Wednesday 17 December 2014

Bread, by Dean Brettschneider

I’ve become obsessed with baking bread. People have asked me whether it is just a phase and it has made me wonder. But I think that it is something that we’ll do forever. The process of kneading, proving, baking, carving, toasting and eating is becoming second nature. And the bread itself is getting more interesting, more consistent and occasionally experimental. When we go away on holiday I take the starter with me so long as we aren’t flying. And when we do fly, I just hope it survives the break in the fridge.

My regular loaf is a rye loaf mixed with strong white flour with a handful of pumpkin seeds and occasionally some caraway. It’s really easy and the fact that it is quite rye heavy makes it quite easy to prove and bake. It’s a little stalwart. It’s neat and reliable. And it toasts beautifully. I just use Dan Lepard’s Rye and Barley recipe from his Handmade Loaf book (250g starter, 300g strong white flour, 200g rye flour, 300g water).

So when I got an email asking if I’d like to review a bread baking book I was rather excited. Bread by Dean Brettschneider, published by Jacqui Small is a very attractive book. The photography is stunning in a way that many baking books are not. And the instructions from Dean Brettschneider are very clear and authoritative. Although they differ at times from what I’ve learned from Dan Lepard, they give you confidence that you are doing things right.

The first loaf that jumped out of me from Brettschneider’s book was his Dark German Rye Loaf. One glimpse of this Onyx loaf took me straight back to our communal breakfasts in Sweden where we would slather sweet mustard on black rye bread with a slice of Vasterbotten cheese and some smoked ham.

These dark breads, for me, are doughy nirvana. They go deep where our English white sliced barely scratches the surface. They are the polar opposite of baguette and speak to a completely different world view. A philosophy of perseverance; resilience; slowness; hard graft; depth; gnarly character; and satisfaction.

Dark Danish rye bread

Dark German rye #balhambaking

I followed the recipe to the letter and was rewarded with the best loaf I have baked to date. It is fabulous fresh or even better toasted with marmalade, smoked mackerel pate, slices of hard cheese or, heroically a slice of salted butter to contrast against the darkness.

His trick is to soak rye flakes and sunflower seeds in hot water separately from the dough mixture. And to add cocoa to rye sourdough dough mixture which is surprisingly heavy on strong white flower. Grate in some carrot. Add some malt extract, some salt and some more water and then combine after a few hours of proving. It works like a treat. Just make sure you allow it to cool properly before giving in to carving it. This will allow the dough to 'set' and not tear when you carve it.

I’ve since experimented with replacing the warm water that the grains are soaked in with coffee which has led to even darker breads with even more flavour. If you do go down the coffee route, you need to add a bit of extra malt extract or honey to counteract the bitterness. And Edwin inspired replacing the rye flakes with Dorset Cereal Muesli which worked very well too. The raisins and nuts made it a great breakfast loaf.

White sourdough destined for a bacon sandwich

Poppy seed sourdough. First loaf since returning home from 2 weeks away. Starter seems to have been energised by the break.  #balhambaking #breadbore

Crumbs! #breadbore #balhambaking

Dean’s white sourdough loaf recipe is also a corker. Where I’d previously struggled with my dough sticking to the bannetons and less airiness that I’d hope for, Dean’s recipe has yielded nothing but fluffy, loaves with big bubbles and lots of flavour. One of his best tips is to make sure your starter has been greedily fed 8 hours before baking. I've found this has turbo charged my loaves.

If you are serious about baking bread, I can recommend Bread, by Dean Brettschneider wholeheartedly.

Thursday 13 November 2014

Waitrose Christmas Cake

The good people of Waitrose sent me a wonderful box last year full of the ingredients needed to make a Christmas cake. Normal life has got the better of me until now and prevented me from finding time to write about it. But now, I find myself next to a belching chap from Chicago with time on my hands.

My father in law got rather excited last Autumn and decide he would turn the otherwise sedate making of a Christmas cake into a competition. He turned to Delia for inspiration as I reached for my little box of magic from Waitrose.

I decided to jazz my Christmas cake up by adding dried figs soaked in Stone’s Ginger Wine for an extra kick of spiced booze. It’s a little supplement that worked well and gave the cake extra longevity. That said, it did mean that on Christmas day it was still a bit juicy!

So with Christmas only 7 weeks away, it’s probably time to get soaking, stirring and baking. Don’t be afraid to add a few extra goodies. It’s a good way of using up mystery brown spirits and fortified wines.

Thank you to Waitrose. And sorry it’s taken a year to write about it. I figured a Christmas cake story between January and September would have been a bit weird.

Needless to say, thank you Waitrose. It's not quite time to say Merry Christmas yet, but it has certainly got me in the mood for some festive baking.

