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: 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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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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Itsu-inspired salmon and edamame rice bowl and matcha choux puffs

About once a month, a select (ha) group of culinarily adventurous friends and I meet up to cook and eat together. We rotate between each other’s homes and each evening has a theme. It is, in short, a supper club, or dinner party club, except that not every gathering is actually in the evening.

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Sun-dappled, a Middle Eastern feast

Our very first themed dinner was ‘Harvest Festival’ and, as you might expect, it was held in early autumn. Themes which have been particular favourites of mine have included ‘Middle Eastern Afternoon Tea’, particularly memorable because I served up muhammara according to Diana Henry‘s addictively good recipe from Crazy Water Pickled Lemons, and I read up a lot about Anglo-Indian food and heritage for our ‘Indian Summer’ themed lunch – anything which combines food and history is going to be all right by me. (In case the name seems odd, it was an homage to the Channel Four show ‘Indian Summers’, which dramatised the final years of British colonial rule in India.) In January this year I hosted a Burns Night themed evening in which anti-haggis prejudices were overcome by suspicious southerners, and even the vegetarian haggis was well-received. (I love haggis – if you love a big, spicy, crumbly meatball I urge you to try it when the weather cools down). A friend’s boyfriend gamely read Robert Burns’ ‘Address to a Haggis’ in a broad Scots dialect, a feat which was all the more impressive considering a) a Scottish amount of alcohol had been consumed and b) it was the first time he’d met us, and standing up in a room full of strangers to read a poem in Scots dialect sounds like the worst kind of trial. (Indeed, as a little girl I ran sobbing out of a room full of people at the Belgian and Luxembourg Association of Singapore‘s annual St Nicholas’ Day party when asked to read a poem in Dutch – i.e. my first language).

More recently we had a Japanese-themed lunch, although it was called ‘Cherry Blossom Festival’, and was a celebration of both the warmer weather as well as the elegant, simple yet satisfying flavours of Japanese cooking. My friend Tina served us miso soup and stickily sweet chicken yakitori in her tiny Covent Garden flat; the windows were thrown open wide to embrace the sun and warmth coming in. I brought a salmon and edamame rice salad which was inspired by one of my absolute favourite bought lunches from Itsu, a chain which specialises in light, healthy Asian takeaway meals: teriyaki salmon on a bed. In addition to salmon (obviously) and rice, this dish includes edamame beans, which you can buy in the frozen section of most supermarkets, usually labelled ‘soya beans’. I much prefer them to the more British broad bean because they do not require a second podding after cooking. The components of fish, rice and bright green beans are easy to bring together. Such is the popularity of Japanese food that the ingredients can be bought at any standard supermarket.

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Salmon rice bowl – we had already tucked in!

It’s 047my friend Juliet, however, who shines in preparing food which is delicate (never quite as twee as ‘dainty’) and beautifully presented. She loves Asian food and predictably stole the show with some beautiful matcha cream puffs. The matcha creme diplomat used to fill them was rich, but the addition of whipped cream made it one of those dangerous foodstuffs whose saturated fat content is belied by the absolute lightness on the tongue. The floral taste of the creme diplomat was a perfect match(a) for the delicate texture of the puffs. Juliet also had some extra matcha creme diplomat with her and I can attest that, in addition to cream puffs, it is utterly divine piped or spooned into raspberries cavities or squiggled onto frozen yoghurt.

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In addition to the crisp little choux buns, there’s extra textural interest provided by a layer of craquelin, which gives the tops of the buns a pleasing giraffe-like pattern. Craquelin is effectively a pressed Francophone crumble topping – a disc of flour, butter, and brown sugar – which somehow makes the whole thing sound a lot less like you need a Cordon Bleu qualification and more like something that can be achieved at home.

 

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Baking challenge: mocha-caramel millefeuille

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 eight (the final) of series two: layered millefeuille.

Layers of puff pastry, mocha patisserie cream, drizzled caramel, hazelnut praline
Layers of puff pastry, mocha patisserie cream, drizzled caramel, hazelnut praline

Sometimes, if you want to impress your friends and sicken your enemies (a phrase I have unashamedly stolen from Marian Keyes, FYI), you need to put the time and effort in. Making millefeuille is one of those things: it will delight the eye, bring joy to the palate, and inspire awe in your guests. But, because millefeuille is not a single recipe but a set of deliciously-assembled components, it does take work. Fortunately for you, and your dinner party guests, pretty much every component can be made in advance and put together before serving. This is why plated desserts are such a staple of restaurant kitchens: it’s no more effort, after all the baking, than putting together a few Lego blocks. But in the home, all the baking is done by one person, and that person is you.

Hazelnut praline, ready for crushing
Hazelnut praline, ready for crushing

Component number one is the rough puff or full puff pastry. How time-consuming and difficult you will find this process depends entirely on how often you make regular pastry. Although I had some mishaps (detailed in the head notes to the recipe), on the whole this was straightforward.

Component number two is the creme patissiere. I decided I definitely wanted my creme patissiere filling to be coffee, because I love coffee in dessert and it is just not featured enough, in my view. The feedback from my friends was that the liked that the coffee flavour was quite gentle and not too strong – so if you want it stronger you should increase the coffee extract to taste or perhaps infuse the cream with coffee grounds (straining before use) or add dissolved instant coffee.

Component three was the caramel, for drizzling, and number four was some

Hazelnut praline, crushed. The ground up, caramel glazed nuts add textural contrast to the plated dessert
Hazelnut praline, crushed. The ground up, caramel glazed nuts add textural contrast to the plated dessert

hazelnut praline, crushed into powder, for textural contrast and smokey, nutty depth. Someone brought some raspberries to my party (where I served this dessert) so later that evening I dotted each millefeuille with them in the spirit of pure opportunism. And actually I think it really lifted everything, introducing a slightly sharp note and a splodge of colour that lifted the beige, brown and buff elements of cooked pastry, drizzled caramel and mocha creme patissiere.

When it comes to making caramel, I have a secret: I very rarely use recipes or even measurements anymore. Usually I throw a fistful of sugar into a pan, cook it until amber, and then pour in glugs of cream until it’s the consistency I want. I finish it off with salt and butter to taste. This happy state of throwing caution to the wind comes after many years of carefully following recipes, swirling my pan of measured-out ingredients and reading the instructions as I went. I mention this simply because I think making caramel is a bit of a stressful endeavour for a lot of people, but do it enough and it can really come to feel quite natural. As with anything, the impression of ease, fluidity and instinct is simply the result of many years of practice. I decanted it into a plastic squeezy bottle but you can drizzle (or splatter) the caramel over using a spoon or piping bag as you prefer.

Overhead shot
Overhead shot

I hasten to add that sometimes my sugar does burn and occasionally the whole thing seizes up to a grainy paste – but this is usually when I have decided to leave the kitchen to watch TV or something. Don’t abandon your caramel!

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