Baking challenge: latticed treacle tart

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 three (tart week) of series three: a lattice-topped treacle tart.

Lattice topped treacle tart

Treacle tart, a classic British dessert, bears some of the strange hallmarks of traditional British baking and cookery. To start with, like many traditional sweets, its unpromising-looking ingredients list is based on breadcrumbs, joining old-fashioned dishes like brown bread ice cream and Queen of Puddings. It’s safe to say that treacle tart eclipses both, however, in the popularity stakes – while the other two may have a sort of ‘retro favourite’ status, to taste them you’ll probably have to make them, whereas treacle tart is accessible commercially: it appears in almost every museum cafe, doubtless selling for £4.50 a flat slice, but it can also be easily purchased in even the smallest of supermarkets.

Secondly, treacle tart is one of the British linguistic oddities which can seriously throw non-native speakers, inasmuch as the titular ingredient – treacle – makes no appearance in the tart. Perhaps the original tarts were made with this coal-black, iron-tasting sweetener (one of those sugar-based products which inexplicably taste like they’re good for you), but it’s long been superseded by very sweet, light-coloured golden syrup, which gives treacle tart its agreeable sunny colour.

 

Mary Berry's lattice topped treacle tart

Mary Berry’s treacle tart is well-balanced: enough breadcrumbs to soak up the syrup and give the dessert some ballast, but not so many that it’s heavy and dry: the filling has a touch of agreeably sticky fluffiness. There’s enough lemon to balance out the aching sweetness of four hundred grams of golden syrup without turning it into a tarte au citron (avec chapelure). The only annoying thing about the recipe is weaving together the lattice top, for which she offers no real method. There are those, like the studiedly-unpretentious Simon Hopkinson, incidentally, who critique the lattice top as unnecessary, but actually a bit of additional plain, unsweetened pastry is no bad thing as a foil against the intensity of the filling.

A tip: Mary Berry would have you spoon your breadcrumb filling straight from the saucepan into your pastry case, to top immediately with the lattice, but of course the heat of the still-warm syrup made the pastry start to ooze. While it wouldn’t be practical to go to the other extreme and let it cool down completely (the golden syrup would solidify around the breadcrumbs and make it impossible to shift), I recommend letting it cool a little before filling the tart case.

I’ve mentioned a few times the unmitigated sweetness of the tart and, in the interests of further balancing this out, I urge to eat your slice drizzled with a good puddle of unsweetened double cream, or a good thick dollop of the clotted stuff.

The recipe and method (including actual steps on making a lattice top) is below the jump.

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Baking challenge: sweet and spiced pineapple tarte Tatin

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 three (tart week) of series three: tarte Tatin.

Pineapple tarte tartin

I have very fond memories of making my father a classic apple tarte Tatin – at his request – from Linda Collister’s reliable and good The Baking Book when I visited him in Dubai as a teenager. It was a bit of a struggle in some respects – I cooked the apples and caramel in a standard baking tin on the glass stove-top rather than in an ovenproof frying pan, and lacking a scale I had to approximate the amount of butter used in the pastry by eye. The result was more like shortbread than shortcrust, but it was, as you might expect, utterly delicious against the fragrant, caramel apples, and my father very kindly gave me his copy of The Baking Book which so entranced me all of that summer. Linda Collister is still one of my go-to cookery writers and The Baking Book my first port of call when looking for a baking recipe. This book is no longer in print (though you can regularly find used copies via online retailers, and it’s well worth seeking out), but fittingly enough Collister is actually the author behind the Great British Bake-Off branded cookbooks (they do include handfuls of recipes from the contestants and judges, but the majority are Collister’s – and I think she should get more recognition for this than she does).

According to the stipulations of The Great British Bake-Off challenge, the tarte Tatin could be sweet or savoury, but contestants were instructed to use rough-puff pastry. I thought this was quite interesting; most recipes guide the cook towards using store-bought puff pastry, but of course rough puff is not something you can commonly buy. I don’t know how regularly it’s used in professional kitchens: at a party, my friend Juliet’s boyfriend, who is a trained chef (Cordon Bleu, bien sûr), told me they hadn’t been instructed on this pastry. ‘Rough puff’ certainly sounds a bit amateurish, but you can style it out by calling it ‘pâte demi-feuilletée’.

