Baking challenge: a fine fettle of flatbreads

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 two (bread week) of series three: twelve flatbreads; six leavened and six unleavened)

Parathas and green flatbreads_sm

I have not written about my baking challenge in a while.

I have not really been doing much with it for a while. Mostly because baking resulted in a plethora of delicious but high-calorie food which I have been loathe to consume en masse (the exception was Christmas, but there’s so much going on then that there’s always someone to pass on baked goods to). My urges to create in the kitchen have been channelled through the medium of jams and marmalade, which have the virtue of not going stale.

My reluctance to make and then eat so much sugary food is why coming to the bread week challenges in the Bake-Off challenge is such a pleasure. For bread is often savoury, and even when sweetened, the sweetness is usually restrained enough for your loaf to be acceptable for breakfast. This particular signature challenge called for the making of two types of flatbreads, one leavened with yeast and one unleavened: six of each.

Making flatbreads - dividing and shaping
Top left: dividing the dough; top right: rolling each paratha; bottom left: dividing paratha into three joined strips; bottom left: buttering the dough before twisting and braiding

For the unleavened bread, I opted to make parathas, a buttery South Asian flatbread. I was guided, initially, by my friend Mehrunnisa’s guide and recipe on her blog. She uses wholewheat flour, which reflects the kind of parathas she grew up eating; interestingly, she mentions sweet applications, not something I have seen myself. However, I wanted to create the soft, butter-saturated, silky parathas of my childhood in Singapore. Curry and parathas with teh-oh (hot black tea without milk, but sweetened – and heavily at that – with sugar) was an infrequent ritual with my mother. There were numerous places we’d frequent; we actually liked the little hawker in the Botanical Gardens because we could then digest the rich, oily meal with a walk. For this reason I used white flour when making the parathas and used the proportions from Ruby Tandoh’s reliable baking book Crumb – although I used much more butter, more by accident than design at first. I served it with a fish curry, as I might have had in Singapore, although they were redder and richer in gravy, and more likely to be made with fish heads rather than fillets.

Making flatbreads - braiding, coiling, rolling and frying
1st row L-R: preparing to braid; twisting strips; braiding. 2nd row, L-R: coiling; finished coil; set of 6 completed coiled dough rounds. 3rd row, L-R: rolled out paratha; laminated layers; sizzling butter, for cooking

For the yeasted flatbreads, I adapted one of Nigella Lawson’s glorious bread recipes from How to be a Domestic Goddess. Often remembered for its cakes and biscuits, I think the savoury recipes in this book are all too easily overlooked, but they are wonderful. The original recipe is soft and pillowy as foccacia, baked with a warming, mellow topping of roast garlic and a paste of parsley. My version was altogether sprightlier, blending together parsley, coriander, raw garlic and a bit of lemon juice for a fresh, zingy paste. A dash of fresh chilli – green or red – would also not have gone amiss. They do tend to bake to a more muted green but the brightness of the flavour carried.

Unbaked green herb flatbreads
Unbaked flatbreads, daubed with bright green herb paste

Parathas
Recipe adapted from Crumb, by Ruby Tandoh

Note: almost every single step is illustrated in the collage images above.

Parathas and fish curry

  • 250g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 125g unsalted butter, melted
  • 135ml water
  1. Combine the salt and flour in a mixing bowl; add two TBS of melted butter and rub in to combine thoroughly. Add the water to the flour mixture and knead for a minute or so until well combined.
  2. Set aside to rest for 15 minutes.
  3. Divide the dough into six pieces. Roll each into a ball. Dust a work surface and rolling pin lightly with flour.
  4. One by one, roll each ball out into a disc of about 15-20cm. Using a knife or bench scraper, cut two long incisions into each disc, but do not cut through the top, to leave three strips of dough joined together (see collage image). Using a pastry brush, brush over the surface with melted butter, generously (you will however be using some of the butter to cook the paratha, so don’t worry about using all of it).
  5. Lightly twist each strand of the dough (see images above) and then roughly braid them together. Roll up the braids into a coil, like a snake, and tuck the ends under. Prepare all the parathas this way until ready to fry. You will probably need to lightly dust your work surface and folling pin between batches.
  6. Once ready to cook, take one coiled braid of dough and roll out to 15-20cm diameter circle. Heat up a frying pan over medium-low and coat the pan with a light surface of your remaining butter. Lightly butter one side of your rolled-out paratha then cook in the pan for two minutes, buttered side down; lightly brush the top with butter. Once cooked on one side, flip and cook for an additional two minutes, until lightly speckled with dark brown spots on both sides. If they are darkening too quickly or blackening in any way, turn down the heat; if they are blonde and pale still, turn it up a smidgen.
  7. While cooking the paratha, roll out the next circle. Repeat the cooking steps, adding more butter to the pan as required. Serve with curry; eat immediately

