Mixed spring sourdough grissini

Adventures in sourdough: pancakes and grissini

Mixed spring sourdough grissini

One of the things which seems to mark out people who care about their food is a love of proper bread. In some respects I came round to this rather late. Although we grew up enjoying bread from wee bakeries in Northern Ireland, with lovely batch loaves, bloomers, wheaten bread and more; we also ate a lot of cheap sliced loaves at home. I used to be a demon for toast, and sliced pan loaves were the only option to sate my cravings as a growing teenager.

Throughout student life cheap sliced loaves were a staple. After graduating I shared a house with a mate who never bought a loaf of pre-sliced bread. His stance wasn’t dogmatic – no deeply ingrained opposition to the Chorleywood process – he just liked half-decent bread, and the pleasure of being able to cut your own slice, to whatever thickness you desired. Thanks to him, I kicked the habit of rectangular loafs wrapped in plastic like Laura Palmer. Since then I’ve made an effort to try and buy decent bread (Barbakan in south Manchester was a particular inspiration), and I tempered my toast habit a bit…

Unlike Miss South I’ve never been particularly drawn to baking – a few experiments in the past led to some reasonably unimpressive loaves – and so have stuck to flatbreads, pizzas, coca bread and of course those Norn Irish staples we both grew up with. I’ve always been impressed and daunted in equal measure by tales of friends growing their own sourdough starters, but never made the leap to doing it myself.

However our mum gave me a bit of her starter earlier this year (a mother from my mother seems appropriate) and so I’ve been giving this sourdough malarky a go. I work at home, so I’ve been able to accommodate the routines of this relatively undemanding pet: feeding, stirring, growing, nurturing. Loaves have turned out pretty well, and I can relate to the satisfaction one often hears described which comes with slowly proving a loaf with rewarding, complex flavours. However there are lots of folk out there who bake sourdough bread much better than I do… so this is about other things made with sourdough instead.

Sandor Katz’s monumental ‘The Art of Fermentation’ was a recent welcome birthday present, and as I leafed through the inspiring recipes and writing I was immediately drawn to his suggesting of using up excess sourdough starter for savoury pancakes. It’s dead simple: to help stimulate your starter to grow, you need to chuck out the majority of the flour and water mix so you can feed the remainder with new supplies. Most sources advocate using it for baking, or chucking it away, but the waste-not, want-not approach which Katz outlines is great.


sourdough pancake and starter

They’ve become a firm favourite in the last few weeks, providing an easy and welcome vehicle to use up a bunch of fresh and not-quite-so-fresh things from the fridge. I love the slightly sour tang from the starter; it’s like an quick and dirty hybrid of injera and a Staffordshire oatcake, and they’re great for a quick lunch.

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Just pour out some of the sourdough ‘batter’ into a hot pan, and do like you would with traditional pancakes. Then fill, and wolf them down. Below are a couple of recent lunchtime five-minute wonders: blanched cavolo nero, diced salami and a squirt of sriracha in pancakes flecked with chives; and home-made slaw, salami and leaves. The contents are dictated only by your taste and what you have in. The only downside; roll ‘em like wraps and they disappear in no time.

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Outside, our rosemary bush has been flowering over the last few weeks. I’ve always wanted to make the most of these delicate, beautiful lilac flowers but never settled on the right option. They wilt and fade when roasted with lamb; they’re a bit much for a salad… but then I thought I’d try and pair them with smoked roast garlic and sea salt.

bumblebee on rosemary flowers

That, plus it being the tail end of wild garlic season in the Pennines, meant a making a brace of big umami-laced flavoured breadsticks. Which, oddly, don’t seem to last long in our house, especially when there’s a bottle open. Of the two, the rosemary flowers and smoked garlic was the standout for me. Well worth making…

Wild garlic, smoked garlic, rosemary flowers and sourdough mix

Spring sourdough grissini, two ways

(makes approx. 24 breadsticks)

  • 325g strong white flour
  • 150g sourdough leaven
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 220ml slight warm water
Rosemary flower, smoked roast garlic and sea salt 
  • 3-4 tablespoons of rosemary flowers (you could alternatively use dried ground rosemary leaves)
  • half a bulb of smoked garlic, roasted slowly for 40mins in an oven at approx. gas mark 4 / 180°C
  • a few tablespoons of sea salt to roll and coat the grissini in
Wild garlic, anchovy and black pepper
  • a fistful of wild garlic leaves, finely chopped
  • 6-8 anchovy fillets
  • fresh ground or crushed black pepper
  • olive oil

Roast the smoked garlic slowly. When done, remove from the oven and leave to cool. You should be able to squeeze out the delicious garlic purée from the cloves. Chop the wild garlic leaves finely, mixing with a splash of oil and chopped anchovies in a bowl to create a paste.

