Chocolate Pot

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Scraping the vanilla seeds

This pot of vanilla infused dark chocolate is gently baked in a bain marie before chilling in the fridge for six hours; you have to break through a firm crust to get to the thick baked mousse underneath. This is a recipe from  the Chocolate chapter of Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories. The chapter is dedicated to unadulterated decadence; every recipe rich with dark chocolate and double cream. I chose this one in particular because I like serving desserts baked in individual portion-sized ramekins.

We have Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés to thank for this pud, who is said to have introduced both vanilla and chocolate to Europe on his return from Central America. Vanilla is the sun-dried seed pod of a climbing orchid. It is the most expensive spice after Saffron because the flowers must be hand pollinated and the pods dried very slowly.

Ingredients:

  • 175ml double cream
  • 1/2 vanilla pod, split lengthways
  • 75ml milk
  • 125g dark, bitter chocolate, broken into pieces
  • 2 small egg yolks (size 5-6)
  • 1 heaped tbsp icing sugar

Instructions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 140°C, warm the cream with the vanilla pod, whisk to disperse the seeds then leave to infuse for 30 minutes.
  2. Melt the chocolate in the milk. Beat together the egg yolks and the sugar, add the chocolate milk and vanilla cream  and blend thoroughly.
  3. Pass through a fine sieve and pour into small ramekins. Bake for 45 mins-1 hour or until slightly puffed up and spongy.
  4. Cool thoroughly in the fridge for at least 6 hours before serving.

DSCF4695 Egg yolks and icing sugar

DSCF4689Broken chocolate and milk in a bain marie

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Ready for the oven, what a mess!

DSCF4702The finished desert, you can see the spongy texture

I left the pots to cool on an improvised chopstick rack before refrigerating them. Six hours later we served them with some stewed strawberries and plums.

Brandy Apple Pie with Cheddar Pastry

The pie filled with apple slices

The pie filled with apple slices

My roots are in the lush pasture and laden orchards of Somerset. I love this time of year in the West Country, when the countryside turns bright green as the weather gets warmer. This pie uses some of Somerset’s most prolific ingredients; apples and cheddar cheese. Like the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie, West Country Farmhouse Cheddar has a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) which means that it must be made in Somerset by European Law. The soil and climate are also perfect for growing apples; such is the abundance of the fruit, the local farmers brew gallons of invariably strong if variably tasty cider.

If I was a self-sufficient small-holder then this pie would use up the end of last autumn’s wrinkly apples from the pantry. Alas the only thing I am growing in my Norwich flat is a pepper plant on the window-sill, so I have bought some bramleys. The Idea came from the April chapter of The Times’ The Cookery Year, which accredits the custom of serving cheese with apple pie. I then tweaked the recipe by adding brandy and spices.

Ingredients:

For the pastry:

  • 225g plain flour
  • 1/2 level teaspoon salt
  • 110g unsalted butter
  • 110g strong cheddar cheese

For the filling:

  • 900g cooking apples
  • 2 tbsp caster sugar
  • 2 tbsp brandy
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1 egg for glazing

Instructions:

  1. Cut the butter into small pieces and mix with the flour until crumbly.
  2. Add the salt, grated cheese and a little cold water and mix into a ball.
  3. Divide the pastry into two, roll one half into a sheet and line a 7 inch pie tin.
  4. Peel, core and slice the apples and lay them in the pie. Sprinkle over the sugar, spices and the brandy.
  5. Roll out the second half of the pastry, wet the edges of the lining and lay over the lid.
  6. Trim the edge, then crimp and decorate with the trimmings.
  7. Brush with a whisked egg, pierce an air hole in the top and bake for 35-40 minutes in an oven pre-heated to 220°C.

Crimped and Decorated

Crimped and decorated

The finished pie

In my excitement at cutting apple shapes out of the trimmings I completely forgot to pierce an air hole in the pastry lid, resulting in a big air pocket above the fruit. It ruined the aesthetic of the slice, but luckily it didn’t ruin the flavour. I cut the rest of the pastry trimmings into strips, glazed them and baked them for 20 minutes to make cheese straws. The top was very brown when I took them out, so I covered it with tin foil to stop it from burning.

