Baking challenge: who ate all the miniature pork pies?

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 five (pastry week) of series two: make six miniature pork pies with a perfectly cooked (of course!) quail egg in the centre.

Pork pies – who doesn’t love them? They are an essential part of British food culture, an indigenous tradition – and, much like the mince pie, not one I have taken to. Dense pastry and pork do not set this non-Brit’s heart alight, and the combination of eggs and meat is one I have serious difficulties with. I grew up in Singapore and scarcely ate any Chinese or Malay food when I lived there, and I’ve realised that the ubiquitous addition of eggs to meat stews and laksas had much to do with eat.

A tower of pies
A tower of pies

But to my British boyfriend and a dear friend these pies were truly delightful, with their fresh, meaty filling, the touch of bacon giving it depth of flavour, and the parsley a hint of freshness. For my boyfriend, the egg in the middle which was my personal nemesis was his favourite part – he described it as a ‘lovely surprise’ when he ate the first pie (as he wasn’t aware they were in there) and as something to look forward to. So there we go. It takes all sorts, really.

I actually ended up repeating this recipe (both batches eaten gratefully by the boyfriend and friend), and so below can go into some extra tips I picked up along the way.

Could have been more golden.
Could have been more golden.

A warning of sorts to those who may wish to try out this Paul Hollywood recipe for themselves: quail’s eggs are the very devil to peel. In the how-to video Mary recommends peeling the eggs as soon as they are cool, but even so I found it quite difficult.

This recipe is made not with shortcrust pastry, but the more traditional hot water crust pastry, which starts off life sticky but becomes dry and brittle relatively quickly. Work fast. I covered it in a damp tea towel in between rolling and stamping out the pie cases and tops to ensure it didn’t dry out. Don’t rest it as you would a shortcrust pastry. Lard – used in the pastry – smells disgusting, especially when melted, so be prepared. A food processor makes it easier to chop up all the pie filling, though be gentle – you don’t want to end up with a smooth, homogenous paste. Finally, I found using jumbo muffin tins about a thousand times easier to make the pies in than a standard-sized muffin tin.

Finally, reader – I did not make the gelatine. This was principally because the promised hollow or gap within the pie never materialised. My pies were crammed full of meat and egg and the filling didn’t shrink. It did bubble juicily out of the pastry, however, where it baked on sticky and black and actually looked quite appetising, I thought.

At risk of rambling I feel that I must add that although these are called ‘small pork pies’ they are by no means ‘mini’ – they’re small only relative to one of those huge full-size pork pies.

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Baking challenge: flaky family pie

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 (pastry week) of series two: make a hearty family pie with rough puff or flaky pastry; no pastry base.

This savoury pastry dish combines two family favourites: pie and stew. I actually made much of this recipe up, as I got it into my head that I wanted to make an Irish stew pie (not least because I was serving it to friends, one of whom doesn’t eat beef but loves lamb), and none of my cookbooks yielded a recipe. In fact I thought I’d made up the concept completely, but Darina Allen refers to it in her magnificent Irish Traditional Cooking, although she found the recipe in a manuscript cookbook and says that she’s never heard of it in any other place. The recipe Darina offers up is very plain – meat, potatoes, onions – but my version is more colourful with vegetables (including carrots, which seem to be a controversial ingredient in Irish stew), although I think it retains an authentically simple flavour profile: just salt, pepper, parsley – and the parsley needn’t even be flat-leaf if you don’t mind (not that it’s easy to get hold of curly parsley anymore). The pie had substantive gravy (though it was thin – you will need to add thickener of some description if you would like it more gelatinous) and was utterly delicious: hearty, satisfying, quite warming, yet light and wonderful to eat. I thought it was really ideal for early spring, when the body starts hankering for lighter, brighter flavours but actually it’s still pretty cold and you need something that will stick to your ribs.

Irish stew pie
Irish stew pie

The flaky pastry recipe I used was from Delia Smith. I don’t always turn to Delia instinctively but this recipe is absolutely perfect, utterly simple, and explained very well (I find some Delia recipes quite pedantic and prescriptive). I have used this one for a number of years and frankly I think it is unbeatable. People always compliment me on the pastry when I make this version, even though it is very simple to make. The recipe produces light, delicately flaky layers, and many people mistake this flaky pastry for a much more involved puff pastry on account of how crunchy, buttery and multi-layered it is. Indeed the friends who I served the pie to thought it was puff pastry, and both are experienced bakers. I suggest that you tuck up the recipe and use it for all manner of things: rough handheld fruit pies, sausage rolls, apple turnovers.