(Another interesting thing about tarte Tatin is that – despite being named for its inventors, the sisters Tatin, it seems perfectly acceptable to write the ‘tatin’ in lowercase).

Pineapple tarte tatin serving

Despite my happy memories of the classic tarte Tatin, I opted to make something a bit different. My first attempt was a pear tarte Tatin, using Collister’s recipe as a guide. Unfortunately it didn’t work with the pears: juicy as they were, I couldn’t cook out sufficient liquid, and the resultant caramel was extremely thin and overwhelmed the somewhat delicate rough puff pastry, resulting in pear-caramel-soaked layers (yes, delicious). I did intend to try it again and perfect the pear Tatin but, as so often happens, I became first distracted and then obsessed by the idea of a chilli-spiced salted caramel pineapple upside-down cake. From there it’s a short walk to a pineapple tarte tatin.

The juiciness of the pineapple pieces is retained even after cooking into caramel sauce and baking, and their intense, tropical sweetness contrasts beautifully with the slightly salted caramel. The idea of adding salt and chilli to the pineapple was inspired by the typically Malay way of eating it with these additions. I grew up in Singapore and there’s truly nothing like eating a pineapple that has ripened in the sun to honeyed perfection, cool from the fridge, sprinkled with salt, sticky juice running down your face and arms and chest, under a humid sky. In Singapore we grew tiny, perfectly round, pink-skinned pineapples in our enormous garden for many years. It seemed so normal. Of course in the UK you can really only get your hands on the large, oval pineapples whose skin is yellow when ripe but is typically sold hard and green, straight off the plane from Costa Rica. They can still be delicious when the craving hits, but they are undeniably a little monotonous in taste and fibrous in texture.

Pineapple tarte tatin slices

A lot of recipes calling for pineapple will used tinned chunks. I used fresh, but I honestly don’t think that it makes a huge amount of difference after cooking. If buying fresh pineapples, you will have to buy them in advance and coax them into ripeness (not to mention the peeling and winkling out of the eyes); if using tinned, ensure you have drained the chunks thoroughly of their juice.

The pastry recipe is a scaled-down version of the recipe from the master of patisserie, Michel Roux Senior, a man whose very rare appearances on television utterly captivate and charm me.

The full recipe is below the jump.

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Baking challenge: sweet (strawberry cream) and savoury (caramelised onion and tomato) flavoured bagels

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 two (bread week) of series three: 12 sweet and 12 savoury bagels.

 

Sweet strawberry bagels
Sweet strawberry and cream bagels

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the best time to make bagels for the first time ever is three hours before your guests are due to arrive at your brunch o’clock birthday party. You may have already made Bircher muesli and autumnal loaf cakes (my birthday is in September) and chocolate sheet cake and pumpkin and white chocolate cookies; you may be sizzling bacon in the oven and baking up savoury strata. But after two days’ worth of preparation and as many dishes as there are guests, if you’re anything like me you may still have a nagging feeling that something is somehow missing if you don’t bake up 24 bagels, to your own made-up recipe.

(Funnily enough I was discussing this scenario with a few people who love food and cooking and about halfway through they started nodding in recognition. The urge to over-cater is a strange one, but I feel better knowing that the wish to destroy one’s nerves and kitchen shortly before inviting your dear friends to come in and gape, somewhat aghast, at the filthiness of the kitchen floor, all trodden in flour and dough bits, is not unique to me).

Tomato and onion bagels
Tomato and caramelised onion bagels with sesame topping

Anyway, the aforementioned scenario is why these bagels are not very pretty, and also why I have very few photographs of them. What is undeniable is that they were absolutely the hits of the party: for something thrown together pretty spontaneously, to recipes I was devising off-piste, they came off really well. People devoured them, took them home with them, and remembered them. And that is really gratifying.

For the sweet bagel I made strawberry-cream cheese bagels. The barely sweetened dough (the sugar is to feed the yeast rather than sweeten the dough) is studded with dried strawbs and, after poaching and baking, is slathered with a topping of sweetened cream cheese and topped off with freeze-dried strawberry bits. You could very easily of course make a raspberry version, given that dried and freeze-dried raspberries are as widely available as the strawberry versions thereof. The cream cheese topping gives the sweet fruit an obviously creamy, tangy element, which hearkens to the quintessential British summer cliche: you know, I know, we all know, strawberries and cream, British summer, Wimbledon, blah blah blah. Still good though. The resultant bagels are delicious and, while recognisably sweet, not too sugary, and deliciously rich and sticky from the topping. For a more sober or transportable version, you could leave out the cream cheese topping.

