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.

Continue reading “Baking challenge: nostalgie des pique-niques”

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Baking challenge: honey-walnut rolls

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 seven (sweet dough week) of series three: 24 yeasted buns.

honey walnut breakfast bun

As the aim of this challenge was to bake twenty-four sweet rolls or buns – a not insubstantial number – I wanted to make something as suitable for breakfast as for an afternoon snack, which, in my book, means relatively light on refined sugar. My breakfasts are usually yoghurt, homemade granola and fruit, or homemade wholegrain sourdough, or very occasionally a spinach smoothie. Cornflakes just leave me hyperactive, then hungry. For this reason, I turned for inspiration to Joanne Chang’s ‘Baking with Less Sugar’. It’s an interesting book; Chang is not driven by worthiness, but instead adopts a scientific approach to low-sugar baking. This means appreciating the scientific and chemical qualities of sugar and what taking it out does to cakes, cookies and breads. In addition to the obvious addition of sweetness, sugar’s hygroscopic quality mean it keeps baked goods moist. I knew about this, but what I didn’t realise was that sugar also has gluten-inhibiting properties, contributing to the tenderness of the final product.

To make these buns, I adapted Chang’s recipe for Honey cashew morning buns. It might seem obvious to say that buns made from a cookbook called ‘Baking with Less Sugar’ are not very sweet, but here we go: they’re not very sweet, and the dough, based on oil rather than butter, is not very rich. The muted sweetness and richness of these means that they really, truly, are at their absolute best on the first day, warm and sticky from the oven. They stale more rapidly than extremely sugary buns and become quite dense. If you are eating them over a few days, a blast in the oven or microwave (and perhaps a sprinkle of water beforehand) will revive them.

Honey walnut buns

This is a good recipe to showcase a bold, flavourful honey; I used a piney, resinous Spanish honey. I replaced Chang’s cashews with toasted walnuts because I like their bitter notes, which complemented the smokiness of the honey. If you want a more buttery, naturally sweeter flavour, pecans would work well. I swapped out some of the cinnamon Chang calls for with cardamom and adapted the honey ‘goo’ (as she calls it) that the buns are soaked in, as the original recipe is extremely thin and boils over in the pan too much. Bake these buns in your largest roasting tin: I had to stack them almost upright, making for an interesting (but not Bake-Off-worthy) pull-apart effect, but having them as flat as possible for proving and baking would be best.

Recipe below the jump, as ever.

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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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