bread Flour”, it’s actually low protein – 9.8%, which is around the same as or even lower than many plain/all-purpose flours. I’ve been using it to make brioche and it’s worked well.

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