Monday 3 November 2014

Sherry Addled Spanish Pigs' Cheeks

Pigs cheeks in their sticky sherry sauce again for night 2 of our foray into restauranting @themoveablefeastpopup

Pork and sherry is a fine combination. Especially when the sherry is sweet and the pork falls apart like a sous vide ponzi scheme. The sweetness of the pork is exaggerated and at once tempered by the oleaginous lusciousness of the sherry. And even more so as it reduces with onions and a touch of paprika. It would be lazy to say it tastes of Spain. But maybe Spain tastes of it. It becomes syrupy and, whilst sweet, also savoury and deep. A bit like a grandfather telling a long story full of unnecessary details and the occasional sentimental Catherine wheel of warmth.

So when Cowie and I were planning our main course for our pop up we found that pigs cheeks cooked in sherry was at the top of our list. It needed to be something that could be cooked in advance and reheated. Something where the prep was done way in advance and the flavours could mature. Something luxurious and generous, but not flashy.

In order to feed 60 we ordered 200 pigs’ cheeks from Kimber’s near Wincaton. Their first class farm shop is responsible for us acquiring a chest freezer for our house in London. Whenever we go down to Somerset we always seem to come away with unusual cuts of fabulous meat. We can’t recommend them enough and pretty much live off their pork rissoles have a serious soft spot for their goose skirt and Jacob’s Ladder.

We decided to slow cook the pigs’ cheeks in a mixture of medium dry sherry and Pedro Ximinex sherry along with a large quantity of caremelised onions which had been given a warm bath in sherry as well. Aside from some seasoning and a touch of paprika and garlic all they needed was a good searing and then a long burble in the sherry.

Served on their own, they would be in danger of being a bit too deep, so a gremolata made with lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil and parsley brings them to life. And some toasted almonds bring out the nutty notes of the pork and savory nature of the sherry. They also add a nice bit of crunch.

The secret is to strain off the sherry liquor once the cheeks are cooked and to reduce it to a sticky sauce, brightened up with sherry vinegar as you see fit. Taste it regularly as you reduce it so you balance the acidity and the sweetness. It really is a killer sauce and if you have too much you can use it as a fabulous sauce with game. We had it with some grouse recently and loved it. Likewise it would grace a bavette or a haunch of venison. Guard it. And admire the way it sets to a wobbly dark brown jelly. It’s not looker.

Celeriac mash and some greens is all you need to go with this. Enjoy it. It’s our favourite dish.

Ingredients to feed 4

12 pigs cheeks with the membrane removed (Allow 3 cheeks per person. You just want the nugget of meat that butchers sometimes call the pillow)
Flour to dust cheeks
10 onions
4 cloves of chopped garlic (smoked would be extra nice)
1 bottle of medium dry sherry
200ml of Pedro Ximinez sherry
(Prunes, dried figs and dates are all nice optional extras)
Sherry vinegar to taste
1 celeriac
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
200g potatoes
100g toasted almonds
Salt and pepper


Season the flour and dust the cheeks.

Sear the cheeks in a hot pan with a good slug of olive oil. Do this in batches. And if they catch loosen them with some of the medium dry sherry. Add this to the slow cooker.

Then fry the onions slowly until they caramelise. At this point add the garlic and smoked paprika. Add PX sherry towards the end of the frying. Add this to the slow cooker.

Pour over as much sherry as is needed to cover the pigs cheeks. Add 2 bay leaves. Grind in some pepper.

Leave to slow cook for 3 to 4 hours – or until the cheeks are cooked. You want them to retain their shape and not go mushy.

At this stage, make some celeriac and potato mash, steam some courgettes or greens.

Also, make a gremolata. Zest 2 lemons. Finely chop 100g parsley. Squeeze two lemons into a bowl with the first two ingredients. Add salt. Add pepper. Glug in some olive oil. Stir. Taste. You want it to taste as sharp and clean as a Japanese knife. It should have almost metallic cleanliness to it that sets off the dark, unctuousness of the pork and sherry.

When the cheeks are cooked strain off the liquor. Add it to a large saucepan and reduce aggressively. Stir. And taste frequently. Add a good splash of sherry vinegar to add some acidity and life to the sauce. This stops it getting too heavy.

You will need to reduce for some time. The stickier the sauce is the better. When it is nice and syrupy take it off the heat and put it in a jug.

Serve with the mash, and veg with 3 cheeks covered in sherry sauce. Then slurp over a spoonful of vibrant gremolata and scatter over some toasted almonds.

Pigs cheeks in a sticky PX sherry sauce with gremolata, toasted almonds and celeriac mash @themoveablefeastpopup

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Chilled Hedgerow Soup

Chilled hedgerow soup (elderberry and blackberry) @themoveablefeastpopup

It’s a time of year I associate with Sylvia Plath’s poem Blackberrying. A lament about a summer gone. It’s one of my favourite poems – albeit lacerated with allusions and symbolism that would have given Freud a nervous breakdown.