Green herb hearthbreads
Recipe adapted from How to Be a Domestic Goddess, by Nigella Lawson

This makes six quite large flatbreads – big enough for sharing – rather than individually-sized ones, if I’m honest. You could easily halve them, but watch the baking time.

  • 500g strong white flour
  • 7g instant yeast
  • 1 TBS flaky salt
  • 300-400ml water
  • 5 TBS olive oil
  • 3-8 TBS extra-virgin olive oil (if you really don’t want to use extra-virgin, you don’t have to)
  • 1 bunch parsley
  • 1 bunch coriander
  • 10 cloves garlic, or even more if wished
  • Squeeze of lemon juice
  • seasoning for the herb paste
  1. Combine the flour, yeast and salt in a bowl; mix together the five TBS olive oil with 300ml water in a jug and add to the flour mixture to make a firm but not stiff, supple-soft dough. If it is dry at all or very hard and stiff, add a little more water a bit at a time.
  2. Turn out to a lightly oiled surface and knead for ten minutes until the dough is elastic and springy, very soft to the touch, and stretches out without breaking when you pull it. If you want, you can do the windowpane test.
  3. Pat the fully kneaded dough into a ball and clean out your bowl (yes), dry it and lightly oil it. Turn the dough in the bowl so that it’s oiled all over. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and let rise for an hour or a bit more until doubled in size.
  4. For the herb paste, combine the parsley, coriander and peeled garlic in a food processor and add three tablespoons of the extra-virgin olive oil; blitz until all is finely chopped. Add a little salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice, and then process with additional extra-virgin olive oil until it forms a runny paste. If you want chilli heat, add a chilli here too. I used about six tablespoons but you might need more or less depending on how big your bunches of herbs are. Taste the herb paste and if it’s lacking in anything – salt, garlic pungency, peppery heat, acidity – add salt, pepper, garlic or lemon juice to taste. This paste is the heart of the breads so it must taste delicious. Once you can’t stop tasting it, it’s ready to anoint your breads with.
  5. Once the dough has risen, punch it down gently and let rest for 10 minutes. Line two or three baking sheets with baking paper. Divide the rested dough into six equal portions. Roll each portion out into a rough oval or oblong shape. Press them out a little more using your fingers.
  6. Transfer the breads to the baking paper and cover with clingfilm; leave for 25 minutes for the second prove until they are puffy. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200C.
  7. Remove the clingfilm from the proved breads and, using your fingers, dimple the surface of the breads. Stir your herb paste together briskly in case any of it has settled, then divide over the flatbreads, smoothing it out evenly over the surface of each using the back of a spoon.
  8. Bake for 15-20 minutes until the breads are cooked: the green paste will have dulled slightly in colour, and the dough will have deepened in colour and be golden and slightly bronzed in places. Remove from the oven, sprinkle over some good flaky salt, and eat, warm and comforting, as soon as cool enough to touch.

 

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.

Itsu-inspired salmon and edamame rice bowl and matcha choux puffs

About once a month, a select (ha) group of culinarily adventurous friends and I meet up to cook and eat together. We rotate between each other’s homes and each evening has a theme. It is, in short, a supper club, or dinner party club, except that not every gathering is actually in the evening.

