Tag Archives: lard

Brioche: not just a buttery French breakfast

Sicilian brioche

One of the projects I set myself last year was to perfect brioche. Specifically, I wanted a recipe where I could give a final prove overnight then bake in the morning to have for breakfast. I haven’t achieved that yet as the research is proving seemingly endless.

In many ways, brioche is the classic enriched dough. An enriched dough is a standard bread dough – yeast, water, flour, salt, time – that’s been made into something more indulgent by the addition of sugar, eggs, butter etc. Indeed, I always thought butter was pretty essential. But when I started looking at recipes, I realised there was enormous variation.

I already knew it was a bread that came in many forms – personally I’ve done tin braids, freeform braids (like challah), rings, and the classic Brioche à tête or parisienne, with the smaller ball on top of a large ball, usually baked in fluted tins. The variation, however, goes beyond the shape. I’ve got a list of 20-plus recipes, with the first eight alone coming from the 2011 Phaidon English version of Ginette Mathiot’s The Art of French baking, first published in the 1930s in France as Je sais faire le pâtisserie (“I know how to make patisserie”). There’s classic brioche, rich brioche (lots of eggs and butter), poor man’s brioche (very little butter and egg), brioche with no butter but crème fraîche instead, a brioche leavened with baking powder not yeast (and therefore more cake than bread) and even a Norwegian brioche (no eggs; peel and dried fruit).

The recipe I’m doing here, however, is another variation, from Sicily. Naples and Sicily have historical connections to France – not only did Normans invate Sicily around they same time they conquered England (what an incredible logistic achievement), but there was a 15th century invasion and claim to the throne, and a Napoleonic Kingdom in the 19th century – which in part explains a French influence in their baking traditions. Notably in the presence of brioche. I don’t know these parts of Italy, but I’m aware of the stupendous idea of eating small brioche as a kind of gelato sandwich, or with granita.

Interestingly, this brioche, based on the version in La cuccina Siciliana by Maria Teresa di Marco and Marie Cécile Ferré, doesn’t even contain butter. It’s instead made with lard, strutto. It’s called “Brioche con il tuppo di Nonna Adele”. So many Italian recipes seem to originate with someone’s nonna (grandmother).

A tuppo is a chignon, though it may also be related to tappo – plug, cork, stopper. Di Marco and Ferr also give the dialect variation tuppitieddu, which may be Catanese – from the port of Catania. Which is all getting a bit much for me with my basic linguistic skills.

250g strong white flour
250g plain flour
200g milk, tepid
80g caster sugar
75g lard, softened (or butter, see below)
2 eggs, about 110g beaten egg
15g fresh yeast (or about 8g active dried yeast)
3g fine sea salt
5g vanilla essence, or to taste
1 more egg, lightly beaten, for the glaze

1. Combine the flour, sugar and salt in a bowl.
2. Dissolve the yeast in the milk, then add this to the flour.
3. Add the vanilla and the salt and blend.
4. Add the softened lard and keep blending.
5. Keep working to achieve an elastic dough.
6. Rest the dough in the fridge, covered in plastic, for at least 6 hours, up to about 10.
7. Take the dough out of the fridge. The total dough weight should be about 1kg. Divide into 10 pieces, each scaled at about 100g.

Form bigger and smaller balls

8. Take pieces, about 20g, off each ball to form “u tuppitieddu”. Form small balls.

9. Tighten up the balls. Then roll the smaller ones into a teardrop shape.

Form teardop shape and poke a hole in larger ball

10. Form a hole in the top of each of the bigger balls with your finger then insert the teardrops, pointy bit first. Make sure they’re well attached or they can fall off.
11. Put on baking sheets, cover with a cloth and leave to rise until doubled in volume, around an hour, hour and a half in a warm-ish kitchen.
12. Preheat oven to 180C.

Prove up and brush with beaten egg

13. Brush the buns with beaten egg then bake for about 15 minutes.

Now, I must say, I like these little brioche, the shape is fun, and I can imagine they’d work well with gelato or granita. As a breakfast bun, however, the lard quality isn’t half so nice as buttery brioche. It just feels like something’s missing.

Historically, poorer people may have had a pig, and therefore pig fat, as they can be kept in small spaces and eat almost anything. Dairy fats, on the other hand, require grazing – and land ownership was the preserve of the wealthier. So I can see how a lardy brioche might have evolved among Nonna Adele’s ancestors and their demographic peers. But these days, when we can easily buy butter, frankly, I’d use that instead. Unless you particularly like lard.