The bite of strong cheddar along with the tartness of bramley apples is a real taste of Somerset. All I need now is a pint of scrumpey and the Wurzels on loud to transport me back to the West Country.

Ears, Trotters and Trimmings; a Perfectly Porky Pie

My ongoing quest to find traditional British food has lead me to a 14th century pork pie recipe in Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England; 

‘Flea Pyg and cut him in pieces, season with pepper and salt, and nutmeg , and large mace and lay in your coffin good store of raisins and currans, and fill with sweet butter and close it and serve hot or cold’.

After consulting a few more recent recipes, I decided to give it a go. I made my ‘coffin’ out of hot-water pastry moulded around a jam jar. The filling is pork trimmings and smoked bacon from my local butcher. The jelly is made from trotters and ears boiled with carrot, celery, onion, peppercorns and sea salt. This concoction is boiled for three hours and then cooled overnight. The fat is skimmed off the top and it is boiled again, before being poured into the pie through a hole in the pastry lid.

Over the last few days the kitchen has filled with a catalogue of porky smells; from the foul steam pouring off a pan of simmering ears and trotters to the delightful aroma of hot-water pastry baked in a hot oven.

The famous Melton Mowbray pork pie is made using a pastry case that has been ‘raised up’ around a pie mould or jam jar, filled with seasoned pork and topped with a pastry lid. Like Westcountry Farmhouse Cheddar and Jersey Royal potatoes, The Melton Mowbray pie has had a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) since 1993. Other pies make use of a band to prevent the bowing of the sides, or a pie tin with a removable bottom; some pies use minced, cured pork and different spices, but none of these pies can be called Melton Mowbray pies by European Law.

The jelly ingredients

The Jelly ingredients

Jam jar and pastry dough

Jam jar and a ball of pastry dough

The pastry raised around the jar

The pastry raised around the jar

Out comes the jar, in goes the pie filling

Out comes the jar, in goes the pie filling

The lid crimped, the foil belt fastened

The lid is crimped, the foil belt fastened

The finished pies

The finished pies

After cooling on a rack, the pies are refrigerated to allow the jelly to set. They should be eaten at room temperature with chutney or piccalilli.

I find it Ironic that many of today’s meat eaters shun cuts like offal and trotters while scoffing processed meat products by the kilo. This is an unsustainable way of eating meat. Using the whole animal is the best way to respect a creature that has been sacrificed for our tables and cooking from scratch is the only way to respect our own bodies. I have decided recently to eat less meat, and when I do to seek out the most weird and wonderful cuts on offer in my local butcher. If I’m going to dine on pigs ears I at least want the bragging rights of knowingly doing so.

The lesson we need to learn from the horse meat scandal is not to tighten up regulations and increase spot checks, but to stop eating processed meat all together.

Stargazy Pie

Stargazy Pie

Stargazy Pie

I accredit my particular liking of oily fish to two childhood memories: The first is of a fisherman at Branscome beach on the Dorset coast who takes groups mackerel fishing in the summer. We would spend an hour racing to see who could catch the most and then barbecue the lot on the beach that evening. The second memory is from one of my favourite children’s books, The Mousehole Cat. Based on true events, the story tells of Cornish fisherman Tom Bawcock and his trusty cat Mowzer who brave the winter storm in their fishing boat to save the starving people of Mousehole.

Mousehole Cat

Mowzer soothing the raging sea-cat

In the book the storm is personified as a raging storm-cat who is soothed by Mowzer’s purring. When the intrepid duo return they bake their catch into an enormous Stargazy Pie to feed the villagers. Traditionally this pie uses whole sardines whose heads poke through the pastry crust to gaze at the stars. Baked in this way the oil released from the fish during cooking is contained within the pie. Folk lore tells that Stargazy Pie, along with other unusual Cornish pies, prevented the Devil from crossing the Tamar into Cornwall. He reasoned that the Cornish seem to put anything and everything into a pie and decided to return to Devon before they take a fancy to ‘Devilly Pie’.