Nobody in the lane, and nothing, nothing but blackberries,
Blackberries on either side, though on the right mainly,
A blackberry alley, going down in hooks, and a sea
Somewhere at the end of it, heaving. Blackberries
Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes
Ebon in the hedges, fat
With blue-red juices. These they squander on my fingers.
I had not asked for such a blood sisterhood; they must love me.
They accommodate themselves to my milkbottle, flattening their sides.

Overhead go the choughs in black, cacophonous flocks—
Bits of burnt paper wheeling in a blown sky.
Theirs is the only voice, protesting, protesting.
I do not think the sea will appear at all.
The high, green meadows are glowing, as if lit from within.
I come to one bush of berries so ripe it is a bush of flies,
Hanging their bluegreen bellies and their wing panes in a Chinese screen.
The honey-feast of the berries has stunned them; they believe in heaven.
One more hook, and the berries and bushes end.

The only thing to come now is the sea.
From between two hills a sudden wind funnels at me,
Slapping its phantom laundry in my face.
These hills are too green and sweet to have tasted salt.
I follow the sheep path between them. A last hook brings me
To the hills’ northern face, and the face is orange rock
That looks out on nothing, nothing but a great space
Of white and pewter lights, and a din like silversmiths
Beating and beating at an intractable metal.

This is my favourite time of year. The air is clear. The humidity has gone. The warmth of the summer is still floating around. Apples are weighing down branches like Christmas shoppers staggering home with gift. And one of the most hostile bullies in the hedgerow suddenly turns friendly for a few weeks offering inky berries as a peace offering for the bicycle punctures, scratches and bleeding they’ve caused throughout the rest of the year.

Our first forage of the year was on Tooting Common which turned into 5 jars of beautiful Blackberry jam. I’m slapping it all over my toast and will keep a jar back for an Autumn Mess at some point soon.

Our second forage was a more industrious affair. Me, Sarah and my mother in law collected about 4kg of blackberries and a similar amount of elderberries from the winding lanes of deepest darkest Somerset. We came back home blanketed in midge bites, needled by nettles and tortured by thorns. But it was worth it for the amount of inky treasure we brought home.

We found it curious that the best elders grow near telegraph poles. We came up with various explanations about why this was the case. Was it the electromagnetic field of the wires? Was it the Creosote? Was it the extra moisture that drips down the pole? No. It’s because when the hedges are cut the tractors avoid chopping down the telegraph poles and the elder survives. So if you are looking for elder, telegraph poles are your friends.

At our wedding we had a Swedish inspired pre-dessert of chilled fruit soup served in coffee cups. Tom (AKA the Flavoursmith) made it from a range of dark summer fruits including blackberries and blackcurrants. We’ve been keen to make something similar ourselves, but just using the spoils of our hedgerow plunder.

Very black blackberries

Inky hedgerow treasure


Elderberry ballbearings

Without really following a recipe we stripped off the elderberries using the tines of a fork, rinsed all the fruit and then added it to a massive cauldron with one litre of water and about a dozen large apples that had fallen off the tree to give it some body. We let it simmer away for a few hours on a low heat until all the berries had given up their juice.

Inky hedgerow soup @themoveablefeastpopup

It looked like an experimental Ribena laboratory. And smelled amazingly of autumn. Although elder berries don’t taste that strong, they did give the flavor and extra layer of complexity and an extraordinary colour of pure purple.

Wallace and Grommit approach to making hedgerow soup

We then strained the soup through a large sieve to remove the large pips. And then passed it all through jelly bags which took ages! But it was worth it for the purity of the liquor and the absence of pesky pips.

We then returned the liquid to the cleaned out cauldron and added enough sugar to take the sour edge off and then cooled. It’s a labour of love. But it’s worth it.

Chill and serve in espresso cups. Allow about 100-150ml per person. And if you have any left over it is great as a cordial with fizzy water. Or better still as the base to an ice cream. We've got an enormous vat of it in the freezer which we keep dipping into for midnight snacks.

Friday 22 August 2014

Sourdough Virginity

I’ve been boring the noble people of Instagram for the last two months with highly sexed up pictures of bread that I’ve reared from hand, fresh out of the oven. The early ones were erratic and rustic, with the occasional scorched bottom and dense crumb. Some have been a funny green colour from courgette juice. And others an alarming shade of maroon from beetroot juice. Slowly but surely these sourdough loaves have improved. The crumb lighter. The crust crisper and chewier. And the most recent loaves have even got smart concentric circles on them from the bannetone which I’ve been misusing for the last month! But they have all been delicious. And even the burnt ones have been tastier than anything you’d normally buy from a shop.

