As I’ve mentioned in a few posts this summer, I haven’t been spending huge amounts of time in the kitchen. My cooking mojo seems to have taken the holiday I haven’t and I’ve not been venturing much beyond finally getting my (non cream based) carbonara just right, breaking records for the number of frittatas one person can eat and eating lots of salad and fruit. So when I was invited to a Bank Holiday picnic it seemed like the time had come to start making a bit of an effort again.
In between not cooking very much and buying eggs in such numbers my local shop actually laugh at me, I’ve also joined Instagram. I’ve really been enjoying it, finding it complements Twitter nicely. I expected it to be about 50% photos of cats and kids but surprisingly there are few of either. What there are a lot of are photos of doughnuts.
London is in the grip of doughnut mania. I know they’ve been gradually making their way from cop show cliche to food blogger fascination for a while. St John started their journey from Krispy Kreme kiosk to the current in-thing (with a little help from The Faerietale Foodie) but call them beignets, donuts or gravy rings, they are everywhere this summer.
Inspired by the reverence with which doughnut fiends speak of Justin Gellatly, formerly of St John Bakery and now of Bread Ahead in Borough Market and because he’s a fellow Ebury author, I thought I would make his legendary recipe for doughnuts and fill them with a wonderful this lemon ricotta semolina custard by Ruby Tandoh. Her custard slice recipe with this is peerless and I needed an excuse to make the filling again.
I almost instantly ran into a problem with Justin’s recipe. It called for fresh yeast and at 8pm on a Friday night, that’s not something I could lay my hands on easily. I subbed in half the amount of dried active yeast by adding it to 50ml of the water required in the recipe and allowing it to bubble for 15 minutes before I started mixing.
And there in lay the second problem with the recipe: the mixing. It called for a stand mixer or Kitchen Aid and involved almost 20 minutes of active mixing in stages. Thing is, I don’t have a Kitchen Aid mixer and I have a serious hump about the number of recipes by big name authors and cooks these days that assume the majority of people own a piece of kitchen equipment that start at £300 and are the size of a small Sherman tank.
I’ve lost count of the number of the TV chef recipes (yes, I am looking you Ms Pascale and Mister Oliver. Stay behind after class please) that tell you to buck everything into the mixer bowl, turn it on and come back after a certain amount of time. At risk of sounding decreipt and resistant to change, getting a machine to do it all for you isn’t cooking to me, it’s assembly. Where is the education? The cues to look for? The touch, taste and feel of food? The explaining why you do something? The alchemy when it comes together?
It’s as sanitised as those supermarket ‘just cook’ ready meals that feature a chicken breast, a sachet of sauce and suggest the veg on the side. One step up from simply piercing the plastic, they are cooking at the most basic level of the word. I see nothing wrong with a proper ready meal, but something about simply preparing components with emotional detachment but calling it cooking bothers me. Even with the slow cooker, I avoid this style of just warming ingredients up, making simple, quick dishes that are still actively cooked and created in a method that teaches and engages you with your food and a specific method of cooking.
I’m well aware some of this resentment of Kitchen Aid cooking comes from the fact I can’t afford something that cost more than my washing machine (and that I haven’t had the chance to slip onto a wedding list yet) and that I’ve never really found a time when it would be properly worthe the cost and storage space. But most it comes from the annoyance that as I work hard to learn to write recipes that both work and teach people to cook, many big names take the path of least resistance and education (or effort.) It doesn’t take much to do a Nigella and give non machine methods alongside.
This isn’t to say that I’m a Luddite who does everything by hand and owns a mangle (although my dad owned a car that had to be hand cranked sometimes when I was a kid…) I love my stick blender and its little chopper bowl attachment. Clearly I’m a bit obsessed by slow cookers. I can completely understand why people with limited time, energy or grip use food processors or breadmakers. But I still like to get involved with my food and feel and see the changes rather than let something else take all the strain and responsibility all the time.
So having started making the doughnuts, I mixed mine with my electric hand whisk. The beaters simply created something akin to a dough tornado and did little. I used the dough hooks and mixed and mixed and mixed. I’ve made marshmallows quite a few times and they were as easy as falling off a log in comparison. Standing holding the electric whisk and beating the dough endlessly made me consider trawling Gumtree for any unwanted stand mixers as my arm hurt and my hands cramped.
However all the buzz told me Justin Gellatly’s doughnuts are the best in the world, so I thought it would be worth it. The fact the dough was both sticky and greasy wasn’t worrying me too much. It had to chill overnight after all so that would sort the Copydex texture, wouldn’t it?
Sadly no. Next morning the dough was just as greasily elastic and globular as the night before. The only hint in the recipe was that it should be smooth and elastic and as it was both those things as well I was baffled. This is where I needed the explanation of the sensations of cooking not just an instruction manual on timings. I know Justin is a commercial baker and uses machinery, but if you’re writing books for home cooks, that’s not much use to me.
I stickily rolled them into balls and proved them them again. Instead of looking taut and tight like Justin advised they were slacker and softer than one of my thighs and when I obeyed the instruction to cover them with clingfilm, they stuck to it like a clingy child and had to prised apart.
Getting them off the floured trays and into the oil was a disaster. They expanded into strings like cheap mozzarella, sticking first to me, then to the scraper, then to the side of the pan and finally flopping wetly into the hot oil and puffing up momentarily before subsiding into a lopside comma shape. I tried five of them, each one getting worse and more oil logged than the previous one before I gave up.
I’m genuinely not sure which of us was more deflated by the experience. Despite getting my oil to exactly 180℃ as per the recipe, the shape shifting of the doughnuts meant the outside was Snog Marry Avoid contestant tan while the middle was gluey white. The cooked bits were as bready as Mother’s Pride and even dipped in sugar, tasted bland. I threw the other 15 lumps of squish in the bin and went to M&S to stock up on dulce de leche teacakes instead.
Instinct tells me it was probably the change in yeasts that was the problem, compounded by the inability to mix the dough like instructed, but the whole experience left me frustrated. It’s a complicated recipe but relying on a costly piece of kit and a difficult to obtain type of yeast with no allowance for home cooking, irritated me. Quite simply why write commercial recipes for home kitchens without an attempt to adapt?
Am I being harsh? Or should recipe writers have a duty to cater to the majority of their readers without explicitly explaining why you need a certain piece of equipment? And does it annoy you when only the mechanical version is given or am I the only person in town still doing it the old fashioned way?