Baking challenge: building the Great Gingerbread Pyramid

Kamut gingerbread pyramid

When I was in year three, we ‘studied’ the Ancient Egyptians for a term or two. In art class, we made papier-mache sarcophagi; in maths we added up the number of stones used to build pyramids; we drew pictures of the ancient gods and goddesses of Egypt and wrote little descriptions about them in what must have been history lessons. These endeavours culminated in an end-of-year assembly in which we pretended to be the workers who built the Great Pyramid of Giza and sang about our pay being merely “bread and beer and radishes”. No one thought anything of it back then, but I wonder if the spectacle of a group of highly privileged, mostly white, children playacting at being slave labourers would raise eyebrows now (I think…probably). (In any case, the theory that the workers who built the Great Pyramid were slaves has been thrown into doubt, but that was definitely the prevailing view back in 1995).

Even though I have two (!) degrees in history, my education in Ancient History didn’t get much further than my year three classroom. So I was at a bit of a disadvantage when I was introduced, at a work social, to an Eminent Classicist, which then required a bit of one-on-one small talk. Casting about, I ended up asking “What are the key debates occurring in your field at the moment?” (If you are ever caught in a lift with an academic, this question is a good one).

“Like in any other field, really,” said the Eminent Classicist, “we’re revisiting the idea of empire. Recasting Rome and really examining it as an imperial power and assessing its structural impact on the ancient world. Looking at the relationship between the metropole and the outer reaches of empire and their relationship to those centres of power. And with Egypt, too.” Immediately the ancient world became material and real, a place of power relations, trade routes, supply lines, not a hazy place of mythical creatures and roaming gods. Inspired, I read Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War. And then I started researching how to build a gingerbread pyramid. Both reactions, I feel, tell you everything you need to know about me.

Kamut gingerbread

I wanted to pay a bit of homage to Ancient Egyptian agriculture in my gingerbread. The principle grains grown in Ancient Egypt were barley (for beer); for bread, the ancient wheat varieties grown were most similar to emmer wheat or einkorn. The problem was that it was difficult for me to get hold of these except by ordering them online, which for the sake of speed I did not wish to do. So instead I turned to khorasan wheat, also known as kamut (which is a trademark), an ancient grain which is said to have been reintroduced in modern times by an American airman who sent grains which had been found in an Egyptian tomb back to his family. Like all good stories, it is apocryphal, but the grain is likely to have originated in the Fertile Crescent – good enough for me under the circumstances.

In addition to a (tiny) bit of Ancient Egyptian credibility, khorasan wheat adds a nutty flavour and sandy texture to the gingerbread which works well with the rich depth of the spices. If you want to forgo making a gingerbread house, pyramid, or any other structure and instead stamp out shapes using cookie cutters – or indeed just roll out and flatten balls of dough straight onto a baking sheet – the compulsive taste of this gingerbread would be worth it.

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 eight (biscuit week) of series three: making a gingerbread structure (not a house!)

Continue reading “Baking challenge: building the Great Gingerbread Pyramid”

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Two modern(ish) ways with leftovers: ratatouille butternut squash and courgetti

I read a lot of articles and books on food history and how changes in technology change our relationship with eating and the process of cooking itself. Looking back at the evolution of kitchen technology can result in quite a jolt – it’s fascinating to see how much of what we think of as our culinary culture is the product of technological change, and how much of what we consider tradition is actually relatively modern. One such ‘tradition’ is that of the reheating and re-eating of ‘leftovers’. While uneaten prepared food is likely to be as old as human beings’ relationship with the cooking process itself (unless our caveman ancestors were really excellent at judging portions of mammoth), the concept of ‘leftovers’ – a prepared meal served again and again, in the same form, until it’s done – is much newer, and is tied to the history of refrigeration and, more importantly, the arrival of fridges into the family home.

Prior to their introduction, the concept of ‘leftover’ food appearing on the plate in more or less the same format didn’t exist as such – it was all simply treated as ingredients, continuously reworked and reformed into new dishes. A a roast slab of beef or lamb would be diced into a fine mince, mixed with the leftover gravy and some vegetables, and baked with a topping (and indeed lining) of mashed potato to make a cottage or shepherd’s pie. The pies we make now, using fresh raw mince which is cooked specially, is much more modern. Cooked meat chopped fine formed the basis of many a dish, most of them quite similar: rissoles (breaded patties), cutlets (patties formed into a shape supposedly resembling an actual cutlet), and even something called ‘beef olives’ – thin slices of beef wrapped around vegetables, covered in stock or broth and cooked for an unfathomably long time.

Reworking leftover bits and pieces of food has the advantage of staving off the extreme boredom that can result when eating, say, the same bowlful of carrot soup night after night, especially if the dish you made isn’t something that necessarily gets better with time. I don’t own a freezer, so when I make a dish that yields a lot of servings, I unfortunately don’t have the satisfying option of popping it into a neat labelled box and stowing it away for busier days. A while ago, I made a large portion of ratatouille from a slimming cookbook. I think my liking for ratatouille is a bit more theoretical than actual – I don’t like cooked fresh tomatoes, for example – and calorie-controlled recipes tend to bulk up on watery courgettes rather than delicious, melting, oil-absorbing aubergine. Safe to say, my liking for the recipe was moderate, but there were at least four more portions in the pot after dinner. I served it up in two relatively simple new ways, one on a working night and one on a Friday night.