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Sun-dappled, a Middle Eastern feast

Our very first themed dinner was ‘Harvest Festival’ and, as you might expect, it was held in early autumn. Themes which have been particular favourites of mine have included ‘Middle Eastern Afternoon Tea’, particularly memorable because I served up muhammara according to Diana Henry‘s addictively good recipe from Crazy Water Pickled Lemons, and I read up a lot about Anglo-Indian food and heritage for our ‘Indian Summer’ themed lunch – anything which combines food and history is going to be all right by me. (In case the name seems odd, it was an homage to the Channel Four show ‘Indian Summers’, which dramatised the final years of British colonial rule in India.) In January this year I hosted a Burns Night themed evening in which anti-haggis prejudices were overcome by suspicious southerners, and even the vegetarian haggis was well-received. (I love haggis – if you love a big, spicy, crumbly meatball I urge you to try it when the weather cools down). A friend’s boyfriend gamely read Robert Burns’ ‘Address to a Haggis’ in a broad Scots dialect, a feat which was all the more impressive considering a) a Scottish amount of alcohol had been consumed and b) it was the first time he’d met us, and standing up in a room full of strangers to read a poem in Scots dialect sounds like the worst kind of trial. (Indeed, as a little girl I ran sobbing out of a room full of people at the Belgian and Luxembourg Association of Singapore‘s annual St Nicholas’ Day party when asked to read a poem in Dutch – i.e. my first language).

More recently we had a Japanese-themed lunch, although it was called ‘Cherry Blossom Festival’, and was a celebration of both the warmer weather as well as the elegant, simple yet satisfying flavours of Japanese cooking. My friend Tina served us miso soup and stickily sweet chicken yakitori in her tiny Covent Garden flat; the windows were thrown open wide to embrace the sun and warmth coming in. I brought a salmon and edamame rice salad which was inspired by one of my absolute favourite bought lunches from Itsu, a chain which specialises in light, healthy Asian takeaway meals: teriyaki salmon on a bed. In addition to salmon (obviously) and rice, this dish includes edamame beans, which you can buy in the frozen section of most supermarkets, usually labelled ‘soya beans’. I much prefer them to the more British broad bean because they do not require a second podding after cooking. The components of fish, rice and bright green beans are easy to bring together. Such is the popularity of Japanese food that the ingredients can be bought at any standard supermarket.

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Salmon rice bowl – we had already tucked in!

It’s 047my friend Juliet, however, who shines in preparing food which is delicate (never quite as twee as ‘dainty’) and beautifully presented. She loves Asian food and predictably stole the show with some beautiful matcha cream puffs. The matcha creme diplomat used to fill them was rich, but the addition of whipped cream made it one of those dangerous foodstuffs whose saturated fat content is belied by the absolute lightness on the tongue. The floral taste of the creme diplomat was a perfect match(a) for the delicate texture of the puffs. Juliet also had some extra matcha creme diplomat with her and I can attest that, in addition to cream puffs, it is utterly divine piped or spooned into raspberries cavities or squiggled onto frozen yoghurt.

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In addition to the crisp little choux buns, there’s extra textural interest provided by a layer of craquelin, which gives the tops of the buns a pleasing giraffe-like pattern. Craquelin is effectively a pressed Francophone crumble topping – a disc of flour, butter, and brown sugar – which somehow makes the whole thing sound a lot less like you need a Cordon Bleu qualification and more like something that can be achieved at home.

 

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Baking challenge: a platter of treats, perfect for Wimbledon and a British summer

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 eight (the final) of series two: petit fours.

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You would be forgiven for not having even noticed that the Wimbledon Championships had started, what with everything else hogging the headlines at the moment. In any other year, Djokovic crashing out in the third round would be the upset of the summer and Andy Murray would probably have had a nervous breakdown from the pressure, given that this is possibly the first Championship game he’s gone into as a favourite. The scrutiny, however, is off him this year. He could probably play his next match naked and it would barely get a mention.

