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

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! 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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Baking challenge: the showstopper that left me a basket case

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 (bread week) of series two: 12 sweet and 12 savoury rolls…served in a bread basket. A BREAD BASKET. I ask you…

For the longest time, I just didn’t do it. I don’t do fiddly food. I don’t ice biscuits, don’t roll fondant, don’t twiddle with decorations. I could say that’s because I’m a generous, hearty, rustic kind of cook – but really it’s because I lack the patient dedication and the skill that go into craftsmanlike work. I have no aptitude for the fine arts. Long story short: I didn’t want to make a bread basket. By which I mean an actual basket, woven out of bread dough, and baked.

But I did it.
But I did it.

Do I weave? Do I ‘eck. Etc etc.

The basket was meant to hold 24 rolls – two types, 12 sweet and 12 savoury. This didn’t actually faze me at all. It was the weaving that put me off for a while. And then I reasoned that the whole idea of setting myself a ‘baking challenge’ was that it should be a…challenge.

And yet, when I actually did it, it was…not easy, exactly, and I won’t claim I’ve done it since, just for fun, but something about making that basket from raw bread dough was logical and came together. Because of the yeast, bread dough properly proven has a bit of a spring to it, so sometimes the rolled-out dough strips bounces back a little, which isn’t the most fun in the world. And, although I had a recipe and instructions in front of me, at one point I had to forget careful and structured overlapping and just went for something that held together. In the end, however, I was rewarded with something I really thought I could never bake and that was beyond my structural abilities. The basket wasn’t picture-perfect but, unlike some of the contestants’ it stood upright and held the bread rolls (although it could only hold one batch at a time).

Bread basket how-to
How to make a bread basket: cover your mould; roll out the dough; lay out your strips. You will get there!

Oh, and the contents? Black Forest ham and cheese rolls from Dan Lepard, which were sturdy and hearty – the kind of warm, filling food which would make a hearty addition to a picnic (it can be cold if you picnic in the first flush of early spring enthusiasm) or a complementary side to cabbage soup. The rye gives them not only heft but a little smokey depth which I like. And for the sweet, Baba a Louis Sticky Buns from Diana Henry’s Roast Figs Sugar Snow, which sadly disappointed me – they were a little too vrunchy and the sugar caramelised hard rather than remaining gooey as promised. It may have been user error – my oven could have been running hot, for example – so I have included the recipe for reference below.

Sweet and savoury
Sweet and savoury – Baba a Louis Sticky buns (L) and Black Forest Ham and Cheese Rolls (R)

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Baking challenge: Technically, focaccia

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 (bread week) of series two: make Paul Hollywood’s focaccia.

I always like it when one of the bakes I do for this slightly crazy challenge is savoury. I do have a strong sweet tooth but sometimes it’s nice to be able to bring one of my baked goods in to lunch for work or have it as a non-sugary snack.

Paul Hollywood's focaccia
Paul Hollywood’s focaccia

So, Paul Hollywood’s focaccia, one of the technical challenges in series two. What I primarily remember about this challenge is that the dough was very wet and some of the contestants struggled with its liquid nature and added more flour. The trick, as Paul H articulated in the episode itself, is to add the water gradually, so that the flour slowly absorbs it, rather than all it once – when it just becomes gloopy, sloshy paste. The recipe does specify some turning and folding and honestly, the dough was so liquid that it was very difficult to follow through as it just all flowed back into one. I went through the motions of the actions required, however, and miraculously the dough did over time develop a structure and got a bit more body. It was certainly never as solid as the more conventional bread doughs which can be kneaded and pummeled, though, so don’t expect that.

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Baking challenge: Flavoured free-form 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 showstopper challenge for week three of series two: make a free-form (i.e. hand-shaped, not baked in a tin), flavoured loaf.

“I’ve lost my baking mojo,” I said to my boyfriend.

“What about that baking challenge? Are you still doing that?”

“I put it on hold while writing my dissertation.”

“Well, obviously. You should pick it up again. Mm, cake.”

Paul Hollywood's fruit loaf
Paul Hollywood’s fruit loaf – clockwise from left: finished product sliced; baked; being iced; one iced loaf; two iced loaves

So, that skit above is my hello-world! return to proper cooking, baking and food blogging. Since the start of the year I suddenly found it basically impossible to keep up with my commitments, namely juggling work, and my history MA, and seeing friends, and baking. I had to knuckle down to research and write my dissertation and cut out almost all social events with friends. However, I have now submitted and it feels like I am walking into the light from out of a slightly isolated, though book-lined, cave. I was still feeling the after-effects of having handed in the dissertation – slightly exhausted and a bit at a loose end – when my boyfriend reminded me that I should really, really pick up on the baking challenge. The fifth series of the Great British Bake-Off has finished and I am still baking from the second series. I must plough on.

