Dos and Doughnuts in the Kitchen
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?
I don’t have a problem with fresh yeast being specified. Some bakers ( such as Andrew Whitely with Bread Matters ) consider dried yeast inferior and to contain dubious additives. Plus I can buy fresh yeast from Morrisons for 50p which is hardly excessive. The use of machinery is a bit more of an issue ( and I do have a kitchen aid bought 10 years ago after a lot of saving ). I have fibromyalgia so find kneading by hand difficult but I think instructions for both methods might have been more inclusive!
I don’t think you’re being harsh. If a recipe can’t successfully be made without a specific piece of equipment, the writer should call that out clearly. And ideally they’d provide an alternative method too. I mean, it’s not unusual for Imperial/metric measures to be given; or a range of baking pan sizes to be suggested.
I could probably get a stand mixer if I planned birthday/Christmas requests ahead of the game, but I resent the physical space they take up in a kitchen. Also, I don’t think I’d use one every day, and I don’t think they’d be as easy to clean as my hand mixer with its range of mixing/blending/chopping attachments.
Amen to that! It drives me mad. There is a lot to be said for people who actually test their recipes in a home environment. I’m looking at a number of the regular offenders above. What’s the point in having recipe testers who work in a professional kitchen if it’s average “Joe Soap” who will be cooking them?
Regular doughnuts sound lovely but I don’t have a deep fryer so just bake mine. They come out a little cake but lash the jam in while still warm and they don’t last long enough for people to give out much. 😉
For this very reason I avoid cookbooks by professional chefs/restaurateurs. I’d much rather have recipes from someone used to cooking at home.
Ruby has a doughnut recipe on her blog which doesn’t ask for a mixer. (Rubyandthekitchen) happy baking
Natalie: the fresh yeast substitution was my fault. I should have read the recipe more carefully and checked first! Not that it would have done me much good because I can’t get fresh yeast easily round here. Can also understand fibro making a Kitchen Aid an essential. My ME/CFS is a bit reason I got into the slow cooker, but when they cost an average of 20 quid and double as a handy bread bin, I don’t feel it’s an expectation to write about those!
Shereen: I have to admit that when people mention that they have the sausage making attachment for the Kitchen Aid, I go a shade of green, they could market as a limited edition version. The rest of the time, I share your feelings.
Caitriona (and Miss Piggy): you’d think it would be obvious that if you’re selling books to home cooks, you should test them for home cooks, but judging by the amount of washing up most chef style books create, it’s obvious they didn’t and they had a home economist on hand too…
Natalie: thank you! Love Ruby’s site and looking forward to the book when I get my mitts on it.
I think a lot of recipes in cookbooks are hardly tested at all, let alone using domestic appliances (one of my current irritations is them saying “set the oven to 50C” – my oven’s lowest setting is 120C!). I also don’t have a kitchenaid for reasons of space and expense, but I find the doughhook on my handmixer works for everything I have wanted it for. I can’t believe the change to dried yeast would make *that* much difference!
Sometimes I do wonder what the target market is for such writers / books? If a book is for the masses then it should, on the whole, have recipes that the masses can obtain ingredients for and readily make. Where there’s the occasional recipe requiring more specialist/ specific equipment or non mainstream ingredients, a good writer should consider this and advise of alternatives (if possible) and likely impact on the recipe.
There’s a book I had from a highly rated US barbeque style restaurant in London. Great food at the restaurant but alas the book doesn’t adapt their restaurant dishes for the home cook and instead assumes you’ve got hours of time to prepare food and a good range of equipment at home.
It would be good if writers could try to work to the lowest common denominator as far as equipment/ ingredients are concerned.
I agree with you: good recipes should say what things look and feel like, and not just how long to cook an ingredient for. While it is good to have a rough indication of about how long it may take, it should not be the only piece of info. The time instructions are totally useless most of the time, and they are usually not informative at all when including references to equipment. More often than not, they totally ignore the fact that our mixers can have very different powers, so 5 min of kneading with a weaker one can be way too little, and 5 min of kneading with a more powerful can be way too much.
Alicia: I was surprised that the change in yeast made such a difference but I am fairly unacquainted with yeast’s magical ways. I really thought the dough hook would suffice on the hand mixer as it’s never let me down yet, but a serious disaster. And yes, what’s with the 50 degree oven thing? Might as well light a tea light and stick it in there instead. No domestic oven behaves like this…
David: There were loads of ingredients I wanted to use for Slow Cooked that I can get easily or cheaply but in talking to other people I realised they couldn’t from supermarkets so I adapted the recipes and gave alternatives. I also mentioned where to get stuff that was a bit more unusual and tried to use everything several times to make it worth people’s time, cost and cupboard space. It was a bit more time consuming, but well worth it to have a book people can actually use!
Ana: really good point about different powers/techniques etc. It can be difficult when writing for a wide market not to patronise some people while assuming the others know everything, but that’s what makes a good cookery writer in my opinion. It’s something I consider everytime I write and will continue to do so. It’s about teaching and sharing.
Agreed, nothing makes me madder than a book full of great looking food with recipes that don’t work or can’t be done without mega machinery or pro kitchen equipment. It’s lazy and shoddy. I love it when Nigella gives her ‘by hand’ instructions. I only very recently got a magimix and was always grateful to her for acknowledging that not all her readers have top of the pops kit in their kitchens. Better luck next time with the doughnuts!