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Around a year ago I made a strawberry meringue pie for a Mens’ Final viewing party; this year, I’m suggesting a very British platterful of petit fours to see out the final matches. I made the petit fours as part of my very, painfully slow progress through my Great British Bake-Off challenge. The brief for the finale of series two was to make petit fours – meringue, pastry, and cake – twelve of each, with the theme of the Great British Summer. Only I kind of messed up because I didn’t check my notes and thought one of the petit fours was biscuits, rather than pastry, but frankly I was so pleased with the outcome that I’m not going to quibble.

083The British summer usually means three things: rain, blustery wind, and the bitter taste of disappointment in your mouth as you huddle in the sweaters you haven’t yet packed away for another year. Or! It can mean watching the Wimbledon Finals, drinking Pimms and eating strawberries, strolling down to the park and lying on the grass, visiting gaudy seaside towns and the ubiquitous 99 Flake ice cream. Those days are, in their rarity, all the more precious.

For the biscuit petit fours, I was inspired to make mini 99 Flakes, those soft-serve ice creams crowned with a Cadbury’s Flake chocolate bar. For the cone I used a pliable tuile recipe, draping them around pastry cone mounds when just baked and holding them in place until they hardened in a cone shape. This is work for those with robust hands. I find tuiles a somewhat difficult biscuit to master: I have never managed to make them truly thin and shatteringly crisp, and they tend to brown a little too quickly in my somewhat unreliable oven (everything goes a bit too dark around the edges in there). Still, once they were shaped and cream piped in through a star nozzle, and decorated with a sliver of chocolate to resemble the Flake, they tasted just great: buttery, tender-crisp biscuit, soft pillowy cream, bite of dark and bitter chocolate.

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Unbaked meringues

Strawberry and cream, cream and meringue: so classic as to be unoriginal, perhaps even dull, but there’s nothing half-hearted about people’s response this combination. I piped out nests of meringue and filled them with dollops of cream and slices of strawberry in the shape of butterfly’s wings; to give them that something extra, and emphasise their Britishness (or perhaps simply Englishness?), I filled the centres with a wibbly, electric jelly of Pimms and lemonade. I actually used the special strawberry and mint Pimms rather than the classic version. By adding the jelly, the meringue and cream also hearkened to the classic British child’s birthday party favourite of jelly with ice cream. (Fun fact: I was not allowed to eat jelly as a child and now, as an adult, don’t enjoy it very much, and certainly what enjoyment I have pales in comparison to that of my British friends, for whom jelly and cream is the taste of childhood).

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Raw ingredients for Pimms jelly

But my absolute favourite part of the petit four platter was the cake – in the conception, the baking, and the eating thereof. I very much wanted to use my cake pop pan – partly to justify the fact that I even own such a thing – and immediately two things came to mind: one was Wimbledon and tennis balls, the other the classic British summer flavour of tangy rhubarb combined with soft, cool, vanilla-flecked custard. To capture both, I baked a custard-flavoured sponge in the cake pop tin, released the perfect little spheres, let them cool, and then doused them in a white chocolate ganache flavoured with rhubarb extract. I had dribbled a mixture of yellow and green food colouring into the ganache to capture the yellow of the tennis balls – you will need quite a bit to identifiably colour the ganache and it didn’t really come together for me until I added the green food colouring, drop by careful drop, swirling through carefully each time. I drew in the white seams with a white chocolate icing pen, bought commercially, which was about ten thousand times easier than trying to melt white chocolate and make a little paper icing cone. With the icing pen, I had a lot of control over the end product. I mean, I know the icing lines are squiggly, but it would have been so much worse with a DYI product.

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Finally, to capture the look of the grass surface which tennis at Wimbledon is played on, I doused a handful of dessicated coconut in green food colouring until it was as green as the lawn and rested the tennis ball cakes on a bed of this.

I will not lie: this platter was quite time-consuming to make and is the kind of thing you might only do if you are hosting a Wimbledon-themed party, but the end results elicited gasps of admiration from my friends and, most importantly, all were delicious as well as super cute.

