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: jam doughnuts

Jam doughnuts

When I was a child, summer holidays were spent catching up with family in Belgium. Some of my most relished moments were the evenings spent at a local kermis (funfair), where I’d ride on shiny plastic horses on the carousel, or we might have a go on the bumper cars as a family. I liked being paired with my dad because he properly embraced the spirit of terrorising fellow drivers on the electric floor, driving very fast and crashing into friends and hapless strangers very hard. Between rides we’d eat the usual fairground food: a box of fries doused in mayonnaise, and for afters, a puntzak (paper cone) of smoutebollen, simple doughnuts made of a plain, deep-fried batter, coated in a powdery layer of icing sugar so thick you could see teeth-marks in it. Smout means ‘lard’ in Dutch, referring to the fat the batter was traditionally fried in; in the Netherlands, similar doughnuts are called oliebollen. I’ve never heard them called that in Belgium, though.

Sugared doughnut

Aside from these seasonal treats, I don’t remember doughnuts being a fixture of my childhood. That’s probably all for the best, in the long run.

Jammy doughnut filling

If I picture a doughnut, what comes to mind is one of those glazed American-style ring ‘donuts’, glossy with a chocolate-flavoured or pink icing and scattered with sprinkles. I didn’t know that traditional British doughnuts were round, sugar-dusted, and filled with jam until I was in my late teens. The doughnuts made for this recipe are this old-fashioned kind, sticky with jam and the caster sugar which coats them – and your lips – with sparkling shards. They are delicious – at their absolute best fresh, but they keep well for a few days. It turned out, too, that they resonated deeply with my British friends, who commented with delight on my obligatory Facebook photo. I hadn’t known people loved doughnuts so much. They are truly the original way to make friends and influence people.

Doughnuts in frying basket

Final observations: I used a deep-fat fryer for these because I was much too anxious to risk frying in a pot of oil on my gas stove. Please be careful making these, whatever method you choose. Also, deep-frying in summer is hot and difficult. Make these for people you really love who will be truly grateful.

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 technical challenge for week seven (sweet dough week) of series three: ten jam doughnuts.

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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: dethroning the Queen of Puddings

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 six (pudding week) of series three: a Queen of Puddings.

Queen of puddings

I like British food. I always feel bad that it has such a poor reputation globally, since the decline of British cooking really comes from the hardship of rationing during – and after, of course – the Second World War, when British cooks had learned to rely on powdered egg, corned beef and old heels of leaden bread to keep themselves and their families fed. Before that, British food was creative, adventurous, and even sustained a good reputation in Europe – it wasn’t all the boiled vegetables of popular imagination. I’ve leafed through plenty of original magazines from the 1910s in the British Library and some of the recipes are surprisingly fresh and modern sounding. Contemporary British cooking, of course, draws on influences from around the world as well as relying on local, seasonal and traditional flavours and techniques.

Mary Berry's Queen of puddings

But for all that I believe British food is irrationally maligned, I don’t like, or even understand, Queen of Puddings (and this ain’t my first time at the Queen of Puddings rodeo). Like many recipes with a long history, it is breadcrumb-based, consisting in this case of a lemony breadcrumb-thickened custard, topped with a river of red jam, topped with a crown of lightly toasted meringue. The end result is gloppy, sticky, and very sweet, and it doesn’t keep well, either, as the meringue starts to droop and weep into the other components if it sits out for a bit. For me, this is no queen, but a mere pretender to the throne – the Perkin Warbeck of British desserts, if you will. On account of its acute sweetness, however, I can imagine children liking this. And if you do like Queen of Puddings, Mary Berry’s recipe (below) is certainly a good and reliable one, producing pretty picture-perfect results.

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Baking challenge: little marmalade and sticky toffee fig steamed puddings

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 six (pudding week) of series three: two different sponge puddings, each served with a different sauce, six of each.

Mini marmalade steamed puddings
Mini marmalade steamed pudding

Running through almost every Belgian I’ve ever known, like a seam of quartz through rock, is an inexplicable Anglophilia – inexplicable because it seems to pulse through Belgians who’ve never visited Britain and have no immediate familial or cultural links to the country. Is it because of Britain’s eventual support for our little country following the 1830 Belgian revolution, when a sentimental song at the opera spurred patriotic (anti-Dutch) riots? Because Britain housed 250,000 Belgian refugees fleeing the German invasion during the First World War? Because Belgians really, really enjoy EastEnders?

