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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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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Lamb sausage roll with tkemali

Lamb sausage roll with tkemali

I frequently find myself buying interesting jars of this or that when I come across them in the supermarket, corner shop or while on holiday: ajvar, violet extract, chilli relish, halva spread and balsamic pearls have all made their way into my cupboards on such random expeditions. It’s very rare that I have something in mind for them – they just interest me. (I’m equally catholic in taste vis-a-vis cookbooks). I also enjoy kitchen puttering above almost anything: the consequence is that jars and packets of purchased items are easily joined by row upon row of homemade produce: jams, chutneys, and liqueurs weigh down the shelves in my kitchen which, despite being sizeable by London standards, always feels too small for my needs.

The main consequence, apart from the groaning shelf, is that once you open said jars, your fridge also becomes a graveyard of half-used condiments which never quite get used up. It always seems such a shame to chuck them out, especially if homemade or expensive, even though you run the risk of them becoming furry and spoiled even when chilled if you wait too long. In the spirit of clearing through some of my condiment collection, I devised this recipe for a lamb sausage roll – or perhaps you could call it a lamb slice – which, in addition to the minced lamb, zesty-fresh with lemon, mint and spices, contains a sweet-acid slick of damson tkemali.

Lamb, mint and tkemali sausage roll

Tkemali is a Georgian sour plum sauce made from cherry plums which is typically served with meat. Many recipes geared towards a UK audience use prune plums, but I made a batch using a bag of damsons which, like the cherry plums they are traditionally made with, have a distinctly sour note. The vivid-purple jar was happily spooned out with crisp-roast poussin, but a few tablespoons remained at the bottom, unused, for some time. With space in my fridge at a premium, it was time to make an effort to use it.

Obviously the problem of excess tkemali may be unique, but I wager you could use any plum chutney or sauce with this recipe, as long as it has a good mix of sweet and sour flavour – you may need to tweak your spices a bit depending on the flavours inherent within your condiment. Also, if you like heat and have a jar of harissa knocking around, add a dollop of that – although I enjoyed the lamb rolls as they were, I did want a bit of extra heat. The mixture of paprika, mint, lemon and sumac gave the lamb a flavour profile that hinted at the Middle East; the tkemali teased out the links between Georgian and Middle Eastern culinary tradition by complementing those flavours perfectly.

I served these hot for supper with a tomato-balsamic salad, but the leftover rolls were delicious wrapped up and eaten cold the next day for lunch.

Ideas for variations

  • I didn’t have any fresh tarragon at home but substituting tarragon for the parsley in the recipe below would have given the lamb rolls a more recognisably Georgian touch
  • If using a British-style plum chutney, which often contain dried fruit and flavourings such as mustard seeds, you might want to leave out the mint and maybe the sumac and add a dollop of mustard to the lamb. It could also go well with lamb sprinkled with South Asian spices like cumin, coriander and garam masala
  • If using a Chinese plum sauce you could flavour it with ginger, extra garlic and cumin and five-spice powder instead

Recipe below the break as always!

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Baking challenge: strawberry almond cake cream torte

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 four (dessert week) of series three: a three-layer torte cake.

Strawberry mousse cream cake

Cream-based desserts always have my heart – notwithstanding the danger all this dairy fat doubtless poses to said heart. A trickle of liquid cream or dollop of the airily whipped variety – or even, dare I say, a pump of aerosol-whipped foam from a ‘squirty cream’ can – rarely fails to perfect a baked good or even a simple piece of baked or poached fruit.

Anecdote: I once bought a can of squirty cream for a Wimbledon Finals viewing party (yes, very bourgeois) from Tesco (actually, from the Tesco in Wimbledon itself!) and the woman at the cashier rang through my summer-standard purchases – Pimms, strawberries, napkins – without comment. When she came to the can of cream, she picked it up, waggled her eyebrows, and rasped out (Marsha-from-Spaced-style) “Are you going to be having play-time when you get back?” followed by a hearty chuckle. Even if I actually preferred the sugary, airy taste of the canned stuff to the voluptuous purity of hand-whipped double cream, the memory of this moment would be enough to put me off any purchases of aerosol cream for fear of another such encounter.

Strawberry mousse almond cream cake

There is nothing fake or sugary about this cream torte. The almond cake which forms the foundation is somewhat austere on its own: dense but not particularly sweet, and quite dry. The orange liqueur-spiked syrup it’s brushed with adds some flavour and moisture, but the purpose of the cake is to provide a contrast to the extremely creamy strawberry and orange liqueur mousse which fills the middle. With 500ml – half a litre – of double cream providing body to the mousse, the cake needs structure and a little dryness to hold it together and provide a textural contrast to all that soft, voluptuous sweetness.

