Stop and drink

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Cooking is simple, in the ways that it is simple, because it is predictable; ingredients rarely lie, prevaricate, dissemble, or even change their minds. Two eggs, mixed correctly with the equivalent weight each of fat, sugar, and flour, make a cake, and if they don’t turn out to behave as you expect, the fault lies with you and with a failure of your technique. You can’t blame the butter because you didn’t cream it for long enough; it did what it was bound, as it were, to do, and what it in fact told you it was going to do, if you had been paying attention. If the butter turned out, on closer inspection, to be margarine, then you might be angry at yourself, for somehow not having realised that it was margarine, or you might be angry at your partner or housemate, for deliberately bringing margarine into your home; you might be angry that margarine, that greasy parody of authenticity, even exists. You can’t say that it only just became margarine, though, or that it hid its true nature until you had bought it and had it out of the packet; it was always margarine, and it says so on the label, which screams I can’t believe it, even though it is obvious to anyone who knows anything about butter, or margarine, that it is not the one and is the other.

If, on the other hand, cooking is difficult, then it is difficult to the extent that it is complicated, whether obviously, as in a baking recipe which might use forty ingredients in as many steps over four days, or more esoterically, as in cooking something like a steak, say, a process which involves so many variables, the cut, thickness and temperature of the meat, the exact heat and conductivity of your pan or grill, the exact age and physical condition of the original animal, that they are usually glossed over altogether, perhaps with the instruction simply to cook it to your liking, which isn’t, when it comes down to it, very helpful.You can, as a cook, either take this rather disingenuous instruction as it is, or you can attempt to understand every invisible step, every variable involved, in which case you will very probably get worse at cooking before you get better; you will, on the other hand, have the knowledge to see the occasional cooking disaster not as a blind act of fate or coincidence, but the direct result of actions taken or not taken; you can do better next time.

Cooking is predictable, you might say, because it is banal; it has been done the same way for thousands upon thousands of years. Cooking is complicated because it has deep roots; it has been done the same way for thousands upon thousands of years. On the one hand it seems trivial, when every breaking news alert is seasoned with the sense that America, and perhaps the rest of the world with it, is swiftly approaching some final catastrophe, to attempt to sit down and write about dinner, or worse, brunch; on the other, what else is there to write about? Whatever else happens, we all have to eat, and February is grim enough anyway without this extra burden. I seem, unconsciously, to have been focusing recently on cooking skills which might be useful in a post-apocalyptic wasteland – canning, preserving, foraging, cooking over open fire, butchery, and so on; these ferments I have stored against my ruin. Less bleakly, it seems reasonable, at such times, to bake sweet things and bread, to roast good meats and vegetables, to lay a table and to share it, and then to drink.

Meagre Bread

Our common food is no longer our daily bread, apparently; I’m not sure whether we should be alarmed by this. It depends who they’re polling, I suppose. Personally, I eat bread all the time. I eat it when I should, nibbling on the impeccable bread selection which precedes the stately procession of the tasting menu at The Sportsman; I eat it when I shouldn’t, using a stale end to transfer the last smears of carbonara sauce into an already full stomach. When I need food, I eat bread. Nothing calms the stomach like a cheese-and-cucumber sandwich from the petrol station shop. Now it seems this puts me in a minority. As I said, though, it depends who they’re polling.

It could be pernicious clean-eaters eschewing bread for its gluten; it could be people getting all their carbs from elsewhere, from porridges and pastas and potatoes; it could even be those so in love with bread they buy one impeccable loaf a week, and save it for their Sunday. Good bread – real bread, or as it used to be called, ‘bread’ – is expensive, as it should be. Good ingredients are expensive, good labour is expensive, time is expensive. If good food is out of the reach of many, then there are many other things which should be changed, rather than degrading the staff (and indeed the stuff) of life to the point where it barely nourishes. Nearly half of everything baked in the UK is thrown away, for example, a shocking waste which would be considered a crime in other cultures.

