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I don’t see myself as much of a gourmand. I have simple tastes, and easily settle into habits. However, I do enjoy good bread. Unfortunately, I currently reside in a country whereby Chorleywood Process Bread (CPB) accounts for 80% of the bread [1] which is – in my opinion – the antithesis of flavour and texture. In my humble opinion, it is a pity that the majority of the UK population are quite happy to eat “plastic” bread, only good for smothering in sandwich fillings or toasting. It doesn’t even stay fresh for long once it reaches the shops. It only seems fresh as it stays artificially soft – thanks to undeclared processing aids and high speed mixing – hence the widespread usage of mould inhibitors (e.g. proprionates). Still, the stuff goes mouldy rather quickly. No wonder we throw away 32% of the stuff [2].

Meanwhile across the Channel, even basic white bread is good enough to be eaten au naturel; many people routinely nibble at their baguette (de tradition française) on the way home from the bakery. I am sure it is not only because they might be hungry for their breakfast/dinner. When was the last time you saw someone tear open their plastic bag of CPB on the way back from the supermarket to enjoy the taste? I’m not even a fan of baguette – in fact I think it is potentially quite boring, relative to other types of bread widely available throughout France and the rest of continental Europe.

CPB also lacks texture relative to proper bread. Azelia of Azelia’s Kitchen has a web page illustrating the difference in texture between CPB and proper bread, which I recommend. I can verify her findings – I usually avoid CPB as much as possible, but having been forced to buy some when I ran out of homemade bread on holiday, I found that poking a slice of fresh homemade bread results in spring-back, while poking a “store-fresh” slice of CBP with approximately the same force results in a mushed dent in your bread. I don’t like squashed bread so I’ll have the fresh bread please, over CPB.

I am not saying that continental-style bread is superior to British bread. I just think it’s sad that many people in the UK don’t seem to care enough about the taste and texture of their bread. I imagine that prior to rationing and the invention of CPB, British bakers probably had bread to be proud of, too. Whatever happened to coburgs, cob loaves, bloomers, barm cakes, stottie cakes, manchets and Kentish Huffkins, to name but a few? I made a small cottage loaf for fun the other day – a loaf shape as pictured in the evocative painting below titled “Baking Bread” by Helen Allingham (19th century).

My small cottage loaf, 21st century

Unfortunately, I could find little definitive information on the history of this intriguing loaf. Was it made in that shape to resemble a round cottage, or to save oven floor space? Perhaps the extra 1/3 on top was in response to heavy penalties (first set in law in 1298) for selling short-weight bread? [3] Should it be eaten by separating the 2 sections, or by slicing through the entire thing? I wish I had definitive answers. In contrast, you can tell that the French take their bread seriously – they even have a law specifying what can and cannot be put into bread, for it to be called “pain de tradition française”, “pain traditionnel français” or “pain traditionnel de France” (or any other combination of these terms)[4].

CPB is also potentially harder to digest than proper bread. On one of the NHS Live Well webpages on digestive health (last reviewed 24/05/2013), Dr Isabel Skypala (specialist allergy dietitian at the Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Foundation Trust) was quoted as saying: “Bakeries in supermarkets use the Chorleywood bread-making process, which cuts out the second rising to speed up the baking. People seem to have more problems digesting supermarket breads, so I’d always recommend avoiding store-bought loaves.”[5]

Given the general lack of availability of proper bread, it is ever so easy and quick to make your own. Very little effort is involved in producing bread – most of the time elapsed involves the dough fermenting, proofing or baking (i.e. sitting around without any effort on your part). I quite often spot bread machines for sale at car boot sales – I obtained mine very cheaply that way. Even if you don’t have a bread machine, kneading only takes about 10 minutes and can be great (even cathartic?) fun, as you feel the dough turn into a lovely smooth mass. Kneading times can be cut down by autolyse – this is letting the flour and water sit around for about 20 minutes after having combined them briefly. Speaking of which, according to Dan Lepard you can even bake a good loaf of bread without any kneading [6]!

I hope that more people will take up bread making as a hobby. It is cheap, easy and ever so rewarding; a delicious loaf can be made with just bog-standard flour, water, salt and yeast (not forgetting an oven, but most people tend to have one). Plus, it means you will be able to eat bread the way it was meant to be.

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-13670278
[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17353707
[3]http://www.kitchenproject.com/history/Bread/bread2.htm
[4] http://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/affichTexte.do?cidTexte=JORFTEXT000000727617
[5] http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/digestive-health/Pages/cutting-out-bread.aspx
[6] http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2007/nov/24/foodanddrink.recipes

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Looking back at my last sourdough/natural leaven post, I realise that I have made a bit of progress since the days of creating sandwich bread with sourdough taste and texture. Inspired by the likes of Azelia’s Kitchen and Weekend Bakery, I decided to try something different. I made mini-boules with a rustic crumb developed by stretch and fold technique, with greater hydration (i.e. higher proportion of liquid, at about 70%).

