Category Archives: Baking

Baking – Daniel Etherington’s bread experiements

Horse, grain, stone, bread

The Waterers' Shire team at work 

Obviously, I love bread, but what particularly excites me is making bread with a story. So when I got an email from British grains and pulses seller Hodmedod’s1 mentioning Flour by Horsepower – flour ground from grain grown with heavy horses – I was sold. Heavy horses are just awesome creatures. And I love to think of that food narrative: field, heavy horse, grain, millstone, flour, bread.

Anyone who knows me in person will at some point have been regaled with reminiscences of my experiences in New Zealand-Aotearoa. On my first visit, in 1990, I ended up living at Newton Livery, a small farm owned by Stephen McGrath in the stunning, sand-fly infested Buller Gorge. Stephen, who died in 2020, was something of a legend, a formidable figure with blacksmith’s shoulders and big beard. He influenced numerous young travellers like myself, introducing us to his idiosyncratic lifestyle – which hinged around his love of heavy (or draft) horses, specifically Clydesdales.

Heavy horsepower
The Clydesdale breed was favoured for export to New Zealand in the late 19th century and prevails there, though for those of us living in England, we’re more likely to encounter Shires. For example, before the plague, here in Lewes, East Sussex, local heritage brewery Harvey’s had a Shire-drawn dray delivering beer around town one day a week2. Both Clydes and Shire are absolutely magnificent breeds, which can weigh up to a metric tonne3 and have extraordinary energy, pulling power and charm. In some ways, I wish I’d been able to maintain more contact with them over the years. So buying the Flour by Horsepower was one way I could feel some contact, however vicariously. Specifically the Shires of Fiona and Jonathan Water, who grow the grain using the horses at their farm Higher Biddacott.

Not only was the flour made from grain grown on a farm worked with Shires, that farm is in north Devon, another place that’s been significant in my life. I had an aunt in Barnstaple, but more importantly I spent 20 years visiting my parents in the area, and Fran and I even got married in Pyworthy, near Holsworthy, a mere 25 miles (40km) as the crow flies from Higher Biddacott. I do wish I’d heard about it sooner, so I could have visited when life took me to that part of the world more frequently. As well as growing grain, owners Jonathan and Fiona Waterer have a B&B and run courses, where you can learn to drive heavy horses.

They’ve farmed at the 40 hectare (100 acre) Higher Biddacott since 1996. Fiona says, “We farm organically and are moving towards regenerative agriculture all with our horses.” Jonathan is a life-long heavy horseman, Fiona saying, “he has worked horses since the age of 10 on his father’s farm. He finished school, went to agricultural college and then ranched out in Alberta, Canada. He returned to Exmoor in 1982 to a small hill farm. In 1996 we moved to Higher Biddacott and on both farms he has used horses. They are his passion and he trains many horses for other people as well.”

The Waterer Shire horses

Flour with history and flavour
I’ve used a lot of different flour in my time, including heritage and local varieties (eg here and here). But with my connections to Devon and heavy horses, I’m really pleased to have discovered Flour by Horsepower, stoneground from the Waterers’ grain at Shipton Mill.

This year, the Waterers’ wholemeal flour is available in two types, made with Squareheads Master or French landrace wheat. We’re likely to see different varieties from them in future now they’ve established a relationship with Hodmedod’s. “We have just finished tilling our Spring wheat and oats,” says Fiona. “We also have some winter wheat in the ground. We have YQ [Yield/Quality4], Mulika and Wild Farm grain varieties of wheat.” All of which lend themselves to organic and regenerative practices.

For my first bake with Flour by Horsepower, I used the Squareheads Master. “We’re very excited about the flavour,” says Fiona. “I use it 100 per cent for a savoury pastry as the ancient grains are not as strong as modern wheats.” That is, they’re lower in protein that what we in Britain mostly use for bread-making these days. I will do some pastry at some point as I’ve got a great recipe from my other Buller Gorge mentor, Nadia Jowsey, but first I made bread.

Squareheads Master is a grain that was developed in the 1860s, from selective breeding of landrace varieties. As such, at the time it was revolutionary for its higher yields. From our modern point of view, however, after the 20th century’s intensification and heavy, frequently toxic industrialisation of agriculture, it is a heritage grain. And clearly one that lends itself well to being farmed with horses in the green fields of north Devon.