Whatever the cause, Belgian Anglophilia is matched by no little bemusement towards British habits. After all, Brits eat stew with mash, rather than the proper accompaniment of frites; they drink pint after pint of weak beer, rather than a modest glass of 8% ABV; and when they do eat chips, they fry them to a crisp toasty brown and sprinkle them with malt vinegar to add insult to injury. But most bemusing of all is…the pudding.

“In Britain,” my grandmother declared one day, “They call everything PUDDING.” As I digested this statement, she leaned forward and added, “Here, the only thing WE call pudding is…PUDDING.”

Figgy sticky toffee pudding
Figgy sticky toffee pudding

You see, like in North America, ‘pudding’ in Dutch (same word, though it sounds slightly different) typically refers to custard (or sometimes jelly)-based soft desserts (like Angel Delight or those Alpro Soya long-life custards), whereas in Britain, of course ‘pudding’ usually means simply a dessert course. This terminology is, for some reason, endlessly amusing. (Notwithstanding this general bemusement, one of the most masterly books on the market about British puddings was in fact written by a Belgian).

For my twelve steamed puddings, I chose to make a marmalade pudding – mostly, admittedly, for the very smug-sounding reason of having an excess of homemade marmalade on my shelves after preserving fever hit me. I adapted a recipe from Justin Gellatly for this, adding orange zest for additional freshness and zip, and baking them as mini puddings rather than one large one. It’s served with an alcohol-spiked custard for absolute indulgence. The other recipe is Gizzi Erskine’s, and is a deliciously fig-laden version of classic sticky toffee pudding, accompanied by a lusciously sticky sauce. (Yes, both are pretty wintery, but although it’s high summer for now, British summer evenings can still get pretty cold, you know…).

Recipes are below the jump, as always.

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Baking challenge: Miss American (Pecan Malt) 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 showstopper challenge for week five (pie week) of series three: an American pie.

Four and Twenty Blackbirds pecan pie

There are many types of people in the world, and many ways of sorting through them. One of them is what I think of as ‘the bruschetta test’. Bruschetta is an Italian word, and, in Italian, the ‘ch’ is pronounced as a hard ‘k’ sound: brus-ketta. There are people who know this, and people who don’t; and people who are very relaxed about how to say it and people who deliberately pronounce it, with much pleasure, in the most authentic way possible.

Which is all well and good, if you’re speaking Italian, but if you’re saying ‘pass the bruschetta’ at a dinner party in the English-speaking world, I…do not think it matters at all if you pronounce it ‘broosh-etta’. It’s inevitable that when a word is borrowed from another language that its pronunciation is massaged a little to fit more readily into the borrowing language’s flow and rhythm. I actually find that pronouncing ‘bruschetta’ in the Italian style sounds a little jarring in English. Maybe this relaxedness about ‘mispronunciation’ comes from me being a native Dutch speaker: if there’s one language a native English speaker mangles to distraction, it’s Dutch, with its plethora of guttural, back-of-the-throat sounds, its rolled Rs, and the spattering of French-style inflections.

Chocolate pecan pie

I was thinking about this because there’s a super-snarky comment on the Wikipedia page relating to this episode of GBBO which notes that ‘During the broadcast, Ryan’s pie was identified as a key lime pie. However, it was made with ordinary limes rather than key limes, and thus was not a key lime pie. Moreover, the pies described as American-style were actually tarts. American pies are baked in a smooth, slant sides pie pan, not the fluted tart pans that were used.’

This really is taking pedantry to the next level – in the UK, at least, ‘key lime pie’ now just refers to a particular style of pie: I doubt most people would even know that ‘key’ refers to a particular type of lime grown in the Florida Keys – and even if we do know, getting hold of them is very difficult. It did make me smile, not to mention shake my head, because Brits have had, after all, to accept that they’ve lost the battle on how to pronounce Worcestershire.

The pie I chose to make was a recipe from Brooklyn-based pie shop Four and Twenty Blackbirds: a malted chocolate pecan pie. I love a traditional pecan pie, with its translucent, almost gelatinous filling of brown sugar custard holding cupfuls of pecan pieces, but the Four and Twenty Blackbirds version has depth and gravitas, anchored by the addition of deep dark chocolate and the sticky, comforting flavour of malt.

Chocolate malt pecan pie

It was a wonderful pie, but I would add that you do need to follow their (meticulous!) instructions on chilling the pie crust. I don’t have a freezer, and my fridge was broken and consequently not very cold when I made this; as a result the pastry started melting before it set in the oven and I had to perform some hasty surgery. Nonetheless, it was absolutely delicious: sticky, chocolatey and much less sweet than a typical pecan pie.

You will need to buy malt extract for this recipe, which I bought ages ago at Holland and Barrett, but I see it a lot in almost all health food shops.

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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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