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 4 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 2
Caster sugar 24 120 0 0
Saffron 0.2 1 0 0
Total 1040g 324.3g 65.3%

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.

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

Eating biscuits at the lost village of Balsdean

Chocolate dunking biscuits

A few days ago, I made this batch of biscuits. They’re a variation on a recipe by Justin Gellatly for “the perfect dunking biscuit” found in his book Bread, Cake, Doughnut, Pudding, but I fancied adding cocoa. Cos, well, chocolate. They’ve got a great snap, and dunk well, but I took them on a walk with my friend Alex. We ate them on the site of Balsdean, a village or hamlet*, that is now lost, or at least gone.

If you’re a bit of a map geek, like me, every time you visit somewhere new, you need a map, preferably (in the UK) a 1:25,000 OS map, plus its digital download counterpart these days. On holiday in Dorset earlier this year, I loved poring over the map and seeing the italic font used by OS for post-Roman archaeological sites, saying “Medieval village (site of)” , “Church (rems of)”. The English landscape is littered with these. It’s fascinating to muse about, then investigate, what actually happened to these places. Why do some villages survive, grow and swell into towns or cities, whereas other fail or fade away?

The reasons are many: a wave of the plague may have depopulated a place to the point where it simply couldn’t continue to exist, without residents to work the land. Something similar happened near here to Hamsey, where the original site of the village now consists of just a church and a barn. Or it may have been lost to changing landscape, crumbling sea cliffs for example, such as Dunwich on England’s East Anglian coast. Another factor may be changing technology. An interesting example of a village dying due to technological change close to (my) home is Tide Mills.

Tide Mills, on the Sussex coast between Newhaven and Seaford, came into being fairly late on, when the landowner decided to use the tidal range to grind grain. A tide mill was built and used between 1788 and 1883, grinding wheat for flour (just to get this post back to my blog’s main theme for a second), in combination with a wind mill. When steam power arrived, the tide mill became obsolete. Despite being clean and green! Not really concerns in the 19th century, other than among Romantic poets. The main concern was it was hard to maintain, so more expensive than a coal-fired steam mill.

The village’s railway station was closed in 1942, three years after the final residents had been removed. During the Second World War, the site was used for street fighting training. Today, you can still see the remains of many buildings. Which is a lot more than can be said for Balsdean, which was cleared of its remaining populace then used for artillery and tank training in the war. There are some amazing before and after photos on this site. The manor looks very fine. People would pay a pretty penny for a place like that in these parts these days.

It’s a very peaceful spot now. Despite something of a howling wind on the Downs’ exposed flanks during our walk, among the trees at Balsdean we had a quiet moment to enjoy the biscuits and try to picture the village and its church. To the modern, historical conservation-oriented mind, the intentional shelling of a Norman church** is boggling but the world was a very different place in 1942. The Battle of Britain in 1940 may have forced the Nazis to postpone Operation Sea Lion, their invasion plans, but Britain was still besieged. Today, all that remains of the church is a pile of stonework and a small plaque marking the location of the altar.

It’s a place that’s clearly inspired people, including the Brighton band Grasscut, who created a musical extra-urban pyschogeographical journey around the area with tracks on their 2012 album 1 inch: 1/2 mile. They even hid “in the environs of Balsdean, a single, utterly unique Grasscut artefact”. Clues to its location can be found in this track, A Lost Village. Which sounds intriguing, much like Kit Williams’ famed book/treasure hunt Masquerade from my childhood.

If you’re interested in visiting Balsdean, for the walk, for the history, or to look for Grasscut’s artefact (assuming no one’s found it), strangely it isn’t marked with “Medievel village (site of)” on the OS map, but here’s the What Three Words spot where the various lanes met in the centre of the village is, with an OS grid reference of 378058, while this is the site of the church.  Switch to satellite view and you’ll see more lumps and bumps and evidences. If you like funny English place names, Balsdean is where Balsdean Bottom meets Standean Bottom, just south of Castle Hill Nature Reserve, not far from the South Downs Way southwest of Lewes.