I used the exact same flours (1/2 Aldi’s house brand strong wholemeal and 1/2 Allinson strong white) and salt proportion which I used to make my sourdough sandwich bread. So the different results I achieve now are purely down to the different techniques I use, and the use of more liquid.

Stretch and fold involves pulling the dough in one direction at a time and folding it back on itself at various intervals, prior to the final shaping and baking. There is a video illustrating how this is done here. If you like rustic style bread with irregular holes, I recommend stretch and fold.

Also, stretch and fold works well as a gluten development technique in high hydration recipes; wet dough is less easy to knead than firm dough. You can see that it made a reasonable crumb even with my 50:50 mix of strong wholemeal and strong white flour.

By the way, if you like a crisp crust I recommend using steam in the oven. Although I was doubtful that my domestic oven would be able to retain steam, pouring boiling water into a hot metal tray on the bottom shelf of the oven worked really well for me.

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The process of baking using natural/wild leaven (or sourdough) has fascinated me for some time. I suppose that there is nothing wrong with commercially cultivated leaven per se; it was just intriguing to imagine that the right strains of bacteria and yeast could be domestically cultivated just using flour and water.

My previous (and only other) attempt to cultivate sourdough failed, due to unwanted mould growth. That time round, I used a BBC recipe involving yoghurt. I later wondered if it had something to do with the yoghurt as in my experience, yoghurt always seems to grow mould eventually if kept too long in the fridge.

Sometime around late April this year, I endeavoured to give my sourdough experiment another go. Having done a bit more reading on the subject by this time, I decided to avoid the addition of raisins, yoghurt or other items purported to host wild yeast and bacteria. This was done based on the hypothesis that the strains on these other food items might not be the types that thrive on cereal grains and as such, might not be optimal for leavening purposes. In the worst case scenario, I thought this might introduce unwanted organisms which would then compete with the desired microorganisms for resources.

So this time round, I used tap water and organic wholemeal flour. (I started off using khorasan as that was the only organic flour I had in the house, but gradually introduced wheat to the extent where the flour is now probably 99% white wheat). I also used a little rhubarb to start, discarding the rhubarb after I saw activity in 2 days. Here it is, bubbling away.

By the end of the 7 days, the starter was reliably doubling in volume during its growth cycle – a sign that I would be ready to bake.

It was all very exciting trying to decide how I would make my bread. I gave up looking at other people’s recipes and decided to design my own, based on all the reading I had done on sourness levels, hydration, etc. I decided to use with a high proportion of starter, as I was mindful that others in the house might not appreciate “sour” bread. And then I finally saw proof (pardon the pun) that I could successfully cultivate leaven at home:

(I have used my starter to make 1/2 white 1/2 wholemeal bread (pictured above) and 100% white, both with success.)

How did my bread compare to home-made bread otherwise made with commercial yeast? Well, for one the crumb is more moist, reminiscent of rye bread but with the lightness of wheat. There was a slight acidity to the bread accompanied by a complexity of flavour.

The taste reminded me of rustic bread (not necessarily rye bread or pain au levain) from continental Europe, primarily France and Germany. I am almost tempted to buy a proving basket and experiment with using part plain flour/higher hydration to emulate continental European bread.

I think I was successful in my attempt to temper the acidity. I had unexpected visitors the next day and the bread was eaten with no complaints by young children and adults alike. That having been said, I noted that the sourness was most obvious when consuming it au naturel (as you can do with good bread) – my visitors had it with margarine, jam etc.

I now look forward to a weekly sourdough bake!

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Today I am writing about my experience of a recipe, rather than writing my version of a recipe.  I was hoping to find a recipe for Nice Biscuits (i.e. the rectangular, golden coloured biscuits flavoured with coconut with scalloped edges, usually stamped with “NICE” on the top), or at least a reasonable facsimile which could be made at home. Unfortunately, Googling “nice biscuit recipe” came up with biscuit recipes which were nice (as in delicious) rather than recipes for the actual biscuit. Googling “nice biscuit recipe coconut” wasn’t very helpful either – that simply yielded random coconut biscuit recipes which taste nice.

Eventually, I found Hartley and Palmer’s 1904 factory recipe for Nice biscuits. Huntley and Palmer’s was an extremely successful biscuit company headquartered in Reading, which operated from 1822 till the early 1990s. I was warned that this biscuit might be “not be as sweet as a modern chocolate biscuit” and “probably somewhat better for your teeth”, but was intrigued anyway. I made the recipe as recommended, using a heart shaped biscuit cutter (as I didn’t have one which looked like the original Nice biscuits).

At first bite, I’d definitely say my modern palate found the lack of sugar rather strange (despite my attempt to dust them with additional sugar). Also, the biscuits were not crumbly like usual shop-bought biscuits – although I thought this might be partly due to the very low levels of fat in it relative to modern biscuits. That having been said, after having had a few biscuits I became acclimatised to the sweetness level. It has made me think as to whether or not the high levels of sugar we are used to these days are really necessary.

