Baking challenge: hand raised chicken and apricot pie

This post is part of my challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the technical challenge for week five (pie week) of series three: a hand-raised pie.

Chicken and bacon hand-raised pie

The Great British Pie of picnic fame is not a soupy affair topped with buttery pastry that breaks into flakes and shards: the quintessentially British pastry is of course hot water crust. Hot water crust turns everything you know about pastry on its head: hot fat and water are sloshed into water to make a paste, which is kneaded – kneaded! – until smooth, then used almost immediately lest it dry out and crack. No resting, no turning, no coddling in the fridge. It can be – as Gavroche would say – tough on the teeth, but what the hell. It’s a strong, durable carapace and I find it can hold slightly wetter fillings on account of this without collapsing in the oven.

I was a bit hesitant about making this pie, namely because I don’t love chicken and am actually quite repulsed by meat jellies. However, with equal parts bacon to chicken, the taste of the chicken is not particularly pronounced (even though I only used thigh instead of the mix of breast and thigh as instructed in the recipe). The bacon also makes the pie very salty and for this reason I have omitted the instruction to season the filling with salt: I love salty flavours but, hand on heart, do not feel that this needs more than what is already present in the bacon. It might be different of course if you are buying traditionally cured bacon, which is usually less salty, but mine was just from the supermarket.

Picnic pie

As to the jelly, in experienced hands it might trickle down snugly among the meat and provide an impervious, savoury seal around the meat, but in my case it just trickled down straight through the pastry, seeking out any structural flaws in the pastry (and, as it turned out, there were plenty). There were a few little shivery nuggets of jellified stock here and there, but I could scrape them aside without difficulty.

My reservations about this pie are purely personal: my British boyfriend thought it was utterly delicious and happily took the remainder with him for his lunch. If you are a lover of savoury pies, something sturdy like this – or the pork and quail egg pies which have had a previous outing – would make for excellent picnic food. I do think that British culture really inculcates that love of savoury pies into its people, and it’s hard to bridge that cultural gap if, like me, you missed out on it in childhood.

Hand-raised chicken, bacon and apricot pie

The episode of the Great British Bake-Off in which the pie was hand-raised shows the bakers struggling to shape the pastry around the pie dolly and, guess what, it is hard to do. The video which accompanies the recipe on the BBC site instructs you to set aside the just-made pastry for ten minutes before starting to mould it around the jam jars (you can buy pie dollies, but even for me, queen of kitchen paraphernalia, this was a step too far), though the written recipe gives no such suggestion. I tried several techniques in my attempt to get the damn pastry round the jars – at one point holding the jars upside down and patting the pastry down rather than up, for example. No method was perfect and removing the jars from the pastry was not as easy as the recipe made it sound. Finally, although I used the size of jar directed in the recipe and packed the filling in tightly, there was a scrap too much; maybe reducing the measure of meat to 280g each would do it. It was a ridiculously tiny amount to have left over.

Recipe below the jump.

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Baking challenge: Wellington écossais – i.e. haggis Wellington

This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the signature challenge for week five (pie week) of series three: a Wellington

Haggis wellington

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!
Aboon them a’ yet tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’a grace
As lang’s my arm.
[Address to a Haggis]

So says the poet, by which I mean Robert Burns (1759-1796), Bard of Ayrshire, Ploughman Poet, son of Scotland, whose prolific artistic output is matched by the unmitigated directness of his verse. For all that his works are often written in Scottish dialect, they remain piercingly accessible to those of us used to reading only standard English, and even today they have lost none of their resonant power. I think this is perfectly illustrated by one of Burns’ more popular poems, Tam O’Shanter (which I encountered in my fluorescent-lit English Literature classroom on the first day of Sixth Form), which veers between the frankly comic spectacle of an angry woman, sitting up waiting for her drunken husband, who she knows is stumbling home late (“Where sits our sulky, sullen dame, / Gathering her brows like gathering storm, / Nursing her wrath to keep it warm”) to an elegiac meditation on our small human grasp of happiness: “But pleasures are like poppies spread, / You seize the flow’r, its bloom is shed; / Or like the snow falls in the river, / A moment white-then melts for ever”.

Slice of haggis wellington

Robert Burns’ life, work and cultural impact are celebrated annually on Burns Night, which technically has no fixed date as such but is typically held close to Burns’ birthday of 25 January. Is there any other celebration like Burns Night? I can’t think of any other poet, writer or artist so commemorated, not even Shakespeare. (If there is something similar, though, I’d love to know about it!). Burns suppers are characterised by the holy Scottish trinity of haggis, whisky and a side of Burns’ poetry. Traditionally, a recitation of Burns’ Address to a Haggis follows the ceremonial entry of this savoury pudding. The Address is long and the recitation must be gruelling: I have hosted a Burns Night-themed dinner at which a friend’s boyfriend gamely recited the whole thing and it was seriously impressive as a feat of stamina.