Mix the flour and leaven together in a bowl, then slowly add the water. Sprinkle the teaspoons-worth of salt in as you add the water. Mix roughly in the bowl, then leave for ten minutes. After ten minutes, divide into two equal portions, and work each separately. It should be slightly wet and sticky.

Mix the rosemary flowers into one of the portions in a bowl, then add the roasted garlic purée. Knead and mix until the ingredients look evenly distributed, and you can feel the dough changing in your hands. I slap it around briefly for a few minutes, then left it, before returning after a suitable length of time (preferably at least 4 hours). The mix will have risen slightly and proved well.

With the other, stir in the wild garlic mix. You may find you need to add extra flour as the water from the wild garlic leaves makes the dough more liquid. Mix as above until it’s uniformly green and has changed texture, then leave as above.

When the proving has completed, divide each in half, roll into a rough sausage shape, and then divide further into six equally-sized pieces. Roll these pieces, one by one, between your hand to make long breadstick shapes. Be careful they don’t snap… and don’t sweat it if they are uneven. They should look pleasingly rustic. Keep each dusted lightly in flour, and place on a dusted baking tray.

I sprinkled sea salt on a baking tray and rolled the rosemary and smoked garlic grissini in these, so the crystals stuck roughly to the dough.

Bake in batches for 12-15mins in a pre-heated oven at 220°C / Gas Mark 7. Check to see they’ve firmed up and taken some colour. They should be firm enough to break rather than tear. Leave to cool, then enjoy with a drink or two!

pineapple cream

Pineapple Creams

pineapple cream I am obsessed with Northern Irish traybakes and home baking. I’m obviously having some kind of childhood regression, homesickness or strong desire to bring such delicacies to a wider primarily English audience.  Basically it makes sad that there are people have never eaten a fifteen or a top hat until now.

However having introduced several friends and readers to these entry level traybakes and got them hooked on the sugary delights of Norn Irish cuisine, I’ve been leafing through some prized local cookbooks to look for more niche items to feed to them.

Often these books are collected by a local church, parish or community organisation like the WI and while it’s tempting to giggle at the old fashioned recipes involving tinned fruit juice or glace cherries, these pamphlets and books have grown ever more fascinating to me as I’ve been working on Recipes from Brixton Village. Both capture a certain place and community in its time and introduce you to people’s lives through food, conversation and friendliness.

Books like this are a snaphot in time, a glance at history, fashions and people’s celebrations. They tell you as much as family albums and concentrate on home cooking rather than restaurant trends. They welcome you into their community and wider family and they appeal me to much more than the TV tie in cookbooks of recent years, leaving you feeling like you know something about the person who made the food as well as the dish itself.

I think people will enjoy dipping into Recipes from Brixton Village and feeling like they are getting to know the traders through the recipes and Kaylene Alder’s illustrations as much as I enjoy flipping through The Belfast Cook Book by Margaret Bates and seeing the environment my extended family were raised and lived in. I’ve learned things about my Protestant background in Belfast and mid Ulster from the church and WI books I’ve collected recently that I never noticed as a child (mainly that the traybake is a distinctly Prod way of eating…) Food is a very effective way to communicate no matter where you come from.

A recipe that just leapt out at me on this traybake inspired cookbook meandering was the now somewhat unfashionable pineapple cream. A small pastry tart case filled with crushed pineapple and whipped cream before being topped with pineapple water icing, these were a real favourite of me and my granny when I was wee. Trips into Lurgan town centre on market day weren’t complete without two of these in their little foil cases from one of the fantastic (and sorely missed) home bakeries every Northern Irish town centre had in those days.

Shelves at places like O’Hara’s, McErleans, Jeffers or Kennedy’s groaned with baps, farls, pan loaves,  gravy rings and sweet buns, biscuits and tarts. You couldn’t miss the pineapple creams with their vivid yellow toppings and we brought two home in a white paper bag to be eaten with a cuppa at the kitchen table. Strangely I don’t remember eating them with anyone’s else except her and I’ve certainly never heard of anyone making them at home, so it seemed time to try both.

Pineapple Creams (makes one 9″ tart or 12 small tarts)

  • 400g shortcrust pastry (not sweetened)
  • 2 x 425g cans pineapple chunks or crushed pineapple, juiced reserved
  • 400ml double cream
  • 400g icing sugar
  • 100ml boiling pineapple juice
  • pinch of yellow food powder or liquid colouring

I have to admit that I used shopbought pastry for this pineapple cream tart because my homemade stuff shrinks like wool on a boil wash and while I’m trying to work out what I’m doing wrong, I rolled out some commercial shortcrust instead. If you are more pastry proficient than me, this Dan Lepard recipe for pastry is a good basis.

