Category Archives: Recipes

Sabbiosa, a cake from Lombarby

Sabbiosa cake

It’s taken me a long time to make this cake from Lombardy in northern Italy, whose name roughly means “sandy” – perhaps a reference to both its colour and its texture. I first saved a page out of the Independent newspaper back in 1999, with a recipe from Simon Hopkinson. He explained how he’d first eaten sabbiosa in 1984 but when he’d first tried to make it there had been some confusion about the type of flour used.

Via an erroneous translation, he laboured under the impression that the flour was corn starch, or what we know in British English as cornflour. Instead, however, it’s a potato flour. In Italian this is fecola di patate, which is translated on Wordreference as both “potato starch” and “cornstarch”. Given that patate is potato, it’s clearly not corn (ie maize) starch – which in Italian is amido di mais.

Adding to the confusion, Hopkinson gives his ingredient as “potato flour” – which some sources, such as this site, say is an entirely different ingredient to potato starch. There’s some logic to this, but Italian sources tend to just refer use fecola as a synonym for farina di patate, potato flour. Italian Wikipedia saysLa fecola di patate is a flour obtained from the dehydration and subsequent grinding of potato.”

Potato or wheat?
Furthermore, a lot of the Italian recipes I’ve seen for sabbiosa are simply made with wheat flour. I’ve had Hopkinson’s version filed for 17 years, so I wanted to stick with potato. I’m not going gluten-free or anything, heaven forefend, gluten is such a marvellous, useful protein* when treated right. But during a visit to Roma last week, I saw some fecola di patate in the shop at the Città dell’Altra Economia, which forms part of the Ex-Mattatoio, the handsome, sadly neglected 19th century former slaughterhouse, so I had to get it. In UK health food shops, the equivalent does seem to be called simply potato starch.

The other distinctive Italian ingredient I’ve used here is Lievito Pane degli Angeli (“Bread of the Angels leaven”!). This is just a brand of baking powder – a chemical blend of difosfato disodico (disodium diphosphate) and carbonato acido di sodio (sodium bicarbonate), much the same as my UK baking powder. Though the degli Angeli brand has a punch of aromi – flavourings. Rachel, who we saw last week, loves this stuff, and was enthusing about its miraculous qualities, but I find the aromi a bit pungently vanilla, and I’m suspicious whether it’s even real vanilla or some synthetic flavouring. Either way, if you’re using non-flavoured raising agent, you can add say a teaspoon or two (to taste) of real vanilla extract if you like.

The cake recipe also contains booze, which is similarly optional. Also optional is a mascarpone crema, made with raw eggs, much like that used in many tiramisu recipes. If you’re scared of raw egg, serve with cream, custard or even crème fraîche. Or nothing, for a weary nod towards tedious New Year dietary abstention.

The recipe

Ingredients for sabbiosa

400g unsalted butter, softened
400g caster sugar
400g potato starch, aka potato flour, aka fecola di patate
10g baking powder
Pinch salt
4 large eggs, beaten, about 225g
35g brandy (optional)

Ingredients for sabbiosa

1. Preheat the oven to 180C.
2. Grease and line the base of a 25cm tin.
3. Beat together the butter and sugar until light and very fluffy.
4. Combine the beaten egg with the brandy (if using).
5. Beat the egg into the creamed mixture, adding a little of the potato starch if it starts to curdle.
6. When the egg is all combined with the creamed mixture, sieve in the potato starch and baking powder, and add the pinch of salt.

Making sabbiosa with potato starch
7. Fold the fecola through the batter until well combined.
8. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin.
9. Put in the oven and bake for about 45 minutes then, carefully, check the cake to see if the top is browning. If it is, cover with foil, then return to the oven.
10. Continue baking for until a skewer comes out clean, for another half hour or thereabouts.

Sabbiosa - leave to cool in the tin
11. Leave to cool in the tin then turn out onto a rack and cool completely.
12. Prepare the accompanying cream.

Mascarpone cream (crema di mascarpone):

2 eggs
250g mascarpone
70g caster sugar
20g rum or brandy, to taste (optional. Either leave our use some other booze. I used some bourbon as it smelled like it’d be nice… and it was!)

1. Separate the eggs.
2. Beat the yolks with the sugar until pale and creamy.
3. Beat in the mascarpone and booze (if using)
4. In another bowl, whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks.
5. Fold in the egg whites until you have a smooth mixture.

Dust the cake with icing sugar and serve slices with a good pour of the crema. Muse about the potatoes. Ignore new year diets.Sabbiosa with mascarpone crema

 

* Or more accurately, combination of proteins: gliadin and glutenin.

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Papassini biscuits – and lard

Papassini biscuits

Let’s be honest: lard isn’t a popular ingredient. It’s not fashionable, even in this era of nose-to-tail eating. Even when the media, from Britain’s Daily Bile Mail to the US Huffington Post, is running articles on lard’s virtues. It’s still got an image problem.

And yet, it’s a fat we cooked with for centuries, especially here in northern Europe, where we can’t grow olive groves and peasants may have had a pig but were less likely to have had dairy. Look at any collection of older – say pre-WW2 – British recipes and lard is ubiquitous. Not just as a fat for frying, but also as the main fat for making pastries and baked goods. The only legacy of this tradition most Brits are aware of these days is lardy cake. I talked about this subject back in April 2014, when making lardy johns, an ostensibly old Sussex recipe that’s a cousin to the scone.

Back then, I couldn’t get my hands on any decent lard. As Marwood Yeatman says in The Last Food of England, “A modern porker has little fat and therefore little lard, so most of it is imported”. The only stuff I could get hold of was from Ireland. Last week on a Sunday market here in Lewes, I was pleased to see Beal’s Farm, our favourite supplier of locally produced charcuterie and salumi, whose pancetta was a joyful discovery when we moved home from Rome, has started selling their own lard. Indeed, I wasn’t just pleased, I was excited! Quality lard! I’d been making a lot of game pies with a hot water crust, and this pastry is best made with lard.