As for the biscuits, they helped us on our way, and I’m going to keep tweaking the recipe. I’ll post it here when I’m satisfied.

 

 

 

* A hamlet is  a small village, which etymologically quite likely comes from ham, meaning home or place of residence, and let, a French diminutive. One dictionary definition says it’s a village without its own church. So technically Balsdean wasn’t a hamlet, as it had a Norman church.

** This informative site gives some more detail about Balsdean from a 1990 source. The church, or chapel, had fallen out of use as a place of worship by the late 18th century, becoming instead a farm building. So it wasn’t quite so shocking to shell it into a pile of rubble.

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Zucchini or courgette chocolate cake

Chocolate courgette zucchini cake

This one came highly recommended by my sister, who lives in Sydney, Australia, and is currently languishing in a Coronavirus lockdown. Such things as chocolate cake have been essential in getting us through lockdowns and the pandemic in general. Chocolate and cake are two such reliable morale boosters.

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, but as anyone with small or particularly demanding children will know, it’s hard to get much done in the school summer holidays. In England, they last about six weeks, but it might as well be sixty-six, or six months.

We’ve had another weird climate crisis summer here. We had a drought in southern England earlier in the year and summer was skewed into May and June. Then when it was the actual summer holidays in July and August, it was mostly mild and purgatorially grey with occasional downpours. Now the kids are actually back at school, the sun is out again. Our crop of courgettes, aka zucchini, has been a bit weird as a result. Small courgettes would arrive, then be ravaged by slugs and snails. A few would suddenly swell into more marrow-like beasts, which are less tasty, more watery, and not so good for this recipe.

Water content
Indeed, working with vegetables in cake recipes can be tricky due to the variations in water content. I found the bigger courgette-marrows still worked OK if you put the grated veg in a tea towel and squeezed out as much water as possible. I also tweaked and standardised the recipe my sister sent me into grams. She discovered the cake via a local bakery but it may have originated with this US blog, so thanks Sally.

Anyway, overall this is a delicious, rich chocolate cake, and like a good carrot cake, you’re not distracted by any particularly vegetably flavours.

Decoration freedom
I’ve made a few versions, one covered with a butter cream, then another just sandwiched with some butter cream. The latter was a more practical option as I took it on the first step of Coat of Hopes, a climate action pilgrimage. Our friend Barbara Keal and collaborators are walking from Newhaven on the south coast of England to Glasgow in Scotland for COP26. Their goal is to try and raise awareness and put pressure on world leaders to do more about the climate crisis.

Our summer might have been choppy, but a lot of people round the world have had unprecedented temperatures, wild fires and floods. I was chatting to a friend in Rome and they’d been to Puglia, the heel of Italy, where it tipped towards 49C (120F). These are highest temperatures ever recorded in Europe. Humans simply cannot function with these extremes, let alone grow food for ourselves. Something comprehensive, assertive and right now desperately needs to be agreed at COP26, but I’m preparing myself to be deeply disappointed.

Coat of Hopes walk, Newhaven

For the cake
250g plain flour
62g cocoa powder
6g baking soda
3g baking powder
3g fine salt
200g vegetable oil
175g granulated sugar
130g soft brown sugar
4 eggs, at room temperature
80g sour cream or plain yogurt, at room temperature
6g vanilla extract
350g courgette, coarsely grated
180g dark chocolate, chopped into chips, or chocolate chips

For the icing. Halve these quantities if you just plan to use a filling:
280g unsalted butter, softened
400g icing sugar
65g cocoa powder
3g vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 180C.
2. Grease two 22cm round tins. Ideally deep tins but basic sandwich tins seem to work OK.
3. Sieve together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and baking powder into a large bowl. Add the salt.
4. In another large bowl using a handheld or stand mixer, beat the oil, granulated sugar, brown sugar, eggs, sour cream or yoghurt and vanilla until combined. Add the courgette.
5. Pour into dry ingredients and beat until completely combined. Stir in the chocolate chips.
6. Pour batter evenly into cake tins. Bake for around 35-40 minutes or until the cakes are baked through. Test with a skewer. If it comes out clean, it is done.