Bread in Islam is considered a symbolic food, a synecdochic representation of all nourishment as it comes from God, as it is also, I suppose, in Christianity (our daily bread being hopefully not just bread); they tend to take this more seriously, though. Walk old streets in Morocco and you will see stray khobz stuffed between buildings and in cracks in walls, saved from the street and awaiting charitable redistribution; like the feet of angels, it can not touch the base earth. More prosaically, Istanbul, for all its problems, feeds its populace from subsidised and strictly regulated bakeries, as London used to do. Buy bread from anywhere in the city and it will match in price and quality. The responsibility of government to ensure the poor do not starve has been steadily shrugged off in the so-called developed world.

Even with good flour, bread doesn’t cost that much to make, if you make it yourself, but it is hard, and it takes a long time, which is why we’ve always got bakers to do it, a strange group of people who scuttle about at all hours, covered in flour and little bits of dough. I like making bread, but I lack the skill and the patience to do it every day. I certainly can’t make as much as I like to eat, at least when it comes to sourdough. This sort-of focaccia is a good alternative when I want something fresh-baked, though. The initial rise is so accelerated it seems you’re watching it in time-lapse, and it tastes good, too.

CHICKPEA BREAD

1 tin of chickpeas

1 tsp honey

160g cold water

1 packet dry yeast / 15g fresh

260g strong white flour

14g salt

15g extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp caraway or cumin seeds

 

Empty the tin of chickpeas into a saucepan and bring to a boil, then blitz smooth with the honey and cold water. Let it cool to blood temperature, then blitz in the yeast. Tip the whole mush into a bowl.

Pour the flour over in a layer, then sprinkle over the salt, drizzle over the oil, and, I don’t know, throw in the spices. Leave in a warm place. In about 20 minutes it should have risen significantly; there will be deep cracks in the flour layer with chickpea porridge bursting through.

Beat everything together with a wooden spoon, and use this same implement to knead it – it’s too sticky to do by hand. Just use the spoon to drag up one side of the mix and fold it back down into the middle, a few times until it starts to resist and feel alive. Put the dough in a greased skillet or baking tray to prove for an hour. Heat the oven as high as it’ll go.

When the hour is up, bake the loaf for half an hour, turning and perhaps drizzling with more oil halfway through; it won’t rise a huge amount in the oven, but it will be soft and springy and golden, and, of course, sound hollow when you tap the bottom. Let it cool for 5 minutes before tucking in, for appearance’s sake.

Humblebrag

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It seems to have become the thing, when receiving an award, achieving some ambition long-worked-for or completely out of the blue, to declare yourself ‘humbled’. I’m not really sure what this means. I am humbled by the sublime majesty of the Adirondack peaks, the wild Atlantic, or the North Norfolk coast; I am humbled when I eat the food, say, of James Lowe or Stephen Harris, or read W.G Sebald or MFK Fisher, and realize I may never work with such simple grace. When, on the other hand, the restaurant at which I work is named the 80th best in the UK in a prestigious and well-respected list, I am far from bloody humbled. Why should I be? I am QUANTIFIABLY better than you – or at least most of you. I don’t know why it’s not considered acceptable to instead declare yourself ‘distended with drunken pride’, but there it is; etiquette, I suppose.

Another thing about which I find myself decidedly un-humble is that I have finally, two years after seriously starting, succeeded in making sourdough bread good enough – with that crust which crackles just-so as you squeeze it – to sell in the restaurant. Two years is just about as long as I’ve ever worked at anything (well, apart from my degree, but I’m not sure I count reading Jack London as work; he certainly wouldn’t have), so I consider this a justified result for my effort, which consisted largely of doing the same thing over and over again until I got good at it – the final step missing from all pastry and bread recipes – as well, of course, as stealing advice and techniques from whoever I could, including monks, Prussian princes, long-dead writers, and, on occasion, bakers.

