Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Avgolemono Soup with Pastina from 'Cold Pasta' by James McNair

Well it is nearly summer and perhaps there will come a point when hot food seems a bad idea which I think was why I bought this book many years ago, but perhaps I was more tempted by the £1.99 price tag, who knows. What I do know is the book along with a few other 'bargains' has languished on my bookshelf and rarely been opened and never used.

Enter Dom's Random Recipe Challenge #39 for May to go grab yourself any of your unused, unloved cookbooks and give them one last chance before the spring clean has them out the house for good. I had a few in my pile, including a fair number of charity fund raisers (Challenge Anneka was in there, never used as well as the Food Aid cookbook) but this James McNair title won and my recipe was the 'Avgolemono Soup with Pastina'. According to the recipe this traditional Greek soup would normally be served hot, but I liked it cold so cold is fine by me.
I had most of the ingredients but no tiny pasta shapes in the cupboard so I just broke up some very think spaghetti into as short lengths as I could by hand. I have scaled the recipe back to use just 1 egg as the full recipe states it will serve 10-12 as a first course and I just needed to feed myself.

2 cups home made chicken stock
one third cup tiny pasta shapes
1 egg
2 tbs fresh lemon juice
salt, pepper
lemon slices and parsley to garnish

  1. heat the chicken stock to a boil and cook the pasta until very al dente.
  2. beat the egg in a bowl until frothy and then beat in the lemon juice.
  3. slowly drizzle one third of the hot stock onto the egg mixture whisking constantly
  4. add the egg mixture back to the pan with the pasta and heat (stirring constantly) but do not boil, just cooking until lightly thickened.
  5. season to taste, and then cool and chill until needed.
  6. to serve stir the soup to distribute the pasta and pour into bowls.
  7. garnish with sliced lemon and parsley if desired.
I did not have any parsley but the buckler sorrel was looking fresh and tender so I picked a few of those highly citrus leaves and garnished with those. I think this would be a perfect soup to soothe a summer cold.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Vanilla Spiced Fig Relish from 'Mes Aigres-Doux, Terrines et Pates' by Christine Ferber

Christine Ferber is a highly acclaimed french jam maker, her jams are sold in the shops of  the legendary pastry chef  Pierre Herme so I think she must be rather above average. I have never purchased any of her preserves but I have three of her paperback recipe books and I am completely wedded to her apricot confiture that combines fresh and dried apricots along with white wine and vanilla. It is delicious, and I have made it several times. It was the first recipe that came to mind when I started thinking about what I might make for this month's Spice Trail Challenge, organised by Vanesther of Bangers and Mash. The spice for this month is vanilla and is being guest hosted by Solange Berchemin of Pebble Soup. There are so many delicious possibilities, but I wanted to try something new. Knowing how common vanilla is in both the sweet and savoury preserves from Christine Ferber I started to look through the 'relishes' section of this book for inspiration and finally settled on a relish made with figs.
   Now I must confess to cheating on the ingredients as the recipe called for fresh figs and not just any figs but Bourjasotte Noires figs, which when I looked them up do not appear any different to the black figs found in many supermarkets but regardless I did not have any, so I used dried. I soaked them for several hours in the wine included in the recipe to try and soften them up as much as possible, but the final relish is of course different in texture and balance but really not too bad, and the vanilla really does stand out and complement the flavours.
The recipe stated the relish should be stored for two to three weeks in the fridge before using so I made it at the beginning of May and finally tried in the last week. The author recommends it goes well with liver pate, parma style ham, a cured beef similar to bresaola and a french cheese Saint-Felicien.  I tried mine with some Spanish cured ham and manchego cheese:
And also some cold roast chicken and sliced chorizo:
I think the relish was too powerful for chicken but it stood up to both the chorizo and the cured ham and manchego cheese very well.

I will give you the recipe as I made it, with dried figs:

25 semi dried figs
240 ml white wine vinegar
430 ml Gewurztraminer wine
110g granulated sugar
220g flower honey
20 black peppercorns
3 vanilla pods

  1. Rinse the figs and dry carefully with a cloth or paper towels.
  2. Remove the stems and cut the figs into quarters.
  3. Soak the dried figs in the wine overnight and drain off and reserve the wine the next day.
  4. In a non reactive saucepan bring the vinegar, strained wine, sugar, honey, black pepper and vanilla pods to a boil.
  5. Continue to boil gently and skim any foam from the surface until the liquid is reduced by half and has formed a light syrup.
  6. Add the figs to the pan and simmer gently for 15 minutes.
  7. Pour the relish into a large kilner jar and store in the fridge for 2-3 weeks before serving.
  8. Continue to store in the fridge.

