Category Archives: Recipes

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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Mexican almond cookies

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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Filed under Biscuits, cookies, Recipes

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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Melachrino cake for St George’s day, 23 April

Melachrino cake

George was born to a Greek family in Asia Minor or the Middle East in the 3rd century and, according to legend, became a soldier in the army of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. When he refused to reject his Christian faith and make sacrifices to the Roman gods he was tortured and beheaded, possibly in Nicomedia, an ancient Greek city now buried under the modern city of Izmit in western Turkey.

Through the marvellous convolutions of history he is now the patron saint of England. His reputation rose via the Crusaders in the 11th and 12th century. He was seen – honest ­– aiding Crusaders at the Battle of Antioch in 1098 and was made a patron saint of soldiers. It wasn’t until the reign of King Edward III in the 14th century that he became England’s patron.

Somewhere along the way he fought and killed a dragon. Dragons are so cool, it became a very popular subject among Medieval and Renaissance artists. In many versions, his shield is adorned with a red cross on a white field. Today, this flag – adopted as the English flag, again via the Crusaders – is mostly rolled out by desperate English football fans before desperate international football fixtures. Or for St George’s day, 23 April. (Or 6 May in the Gregorian calendar used by Eastern Orthodox Christians.)

Widespread patronage
Unsurprisingly, he’s also the patron saint of Georgia, as well as of cities as diverse as Beirut and Milan. He’s also an important figure in Greece, where he also gives his patronage to soldiers. Which is a long way to arrive at this recipe. It’s another one from Ernst Schuegraf’s Cooking with the Saints. He notes that it’s “an old Greek recipe traditionally associated with St George, and given to me by an employee of the Greek Embassy in London.”

Some of the supposedly traditional recipes in Schuegraf’s book have no other presence online beyond people making his, but looking up this one, various versions appear. Some are made with grape molasses instead of all the sugar used here, and oil instead of butter, but all feature a broadly similar combination of ground or chopped nuts (usually walnuts), citrus, spices, and a splash of booze in the syrup.

I’ve had a note in my diary to make this the past few years as I love cake batters featuring nuts, and semolina, and drenched in citrusy syrup. Like my favourite nutty cakes torta Caprese and Sachertorte, it’s made by separating eggs, then using the whisked egg whites to lighten the batter. In this case, there’s also a load of chemical raising agent too. I’ve tweaked the recipe a bit.

200g unsalted butter, softened
280g caster sugar
5 eggs, separated
1 egg
400g fine semolina
200g plain flour
8g baking powder
6g baking soda
8g cinnamon
2g ground cloves
250g walnuts, coarsely ground or chopped

Syrup
1 orange, zest and juice
1/2 lemon, zest and juice
500g granulated sugar
1kg water (ie, 1 litre)
30g brandy
1 cinnamon stick

1. Grease and line a 25cm cake tin, and preheat the oven to 180C.
2. Cream together the butter and caster sugar until soft and light.
3. Lightly beat the egg yolks, plus the 1 whole egg, then add gradually beat into the creamed mixture.
4. In a separate, clean bowl, beat the egg whites to stiff peaks.


5. Sieve together the semolina, flour, raising agents and spices and add to the mixture. Also beat in the nuts.
6. Beat in a little of the egg white to lighten the mixture slightly, as it’s quite stiff, then gently fold in the rest.
7. Put the mixture in the prepared tin and bake for about 50 minutes, until firm to the touch and a skewer comes out clean.
8. While it’s baking, make the syrup. Combine the sugar, water, zest and juice, and the cinnamon stick in saucepan and gradually heat up to the dissolve the sugar. I used a Sicilian blood orange, which was particularly pleasing.


9. When the sugar is dissolved, simmer the syrup, reducing the mixture by about a third.
10. When the cake it baked, remove from the oven and leave in the tin to cool slightly.
11. Take the cake out of the tin and transfer to a plate or platter with a rim, to contain the syrup.
12. Pour the syrup over the cake and let it soak in. Serve warm or at ambient temperature.

Enjoy, preferably on a sunny afternoon with a lot of friends – it’s a fairly substantial cake!