When I lived in Newton Livery,  I wasn’t there at the right time for ploughing, tilling and sowing, but did see the horse-drawn reaper-binder in action at harvest time. Until it broke. Stephen could fix anything, but couldn’t get it fixed it time in the weather window we had for harvesting his field of oats, so we did it by hand. Luckily it was a small field, as it was hard work – humans simply do not have even a fraction of the agricultural horsepower of actual horses and a lot of favours were called in to get enough manpower. I wish I’d taken some photos, but suspect I was a bit busy. If and when the plague passes, and we’re back in Devon, maybe one day I’ll see the Waterers bringing in their harvest by horse power. Seeing massive draft horses doing the job they were bred for is a real treat.

Sandwiches in the March sun
Anyway, we just had sandwiches for lunch using my bread made with 50% Flour by Horsepower Squareheads Master flour and 50% Stoates strong white bread, all stoneground, all quality. I used my usual basic bread recipe, leaving the preferment or sponge for several hours to help the flavours develop. I then did a few of my usual, toast-for-the-family tin loaves and one round loaf given a final prove in cane banneton. Cos cobs are cute.

The resulting bread is very good. It’s wholesome and tasty – real grains, milled with stone, result in flour that has a flavour you cannot find with industrially farmed and roller milled grain flours. The crust, with its extra caramelisation and Maillard reaction, is wonderfully nutty, so it’s no surprise Fiona was excited. Perfect for a sandwich lunch in the garden on a warm spring day. Eating the sandwich, I could almost see those Shires steadily working their way across the north Devon landscape.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Footnotes
1 Hodmedod’s are great. They sell all sorts of British grown pulses, grains and flours, including such surprises as British chickpeas and quinoa: did you know they could be grown here? At a time when Britain has isolated itself from the EU, our reliance on China for everything from electronics to tinned beans is questionable, and climate change means that industrialised monoculture agriculture becomes unreliable, the work of Hodmedod’s and its suppliers is essential, finding landrace and locally viable alternatives to internationally sourced foods that will add to British food security, and the sustainability of the jawdroppingly wasteful food production industry.
2 I loved seeing the Harvey’s dray, but it was a bit of a tourist attraction as the Shire team itself wasn’t especially local, but specially brought in. And yet, drays for urban delivery of beer make absolute sense – they use very little fuel (when they’re local), they don’t belch out fumes when stopping and starting, they can pull very efficiently up hills. I’d love to see more, but these days people get so angry about anything that impinges on their perceived rights as a motorist. When I worked for an art magazine in Sunderland in the mid-1990s, local brewery Vaux (which brewed from 1837 until it closed down in 1999; the brand was relaunched in 2019) did indeed still use a dray to supply nearby pubs. Makes me realise how old I am – half a century. I even have memories of being woken by a horse-drawn rag and bone cart in Leeds in the early 90s. Rag and bone men are long gone.
3 1000kg = 158 stone = 2200 lb = just shy of 1 imperial or long ton.
4 YQ, Yield/Quantity or Yield and Quantity, is the popular name for a recently developed crop, bred at Wakelyns Agroforestry by Professor Martin Wolfe and the Organic Research Centre. Hodmedod’s already sell YQ flour and grain and has an informative blurb. There’s also a good discussion of its significance here.

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Fran’s Herman cake

Herman friendship cake

Just to be clear: this was Fran’s project. But as I’m enjoying eating it, she’s given me permission to cover it.

For those who’ve never encountered it, Herman cake, or friendship cake, is a type of apple cake that features a starter not unlike a sourdough. The principle is that you feed up the starter, then split it and pass containers of sludge onto your friends for them to then follow the recipe, and in turn pass sludge onto their friends.

Fran was given it by our friend Martina, another parent at our kids’ school. Seeing as I’m the avid baker of the household, I’m somewhat bemused she didn’t offer it to me. But as I was in thick of home-schooling our five year old and seven year old at that point, nurturing a pot of seething yeasts and lactobacilli as well was possibly a bridge too far for me.

The Herman cake starter isn’t strictly a sourdough. Or not necessarily. I’ve seen recipes online where people create the starter not by awaiting the gentle cascade of natural yeasts from the atmosphere but by making a batter with flour, milk, sugar, water and commercial yeast. Over time, however, this mix is fed (with more flour and sugar) and will take on naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria, and will give off that beery smell familiar to those who cultivate stricter natural leavens.

This type of cake is inspired by an older Amish tradition, Amish friendship bread, which itself would have originally used a true natural sourdough starter. Indeed, all breads and leavened baked goods did before the controlled cultivation and commercial sale of baker’s yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, in the second half of the 19th century following the Louis Pasteur’s advances in the understanding of microbiology.