In Dorothy Hartley’s book Food in England she claims that ‘the vegetable or herb that the beast feeds upon is the best condiment to it when cooked… thus, Thyme for mountain grayling, watercress for brook trout’. Now, I’m not claiming that pilchards feed upon the following, but I think that bacon lardons, mushrooms, leeks and a mustard sauce compliment their flavoursome oily meat in my Stargazy Pie.

Instructions

First of all make 350g of pastry an hour or so in advance and let it sit in the fridge.  Crisp up bacon lardons in an oiled saucepan and add the vegetables to soften with a lid on. In a separate pan boil two or three hard boiled eggs.

Meanwhile roll out enough pastry to cover the bottom of your greased pie dish and par-bake. When it comes out of the oven, lay six gutted, deboned sardines on top of the pastry with their tails meeting in the middle and their heads poking out of the side of the dish.

Spoon over the fish the sliced eggs, vegetables and a sauce made from flour, butter, milk and mustard. Then cover with another layer of pastry so that the heads are poking out like the handles of a ship’s wheel. Crimp the edges and brush over with an egg glaze.

Bake at 220 celcius for 15 minutes, then turn down to 180 for a further 25-30 minutes. Serve with boiled potatoes and steamed broccoli.

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Pie vegetables

Vegetables

20130305_192248The fish laid in the par-baked pastry.

Experimenting with Sourdough

Every sourdough bakery across the land houses a bucket of gently bubbling, slowly fermenting batter made from flour and water. Some bakers call it a culture because much like yoghurt it contains friendly bacteria. I’ve also heard it referred to as sourdough mother or a starter because each and every new loaf is made using some of the original ongoing mix. Whatever you decide to call it, this simple mix is the baker’s supply of fresh wild yeasts. Adding more flour and water every day keeps these yeasts healthy and happy and it also means that the baker never runs out of culture. Bread leavened with a natural culture like this has been made for thousands of years.

Making sourdough involves a series of six or seven short processes with one or two hour interludes. This morning I fed my mother at 9am and again at 11am before going to work, then I left it warming in the sun on a south-facing window ledge. After my shift I checked the starter; it had become bubbly, giving off a sweet fermenting smell.

Starter Starter

I deemed the starter sufficiently active to make bread with, so I put 100g, along with 500g of bread flour, 300g of lukewarm water and 1tsp of salt into the food processor for three minutes, using the dough hook attachment. Alternatively this could be done by hand, mixed in a bowl then kneaded on a work surface. The resulting dough goes into an oiled bowl with clingfilm over the top to keep in the moisture. At 5.30 I put the bowl near the radiator, then I went for a climb.

Just mixed dough Just mixed dough

I got back from the climbing centre aching all over and excited to see how much my dough had risen. I am always slightly awed by the process, after all the only ingredients are flour water and salt. The stringy bits are where the gluten molecules have joined together to form long chains. This network of stretchy protein is then slowly aerated by carbon dioxide; produced as a byproduct when yeasts convert starch into sugar to feed on.

Dough after four hours Dough after four hours

The dough gets stretched over a wiped, oiled table which both stretches the gluten chains and, when carefully folded up again, aerates the dough. Dad stretches each batch of dough twice at Tracebridge Sourdough, but tonight I only had time for the once.

Stretching the dough

Stretching the dough

The dough is folded up and then shaped into a boule as gently as possible; it is important not to knead the dough at this stage. Sourdough is less robust and springy than packet yeasted bread which means that it needs some tlc. At 10pm the boule was ready to go into my swanky silicone bread tin for an hour’s final prove under some oiled cling film. At 11pm I removed the cling and put the dough into an oven preheated to 200 celcius for 40 minutes.