The savoury bagel is tomato and balsamic vinegar caramelised onion, topped with sesame seeds. It’s just about the most inspired brunch bagel flavour ever, to be honest. Goes well with eggs, goes well with bacon, would probably go well with those hideous baked beans British people like to eat fried tomatoes or black pudding. The tomato flavour is a quite subtle layer of savoury sweetness; if you’d prefer it to be more assertive, use a few more tablespoons and use either double-concentrated paste or (even stronger) sundried tomato paste.

Strawberry bagels

To my surprise, the ‘bits’ in each bagel – the dried strawberries in the sweet and caramelised onions in the savoury – adhered well to the dough and stayed put even during the poaching stage. I had thought that the water would be studded with raspberries and onions making a bid for freedom, but in fact not a single piece detached. The density and relative dryness of the bagel dough keeps them lodged firmly in place. I was pleased, particularly for the strawberry bagels, as dried strawberries are not cheap.

Recipes below the jump.

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Baking challenge: eight-strand plaited loaf

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 two (bread week) of series three: an eight-strand plaited loaf.

Baked loaf

Any ordinary cat has nine lives, but not every loaf of bread has eight strands, plaited together to form an impressive-looking bread centrepiece. This was a series three technical challenge for the Great British Bake-Off, and while some of the bakers certianly struggled with it, I thought it was a rare example of a task that looks quite challenging but actually came together fairly easily (which is not the same thing as saying ‘perfectly’).

I don’t want to sound overly blasé about it, but the making of the bread dough for the plaited loaf posed no significant challenges. It’s a very simple, indeed basic, white loaf; made with instant yeast and white bread flour, it puffs up quickly and rapidly becomes springy and elastic to the touch. It’s easy to handle and – compared to the sourdough breads I often make – an easy pleasure to knead and prove.

Eight-strand plait step by step_sm
Plaiting the rolled-out strands is a bit like weaving together an octopus, but as long as you follow the instructions slowly and carefully, and apply even pressure when tucking the strands over and under one another, it works quite well, although I’m sure it’s certainly a skill that improves on practice and is best cultivated outside of the pressures of a time limit. You can see in the images how my plaiting became tighter and more even at the bottom compared to the top. The thing that makes weaving the strands easier is that the number assigned to each strand is dependent on its position and is not carried depending on its moves; that is to say, the first strand in the plait will always be strand number one, even if it started off life as strand number seven.I did go wrong a bit in overproving it on the second rise, which is not an error the Bake-Off contestants usually have time to make; indeed the main criticism is usually that their bread is underproved, which is unsurprising given the time constraints applied to the challenges. However, yoga waits for no woman and I prioritised going to my class rather than coddling the dough to the point of perfection. I came home a bit later than intended and, although a bit too puffy, leading to the strands losing some of their definition and deflating more than desirable in the oven, the overproving wasn’t too destructive of the bread’s actual structure and eating quality; like many white bread recipes, this one is actually quite forgiving.

Braided loaf

The breads judged in the show rasped loudly when cut into (doubtless this owed quite a lot to sound effects), but in my oven the crust remained quite soft, with a slightly leathery, resilient chew. This is pretty typical unless I use the fan setting on the oven. The glorious bronze of the baked loaf – a similar shade to that achieved by 1970s sunbathers on the Cote d’Azur – is achieved by means of a simple egg wash.

Recipe below the jump as always.

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Resolution Roundup: April and May 2017

Halva in Machne Yehuda market
Many flavours of halva at the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem

Easter came late this year and a late Easter (and consequently a late break from work) corresponds easily with a sense of general weariness, frayed tempers and impatience. I don’t tend to notice it much at the time but in retrospect concede I was probably at my snappish worst throughout late March and early April…

Once April hit, however, I felt like I was barely in the office or in this country. Firstly I was off to Girona, as written up here; then, thanks to a craftily-timed stretch of annual leave, I was off work and visiting Israel for around ten days (more on which soon, I hope!). It was an interesting holiday: Israel offers a lot in terms of history, beauty and, in Tel Aviv at least, sheer, indulgent relaxation (I also appreciate, as a destination, Israel is not without its controversies. But I’ll leave it at that). As ever when I go on holiday, I certainly felt the intense weight of my great fortune.