Melachrino cake

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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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Madeira cake

Madeira cake with clotted cream

A while back, I just had one of those urges – very specific, for something somewhat old-fashioned. Madeira cake. It’s one of those English cakes the Victorians, or possibly even the Georgians, would have tucked into, accompanied by a glass of Madeira. Madeira is a fortified wine from the Portuguese island archipelago of the same name, located in the Atlantic 880-odd km west of the Moroccan coast. The cake itself isn’t from Madeira.

Madeira cake is a basic concoction, not unlike pound cake: dense and satisfying. Checking my cookbooks, I found several different recipes. It’s amazing how something so simple can have so much variation. A unifying feature seems to be some lemon flavour in the form of zest in the batter and sometimes candied peel or zest added on top too, part-way through baking. Except that when I checked Mrs Beeton, she had none of this. No flavouring whatsoever – not even the inclusion of ground almonds, which several recipes use.

Mary Berry Madeira cakeJane Grigson Madeira cake

I tried several. Mary Berry’s, which has almonds, was good. I found it a bit dry, but possibly I over-baked a tad. The recipe in Jane Grigson English Food was basic and reliable. The recipe in Leith’s Book of Baking by Prue Leith and Caroline Waldegrave was pleasingly crumbly and unusually had a pinch of cinnamon. I’ve not seen this elsewhere, and Leith and Waldegrave give no preamble, so the rationale for the spice will remain a mystery. Perhaps it was just a whim on their part.

Leith Madeira cakeDuff Madeira cake

I also tried a few more recipes from Cakes Regional and Traditional by Julie Duff, which worked well, but was particularly nice as I had such good eggs with bright orange yolks, and The Sainsbury Book of Home Baking by Carole Handslip. This was no-nonsense and fine. Plus, it was a trip down memory lane as the book, published in 1980, was one of those I used in my mum’s kitchen in my childhood. I also used another book from my mum: Geraldine Holt’s Cake Store, published in 1983. The cake was also tasty but the mixture wasn’t enough for the 18cm tin she recommended. It’s important that this cake has some verticality, rather than being too flat. It’s a tall cake not a disc.

Books

Having done all that important research, here’s my version. I’m not claiming it’s the perfect Madeira cake but it suits my requirements for flavour, ingredients and shape.

210g butter, softened
180g caster sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
3 large eggs
225g plain flour
7g baking powder
110g ground almonds
90g milk
Pinch salt

1. Grease and line an 18cm tin.
2. Preheat the oven to 170C.
3. Beat together the butter and sugar until light.
4. Beat the eggs then add slowly to the creamed mix, combining all. If it starts to curdle, add a dash of flour.
5. Add the lemon zest.
6. Sieve the flour and baking powder into the mixture.
7. Add the ground almonds and pinch of salt and fold to combine.
8. Add the milk. If the mixture is too stiff, add a little more until it’s quite soft.
9. Put the mixture in the tin and bake for about an hour, until a skewer comes out clean. If the cake is starting to brown but the interior isn’t baked, cover with foil and leave in the oven a bit longer.
10. Cool on a wire rack.

Madeira cake in tin

I doubt many people drink it with Madeira wine these days. We certainly don’t. I’ve never even tasted the stuff, though we were just finishing off some pleasant Portuguese Vinho Verde when we had this one, eaten as dessert for Sunday lunch, accompanied by that ambrosial West Country delight, clotted cream. It’s also great, more modestly, with a cuppa.

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Santa Lucia crown

Santa Lucia crown

The feast day of Santa Lucia,  St Lucy, is celebrated on 13 December. Her name derives from the Latin lux, as in “Fiat lux!” – “Let there be light!”. We also have a cat called Lux. She’s not divine in any way, she’s a needy, bony scrag, but we still love her.

Lucia was supposedly born into a wealthy family in Syracuse, Sicily, in 283AD, a time when the Roman Empire was still officially devoted to Zeus, Apollo and co. Christianity only won out a century later. The Emperor Diocletian was old-school, and she was killed during his reign, in 304AD. Medieval accounts of her death are grim, and involve her eyes being gouged out before she was burned at the stake. She remains the patron saint of the blind. As well as salesmen, oddly.