7. Allow cakes to cool completely in the tins on a cooling rack.
8. Make the icing by beating the butter until soft. Sieve together the icing sugar and cocoa then add to the butter along with the vanilla. Beat until smooth.
9. Ice the top of one, make a sandwich, then ice the top and sides. You can level the tops if you like a perfectly flat cake, but, really, why waste the goodness? Or if you’ve just made half the butter cream, just fill and sandwich. You can then dust the top with icing sugar. It’s not as indulgent this way, but certainly less messy taken on the first five miles of a 400 mile-plus (700km-plus) pilgrimage.*

 

 

* I do see the irony of talking about making an indulgent chocolate cake, featuring politically and environmentally problematic ingredients like chocolate, while mentioning involvement with a climate action. But being part of the movement to prevent total environmental and climatic meltdown isn’t synonymous with being entirely ascetic. The way I see it, breaking away from fossil fuels and generally improving our footprint on the planet is a profound moment for economic recovery and social health. The opportunities for growth and employment are huge in the green energy industry, education, sustainable housing (retro and new build), improved travel and transit infrastructure, better agricultural practices etc etc.

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Chocolate chip yogurt ring cake, ciambellone

This is my take on Rachel Roddy’s chocolate chip and yogurt ring cake, which is her take on another recipe found on Nigella Lawson’s website, which is itself a version of a teatime cake made in many an Italian household, a ciambellone (big ring shape). Or indeed similar to a cake make in the Ukraine, and probably other places. All recipes have heritage, they ebb and flow between cooks and countries.

I love the ring shape, but must admit I hesitate before using my aluminium ring tin, which Rachel gave us when were living in Rome in 2013. I can be a bit slapdash greasing and flouring it, and fail to create a satisfactory non-stick. Then my cake sticks. Then I get cross. Luckily, it worked well this time – I brushed the tin with melted butter and oil, then floured it liberally.

Anyway, when eating this cake, we’ll think of Rachel, who is poised to publish her third recipe book, An A-Z of Pasta: Stories, Shapes, Sauces, Recipes. Hopefully I’ll get a copy soon, and try some of the recipes. We’re a pasta family, and I have made fresh pasta with the kids, but Rachel’s books should give us some great ideas for getting it right, and matching sauces well.

Rachel does her recipe using a 125ml yogurt pot, using it like American recipes use cups. I like grams. I grew up in the weird British 70s and 80s when we used grams and ounces and feet and metres…. in fact, we’ve still not made any firm decisions about metrication nationally. But I have. My parents’ factory, where I worked as a youth, did everything in millimetres, and I did a lot of hitchhiking in New Zealand, where how far I plodded down highways, how far I had to go, was in kilometres. Then we lived in Italy, which, despite being a country possibly even more tied to tradition that Britain, seemed to be able to cope with properly metricating.

This is a great recipe. Many cake recipes are prissy and can be a bit unreliable. But this is one of those ones that’s forgiving and easy – basically chuck everything in a mix, though I sieve the powdered ingredients together first to homogenise them. It also lends itself to changes – use vegetable oil or olive oil (Rachel does the latter, as, you know, olives grow in Italy, whilst here we grow a lot of rapeseed); use 100% plain flour, don’t bother with the cornflour; leave out the lemon zest or change it to orange; add cocoa; add nuts or fruit or whatever you like.

You may of course prefer doing it with a pot, in so, go back to Rachel’s version on The Guardian site. Go for it! But if, like me, you prefer baking when everything is in grams, you’ve come to the right place.