As the adoption of these techniques, and the various pieces of equipment they require, which demands a certain amount of time, money, and practical experience, would form the bulk of any recipe, it would be largely pointless for me to write one down here; the only changes I have made from my last bread post, anyway, have been to adapt the flours, to add a secret improver, to alter the constituents of the starter, to make a wetter dough, and to change the equipment and therefore the process I use in almost every respect, so you might as well just follow that one.

I think, anyway, that it does’t much matter which recipe you follow. The important thing is to stick to one, and to stubbornly follow it again and again until the bread which comes out of the oven is perfect in every respect. Feel humble if you like, but it makes me feel alive.

Inappropriate Pun About A Tart


I don’t really do festive cooking. The feast itself is kept under the iron control of my mother, who adheres to a timetable developed over 40 or more Christmases, not to mention Eves and Boxing Days; I help with little jobs, the blanketing of pigs and the cross-hatching of sprouts, but the real meat of the matter, the planning, execution and seasoning, is all hers.

 

Professionally, I’ve been lucky, in recent years, to work in places that don’t really do festive cooking either; certainly not in a turkey-and-cranberry-and-mincemeat-and-stuffing-and-bread-sauce sort of a way. My first job was in a hotel which VERY MUCH did Christmas, with large work parties several times a day (turkey, smoked salmon & port everywhere). It was, I remember distinctly, hell.

 

Still, it’s nice to give a nod to the season, in the form of nuts and dried fruits and spices. There’s bugger all else to bake with, for one thing, at least until the orange season really kicks in. Hence this tart, with flavours from somewhere between Turkey and Ukraine, and a texture and taste blending mincemeat, treacle, and bakewell – snap, squidge, crunch.

 

SOUR CHERRY AND WALNUT TART

Makes 1 tart.

PASTRY

250g plain flour

50g light muscovado sugar

125g cold, cubed butter

1 egg

pinch of salt

splash of milk

Preheat the oven to 200°C. Blitz, rub or cut the flour together with the sugar, butter and salt. When it looks like fine breadcrumbs, mix in the egg and a tiny splash of milk, then form into a ball and stick in the freezer while you make the filling.

 

FILLING

60g caster sugar

60 soft butter

1 egg

60g walnuts

1 tbsp plain flour

100g dried sour cherries

Grind the walnuts with the flour into a fine crumb. Cream the sugar with the butter until almost white and really fluffy. Beat in the egg and then fold in the walnut mix.

Roll the pastry out thinly to line a buttered and floured tart tin (you’ll have too much pastry, which is infinitely preferable to not enough). Trim off the excess, and spread in the filling. Sprinkle the cherries evenly over the top (they’ll gradually sink, which is fine), then bake for about an hour until the filling is set and the pastry is a nice brown. Meanwhile, make the topping.

TOPPING

80g walnuts

30g caster sugar

a pinch of salt

1/2 tsp caraway seeds

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

knob of butter

Put the walnuts in a small frying pan with the sugar, salt and spices, and toss and heat gently until the sugar melts and darkens into a caramel. Melt in the butter, then tip the lot onto a piece of baking parchment. Leave to cool, then smash or roughly blitz.

When the tart’s hour is up, sprinkle the topping over it and put back in the oven for 10 minutes or so. Leave to mostly cool, then turn out of the tin and serve with fresh cream.

 

 