Haggis, a mixture of the liver, heart and lungs of a sheep, mixed with onion, oats and suet, by convention encased in a sheep’s stomach, seems to be very off-putting to many (the anxiety on a friend’s face when I offered her a slice was something to behold), but it’s delicious. Suet, which people often think of as claggy and heavy, actually lends food a very light texture (as long as it’s warm – once cold, it certainly stiffens up). If you eat fancy haggis procured by a butcher and sold at a nice restaurant, it will taste like a big spiced meatball, with a delicate, quite soft (almost loose) texture; commercially-bought ones from the supermarket that you heat up are firmer and (inevitably) saltier, but still make for a really good, nubbly-textured savoury dish.

I came up with the idea of a haggis Wellington because, frankly, fillet of beef is too expensive, and it seemed like something reasonably original – though, as ever, a few people got there before me. As it turns out haggis marries beautifully with a pile of mushrooms sautéed with cream and brandy and a wrapper of rough puff pastry. If you want to serve up haggis in a slightly different way, I think this is a great choice. With a side order of Burns.

Recipe below the jump, as ever.

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Baking challenge: British summer meringue stack

This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the showstopper challenge for week four (dessert week) of series three: a four-layer meringue stack.

A many-layered meringue thing
The flavours are, from bottom to top: passion fruit curd, raspberry and redcurrant, lemon curd, blueberry-violet sauce. P.S. I like cookbooks

Imagine a dessert with all the flavours of British summer in one huge – crazily huge – stack of sweet meringue and sharp bright fruit that burst in the mouth and the soothing lap of cream and the scent of violets just at the back of it. So – not a real British summer but the one we dream of in winter, when the rain has pounded down thick and grey for the fifth day running, when the wind whistles its way down your collar, when the ice is slick on the pavement. Days like today and tomorrow and yesterday. So instead we’ll think of summers in the park, summers by the beach, sweet red fruit heavy on the bush, juicy in the mouth. And stickiness – prickle of sweat, sunscreen, the streak of melted ice cream running down the inside of your wrist. We imagine such days as these: wine on the balcony, smell of chlorine at the lido, cut grass, roses nodding. Well, who wouldn’t dream of it?

British summer meringue stack

In this era of fervently seasonal eating it’s probably somewhat outré to point out that strictly speaking you do not have to save this for summer. If you want to indulge in mouthfuls of bright, sharp fruit and curd, mallow-bellied meringue and cream whipped to blowsy perfection in the dark heart of winter, in these difficult, no-longer-festive days, you can acquire raspberries and redcurrants at your local supermarket even now. Yes, they may come from Spain and Morocco and yes, I wouldn’t make this a daily indulgence, as hard as it is (I love raspberries) – the environmental, cultural and economic costs of permanent global summertime are well-documented. But in the cold days, the hard days, our spirits need as much nourishment as our bodies, and our eyes and taste buds are as deserving of stimulation and novelty as our eyes. If you want to go for it, I think it’s okay. I think people are very good at punishing themselves and sometimes a commitment to seasonal eating and supporting small producers can become slightly punitive (“how dare you buy sourdough from a supermarket, don’t you know it’s a fraud and you should support your local organic bakery!?” – not that I have one); we should combine awareness and a global outlook with kindness and forgiveness towards ourselves and others, and this applies to food too.

Raspberry and redcurrant jewels
I love these colours – jewel-bright. The meringue looks a bit burnt but that’s just the contrast.

I have included the recipes I used to make the lemon and passion fruit curds as well as directions for the meringue stacks, blueberry-violet sauce and assembly. I love fruit curds – their sharp, bright flavour; their delicate, almost translucent creaminess; their vivid colours –  and I love making them, slowly, stirring the mixture in a makeshift double boiler while drifting away into thought or catching up on the radio. However, it does add to the time of the enterprise, of course, and if you don’t share my enjoyment of making curds (which makes all the wiping up of sticky streaks worth it), do buy it. Lemon curd is two-a-penny in any supermarket, and good reputable preserve-makers such as Tiptree make passion fruit curd.

The full recipes are below the jump. It looks long and yes, it is a multi-stage assembly process, but each individual bit is not so very hard, and, if you choose to buy your curds, should actually come together fairly easily after baking.