The finished loaf

The finished loaf

Cooling

Cooling

Cross-section

Cross-section

When I peeped through the oven door I found that my dough had grown and developed a beautiful golden crust. It is definitely a long process, but results like this make it worth while!

Valentine’s day photos

As promised here are the photos from the Valentine’s day menu I posted last week. I ended up omitting the prosciutto from the starter; my Italian employer told me that meat doesn’t go on bruschetta, and it did seem like overkill. I got to the  fishmonger on Magdalen Street just in time after work and I bought mussels, prawns and a big piece of coley; a white fish which is similar to cod. Having chopped the veg, scraped the mussel shells and blitzed the rouille beforehand, the meal was a simple assembly job when Annabel arrived.

After seasoning the soup, in went the seafood for no more than three minutes; just enough time for the prawns to turn bright pink, the fish to become flaky and tender and the mussels to hinge open revealing their hidden orange treasures.

Charred red peppers

Charred red peppers

Cumin, coriander and fennel seeds

Coriander, cumin and fennel seeds

Saffron strands filling the air with their pungent aroma

Saffron strands filling the kitchen with their pungent aroma

In go the fish and the prawns

In go the fish and the prawns

The finished stew

The finished stew

Artechoke Bruschetta

Artichoke Bruschetta

Tunisian Fish Stew

Tunisian Fish Stew

Panpepato and coffee Panpepato and coffee

The Emperor’s new Bread


Sourdough in the oven

Sourdough in the oven

Over a pint in the Fat Cat on Friday, I was told to ‘get off my high horse’ by a friend who had recently read Bread barons on the way out. It made me think how the rise of factory-made bread has banished the artisan baker to the much scorned realm of the middle class. In defence of the artisan baker, who is busy hand-crafting his or her wares as we are tucked up in bed, I would like to set the record straight.

Society has been fooled into demanding the impossible from our bread through an increasing industrialisation of baking and a corresponding distance between the factory-made bread on our supermarket shelves and the age-old traditions of baking.

Even before the dawn of the Chorleywood process, Britain was fast industrialising its bread production. In Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery, she describes the factory baking process of 1957; ‘Baking takes place in a 12-sack travelling plate oven, 75 feet long and 8 feet wide and with a capacity of 2,640 loaves an hour’.

In the bread factories of 1957 dough was proofed for at least two hours before being baked. The proofing process in commercially yeasted bread is where one strand of fast acting yeast converts gluten and other carbohydrates into carbon dioxide gas which makes the dough rise. Though the measuring, kneading, shaping and baking were being done by machines, the principles of bread making were the same as those used in small independent bakeries.

Since the Chorleywood process arrived on the scene in 1961, from the mixing of the dough to the final product leaving the oven takes less than 90 minutes. It uses twice the commercial yeast of the methods used in the factories in 1957. The Chorleywood process uses  a mix of chemicals to bully the ingredients into action. While sourdough takes up to 12 hours of proofing, the Chorleywood method uses a fast mixer to speed up the process.

Sourdough Bread

Sourdough bread

Contrast this to the way we have made bread for hundreds of years. The use of sourdough culture in bread makes the bread rise in the same way as commercial yeast, just more slowly. However, the health benefits of using sourdough culture are twofold: firstly, the culture relies on natural air-bourn yeasts, of which there are many different strains. These yeasts are able to break down more carbohydrates in the flour; making the bread easier to digest. Secondly, the presence of naturally occurring bacteria in the culture also means that the bread contains probiotics, which are proven to be good for the health of the stomach.

Rather like a politician who promises great things during the lead up to the election then turns into a tyrant when in power; the Chorleywood process gave Britain the soft white loaf it craved in the post war years. Since then it has reigned unchecked and sales have increased at the same rate as the indifference of the public to the poor quality of the product. We have been fooled by the bread factories of the quality of the ‘boiled wool’ (David, 1977) that passes as bread. All the while we have fooled ourselves as well; ignoring the testimony of our taste buds and the groans of our digestion.