Bottled Light

If you buy, forage or find a boxful of ripe plums, greengages, blackberries or cherries, their taut skins full to bursting of the warm south, then the first thing you should do is sit at an outside table and eat them, greedily and alone, with sticky chin and stained fingers, until you feel nearly ill; this is the appropriate response to abundance. The next thing you should do, though, is make jam. I’m not really a fan of half-cooked fruit, soggying cakes, hanging around with pancakes and meringues. The ripest of raw materials loses a lot of itself when just partially cooked (think of miserable grilled tomatoes), regaining its isness only through thorough boiling; the fact that you can keep the product long into the winter is a definite bonus, although it takes a certain amount of self-restraint.
I always find raspberry and strawberry jams a little too frivolous. Blackberries, if you find them wild (and if you don’t, you have more money than sense), should more properly be made into a jelly, unless you like picking the woody pips out of your teeth all morning; a spreadable jelly, that is, not a wibble-wobble one – although that would also be an option. Clear, jewelled jellies are a fine thing, but take a little more investment of time and equipment than a simple jam, for which the best starting point is the fat, fleshy stone fruit of later summer and early autumn, with their complexities of sweet-sour juice and bitter almond, all of which can be played up, down or with in the cooking process.
I must have read a hundred recipes for jam, often lengthy and enlivened with rose petals or various boozes, which is ridiculous when you consider that there is really only need for one, which could be expressed as a haiku –
weigh prepared ripe fruit,
an equal weight of sugar,
cook, add sugar, boil –
although I suppose recipe writers need to make a crust somehow. Where else would they spread their jam? If you are entering a WI competition or are very fussy about your set, you might need to follow particular recipes or at least guidelines for different kinds of fruit; if you stick to stone fruit, and add a couple of lemons to help the pectin along, though, you should be fine, although I suppose there are a few extra guidelines I normally follow.
I stress prepared fruit, as the stones (especially if you are decadently making peach jam) add quite a bit to the weight. Don’t believe recipes that tell you to skim the stones off during cooking, either – it is a nightmare without end. Always cook the fruit to the consistency you want before adding the sugar, which seems to stiffen them; the slow cooking needed to bring them back to softness will caramelise the sugar, introducing a taste you don’t want – unless you do, in which case ignore this advice. A few well-chosen spices, added with the fruit, can really lift a jam. Don’t just reach for the vanilla pods; Vanilla Is Not A Universal Seasoning (a rule to live, or at least make dessert, by there), and in any case its heady sweetness isn’t really what you want in something so sugary. A star of anise adds a lovely boiled-sweet note to a simple plum jam, but in general I like to add ‘savoury’ spices – peppercorns, cloves, bay and cardamom all contribute a tiny bitterness to the mix. Put in a pinch of salt too, as you should with everything.
Setting point, assuming you have cooked the fruit enough and your proportions were correct, is 108°C. It’s useful, if you have a probe thermometer, to use it alongside the plate test or that thing with the spoon, as one day the battery to your probe thermometer will run out or rust, and you will never buy another. I can never remember how to do that thing with the spoon, but the plate test is easy. Before you start cooking, put a plate in the fridge, then, when you think the jam might be ready, turn off the heat and put a spoonful onto the cold plate. Let it cool and poke it. If it jellifies, wrinkles, and otherwise looks like jam, it is ready; if not, cook for a bit longer and keep testing. Resist the urge to try the hot jam. I forgot to say you should be cooking in a really big pan – if you didn’t, it will probably have boiled over, ruining your hobs and possibly badly burning you, so make sure you do.
The jam should be bottled while hot, a process which again requires a certain amount of care and attention. I suppose once you have poured boiling jam over your foot you will, for one reason or another, never do it again. Of course you should sterilise your jars in some fashion, but if you don’t, just keep the jam in the fridge – although this would be a shame, as jams, jellies and cordials should all really be stored where the winter light can stream through them, casting stained-glass shadows on the kitchen floor.

A Pinch Of Salt

In my experience, the most common way to express praise for someone’s cooking (after furious consumption) is to ask for the recipe, by which they often mean a list of ingredients. This is odd. It could be construed as mildly insulting (as if the recipe was the only good thing about the dish), and at the least it displays an almost wilful ignorance as to the mechanics of cooking. This is especially noticeable in restaurants. Yes, they have better equipment, more cooks, and often much better ingredients than you would normally use at home – but the main difference is that the people who work there are better at cooking than you. People sometimes seem to think they’re being tricked when this is pointed out to them. They ask how you make your scrambled eggs, as if there was one secret ingredient only available to the trade, and are disappointed when they hear the answer – “eggs and butter”. And “extremely well”. This is a charade that a lot of cookery writers are involved in. Not wanting to admit that cooking requires skill and effort, and a lot of practice and cock-ups of various kinds, we are told that all you need to do is buy the best, the free-rangest, the rarest – helpful in constructing a tomato salad, less so in making, say, a soufflé, though I guess nobody makes soufflés any more. A loaf of sourdough, say. Yes, good flour is better, and of course you need your well-fed, bubbling SCOBY, but your bread will still be awful if you don’t know how to knead it properly – worse, in fact, than a loaf made with dried yeast, because wet, recalcitrant natural leaven is quite difficult, or at least frustrating, to work with.