A few notes:
1. Don’t refrigerate the starter. Just keep the sludge in a bowl, covered loosely with a clean cloth, at room temperature.
2. The final cake ingredients do include baking powder, which seems odd considering you’re using a sourdough-like starter – ie a leaven. But the result is delicious, so I’m not quibbling.
3. The recipe suggests cooking apples, but Fran used desert apples and they worked well. (Gala I believe.)
4. The original recipe also included raisins, but cooked raisins are a sure way to ruin a cake. They’re the devil’s work, like sultanas in the curries we used to have at primary school in the 1970s. Of course, if you like dried fruits in cakes, go ahead and add some.
5. You can add a streusel topping. My mum used to make us a streusel cake when I was a kid, so I’ve taken that element from her old Katie Stewart recipe.
6. It’s quite a big cake. Fran made it in a 23x23cm square tin. I can’t see any reason why you can’t bake it in a round tin, bundt tin or deep roasting pan, depending on what you’ve got at your disposal.
7. I would love to know how the microbiology of a Herman starter differs from that of a classic sourdough (which of course varies a lot too). There is a Herman Project underway looking at the microbial characteristics of different sourdoughs. It’s discussed here, but the link from this MIT page is dead, so I don’t know if it looks at these cake starters.
8. When Fran divided up the Herman starter, each quarter weighed around 300g.
9. I’ve no idea why it’s called Herman. Apparently, “Herman” is an affectionate name for any sourdough starter, though I’ve not heard that before. Presumably in America. Though again, I’ve no idea why that particular name was chosen.

Herman cake starter

So, assuming a friend passes you a container of sludge, here’s the recipe.

Starter
1. The day you receive the sludge is day 1. Stir each day and on day 4 add 140g plain flour, 200g caster sugar and 225g of full-fat milk.
2. Stir each day on days 5 to 9, then add 140g plain flour, 200g caster sugar and 225g of full-fat milk on day 9.
3. Weigh the mixture then divide into four equal portions. Give three containers of sludge away to friends.
4. Keep your quarter for one more day, then you’re ready to make the cake on day 10.

Cake ingredients

300g Herman starter
225g caster sugar
300g plain flour
12g baking powder
3g fine sea salt
155g cooking oil (sunflower or vegetable [ie rapeseed, aka canola] good)
2 medium eggs (ie around 115g, without shells)
10g vanilla essence
2 medium apples, cut into chunks
12g ground cinnamon

Optional streusel topping
50g self-raising flour
100g soft brown sugar
50g butter, melted

1. Grease a 23cm square tin and line with baking parchment.
2. Preheat your oven to 170C.


3. Simply combine all the ingredients and pour into the prepared tin.
4. To make the optional streusel, combine the flour and sugar in a small bowl and mix through the melted butter with a fork. Sprinkle this onto the cake batter.
5. Bake for around an hour, until a skewer comes out clean (-ish). If it’s not baked enough but the top is browning, cover with foil and keep baking.
6. Cool on a wire rack.
7. Enjoy. Or not if you’re a five year old who refuses to eat the cooked apple.

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Vital wheat gluten and sticky cinnamon rolls

Of the many food fads that have come and gone in my lifetime, one that particularly bemused me is when people took against gluten. Obviously I’m a baker and love bread, so I love gluten and what is does for us. What riled me was the sense that many people didn’t even know what gluten was. What is gluten? It’s protein. Or more specifically, two proteins: gliadins and glutenins. How bad is wheat protein?

If you have coeliac disease*, your body cannot handle gluten, so obviously it needs to be avoided, but for most of the rest of the population, it represents the protein component of bread, the staff of life. Derived (usually) from wheat grain it’s what gives bread its structure, while the main part of the grain, the starch, the carbohydrates, provide the bulk, the energy.

When I first encountered seitan in health food shops in Rome, it was around the time the anti-gluten fad was at its height. Seitan is another high-protein meat-alternative alongside the soy bean-based tofu and tempeh, but is made from wheat – specifically wheat that has been processed to remove the starch, leaving mostly the gluten. In its dried, powdered form, this is called vital wheat gluten.

Although I’ve eaten a fair amount of seitan, somehow I’ve managed to miss baking with vital wheat gluten. With another lockdown in England now, and the schools closed again, we need treats to get us through, especially as this lockdown comes at the hardest time of year – the dank, grey months after Christmas. So I wanted to make some cinnamon rolls.

The recipe is from the 1993 baking classic The Bread Book by Linda Collister and Anthony Blake. They got it from a Kansas champion baker called Viola Unruh and it includes an optional tablespoon and a half of vital wheat gluten. Intrigued, I bought some online, something that wasn’t really an option back in 1993. I’m glad I did. I work with a lot of different doughs, and working this it didn’t feel particularly different to other relatively low hydration, enriched doughs. But the resulting buns had a chewy, moist crumb, not at all crumbly, indeed like the sort of crumb achieved by professional bakers in commercial products.

