Baking challenge: nostalgie de la piquenique

Twisted red pesto loaf

When it came to this challenge, and the making of a celebration loaf, I tried to think properly about what kind of bread I’d make to mark a happy occasion. In winter, I doubtless would have thought of rich enriched breads like chocolatey babka, cherry-studded strudel or marzipanny stollen. But it’s summer, and hot, and I was wondering if there were savoury breads I could celebrate with, and immediately this came to mind.

Shortly after my second year of university, with exams over, I organised a picnic in Regent’s Park. All my friends came, and they brought their friends: we sprawled out on the grass and laid out heaps of food. It was very hot (like now!), and very sunny (like now!), and the grass was very green. It was a golden, joyful afternoon, still one of the happiest ever in my memory. I was not always very carefree at university but I was completely happy that day, laying on the picnic blankets, nibbling at the sausage rolls and clementines and crisps and watching my friends climb trees.

red-pesto-twisted-loaf.jpg

Like with many joyful things, it is an atmosphere I have tried to recapture, but no other picnic has ever been quite as wonderful as that one. Time has generated fissures and fractures between groups of people, which mean you can no longer bring them together (or if you do, you spend a lot more time managing relationships and pouring oil on troubled waters than feeling the grass shoots tickle between your fingers and looking up at the blue, blue sky). More pertinently, the challenge of gathering such a large, happy, uncommitted group together on a bright, hot, sunny day in the middle of London would probably be impossible. We rolled on the grass from noon until early evening that day; now we’d scatter much earlier, all the better to visit parents, or study for professional exams, or simply prepare for the long working week ahead. Between second and third year, I had no such professional timetable to worry about.

The food, that day, is both memorable and completely unimportant: I can remember smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwiches, cheddar and onion crisps – but most of it blends into a happy blur of salt and sweet and juicy citrus. The food did what food should do: it was not the centrepiece, it did not attract attention: it brought people together to eat and talk and run around and eat some more, until the sun went down and the evening grew cool and deep blue.

I do remember what I made for this picnic, which was a Jamie Oliver recipe for something called a rolled bread sandwich – bread dough stuffed with ham and basil and cheese (the recipe also includes hard-boiled eggs but I didn’t include those). I also made a vegetarian version with feta and spinach, i.e. a bread spanakopita, which was much appreciated by the vegetarians present, which in my group of friends is about half.

What I’ve learned from my many attempts to recreate that golden afternoon on the grass is that you can’t go back in time again; you can’t recapture a flavour and a feeling and the ease of pleasurable conviviality simply because you want it. And, similarly, I have opted to not recreate the recipe exactly, but to make a savoury bread which would remind of that day, and yet be something different. This recipe for sundried tomato pesto bread is adapted from one in ‘Het Hartige Bakboek’ [‘The Savoury Baking Book’] by Rutger van den Broek, the first winner of Heel Holland Bakt, the Dutch version of the Great British Bake-Off. I was attracted to this particular recipe because of the use of semolina, which gives the otherwise basic white bread recipe some character and a more robust, chewier texture that stands up well to the nubbly, salty filling.

The swirl looks impressive but is incredibly easy to do. It amazed everyone at the house party to which I brought this loaf, and I felt slightly guilty about the skewed effort-to-amazement ratio.

Recipe below the jump, as ever.

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 showstopper challenge for week seven of series three: a celebratory loaf.

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Baking challenge: jam doughnuts

Jam doughnuts

When I was a child, summer holidays were spent catching up with family in Belgium. Some of my most relished moments were the evenings spent at a local kermis (funfair), where I’d ride on shiny plastic horses on the carousel, or we might have a go on the bumper cars as a family. I liked being paired with my dad because he properly embraced the spirit of terrorising fellow drivers on the electric floor, driving very fast and crashing into friends and hapless strangers very hard. Between rides we’d eat the usual fairground food: a box of fries doused in mayonnaise, and for afters, a puntzak (paper cone) of smoutebollen, simple doughnuts made of a plain, deep-fried batter, coated in a powdery layer of icing sugar so thick you could see teeth-marks in it. Smout means ‘lard’ in Dutch, referring to the fat the batter was traditionally fried in; in the Netherlands, similar doughnuts are called oliebollen. I’ve never heard them called that in Belgium, though.

Sugared doughnut

Aside from these seasonal treats, I don’t remember doughnuts being a fixture of my childhood. That’s probably all for the best, in the long run.