The facts are, of course, uncertain, but her veneration spread to Rome by the 6th century, and had even reached Britain by the 8th century. Today, she’s mostly celebrated on her home island and in Sweden. Her namesake role as a bringer of light was particularly important in the mid-winter gloom and her feast day may previously have been celebrated on the solstice, the shortest day of the year: now 21 December and more bound up in Christmas itself.*.

Santa Lucia crown cut in half

Anyway, this is based on another recipe from Cooking with the Saints by Ernst Schuegraf, “The Most Unique Catholic Cookbook Ever!”. It’s purportedly based on a traditional Swedish bake, but I can’t guarantee that. I’ve made Swedish inspired Santa Lucia buns before, which feature a similar enriched dough with saffron. And in the book Scandinavian Baking, Trine Hahnemann has a saffron bread recipe and recounts a Swedish legend about a man being woken by beautiful singing on the long, solstice night, 13 December 1764. It was St Lucia, bringing light, food and wine, and adding herself to the pantheon of Swedish annual traditions.

125g water
125g full-fat milk
A few sprigs of saffron
6g active dried yeast
250g plain (all-purpose) flour
250g strong white bread flour
2 eggs
120g caster sugar
50g butter, softened
3g salt

Plus
1 extra egg to glaze
100g icing sugar
30g milk, possibly more
3g vanilla essence
Candied fruit, lightly toasted flaked almonds, nibbed sugar or sprinkles to decorate

1. Combine the milk and water, warm slightly, add the saffron and leave to infuse for at least 20 minutes, even overnight.
2. Warm the liquid again then add the yeast and leave to froth up.
3. In a large bowl, combine the flours, sugar, salt, softened butter and two of the eggs.
4. Add the yeast mix and bring everything together to form a rough dough.
5. Turn out onto a lightly greased surface and knead to combine and create a smooth dough.
6. Form the dough into a ball and put in a clean, lightly oiled bowl.
7. Leave to prove until doubled in size. This will depend on the temperature. I don’t have a prover or warm cupboard, and our kitchen was about 19C; the doubling took a couple of hours.
8. The total dough should be about 1030g. Cut off a piece weighing about 350g, leaving the other at about 680g. Form these into balls, rest them for 10 minutes or so.
9. Stretch the balls slightly then slice each one into three equal sized pieces.
10. Roll the small pieces into snakes around 40cm long, and the larger ones into snakes about 80cm long.
11. Braid the three longer pieces, then form into a circle, pinching the ends together. Put this circle on a greased baking sheet.
12. Braid the three smaller pieces and go through the same process. Put this smaller circle on top of the larger circle.
13. Cover with a clean cloth then leave to prove again until doubled in size.
14. Preheat the oven to 190C.
15. Whisk the final egg, then brush over the dough to glaze.
16. Bake for about 15 minutes then turn down to 180C. Keep an eye on this bake as the glaze can brown then burn easily. If it does, cover with foil. Bake for another half hour or so.
17. Cool on a wire rack.
18. Sieve the icing sugar, then add the milk (adding more as necessary) to create a basic icing.
19. Drizzle the icing over the crown and decorate as you wish – you could use glace cherries, I suppose, but they’re the Devil’s work. The kids like sprinkles, so I’m using vermicelli and nibbed sugar.
20. Serve the crown with birthday candles for Lux, Lucy, Lucia, light.

Enjoy in the pre-Christmas mayhem of Advent, close to the solstice.

St Lucia crown baked

* I’m talking about the northern hemisphere of course. The shift from the old Julian calendar to the new Gregorian calendar involved removing between 10 and 13 days, depending on when the transition took place. Strongly Catholic countries like Italy, Spain, Portugal, France and Poland made the switch in 1582. Britain, Canada and most of the US didn’t until 1752.

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Speculaas for St Nicholas’s day

Totoro speculaas

Our Dutch friend Annely told us about speculaas a few years ago. They are the spiced biscuits traditionally eaten in the Netherlands and Belgium for St Nicholas’s day, Sint Nicolaas, Sinterklaas, on 6 December. They’re also, apparently, eaten in Germany at Christmas itself.