I plan to experiment with vital wheat gluten more: I’ve just used some in my standard, feed-the-family bread and it seems moister, and I plan to add a tablespoon next time I do brioche. In the meantime, here’s the sticky cinnamon rolls recipe. I’ve revised it slightly, ie standardising all weights in grams and adapting the method slightly. What I haven’t changed is the addition of a cream/muscovado sugar mixture to the tin when you’ve nearly finished baking to add a totally over-the-top sticky sauce to the finished bun. Oh boy. A long way from healthy.

Makes 15 buns

7g active dried yeast or 15g fresh yeast**
115g water, warm
5g caster sugar
4g fine sea salt
50g unsalted butter, diced
50g caster sugar
280g water, hot (around 65C)
680g strong white bread flour
15g vital wheat gluten
1 egg, beaten, around 45g

Filling
85g unsalted butter, softened
85g muscovado sugar – light or dark. I used a mix
12g cinnamon, or to taste

Caramel topping
200g muscovado sugar. I used light muscovado
115g double cream

1. Grease a roasting tin, around 30 x 22cm, and line with parchment. You’ll also need a lightly greased baking sheet, preferably one without a lip.
2. Activate the yeast by adding to the 115g water with the 5g of caster sugar. Leave to froth up.
3. Put the 50g of diced butter, 50g of caster sugar and 4g salt in a mixing bowl, or the bowl of a mixer if you’re using one. Pour over the 280g of hot water and stir, until the butter has melted.
4. Add 230g of the flour to the mixing bowl along with the vital wheat gluten and beat to combine.
5. Add the yeast mix and beaten egg and beat to combine.
6. Cover and rest for 10 minutes.
7. Add the remaining 550g of flour and bring to a dough, either in a mixer or by hand. As it’s fairly low hydration, you’ll achieve a fairly manageable soft, smooth dough that’s not particularly sticky.
8. Grease a clean mixing bowl, put the dough in and leave to rest. After about an hour, give it a stretch and fold.
9. Cover again and leave to prove. After about an hour, give it another stretch and fold.
10. Cover again then leave to prove until doubled in size.
11. Meanwhile, make the filling by creaming together the 85g of softened butter, with the 85g of muscovado sugar and the cinnamon.
12. Turn out the dough and stretch it into a rectangle, using a rolling pin if you prefer, about 35x50cm.


13. Spread the cinnamon filling over the dough rectangle, then roll it up from the long side.
14. Measure the length of your sausage (fnar) and divide it into 15. Mine came to 15 slices at about 6m each. Cut these pieces.


15. Put the slices, in a 3×5 grid, in the prepared roasting tin.
16. Cover and leave for a final prove, until doubled in size. This will depend on the temperature, but should take around an hour or so.


17. Preheat your oven to 180C.
18. Put the rolls in the oven and bake for around 30 minutes.
19. Meanwhile, make the caramel topping by mixing the cream and muscovado.

20. When the rolls are baked and a nice golden brown, take them out of the oven and turn them out (and over) onto the lightly greased baking sheet.
21. Pour the caramel into the roasting tin, then return the rolls to it –with the tops on the bottom so they’re sitting in the caramel.
22. Bake for another 10 minutes.
23. Allow the rolls to cool for a few minutes, then remove from the roasting tin and allow to cool.

24. To serve, pull them apart and have a cloth ready to wipe any messy children. They’re lovely warm, but also last well as they’re so rich and slathered with sugar and dairy.

So good. So badly photographed….

* Or significant gluten sensitivity health issues.
** If you can source it in sensible quantities. I prefer using fresh, and used to be able to get it – lievito di birra – in small blocks in supermarkets in Italy. It’s not sold in convenient small blocks in British supermarkets. It’s not sold in Britain supermarkets at all, or at least not in my experience. I used to get it from a health food shop, but they do it in bigger lumps now and I don’t like to waste it. So I’ve resorted to active dried yeast (ADY) again. I talk about yeast types here.

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Filed under Baking, Breads, Cakes (yeasted), Flour & grain

Frustingolo Italian Christmas cake

This Christmas cake is specifically from the Marche region of eastern central Italy. It’s similar to those other dense, nutty, fruity Italian Christmas cakes – panforte from Siena, which is probably the best known, and pangiallo from Rome, which I got to know while living there. All of them are of a very ancient form – no chemical raising agents, no fancy sugar craft. Indeed, the very first cakes humanity concocted would have been of a similar format – dense discs that combined dried fruits, nuts and honey for sweetening. I called them “primitive cakes” in my post about pangiallo.