Jammy doughnut filling

If I picture a doughnut, what comes to mind is one of those glazed American-style ring ‘donuts’, glossy with a chocolate-flavoured or pink icing and scattered with sprinkles. I didn’t know that traditional British doughnuts were round, sugar-dusted, and filled with jam until I was in my late teens. The doughnuts made for this recipe are this old-fashioned kind, sticky with jam and the caster sugar which coats them – and your lips – with sparkling shards. They are delicious – at their absolute best fresh, but they keep well for a few days. It turned out, too, that they resonated deeply with my British friends, who commented with delight on my obligatory Facebook photo. I hadn’t known people loved doughnuts so much. They are truly the original way to make friends and influence people.

Doughnuts in frying basket

Final observations: I used a deep-fat fryer for these because I was much too anxious to risk frying in a pot of oil on my gas stove. Please be careful making these, whatever method you choose. Also, deep-frying in summer is hot and difficult. Make these for people you really love who will be truly grateful.

Recipe below the jump, as ever.

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 seven (sweet dough week) of series three: ten jam doughnuts.

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Baking challenge: honey-walnut rolls

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 signature challenge for week seven (sweet dough week) of series three: 24 yeasted buns.

honey walnut breakfast bun

As the aim of this challenge was to bake twenty-four sweet rolls or buns – a not insubstantial number – I wanted to make something as suitable for breakfast as for an afternoon snack, which, in my book, means relatively light on refined sugar. My breakfasts are usually yoghurt, homemade granola and fruit, or homemade wholegrain sourdough, or very occasionally a spinach smoothie. Cornflakes just leave me hyperactive, then hungry. For this reason, I turned for inspiration to Joanne Chang’s ‘Baking with Less Sugar’. It’s an interesting book; Chang is not driven by worthiness, but instead adopts a scientific approach to low-sugar baking. This means appreciating the scientific and chemical qualities of sugar and what taking it out does to cakes, cookies and breads. In addition to the obvious addition of sweetness, sugar’s hygroscopic quality mean it keeps baked goods moist. I knew about this, but what I didn’t realise was that sugar also has gluten-inhibiting properties, contributing to the tenderness of the final product.

To make these buns, I adapted Chang’s recipe for Honey cashew morning buns. It might seem obvious to say that buns made from a cookbook called ‘Baking with Less Sugar’ are not very sweet, but here we go: they’re not very sweet, and the dough, based on oil rather than butter, is not very rich. The muted sweetness and richness of these means that they really, truly, are at their absolute best on the first day, warm and sticky from the oven. They stale more rapidly than extremely sugary buns and become quite dense. If you are eating them over a few days, a blast in the oven or microwave (and perhaps a sprinkle of water beforehand) will revive them.

Honey walnut buns

This is a good recipe to showcase a bold, flavourful honey; I used a piney, resinous Spanish honey. I replaced Chang’s cashews with toasted walnuts because I like their bitter notes, which complemented the smokiness of the honey. If you want a more buttery, naturally sweeter flavour, pecans would work well. I swapped out some of the cinnamon Chang calls for with cardamom and adapted the honey ‘goo’ (as she calls it) that the buns are soaked in, as the original recipe is extremely thin and boils over in the pan too much. Bake these buns in your largest roasting tin: I had to stack them almost upright, making for an interesting (but not Bake-Off-worthy) pull-apart effect, but having them as flat as possible for proving and baking would be best.

Recipe below the jump, as ever.

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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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Baking challenge: a fine fettle of flatbreads

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 two (bread week) of series three: twelve flatbreads; six leavened and six unleavened)

Parathas and green flatbreads_sm

I have not written about my baking challenge in a while.

I have not really been doing much with it for a while. Mostly because baking resulted in a plethora of delicious but high-calorie food which I have been loathe to consume en masse (the exception was Christmas, but there’s so much going on then that there’s always someone to pass on baked goods to). My urges to create in the kitchen have been channelled through the medium of jams and marmalade, which have the virtue of not going stale.

My reluctance to make and then eat so much sugary food is why coming to the bread week challenges in the Bake-Off challenge is such a pleasure. For bread is often savoury, and even when sweetened, the sweetness is usually restrained enough for your loaf to be acceptable for breakfast. This particular signature challenge called for the making of two types of flatbreads, one leavened with yeast and one unleavened: six of each.