When I say “spiced biscuit”, what I mean basically is gingerbread. They’re all related these spiced feast day biscuits. What made speculaas interesting for me wasn’t just the recipe or spice blend – predominantly ginger and cinnamon, and possibly some quantities of nutmeg, coriander, cardamom, anise and white pepper depending on your family’s or your local baker’s recipe. No, it was more the way they’re made.

Traditionally, the dough is rolled into a wooden mould, the excess cut away, then it’s tapped hard – to free the dough, which takes on the stamp from the mould. The stamps can be ornate figures of men and women, as well as animals, windmills, and, of course, clogs. Such moulds can be purchased online, here and here for example. Maybe we’ll invest in a few moulds for next year; this year, it’s miscellaneous cookie cutters and Totoro (and Chibi and Chu, too).

I’m even more excited about this because while I was doing this recipe, with Fran making a few batches, I had a child-free chance to visit my local library. I was researching a fabulous local building and its clock tower, but in a book called Memories of Old Sussex by Lillian Candlin I found a chapter called Fair Gingerbread. This was all about the spice biscuits historically sold across the county at fairs, when gifted called “fairings”. One blog I read about speculaas said the figures could be given during courtship. I can imagine this happening with Sussex fairings too.

Candlin says they were patterned or shaped as “effigies” – ie figures. “The wooden moulds that were used for stamping ginger-bread are now museum pieces.” I must see if any are still on display in Brighton museum, as they’re very similar to those used to make speculaas. She mentions moulds of the “Duke of Wellington on horseback, all complete with sword and pistol; a solemn looking cat and a grandfather clock.” And then there’s this one, from Horsham, which appears to show a cockerel sitting on some trousers.

Horsham gingerbread mould

If I ever see such things in antique shops, I’ll know what they are now. Such a shame their use is another tradition we’ve lost in England.

Anyway, here’s a recipe for speculaas (the plural; singular speculaasjes). Frankly, I’m happier with it than my earlier gingerbread, as it’s got a nice snap: so long as it’s rolled thinly (thanks Fran). About 3mm. Tweak the spice mix to taste.

225g butter
300g light brown sugar
5g fine salt
80g milk – QB
500g plain flour
12g baking powder
15g cinnamon
10g ginger
2g ground cloves
A few grates of nutmeg
A pinch of white pepper
Flaked almonds & pearl sugar for decoration

1. Cream butter and sugar.
2. Add the salt and milk and blend. Note, the milk quantity is QB, as the Italians say – as much as you need. You might want to add a dash more.
3. Sieve the flour, baking powder and spice mix in then bring to a dough.
4. Form a ball, then wrap and rest – ideally for at least 12 hours but the results are fine if you want to do it sooner. Total dough is about 1200g – quite a lot. So you could freeze half.
5. Preheat the oven to 150C.

Raver sprinkles and rolls

6. Roll out the dough to about 3mm and cut with cookie cutters of choice. (If you have moulds, flour them and push in the dough. Cut away excess. Bash the mould on works surface to release the shape.)
7. Place on baking sheets lined with paper or mats.
8. Decorate as you wish with flaked almonds or nibbed sugar.
9. Bake for 30 minutes.
10. Leave to cool on a wire rack.

Oh, and etymology geeks – the name may derive from the Latin speculum. This means mirrror (in modern Italian, specchio… ah, that reminds me of via degli Specchi, the address of an old favourite haunt in Rome, Open Baladin, with its 50 or so craft beers). It’s a neat suggestion, as the mould’s stamp is then mirrored in the biscuit.

Speculaas

Oh 2. I realise my daughter’s hair looks a bit disreputable in the pic. I did brush it this morning, but well, she’d just got up from an afternoon nap when she was “helping” Fran make the biscuits. What I was more impressed with was her technique for sprinkling flour and rolling the dough. Go Raver, aged 2!

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Martinshörnchen – St Martin’s day crescent rolls

 

Martinshornchen

When I started this blog – blimey, five-ish years ago – it was because I was loving the products that appeared in Roman bakeries during certain periods of the Catholic calendar, for feast days and whatnot, notably Carnevale. I miss Carnevale, that indulgent period after Christmas and before the fasts of Lent when I gorged myself on such things as frappe and castagnole.