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One last look back. Resolution roundup: October-December 2017

Sacred Heart Church

Happy New Year! If New Year’s Eve is for quiet reflection, then New Year’s Day is one for looking forward – though in my case yesterday eve was spent in riotous feasting and today spent in the recovery position, by which I mean eating plenty of avocado and bacon and drinking lots of water (I am actually not too hungover because – top tip for 2018! – I stuck to gin). As neglectful as I’ve been vis-a-vis blogging, I hope one last glance back will be indulged.

October to December is one of the busiest and most taxing periods at work. The cyclical nature of the job means things quieten down in summer; not quite to a peaceful whisper, but at least to a gentle hum. I have time to think, time to do, sometimes even time to plan. October hits me like a brick to the face. Even though I know it’s coming, it always manages to come hurtling out from another direction. In other words, I have been tired (getting a terrible flu in October which left me flattened – the flu virus was apparently quite bad in 2017 – did not help). I also got quite sad around my birthday in September, which is unusual (though it was a big number – well, psychologically anyway), and it took me a while to shake this off.

1) Eat fish at least once a week, preferably twice a week

I’m pleased to say apart from a few obvious weeks (such as when I had the flu) I’ve pretty much managed to achieve at least the bare minimum of eating fish once a week. I really do need to try to branch away from eating salmon – I eat it almost exclusively, even though I actually like most fish. I did make a really delicious stuffed trout dish (the recipe was from Rukmini Iyer’s extremely useful cookbook The Roasting Tin, which is all about one-pot, hands-off, gutsily-flavoured food) but it freaked out my boyfriend because its head was still on (I also had to extract the spine for him). (As a friend of mine put it, “British people only understand fillets”. I’m sure there are exceptions…).

2) Bring a packed lunch to work at least three times a week

I definitely didn’t manage this every single week but I’m pretty proud of how I did nonetheless. Autumn and winter has meant cooking up huge batches of soup and just taking them in, punctuated by the odd box of leftover stew or risotto. Cold-weather food is the best to take in because it usually improves over time, whereas light summery salads taste best (to me anyway) when consumed a la minute.

3) Eat at least three vegetarian meals a week

No problem at all. We both like vegetarian food so this has been one of the easiest goals to hit week-on-week. Also, I eat so much soup during the week and it’s always vegetarian (barring the odd use of a chicken stock cube – why no, I don’t make my own stock on the regs, thanks).

4) Clear my archive of bookmarked recipes

One problem with this is that for every recipe I make I bookmark about three. But I have made progress. Most recently, I made these sweet peppermint meringues on a whim for a Christmas gathering at a pub – we called them ‘toothpaste meringues’ since I had coloured them quite brightly and the strong stripes of colours and minty flavour definitely made them reminiscent of a tube of Colgate. They weren’t a universal hit on account of this but some people really liked the toothpaste-y element. To get the meringues properly crisp and completely dried out I did have to bake them for much longer than the recipe said, but in her column on Perfect Meringues, Felicity Cloake does suggest that up to six hours for dry, non-gooey meringues is totally normal. This incredibly hearty sausage and cabbage dish was extremely low-maintenance, seasonal and warming – perfect for cold and rainy days. We liked this a lot, especially my cabbage-loving boyfriend.

5) Celebrate my heritage more

Chocolate box houses / I vow to thee, my country. Though I’m not sure what exactly I vow.

I actually visited Belgium in December, and saw my family, and ate all the Belgian food and visited Belgian elephants and watched little Belgian children visiting Sint Nicolaas in a shopping mall. I’m counting it. For all three months. (On reflection, this was not a very good resolution to set, because it’s not SMART-able at all – but then one could argue that cultural heritage and attachment to country, culture and tradition are not particularly grounded in rationality anyway).

6) Develop a good bedtime/sleeping routine

I cannot claim that I have achieved this. How do people sleep at night?!

7) Visit at least two (new) places in the UK outside of London

Sandhurst chapel
It was here that my friends discovered I an an unrepentant Roll of Honour bore

I did it! One of my good friends graduated from officer training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and a group of us went down to watch her pass out. We visited the Sandhurst grounds, of course, where my newly-minted officer friend Sarah pointed out the frozen ditches she’d crawled through and the muddy fields she’s tramped across, and we sang hymns in the chapel. Then we all spent some time in the nearby town of Camberley. It was very pretty, very charming, and despite being so close to London was absolutely not London at all. I also went to Bath earlier in the year.