Yes, even in the Mediterranean diet
It’s not just northern European foods that are traditionally made with lard though. The past month or so I’ve been researching and developing products for my Italian-oriented biscuit stall. I wanted to focus on Christmas and festive products last week, and one product I made was papassini.

Also called pabassini, pabassinas, pabassinos and papassinos in various Sardinian dialects, these are biscuits made for not just Christmas but also Ognissanti (All Saints, 1 November) and that other principal Christian festival, Easter. Pretty much all the Italian (nay Sardinian) recipes I read used strutto – lard. Only a few used butter.

I made my first batch with Beal’s lard, and they were great. The mix is pretty much a pastry, enriched with fat, sugar, spices and some fruit – sultanas or raisins. The name papassino, according to Italian Wikipedia, comes from papassa or pabassa, Sardinian for uva sultanina, a type of grape, that is dried to become sultanas1 . The lard gave them a nice fairly delicate crumb. I also made them using Trex, hardened vegetable oil. Where vegetable means palm.

This is the sort of ethical conundrum we face in modern life – eat a meat byproduct from local, well-husbanded pigs or eat a veggie alternative made from an ingredient that’s most likely grown in a corporate plantation that required the destruction of rainforest. The results weren’t as good either.

So I experimented with butter versions too, notably for the market, where I didn’t want to have to worry about repeatedly explaining why certain products weren’t vegetarian. Which seems faintly daft, but we live in complex times for food. In many ways, industrialisation and intensification have thoroughly messed up our relationship with food, resulting in innumerable dietary inclinations, phobias, rampant orthorexia nervosa, intolerances, allergies and imagined allergies. A whole slew of first world worries.

Papassini on my market stall, along with riciarelli, pangiallo and others

Anyway, butter was pretty good too. I mean, I love butter. I would say the result was similarly crumbly, slightly sweeter. But then all the biscuits were sweet once I’d iced them. I just iced them with a basic water or glacé icing – that is, icing sugar2 and water, or lemon juice. More “authentic” recipes would be topped with an Italian meringue glaze, but that wasn’t entirely practical for me.

Another note on “authenticity” – the grapiness of these biscuits would also have been enhanced with sapa/saba. This is a kind of grape syrup, also known as vino cotto (“cooked wine”) and mosto cotto (“cooked grape must“). It’s an ingredient that has been made for millennia. Imagine a grape cordial, or a kind of sweet cousin to balsamic vinegar. You can produce a semblance by simmering grape juice to thicken it, but frankly almost none of the papassini recipes I researched used it so I didn’t bother.

So yes, these are in no way authentic, but I’m not Sardinian. That said, as with any Italian recipe, every family or baker or pasticcere would have differences of opinion and ingredients, so I would like to think mine are just another variation on a theme. Ideally made with quality Sussex lard.

250g plain flour
6g baking powder
80g ground almonds
100g caster sugar
120g lard or butter
50g walnuts, chopped fairly finely
80g sultanas or raisins
Zest of half a lemon
Zest of half an orange
2 eggs, lightly beaten, QB3 (about 120g)
4g cinnamon
4g fennel seeds

Icing
Icing sugar, sieved
Water or lemon juice
Hundreds-and-thousands, sprinkles

1. Soak the sultanas or raisins in hot water for about 10 minutes then drain and squeeze out any excess water.
2. Sieve together the flour and BP.
3. Dice the fat and rub it into the flour, or blitz in a food processor, until the mixture is crumb-like.

Papassini mixture
4. Add the ground almonds, sugar, walnuts, sultanas and zest.
5. Add the egg and bring the mixture a dough. If it’s too dry, add a little more egg or some milk.
6. Form into a disc or slab then wrap in plastic and leave to rest for at least half an hour.
7. Preheat the oven to 180C.

Cutting papassini dough into diamonds
8. Roll out the dough to about 10mm thick.
9. Cut diamond shapes.
10. Reform the offcuts and keep cutting more diamonds.
11. Bake for about 10-12 minutes.
12. Cool on a rack, then ice. If you’re doing the easy option like me, just sieve icing sugar and add a little water or icing sugar to form a smooth mixture, not too runny. Dip each biscuit in the icing, then sprinkle with hundreds and thousands.

 

 

Notes
1. I think; I never really got my head around English-Italian translations for sultana, raisin, etc. I believe a raisin is uva passa – literally “past” or “spent” grape. I’m more confused by uva sultanina, which may be both the grape and the sultana. I’m not sure, and I can’t go to an Italian dry goods store or supermarket or market to check very easily from here in Lewes. Hope to get back to Roma after Christmas, so I’ll have to try and remember to see if I can work it out then. Heck, all this confuses me, even in English. Until embarrassingly recently, I though currants were dried black- or red-currants, when they’re actually also dried grapes too. I suspect the Italian words are often fairly generic – so uvetta (literally “little grape”) can be used for currant or raisin, or people use different words in different regions.
2. Powdered sugar, confectioner’s sugar, zucchero a velo.
3. Quanto basta, “how much is enough”. Ie you may not need all of it, just enough to achieve the desired consistency.

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St Nicholas pudding

St Nicholas' pudding

Christmas is looming. Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, is waiting to do the impossible and deliver gifts to millions of kids on Christmas Eve. Santa is a slightly baffling modern evolution of St Nicholas, who was in fact born to a Greek family, in what is now part of Turkey but was then part of the Roman Empire, in the late 3rd century.

St Nicholas’ feast day is actually 6 December (in Western Christianity; 19 December in Eastern Christianity) and in many cultures that date is still a big deal, with celebrations and special baked products: speculoos biscuits in the Netherlands; ciastka miodowe, honey cakes, in Poland; and vanilkove rohlicky, vanilla crescent biscuits, in the Czech Republic, among others. Even here in England there was apparently1 a traditional pudding – though I can’t imagine many people still make it for 6 December. Which is a shame, as it’s rather good, and could even make a good alternative to the traditional British Christmas pudding – a heavy, alcohol-infused concoction I’ve never liked.