If panforte means “strong bread” and pangiallo means “yellow bread”, I’m not too sure what frustingolo means. The verb frustare means to whip or to lash, or, less violently and more related to cooking, to whisk. As it’s a very dense mixture, you don’t whisk it though, you laboriously turn it with a wooden spoon or silicon spatula. My old friend, Italian teacher and philologist Giammarco suggests the cake’s name instead derives from the adjective frusto, meaning well used or worn out, but also used to mean un pezzetto, a little piece.* So I suppose in the sense of little pieces of nuts and fruit.

Anyway. I saw a recipe first in a cookbook by Anna del Conte but hunting around for more I found more Italian recipes online, which included chocolate. I love chocolate. I’m not the biggest fan of Christmas fruit cakes, so adding chocolate was surely essential.

I give some procedural method, but frankly it’s just a case of adding everything and mixing well. You may be able to see in the pics I included some pecans – I didn’t have quite enough walnuts, and pecans are more of a treat anyway. It’s not a strict recipe. You can adjust the spices or ground coffee if you wish, and use other nuts or fruit depending on what’s in your store cupboard. You can also include a shot of brown spirits if you like. There’s a certain amount of QB here – an Italian recipe term meaning quanto basta, “how much is enough” or “just enough” or “as required”, ie just adding until the mix feels right.

300g dried figs
100g raisins
150g blanched almonds
150g walnuts
100g breadcrumbs (dried)
50g pine nuts**
60g dark chocolate, ideally 80% plus cocoa solids
Zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon
125g wholemeal flour
2g cinnamon powder
10g cocoa
100g caster sugar
80g honey
15g ground coffee, to taste
About 150g strong coffee, espresso, QB
Olive oil, QB
Rum or brandy (optional)

1. Heat the oven to 160C and grease and line with parchment a 22cm loose-bottomed round tin.
2. Melt the chocolate in a bowl over simmering water.
3. Soften the figs in hot water then drain and chop roughly.
4. Put the figs in a bowl with the raisins and mix.

5. Roughly chop the walnuts and combine with the pine nuts, the honey, the sugar and the peel.
6. Add the melted chocolate, coffee powder and the breadcrumbs.
7. Sieve together the flour, cocoa and cinnamon and add to the mix too.
8. Add the lemon and orange zest.


9. Soften the mixture with strong coffee, adding more or less as necessary, and some extra virgin olive oil. Aim for a stiff mixture, rather than a batter, mixing everything well. Add a splash of brandy or rum if you like.
10. Put the mixture in the prepared tin and bake for around 1 hour 20 minutes, until nicely browned.
11. Cool in the tin for about 10 minutes, then loosen and invert to cool completely.

12. To serve, you can decorate the top (formerly the bottom) with some more nuts or candied fruit and/or sprinkle with icing sugar.

 

 

Footnotes
* Giammarco explained frustare comes from the Latin fustis, meaning stick, rod or cane. Whereas frusto comes from the Latin frustum, meaning a little piece, a lump.
** Ideally Italian or European from Pinus pinea (the stone pine or umbrella pine) if you can get them, not Chinese ones from Pinus armandii (the almond pine or Chinese white pine). I couldn’t, and they’re considerably more expensive – but as with any expensive ingredient, it’s a treat to be used sparingly and doubtless better environmentally. I’m seriously mistrustful of Chinese agricultural practises, seeing as they supply much of the world with just about everything these days, and intensively intensive agriculture is one of our worst mistreatments of the planet: degrading and destroying soil that took millennia to develop; nuking it with toxins that end up in animals, rivers and the ocean; deforestation, etc etc etc etc.

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Ciastka miodowe, Polish honey cookies for St Nicholas’s Day, 6 December

Tradition is always changing. It’s fluid, not set in aspic like some people who see themselves as traditionalists and conservatives may believe. Just think of St Nicholas, the saint whose feast day is celebrated on 6 December and who morphed into Santa Claus.

Little is known of St Nicholas. He was of Greek descent and may have been born in the Roman period in 270 and died in the Byzantine period 70-odd years later. He was a bishop in Myra, now the small town of Demre on the south coast of Turkey. It was a long, baffling journey from there to the red-and-white clad fat man so beloved of children and soft drink advertisers today. As for traditions associated with St Nick, previously, in the Netherlands, his gift giving – or tellings off – occurred on the night of St Nicholas’s day. For most of us, that tradition shifted to Christmas Eve.