Should my fig plant ever produce a bumper crop I may try the fresh fruit version!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

We Should Cocoa Challenge: Bake a Chocolate Cake For £1

This month Choclette has set a tough We Should Cocoa challenge with the brief to make a chocolate cake for £1. The challenge underlined just how difficult it is to incorporate anything fancy into your diet when living on a very tight budget. The much more sobering and harrowing challenge faced by so many experiencing extreme food poverty had been given world wide coverage earlier in the month by the Live Below The Line fund raiser. The many people who took part raised 5.5 million pounds by volunteering to live off just £1 a day for all of their food and drink needs for 5 days, and asking for sponsorship to do so. The money raised is going to help anti-poverty organisations across the world. Reading the blog diaries of others taking part made it painfully clear how difficult it was to balance the need for adequate calories with good nutrition. 
My £1 Chocolate Cake, well almost, I went 2p over budget.
So how easy is it to bake a budget chocolate cake worth the money spent on the ingredients and good enough to lift your spirits?  Quite a few bloggers have come up with £1 cakes and it has been fun to see what everyone has chosen to do. I went 2p over budget so points off for that!

This is a pretty basic chocolate cake with a few sacrifices of food ethics to fit the budget. To be clear the £1 budget did not include the cost of energy for the oven, or for all the hot water needed to wash up afterwards, just the ingredients. My cake before icing weighed in at 500g so a reasonable size for a small group of family or folks, should you be sharing.

The recipe I started from was a very old one I had used as a teenager from 'Mrs Beeton's Favorite Cakes & Breads', published in 1972 by Concorde Books and my copy is now falling apart.  I was thrilled when my aunt gave it to me for my birthday, if I remember correctly it was the first cookbook I owned and I have always loved baking.
 The recipe title in the book is Cocoa Cake (Economical Chocolate Cake) and as with many sponge cake recipes from the seventies it calls for margarine. I prefer not to use margarine but butter was beyond the budget so I swapped sunflower oil for the margarine and was relieved it did not spoil the texture of the cake. Further changes were needed to keep close to the budget so I used less egg and cancelled the vanilla extract. My icing was made with a 100g bar of supermarket economy plain chocolate (30p) which had very little cocoa solids in, and the water ganache I made with it was rather dull. My wish to have an iced cake was possibly a bad call. The 30p taken up by the chocolate bar could have been put to better use with some vanilla and the full amount of egg. I costed my eggs at the supermarket budget price, but I keep hens and ducks so I used what I had at home.

 I love this style of recipe layout; books were crammed with recipes whereas now you get very few in relation to the size of the book.

The cake I costed was a half batch of this recipe but I made the full batch and produced the 500g cake and a dozen cup cakes. The original recipe calls for two 9" inch layer pans which you sandwich together with a frosting.

Ingredients adjusted for budget
115g sunflower oil (originally margarine)
340g granulated sugar
2 eggs (originally 3)
0.5 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
140ml milk
85g cocoa powder dissolved in 70ml hot water**
200g plain flour
0.5tsp baking powder
1tsp vanilla extract (omitted)

** I have never been able to get the cocoa powder 'dissolved' in 70ml of water so I also add in half the milk, pre warmed, to get the coca powder paste needed.

Oven 180C
Two  9" layer pans greased and floured or lined (I used a 17cm deep square tin).

  1. Beat together the sunflower oil, sugar and eggs in a large mixing bowl until paler in colour and thick and creamy, a hand mixer helps.
  2. Blend the cocoa 'paste' into the egg mixture.
  3. Sift the flour, salt and baking powder together.
  4. Dissolve the baking soda in the remaining milk.
  5. Add the dry ingredients to the creamed mixture alternately with the milk and soda.
  6. Add the vanilla if using.
  7. The batter will be quite thin. Pour this into the two 9" layer pans that have been greased and floured or lined with parchment.
  8. Bake the cake layers for approx 35 minutes, cakes will spring back when pressed once fully baked.
  9. Cool the baked layers on a wire rack.
  10. Frost as desired. (Water ganache with cheap chocolate NOT recommended!)

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Real Bread Maker Week 2014;

So I am a little late getting this post in for the Real Bread Maker Week which finished yesterday, 16th May, but I did at least bake my bread during the week and all these special days and weeks are mostly a bit frivolous though I do hope the bread maker week encourages more folks to try baking their own bread or seeking out a specialist baker.  For more information about the campaign for real bread take a look at the website here: National real breadmaker week

So instead of trying to tackle something challenging I have chosen to show you a really simple bread roll recipe that is well suited to having hot baked rolls for breakfast on a weekend with minimum fuss and mess.