Traditional British Christmas pudding is often called “plum pudding” – though its main fruit component is raisins, not plums. It gets the name as in older English “plum” was used to mean raisin, or dried fruits in general. St Nicholas pudding, on the other hand, is a genuine plum pudding.

I’m slightly confused by this as the plums on our Victoria tree were all ripe in August, and while there are later varieties, any fresh plums in early December would surely have been imports – but importing fruit was a less commonplace activity in Olde England than it is now in our industrial, seasonality-quashing modern world. More likely, it used prunes – dried plums. This recipe uses both. Luckily I had 3kg of our plums stoned and frozen from August.

Prunes and plums

Like Christmas pudding, this is a steamed pudding2 so it’ll need a good 2 hours cooking time. Plan ahead!

125g butter
125g caster sugar
1 orange, zested and juiced
2 eggs, lightly beaten
90g plain flour
8g ground cinnamon
4g ground cloves
4g baking powder
50g breadcrumbs
200g plums, stoned
60g prunes, stoned and chopped
80g golden syrup
About 6 more plums or prunes, stone and halved

Sauce
750g plums
240g caster sugar

1. Cream together the butter and sugar.
2. Add the zest of the orange.
3. Add the egg a little at a time.
4. Sieve together flour, baking powder and spices, and add to the mixture, along with the breadcrumbs.
5. Fold to combine.
6. Add the orange juice, plums and prunes and mix gently until well-combined.
7. Grease a pudding basin, then put the 80g (two generous tablespoons) of golden syrup in the bottom.
8. Arrange the halved 6 plums or prunes in the syrup.
9. Spoon the batter onto the top.
10. Seal with foil and tie.

Seal the pudding basin with foil and string

11. Steam for approx 2 hours.
12. Make the sauce by slicing plums into saucepan, with a little water. Simmer until well softened then puree by putting through a mouli, or blending and putting through a strainer.

Caramelise the sugar
13. Dissolve the sugar with about 60-80g water. When it’s dissolved, turn up the heat and boil to caramelise slightly. Remove from the heat, stir in about 60-80g more water – carefully, as it’ll spit.
14. Add the plum puree to the syrup, and stir well to combine. You can add some booze if you like – port, Kirsch, a dash of brandy.
14. Check if the pudding is cooked by lifting the foil and sticking in a skewer; it’s basically a moist cake, so the skewer won’t come out clean – but nor should it come out with bits that still resemble batter. If it’s still battery, keep steaming.
15. When the pudding is cooked, turn it out onto a plate and serve with the sauce.

You could even serve with some cream or vanilla ice cream, if you’re feeling really indulgent. It’s a lovely pud, with the orange, and possibly the caramelised sugar, tempering the sweetness of the sugar and syrup and adding some bitterness.

Portion of St Nicholas' pudding

1 I say apparently as although a recipe appears in my 1997 copy The Pudding Club Cookbook, and that one is essentially copied in Cooking With the Saints (Ignatius Press, 2001), I can’t find any mentions of the pudding in my books of older traditional British recipes.
2 OK, some Christmas puddings are boiled still. See this post for more discussion of just what is meant by “pudding” and its history.

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Parkin for Bonfire Night 2015

Parkin

Parkin is one of those quintessential historic British cakes. Specifically northern English, as it’s most associated with Yorkshire and Lancashire. It’s related to ginger cake, in that it usually contains some ground ginger and cinnamon, popular but expensive spices for much of British history, often reserved for Autumn and winter cakes made for feast days. Parkin is also associated with Bonfire Night, Guy Fawkes, 5 November.

Yes, I realise Halloween has come and gone and I didn’t post anything, but on that count I would say that firstly, when I was a kid, Bonfire was always a much bigger event in England, and it still is here in Lewes, “Bonfire Capital of the World”, and, secondly, I did make a lot of stuff over Halloween weekend, but none of it was exactly suitable for publication. I had my first go an Mexican pan de muerto (“bread of the dead”) and while it all looked relatively OK going into the oven, when it came out the skull and crossbones decorations had slipped and it looked more like pan de tortuga, er, tortoise bread. So I’ll be practising that more for next Halloween.

Anyway, back to parkin and Bonfire Night. Unlike classic ginger cakes, parkin is made with oatmeal, or a mix of oatmeal and wheat flour. For centuries in Britain, oats and barley were staples of the poor, over the more expensive wheat, and this cake is a record of that legacy.

This is another one of those recipes where I can’t remember the source, beyond it being something I wrote down in a notepad while living at Old Man Mountain in New Zealand, this time during a 1997 visit. It’s pretty similar to other recipes you may encounter, such as this one from Dan Lepard in the Guardian, which he reports dates from 1907, this one on the BBC site, and this one at Deliaonline. I’d ignore this one on the Beeb though, as there’s no sign of oats – very inauthentic!

Talking of authenticity, older recipes would also have been made with lard instead of butter, though lard isn’t that popular these days, so it’s up to you really. Reading the moaning and trolling on the BBC site, some find eggs contentious too, but hey, there’s only so far you’ll want to go to recreate that 18th century peasant experience right? Oh, and if you’re in a part of the world where you can’t get golden syrup or treacle, you could try substituting honey for the former and the latter is just a type of molasses.

Black treacle and golden syrup

Ideally, this is made at least a day in advance. Parkin has a pretty dry crumb but becomes moister over time.

Happy Bonfire! I’ll be enjoying this with some Harveys Bonfire Boy ale.