For the same reason, however much it pains me, I need to accept now that most people don’t even know or care that the Twelve Days of Christmas were from 25 December to 5 January. Although it’s been driven by modern commercialism and consumerism, the Christmas period has now moved forward, with many now celebrating from late November, then giving up between the second day of Christmas (Boxing Day, St Stephen’s Day) and the seventh day (New Years Eve, St Sylvester’s Day). People were especially desperate to get their decorations up this year as Covid-19 has been so tough. But even without Covid, the tradition has changed.*

Nice and spicy does it
Many cultures made a spice cookie or cake or even steamed pudding as part of their St Nicholas day celebrations. I’ve done the Dutch speculaas here before but here’s a Polish one. They include honey and various spices and are as such related to other European Christmas period cookies, notably lebkuchen. Basically they’re all gingerbread. These ciastka miodowe do not contain any butter, and the only fat comes from egg yolks. As such, they’ve got quite a solid crunch. Verging on hardtack.

I have this same recipe in two books: Feast Day Cookbook by Katherine Burton and Helmut Ripperger and Cooking with the Saints by Ernst Schuegraf. The former was first published in 1951, so it’s likely the source for Schuegraf’s 2001 book. Either way, the recipe has been repeated all over the internet. Do an image search for ciastka miodowe and there are plenty that vary in style from Schuegraf’s stipulations. Which is good, as it means I can cut out the cookies with my kids and give them some freedom choosing the cutters.

I was hoping to ask about these with the one Polish parent I know at my kids’ school but with Covid queuing regulations, school gate chit-chat isn’t quite so easy as it once was.

Anyway. I’ve dragged this recipe kicking and screaming into SI units of measurement, or at least grams instead of cups and all that silliness.**

130g honey
100g caster sugar
1 whole egg
2 egg yolks
500g plain flour
6g baking soda
4g ground cinnamon
2g grated nutmeg
2g ground ginger
Pinch ground cloves (ie less than 1g – cloves are so pungent I go easy with them; if you love the flavour, add more)
Pinch salt

1. Warm the honey together with the sugar. I weighed them straight into a stainless mixing bowl which I can then warm on a low setting on an induction hob, but otherwise use a pan.
2. When you have separated two eggs, save the whites for later and beat the yolks together with the whole egg. This mix will be about 85g.
3. Add the beaten egg to the honey mix and beat well.
4. Sieve together the flour, baking soda and spices and add the pinch of salt.

5. Add the sieved mix to the honey and egg mix and combine, first with a spatula or wooden spoon, then by hand to form a fairly dry paste. Do not overwork it.
6. Wrap the dough then leave to rest for at least 4 hours or overnight.
7. Preheat the oven to 180C.
8. Lightly whisk some of the saved egg white. You don’t need peaks, just froth it up a bit.


9. Choose your preferred cookie cutters – round, stars, flowers etc. If you have young children, they may have strong opinions about this. My five year old baking assistant was keen on hearts.
10. Roll the dough to about 5mm thick.
11. Stamp out shapes and put them on baking sheets lined with silicon mats or parchment. (Or not, if you have well seasoned trays like mine.)


12. Brush the cookies with some of whisked egg white.
14. Bake the cookies for about 10-15 minutes, depending on how aggressive your oven is. Until nicely browned.


15. Cool on a wire rack.

The Burton-Ripperger recipe adds a blanched almond to the top of each cookie before baking. This is optional, and absent from most of the images online from Polish sites.

Happy St Nicholas’s Day!

* Even here in Lewes, East Sussex, England, the most important tradition is Bonfire night – or more accurately, the Bonfire Season, where the various bonfire societies of the town and other villages and towns of Sussex, over a period of several weeks parade around, burn stuff, blow stuff up and stage wonderful pageantry, my favourite part of which is the tabs, tableaux, large papier- mâché effigies that skillfully satirise figures from politics and public life. My least favourite part of the celebration has been Lewes Borough bonfire society’s tradition of dressing up as “Zulus” – white people in blackface. The costumes may have been spectacular, but the blackface and imperial implications are a tradition that was long past its sell-by. Modern society doesn’t need this public racism. Although there was no Bonfire season this year due to Covid, I believe Borough has finally called an end to the blackface tradition. As I say, traditions change, whether organically or by necessary edict after years of campaigning by anti-racism groups.
** I’ve just bought a second-hand copy of a wonderfully comprehensive book called A World of Cakes. Quite excited to try some of the recipes, but not only does it use US cups, the author, Kyrstina Castella, can’t even decide how to list butter – she uses both sticks (which at least can be given a clearcut weight) and tablespoons. How do you measure butter accurately in tablespoons?!

