Baking challenge: buttery chorizo, almond and manchego biscuits

Chorizo, manchego and almond biscuits

Sometimes, standing sweat-drenched in my kitchen at quarter past midnight, surveying the mess of piled-up dishes and clumps of flour tracked on the floor, I wonder why I like cooking so much. A lot of people are, after all, completely indifferent to the act of cooking; some don’t like it at all; and even among my friends who are committed to making wholesome, fresh meals regularly, I’m an outlier for my ridiculous dedication to the kitchen.

For me, cooking has been a way of bringing people to me: I live in deepest darkest south-west London, and a key way of convincing friends to come all the way to the end of the Northern line has been to make food for them. But it’s not just the social side: there’s the act itself, the feeling of doing something useful, hands-on, something that involves physical skill and manual dexterity after a day where my head feels soggy from checking budgets, reviewing reports and writing strategy papers. It’s part of why I like following recipes so much: I have to do the physical work, but the thinking through and invention has been someone else’s problem. All I have to do is follow the instructions, which is welcome given how much of my day job involves thinking and judging and assessing and strategising and deciding. And at the end of all of it: dinner! British Prime Minister Theresa May was recently much-mocked for her claim that she enjoys cooking “because you get to eat it as well as make it” but I do get what she meant – if you enjoy the process of cooking itself as a craft, you’re at least pouring your time and effort and skill into something which you get to eat at the end of the day: and we all have to eat. Some people use their spare time to do crafts like cross-stitch, or knitting, or decoupage (something my mother was very good at, actually); but with cooking you get an end product that satisfies the body as much as the spirit.

Buttery chorizo, manchego and almond crackers

In the July heat wave that hit London I was still cooking, albeit reluctantly, and doing as little baking as possible. It’s turned cooler now, however, and it once against feels plausible to turn to stove and oven. However, we are still in summer – despite the best attempts of social media to convince me that it’s virtually autumn – and therefore still in the season of casual, unhurried entertainment, the long stretch in the evening over wine. I think these crisp, buttery, salty chorizo and manchego biscuits are perfect for entertaining. You don’t need to make them at the last minute: kept in an airtight container, they stay crunchy and delicious for a good while. The recipe is clever in using the oil the chorizo gives off as it cooks as well as butter, enhancing the flavour of the final dough. I adapted the recipe partly by adding plenty more scarlet spices – paprikas smoked and sweet, brick-red chilli – to make the dough as delicious as it can possibly; I always love punchy flavours. It doesn’t hurt that the additional spices make the dough such a beautiful, inviting orange colour.

And if you really feel that it’s still too hot, and you don’t want to spend your summer making savoury biscuits – even ones as easy and forgiving as these – then please bookmark the recipe and save it for the autumn and winter months. These are going to be perfect with a glass of champagne (or, more likely, prosecco).

Recipe below the jump, as ever.

Chorizo, manchego and almond crackers

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 eight (biscuit week) of series three: 48 savoury crackers. 

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Baking challenge: nostalgie des pique-niques

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: krautstrudel

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 six (pudding week) of series three: a large strudel.

Krautstrudel

Although this blog is packed with sweet recipes, in my day-to-day life I don’t eat a crazy amount of sugary food, in the name of my waistline and my teeth and my pancreas. Sometimes I get a bit wearied from the steady procession of sweet things made in the name of this (actually very fun) challenge over the years: when there’s a savoury option in sight, I will often take it. So it was exciting to find out that there was more to strudel than the apple or cherry versions found in my local Lidl at Christmas (though there’s nothing wrong with those). So although this was nominally made for ‘pudding week’, this cabbage strudel (don’t click away, it’s delicious!) is actually a hearty main course. The tender cabbage is studded with salty shreds of bacon, and both are wrapped in flaky, buttery, crisp strudel pastry, which retains its toothsome, very slightly chewily crispness for several days without descent into sogginess.

The recipe for krautstrudel comes from Luisa Weiss’ encyclopedic, beautiful labour of love Classic German Baking. It’s a gorgeous and fascinating book – meticulous as you’d want a baking book to be, and both informative in a more scholarly way as well as personal. Weiss is an enthusiastic ambassador for German cuisine, particularly the country’s baking heritage. (Weiss herself is, as she notes, half Italian, half American, although she lived in Germany as a child and now again as an adult; I recognise some of the feeling of her delight with her adopted country’s cuisine and culture, as a Belgian living in Britain. The love of a country which both is and isn’t your own is, for me anyway, as strange – and sometimes melancholy – as it is lovely).

Cabbage strudel slice - close up

I did adapt the recipe slightly: I didn’t have caraway seeds in the house when I was making this, and used a good scraping of nutmeg instead. While the bright aniseed flavour of caraway would be utterly delicious, the warming muskiness of nutmeg works very well too. I think it’s a little more wintery than caraway. While a cabbage strudel does sound like winter food – brassicas are very much considered winter vegetables in Britain – Weiss does write that this kind of thing is eaten in Germany in the summer months when the first fresh, tender new cabbages start to emerge from the field. And it makes sense: a European (and British) summer is a fragile, changeable thing, one day hot and muggy, the next cool and blowsy with rain and high winds and shivering under thin blankets at night.

Strudel filling
The strudel filling – such bright cabbage!
Rolling up the strudel filling
Rolling up the filling, using a tea towel to guide it

My top tip when making strudel dough, if making it for the first time, is not to worry too much about any holes or tearing as you go, and definitely do not do what I did and try and scrunch your stretched-out dough back together to re-stretch. The stretching process makes the dough a little more brittle and dry and it will break apart rather than coming back together into a silky dough. I had to make the dough again from scratch (not actually that hard) – it certainly isn’t reusable once stretched. Even if it tears or holes form, once you roll the strudel up, any patchiness is adequately compensated for by the layers you’re forming. But I do highly recommend making the dough yourself rather than using filo, which many recipes recommend as a substitute. Filo pastry is brittle and shatters with every mouthful, and a strong buttery flavour from being (typically) soaked in the fat before baking; strudel dough is also crisp, buttery and rich, but it has a bit of tenderness and is more pliant and chewy than filo.

Recipe below the jump, as ever.

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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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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: 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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