225g plain flour
1/2 tsp bicarb soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnnamon
1 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp ground ginger
200g medium oatmeal
140g lard or butter
110g soft brown sugar
110g golden syrup
110g black treacle
1 egg
140g milk

1. Grease and line a square tin, 20 or 23cm square (8-9 inch) or similar.
2. Heat oven to 160C.

Parkin, sieve flour and spices

3. Sift together the flour and spices into a bowl and toss in the oatmeal.

Combine dry and wet

4. Melt together the fat, sugar, syrup and treacle.
5. Add buttery mix to dry mix then beat in egg and milk.

Pour into tinBaked
6. Pour the batter into the tin and bake for about an hour or more, until firm and a skewer comes out clean. Cover with foil if top browning too much.
7. Leave to cool.
8. Store in an airtight container for 1 day before cutting and serving.

 

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Pistachio-cinnamon pastries and memories of Nadia

Cinnamon-pistachio pastries with Maghrebi type tea

This time last year, my wonderful old friend Nadia was hospitalised. A few days later she died, surrounded by her family. It was her birthday too, so the end of October is double memorial to Nadia. She is much-missed and I think of her often, especially when I’m cooking.

I lived with Nadia and her family in the mid-1990s, in a kind of long-term WWOOFer role on a farm called Old Man Mountain in the verdant, wild Buller Gorge on New Zealand’s South Island. Although I worked on the farm for its owner, Susie, I spent a lot of time with Nadia in the kitchen of her yellow house, talking about and making food. She was one of the key cookery mentors in my life.

During my year there, Nadia and I went through phases. We obsessed over French patisserie, and I made my first croissants in her oven. We made samosas and curries and south Asian feasts; Nadia was part-Indian, but hadn’t travelled, so my experience of growing up in a country with a huge South Asian food scene were a useful source of information for her. Then we obsessed over Middle Eastern food. I’ve always been more inclined to sweets, cakes and pastries, so I dug out recipes along those lines. Some made it into my journals.

After Nadia’s death, I revisited those journals and transcribed more of the recipes. This is one of them. It’s called cinnamon pistachio crescents in my notes and it says it’s of Middle Eastern origin. I’ve no idea if it is a genuinely Middle Eastern recipe either, or the Arabic name of these pastries. They may well be related to croissants though, given the shape and the high butter content, so perhaps they’re a hybrid of Arabic food heritage and French imperialism. A terrible lack of information, I know. All I know is that they’re a bit like croissants, but there’s no lamination here, so they’re a lot easier to master. Perhaps they’re related to the Jewish rugelach. If anyone does know the name of Arabic pastries like this, please do enlighten me!*

The recipe, now somewhat tweaked by me, may well be from a Middle Eastern cookbook my mother sent out to me in 1994. I saw it last, in October 2013, just after we’d left Rome and had gone travelling to see international friends and family: on a shelf in Nadia’s house in the Marlborough Sounds. Perhaps it’s still there. One day I may be able to check it, when we next visit NZ. Who knows? With the recent eleventh hour failure of our adoption match, I don’t really know what life holds next. While we nurse our bruised dreams I know at least there will be more baking.

Baking of things like these. I’m making them thinking of Nadia, bustling around her kitchen at Old Man Mountain, twenty years ago. I wish I could email her to ask her to look in that old recipe book. It’d take her a week to find the time away from her precious, precarious garden and connect to her agonisingly slow dial-up, but I miss her communiqués, her snatches of life, her ardent discussion of food.

48 cinnamon pistachio pastries, with Nadia

Dough
10g ADY or 15g fresh yeast
60g water
25g caster sugar
125g strong white flour
125g plain flour
4g fine sea salt
200g unsalted butter, melted
2 eggs, beaten (that is, 120g beaten egg)

Filling
6-8g cinnamon (to taste)
80g caster sugar
50g pistachios, roughly chopped or quickly broken up in food processor.

Roughly chop pistachios

Makes 48

1. Mix the yeast with the water. You can use tepid water to get the yeast going if you like, but as these have a long prove in the fridge it doesn’t really matter.
2. Stir in sugar.
3. Combine the flours in a bowl, add the salt, then mix in yeasty water, melted butter and egg.

Mix the damp doughFirm up the dough in fridge
4. Mix up to a dough. It’s very moist from all the egg and melted butter so it really is a case of mixing, with a spatula. Cool the dough in the fridge a bit to firm up the butter then you can give it a knead, just to make sure everything is nicely homogenised.
5. Return the dough to a clean bowl, greased with a little oil, cover, then put in the fridge and leave for at least three hours, or even overnight.
6. Take the dough out of the fridge and allow it to come back to room temperature. (The butter will have set hard again, so it’ll be difficult to handle until it’s warmed up a bit again.)
Cinnamon and pistachio filling mix
7. Combine the cinnamon, sugar and chopped pistachios to make the filling.
8. Preheat the oven to 180C and prepare several baking sheets, lining them with parchment or silicone sheets.
Cut the dough into 6 piecesForm 6 balls
9. Divide the dough into six balls, each weight about 111g, then cover and let them rest for 10 minutes.
Disc 20cm in diameterSprinkle filling
10. On a lightly floured surface, roll out each ball into a disc, keeping them moving to avoid sticking. Roll to about 20cm in diameter.
Divide into 8 segmentsRoll up the segments and form crescents
11. Sprinkle the filling onto the discs, then cut each one into eight segments.
12. Roll up the wedges, starting from the wide end, and shape into crescents.
Place on lined traysBake until browned
13. Place on baking sheets, cover and prove for about 20 minutes until slightly risen.
14. Bake for around 12 minutes, until nicely browned.
15. Cool on a wire rack.

Pistachio cinnamon crescents

I imagine these would go very well with a nice strong, short cup of coffee, but as I don’t drink it, I can’t say! I can say they also go nicely with tea, black or green. But the ideal drink to have them with would be that sweetened blend of black and mint tea, served in glasses, as drunk in Arabic world, especially the Maghreb. I like to think that whewn I first made them at Old Man Mountain in 1994, me and Nadia sat down to try them with a with a cuppa, critiquing them. Nadia probably said they were good, but she preferred savouries.