The consequence of course is all the catching up and sorting out that returning from holiday entails, but luckily April is a quiet time at work (in some ways less hectic than the summer, which always promises to be quiet but rarely is). The quiet of April is paid for with a quickening pace in the months thereafter, and before I knew it, May was over in a flash. They’ve not been months for reflection and adherence to resolutions – I know I’ve failed on some counts over the past two months – but overall I think it’s been okay.

Mediterranean sea from the Old City, Jaffa
Yes, Tel Aviv is nice (view of the sea from the Old City of Jaffa).

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

This target was certainly not met in April – I don’t think I ate any fish while in Israel – and I barely scraped it in May, with only a single serving per week.

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

I was hardly at work in April, as above but, apart from that, I have been doing pretty well on this resolution so far this year, and April and May were no exceptions. Although I sometimes feel less than enthusiastic about whipping something up on a Sunday evening, it usually pays dividends – especially when the weather has been as windy and changeable as it has been recently, enabling me to avoid being caught in a lunchtime downpour in search of a sandwich.

3) Eat at least three vegetarian meals a week

I definitely achieved this goal while I was in London, but I’m a little less certain about the time spent in Israel, unless I count breakfast in the mix (which, when tallying this up, I usually don’t as breakfast is typically vegetarian for me by default). While I did eat a few meals of hummus and falafel in Israel (obvs) I also know I ate much more meat than I usually do, from spiced lamb kofta kebabs to barely-cooked chicken liver (not great).

4) Clear my archive of bookmarked recipes

I haven’t been relying on bookmarked recipes lately mostly because, on return from Israel, I felt the need to, er, recalibrate my food intake a little and eat healthier meals after several enjoyable, guilt-free weeks of indulgence. I’ve therefore turned to some of my reliable ‘diet’ cookbooks to feed myself since I came back. I will be returning to the never-ending bookmarks in due course…

5) Celebrate my heritage more

Not a chance, really…although…

When we were at Yad Vashem (Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Centre), a guide kindly told me to look out for some of the Belgian names in the memorial garden of the Righteous Among the Nations when we were there, which was really nice of her to mention (the Righteous Among the Nations are people who protected and saved Jewish people during the Holocaust; the most famous among them is probably Oskar Schindler, who saved over a thousand people, but the memorials also remember many of those who saved smaller numbers of people, sometimes one or two, usually by hiding them in their homes). It wasn’t a ‘celebration’ of my heritage, but provided an opportunity to reflect on European history and Belgium’s place within that, and to consider the inherent complexities associated with both the ideas of heritage and the celebration thereof – the things that are left out as well as left in.

6) Develop a good bedtime/sleeping routine

I slept pretty well while on holiday – free from stress and being forced awake for work regardless of when ready to be or not, but admittedly things haven’t been going so well since I’ve been back. More effort needed – started with going to bed at a fixed time in the evenings rather than knocking around the flat until past midnight for no fathomable reason.

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

Obviously this wasn’t achieved, BUT I have actually planned a trip to Bath with some friends at the very end of June/start of July. I am absolutely thrilled.

8) Read at least one book a month

I’ve been doing really well on this front actually. I’ve started re-reading Agatha Christie’s Poirot mysteries, starting with The Mysterious Affair at Styles and going forward in order. They’re quick and breezy, which is a plus: perfect for the commute. I read this work by Helen McPhail about the German occupation of the north of France during the First World War (much less widely known about than the more widespread occupation of the Second World War). I also read Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last for my book group: it’s a dystopian work of speculative fiction (so far so Atwood) with an intriguing promise that ultimately tipped into the absurd and proved greatly disappointing. The significant contrast between the beginning, which chilled me deeply, and the end, which irritated me significantly, was marked. The characters were poorly drawn and their choices stretched credibility. The patchiness of this particular work is explained by the fact that it started off life as an e-book serial; it showcases Atwood at her best (the beginning) and quite possibly worst, quite unlike her seminal work The Handmaid’s Tale, which is uniformly excellent throughout.