Oh, and apologies if my blog updating is a little haphazard these days. Not only did my computer just die an unfortunate death, forcing me to try and cope with Fran’s aged, badly maintained old laptop, but we’re also in the process of expanding our family. Big changes afoot.

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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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Game pies with hot water crust

Game pies

I don’t feature meat on this blog often but I do eat it, and I particularly like game. The guy selling game has reappeared on our local market. Game season1 offers the omnivore some interesting alternatives to meat from farmed animals. We’ve had some venison, but I’ve also been making some pies. (If you want to go straight to the recipe, skip down here.)

I’d like to think I have a considered approach to consuming meat. It’s not something I do lightly. I grew up with a conventional British diet, which involved roast meat on Sundays. When I first visited New Zealand, in 1990, I was 19 and didn’t really know any different. But when I ended up living at Newton Livery, a small South Island farm owned by heavy horseman Stephen McGrath, he was vegetarian. So I started eating veggie too.

When I got home I saw a documentary about industrial pig farming, which affirmed my vegetarianism. Intensive industrial animal farming is horrifying. I remained a veggie, then later a pescatarian, for about 20 years, with only a few exceptions. I was from the school of thought that I shouldn’t eat animals if I wasn’t prepared to kill them myself. The second time I lived in New Zealand, in 1995, I had a chance to put this into practice.

I was living at Old Man Mountain and Nadia had three roosters, which were fighting in the hen house. One of them had to go. I killed it, plucked it, gutted it, hung it, cooked it and ate it. Such an act is probably nothing for a countryman, but it was quite bloody for a townie. But a chook is fairly low-level butchering compared to a pig, say. When some hunter friends stopped by, I went with them into the bush, hunting pigs (or boar if you prefer).

We didn’t find any that day, but it got me thinking more about game meat. New Zealand is in a difficult position regarding game such as boar, deer and chamois are all non-native2 and have not natural predators. As such they’re highly problematic for the country’s unique ecology. They trash the bush and compete with native species, so arguably humans have a responsibility to control them. This means hunting, and that is a source of food.

The virtues of hunting
New Zealand’s hunting culture is very different to the largely elitist situation here in the UK, but we do have some comparable problems. Whereas the NZ problems concern native forest, here it’s more about farmland. Before you get to sentimental, bear in mind that Britain is a small island, with about 60 million people crammed on it. It’s a place that’s seen increasing agricultural use over the past approximately 6,500 years and as such our countryside is by and large a place defined by human activity. There’s no true wilderness left in Britain3. Like it or not, our countryside is heavily managed, and, for food production, that means controlling the populations of animals that, for example, eat the seeds of newly sown crops.

We have two native species of deer in Britain, red and roe, and several introduced species (fallow, sika, muntjac), all of which may cause problems as they don’t have any natural predators either – we killed all our bears and wolves off years ago, as part of that process of transforming wilderness into farmland. So we cull deer.

Large numbers of other common species, such as wood pigeons (Columba palumbus) and rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus4), can also be problematic for crops, and are similar hunted or trapped. Some of this meat ends up with the sort of vendors who arrive on my local market at this time of year.

Strong meat
The fact that game animals are mostly wild means that they haven’t been fattened up like domestic animals, meaning the meats are leaner. But where fat is flavour in much cooking, game compensates with its distinctive… gaminess. That said, it’s a very varied area of meat: I can’t imagine my parents were the only ones to trick us as children into eating rabbit saying it was chicken, as it’s similarly white and mild.

So anyway, I was vegetarian or pescatarian, until I fell in love with Fran, a dedicated meat-eater. One weekend morning we were making bacon sarnies – real bacon for her, and fake rashers for me – and the absurdity of the situation hit me. Her meat was from an old hippy couple who had a stall on our local farmers market, my “ethical” option was some crap from a factory made with soy of dubious provenance, most likely an intensive, chemicals-doused farm in China or on former rainforest in Brazil. I started to eat some meat then, then relaxed more on a world trip – I mean, quibbling about the stock of my pho in Vietnam seemed similarly absurd.

Coming home, I started to enjoy exploring game. One recipe I discovered early was for game pies, which combine mixed game meats with pig meats, and are flavoured with herbs and juniper berries. The latter are an classic flavouring for many game dishes.