 

 

 

* Since writing this, I’ve done a little more research. In Arabic countries, such a pastry might be referred to as a sanbusaj, sambusak, sambosak. It’s the same in Hebrew. And similar in many other languages across the Middle East, western and southern Asia. Indeed, they’re probably all from the same Persian root word: sanbosag. A more familiar related word here in the UK is the Indian Subcontinent samosa.

But, you may be wondering, what’s a usually savoury, deep-fried parcel got in common with a crescent, yeasted dough, buttery pastry? Well, broadly, there’s all just variation on a theme of filled pastries. This recipe, for example, is savoury, but uses a similar technique to mine here, and as such nicely bridges the gap.

 

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Pear, ginger and dark chocolate cake

Pear, ginger and chocolate cake

Last year, while we were making a lot of changes to our house and garden, I planted some fruit trees. One was a pear, a skinny little thing barely and metre and a half tall. Remarkably, this year it bore a good couple of dozen fruit. So many, in fact, a few branches broke from the weight. I probably should have shaken some off in June. Those from the broken branch, small and unripe, were poached in a red wine concoction back in August. Now, the rest have ripened and been picked.

The variety is Concorde, which the RHS describes as a “fine, compact dessert pear” and they’re very pleasant eaten straight. But browsing the Honey & Co Baking Book by Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich, I came across a pear cake so it seemed a perfect opportunity to bake with some of my harvest.

I’ve tweaked the recipe a bit, and added some chocolate chips, as I had some dark chocolate in a jar that I’d already cut into rough chunks. Pear and ginger is a great pairing. So is pear and dark chocolate. So is dark chocolate and ginger. So why not all three?

2 pears
Juice of half a lemon
Zest of 1 lemon
180g caster sugar
150g olive oil
2 eggs (that is, about 115g, excluding shells)
60g crystallised ginger, roughly chopped
100g dark chocolate, roughly chopped
350g plain flour
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch salt

Plus
1 more pear
Demerara sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 170C.
2. Grease and line a 1kg loaf tin with baking paper.

Peel the pears
3. Peel, core and dice (about 8mm pieces) the two pears. Ideally they should be firm, but ripe.
4. Put the pieces in a bowl and add the lemon juice and zest, stirring it about to coat – this helps to stop the fruit browning while you make the batter.
5. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the sugar and oil.

Whisk in the eggs
6. Add the egg and whisk until you have a thick mixture.
7. Add the diced pear and lemon, crystallised ginger and dark chocolate chunks. Stir to combine.
7. Sieve together the flour, ginger and raising agents then add this to the mixture, along with the pinch of salt.
8. Fold in until reasonably well combined. The Honeys say “try not to overwork the mixture – it is OK to have a couple of lumps.”
9. Pour the batter into the prepared tin and, with a damp knuckled, smooth the top.

Pear, giner and dark chocolate cake ready for baking
10. Cut the final pear into wedges, arrange these on top, and sprinkle with Demerara sugar.
11. Put in the oven and bake for about 45 minutes. It’s a moist, fruity cake, and will take a long time to cook, but so you don’t burn the top, take it out, cover with foil, then return to the oven for about half an hour.
12. Insert a skewer to check if it’s done: does it still have damp batter on it? If so, return to the oven for a bit longer.
13. When fully baked, cool in the tin.

Pear, crystallised ginger and dark chocolate cake

You can have it as a dessert, while still warm, with a blob of some indulgent dairy product (vanilla ice cream, clotted cream, double cream). Or cool fully and enjoy for breakfast or afternoon tea.

[Apologies for the photography in this post, which is even shoddier than normal. The days getting so short has caught me almost by surprise, and I was making this as night fell, resulting in some dubious non-natural lighting.]

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Fruit cobbler

Fruit cobbler top

Autumn has seized us now in the south of England with its cool, slightly soggy grip. We’re also going through a disheartening time in our adoption process, so it’s definitely time to embrace the comfort foods.

One such stodgy autumnal comfort food is cobbler. Cobbler is simply a variation on the theme of a pie – that is, a sweet or savoury filling covered with a flour-based topping or crust. But in this case, the crust consists of a scone-type mixture. A lot of cobbler recipes use a moist dough, put on top of the filling in the form of rough blobs. Somewhere along the way, however, I latched onto the idea that the mix should be a drier dough, rolled out, and cut like scones, then put on top of the filling in a form more like shingles or roof tiles. Maybe it came from an old Katie Stewart recipe.

Stewart is one of Britain’s more unsung food writers, but her recipes in The Times in the 1970s and early 1980s, which my mother collected in a yellow binder, were another key part of my cookery education. Stewart even has a book called Wild Blackberry Cobbler and Other Old-Fashioned Recipes, published 1984. I don’t have it, so can’t verify my hunch that the tiled-style cobbler comes from her, but I am using some wild blackberries here.

It’s been a good year for blackberries, and we’ve had a few productive foraging sessions. This weekend just gone Fran and my mum gathered some more blackberries, along with rosehips and sloes, which we used to make hedgerow jelly.

They got the blackberries on the last day you’re supposed to pick them, according to one strand of British folklore: 11 October. Others say 10 October. These dates used to be when St Michael’s Day, Michaelmas, was celebrated. The Catholic calendar was, however, revised in 1752, and Michaelmas became 29 September. So some say that’s the last day you should pick blackberries. Michaelmas is supposedly the day when St Michael kicked Lucifer out of Heaven. Some say he landed on a blackberry bush and, angered by the thorns, cursed it, spoiling the fruit.

Either way, I’m using some of my blackberry jam made in August in this one, so I think we’re safe from any demonic saliva.

Fruit mix
1. Vary the fruit according to season, what trees you’ve got, what trees your friends or family have got, or what you can forage. Right now, in the thick of the apple harvest, I used 800g Bramley apples from a tree in my folks’ garden.
Peel, core and cube the apples, then stew in a pan with a dash of water and sugar to taste (I used 40g).

Bramley apples to stew downBramley apples, stewed
2. Cook until softened but not completely broken down.