The Chorleywood process accounts for 80% of bread brought in Britain today, but what about that other 20%? With regards to flavour, texture and nutrition, the Chorleywood process today is all together as useless as the day that it was born. The demands of society created the beast, and I believe that if we keep demanding more from our bread then we can slay it once and for all.

Bread barons on the way out

The big British ‘bakers’ such as Hovis and Kingsmill are cutting our bread with crap. I use the term ‘bakers’ loosely because the practice is more like alchemy; in factories across the UK, Hovis mixes flour improvers, preservatives and other E numbers into their dough with little or no regard to the ramifications on the health of the British public. According to the Real Bread Campaign, any ingredient other than flour, water, yeast and salt is ‘by definition, unnecessary’. The Food Standards Agency rules that churned milk and salt are the only ingredients allowed in butter; add anything that doesn’t come from a cow’s udder to a carton of milk and it can no longer legally be called milk. These staples are as pure now as they always have been, so where did British bread go so wrong?

From the customer’s perspective, there is an increasing distance between the way our brains process the food on offer and the way our bodies then process that food. The human body functions best when it receives a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, pulses, grains and lean meant and fish, but the influx of salt, sugar and fat (the fast food trio) into our diet on a daily basis has devastatingly altered our ability to identify what we should be putting into our bodies. Our eating culture has arrived at the point where we are forced to trust the dietary information on the side of a packet instead of trusting our bodies to tell us what they need.

Wholemeal Sourdough Bread

Wholemeal Sourdough Bread

As for where that food is coming from, never has a manufacturer so literally had its fingers in all the pies as Premier Foods, Britain’s biggest food producer. As well as Hovis, brands such as Sharwoods, Oxo and Mr Kipling are owned by this industrial food giant. How is it possible to truly care about the quality of the food you are responsible for when your day is spent in a boardroom desperately trying to manage twenty three different brands and running at a £1Bn deficit all the while? As the recession continues to wrap it’s coils around the country, Premier Foods is showing signs of decline. Michael Clarke, Premier Foods CEO, recently closed two Hovis factories, cutting 900 jobs due to rising wheat prices and falling demand for a product that is increasingly recognised as floppy, tasteless and indigestible.

Sliced bread

Sliced bread made using the Chorleywood process

The deficit that Clarke is trying to reduce indicates that big corporations might not hold the answers to the future success of the British food industry. If half of those 900 newly unemployed bakers find work in small independent bakeries; or even better go on to set up their own bread businesses, it would be a step in the right direction. Small bakeries offer far greater variety than Hovis and, if the principles of the Real Bread Campaign are followed, produce a more nutritional, tastier loaf.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Chorlewood process, an innovation that was developed to make a softer loaf that would keep for longer. The process uses twice the yeast of traditional bread and facilitates the production of huge quantities of identical sandwich loaves. This is what the people wanted in the post war years, but now we are demanding both more and fewer from our bread, that is, more quality and fewer ingredients. Chorleywood bread has had its day, the renaisance of artisan bread is at hand.

Banana Cake

Cold days like today get me baking for two reasons; to warm the kitchen up for a few precious hours, and to make some invariably warm, chocolatey comfort food. Today I holed myself up in there with my laptop, my new camera and some seriously ripe bananas.

When a banana is cut from its tree an enzyme called polyphenoloxidase, in the presence of oxygen, activates in-built defence mechanisms called phenols. Their purpose is to fend off insects and microbes and the brown colour is produced as a side effect to this process.

When ripe bananas are on offer for cheap, or even better for free I am unable to turn them down which leads to a range of brown to black fruit accumulating on top of the fridge repelling insects and humans alike. Every now and then they are scrambled into action in the form of a smoothie, milkshake, or banana bread/cake.

Today I used Nigel Slater’s recipe for ‘Black Banana Cake’;

Ingredients

I made some changes to correspond with what I had in my cupboards. Unfortunately, Nigel’s nuts got axed, I used a mix of muscovado and caster sugar and 3 smallish bananas which came to about 290g.

Tools

Knife comes out clean

Banana cake out of the oven.