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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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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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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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A baking lesson from videogame The Witcher 3

For those of you not in the know about the huge swathe of culture known as videogaming, The Witcher 3 is an award-winning bestseller where you have involved adventures in a fantastical open world. This is a genre that is getting increasingly sophisticated, with vast, detailed environments populated by innumerable characters and creatures. A few years back, I wrote about the pleasures of exploring the world of Skyrim, notably following its resident foxes. The Witcher 3, which I finally got for my birthday back in September, isn’t quite so good with its ecology, but there I did encounter one wonderful detail recently. Not about wildlife, but about food. The sort of thing that really chimes with me and my baking obsession.

So, your character, Geralt of Rivia, is attending a wedding celebration (while possessed by a ghost, no less. You probably don’t need any more detail). At the wedding, a mysterious character you’ve previously encountered makes an appearance. He’s called Gaunter O’Dimm, and he’s magical, knowledgeable and powerful. He talks about wishes, and I assume from his surname he’s some kind of djinn, or genie. I’ve not finished the game yet, so I’m not sure (and may never be). In this particularly scene, what nature of beast he is isn’t important – it’s his thoughts on baking.

As you approach, an old lady is saying, “But gingerbread’s nowt but honey, flour, eggs and spices.”  O’Dimm says, “I beg to differ madam. You omit the most important ingredient of gingerbread – time.” She responds, “Time? What do you mean, time? An ingredient?” So he explains: “Time gives the proper consistency. Time provides the ideal crunch on the outside, the delicious moistness within.” She then asks, “So how much of this time does it take?” And his discourse reaches its conclusion: “That you will not find in any recipe. You must surrender to your senses… Time, time is the key.”

Now, I’m not sure if he’s alluding to other things, you know, metaphorically, but in literal terms he’s saying something I often say to people who ask me about bread-making, and something I’ve mentioned frequently here too. For example, when talking about what makes for real bread or real beer, I said, “Fermentation time is just too import to neglect or reject. Time is just too important to rush. Time is the defining ingredient for craft bread or craft beer, or as I’d prefer to call them, real bread and real beer.”

In the Medieval-style fantasy world of The Witcher 3, baking – even gingerbread – would involve yeast, or at least a natural leaven. But even with commercial, cultivated yeast, time is arguably the most important ingredient. Use too much yeast and rush the proving and the result will be overly gassy and hard on your guts, potentially leaving you feeling bloated or uncomfortable. Use less yeast and allow for a long prove, and the yeasts will have time to feed on the maltose in the flour, changing the chemical balance of the dough. The resulting baked bread will taste better and easily digestible.

This is on the reasons people have trouble with supermarket “bread”. These industrial products do not respect the time factor. The dough is rushed in the industrial Chorleywood bread process, resulting in indigestible products the Real Bread Campaign and others have referred to as “pap”. Chorleywood is very much at the heart of our troubled relationship with bread these days.

“Artisan” bakeries offer real bread, but it can be so expensive it seems an item only for the well-off. But don’t let this force you to eat pap – how about trying your own baking? People say, “Baking’s too time-consuming.” But this isn’t quite true – I tend to create a sponge, or pre-ferment, with water, yeast and about half of the total flour as the kids are having breakfast. This can then be left for hours, allowing the yeast to get a head start. I then make the dough with the rest of the flour and a dash of salt, then leave that alone for several hours. I usually then bake late afternoon or in the evening.

Baking is more about a little bit of planning and can be fitted in around other activities – you know, work, childcare. It really is best to just leave the sponge and the dough alone for long periods, following Gaunter O’Dimm’s edict about the importance of the ingredient that is time.

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Maltese Easter figolli

Small figolli

I was introduced to figolli by friends down the road, Anoushka and Francis and their boys Alexander and Casper. Anoushka is half-Maltese, and they make these every Easter. They called them biscuits, but they’re more a pastry, almost an iced pie, consisting of two layers of pastry sandwiched with an almond paste, then iced and decorated.

Figolla cut in half

When I’m studying Italian recipes, there’s so much information online, and I can read some Italian, so I can usually work out the story. But Malta has a population of less than half a million, so its culture isn’t the most widely discussed thing online. And even my fairly reasonable collection of books about feast day foods doesn’t include any mentions of figolli. Which I deduce is the plural, with figolla the singular.

Some history
Francis told me that Malta has a complex history not unlike that of Sicily. It was Greek and Roman, with the Carthaginians and Phoenicians also having an influence. Like Sicily, it was subsequently Arab, then conquered by the Normans in 1091. The Norman reach in the 11th century always amazes me. Aragon and France followed. The Brits had a big influence during their imperial period, with the island famously a fortress port that suffered heavy bombing in the Second World War.