Juniper berries

Who doesn’t love a pie?
I’ve done a lot of vegetarian experiments with pulses and suchlike to try and make a really good pie (a two-crust pie, ie crust all around), a pie that could compete with a classic meat pie. Some were good, but not as good as a pie like this. It’s a very gratifying pie. It’s also a timeless pie; I can imagine something similar being made here for centuries, being stolen off a stall in a market by an urchin in Tudor London or eaten on a tartan rug by a minor Victorian aristocratic on a shooting weekend in the Highlands in Scotland.

The pastry alone is very satisfying. It’s hot water pastry, a hot water crust. You make it my melting fat in water, bringing it to the boil then adding it to flour and forming a dough. After it’s cooled, and the fats have firmed up a bit again, it’s easy to handle and perfect for moulding freeform pies. Don’t be intimidated!

Form the pies

Makes 4 medium-sized pies

Filling:
250g mixture of game, ie venison, rabbit, pheasant, wood pigeon. Many game merchants will sell a ready-made game pie mix.
60g unsmoked streaky bacon, chopped
200g sausage meat
1 egg (about 55g beaten egg)
Small bunch of parsley, finely chopped
Small bunch of sage, finely chopped
Grated zest of half a lemon or orange
5 juniper berries, finely ground (more if you really like juniper)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, lots of black pepper

Hot water crust pastry:
250g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
1 egg
50g unsalted butter
50g lard
85g water

Plus extra beaten egg for glazing

Parsley, sage and lemon zestParsley, sage and lemon zest, chopped

1. First make the pastry. Sift the flour and salt into a mixing bowl.
2. Crack the egg into the flour, beat it briefly and cover with flour.
3. Put the butter, lard and water in a pan and heat. Once the butter and lard have melted, increase the heat and bring to the boil.
4. Pour the boiling water and fat around the edge of the bowl and quickly to combine. Knead the dough lightly until smooth, then wrap in cling film. Allow to cool, then rest in the fridge. You want the fats to start to set again, to firm up the pastry to make it more manageable, so at least 30 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, prepare the filling. Trim the game, then cut into cubes about 1cm-ish. Mix with the chopped bacon, sausage meat, beaten egg, herbs, zest and ground juniper berries, and season with salt and plenty of black pepper.
6. Divide the meat into 4 portions, each weighing around 140g, and roll into balls.
7. Take the pastry out of the fridge. It should weigh about 500g. Cut off about a quarter, wrap it up again and return to the fridge. This is for the pie lids.
8. Prepare some baking sheets, lined with baking parchment or silicone sheets.

Roll pastry and cut discs
9. Roll the bigger piece of pastry out on a floured surface to around 3mm thick. Cut out 4 circles, 14cm in diameter, using a saucer as a template.
10. Place the circles on the baking sheet, then put a ball of stuffing in the middle of each.
11. Roll the reserved pastry to the same thickness as before and cut out 4 lids, 7cm in diameter.
12. Place a lid on the top of the stuffing.

Stretch up the pastry

13. Wet the edge of the base, then stretch up the pastry to meet the lid. Pinch the edges together, with the lid edge on the inside.

Squeeze together bottom and lid
14. Repeat with the others and then chill for around 30 minutes, until the pastry feels firm.
15. Preheat the oven to 190C.
16. Make a steam hole in the centre of each pie with a skewer then bake them for 15 minutes.
17. Remove the pies from the oven and reduce the temperature to 170C.
18. Brush the pies with beaten egg then return to the oven. Bake for a further 20-30 minutes until cooked through and nicely browned.

Game pies

Notes
1. There is no one “game season” in the UK. It varies between the different countries in the Union, the various species and even sex within a species. There’s also distinctions between species that are wild and those that are bred on estates by gamekeepers (notably fowl like pheasants, Phasianus colchicus, another non-native species, originally from Asia). Broadly, however, we see more game meat available in the winter, although rabbits can be hunted all year (see note 4, below). Deer species can, broadly, be hunted late summer to spring – but only the males. The season for females is shorter. There’s more information here.
2. There are no indigenous land-based mammals in New Zealand. The only native mammals are bats and marine animals (dolphins, whales, seals and sea lions). More information here.
3. Wilderness is defined as land that’s “wild and uncultivated” and “uninhabited or inhabited only by wild animals.” Even Britain’s wildest places, such as Dartmoor, are shaped by human activity, such as woodland clearance, burning and game-keeping.
4. This is something that’s long been debated. For years it was believe that the European rabbit was introduced to Britain by the Normans, after the conquest of 1066AD, but archaeological evidence indicates they were in fact first brought over as a food source by the Romans, who invaded in 43AD. The Normans may have brought over more, after the Roman rabbit population had dwindled. The narrative isn’t entirely certain. What we do know is that “Britain’s estimated 40 million rabbits cost the economy more than £260 million a year including damage to crops, businesses and infrastructure.” (Full story here.)