Line a 9″ tart tin or a 12 whole small tart or bun tray and chill the pastry for about 30 minutes before blind baking for 25 minutes on 200°C. Remove the lining and baking beans after this and bake naked for another 5-7 minutes to give a golden finish. Allow the pastry to cool completely.

Drain the pineapple chunks and reserve the juice. These pineapple creams always used crushed pineapple with its soft almost sticky texture but this is much harder to get these days than it used to be. Del Monte sell it or you can simply crush your chunks with a potato masher. Drain off any excess juice after this and layer the pineapple into the tart tin.

Whip the cream and spread it over the pineapple evenly. Smooth the top down as much as possible with a spatula or a palette knife.

Pour the reserved pineapple juice into a saucepan and bring to the boil, adding the food colouring now if using the liquid version. Tip the icing sugar into a large bowl and add the pinch of yellow food powder if using. Pour the hot pineapple juice into a measuring jug and add about 25mls at a time, whisking well. 100ml will give you a loose but not pourable texture, but you might want a drop or two more if it is too stiff to spread. It should be a soft yellow colour rather than looking like the background of a smiley face.

Use a spoon to pour the icing over the cream. It should be thick enough to obscure the cream completely. Allow the icing to set for at least 1 hour before serving. The pineapple will begin to leech its juice after a few hours and the pastry will become sticky and a little difficult to cut in a large tart. No one will notice when they are eating it but don’t make it too far in advance. Serve with tea and a certain amount of nostalgia.

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PS: Recipes from Brixton Village is available from May 22nd. Free P&P at the Kitchen Press website on orders!

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Homemade Vanilla Extract

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I’ve been meaning to post this recipe for a while as it’s completely changed my cooking and baking habits and after such a busy week, it’s nice to to feature something simple and slow to develop. More like musing than cooking, it’s perfect after a fortnight that’s seen me submit the manuscript on the slow cooker book to Ebury, feature in the Metro and finish the three days of photography on the book, seeing my creations come to life in a way I hadn’t envisioned when I was eating them.

It was a real pleasure to collaborate with Mister North this week as he is the photographer for the book. My writing and his photography was enhanced by the wonderful food styling of Olia Hercules who was a real joy to work with. It was also great fun spending time with my lovely editor Laura Higginson. And of course having the excuse to eat all the food from the shoot. Very different to my previous life working in fashion…

I felt a pang when my borrowed slow cookers went back to the publisher this week and I comforted myself by pot roasting a chicken in my own one and baking myself a cake which is where the vanilla extract came in. A splash of vanilla in any cake, custard or dessert tends to lift it from good to glorious, but there’s no way round it, vanilla extract is expensive and I usually find myself rationing it like fine perfume.

However just before Christmas 2012 whilst perusing Ebay, I discovered that you can buy vanilla pods for a fantastic prices on there. Scoring 32 of them for £8, I assumed they’d at least have a hint of vanilla and look nice tied to Christmas presents or nestled into sugar. When they arrived however I could smell the rich sweet scent of vanilla through the package before I’d opened it. Unwrapped, each pod was sticky soft and left a sprinkle of vanilla seeds behind on your fingers like fairy dust. And that was just the A Grade pods. They go up to AAAAA in quality.

As with any excess of anything, I thought I’d stick them in some booze and see what happened. Three pods and a smidge of sugar went into some vodka for the perfect festive tipple. I also had a cheap bottle of dark rum left over from a mojito night and wondered what would happen if I put 10 in there and left it in the dark for three months? Vanilla extract that will knock your socks off and make those bottles of Nielsen Massey seem like The Body Shop oil you dabbed behind your ears at the age of twelve.

Rich chestnut brown, spicy sweet and utterly heady, this extract was amazing. The seeds melt into it to make it thick and glossy and the flavour is so intense you need half the amount you normally do. Considering those posh bottles retail at £4.70 per 100ml or around £47 per litre, making your own makes financial sense too. I made around 750ml of extract in December 2012 and gave small bottles of it as gifts, keeping some for myself. I’ve tested two cookbooks since then, baked myself silly and still have 150ml left. My vanilla beans are also currently brewing a second batch too which is just as intensely flavoured meaning I will probably never need buy commercial stuff again.

Homemade Vanilla Extract (makes 700ml)

  • 700ml dark rum
  • 10 vanilla pods

So simple to make. Simply split your pods so that they are opened out and flattened slightly. Pop them into a clean Kilner jar and cover with dark rum. I used Basics for this. Put somewhere dark and cool for at least 3 months. Shake the jar every few days to help infuse it all.

After 3 months, decant around 50ml into a small bottle and use. Leave the rest to keep infusing for up 9 months or decant it to give as gifts. I put half a pod into each small bottle to keep the infusion going and look pretty. I don’t bother to strain the extract as the seeds look beautiful to me.