Fruit filling
3. I mixed the apple with a few tablespoons of blackberry and plum jam.
4. Spread the fruit mixture in a 20x25cm ovenproof dish.

Preheat the oven to 180C.

Cobbler topping
330g plain flour
7g baking soda
Pinch fine sea salt
40g caster sugar
60g butter, unsalted
150g milk
90g yogurt
Extra milk
Granulated sugar

1. Sieve together the plain flour and baking soda in a bowl.
2. Add the pinch of salt and caster sugar and stir to combine.
3. Cut the butter up into small pieces, then rub in until the mix resembles breadcrumbs.
4. Mix together the milk and yogurt (you could use 160g buttermilk instead) then add this to the mix.

Cobbler dough
5. Bring together to form a dough, kneading very briefly. If you handle it too much it’ll toughen up.
6. Roll out the dough to about 12mm thick.
7. Using a cookie cutter, cut discs. I used one 65mm wide, but use whatever you’ve got.
8. Cover the fruit mix with overlapping discs of cobbler dough.

Cover the fruit mix with tiles of cobbler mix
9. Brush the dough discs with milk and sprinkle with granulated sugar.
10. Bake until browned, about 20 minutes.

Fruit cobbler with cream

Serve with cream or vanilla ice cream.

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Quintuple chocolate chip cookies

Quintuple chocolate chip cookies

Lots of bloggers and columnists have offered recipes for “the ultimate chocolate chip cookie”. I’m not sure it’s entirely possible to nail a perfect version of the quintessential US cookie and, well, it’s fun to play around with recipes. I’ve been experimenting with adding more chips and nibs. Others before me have taken the triple chocolate chip cookie as a starting point for quadruple and quintuple, so I’m not claiming any originality here, just having fun.

Let’s be clear, the quintuple here means there are five types of cacao-based product: three types of chocolate chunks, nibs and cocoa powder. When I say cacao-based product, I mean things derived from the Cacao theobroma tree. The tree is a native of Central and South America, famously beloved of the Aztecs, appropriated by imperialist Europeans and now grown from Ghana to Vietnam. I talked more about Cacao theobroma and nibs in this post, so won’t go on about them again.

Three types of chocolate chunks and cocoa nibs

Into the woods
We ate this batch while having a lovely walk in the woods: Friston Forest in East Sussex. After saying in my previous post about how awful the weather has turned, we’re having a week of gorgeous sun. Friston Forest is lovely; I particularly enjoyed a moment where we walked up a shady path then were suddenly in a clearing that offered a view that was full to the horizon with trees. This isn’t something that happens very often in East Sussex, a part of England that’s fairly populous, heavily farmed or defined by open Downland scenery, not forest.

Quintuple chocolate chip cookies in Friston Forest

So it was a day of treats – cookies, sunshine, woody views and even a pretty decent pub lunch at The Tiger Inn in East Dean (not to be confused with the East Dean in West Sussex), opposite Sherlock Holmes’ retirement house no less.

Sherlock Holmes' retirement house

The only disappointment was the lack of edible fungi. Perhaps the woods – largely a mix of beech, sycamore and ash on thin soil over chalk – just aren’t that suitable. But that’s OK, it’s all part of the process of finding a good spot for foraging.

Fridge-aged dough
This recipe is based on Dan Lepard’s dark chocolate chunk cookies, in his book Short & Sweet. Rather than using the following technique and baking them straight away, he says you can also use the US or even German technique1 of forming the dough into a cylinder and fridge or even freezer for later.

An article in the New York Times in 2008 asserted that this improves the quality of the finished cookie, allowing the flour to soak up the liquids and fats. Felicity Cloake in the Guardian did her own tests on this and said the dough kept longest in the fridge (48 hours) resulted in a more “caramelly” cookie, while those kept 12-24 hours had a preferable texture. I’m not entirely convinced though, especially when you’re adding cocoa powder to the mix.

125g unsalted butter, soft
190g light soft brown sugar
2 tsp vanilla essence
1 medium egg (about 52g), at room temperature2
175g plain flour
25g cocoa powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda (6g)
Pinch of salt
60g dark choc, roughly chopped into chunks
60g milk choc, roughly chopped into chunks
60g white choc, roughly chopped into chunks
50g cocoa nibs… or indeed cacao nibs

1. Preheat the oven to 180C and line some tray with baking parchment or silicon sheets.
2. Cream together the butter and sugar.
3. Add the egg and vanilla essence, and beat to blend.
4. Sieve together the flour, cocoa powder and bicbarb then add this to the batter, along with the pinch of salt.

Quintuple chocolate chip cookie mix

5. Add the chocolate chunk and nibs and bring to a dough.
6. Form balls. I scaled mine at 35g each, which resulted in 22 cookies.
7. Place the balls on the prepared sheets, well spaced about as they spread.

Room to spread while baking

Baked

8. Bake for about 12-14 minutes. Less = chewier, more = crunchier, according to taste.
9. Allow to firm up slightly on the trays then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Enjoy. Not necessarily on a walk in the woods. With a teatime cuppa or evening hot chocolate in the comfort of your own home is good too.

Plate of quintuple chocolate chip cookies

Footnotes
1. In the Oxford Companion to Food, in his entry for “Cookie”, Alan Davidson writes “The American habit of making rolls of cookie dough and and keeping them in the refridgerator or freezer may have come from Germany; the doughs for some German biscuits such as Heidesand are made into rolls and chilled before slicing.” He adds they’re sometimes known as “‘icebox’ cookies”
2. Always bake with your eggs at room temperature. I’m not sure it makes any difference to taste but it does help when beating eggs into a creamed sugar and fat mixture, reducing the chance of curdling. It’s also better when making things that require the egg, or the white, to be whisked, as the warmer egg incorpates air more effectively. Personally, I don’t even store eggs in the fridge. Eggs have a great storage system already – it’s called a shell. If the egg is off, having it cold and off won’t make any difference.