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Lardy Johns and the simple pleasures of pig fat-based baked goods

Johns on plate

Here’s another traditional Sussex product that doesn’t really seem to exist any longer. Much like the Sussex plum heavies I did a month ago I’ve never seen the superbly named Lardy Johns in bakeries, and there’s very little information about them online. Also much like plum heavies they sit on the fruit pastry-scone spectrum and utilise that more old-fashioned baking fat: lard.

This recipe is from ‘Sussex Recipe Book With a few excursions into Kent’, a collection of traditional recipes by Margaret Samuelson, published in 1937. Some are her own or her family, many are gathered from interviews, while others are from 18th and 19th century sources.

The book doesn’t provide the source for the Lardy Johns recipe, which is given in the following wonderfully abrupt format: “Quarter pound flour, 2oz lard, 3/4 teaspoonful baking powder, 2 teaspoons sugar and a sprinkling of currants. Rub all together in your hands, and add enough water to make a stiff paste. Cut the paste into squares and bake for about 10 minutes.”

Putting that into a modern recipe format:
120g plain flour
3/4 t baking powder
60g lard
12g sugar
25g currants
40g water – more or less

1. Sieve together the flour and baking powder.
2. Cut the lard into small pieces and rub into the flour.
3. Add the sugar. I used granulated, but caster would be fine while Demerara or other brown sugar would give a slightly richer flavour.
4. Add the currants.

Lardy mixture
5. Bring the dough together with water. It’s 40g, more or less – what Italian recipes would put as “QB” – quanto basta, “how much is enough”.
6. Roll the dough out about 12mm (half inch) thick.

Unbaked
7. Cut into squares of about 50mm (2 inches). This recipe produced six, so if you want more double it.
8. Bake in an oven preheated to 200C for about 10 minutes, until lightly browned.

Baked
9. Eat warm, or let them cool, split and eat like scones (skohn, skon) with jam.

Scone-style

These really are very basic. Ten minute jobs. Simple fare from an era before fancy fats and flavourings. But they are surprisingly good. Slightly sweet, with a texture that’s light, slightly crisp and shorter than you’d get with a crumblier scone, which is likely made with butter and/or buttermilk.

And discuss
In ‘English Bread and Yeast Cookery’, Elizabeth David says, “If you cannot lay hands on pure pork lard, don’t attempt lardy cakes.” Well, I’m not sure of the purity of the stuff I’m use. It’s certainly not pure in a moral sense, being a product of the heinous industrial meat industry, something I try as much as possible not to engage with. But as I said in the heavies post, it seems almost impossible to source lard of good provenance. I’ve asked one of the meat purveyors on our local farmers’ market if she could do me some lard, so hopefully that’ll come through.

My vegetarian younger self 10 or 20 years ago would be horrified, but I’m enjoying these lard baking experiments – never mind the fact that products like these are a big part of the English culinary heritage. David suggests lardy cakes were traditionally made when people didn’t have their own stove and would bulk bake once a week. She explains, “… all the lardy cakes, the yeast dumplings, the buns and small cakes … were made from any extra dough not used for bead.” She goes on to say, “For these lovely cakes and rolls, lard is essential to achieve the proper texture, richness and weight. There is no such thing as a really light lardy cake.”

This suggests the Lardy Johns recipe from Samuelson is fairly modern,  developed from the yeast dough recipes with the advent of baking powder – a 19th century invention. Interestingly, the more common surviving members of the English lardy cake family are yeasted. Central and southern English counties like Hampshire and Wiltshire are associated with lardy cake, and the Wikipedia entry says lardy cake is found in “in several southern counties of England”. David, however, also gives a recipe for a Northumbrian version that neatly defenestrates that anonymous Wikipedia contributor’s theory.

I would hazard that lard, and a bit of sugar, and a few currants, when combined with a basic dough, would have been used by poorer folk throughout Britain to make a treat through from the early modern era to the mid-20th century, when intensification of farming made butter more cheaply available. They’re modest treats, sure, but compared to the absurdity of the cupcake, and suchlike contemporary middle-class obsessions, they have an assertive honesty and simplicity.

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