The recipe comes from Swedish blogger Annes food and I have made it three or four times now. The idea is to mix up a fairly wet dough the night before, leave it to rise in a cool environment overnight and then a quick shape and minimum proof before popping into a hot oven for about 15 minutes. You really can have have bread rolls out of the oven within an hour of getting up and just as wonderful a gorgeous aroma of baking bread to start the day.
The recipe title is Cold Rise Breakfast Bread and it was posted a few years ago but is one that I go back to as it is a really simple no knead easy weekend bread roll recipe. If you are tempted please click over to Anne's blog for the recipe which is set out really clearly. I only had quite soft/low gluten spelt flour to hand when I made these and I really think they come out better with some strong bread flour in the mix. The rolls were a little damp and less 'springy' than when I have made them with higher gluten flour but hot bread from the oven is a real treat even when not perfect so do have a go.
The dough is a very basic mix of flour, salt, yeast and water. No fat, egg or flavourings and because the dough is quite a wet (high hydration) mix it is easy to just bring together in the bowl with no kneading. So the night before you weight out, mix up and then leave to grow.
I was taught to cover dough with a tea towel but that never seemed to benefit the dough much so now I use a bin liner. The dough is left overnight but if like me you get hit by insomnia you might find yourself up in the wee hours taking a peek.
In the morning the oven is turned on and the bread is turned out of the bowl and shaped into a long rectangle.
A dough scraper is very useful here for handling the wet dough.

 The dough is divided into rolls which are then transferred to a baking sheet and sprinkled with seeds of your choice, or not if you want them totally plain.
I like seeds, so mine had a mixture of sunflower, sesame and linseed on them. The oven should be thoroughly heated before the rolls are put in, so wait a little if you think it is not up to temperature. If the dough has lost a lot of air while you were shaping it you might want to leave the rolls for a further short proof. Try to handle the dough as lightly and minimally as possible while you are shaping.

So into the oven and the magic begins.
I like quite a  deep coloured crust on rustic style breads so I left mine in the oven 5 minutes longer than stated in the recipe. So here they are all baked up and smelling rather good.
Wait a short but polite time before tearing into them for a hearty breakfast.
  Now if any sort of yeast cookery fills you with trepidation you might want to try making a soda bread for your easy weekend bread fix. Not the same as a yeasted loaf, but when freshly baked and slathered with butter really not a bad second choice, and there are many ways to add flavourings to liven them up. The loaf below is an Apple and Raisin Soda bread , the recipe for which I found on the web site of great British Bake Off contender Brendan (brendanbakes). The loaf also has caraway seed in it which I was hesitant to add but it really did work. If in any doubt you might want to leave this out as the caraway flavour is quite strong.

The method for soda bread is just like that for scones and if you do not have buttermilk and the recipe calls for it I would use half milk and half yogurt. The loaf is best eaten the same day but does make quite good toast too, if you have any left the next day.

 Here is the baked loaf.
I like to bake whole loaves inside a cast iron pot as it really does seem to improve the crust colour and texture. The first stage of baking is done with the pot lid on and then it is removed for the final stage when the crust colour really develops. This methods worked well on the soda bread too.
The photo of the cut loaf gives you an idea of how thin the crust is. 

I would allow a soda bread a little longer to cool than the bread rolls above so a little more patience required here but freshly baked this makes a very easy.

I honestly think both of these recipes produce bread that is far better than much of what is on offer at my local supermarkets and the ingredients are far more nutritious too and I love the smell of freshly baked bread.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

A baking memoir; The Baker's Daughter by Louise Johncox

"My life has been shaped by cakes, the ones baked by my father in our family’s tea shop, Peter’s, in Weybridge."

This book is close to my heart. I grew up in the Surrey town where Louise Johncox's  parents had their bakery and cafe, and it was the best bakery in Weybridge for all the time I lived there. It was in many ways Weybridge's own 'Betty's of Harrogate'. Classical, elegant, with very high standards, and as I have learnt from reading the book, steeped in european baking history. It was a great treat to be taken to the tea room and although for lack of budget my mother often sought out bread and cakes from cheaper shops, Peter's was for most people where you went when you wanted the best. Regular bakery items, rarely found in shops today, included viennese fingers, farmhouse fruit cakes, hand made battenburgs, japonnaise, cream horns, hand made chocolates, and the cafe's welsh rarebit was legendary.

Peter Johncox had opened his bakery/cafe in 1958 and ran it with his wife for over 40 years. Reading the book it was clearly not an easy journey but I have total respect for the phenomenal hard work that they put into the bakery, and huge empathy with Peter's wish that his products should remain traditional.
Peter's was an important part of the Weybridge community for over 42 years
Louise Johncox has written so beautifully about her parents journey and how the development of the book after Peter's retirement brought back so many family memories, that even if you are not a baker, it is a book to be enjoyed. For me it also brought back many recollections of a childhood in Weybridge, including the mention of Brockwells the greengrocers where I once had a Saturday job. In my time, Brockwells was not self service, the shop was split centrally with the vegetables displayed against one wall and the fruit against the other. Customers had to queue twice, I was only ever on the 'veg' service side, the smarter girls and permanent staff served the more valuable fruit!