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TV and fried food: stuffed courgette flowers and Nigella Lawson’s Tuscan fries

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It was not too long ago, although it seems a political lifetime away, that my boyfriend and I settled in front of the TV to watch the ITV EU referendum debate, accompanied by platefuls of crispy, deep-fried goodness. There has been plenty to keep anyone glued to the television lately: Brexit and Trump for the politically inclined; Euro 2016 for the sport-inclined (it’s football or something); and the final episodes of the latest series of Game of Thrones. I’m going to  admit that of this list I paid keenest attention to the EU membership referendum debates. Now that the referendum has passed, those politically inclined can continue watching Trump, the dissolution of the Labour shadow cabinet, and post-Brexit negotiations. Those disappointed by England’s defeat in the Euros could always switch their support over to Iceland, who are in their first major international tournament, or my own team, the Red Devils (not Manchester United…this totally confused my boyfriend when I first told him “I only really support the Red Devils”.) Or, you know, tennis, since Wimbledon began, although you could have missed the news, drowned out as it has been by politics, which has been in a state of what you might call ‘flux’. And if you watch Game of Thrones, well, I know less about that than I do about football.

Whatever takes your fancy, you may wish to eat while watching. There is something that feels so decadent eating off a tray on the sofa as an adult, especially when things are eaten with fingers, even more so when you have allowed yourself not the low-fat hummus and crudites but the good stuff, the actually fried stuff: onion rings, calamari, whitebait, aubergine tempura, fried chicken, Scotch eggs, even the humble crisp, all have benefitted by being submerged in hot oil until their water has evaporated and they have returned from this slightly dangerous baptism crisp-skinned and tinged with gold. While there is nothing wrong with a torn-open bag of Doritos’ finest (Cool Ranch if you know I’m coming over, please), if you want to up your game a bit, or perhaps combine a love of deep-fried food with seasonal eating, may I recommend the fried and battered courgette flower?

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Courgette blossoms, tenderly cossetted, before filling, dredging and frying

All right, so that possibly sounds like the most pretentious sentence ever written, but I bought some of these flowers, prevalent in spring and summer during courgette/zucchini growing time, stuffed it with cheese (and anchovy – I would characterise this as optional), battered it and fried it, as per Tessa Kiros’ recipe in her elegant Falling Cloudberries (her writing is lyrical, at times a little purple, but hugely evocative of mood, place, memory). The flower itself had a delicate, slightly milky freshness, the petal both tender and yet robust enough to chew; the batter crunched under my teeth; the mozzarella oozed in long and delectable melted strands. There is nothing exclusive about this kind of textural and taste pleasure. The only problem will, of course, be getting hold of the flowers themselves. In London, this may be, at most, a hassle rather than impossible: Wild Country Organics sells them at various farmers’ markets and Borough Market, as well as online. You can buy courgette flowers online via Farm Direct, Natoora and other specialist food sellers. They are not the absolute cheapest things to buy – they are seasonal and delicate so must be harvested and transported with care. For the recipe below you will need about two, maybe three, total, flowers per person, depending what you are serving them with, so if you want to try this but are also cost-conscious, this is the perfect dish to serve up for just you, or perhaps you and your partner or a close friend. The mozzarella and batter makes the tender blooms surprisingly filling. They are scattered with a final flutter of battered and fried sage leaves.

Tuscan fries, oil blotted
Tuscan fries, oil blotted

Nigella Lawson‘s Tuscan fries, from her book and show Nigellissima, which focused on Italian food Anglicised, or perhaps Nigella-ified, is perhaps, if not quite the opposite of the fried courgette flowers, an easy introduction to deep-frying; deep-frying for the cautious. The method is unorthodox: you fry chunks of potato, starting in cold oil, adding aromatics such as unpeeled garlic and herbs at the end. I used sage, because sage was called for in the battered courgette blossom recipe and I wanted to use up the packet: the fried herbs are perfectly crisp and dry at the end, crunchy and paper-thin and shattering delectably against the tongue. I actually much preferred these naked leaves to their battered cousins. Rosemary would also be very good here.