Anyway, for a spell, I researched and made several Italian feast days bakes, then continued to try and do the same, with British and international products, when we moved back to England at the end of 2013.

Soon after that, we started the adoption process, and in early 2014, our two wonderful kids moved in with us. Since then, I’ve been doing a lot of childcare. Almost full-time childcare. Now, some people manage to have children, jobs and involved blogs. And acclaimed books. Not me. That’s effing superhuman. Hats off to them. I’ve struggled to keep my blog going, let alone research new feast day bakes.

Martinshornchen

But my diary keeps on reminding me. I noticed Martinmas – 11 November – was coming up, the feast day that celebrates the life of one-time soldier St Martin of Tours and is conflated in the UK with Remembrance Day.

OK, I won’t shirk. I need to get things moving around here. So I reached for my spreadsheet and pile of books. I’ve made a couple of other things for St Martin’s day. This time I nearly tried the Sicilian biscotti di San Martino, which are not biscuits, but rolls with a ricotta filling. But, well, it looked like it might break me when the kids rejected them for the aniseed flavour after the hard work. So I’m trying Martinshörnchen instead.

These are crescent-shaped rolls from Saxony in Germany, literally “Martin’s little horns” or “Martin’s little crescents” (thanks Pa). I hesitate to call them croissants, as they’re not laminated. Without lamination (layering the dough with fat multiple times) they’re a lot easier to make, but don’t have the wonderful flakiness of laminated doughs and pastries. They are, however, made with a dough enriched with milk, butter, sugar and eggs. I love anything made with an enriched dough – you know, brioche, panettone, challah, doughnuts, hot cross buns, currant buns, saffron cake, babka etc etc etc. Yum.

So here we go. This is adapted from a recipe in Cooking with the Saints by Ernst Schuegraf. The original recipe has a slightly counter-intuitive method where you’re supposed to try and make a dough with 200g of milk and 500g of flour, then add the enriching ingredients later. I’ve revised this to make it more logical and straightforward, and less likely to carbonise the results.

200g full-fat milk
3g active dried yeast or 6g fresh yeast
250g strong white flour
250g plain (all-purpose) flour
35g caster sugar
3g fine sea salt
3 eggs, that is around 155g beaten egg
100g butter, softened

Plus
100g butter, melted
2 egg yolks
100g-ish nibbed sugar

1. Warm the milk (to about 35C) stir in the sugar, then add the yeast. Leave it to froth up.
2. Put the flours and salt in a bowl, then add the yeast mix, beaten egg and softened butter.
3. Bring to a dough, then knead well. It’s soft and sticky, but that’s good.
4. Form a ball, using flour sparingly to help, then leave to rest in a clean, lightly oiled or greased bowl. Leave to prove until doubled in size. Note, fat (butter and egg yolks) can slow the fermentation. It’s at this point I wish we still had our old hot water cylinder in the cupboard, or an oven with a prover… Hi ho.

Dough

5. When it’s proved, melt the second 100g of butter and preheat the oven to 200C.

Rolled out

6. Roll out the dough to about 3mm thick. I made a sheet about 48cm square, then cut this into 16, ie pieces at 12x12cm. Approximately… This being dough, of course it stretches and shrinks.

Cut into squares

7. Brush with the melted butter and sprinkled with the nibbed sugar.

Form crescents

8. Roll up the squares, starting from a corner, then curl the ends in to make a crescent shape.
9. Transfer to baking sheets, lined with parchment or silicone mats.

Brush with egg yolk

10. Brush with beaten egg yolk and sprinkle with more sugar.
11. Put in the oven and bake for about 15-20 minutes. Keep an eye on them – if they start browning too much, turn the oven down to 180C and/or cover the Martinshörnchen.
12. Cool on a wire rack.
13. Feel free to eat them with butter and jam, though I’ve no idea if that’s traditional in Saxony. Happy St Martin’s day!