In fairness, baking books suffer the least from this affectation, but only because baking (especially bread-baking) is seen as inherently “different” from cooking (by which is meant roasting, braising, sautéing, grilling, and so on), being more scientific, precise, a boys’ game (only bread-baking), a craft requiring patience and graft, totally unlike the free-form expression of personal genius one finds, say, in the construction of an omelette. (You might have guessed from my tone that I find this position a little immature.) It might be true that a sourdough boule requires greater precision of execution than a “rustic” (horrible word) stew, but that doesn’t mean that the latter requires none – only that the consequences of imprecision are more obvious, and less fixable, in the former. Baking is a high-stakes game. Mess up at any one stage – kneading, proving, even (especially) in the proper feeding of your yeast source, before the recipe begins – and you have probably messed it up for good. No amount of prodding and tweaking will rescue it. This is important, and it’s what people mean when they say that baking is more of a “science” – but it doesn’t follow that stewing (braising, sautéing) is a free-for-all. The many opportunities for personal intervention only really offer more opportunities to mess the whole thing up. If you know what you’re doing, you won’t – but the same is true of baking. It’s just easier to master the basics of stewing, which – depending as it does on controlled interactions between heat, protein, acids and salt – is just as much of a science as baking.

Anyway. The consequences of this, for the average cookbook user, are that while some (not all) baking books, (to which I might add brewing and barbecuing – notice a trend?) as purveyors of a specialised craft, are happy to give technical instruction to an almost exhaustive degree, most (nearly all) cookery books, on the other hand, are content to give almost none – or to give the pretence of it in a way that is almost useless. Sweat, sauté, sear; it is assumed that we (I mean you) know the difference between all of these, their particular applications and circumstances. But – and this is the paradox of food writing – if you did, you wouldn’t need the cookbook at all. What you would require is a list of ingredients and the instruction “make a stew (fricassee, daube, whatever)”. A smattering of technical language lets you feel you’re in the club, and ignore the fact you’re reading a recipe that takes two pages to reiterate a basic technique, and add cardamom. I’m being unfair, perhaps, but only a little. This does, however, ignore the real reason we (I) read recipe books, which is for the recipe introductions, sparsely evocative, lushly hedonistic or winningly self-deprecating, which I’m told are a particular forte of British food writers. (In America, where practicality and competence are not considered personal defects, recipes do tend more toward the technical.)

This trend for inclusivity is a relatively new one. Look at old books of “receipts”, as they are still called by the kind of person who says “sparrowgrass” and owns waistcoats, and you will find a shorthand written by and for professional, or experienced domestic, cooks. These are, in the main, just lists of ingredients, which assume you know how to perform a plethora of kitchen tasks (cake-baking, pastry-making, braises and sauces and so on), and need no instructions; often, quantities and timings aren’t given, at least not precisely – the assumption is that you can judge for yourself how much pastry you need for your joint of lamb, or whatever. Partly, I’m sure, this reflects the now-broken oral tradition of “real” “peasant” cooking, handed down from master to apprentice, mother to daughter; equally, though, it’s just that cooking has got more complicated. A pastry designed half as glue and half as insulation, and not at all as edible, can be a little rough around the edges – add enough water to make the flour stick together, and you’re done. A pastry designed to hold a rich, golden custard through baking without cracking, and then to melt into butter in the mouth, needs a little more precision. Or take thickeners. A handful of breadcrumbs or ground nuts, added to a sauce, has an effect that is both intuitive and quickly obvious; the amount of slightly cooked egg yolk, stabilised yoghurt, roux, cornflour, or agar agar that might have a similar but more refined effect is less easy to judge by eye – and, as with baking, a mistake does more lasting damage. There is a tendency to a sort of Golden Age view of cooking which ignores the steady technical progress in the field.