Frying the chips in cold oil, Nigella assures us, does not leave them greasy or soggy. I think mine browned a little too much – I should have turned the heat down a little – and they were slightly limp in the middle (they could have been cut a smidge finer, and I think I used the wrong variety of potato – see my notes below), but indeed they were no greasier or oilier than chips cooked in the more traditional two-part method. While you definitely, certainly, should not ever ever ever leave boiling oil unattended in the kitchen, you can certainly potter around the kitchen and prepare other parts of the meal when cooking the chips using this method, keeping the occasional close eye on them. I did let the oil used for frying cool and then strained and saved it for possible further use.

I wouldn’t advocate this meal for every night (masses of oil + TV means your hips, stomach, waistline and bum won’t lie) but, with a cool glass of prosecco, it’s the perfect, slightly classy-but-still-fried accompaniment to the political TV/sporting event/brutally bloody Middle Ages themed TV show your heart could desire watching.

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Baking challenge: mocha-caramel millefeuille

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 eight (the final) of series two: layered millefeuille.

Layers of puff pastry, mocha patisserie cream, drizzled caramel, hazelnut praline
Layers of puff pastry, mocha patisserie cream, drizzled caramel, hazelnut praline

Sometimes, if you want to impress your friends and sicken your enemies (a phrase I have unashamedly stolen from Marian Keyes, FYI), you need to put the time and effort in. Making millefeuille is one of those things: it will delight the eye, bring joy to the palate, and inspire awe in your guests. But, because millefeuille is not a single recipe but a set of deliciously-assembled components, it does take work. Fortunately for you, and your dinner party guests, pretty much every component can be made in advance and put together before serving. This is why plated desserts are such a staple of restaurant kitchens: it’s no more effort, after all the baking, than putting together a few Lego blocks. But in the home, all the baking is done by one person, and that person is you.

Hazelnut praline, ready for crushing
Hazelnut praline, ready for crushing

Component number one is the rough puff or full puff pastry. How time-consuming and difficult you will find this process depends entirely on how often you make regular pastry. Although I had some mishaps (detailed in the head notes to the recipe), on the whole this was straightforward.

Component number two is the creme patissiere. I decided I definitely wanted my creme patissiere filling to be coffee, because I love coffee in dessert and it is just not featured enough, in my view. The feedback from my friends was that the liked that the coffee flavour was quite gentle and not too strong – so if you want it stronger you should increase the coffee extract to taste or perhaps infuse the cream with coffee grounds (straining before use) or add dissolved instant coffee.

Component three was the caramel, for drizzling, and number four was some

Hazelnut praline, crushed. The ground up, caramel glazed nuts add textural contrast to the plated dessert
Hazelnut praline, crushed. The ground up, caramel glazed nuts add textural contrast to the plated dessert

hazelnut praline, crushed into powder, for textural contrast and smokey, nutty depth. Someone brought some raspberries to my party (where I served this dessert) so later that evening I dotted each millefeuille with them in the spirit of pure opportunism. And actually I think it really lifted everything, introducing a slightly sharp note and a splodge of colour that lifted the beige, brown and buff elements of cooked pastry, drizzled caramel and mocha creme patissiere.

When it comes to making caramel, I have a secret: I very rarely use recipes or even measurements anymore. Usually I throw a fistful of sugar into a pan, cook it until amber, and then pour in glugs of cream until it’s the consistency I want. I finish it off with salt and butter to taste. This happy state of throwing caution to the wind comes after many years of carefully following recipes, swirling my pan of measured-out ingredients and reading the instructions as I went. I mention this simply because I think making caramel is a bit of a stressful endeavour for a lot of people, but do it enough and it can really come to feel quite natural. As with anything, the impression of ease, fluidity and instinct is simply the result of many years of practice. I decanted it into a plastic squeezy bottle but you can drizzle (or splatter) the caramel over using a spoon or piping bag as you prefer.

Overhead shot
Overhead shot

I hasten to add that sometimes my sugar does burn and occasionally the whole thing seizes up to a grainy paste – but this is usually when I have decided to leave the kitchen to watch TV or something. Don’t abandon your caramel!

Continue reading “Baking challenge: mocha-caramel millefeuille”

Baking challenge: the one with the maple pecan bacon pastry plait

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 challnge for week seven (patisserie week) of series two: a selection of three different types of Danish pastry, all made out of the same dough.