Martinshornchen spiral

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Canterbury apple tart

Canterbury tart

My copy of the Roux Brothers on Patisserie is inscribed as a gift from my parents for Christmas 1995. They posted it out to me in New Zealand, where I enjoyed an antipodean summer Christmas. As summer gave way to Autumn, we began the Old Man Mountain apple harvest. In was in that orchard that I got, aged 24, my first ever bee sting. It descended liked a Stuka and stung me just below the eye.

I made a lot of French apple tart that Autumn. Mostly successfully, until the one time when I was helping my host, mentor and friend Nadia with a catering job. I made three or four in large trays, but failed miserably to get the liquid for the glaze to setting point. I’m still ashamed of that cock-up. Nadia wasn’t happy with me. I still love the Roux French apple tart, too. Though these days I’m possibly more keen on Canterbury tart.

We’ve lost so much of our culinary tradition in this country. I’ve said it before, but the combination of urbanisation, two world wars, the industrialisation of farming practices and the rise of the supermarket homogenised much of our food. Furthermore, we have a long history of food fashions and fads, such as royals employing French chefs. More recently, thanks to the work of food writers and immigrants, we’ve embraced Indian subcontinent and Italian-inspired food to the point where most families eat pasta more than they eat traditional British stodge, for example. We probably do. I’m not sure what I’d do without pasta to fill up T-rex most lunchtimes.

It shouldn’t need saying, but British food can often rival anything from our continental neighbours. We had our Dutch friend Annely visiting this weekend, and as she loves cheese treated ourselves to some pricy local fare. One was Lord of the Hundreds, a sheep’s milk cheese as good as any Sardinian or central Italian pecorino. Another was Lord London, a soft cows’ milk cheese as good as any French brie.

So when you discover a recipe like Canterbury tart, it’s worth noting that it’s as good as if not better than a classic French apple tart, and more straight-forward to make too. Now, I’m loathe to say Canterbury tart is an old, traditional Kent recipe as I can’t find much information about it. Several websites cut and past the same blurb saying the first recorded recipe was written by Geoffrey Chaucer in 1381 but I’m doubtful. Kent is certainly the heartland of apple growing, so let’s say it likely has some history. I got the recipe from my mum. Googling, it looks like one from Mary Berry. I wish Berry had told us where she got it from but her recipes are somewhat lacking in preamble.

Pastry
100g butter
225g plain flour
25g sifted icing sugar
1 egg, beaten

Filling
4 eggs
225g caster sugar
2 lemons, zest and juiced
100g melted butter
2 large cooking apples, peeled & cored, about 350g
3 dessert apples, peeled, cored & thinly sliced
25g Demerara sugar

A 25cm (or thereabouts) flan tin

1. First make the pastry. If making by hand, rub the butter into the flour and icing sugar until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs, then stir in the beaten egg and bring together to form a dough.
2. If making the pastry in a processor, combine the flour, butter and icing sugar in the bowl then add the egg and mix until the dough starts to form.
3. Form the pastry into a smooth ball, wrap in plastic and chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
4. Roll out the pastry and line the flan tin, leaving an overhang. Chill the tin for a further 30 minutes (or longer if you need to).
5. To make the filling, beat the eggs, caster sugar, lemon rind and juice together in a mixing bowl. Stir in the warm melted butter, then coarsely grate the cooking apples directly into the mixture. Mix well.
6. Have the dessert apples ready sliced.
7. Preheat the oven to 200C, putting t a heavy baking tray in to heat up. (You don’t bake the pastry case blind, so this will help cook the bottom.)
8. Remove the pastry case from the fridge and spread the runny mixture in the bottom. Level the surface and arrange the dessert apple slices on top, neatly overlapping.
9. Sprinkle with Demerara sugar.
10. Put in the oven and bake for about 40-50 minutes, until the centre feels firm and the apples slices are slightly browned.

Serve warm, with cream or ice cream obviously. Though I would say I prefer it when it’s cooled and firmed up more. Even after a night in the fridge. Yum. The citrus/apple combination works so well.

By the way, I’m aware my pastry looks a bit messy. Although I can be somewhat perfectionist in some areas, I’m long reconciled with my shortcomings as a pastry chef. The important thing here is that it tasted good.

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