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Harvest festival wheat sheaf loaf

A bread wheat sheaf for a harvest festival

Beside my primary school was a church, St Stephen’s. In the summer, house martins built their nests under its eaves and whizzed over our heads as we came and went or played in the yard on wet days. Just as the house martins were leaving at the end of the summer, the autumn term started. Soon after, we had a harvest festival.

The abiding notion in Britain is that school summer holidays freed up children to help with the harvest. This may be a myth, but certainly the biggest grain harvests start happening here in the middle of school holidays, around the festival of Lammas, 1 August.

Harvest festivals continue through late summer and autumn, notably occurring around the time of the nearest full moon to the autumnal equinox. This year, the equinox is today, 23 September, the full moon 28 September. Though our local primary school is doing its harvest festival on 16 October. I’ve not seen how they do it yet, but I’ve got strong memories from a couple (several) decades ago of the festivals at St Stephen’s, with the altar piled high with foods, to give thanks and for charity. There were tinned foods, but there was also fresh autumn produce, and possibly even a wheat sheaf: real or made of dough.

Stalks and symbolism
A sheaf is a tied bunch of grain stalks after they have been harvested. It was a common sight at this time of year during the centuries when harvests were done by hand with scythes. I did it this way when I lived on a small farm in New Zealand in 1990, and I know people these days growing heritage grain varieties that still do in England, but mostly harvesting is done now with combines: so no more sheaves.

An old "wheatsheaf" pub sign in Dorset

It’s a shame really, as they’re an ancient symbol and one that you’re more likely to encounter now in pub names. Symbolically, however, the wheat sheaf represents plenty, a good harvest, fertility and even resurrection, as the cycle of seasons has once more given grain for bread. Indeed, the sheaf infers bread, and bread is of course a quintessentially important symbolic food in some religions. The heart of Christianity is the eucharist: the eating of bread to reiterate the Last Supper, where Jesus prepared for his sacrifice by shared bread, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:20).

Back to school
Although I’m not religious, I enjoy the symbolism and stories, and most of all appreciate the tradition, so I thought it was about time I had a go at a bread wheat sheaf.

It’s based on the recipe in The Bread Book by Linda Collister (1993) which is in turn based on a recipe in The Modern Baker, Confectioner and Caterer (1907) by John Kirkland, a former head of The National Bakery School (founded 1894), then at Borough Polytechnic and now part of London South Bank University. I did a diploma there in 2010, but we didn’t make anything quite this ornate.

This is slightly tricky to do in a domestic oven as it won’t be as capacious as a commercial oven. Mine can cope with baking sheets 35cm wide. It’ll mean your sheaf isn’t as grand as those professionals might make for harvest festivals, but even the comparatively stumpy results can still be very pleasing.

It’s a fairly time-consuming project. Not only do you have to make the dough and wait for it to prove, you also have to shape a lot of small pieces of dough. Notably to make the ears of corn. (And when I say corn, I’m using it in the Old English sense meaning any edible grain, though particularly wheat grain, not the modern American sense – which is taking over here in Britain – meaning maize.)

1350g strong white bread flour
20g salt
8g caster sugar
15g fresh yeast
750g tepid water (approximately, see below)

Glaze
1 egg
Pinch salt

1. Combine the yeast and most of the water. Hold say 100g back.
2. Put the flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl and mix to combine.
3. Add the yeast mixture and bring to a dough.
4. It will be quite a tight, firm dough as you want it for sculpting, however if it feels too dry add a little more of the water. How dry your dough feels will depend on how absorbent your flour is. As I’m using a stoneground flour, which contains more bran than an industrial steel roller-milled flour, it’s quite absorbent.

Turn out the doughKnead to a smooth dough
5. Turn the mixture out onto a lightly oiled surface and knead until smooth and well combined. These days I rarely do long manual kneads, but as this is quite old-school, go with it. I added water to a total of about 750g – meaning the dough is 55% hydration.

Before provingDoubled in size

6. Return the ball of dough to the bowl (cleaned and lightly oiled), cover or put in a plastic bag, then leave to prove until doubled in size. At an ambient temperature of about 18C this too about two and half hours.
7. When doubled, turn out. My total dough weighed approximately 2150g.

Deflate the dough
8. Give the dough another short knead to deflate and redistribute the gases. Again, this isn’t a loaf where we’re after a nice pleasing crumb, it’s a medium for sculpting.
9. Divide the dough up into pieces: two at 320g, one at 400g and the rest, about 1110g. Don’t worry too much about total accuracy – you’re making a wheat sheaf, an organic thing, not something geometric.
10. As this is quite a protracted process, you might want to keep the pieces you’re not working on in the fridge, so they don’t keep proving and swelling too much. Too much proving and the resulting shape may crack where you don’t want it to.

Wheat sheaf base layer
11. Take the two 320g pieces and form two rough rectangles, approximately 22x13cm. Use one to form the trunk of the sheaf, the other the top. Place both pieces on the largest baking sheet you have (that’ll fit in your oven of course). Stretch the head out slightly. You want a kind of cartoon tree or mushroom shape. Prick all over with a fork and brush with water to stop a crust forming. Cover with a damp cloth while you do the next bit.

30 pieces30 pieces into sausages
30 pieces as stalks

12. Take the 400g piece and divide it into 30 pieces, each scaled at around 13g.
13. Roll these pieces into snakes, again about 22cm long.

Add the stalks
14. Place 27 of the snakes on the base, making the wheat stalks. Twist or braid the remaining three to form a sheaf band, tucking its ends underneath on each side.
15. Cover or bag this and place it in the fridge as the next bit is the most time-consuming.
16. Take the large, remaining piece of dough. This is to create to ears. Divide it up into about 70 pieces, each scaled at 16g-ish. Do more, smaller pieces if you want daintier ears.

