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Homemade Alcoholic Ginger Beer

ginger beerI have been mildly obsessed by ginger beer ever since I grew up gorging myself on Enid Blyton novels with their constant mention of it. (I did always wonder how English people had so much ginger knocking around when it was as rare as hen’s teeth in 1980s Ireland in comparison.) My only taste of ginger beer as a nipper was the occasional can of Idris Fiery Ginger Beer and this also confused me as to how the Famous Five could make fizzy drinks at home. But then again, I never found any shipwrecks round my way either so I think I knew not to compare myself to them too closely.

Living in Brixton these days, I drink a lot of ginger beer made from fresh ginger and often given a hearty slug of dark rum at my friend Brian’s restaurant Fish Wings and Tings in Brixton Village. Fiery and refreshing, it was perfect in the hot weather earlier this summer.

However my tastes in drinks run to the sparkling. Anyone who has ever been to my flat knows that I order fizzy water in quantities so immense I should really have stop using bottles and just park a tanker outside instead. Could I make a fizzy ginger beer to tick all my beverage boxes at once?

Mister North recently got a copy of The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz and has been making kefir and other fermented drinks at home while both he and our mum have the successful touch with their sourdough starters. Still slightly resentful of the time someone chose to break up with me so they could spend more time with their new sourdough starter, I have resisted the fermenting trend thus far. But I discovered you can make a ginger beer ‘plant’ with ginger and yeast and it will fermented to make both bubbles and booze you can drink. My time had come.

Recipes told me that I could use both dried ginger and fresh ginger for this plant, but believing the dried powder to be too good to be true, I decided I would experiment and try a batch of both. I also didn’t want to have to splash out on champagne yeast so having finally obtained some fresh yeast tried it instead. I did get bubbles this way but the flavour was so intensely damp and yeasty, it was undrinkable.

I tried again with some champagne yeast I bought off Ebay and the overpowering yeasty flavour was replaced with something more subtle and crisp due to the tight little bubbles it created. Unfortunately there was no flavour or fire from either the fresh or dried ginger and the whole thing was unpleasantly bland.

I went for third time lucky and decided to adapt Brian’s recipe in Recipes from Brixton Village to combine it with my fresh ginger plant and create a fizzy ginger beer with a kick. Instead of just relying on the plant for flavour, I steeped fresh ginger and sugar in water overnight as well and it was perfect.

Full of flavour and fizz and just alcoholic enough to warm the cockles further, it was well worth the experimenting. It’s not a quick recipe but it’s fun to do and works out much cheaper than bottled ginger beers from the supermarket if this is a favoured tipple. Read more

Wise yer bap… put pasties on them!

Growing up reciting the Lord’s Prayer everyday at school, it made perfect sense that we asked to be given our daily bread. Belfast is a city of bakeries and practically every meal, including our famous Ulster Fry, combines bread in some shape or form. In fact, the city even gives its name to the world famous crusty Belfast Bap.

Perfect filled with anything, mainly fried goods, this humble bread roll has an illustrious past. Invented by master baker, cross community pioneer and philanthropist Barney Hughes in the 1840s, it is credited with feeding the city during the Famine and ensuring it wasn’t as badly affected as many other parts of Ireland, paving the way for it to become one of the great industrial centres of the Empire, famed especially for shipbuilding, including the Titanic.

The Belfast bap is still baked daily back in Northern Ireland, forming the basis of many a meal. There’s few things that don’t taste better stuffed into a buttery Belfast bap. In fact, a crisp sandwich isn’t a crisp sandwich unless it’s Tayto Cheese & Onion on a proper burnt brown topped bap. But the ultimate Belfast meal is that stalwart of every chippie, the Pastie Bap.

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barmbrack

Barmbrack

As if autumn wasn’t good enough with its abundance of harvest items, sunny days that don’t actually require SPF and mellow fruitfulness, it also has Halloween. This is the perfect excuse to get dressed up and indulge in some seasonal treats that taste of my Irish childhood. One of those is the gorgeous spiced yeasted fruit bread known as barmbrack.