Making flatbreads - dividing and shaping
Top left: dividing the dough; top right: rolling each paratha; bottom left: dividing paratha into three joined strips; bottom left: buttering the dough before twisting and braiding

For the unleavened bread, I opted to make parathas, a buttery South Asian flatbread. I was guided, initially, by my friend Mehrunnisa’s guide and recipe on her blog. She uses wholewheat flour, which reflects the kind of parathas she grew up eating; interestingly, she mentions sweet applications, not something I have seen myself. However, I wanted to create the soft, butter-saturated, silky parathas of my childhood in Singapore. Curry and parathas with teh-oh (hot black tea without milk, but sweetened – and heavily at that – with sugar) was an infrequent ritual with my mother. There were numerous places we’d frequent; we actually liked the little hawker in the Botanical Gardens because we could then digest the rich, oily meal with a walk. For this reason I used white flour when making the parathas and used the proportions from Ruby Tandoh’s reliable baking book Crumb – although I used much more butter, more by accident than design at first. I served it with a fish curry, as I might have had in Singapore, although they were redder and richer in gravy, and more likely to be made with fish heads rather than fillets.

Making flatbreads - braiding, coiling, rolling and frying
1st row L-R: preparing to braid; twisting strips; braiding. 2nd row, L-R: coiling; finished coil; set of 6 completed coiled dough rounds. 3rd row, L-R: rolled out paratha; laminated layers; sizzling butter, for cooking

For the yeasted flatbreads, I adapted one of Nigella Lawson’s glorious bread recipes from How to be a Domestic Goddess. Often remembered for its cakes and biscuits, I think the savoury recipes in this book are all too easily overlooked, but they are wonderful. The original recipe is soft and pillowy as foccacia, baked with a warming, mellow topping of roast garlic and a paste of parsley. My version was altogether sprightlier, blending together parsley, coriander, raw garlic and a bit of lemon juice for a fresh, zingy paste. A dash of fresh chilli – green or red – would also not have gone amiss. They do tend to bake to a more muted green but the brightness of the flavour carried.

Unbaked green herb flatbreads
Unbaked flatbreads, daubed with bright green herb paste

Parathas
Recipe adapted from Crumb, by Ruby Tandoh

Note: almost every single step is illustrated in the collage images above.

Parathas and fish curry

  • 250g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 125g unsalted butter, melted
  • 135ml water
  1. Combine the salt and flour in a mixing bowl; add two TBS of melted butter and rub in to combine thoroughly. Add the water to the flour mixture and knead for a minute or so until well combined.
  2. Set aside to rest for 15 minutes.
  3. Divide the dough into six pieces. Roll each into a ball. Dust a work surface and rolling pin lightly with flour.
  4. One by one, roll each ball out into a disc of about 15-20cm. Using a knife or bench scraper, cut two long incisions into each disc, but do not cut through the top, to leave three strips of dough joined together (see collage image). Using a pastry brush, brush over the surface with melted butter, generously (you will however be using some of the butter to cook the paratha, so don’t worry about using all of it).
  5. Lightly twist each strand of the dough (see images above) and then roughly braid them together. Roll up the braids into a coil, like a snake, and tuck the ends under. Prepare all the parathas this way until ready to fry. You will probably need to lightly dust your work surface and folling pin between batches.
  6. Once ready to cook, take one coiled braid of dough and roll out to 15-20cm diameter circle. Heat up a frying pan over medium-low and coat the pan with a light surface of your remaining butter. Lightly butter one side of your rolled-out paratha then cook in the pan for two minutes, buttered side down; lightly brush the top with butter. Once cooked on one side, flip and cook for an additional two minutes, until lightly speckled with dark brown spots on both sides. If they are darkening too quickly or blackening in any way, turn down the heat; if they are blonde and pale still, turn it up a smidgen.
  7. While cooking the paratha, roll out the next circle. Repeat the cooking steps, adding more butter to the pan as required. Serve with curry; eat immediately

Green herb hearthbreads
Recipe adapted from How to Be a Domestic Goddess, by Nigella Lawson

This makes six quite large flatbreads – big enough for sharing – rather than individually-sized ones, if I’m honest. You could easily halve them, but watch the baking time.