There are a number of steps, and skills, associated with making this cake (you can see why it was a suitable challenge on Bake Off). There’s the baking of the sponge and the making and setting of the filling, which involves gelatine. (Most of the gelatine you can buy off the shelf in the UK is beef rather than pork gelatine, so bear that in mind if you want to serve this cake – or even just the mousse – to someone with medical or cultural dietary restrictions. I have not tested this with vegetarian gelatine and would suggest following the packet instructions if you want to try this as it works slightly differently). Fortunately both can be done ahead of time. The assembled cake and mousse structure then has to chill for a good amount of time in the fridge – if not, you will have sponges floating on a strawberry-cream slop. Not very appetising, and I can imagine it must have been a struggle for the Bake Off contestants to set a gelatine-based mousse in time. (Incidentally, this cake is a good test of faith, inasmuch as you have to believe that you will pass through the ‘cakes-on-slop’ phase to get to the ‘elegant Mitteleuropa cream torte’ stage when shoving it in the fridge to set).

Almond torte with strawberry mousse

If it really all does seem like too much work for a summer’s day – and with so little of summer left I won’t blame you – do try making just the mousse, which is pure and delicate and delicious – it melts delicately on the tongue and tastes like a child’s memory of strawberries and cream. As a bonus, you won’t need to turn the oven on.

The almond cake I made is an amalgam and extensive adaptation of several recipes I found online; the syrup and mousse are based on a recipe for Erdbeeroberstorte from Rick Rodgers’ magnificent book Kaffeehaus, which is well worth a look at if you love cream-based desserts, which are also so beloved in Central Europe. The instructions given to the bakers was to make a three-layer cake, but this did not require three layers of sponge, simply that the entire piece be composed of three layers – in this case two of sponge and one of mousse; the tortes themselves should not contain any flour. Strictly speaking, also, the instructions in the challenge did suggest that the bakers should not using leavening agents in their cakes – with all the rise coming from well-whipped egg yolks and whites – but as all their torte recipes on the BBC website include baking powder, I took the same liberty of sidestepping this instruction.

Full recipe below the break, as always.

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Baking challenge: dressed-up gooseberry and almond cream 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 showstopper challenge for week three (tart week) of series three: a designer fruit tart.

Gooseberry almond tart

Last week, Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins made some waves with an article he wrote sneering at the idea of learning languages in school as a general, rather than specialist, skill, unimportant compared to learning about history, culture, the economy, and even urban planning. As Jenkins and his editors no doubt planned, the social media backlash (and subsequent linking to his article) was robust: the article was decried as ‘stupid’, ‘foolish’ and ‘narrow-minded’. Proponents of language-learning pointed out that learning languages is inherently linked to learning culture; expands our worldview and horizons; develops the intellect; and is, often, still, even in a world in which English is often spoken globally, a very practical skill.

I work with a lot of academic researchers, and I’d like to be one myself one day, and many, many people I know would not be able to do the research they do without speaking one or more languages. The relative dearth of language skills among British scholars in my own discipline of history is considered pretty crippling by some people I know. But in addition to such lofty considerations, learning a language gives us an everyday understanding of the world that adds so much colour and interest. For example, the etymology of the word ‘gooseberry’: in English, one theory for the name of these tart, hairy green summer fruits is that they were served as a sauce with roast goose, and that this marriage was so commonplace, so ordinary, that the link became embedded in language. This theory becomes ever the more tantalising once you know that in French these berries are called ‘groseille à maquereau’ – mackerel berries – because gooseberries have often been served as a tangy, sharp foil to rich, oily mackerel. (I have tried this before – it is delicious and surprising).

Fresh gooseberries

The gooseberry in English cooking – sweet cooking, anyway – is almost always wedded to its seasonal partner, the fragrant elderflower, most often present in cordial form. There’s no harm in this partnership, but once I knew I wanted to make a gooseberry tart, I quickly decided the berry must have the opportunity of a dalliance with other flavourings. I embarked on extensive, slightly panicky research in which I contemplated various states of creamy, custardy fillings. However, I have a very slight aversion to the rich egginess of many custards, while loving the mouth-filling silkiness and delicate vanilla flavour of creme patissiere. I had more or less settled on the final recipe when I got the brainwave to make an almond creme pat – cue more frantic research until Michel Roux’s unparalleled book ‘Pastry’ showed me the way.

Slice of gooseberry almond tart with cream

The stern injunction when announcing this showstopper challenge in series three was that it had to be the kind a top French patissiere would be proud to sell in his (or her) shop. You’d be hard-pressed, I think, to consider my offering a ‘designer’ fruit tart ‘fit for a top quality patisserie display window’. My creation is more of a paragon of elegant simplicity – even possibly leaning towards rusticity – than, say, a rose-scented tart topped with macarons as baked by eventual series three finalist (but not winner) James Morton. And yet – perhaps because I have been reading Elizabeth David recently, and enjoy her terse, bright prose much more than when I was younger – I can’t help but feel that there is something right and true about this tart, with its crisp, not-too-sweet pastry, substantial filling, and generous portion of fruit. It is unpretentious without actually being humbled for it. It cuts cleanly and showcases the bright sharpness of this seasonal fruit – and is absolutely killer with a substantial mountain of cream. But what isn’t?

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