All of this, really, avoids the original question, because the answer is quite unpalatable. Yes, I am better at scrambling eggs than you; I know the texture, the look, when to take off the heat and when to return, when to quickly shuffle out of the pan – and when to chuck the lot away and start again. Yes, my eggs are better, larger, fresher, their yolks more golden, their hens happier – but I also use a lot more butter and particularly salt than you would care to think about. It’s a sad fact, but people who will scour the outer reaches of Waitrose for the most obscure of Ottolenghi’s demands are often scared of simple brute seasoning – a shame, when the way to improve on almost any recipe is to take it with a big, three-fingered pinch of coarse sea salt.

Life of Pie

You could walk around Greece and eat a different cheese pie every step of the way. Filling, construction, pastry, all seem dependent on local custom or whim. You might get a brittle, multi-layered filo affair, sliced in a wedge from the round on an aluminium counter, dripping spinach onto the sunburnt concrete; or something more like a pasty, short and buttery, filled with feta alone, crumbling warmly on the deck of the night-ferry to Crete; or something between the two, soft and pungent with dill, with chips and tomato salad who-knows-where except it was hot and smelled of coffee. (That might have been in Turkey, actually, but we’ll let that slide.) I say ‘you’ but I’m obviously talking about me. I wish I’d taken notes, really, except then I’d probably be touting myself as some kind of expert on Greek cheese pies (tyropita, since you’re asking), spouting on about the traditional pastry of the night-ferry to Crete, the fillings particular to the lunchcarts of Athens, when really I don’t know anything about it. I’m sure some of the ones I ate, far from Mediterranean authenticity, were equivalent to those of a Grecian Greggs – but none the worse (or less interesting) for that. I’d like to see someone do a serious study into regional variations on the chicken lattice, or the ritual significance of cold pastry products in British life.

Pies here (no pastry dogmatician, I happily include plate pies, dish pies, and pasties under this umbrella) tend to come in various shades of meat, notwithstanding the noble cheese-and-onion slice – often a good option if you’re somewhere you ‘don’t trust the water’, so to speak, like a service station, or Nuneaton. Pastry, in fact, seems to have come into being (I hesitate to say ‘been invented’ when a lengthy folk process was obviously involved) mainly as a means of cooking and preserving bits of animal, with edibility a secondary concern. Before well made, tightly-fitted Le Creuset dishes, an airtight seal could be made with flour and water; before fridges (or tins?), cooked meat could be coated with a rich jelly, the whole encased in pastry and left in the larder til Christmas. (When romanticising such practices of our hardy ancestors, it’s good to remember that all of these people are dead.) The association of pies with meat, gravy, and the trencherman’s diet is still so strong that the prospect of a vegetarian pie (and here I’m not including pasties) seems to throw a lot of chefs into disarray, out of which comes an ill-considered mush (I wouldn’t dignify it with the word ‘hodge-podge’) of parsnips, tomato, and lentilles de Puy. Calm down, I always think. Nothing wrong with a plain cheese pie – especially with a hot-water crust and served at room temperature, where the flavours of aged dairy really shine. When it comes to a hot pie, though, there’s no competitor to meat, a fact which is easily proved (the best bit of a hot pie is where the gravy soaks down into the pastry at the bottom, and up into the underside of the lid; without meat, there is no real gravy). I suppose it comes down to venison or beef. (Hot pork pies just don’t exist, for some reason, as pastry-covered lamb ones don’t, traditionally. And chicken pies, while delicious, rely on artificial aids – béchamel, usually – for their saucing, which compromises the aforementioned gravy-soak effect.) I am personally not a particular fan of slow-cooked venison, and I find the traditional mitigators of its haughty richness – sharp redcurrant, clanging, floral juniper – distracting in a pie, which should (to my mind) represent an almost monomaniacal depth, rather than a dilettante breadth, of flavour. I’m prepared to concede that this is a personal preference, however, and wouldn’t say no to a venison pie – unless beef was also available.