We loved it so much in our house, we ate it all year round, usually with lashings of butter and often a smidgeon of cheese, but it is traditionally associated with Halloween in Ireland according to those who know. It was studded with items such as coins and a ring to foretell your future luck. So as the days grow shorter, it seemed like the perfect time to try my hand at making it.

It was surprisingly hard to find a recipe. Barmbrack isn’t as well known over here as bara brith and a lot of the ones I across were really just fruit soda, lacking the yeast. I used a combination of these two recipes, adapting to create the closest memory of childhood tastes I could.

Start the night before and soak 350g of mixed dried fruit in tea. I wanted something to remind me of bonfires and being able to see my breath on dark nights and used lapsang souchong with a splash of rum, but you could use regular tea or even just water. Don’t skip the soaking stage. It really helps give the bread moistness.

Next day you’ll need:

  • 350g plain flour
  • 60g butter (chilled)
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 1 tsp ground mixed spice or I used a mix of nutmeg, ginger, mace and cinnamon
  • 7g fast-action Dried Yeast or 15g if using fresh
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 150ml milk, lukewarm
  • 1 large egg, beaten

Sift the flour and rub the butter into as you would for scones to create fine breadcrumbs. Then stir in the sugar, yeast and spices. Beat the milk and egg together and add to the dry ingredients, bringing together to form a dough. Add a bit more flour if it seems too sticky to knead.

Flour your surface well and begin the knead the dough on it. Keep this up for 8-10 minutes or until the dough is smooth and elastic. Start adding the soaked fruit to the dough. This is slightly fiddly as about half the fruit you add each time will fly off the counter if you don’t go slowly and carefully. Fold the dough over itself each time to minimise that. I also added some leftover chopped cobnuts or you could use hazelnuts. Stop kneading as soon as the fruit is combined, you don’t want to make it mushy.

Pop the dough back in the bowl, cover with a tea towel or clingfilm and allow the dough to rise for an hour or so in a warm place. It should double in size in this time. Flour a baking tray and place on it. Barmbrack should be cooked without a tin for a freehand feel. Cook in a preheated oven at 200C or Gas Mark 6 for 45 to 50 minutes or until golden on top. Don’t let the fruit burn or it’ll be bitter.

When the barmbrack comes out of the oven, anoint it liberally with a wash of butter and cinnamon to give it a most appealing glossy top. Barmbrack is a joy in its own right, but it’s also a vehicle for butter. Don’t skip this simple but effective stage. Serve slices of still warm bread with a good slathering of butter, slices of seriously good cheddar (try Greens of Glastonbury at Brixton Farmers’ Market) and a good strong mug of tea.

Despite my loaf not rising as much I had hoped and an uncooked seam at the bottom of my loaf (I think my milk wasn’t warm enough to get the yeast going*) the barmbrack tasted brilliant. Properly warm with spices, it was very moist with tonnes of lovely smoky sticky fruit and a teeny bit of crunch from the cobnuts. I wanted more than one piece, but it’s surprisingly filling. Perfect for taking on a long walk in the remaining sun or just being lazy and toasting it in front of a fire. Apparently it also makes excellent bread and butter pudding when it goes stale. As long as you butter it with gusto, I don’t need tell you any more!

*if you have similar problems, it’s probably my recipe and I apologise.

Soft Pretzels

I have long since loved soft pretzels; those artfully twisted chewy doughy salt crusted pieces of joy. I always thought they would taste best from a cart on a New York City street, but then I realised that they can be made by hand at home anytime you fancy one…

I used a recipe from Rachel Allen’s Bake (Page 132) which I’ve mentioned here before as I really like everything I’ve baked from it up til now. Would soft pretzels make or break her winning streak? I was slightly worried as I had an idea that soft pretzels would be extremely complicated. Read more