Anyway, so the language is complex and the culture is mixed. The presence of ground almonds and citrus flavourings in figolli would seem to indicate the Arab legacy, as similar ingredients are found in other recipes from Sicily and across the Eastern Mediterranean.

Francis gave me the recipe they use in their household, which I subsequently found online. It’s here. Its instructions aren’t the clearest, and its almond paste is fairly heavy duty. Watching videos of Maltese and Maltese emigrant cooks online, their paste is much lighter, more like frangipane than marzipan. So I’ve made some tweaks.

Not napping
This project has been a bit rushed. I was hoping to have it up sooner, but as you can see from the inactivity on my blog, I’m finding it hard to update it. Keeping the blog going with two pre-schoolers was always a challenge, but now they’re not really napping any more, I simply don’t have much time – or headspace. Researching, testing, photographing, sorting photos and writing up recipes is fairly demanding, and when I have a two year old and four year old also (yelling) their demands at me (bless ’em), it’s tricky. It’s especially tricky to be really satisfied with the results. So I’m not claiming this is a perfect recipe.

The Raver, aged 2, doing the decorating

As for the decoration of the figolli – that’s not exactly authentic or traditional. Fran and the kids took over for that bit. The kids do love sprinkles, and the opportunity to readily lick icing.

Figolli templates

The Maltese versions were traditionally shaped like men, women, fish and baskets. They would use large cutters. We don’t have any enormous cookie cutters, despite Fran’s somewhat obsessive collecting, so I drew shapes and made templates in cardboard. I went for a bunny, a heart and a fish. Other shapes are sheep, butterflies, and eggs – most of which are of course some kind of fertility symbol.

Recipe
The quantities here are fairly substantial. We made three large ones and a dozen smaller ones. If you don’t want to get so carried away, halve it.

For the pastry
800g plain flour
400g butter
Zest of 1 lemon
320g caster sugar
4 egg yolks, beaten
Cold water

For the almond paste
300g caster sugar
300g icing sugar
600g ground almonds
Zest of 1 lemon
Juice of 1 lemon
3-4 egg whites, approx, lightly beaten
A few drops orange flower water (optional)
A few drops of almond essence (optional)
Orange juice or similar
Cold water

To finish
Icing
Confection eggs
Sprinkles

1. Make the pastry by rubbing the butter into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs, then stir in the sugar and lemon zest.
2. Add the egg yolks and enough cold water (but not too much) to form a dough. Knead briefly then wrap in plastic and rest in the fridge. You could use a food processor, but it would have to be a big one.
3. In a large bowl, make the almond paste by mixing the sugars, ground almonds and zest. Some recipes also include a little spice, such a cloves and cinnamon – so go for it if you like.
4. Lightly beat the egg whites, add the essences (if using) then start combining with the ground almond/sugar mix. I got in there with my hands. I added the lemon juice and even squeezed in some Clementine juice until it was reasonably soft, as noted above.
5. Cover the almond paste while prepare the shapes.

Cut out pastrySmear with paste
6. Roll out the pastry to about 6mm thick. Cut around your shapes, creating pairs – one for the bottom, one for the top.
7. Place the bottom pieces on baking sheets lined with parchment or silicon.
8. Cover the pastry shapes with a layer of the almond paste.
9. You can brush the edges of the lower piece of pastry with water, then put the top, and lightly press together. You don’t have to crimp firmly, as the filling isn’t that runny. Indeed, some of the pics online show the layers are barely pinched together at all. I tried both ways, and both were fine.
10. While you’re doing this, preheat your oven to 180C.
11. When you’ve filled all the shapes and topped them, put the baking sheets in the oven for around 20-25 minutes, until slightly browned.

Large heart figolla ready to bakeLarge heart etc baked

Small heart figolli ready to bakeSmall heart figolli baked
12. Allow the figolli to cool on the trays. I tried to move one too soon and it cracked badly.
13. When cool, transfer to a rack or tray for decorating.
14. You can decorate with elaborate royal icing piping and suchlike, but we just used a simple glacé icing – that is, icing sugar, water and colourings.* As well as eggs and sprinkles. It seems commonplace to include small chocolate eggs or half-eggs in their foil, but I couldn’t find any that suited, so we used candied mini eggs.

Misc figolli, decorated

Happy Easter!

 

* It amuses me that natural blue food colouring these days is made with spirulina. About 20 plus years ago, I remember spirulina, a green-blue algae, being the superfood du jour, but it’s decidedly out of fashion these days.

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Filed under Baking, Biscuits, cookies, Feasts, Pies & tarts, Recipes