I didn’t think I was the kind of person who made croissants – but I made them! And apple turnovers, and maple-pecan-bacon plaits. All out of a single batch of yeasted, laminated dough.

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It turns out that the process of making laminated pastry is time-consuming but not hugely difficult or technical. You spend a lot of time waiting for dough to rise, so it’s definitely a weekend project, but actually the dough is extremely forgiving; in the recipe I used, you can leave the dough to rest periodically anywhere between one and eight hours. This is actually extremely flexible and you could fit making the dough around most activities. I used Anna Olson’s recipe for laminated dough, inspired by her show Bake with Anna Olson and the episode on croissants. I mentioned on Twitter that I was making the recipe and Anna actually responded, which sent my heart a-flutter! (Her tip was to take your time – a good tip for me since patience in the kitchen is not necessarily one of my virtues). My only gripe with Bake…as a show is that the recipe measurements are given in cups, whereas I’m certain that as a professional (and very precise) baker, Anna herself would use weight measurements.

Laminated pastry: where bread meets puff pastry
Laminated pastry: where bread meets puff pastry

I based the filled croissants on the divine Italian-style cornetti I’d enjoyed on a holiday in Croatia a few years ago. My boyfriend and I popped into a local bakery and got some croissants, only to discover, to our delight, that unlike the plain, buttery French-style croissants, these were filled with vanilla-flecked pastry cream (the flavour of the pastry cream can vary). I later discovered that they were in fact Italian, and were cornetti rather than croissants. Apparently the dough is slightly different: cornetti dough is sweeter, more enriched and less laminated, resulting in a softer, sweeter end product. Be that as it may, the ones I had were definitely pretty close to croissant dough and I recreated them as such. Sorry, Italy – but my heart truly belongs to France. My version was quite a bit smaller and less filled than the professional bakery version.

Cornetti with pastry cream
Cornetti with pastry cream (background shots of apple turnovers and maple-pecan-bacon plaits)

Where it all definitely got a bit more technical was in the shaping of the croissants; there’s definitely a knack to it and my efforts were certainly misshapen. The creme patissiere filling mostly squelched out of the sides – but enough was captured in the centre to make them deliciously gooey and comforting.

The apple turonver is a lonely hunter
The apple turonver is a lonely hunter

The apple turnovers were, as you might imagine, the simplest: make some applesauce. Stamp out rounds of the laminated dough, add a spoonful of applesauce, fold over, egg wash, sprinkle with demerara sugar, bake. Apple turnovers were some of my favourite childhood treats and, although the ones I made were bitesize rather than the palm-sized confections my father would occasionally buy me, they were definitely a step up from the Delifrance.

The maple-pecan-bacon plait, meanwhile, was inspired by one of my favourite pre-diet indulgences from the Tesco/Sainsbury’s/Co-op aisle. (Yes, I know that my penchant for these pastries – which, in their supermarket incarnation, aren’t even all that good – explains why I am currently on a diet). I added the bacon to the standard maple-pecan plait to counterbalance the sweetness – the supermarket versions are extremely sugary – and provide a textural contrast, as well as the intensely salty, savoury counterpoint that makes bacon pancakes drenched in syrup so luscious. The filling also contains cream cheese, which adds another slightly salty, savoury component which prevents the filling from being over-sweet while also adding a lactic creaminess. I made this as one large plait which was cut into smaller portions after baking, though I think, in retrospect, that they would have come out more neatly had I cut them prior to baking.

The plaiting was surprisingly easy to do and the technique could be applied to lots of baked goods . This blog has a detailed pictorial step-by-step guide which I printed out and followed faithfully when making the pastry braid, but I’ve also included some diagrammes and detailed steps, and a link to a video, in the instructions below in case you want to make this recipe or just use the braiding technique to any recipe of your own. The finish is surprisingly professional and will impress your friends and lovers.

While the shaping of the croissants was undeniably difficult, making a plait is pretty breezy. Try it – lots of fun.

Continue reading “Baking challenge: the one with the maple pecan bacon pastry plait”