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Baking challenge: leek and salmon quiche

It’s a sign of how out of date I am with posting up my baking challenge that there was still some trace of warmth in the air when I served up my salmon and leek quiche (alongside a salad), which I made for the series two pastry week signature challenge (since my birthday I’ve been in a pretty hectic phase). The recipe I chose was an adaptation of one from the famous and iconic food blog Chocolate and Zucchini, which I have been reading since I was a teenager. The first food blog I discovered actually no longer exists – a sad day indeed – but Chocolate and Zucchini was the second I started reading regularly. I combined this recipe with some of the proportions from a spring vegetable quiche baked by Janet, one of the series two contestants, who did really well on quiche week. The proportions for the savoury custard from the Chocolate and Zucchini recipe seemed a little off for my taste, hence the merger of the recipes.

I was very proud of this quiche: unusually for me I took my time and was patient in assembling, chilling, and blind baking, with the result that the base of the quiche was golden, short and crisp throughout – the three of us eating the quiche jokingly scraped the underside and there was no sign of the ‘soggy bottom’, the fear of which apparently plagues contestants throughout pastry week, but which has also become a bit of a tedious Bake-Off catchphrase (like ‘style over substance’, constantly lobbed at series four winner Frances).

Quiche, before cutting
Quiche, before cutting

The quiche is truly delicious. Although it combines rich, slightly sweet salmon, slippery-sweet leeks and unctuous cream, it wasn’t heavy or cloying, but rich and smooth. The subtle onion taste of leek is really perfectly matched with salmon, and the crisp texture of the pastry was a lovely counterfoil. The quiche has lots of different textures, as well. I was pleased I’d increased the savoury custard element as it was necessary to hold all the filling together. My only note of caution would be that you ensure you season everything well. It’s really lovely and light (in sensation rather than ingredients) and is a recipe I’d be happy to make again (not something that I can say of everything I’ve made for the baking challenge, much of which has been delightful but a decided one off).

A chunky, deep, flavourful slice
A chunky, deep, flavourful slice

Incidentally, I realised that I need to draw a line under the baking challenge. I started it with the intent of improving my baking, genuinely belieiving the Great British Bake-Off would last five, maybe six series or so, before being lovingly retired. However, the show has become a phenomenon, watched by the general public, discussed in offices, and not just by foodies, and is even moving from BBC Two to BBC One, a sure mark that it’s set to become the next MasterChef. I don’t want my life (or blog) to be beholden against my will to a challenge I set myself on a whim; hence, I will be carrying out the challenges up to the end of series four, and then taking stock and moving on. There are other projects I want to set myself and I want the challenge to remain fun and creative, rather than a millstone I drag with me into middle age. Also, as the GBBO challenges are becoming more complex and professional, I am starting to think about limits to what I can achieve in the kitchen.

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Baking challenge: petit four and mini pastry challenge (Part I)

Running a bit behind on the updating-the-baking-challenge front – I baked the following challenge when the weather was still cool and miserable and when making puff pastry was conceivable. Right now, Andy Murray  won Wimbledon (!!! – also, obligatory reference) a few days ago and we’re in the midst of the hottest, sunniest and driest days of the year (happy days), meaning any butter would puddle in slithery pools (appetising) rather than staying cold and hard and providing structure to the pastry. Still, onwards: this was the showstopper challenge for the ‘pastry’ week of series one of the Great British Bake-Off, and I was slightly nervous.

I have made cakes before, obviously, and biscuits and pastry. But I had never made any version of puff pastry before, and the prospect was a little scary, especially as I was planning to make the canapes for a book club meeting: I didn’t want them to be a greasy and unpuffy mess. The directions for the challenge were to make pastry canapes: three different savoury rough puff pastries and three different little sweet tarts (split across two posts because otherwise it would be way too long and tedious). I’m not superwoman so I had to split the challenge into sweet and savoury, making the savoury offerings first (blog imitates life, I guess!).