150g plain full-fat yogurt
130g vegetable oil (plus some for greasing)
3 eggs (about 175g of egg)
220g caster sugar
6g vanilla extract
zest of ½ unwaxed lemon (I’m a grams purist, but this much zest won’t even weight 1g)
100g chocolate chips (you can of course add more if you’re that way inclined)
175g plain flour
75g cornflour
8g baking powder
Icing sugar (to serve)

1. Prepare a tin – either a 22cm springform greased and lined, or a well greased and floured ring tin.


2. Preheat the oven to 180C.
3. Sieve together the flours and baking powder.
4. Beat together the wet stuff, zest and sugar, then add the chocolate chips.


5. Beat in the sieved flour until it’s all mixed into a loose batter.


6. Pour into the prepared tin.
7. Bake for 30-35 minutes until a skewer comes out clean. Note, if you’re using a round tin instead of a ring tin, it will take longer to bake, as the heat will take longer to penetrate the centre. So more like 45-50 minutes.


8. Cool in tin for 10 minutes then turn out to cool completely. Good luck with this bit if you struggle with aluminium ring tins like me.


9. Serve dusted with icing sugar, while browsing Rachel Roddy’s A-Z of Pasta.

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Wild garlic focaccia

Wild garlic focaccia

When I was a little kid in the 1970s, I was intrigued by the copy of Richard Mabey’s 1972 classic Food for Free on my parents’ bookshelves. But I also loved actual shopping with my mum. I remember walking down the high street of my home city, Winchester, her carrying a wicker basket and us visiting actual grocers, bakers, fishmongers and butchers. But Sainsbury’s had also arrived, and they were soon gone. Put out of business. Times changed.

I loved the supermarket too, fascinated by the variety and such things as hazelnut flavoured Mr Men yogurt. So we weren’t exactly food foragers, but my mum is knowledgeable about plants so could often identify things in hedgerows and woods on family walks. Like most people, we foraged blackberries, but while I did learn that rosehips had been used to make a vitamin-rich syrup during the privations of World War 2, for us at primary school they were more important for crushing up and sticking down the back of other kids’ shirts as itching powder.

Foraging, like baking, is of even more popular these days. And spring is when, among other things, the wild garlic appears. Wild garlic, like blackberries later in the year, is an entry level foraging plant, it’s easy to identify and can be plentiful. We met up with some old friends the other day, for our first pub garden get-together in who knows how long, then took the long way home afterwards. Dom took us to a favoured wild garlic patch, importantly away from the main dog toileting route. A strong garlic flavour is good. A dog wee flavour, not so much.

Wild garlic tends to grow in cool, shady places in deciduous woods and close to streams. Your nose may well help you find it. It’s so pungent, in principle it’s hard to confuse. Though it does grow alongside lords and ladies1 (Arum maculatum), whose young leaves can look similar at a glance but are a very different shape when inspected. And don’t smell of garlic. But they are also toxic, so take care.

Fresh wild garlic - washed

Food for bears
Wild garlic is a wonder. Even its Latin name is great – Allium ursinum, bear garlic. Do bears like it? They’re smart omnivores, so it wouldn’t surprise me. We hunted them to extinction in Britain though, so it’s not something I’ll ever see here. The common name I grew up with for wild garlic is ramsons, which apparently derives from the old English hramsa, and may be related to the Greek krómmyon, meaning onion.

Anyway. We got a lot on that jaunt with Dom and family. I say a lot, but it was actually only two small nappy disposal bags, which were buried at the bottom of our backpack (unused), a legacy of the kids’ younger days.

If you have a lot of wild garlic, you may well need to process it. Years ago, when we still had an airing cupboard, I dried it, but found it lost its flavour. Fresh, it makes a good pesto, whizzed up with nuts, oil, grated parmigiana and seasoning. It’s also good for a simple pasta, just roughly chopped, softened in olive oil and combined, perhaps with a squish of lemon juice. You can also use it to make the Middle Eastern coriander condiment zhoug (thanks to my friend Alex, owner of Middle Easten food business Kabak for that one). Another way to process it was suggested by Dom: wild garlic butter. Just chop the garlic leaves fine, then combine it with softened butter, form into a roll, then freeze in greaseproof paper. You can then cut slices off to cook with, using it in lieu of normal garlic in recipes.