Pastry, of course, is a whole other matter. Once, as I said, mainly a cooking aid, pastry has attained an almost equal role to its filling (it is, after all, what makes a pie a pie -unless it’s a shepherd’s pie) and in the process become largely a vehicle for the consumption of butter. A really buttery shortcrust, beautiful on a lemon or custard tart, is far too fragile for a meat pie – and one made strong enough is far too solid to be enjoyable. Puff’s thousand layers, wonderful as a lid, are wasted on a pie bottom; weighed down and soaked through, they don’t have a chance to expand, and lose all purpose. Flaky is clearly the answer. (Having moved firmly onto British pie-making, I’m ignoring filo, wonderful though it is.) What might seem like a compromise – a cheating cousin to rough puff – is actually a star in its own right, especially when made with quantities of lard. (Old recipe books tell you to use lard for texture and butter for flavour, but I like the slightly rank fattiness you get with lard alone.) It has the added advantage of being easy to make, not a whole-day job like proper puff, a task which almost dares you to use Jus-Roll; a great product, but you can always tell it’s bought. And no-one wants to think about bought pies, all hooves and eyeballs and dust. (People, myself included, eat things in the name of nose-to-tail that they sneer at in a hotdog.) Still, pie-making is something you should set aside both time and space for. The filling needs time to stew and reduce to that desired depth, the pastry to rest, the whole to bake through, without a trace of raw flour at the base, and it’s nice to have a whole sunny kitchen to yourself for the duration.

As a final piece of advice, I would suggest you err on the side of making too much of everything; you can always eat the extra filling, and there’s nothing sadder than stretching a well-made pastry past its capacity for beauty. Be generous, and it will show in your pie.

Whisky & Soda

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Soda bread is great. Not relying on organic, temperamental yeast, it is incredibly quick and easy to make, and forgiving of mishandling. Leavened with bicarbonate of soda, it can also take much more in the way of flavouring than regular breads – yeast can be killed or severely retarded by salt, sugars and fats, which can all be thrown merrily into soda bread. It perhaps doesn’t last as long as a well-nurtured sourdough, but the day-old loaf makes fantastic toast – and anyway, you can just make another one, as it doesn’t take two days to prove. The whole process should take little more than an hour.

I’m making this to go with my Burns Night supper – more Irish than Scottish perhaps, but I’m working on a whisky butter to go with it (although I might just add a tot to the dough). Anyway, the flavours – sweet and salty, rounded, nutty and wholemeal – go well with anything cured or meaty or rich. Ideal for dunking in soups and stews, especially when topped with a snicket of cheese.

SODA BREAD

Makes one small loaf.

140g strong wholemeal flour

140g strong white flour

20g jumbo oats, plus a few extra for sprinkling

1 and a half tsps salt (or a little less if you’re going to eat it with Marmite)

20g/1tbspn golden syrup

2 tsp baking powder

125ml water

125g yoghurt

20ml milk (or whisky, maybe)

Heat the oven to Gas 6/200C/400F. Yes, preheat it before you’ve started making the dough; that’s how quick soda bread is. Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl, and leave to rest for five minutes, during which time it will absorb a little more liquid – although this is still a very wet dough.

Form into a rough ball, and flump this onto a floured baking tray. Sprinkle with oats and a little flour, then cut a deep cross in the loaf (like, halfway through deep). Rest for another ten minutes, then bake for 30-35 minutes -like most bread, it’s done when it’s good and brown and sounds hollow when you tap it on the bottom.

Leave to cool most of the way before you eat, or it’ll be a bit gummy. Slather with butter, whatever else you do with it.