I used Michel Roux Snr’s recipe for rough puff from his Pastry book (I added an extra turn, and next time I want to try Paul’s book turn), which uses a proportion of 1:1 butter to flour; other rough-puff recipes I looked at used 50% of butter to flour or even used a mix of butter and white vegetable fat. I’m quite interested in trying that nexttime, but maybe the high quantity of butter was what made the puffs so crisp, light, flaky and wonderful to eat. Really, they were great; people only stopped eating them when I mentioned the butter to flour ratio. My three savoury concoctions were za’atar palmiers, olive straws (from Michel Roux’s book, which I obviously highly recommend!) and ad hoc caramelised red onion tartlets, which were the most popular (they were all made from one batch of pastry as I wasn’t about to make more than one batch, and there was plenty to go round). I’ve tried to give an approximation of the recipe below but really I just winged it on this one.

One of my friends referred to the za’atar palmiers as ‘moustaches’ which I thought was a beautiful description and captured the look of the palmiers. Given the popularity of novelty moustache items, these could be an interesting addition to the selection, or a suitable offering at a party with a vintage feel. I was most pleased with them because the appearance was really sharp and tight and honestly, for my first attempt at palmiers and at puff pastry, I thought they would be much more rough-and-ready looking. Instead they were impressive. Ditto with the olive straws, although they weren’t as popular as the moustaches or onion tarts.

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Baking challenge: classic Cornish(-style) pasty

Cornish pasties are a pastry filled with raw beef, swede, potato and onion – no carrot. The filling steams inside the pasty while the pastry bakes. They are a plain, unfancy kind of food, very filling, and stretch out a bit of meat, which is appropriate given their associations with working-class food (although Henry VIII ate them in some form or another). Of course Cornish pasties are now protected by the European Commission; to be called a ‘Cornish’ pasty they must be prepared in Cornwall (though not necessarily baked there – and the ingredients do not have to come from Cornwall, making the distinction somewhat academic in my opinion – more a boost to pasty factories than Cornish producers and bakers. But what do I know?).

Cornish pasties were also the technical challenge for the ‘pastry’ episode of GBBO. I’ve made Nigella’s recipe before, which pre-cooks the filling. The trick to this recipe, obviously, is to cut the pieces of vegetable and meat rather small and very evenly so they all cook through at the same rate. As they were prepared in London they were, therefore, legally Cornish-style pasties. The recipe in the Great british Baking book differed from Paul Hollywood’s recipe on the BBC website; I used the website recipe.

My pasties obviously looked messy and the crimping was less than perfect. I rolled the pastry out on a silicone pastry mat to ensure I rolled each one out to the correct size each time (very unlike me to be so precise, but I guess it’s part of the baking learning experience), which left faint indentation marks from the guidelines in the raw pastry. They faded once baked, however, so no reservations about using such a mat are necessary.

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Baking challenge: savoury (at last) beef pie

I have moved into the penultimate episode of the first series of the Great British Bake-off, and the great thing about Pastry week was the opportunity to make savoury items. Usually, when I’m doing a challenge, I have to make sure I have people coming round to polish off an excess of sweet goods. With this one – although I did serve it up when I had a friend round – it could just be served up for an ordinary dinner. Very convenient.

I actually made up the very same recipe for the signature bake that Ruth Clemens served up. This pastry episode was quite a funny one, both in the amusing and raised-eyebrow sense – Ruth made some comments which were quite controversial in various GBBO online fora (yeah, they exist), and there was some pointed editing going on to imply a Miranda-Ruth rivalry. Still, also served up by Ruth was a really cracking-looking beef pie, which even Paul Hollywood complimented despite being initially sceptical for its lack of sophistication. The recipe I took from The Great British Book of Baking, which I own because of a 2 for £10.00 deal at WH Smith’s (it’s a little disappointing in not having a huge amount of recipes from the show).

The pie was surprisingly small and I was sceptical that it would actually serve four as stated in the recipe, a point which was agreed upon by my guinea pigs (there were three of us). The verdict was ‘might serve four if two of them are under eight’. I also thought there was a smidgen too much pastry for the recipe, and it was a little thick when I used it all. Although by the end of the suggested baking time the pastry was nicely browned and certainly looked cooked, it was actually a little underbaked in its centre at the bottom and the top, so I’d recommend another couple of minutes in the oven. I couldn’t remove cleanish slices from the pie but can’t remember if that was actually achieved in the show.

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