Focaccia variations
This year, I had another thought – wild garlic focaccia. As with every idea, it’s already out there on the internet, but I just used my basic focaccia recipe and added some wild garlic whizzed up in a food processor.

What we know as focaccia in Britain is more specifically Genoese focaccia, a white, somewhat soft tray baked bread containing a decent amount of olive oil. They bake it with salt, olives or herbs like rosemary. I’ve asked one Italian friend if they eat Allium ursinum over there, and he says yes, but not often. Which surprises me, as they have a strong foraging culture there. Even our local market in Rome would sell a misticanza2 of mixed foraged greens – foraged weeds – including dandelion leaves and whatnot. In the 1960 film Two Women / La ciociara, starring Sophia Loren as a shopkeeper who flees WW2 Rome to her native village in the mountains with her daughter, there’s a scene where the villagers are foraging the fields for any misticanza, any greens they can eat to keep starvation at bay.

Anyway, here’s the recipe. Use the basic recipe – with whatever editions you like – at other times of the year when wild garlic isn’t available.

Makes one large, 1kg, loaf

Ingredients
360g water, tepid
6g active dried yeast or 12g fresh yeast
585g strong white bread flour
9g fine sea salt
60g extra virgin olive oil

For the wild garlic paste. (I’m not going to be my usual precise self for this bit, as it’s flexible.)
About 80g wild garlic, a nice big handful
A few glugs of extra virgin olive oil
Good pinch of coarse sea salt
Add some chili flakes if you like some heat

Plus some more extra virgin olive oil

Method
1. Put the water in a mixing bowl (or indeed the bowl of a mixer, if you prefer) and add the yeast. Leave it to froth up.
2. Add the flour, salt and olive oil and bring to a dough.
3. Knead until smooth, by hand or in a mixer.
4. Leave 10 minutes or so and give it another quick knead.
5. Leave half an hour, then stretch into a rectangle and fold into thirds.
6. Leave the dough to prove until doubled in size.
7. Stretch the dough out and put in an oiled baking tray. I use a rectangular enamel one that is 25x35cm, 5cm deep.
8. Leave the dough to rest and prove a bit more, for about 15 minutes.
9. Make the wild garlic paste in a food processor – just squash the leaves in, with a few glugs of extra virgin olive oil and a good pinch coarse sea salt. Whizz it up to a coarse paste.
10. Smear the paste all over the dough, pushing in your fingertips to give the bread its distinctive cratered surface and disperse the garlic.
11. Cover and leave to prove one last time, until doubled in size.


12. Preheat your oven to 220C.
13. Give the bread another drizzle of olive oil then bake for around 20 minutes, until golden.
14. Remove from the oven and drizzle with a bit more olive oil, so the bread is nice and moist.
15. Cool in the tin for 10-20 minutes then remove. Eat warm or later on. All that oil means it stays soft well for a few days.

Like many parents, I struggle to get anything green into my kids’ diets. I’m somewhat baffled by the seemingly innate resistance to any brassicas for example. It’s purple sprouting broccoli season in England now, and that veg is such a delight – sweet, and you’d think child-friendly with its small, tender heads. But no. The kids did, however, love this bread. The big one (increasingly big this year) absolutely scovered3 the stuff.

Wild garlic focaccia

1 Just look at the Wikipedia page for all the wonderful common names for this lily. I grew up calling it lords-and-ladies or cuckoo pint, but there are numerous other names.
2 In Oretta Zanini de Vita’s book The Food of Rome and Lazio, she lists “Arugula [rocket], wild chicory, rampion, salad burnet, wood sorrel, borage, wild endive, poppy greens and other bitter greens” for Misticanza Romana.
3 Our family portmanteau word that derives from “scoffed” and “hoovered”.

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