Make the ears
17. Roll each piece into a ball, then roll out, rolling one end to a point.
18. With a pair of sharp-pointed scissors, make snips in the small piece of dough, three or four, on three sides. Cut down and inwards towards the rounded base. It’s a bit like making dozens of mini versions of the French pain d’épi – meaning ear or cob bread.
19. You could make all of them in advance, but I got the main part out of the fridge again, and started positioning them on the top. Place them loosely to give a sense of them having grown out of the stalks.
20. While you’re doing this, preheat your oven to 220C.
21. Keep adding the ears, layering slightly, with the thickest point in the middle.

Position all the ears
23. Beat the one egg with the pinch of salt and use it to – carefully and lightly – glaze the sheaf.
23. Bake for 20 minutes, take out of the oven and brush with more egg glaze.
24. Turn the heat down to 170C and bake for another 40 minutes or so until nicely browned.

Baked

At this point, you can decide whether you want to eat it – it’s a perfectly serviceable, albeit low hydration, bread – or use it as a decoration. If you want it for the latter, turn your oven down to 140C or 130C and leave it in for a few hours longer to completely dry it out. Collister says six hours and if you have a wood or oil range, maybe you could just leave it in, but using electricity this seems a bit excessive in terms of energy consumption.

Collister decorates hers with a blobby little mouse on the stalks. If I’d been doing this with children in the house I might have been tempted, but as our adoption process continues to drag us along on its emotional roller-coaster, and we still haven’t been able to expand our family, I wasn’t inclined.

It’s easy to make a mouse though – just save 30g or so of the dough used for the wheat ears, make it into an eggy shape, snip a few ears, skewer a few eyes and add a snaky tail. I don’t think the mouse has any particular symbolism, though I could be wrong. Maybe it today it could symbolism how biodiversity is so tragically compromised by modern industrial farming techniques.

Wheatsheaf, detail

Addendum
So I dried out the wheat sheaf loaf – every time I used to oven for other things, then turned it off, I put the loaf back in to dry while it cooled.

I gave it to the local primary school, where I volunteer, and they used it as part of their harvest festival display. It’s a nice echo of my own memories of harvest festival at my primary school, all those years ago.

School harvest festival display

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few notes
1. Here’s a film of a British master baker making a wheat sheaf in 1957. His wheat ears are a bit finer than mine!
2. Out of interest, Fran, my wife, works at Kew Foundation, at Kew Gardens in London. As I was doing this, she was working on a document that contained this remarkable statistic. While the human genome contains 3 billion letters, that of bread wheat (Triticum aestivum L. ) contains 17 billion. I’m not a scientist – clearly – but that’s boggling. The human sense of superiority leads one to imagine a sophisticated, sentient animal organism like us would be that much more genetically complicated.

 

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Nut and cocoa nib cookies

Nut and cocoa nib cookies

I’m the kind of guy who always has to have some homemade biscuits or cookies waiting in a tin at home. Just in case of visitors, or in case of the munchies. So I’m always on the lookout for good recipes. I particularly like versatile recipes that can be tweaked depending on what you have in your store cupboards. I’m also enjoying adding cocoa nibs to things; see, for example, my crystallized ginger and cocoa nib cookies.

This one is based on a recipe for a biscuit Justin Gellatly calls “The nutter” in his book Bread, Cakes, Doughnut and Pudding. His recipe uses blanched almonds, blanched hazelnuts, walnuts, Brazil nuts and macadamia nuts, but he does say you can use whatever nuts you’ve got; I’ve done various versions, and they’ve all been great, with a nice crunch and warm nuttiness (unsurprisingly). You can even use nuts that aren’t technically nuts, like peanuts, which are actually the seeds of legumes.*

200g nuts, unsalted, mixed
50g cocoa nibs (or indeed cacao nibs)
125g butter, soft
125g caster sugar (you could also use soft brown, for a more caramelly flavour)
1 egg
150g plain flour
Pinch of salt

1. Heat the oven to 180C.
2. Put the nuts on a tray and roast for about 12 minutes, until lightly browned. Turn off the oven.
3. Put the toasted nuts in a food processor and whizz to a rough consistency – I like it a bit powdery, and bit chunky for crunch.

Grind the nuts and nibs
4. Add the cocoa needs and give it one last whizz, to break them a bit.
5. Beat together the butter and sugar until light. Beat in the egg. If it starts to curdle, add a little flour.

Form a dough
6. Add the flour and nuts and bring to a dough. It’ll be pretty sticky. Flour your hands a bit if it helps, and form a ball or disc.

Wrap in plastic and rest
7. Wrap in clingfilm and rest in the fridge for a few hours.
8. Preheat the oven again, to 170C.
9. Flour a work surface then roll out the dough to about 5mm thick. It’s quite a sticky dough, so be relatively liberal with the dusting if needs be.

Roll out and cut
10. Cut out biscuits with a cutter. I use a round 65mm one, but it’s up to you – and again, depends on what you’ve got.
11. Gather any scraps, squidge together and roll out again.
12. Put the biscuits on baking sheets, lined with parchment or silicon mats.
13. Bake for about 12-15 minutes until nicely browned.
14. Cool on wire racks.

Enjoy with a cuppa or coffee. We have hot chocolates most evenings in the winter. As the English summer seems to have given up, we seem to be starting to do that again already, and the cookies go well with that too. It’s a bit different to this time last year when we walked the South Downs Way in warm, rain-free weather.

Nut and cocoa nib cookies

* Peanuts are basically beans, but even weirder, unlike other beans, the pods grow underground. Anyway, if we’re being pedantic about nuts, in botanical terms, they are defined as dry fruits with one, or possibly two, seeds.

By this definition, most things we call nuts in English are technically not nuts: Brazil nuts, almonds, walnuts, pecans, cashews, cashews, and as mentioned, definitely not peanuts. However, when we say “nut”, we’re usually defining it in culinary, not scientific, terms, and can therefore include all these. In fact, the only nuts that seem to qualify both botanically and culinarily are hazels.

Many of the culinary nuts are actually the seeds of drupes – but who’s heard that word before, besides botanists and specialists??

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