She who dares bakes...French Bread

One of my favourite things about baking is the fact that you start with a collection of ingredients that, by themselves, aren't particularly appetising (spoonful of flour anybody?) but when combined they result in something marvelous. This is particularly true of bread. It continues to amaze me that flour, water and yeast produce something so ridiculously tasty.

I love bread. If bread were a person it would have been the recipient of my Valentine's card last Thursday. I was, therefore, very excited when I saw that this month's Daring Bakers' challenge was Julia Child's French Bread (thank you Mary and Sara). I've made basic bread recipes before but I have never tackled baguettes. My early memory of the long French sticks is getting them at the supermarket with my mum, seeking out the warmest and then pulling the end (nub) off and eating it as mum did the rest of the shopping. Yum.

Despite having so few ingredients this recipe was surprisingly long and a little daunting. All in all, it took about eight hours to make which does seem a bit overwhelming. That said, you're not chained to the dough for all that time so you can get on with your non-bread related life in between stages. As much as I would love, love, love a Kitchen Aid (they're a bit too expensive in the UK) I was glad that I had to make the bread dough by hand. For me, one of the best things about making homemade bread is how tactile the process is and there's nothing better for a bad mood than kneading dough. In fact, instead of giving aggressive teenagers ASBOs maybe they should get them all to make bread. And then, they could distribute the bread to the homeless. Now how's that for sensible domestic policy?!
I must admit that I find cooking with yeast a little stressful. As I fussed over the correct temperature and every little bubble of gas that my dried yeast produced, I felt like an over-anxious new parent clucking over her little darling. Maybe cooking with something that you have the power to kill does that to you. Following Julia's instructions (very helpfully annotated by Mary and Sara) I was struck by how much the dough looked like my thighs:

First Mixing - pre exercise:
Second mixing - post exercise:

Although the recipe seems complicated, it is actually quite simple if you are methodical. My big fear was not having a warm enough area in which to let the dough rise. Luckily, my clucky anxious parent thing kicked in and I tucked in the bowl next to a radiator with a hot water bottle and a thick blanket. It's all about treading your dough how you'd like to be treated yourself.

In the end, the hardest thing for me was shaping the dough. Trying to shape the sticky elastic dough into a smooth, even batten proved problematic.

In the end, the results were well worth the effort. I have to admit that I didn't wait for the bread to cool down entirely (okay, at all) before I sampled it, but surely the main perk of bread baking is getting to enjoy it while it's hot? I think it's in the film Amelie where she says that one of her mum's favourite things is the sound of fresh bread breaking and, as I snapped a piece off my wonky baguette and heard the 'shattering' sound, I had to agree. So satisfying. I thought the texture of the bread was similar to ciabatta as there were quite a few open holes, however this is probably down to my technique as opposed to the actual recipe.

In keeping with the rules I followed the recipe exactly but I did add some grated cheddar cheese to the top of one of the loaves. However, in order to stop myself devouring the three baguettes that evening I put two in the freezer to enjoy later on and I shared the other, smothered with butter, with the housemates. So good.

Be sure to check out the dazzling array of, no doubt more perfectly formed, bread from the other Daring Bakers here and if you're tempted to have a try at the bread yourself you can get the recipe here.


Nothing says I love you like a tart

A few months ago my friend Y made me a delicious starter of a baked fig stuffed with goats' cheese. Ever since then I've wanted to make a savoury little tart based on the same principal. A crisp polenta pastry shell filled with a goats' cheese custard and topped with a honey-glazed fig. Yum. After buying some fig-infused balsamic vinegar last week I even had the basis for a complimentary salad dressing. I was all set until, that is, Valentine's Day got in the way.

Firstly, when I came to buy the cheese I was seduced by the heart-shaped coeur Neufchatel rather than the non-seasonally shaped goat's cheese. Knowing that it would still pair with the figs I decided to forge ahead. However, my plan to make the tarts for Mr Almanzo's Belly on Thursday evening was scuppered when I was informed that I was going to have dinner cooked for me and of course I didn't refuse the offer. So, planning to make the little fellas on Saturday I went to buy my figs on Friday. Well, the people of North London are a romantic bunch. I can only imagine how many plump little figs sacrificed themselves as aphrodisiacs for the big night, and as a result there weren't any to be found for my little tarts.

Being the adaptable person that I am, I decided not to let the lovers of North London beat me and found some little golden apricots. Apricots are a great match with camembert and given that Neufchatel is quite similar I thought it would work well. In the end I was very pleased with the result. Given the time of year, the apricots didn't have their full plump summer flavour but topped with a little honey to bring out their sweetness they were still a good match for the flavoursome cheese. I decided to use a polenta pastry because I really enjoy the texture that the polenta creates. It makes a grainy and crispy crust which offers a satisfying contrast to the smoothness of the filling.

Once everyone has returned to being grumpy with each other and the the thought of performing seductive St. Valentine's rituals with figs has been long forgotten, I will definitely try a fig based tart. Until then, these are a great idea for a light lunch or starter.

Coeur Neufchatel and Apricot Tarts
200g plain flour
50g polenta
125g cold butter, cubed
1 egg
pinch of salt

4 eggs
1/4pt milk
1 tbsp fresh rosemary finely chopped
1 coeur Neufchatel cheese crumbled/chopped into small pieces*
4 fresh apricots
salt and pepper

  1. I made the pastry by blitzing the flour, polenta and salt with the butter in a food processor until fine crumbs formed. I then added the egg and processed the pastry until it started to clump together. You can, of course, do it by hand. If you find the pastry is not binding you can add more beaten egg or even a little ice cold water/milk.

  2. Finish bringing the pastry together with your hands (don't over handle it though). Wrap it in cling film and chill for a couple of hours. You can do this further in advance if it makes life easier.