Friends I gave this to asked for more for Christmas 2013 and I do actually have some waiting to be delivered! If you are a baker, this is a brilliant way to make the most of vanilla in your kitchen. You will never think of vanilla as bland or flavourless again once you’ve tasted this.

 

cornflake trio

Cornflake Tart

 

cornflak c-upMister North and I must be very rare specimens indeed because we went to a primary school that served excellent school dinners. The only thing I remember hating was the cabbage which they served minced and overcooked. Otherwise, I have very fond memories of eating lunch at school. There were proper hand cut twice cooked chips that I still dream about, Irish stew and of course, proper puddings with custard to match.

Most people liked the chocolate sponge and custard best, but my favourite was the cornflake pudding. A slab of crumbly pastry topped with red jam and sweet crunchy cornflakes on top, served with simple yellow custard. I last ate it when I was no more than 11 years old and I’ve spent years trying to track a recipe for it down. I’ve asked many people if they remembered it and in between triggering memories of Spam fritters, people have either rhapsodised about it or looked blank.

I was starting to think it was a Northern Irish thing when eventually I came across something about on Mumsnet and realised it was actually very simple to make and just the thing to use up some spare pastry. But would it taste the same or was I about to destroy a treasured childhood memory like the time I rewatched Button Moon and realised it was just an actual button?

Cornflake Tarts (makes 4 individual sized tarts)

For the pastry:

  • 175g plain flour
  • 45g cold cubed butter
  • 40g lard
  • 2-3 tablespoons cold water

For the topping:

  • 150g raspberry jam
  • 30g unsalted butter
  • 25g sugar
  • 1 tablespoon golden syrup
  • 75g cornflakes

Start by making your pastry. I like the incredible shortness you get using half lard and half butter (plus it’s much cheaper too) but if you prefer, you can use all butter.

Put the flour in a large bowl and rub the lard and butter through it. I think I’ve mentioned before that my pastry always shrinks massively in the tin and some plaintive wailing about it to a friend, established that I was rubbing my fat into the flour too much and over working the pastry. So don’t be afraid to leave some lumps of fat in this instead of trying to get only tiny crumbs.

Add two tablespoons of ice cold water (I’ve also been using too much water because overworking the pastry had made it dry) and bring it all together neatly in a ball without too much fiddling and poking. Chill it in the fridge for 30 minutes.

When you are ready, roll it out and line the tart tins. I had 4 small ones but this will also do a 23cm tart tin nicely. Don’t trim all the pastry off the edges, but leave some overhang and then chill again for 15-20 minutes while the oven heats up to 180ºC.

Line the pastry with greaseproof paper and fill it with rice or dried beans and blind bake for 12 minutes. In the meantime, heat together the butter, sugar and golden syrup in a saucepan until it is all melted and runny. Put the cornflakes in a large bowl and pour the butter and syrup over them. Gently stir it through until they are all coated. Set aside.

Now put the jam into the same saucepan and warm it through too. I used some homemade stuff, but a decent shop bought one will do. Try not to use indeterminate ‘red jam’ like the school dinner version did. It’s better with a bit of flavour and texture.

Take the blind baked tarts out of the oven. Remove the baking beans or rice and prick the base of the pastry several times with a fork. Trim the edges of the tarts with a sharp knife and then spread the warmed jam over all the base of the tarts. Sprinkle the cornflake mixture over the top of the jam, making sure you don’t skimp.

Bake the tarts for another 8 minutes and then allow to cool for at least 10 minutes to give the cornflakes a proper crunch. You’ll probably want to serve this with a generous pouring of custard. I can’t help you here as custard is my nemesis and my most recent attempt at heating some fresh stuff from Sainsbury’s ended with me curdling it!

I ate my tarts just as they were and they tasted exactly like I remember, but actually slightly better for not being made with marge and cheap jam or washed down with tepid water in a metal beaker! I am now convinced Proust was really on about cornflake tart rather than madeleines…

What about you? Do you have a school dinner memory that’s surprisingly good or was it all crimes against food?

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Festive Flies’ Graveyards

 

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Being organised enough to make my own Christmas pudding this year is fantastic because it’s given me the opportunity to make these fabulous festive flies’ graveyards (or fruit squares for the more squeamish) with the leftovers.

These buttery pastry squares packed with dried fruit were a must have at every tea time get together when I was a child. Both my granny and my Aunt Kathleen made them beautifully and I felt I had a lot to live up to trying to get mine right, so I’ve kept it simple here for this Observer Food Monthly piece and used my granny’s recipe to be sure.

These are fantastic with some leftover cranberry sauce dolloped in and make a great alternative to mince pies when you are a month into the season. Enjoy with custard or brandy butter for more of a dessert feel. I’m off to whip up another batch for the family now I’m home.

You can find the full recipe here. What other leftovers are you using up this week?