8) Read at least one book a month

So many books. I am going to spare a list of everything I’ve read in these months (because I really was very prolific) and point you to my new ‘newsletter about books’, which sounds very ominous but is really just a rundown of things I have read and had thoughts about and will include cookbooks and articles. You don’t have to subscribe to read them (though you can also totally subscribe, which would be nice, and then it will come straight to your inbox whenever I write them up!).


Edible Bath: a weekend sampler

Chilled chocolate fondant with caramel sauce
Chilled dark chocolate fondant with salted caramel sauce, hazelnut praline and Jersey cream, from The Circus (see below)

I made it one of my resolutions at the start of the year to visit a few places in the UK which are new to me. I haven’t actually been very good at this, but did manage to co-opt a few friends into joining me on a trip to Bath, which we selected after a five-minute discussion almost at random.

SouthGate umbrellas
Exhibition of colourful umbrellas on Bath’s SouthGate

Bath is a smallish spa town, distinguished for its Georgian architecture and the extensive use of Bath stone, which gives the buildings a tawny, yellowed look (I’m sure you’re not meant to think this, but it actually reminded me a little of smokers’ fingers…forgive me) and has contributed to the city’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Since, on a more charitable note, the colour of Bath stone also recalls sepia and aged newspapers, it contributes to an overall sense of genteel eighteenth-century elegance. The town’s history as a fashionable, expensive, buzzing Georgian town (name-checked by Jane Austen, Bath is the setting of Persuasion, her romance of longing and second chances) is both reinforced and challenged by the hordes of tourists from every part of the globe who throng the streets and the many tea rooms made to look like period pieces (or at least our televisual idea of such). The many people tramping about the city centre give it a sense of real vibrancy, recalling it as the bustling epicentre of fashionable life, and also generates the impetus to preserve the look and feel of Georgian Bath. However, tourism inherently engenders a range of tensions and contradictions: it leads to competing claims over space and geography, and to the sometimes artificial preservation of the old at the expense of the evolution of the new; and of course the need to build the kind of infrastructure to accommodate all those out-of-town visitors can sometimes undercut the supposed authenticity offered up to the tourist. In the case of Bath, one minute you can be looking at a lace-curtained tea room with its (female) staff in long skirts, shawls, and bonnets; the next moment you’ll see a row of bins, each printed in a different language – French, Chinese, Spanish – with instructions to avoid feeding pigeons and mind the seagulls.

Jacob Bosanquet
A moving memorial plaque at Bath cathedral

In addition, Bath is a university town, with the campuses of the University of Bath and Bath Spa University a short drive away, which means that in addition to elegant and/or touristy places to eat and drink (both types of place are found in my which my reviews below!) you can find some very good, hearty, decently-priced food

The trip to Bath was a bit disorganised and we didn’t plan out things as well as we could have, resulting in a few things being missed – if we went again I would like to visit the Roman baths, for example – but we did see a lot of the city, including the famous Royal Crescent of posh Georgian houses overlooking the parks, which were also soothing to walk in. I also enjoyed wandering round the cathedral, gazing up at the scallop-shaped ceiling and reading the many memorial plaques, some of them very touching. All in all, it’s a good place for a quick weekend away if you fancy.

The Circus

On the first day, we had lunch at The Circus, which my friend Juliet arranged for us (you will need to make advance reservations, especially for dinner). The restaurant serves a seasonal menu with beautiful British produce – it describes its food as ‘modern European’ but I thought the food was in many ways very British, in the best way: fresh, eclectic, driven by European technique for sure but with an adventurous, internationalist outlook rather than one excessively hide-bound by tradition. As the menu changes regularly with the seasons you wouldn’t be served the exact same food, but all was delicious and exquisitely prepared and I’d be fully confident in going back.

Ham, nectarine and mozzarella salad

We shared a starter of a Parma (or at least Parma-style, since I think it was British) ham, nectarine and tomato and mozzarella salad. Such composed salads are not necessarily about originality but about delicious ingredients who are respected by allowing their quality to shine…and this salad hit the mark. The tomatoes were bursting with ripe, juicy flavour; the nectarines were the perfect ripeness to serve in a salad, still firm and crisp but juicy and honeyed, not underripe; the ham was excellent, with that silk-stocking texture you get from good-quality fat from a pig that has eaten a nourishing diet and a mouth-filling, nutty flavour of its own that isn’t just saltiness. The mozzarella was the necessary third element, all soft milk and cream. It was a wonder with the Bertinet bakery sourdough we were served to start.