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Baking challenge: sweet and savoury rolls

Hopefully the Easter weekend was fun for all. Most of it was spent reading (World War One, naturally), but also lots of Great British Bake-Off re-runs, The Village (I’m sure I’ll have more to say on that soon – after all, the first episode was set in 1914!), and a visit to the theatre – my first in years – to see Mies Julie, an adapted version (i.e. borrowing the concept of, but with an original script) of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie set in South Africa, which has received universal rave reviews. Sadly I found myself disagreeing with the reviewers wholeheartedly by about 20 minutes in, and my patience had evaporated completely by the end. All I can conclude is that journalists equate the combination of copious swearing, nudity, simulated sex, jumping around on stage, race relation allusions and South Africa as cutting-edge and electric. The much-promised sexual tension and climactic scene (er, in more ways than one) actually drove me to hysterical (though silent, I hasten to add) laughter – it was just so awkward. And I personally don’t equate two people shouting at each other with irresistible sexual tension, so this ‘tension’ was lost on me, rendering much of the action pointless. The script, also, should have been tightened up – it was genuinely all over the place, extremely repetitive and didn’t actually take us anywhere. The disappointing thing was that some potentially intriguing moments touched on (Julie’s threat to cry rape, the Christine’s comments on identity) weren’t explored fully or even at all, at the expense of a continuous “I hate you”/”I love you” exchange between Julie and John (Jean in the original play). Some bits also just came out of nowehere (Christine’s reference to her effaced fingerprints) and just hung there, without context or development, and the symbolism was exceptionally heavy-handed. All in all, disappointing for me, though obviously I am in the minority on this one.

Anyway, back to the baking challenge. The showstopper challenge for bread week (series one) was to make 24 sweet and savoury rolls, which I assumed meant 12 of each. Now that I’m re-watching the episodes on the BBC, I can see that some people actually made about six different breads. Exciting – but maybe overkill? This challenge was actually one I meant to replicate faithfully (i.e., doing both rolls at the same time), but then we bought (shocker) some bread and doing both at the same time would have greatly exceeded our bread needs and been a waste.

For the sweet, I made some very British Pembrokeshire buns, adapted from a National Trust cookbook. I must admit that while they were loved by some in the house, they were too similar to hot cross buns for my taste, even omitting the candied peel which I cannot stomach. The buns were slightly unusual in using lard, which seemed to make them softer for longer than breads made with other fats. Very easy and quick, too; they also made good French toast. The only disadvantage is really the block of lard sitting in my freezer.

For the savoury, chorizo-stuffed rolls from Casa Moro, for which I had to double the recipe, and didn’t stuff enough, with the delicious result that I could snack on loads of fried chorizo while waiting for them to bake. The oil which the chorizo gives off in the original frying is incorporated into the dough, which is great as it’s not wasteful, and making them rich, slightly oily and quite salty. Delicious, but not the kind of roll you eat dozens of in one sitting. The directions from Casa Moro on timings weren’t always very helpful so I’ve tried to clarify them based on my experience.

Pembrokeshire buns, tea, magazines, TV remote. Happy times ahead.
Pembrokeshire buns, tea, magazines, TV remote. Happy times ahead.

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Baking challenge: Paul Hollywood’s cob loaf

I was excited to notice this week that the very first series of the Great British Bake-Off is being rerun by the BBC! This is great news for me – I get to watch it again and remind myself of the details of some of the challenges, since I am relying on Wikipedia’s summary of the baking challenges for the first and second series (I started writing them down in fairly significant detail during the third series). Watching it, I was also somewhat touched and amused by the slightly clumsy sweetness of the show. Being new, it was still finding its feet, and the challenges were slightly more gentle than in later series (particularly the third). It was also a bit more random in the introduction of the bakers: they were just introduced as ‘Britain’s best’ with no real idea of the process behind selecting them. Some of them were really simply habitual home bakers rather than champing-at-the-bit semi-professionals.

Re-watching I also noticed a few different things, namely that Paul Hollywood certainly did some to have favourites from the get-go (he was jokey with Edd and almost flirtatious with Ruth), and that Miranda was never going to win since from day one it was clear Paul wasn’t a fan of over baking style (but why! Brownie meringue cake with amazing raspberry icing – do not understand what’s not to love!). Paul’s alleged favouritism is often discussed in reviews and message boards about the show and while I acknowledge that there’s an editing process, it certainly does appear that he likes some people a lot and then backs them all the way – slightly (though in fairness not dramatically) disproportionately. I was also reminded of how great a baker Edd was from the get-go, really impressive and accomplished though in an understated way at first.

The technical challenge for bread week in series one was Paul Hollywood’s cob loaf. The recipe called for dry yeast, which I haven’t used in ages. While I don’t think the crumb of the loaf had the deliciousness and complexity compared to when made with fresh yeast, the flour rubbed into the crust, which caramelised in the heat of the oven, was fantastic. It made the bread truly addictive. Also, I appreciated the tenderness of the crust; much as I enjoy the crispy, crackly crust of a sourdough, which breaks into gum-splintering shards, it can make for difficult eating, especially the next day! And also, this loaf was beautiful to look at as well. Truly, Paul has knocked it out of the park for me with this recipe, even if his judging occasionally causes me to raise an eyebrow…I can’t wait to rewatch bread week so I can find out if my effort matched the ideal!

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