  • 500g strong white flour
  • 7g instant yeast
  • 1 TBS flaky salt
  • 300-400ml water
  • 5 TBS olive oil
  • 3-8 TBS extra-virgin olive oil (if you really don’t want to use extra-virgin, you don’t have to)
  • 1 bunch parsley
  • 1 bunch coriander
  • 10 cloves garlic, or even more if wished
  • Squeeze of lemon juice
  • seasoning for the herb paste
  1. Combine the flour, yeast and salt in a bowl; mix together the five TBS olive oil with 300ml water in a jug and add to the flour mixture to make a firm but not stiff, supple-soft dough. If it is dry at all or very hard and stiff, add a little more water a bit at a time.
  2. Turn out to a lightly oiled surface and knead for ten minutes until the dough is elastic and springy, very soft to the touch, and stretches out without breaking when you pull it. If you want, you can do the windowpane test.
  3. Pat the fully kneaded dough into a ball and clean out your bowl (yes), dry it and lightly oil it. Turn the dough in the bowl so that it’s oiled all over. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and let rise for an hour or a bit more until doubled in size.
  4. For the herb paste, combine the parsley, coriander and peeled garlic in a food processor and add three tablespoons of the extra-virgin olive oil; blitz until all is finely chopped. Add a little salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice, and then process with additional extra-virgin olive oil until it forms a runny paste. If you want chilli heat, add a chilli here too. I used about six tablespoons but you might need more or less depending on how big your bunches of herbs are. Taste the herb paste and if it’s lacking in anything – salt, garlic pungency, peppery heat, acidity – add salt, pepper, garlic or lemon juice to taste. This paste is the heart of the breads so it must taste delicious. Once you can’t stop tasting it, it’s ready to anoint your breads with.
  5. Once the dough has risen, punch it down gently and let rest for 10 minutes. Line two or three baking sheets with baking paper. Divide the rested dough into six equal portions. Roll each portion out into a rough oval or oblong shape. Press them out a little more using your fingers.
  6. Transfer the breads to the baking paper and cover with clingfilm; leave for 25 minutes for the second prove until they are puffy. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200C.
  7. Remove the clingfilm from the proved breads and, using your fingers, dimple the surface of the breads. Stir your herb paste together briskly in case any of it has settled, then divide over the flatbreads, smoothing it out evenly over the surface of each using the back of a spoon.
  8. Bake for 15-20 minutes until the breads are cooked: the green paste will have dulled slightly in colour, and the dough will have deepened in colour and be golden and slightly bronzed in places. Remove from the oven, sprinkle over some good flaky salt, and eat, warm and comforting, as soon as cool enough to touch.

 

Baking challenge: you need to make these iced fingers right now

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 seven (patisserie week) of series two: iced fingers.

Iced fingers - nulging with cream!
Iced fingers – bulging with cream!

As food personalities go, Paul Hollywood arouses some controversy. There are those who see him as a silver fox and melt in the intensity of his steely blue-eyed stare. His sometimes harsh criticism of the contestants’ bakes just fans the flames of their passion as they consider the challenge of pleasing him. Rightly, they point out that his praise is even more precious given how critical he can be, especially since he tends to judge contestants according to professional standards (even though it’s meant to be an amateur baking competition). Even in the ill-starred US version, The American Baking Competition, which was more or less a farcical parody of everything that makes the Great British Bake-Off, well, great (read into that what you will), the women contestants were going gooey over Paul. To others, Hollywood is a rude, callous, even bullying, blowhard who shot out of nowhere (it was a particular complaint with the first series) and sticks his fingers into people’s bakes for no real reason and likes to contradict Saint Mary of Berry just because. (If you’re in the latter camp, you should definitely listen to his Desert Island Discs interview, which shows a very different side to the picky judge of the competition).

But however you feel about Paul Hollywood, you definitely, definitely have to make his iced finger recipe, which he set as a technical challenge in series two of GBBO. Because they are absolutely nothing short of miraculously delicious.

Yum!
Yum! I wouldn’t push this fella out of bed.

I grew up in Singapore, and a particular feature of ice cream stalls was the selling of ice cream sandwiches: not scoops of ice cream nestled between two crunchy biscuits, which is usually how ice cream sandwiches are presented, but placed between a pastel rainbow-coloured slice of soft, almost crustless, bread. The idea of eating this never appealed to me and to be honest I was similarly put off by the concept of an iced finger. Cream and jam on a scone: yes. Between soft, slightly sweet enriched bread drizzled with water icing? I wasn’t sure. I was wrong.

The firm, yet pillowy bread contrasts beautifully with the softness of the cream and the jam cuts through the plainness of both. The icing adds a touch of additional sweetness to the bread which harmonises the whole thing and turns it into a teatime treat rather than a bread. You need to make this – it was hearty and substantial yet sweet and light: perfect. Given the time of year, could there be a better time to indulge than Christmas morning? Helpfully, no crazy or expensive ingredients or niche bakeware is required.

Call me if you make them. I’ll come over.

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