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Firstly, with courgetti. Here, doubtless, some people may already be turning away in faint disgust. The courgetti backlash is commencing in earnest at the moment. Spiralised vegetables have come to symbolise the clean eating movement, so it’s unsurprising that, as we enter the moment where the media is turning against clean eating as rapidly as it embraced itrapidly as it embraced it, the vegetable noodle has become severely castigated. I’ve seen them described as tasteless, bland, boring and deficient in terms of the ‘energy’ they offer. And yet I persist in quite liking courgetti. Maybe it’s because my interest in acquiring a spiraliser to make vegetable noodles predates the clean eating movement by a good number of years, ever since I saw a post on Chowhound about daikon noodles. I thought the idea was fun and added some interest, the opportunity for innovation and fun textural contrasts, but back then acquiring a spiraliser was more complicated and expensive than it is now; the Lurch model I wanted was perennially out of stock on Amazon and cost about a third more than they do now (demand and supply, right there). And now that spiralising vegetables is easy, the noodles themselves represent everything about a food culture gone wrong; they mean fear – of gluten, pleasure, wheat, fat, abandon, gluttony.

Still, let’s not get hung up on what food symbolises. I still like them and yes, courgette is less energy-dense than spaghetti, so eating it carved into noodles can be helpful if you’re monitoring your calorie intake, which I try to be conscious of. There, I said it. So, the day after I made the fateful never-ending pot of ratatouille, I spiralised two courgettes into thin, satisfyingly long noodles, reheated the ratatouille with an addition splash or two of water (in addition to not having a freezer, I do not own a microwave), and then dropped in the courgetti to cook and lose their raw edge in the sauce for a couple of minutes. I think this is key with vegetable noodles: no matter how much people may try to convince me otherwise, the idea of eating raw courgette rarely appeals.

So the nice thing about this was that it was very quick: slizzing the courgetti into noodles, warming up the ratatouille and cooking the vegetable strips was actually quicker than boiling up spaghetti would have been, and although it does then require washing up the spiraliser or julienne peeler used, this is no worse, to me, than washing up the sieve I use to drain pasta, which always gets gunged up with the thick, starchy pasta cooking water.

I served this up with the ubiquitous clean-eating favourite, the avocado, and – less celebrated among the clean eating who walk among us – soft goat’s cheese (I think Lidl’s is very good but also like the one from Sainsbury’s). I enjoyed it a lot.

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Secondly, baked into the centre of a halved butternut squash. This is inspired by a recipe by Lorraine Pascale. In her book ‘Eating Well Made Easy’‘Eating Well Made Easy’ she serves a sort of proto-chilli con carne with avocado and cheese inside a halved butternut squash. While I’m not entirely convinced by Pascale’s enrolment at the somewhat dubious Institute for Integrative Nutrition, I thought the recipe looked good and I was inspired to try something similar.

I bought a quite small butternut squash (as you can see above, the squash I used was a little smaller than a dinner plate; although dinner plates can, these days, be huge, the one in the picture is a modestly-sized Denby plate), cut in half vertically and scooped out the seeds in the cavity. I then slashed the flesh with a small sharp knife, cutting about 1cm deep and rubbed it with some oil and seasoning before baking for just under an hour in a preheated 200C oven. Once the squash was tender, I piled in the remaining ratatoutille in the squash cavities and baked it for about ten minutes (to heat through) before topping with grated Parmesan – Emmental would be great here too, because it melts beautifully in delicious, gooey, molten, appetising strings. The cheese-topped squash was returned to the oven to allow the Parmesan to melt. The resulting dish was served with a dollop of creme fraiche – somehow the addition of cool, tangy lactic fat offsets the fat from the cheese and provides a good contrast to the vegetables and starchy squash.

RECIPE: (frugal) leftover sausage tortilla

Cooking magazines and newspaper supplements often offer a series of recipes around the theme of frugality. They can be cheap meals (the kind featuring beans and lentils) or promise inventive twists to make leftovers more appealing. The recipe below, for a sausage tortilla, is of the latter kind.

The finished product.

This recipe really suited my needs because I like to cook sausages a la Nigella, that is, in the oven. It’s convenient, hands free, less greasy than on the hob and requires less tending. She recommends 40 minutes at 200C, turning them halfway through. The only problem is that I’m only cooking for myself and it’s not very economical to switch on the oven and have it powering on for two sausages. Often I get around this by roasting sweet potatoes alongside for a starchy, simple dinner. This recipe allowed me to cook a whole packet in one easy go and still have something interesting to eat the next day.I used chorizo-style fresh sausages (they are available in Tesco alongside the venison and leek and apple and other exotic flavours).

I halved the original recipe, somewhat, so here’s how I made it.

Sausage, onion and potato tortilla
Slightly modified from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstal

1 TBS olive oil
1 onion, peeled and finely sliced
4 thin, cooked, fresh chorizo-style sausages
around 250g cooked potato, thickly sliced. Mine was unpeeled. (NB I microwaved mine till cooked as I didn’t have any cooked knocking about. It was about 230-250g weighed raw)
4 eggs
Salt and pepper

1) In an ovenproof frying pan (in my case a cast-iron skillet), heat the oil. Add the onion and sweat down for 15 – 20 minutes until soft.

2) Stir in the sausage and potato for a few minutes so they heat through.

3) Preheat the grill on medium

4) Lower the heat on the stove. Beat the eggs, season (be careful about adding salt as the sausages are salty, but you do need a little) and add to the pan. Tilt the pan around to get the layer of egg even but do not stir. Cook gently until the egg is about two-thirds set, with a layer of wet egg on the top

5) Transfer to the grill and cook for five minutes or so until set on top.

I suppose this would serve two or three people if you served it with a salad and some tomatoes. I ate the whole thing on my own…