But back to the book, and for a taste of what is in store do read this introduction to the story of the development of the book on Louise Johncox's homepage and also published online in the local magazine  Surrey Life , both with some lovely photos.

One of the bakery items that was particularly popular with local children were the animal biscuits and you can see the 'rabbit biscuit' on the book cover picture above. I took my inspiration from these this Easter when making my own marzipan covered and chocolate dipped Animal Biscuits. The marzipan used was 50% almonds which makes a far less sweet biscuit covering than that of a sugar icing cover, but no doubt children would prefer the iced version. The dipping is a bit tricky, some bunnies just want to dive in up to their noses.
The first recipe I made properly from the book was the Coffee Japonaise. This is a rather delicious nutty meringue style biscuit sandwiched with coffee butter-cream and coated with more butter-cream and then dipped in crushed japonaise biscuits. If like me, you have sometimes smarted at the price of the patisserie that you see for sale it is worth glancing at a recipe to see just how much work and skill can be needed to make them. The Japonaise recipe is fun but give yourself time and follow it carefully. Here they are with the final flourish of a decorative chocolate button and they do need to be eaten with a fork unless you want messy fingers.
The recipe is in the Poschiavo and Pastry Chefs- European Pastries chapter which I think is my favourite chapter. The recipe is also extracted in this online article by the author titled: Baker Boys.

You will need a lot of egg whites. Thankfully they keep well in the fridge for a week or two, or in the freezer for several months (Nigella website notes on freezing) so you can accumulate them over a period of time.

This is quite a sweet pastry and to my taste goes well with a very strong morning coffee. I often substitute butter-cream with a white chocolate ganache, to reduce the sugar content a little, and that works here, but the moister ganache may well soften the nutty biscuits faster than a butter-cream would. I devoured mine too quickly to find out.

You need to pipe the mixture out into the rounds and those disposable piping bags are very good, especially if you do not have any piping tubes, as with care you can cut the exact size piping tip that you need. Amazon sell a range of pack sizes if your local shops do not carry them and all the online cake decorating shops will have them too.

The disks are baked fairly quickly but make sure they are cooked enough, as under-baking will produce a very mallowy centre that may be too soft to work with when assembling the two layers. The base should be an even golden brown.
I found it helpful to have the biscuits on a high rack when getting the final crumb coat on the outside. Excess crumbs can drop off onto a plate below and you can easily see any gaps in the crumb covering.
Transfer the finished pastries to your serving plate with care, they are really quite delicate.
On a more homely level I also love the recipe for rock cakes, a not too sweet cake that is lightly spiced and studded with dried fruits and candied peel.
This was a popular (with me at least) childhood afternoon tea treat, and they are relatively easy to make. The method is the 'rubbing in' similar to pastry but far more forgiving. The tricky part is stopping yourself from adding too much milk when bringing the dough together. I put too much in with this batch so although they look just right before baking once in the oven they flattened out too much. These are best eaten on the day they are baked, but like scones they can be frozen and then 'refreshed' when you need them by putting the defrosted items into a hot oven for just a few minutes. If you do not like dried fruits like sultanas and raisins you can easily substitute finely chopped dried apricots, cranberries and use some freshly grated orange zest instead of the candied peel.
And finally, as I mentioned earlier, the Welsh Rarebit was one of the cafe's most well known dishes and it is really a very simple one that can be scaled down from the full recipe in the book to a per egg ratio of:
  • 1 tbs milk
  • 1 egg
  • 65g grated cheddar cheese (I would choose a medium cheddar, not a really dry mature one)
  • 1/4 tsp made mustard.
  • 1 thick slice of bread
Method as written in the book
Using a fork, mix the milk and eggs together, add some seasoning, then stir the mixture into the cheese. Once mixed, add the mustard and continue to stir. Preheat the grill on a medium setting. Place the bread on a baking sheet and toast it on both sides. Now completely cover one side with the mixture to a depth of at least 5mm. Grill the topped toast until the cheese is bubbling and golden brown. The Welsh rarebit mixture is always best left overnight and used the following day. If you do this, ensure you give it a good stir before topping the toast with it. Add roughly 1 tablespoon Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce to the cheese mixture to give the Welsh rarebit that extra bite. You can add 2 tablespoons chopped-up ham or bacon to the cheese mixture. You could also add some thin slices of tomato on top before cooking.

This is no ordinary cheese on toast, do try it.

My thanks to Louise Johncox for her help in providing information regarding the book. There are many baking books in the shops right now, but this is far more than another baking book. If you buy it I do hope you will love it as much as I do. 

Now what to bake next?