In fair Girona: travels in Spain

 

Churros

We live in an era where occasionally you can take off to Europe at a moment’s notice and spend a long weekend in another country and, recently (just before Easter), that’s just what I did. A friend was visiting from Australia and suggested a European adventure, and shortly after we had booked tickets to visit Girona. Spain is such a classic British holiday destination (and Belgian one, for that matter) that it was hard for some of my colleagues to understand that this was my very first visit, ever.

Hidden alley

Girona, which is close to Barcelona, is considered one of Catalonia’s major cities, but it’s population is – compared to London – tiny, with just under 100,000 people living there at last count. This accounts for the peacefulness and quiet of the town which I experienced; even at busy points it was pleasant and easy to walk around. Although the narrow alleyways and winding streets can make it confusing to navigate – all the stone walls merging into one – the size of the place makes it manageable (although I readily admit that I was entirely dependent on my friend, who had a homing pigeon’s instinct for finding our AirBnB).

Dali museum

It’s also easy to get to and from other areas – Barcelona is obviously close by, but we opted to take a day trip to Salvador Dali’s birthplace Figueres and visit the museum which he helped design (the entrance pictured just above). Dali is a somewhat controversial figure in the art world – the genius of his works is not doubted, but his changeable politics, which verged on outright support for Franco, can certainly be considered questionable – but the museum helped me to appreciate his body of work much more. His strange inventiveness, delicate skill and exquisite tenderness of his paintings was so much more than melting clocks.

Espresso Mafia

In terms of food, there were, predictably, a lot of tapas. On the first night we ate a restaurant at the steps of the San Felix church, which made for an atmospheric setting but markedly average food which in some cases seemed extremely Americanised – think stodgy cheese batter studded with mild chilliest, served with a barbecue-style sauce (we expected jalapeños stuffed with cheese from the description of it). We also ate at a branch of König, a mini-chain with branches around the city which we had actually avoided on the first night there on account of its Germanic name and long and mostly not very local menu. However, during a walking tour the next day, our guide mentioned it had won an award for the best patatas bravas in Catalonia. The tour ended just outside one of their branches, so the small group (four of us were on the tour) ate some decent bravas – chunky and without excess grease – and some average, but decent, seafood croquetas, and also slightly better ham croquetas. None of it was revelatory but it was satisfying. We cooled off with ice cream from Candela afterwards. They had some innovative (and not, to my palate, successful) flavours such as tomato ice cream, but also more delicious classics such as coffee, chocolate and pistachio. I had a lovely local walnut ice cream completely studded with chopped nuts – no mimsy sprinkle here. They were happy to provide samples before we bought our cones, too – always a bonus.

We also had some excellent coffee at Espresso Mafia, an elegantly minimalist cafe where they roast the coffee beans in-house. The friend I was with, who is Australian and therefore highly attuned to quality coffee, approved heartily. The flat whites were delicious; the chai latte was spicy and flavourful with a good gingery kick, but a little cold. They also serve a ‘dirty chai’, which is a chai latte with a shot of espresso; not my cup of tea but interesting enough. The baked goods were tasty standards – coconut, chocolate and Oreo cakes, banana breads and a range of oatmeal-based cookies, as well as a vegan option.

The second time we went to Espresso Mafia, coffees in hand, I purchased a handful of churros (picture at the top) from the Montse l’Artesana, a small churreria just opposite, to nibble on during our walk to the train station. The churros are sold by weight so I was able to request only three, which was sufficient for a (shared) mid-morning snackette. They were not freshly fried to order and served with thick chocolate, as you might expect, but were fried in advance, some plain, some covered in a chocolate glaze and some in a veil of white icing. I chose plain ones sprinkled with granulated sugar. They were more like a crunchy cookie than a tender, moist fritter with cakey insides, but this actually meant they went well with the coffee. I don’t think they were exceptional, probably, and yet I really enjoyed them, and eating the last of the sugar from the tip of the cone with a moistened finger.

Video: January-March 2017 Food and Cooking Favourites

It had been such a long time since I’d filmed something for the blog that I’d almost completely forgotten how. So please forgive the odd ramble as I take you through some of the food and food-related things I’ve loved in the first part of this year, from dazzling sweet-sour citrus to two very good books, afternoon snacks, and a new and slightly sticky obsession…