Give Us This Day

I mentioned last month that I had been getting into baking, particularly sourdough baking, with the qualification that I was pretty new to the whole game – I didn’t, then, feel qualified to offer up any kind of recipe, as all I’d been doing was following other people’s. Well, I’ve made quite a bit of bread since then, with varying degrees of success, and have hit upon a method which seems to work for me. I am in no way claiming this as ‘my’ recipe – I have strong feelings about that sort of claim – but rather a set of minor variations and techniques, suited to my own particular cirmcumstances. It is basically the (handmade, home-baking) techniques of Dan Lepard applied to the (professional standard) recipe of Justin Gellatly.

A few disclaimers – yes, you will need your own sourdough starter, and no, I am not going to tell you how to make it; it is time-consuming, but easy, and you can find a recipe online. Once you’ve done that, the bread still takes two days to make, and probably doesn’t work out much cheaper (certainly not if you value your time) than buying it. That’s not really the point, though. It is deeply satisfying, and freshly-baked sourdough is incredibly delicious. With all that in mind, I find it odd how many baking recipes insist on electric mixers, proving baskets, and so forth – the whole thing’s intimidating enough as it is. Other than the starter, this recipe requires nothing more specialist than your hands and some bowls.

I know all the resting seems like a pain in the arse, but it does make everything much easier. This is a recipe for a lazy, pottering day at home.

 

SOURDOUGH

400g strong white flour

50g strong brown flour

50g rye flour (this mix, as used by Gellatly, gives a great taste, and a satisfying, workable texture to the dough.)

200g sourdough starter

2 big, multi-fingered pinches of salt

300ml water

a little sprinkle of polenta

a splash of oil

extra flour of some kind, for sprinkling

In a bowl, mix together the flours, starter, and water, then stir in the salt until well combined. Oil your work surface; oil your hands, and with them, oil the surface of the dough, which will be quite wet. Turn it out onto the oiled surface, and knead briefly, in ten fluid movements. Oil the bowl and scrape the dough back in. Leave it to rest for ten minutes. Repeat this knead and rest twice more. It should now be fairly pliable and dry.

Now wash, dry and flour your work surface; turn the dough out onto it, lightly flour, then pat out into a rectangle. Fold the top third of this towards you, and the bottom third over that, like a letter. Do the same lengthways, left-hand third over, and right-hand third over that. Flip over, onto the fold, dust with flour, and cover. Leave for an hour. Repeat this for the next three hours.

This process, tedious as it may seem, it what starts the process of fermentation and rising in your loaf. Don’t try to rush it, don’t try and kick-start it by putting it somewhere warm. Sourdough yeast is not the same as commercial yeast, and won’t be hurried along. At the end of the three hours, take a sharp knife and make a deep slash in the unfolded side of the dough – you should see lots of little bubbles within it, like a Wispa. If not, leave for half an hour or so and try again.

When happy with the bubbles, roll your dough into a nice tight ball. Heavily flour a tea towel, then use it to line a nice deep bowl, a bit bigger than the dough. This is your proving basket. Place the ball of dough in it, fold over the rest of the tea towel, and put in the fridge overnight. Yes, overnight. I told you it won’t be rushed.

Next morning, take it out of the fridge, reshape into a ball, and put back in the bowl. Leave at room temperature until roughly doubled in size. This will take at least 3-4 hours, but at least you can get on with something else now. When you’re sure it’s ready (I can never remember how big the damn thing was in the first place; I had to start measuring it against the bowl), preheat the oven to Gas 7/220C/425F. Hot, basically. Sprinkle a tray with polenta, turn the loaf out onto it, and neatly slash the top in a circle or square. THIS IS NOT JUST FOR DECORATION. It will rise weirdly, and won’t have that distinct, chewy crust, if you forget to slash it. Use a good, sharp knife, and cut like you mean it.

Open the oven, put in the tray, and splash or spray a little water on the oven floor, closing the door immediately. This, again, is for the crust. Bake for half an hour, then take off the tray, put directly on the oven shelf, and bake for ten minutes more. Turn it down a little if it’s colouring too much. Tap the bottom of the loaf; if it sounds hollow, it’s ready. Cool at least slightly on a rack before devouring.