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At home we make our tea the old fashioned way, with loose leaf tea in a teapot. Unfortunately, sometimes there is left over tea in the pot that we forget about, which becomes strong-tasting and cold. Rather than throw the tea away, I sometimes collect it to make bara brith (“speckled bread” in Welsh). According to various sources on the internet, the origins of this loaf date back to the days when neighbouring villagers shared a communal oven. As the heat of the village oven begun to fade, a mixture of leftover dough and dried fruit would be combined and baked to make this treat.

There are 2 different styles of bara brith. One is said to resemble a fruit cake (with the use of chemical leavening) and the other more closely resembles a fruity bread loaf (using yeast). Due to the use of chemical leavening the recipe I use is technically the cake version, however it doesn’t use any fat and has significantly less sugar than a number of the other cake versions I have seen. Perhaps it is meant to be a modern bread version with the convenience of not having to wait for the yeast to develop?

I use a recipe derived from the old North Wales Tourism website. However, I personally made a few amendments:

    1. I found that the original recipe yielded too dry a dough -my mixed dried fruit (primarily sultanas) tended to soak up nearly all the tea in the first place. I use an additional 2/3 of the original soaking liquid amount when it comes to combining the dry and wet ingredients.
    2. I halved the entire recipe to make a single 1lb loaf rather than a 2lb loaf. This would involve halving the amount of egg, so for simplicity this was replaced with the equivalent amount of Orgran egg replacer or flax egg (1/2 tbsp ground flaxseed with 1.5 tbsp water). You might also be able to 2) use another egg replacer with binding properties 3) use 1/2 an egg, then cook and eat the other half or 4) make 2 lb loaves using 1 egg. I then adjusted the cooking time to account for the reduction in loaf size.

So, the recipe I use is as follows:

  • 224g (0.5lb) mixed dried fruit
  • 150ml (1/4 pint) tea + 100ml tea (1/6 pint)
  • 1 tbsp marmalade
  • 0.5 egg (using an egg replacer)
  • 3 tbsp soft brown sugar
  • 0.5 tsp mixed spice
  • 250g (0.5lb) self-raising flour
  • honey to glaze
  1. Soak the fruit overnight in the tea.
  2. On the next day, mix the marmalade, egg equivalent, sugar, spice and flour. The dough should have a dropping consistency. Spoon into a greased 450g/1lb loaf tin and bake in a warm oven (gas 3, 325ºF, 170ºC) for 1 hour, or until the centre is cooked through. The original recipe suggested checking from time to time that the top doesn’t brown too much (covering with a sheet of foil or moving down a shelf in the oven if required), but I did not find this necessary.
  3. Once cooked, leave the bara brith to stand for 5 minutes, then tip out of the tin on to a cooling tray. Using a pastry brush, glaze the top with honey.

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If you love crunchy biscuits and coconut, then this recipe is for you. I found this recipe on an old newspaper clipping – author unknown but annotated “delicious” – and decided to give it a try. The results were delicious indeed!

Here is my version of the recipe. The original recipe used pink food colouring, which I decided to omit. The recipe also suggested that these could be sandwiched in pairs with a little jam, but I think these are delicious just as they are.

Coconut crunchies – makes 15 medium, 20 small

Ingredients

  • 4 oz. desiccated coconut
  • 4 oz. White sugar
  • 1 level tbsp cornflour
  • 1 large egg – size 2 (or 50ml worth of egg replacer if you want to go the egg-free route – see notes)
  • A pinch of salt
  1. Preheat oven to moderate; gas mark 4 or 350°F/180°C.
  2. Line a baking sheet. Grease the baking parchment well and dust with cornflour. (You don’t want your crunchies to stick to the paper!)
  3. Mix the coconut, sugar and cornflour.
  4. Beat the egg (or egg replacer) with the salt and combine with the dry ingredients.
  5. Spoon the mixture onto a baking sheet, pressing each spoonful into a rounded, slightly peaked shape.
  6. Bake for approx. 15 minutes, until beginning to turn brown.
  7. Take them out of the oven and carefully remove them from the baking parchment using a palette knife (or other wide metal implement). Transfer to a cooling rack.

Egg-free route

I have made these successfully using Orgran egg replacer. As the egg acts as a binder, I measured the volume of the egg’s contents in ml, which is how I came up with the figure 50ml. The main differences are that 1) they don’t look quite as golden (no egg yolk) 2) they are possibly more crunchy than the egg-based ones – a bonus if you want them crunchy in the first place(!) and 3) they are more difficult, but not impossible to shape. 50ml may not seem a lot, but add more and you will find that your creations will start to go runny…

I might try making some with flaxseed replacer (another possible vegan baking substitute for eggs) to see if they impart more of a golden tone than Orgran.

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I’ve never really liked mince pies. Yes, it’s a festive food and all that, but I’ve always found them too sickeningly sweet. Until I tried making my own at home, from scratch. I used delicious-smelling ingredients such as freshly grated lemon rind, sultanas, foraged walnuts, fruit peel and our homemade sloe gin to make the mince pie filling. I decided to give my result a try. Yum! I was converted!

Mince pie filling recipe here

Shortcrust pastry recipe here

 

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