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Resolution roundup: August and September 2017

Red leaves

We had strange weather in August – damp, almost humid, sticky, and yet quite cool; and some equally odd days in September, punctuated by the odd stretch of beautiful sunshine. Days are certainly taking a turn, though: the skies are becoming bleached and grey and by contrast the trees are starting to turn glorious shades of red and orange. It’s a happy time – autumn is a beautiful season and I celebrate my birthday in September – but also occasionally a difficult one as work becomes much more intensive and tiring, and will be until the Christmas break in December. I’ve worked hard over the summer but there’s always a brief respite in July and August: the shock of October will mean lots of quick cooking with minimal washing up (I hope anyway).

1) Eat fish at least once a week, preferably twice a week

Yes, I achieved this – just. Some of the dishes cooked were my ‘standards’ (salmon in soy sauce…), but I also made this miso salmon (pretty similar in flavour and profile to the salmon recipes I usually make) and this ‘firecracker’ salmon, which is like my basic soy sauce salmon with added ingredients that gave it a really nice twist. Writing down the fish dishes I make regularly has emphasised how reliant I am on those helpful twin packets of salmon fillets in the supermarket. More unusually, I made this lemon and parsley-crusted fish (I think I used haddock), which was served with mashed potatoes (I cooked tenderstem broccoli instead of serving it with spinach because I didn’t feel like washing spinach on the night).

2) Bring a packed lunch to work at least three times a week

I did try, but I failed in a number of weeks over the last two months – in one week I actually bought lunch every day, which is very rare. Buying in so many lunches only reminded me of how much I dislike the sandwich offerings in the supermarket, and also how expensive it is! I’m determined to do a bit better and be more disciplined about spending some time making something, as tiring as it can sometimes be. Moving back into soup season will be a big help, because it’s such an easy thing to bring along. I currently have a few containers full of a really delicious spinach and rosemary soup I love in the fridge ready for Monday, so I feel like I’m winning already…

Palm House (Kew Gardens)
The Palm House at Kew Gardens (see below)

Continue reading “Resolution roundup: August and September 2017”

Baking challenge: crème caramel

This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the technical challenge for week four (dessert week) of series three: crème caramel.

Mary Berry's creme caramel

Crème caramel is an old-fashioned dessert, isn’t it, belonging almost to the realms of the (sadly, now) imaginary bistros of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, with those heavy leather-lined seats where you are comfortably ignored once delivered of your food (and, of course, alcohol). In a more modern context I can imagine buying a small plastic tub of it from the supermarket, the caramel staining the bottom of the container deep brown, and inverting it at home. But these are acts of the imagination alone: I don’t know if I’ve eaten creme caramel before making it for this baking challenge. It does feel like the kind of gentle, nurturing nursery-type food I should have eaten as a child, however.

Crème caramel is a sister to crème brûlée: both are softly-set, only very lightly sweetened custards, composed of wholesome and nurturing ingredients: whole milk, eggs. But what a difference the outside makes: the crème brûlée is the flirty, dangerous show-off in the family, with her tempting crackled-burnt sugar crust, which has required the application of the naked (ooh la la) flame of the blowtorch (if you’re a cowboy cook who’s not using the grill, anyway) and dares you to crack into it. No one would mistake this dessert for an inhabitant of the nursery. The crème caramel is a bit more homely and dutiful compared to her glamorous sibling.

Creme caramel

You start off by making a caramel, which coats the buttered ramekins, and then a custard which bakes gently in the oven. The cups of custard must then chill completely, to be turned out a la minute. The chilled custard is silky-quivering in its delicacy, lightly drenched in a cloak of caramel syrup which adds some much-needed sweetness and intense depth to this dessert, which would otherwise be simply milky and jiggly and bland. (This contrast is especially, deliciously pronounced if you are brave enough to cook your caramel properly dark). Custard always walks a fine line between homely, nursery food and sensual indulgence. This definitely leans towards the latter – although easy to eat, it’s a dessert that celebrates rich, soft smoothness and contrast of innocently sweet custard and earthy caramel.

Don’t make the mistake I did and forget to immerse your custard-filled ramekins in their hot-water bath. I had to make these twice because I missed this vital instruction first time round. I must have skipped over the line completely because, as I transferred my first batch to the oven, I did think to myself that I would have expected a water bath to coddle the custards. In the absence of the water bath the custard took much longer to cook, surprisingly, but also set quite rubbery and hard, and had large air bubbles running through, which ruined the silky texture. A few were edible but most were relatively grim eating and were given to the worms via our compost box. This mishap aside, it was fairly easy to pull together and the desserts were exceptionally satisfying to turn out – they came out easily after a bit of coaking with a palette knife (just be careful not to angle the knife in such a way that you cut into the set custard).

Recipe below the break as always.

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