It’s safe to say that I’ve become hooked on baking sourdough bread. It might well be sign of a quarter life crisis. But actually it’s been a very therapeutic experience. Most things in modern life involve instant gratification – photos get instantaneous likes and comments on Instagram; emails get responded to promptly; Snapchat messages only last seconds. Whereas making bread from scratch with a sourdough starter is soulful and takes pretty much a whole day of respect and careful attention. Haste, rush, speed and hurry simply aren’t possible when making bread. Baking is a miraculous balm to modern life’s sting.

It all started with a terrible loaf of bread that I made during a short trip to Whitstable made with fast action yeast and not very much skill. It bubbled away and ossified into a loaf with the texture and density of depleted uranium that had been compressed by the weight of an ice age. An airy, light, bouncy loaf it was not.

Irked and inspired in equal measure I decided to try to make my own starter. It seems like a rite of passage for anyone who is a bit of a food nerd. Dan Lepard has been my wingman ever since. Along with a sprinkling of advice from a Guardian article that suggested using rhubarb as part of the initial mix.

All we did was to mix 100g rye flour with 100g water and about 50g of finely sliced rhubarb from the garden. And then we undertook the very arduous task of leaving it for 5 days in a loosely covered jar. I think we may have stirred it on day 4 when it got a bit moldy. But that was it.

Then on day 6 we simply poured half of the acidic smelling gloop away and added 100g rye flour and 100g of water and left it for 6 hours whilst it doubled in size. And then we made our first loaf very simple loaf using Dan Lepard’s method.  The quantities below are for the first small loaf we made, using half measures from Dan Lepard’s Barley and Rye Loaf in the Handmade Loaf, which has become my baking bible. These ratios seem to work for all manner of loaves.

Mix together 125g starter, 250g flour, 150g water and a teaspoon of salt. Leave to autolyse for 10 minutes. Then knead for 20 seconds using sunflower oil to stop it sticking to your hands and work surfaces. Then leave it. Half an hour later knead it again. And then leave it for an hour. Then knead it again and leave it to prove on a baking tray with some oiled clingfirm on top.

Once it has doubled in size sprinkle with flour, shape it, slash the top with a bread knife and bake in a preheated oven with a roasting pan of water in the bottom to generate steam at 200 degrees C for 40 minutes. When golden and with a crisp bottom remove nad allow to cool on a wire wrack. Give into temptation and slice. Smear on butter and marvel at your first loaf. I swear nothing has ever, or will ever taste as good as your first mouthful of your own sourdough loaf.

Since that virgin loaf I’ve advanced the technique. Now the loaf is proved in a banettone (wicker basket), which is my new favourite word. However, only last week did I realise that the muslin cloth it comes with is designed to act as a hat not a lining! Whoops. The bread as a result now has lovely concentric circles of crusty semolina flour as decoration, rather than looking like it’s slept on a rather course pillow.

We’ve also got the hang of preheating the oven enough and even found a slab of marble in the garden that is the perfect size for the oven. It now acts as our baking stone. I’m convinced the people who used to live in our house must have had it cut to size because it fits like Cinderella’s shoe. The marble slab takes longer to heat up, but it is giving the loaves more bounce and a better rise, but without burning the bottom.

We’ve also got more confident at playing around with ingredients. We’ve discovered via some vegetable experimentation that you can substitute the water in a bread recipe for vegetable juice. So we’ve been juicing our glut of beetroot, chard and courgettes as the means of hydration for the bread. You can also add some of the pulp to the dough, balanced out with a bit more flour to get the right moisture ratios. The results of this have been great.

The bread takes on a great colour and flavor in the case of beetroot and really helps to keep the otherwise quite dense rye loaves very moist and lively.  I always like anise flavours with beetroot, so caraway and fennel seeds are a perfect match. It’s great with salted butter on it’s own. Amazing with marmite. And is a revelation with smoked mackerel pate.

The courgette juice and pulp loaves blend in nicely and just give a hint of background sweetness and a very pleasant moistness to the crumb. Mixed through with pumpkin seeds it makes for a fantastic loaf. The colour is less vivid than the beetroot, but it still makes for a fine looking loaf that’s got plenty of character. Subtle.

I’ve also started adding in the salt during the second knead. It seems to be working well. But, it has meant that I’ve made a couple of saltless loaves which have been irritating, but still tasty.

This baking journey has only been going for 2 months. But I’m hooked. And really hope I’m still doing it with the same starter in 2 decades time. I’m determined to make a super light white loaf with enormous holes and to master the dark arts of German pumpernickel with it’s treacle like demeanour. And I’m also keen to perfect some gluten free loaves for my new colleagues at work. If you’ve got any sourdough suggestions to try out, please let me know.


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