  3. Once the pastry has chilled, roll it out between two sheets of cling film. There will be enough for one 8 inch tin or about 6 mini tins.

  4. Line your tin(s) and chill for another hour or so.

  5. Prick the base of the tarts and pop baking beads or weights in the centre. Bake in a preheated oven (200 degrees) for 10 minutes. Remove the baking beads and bake for a further 10 minutes at 180 degrees.

  6. Meanwhile make the filling. Beat your eggs with a fork and mix in the milk and cheese.

  7. Add the rosemary and mix gently. Season with the salt and pepper.

  8. Pour the cheesy mixture into the shell and top with your apricot halves/slices and add a dot of honey. Bake in the 180 degree oven for about 30 minutes or until the cheese is golden.

* Stupidly I didn't weigh the cheese, but it was a standard whole coeur Neufchatel. To be honest you can probably be quite flexible with the amount you use, much like an omlette.


Country Bumpkin

What a beautiful weekend we just had. The skies were blue, the sun was bright and I was donning my wellies for a weekend with my friend J in the Cotswolds. Yay. Last autumn J treated me to a trip in the Peak District for my birthday and our jaunt to the West Country was my chance to return the favour for hers. I set off from London on Saturday morning and after the rage, disappointment and tears that accompany any journey with First Great Western (grr) I arrived in Moreton-in-Marsh only an hour or so late.

Moreton-in-Marsh is a small market town in Gloucestershire filled with honey coloured buildings and caramel coloured cottages. Aside from being a beautiful and historical town, Moreton-in-Marsh has a certain mythological status for me. Back in the day when a cottage could be purchased for £6,000 and children were a long way off, my mum and dad used to live and work in the town before they decided that they couldn't live in any sort of cottage together without losing the will to live.

We stayed a short walk across the fields outside of Moreton-in-Marsh in a fabulous B&B. Old Farm is a working farm producing top quality food. Sarah runs a farm shop which stocks meat from the farm as well as other (very) local produce. It was the thought of the hand reared bacon and sausages for breakfast which pushed me to book a room and had me humming "Old MacDonald" all week in anticipation.
As much as I love pulses, I don't think I could ever be a vegetarian. I do, however, want to know that the meat I am enjoying has had a respectful and stressful existence before arriving on my plate. Well, as stressful as life can be while spending your days wondering what exactly "going to market" means and why your furry friends never seem to come back. I did have a slight pang when I saw these little piggies (I'm not made of stone) but this subsided when I smelled the mouth-watering Sunday joint that Sarah was basting.Most of the weekend was spent scraping mud off our impractical footwear (sorry mum) with sticks and, of course, eating. We had hoped to have Afternoon Tea in the town but unfortunately we left it too late. We did, however, manage to explore the local deli - The Cotswold Cheese Company. This gem of a shop stocks a wide variety of produce. After a moment fantasising about having shelves as tidy at this:I invested in some goose fat (for roasties), some balsamic vinegar and some seasonally shaped Coeur de Neufchatel. I've got an idea for a recipe involving the cheese which I'm going to try out this weekend. Yum.
For dinner we went to the Horse and Groom at Bourton on the Hill. Bliss. It was everything you want to a country pub to be. For me, one of the saddest sights in the countryside is stepping into a seemingly beautiful country pub only to be faced with a printed (not chalked) blackboard menu which screams 'boil in the bag chain pub grub'. Ooooh it makes me angry. Simple British pub food is not rocket science. Who wants to spend a day tramping up hill and down dale only to return to the same sad food that is available in every chain pub across the country?

Rant over. The Horse and Groom is in a completely different league. All of the ingredients are sourced locally (some even coming from the B&B) and everything we ate was tender, flavoursome and wholesome. I had a butternut squash risotto to start and a moist chicken breast served with a rich, deep red wine and onion sauce. J had a lightly curried parsnip soup and a tender, flavour-packed steak. Pudding was the infamous Mrs G's toffee meringue. A slice of chewy, caramel meringue filled with rich toffee cream and named after the owners' mum who makes it for the restaurant. Not only was the food great and the atmosphere cosy, the owners even arranged for a member of staff to give us a lift home when our taxi let us down. What service!

As ever, the weekend was over too soon. I took the train back to London filled with fresh air and laden down with food from the farm. If you fancy a post Valentine's break with a friend or loved one I hope that Moreton-in-Marsh has whetted your appetite.


Flipping heck it's pancake day tomorrow!

Just in case you hadn't noticed all the frying pan/lemon juicer displays in the shops at the moment, it's Shrove Tuesday tomorrow. Yay! I love pancake day.

Shrove Tuesday is the day when we're supposed to purge our cupboards of eggs, milk etc in preparation for 40 days of denial. I love that Easter is early this year, it means that I can make the seamless transition from self-improvement New Year's Resolution style to self-improvement Lent style. There's no chance for wallowing in failed-resolution induced misery in between. I always try and give something up for Lent. When I was about ten I ambitiously attempted to give up sugar (thinking cake, chocolate etc). I was doing pretty well until my evil older sister pointed out that as nearly everything contained sugar my 40 days without biscuits, but with fruit, were a big, fat waste of time. Oh I how I loved my sister.

I haven't decided what I'm giving up yet. I normally tell people that I'm forgoing alcohol as I'm not that in to big drinking* so it's a good way to shut people up when they ask why you're not having anything stronger than Diet Coke. Is it just me or is encouraging other people to drink one of the last socially acceptable peer pressures? It drives me mad.

In the past, I've organised pancake parties. I'd make a big batch of batter and then ask everyone to bring their favourite fillings. It's always a fun evening, although everyone has to take turns to socialise with you by the cooker as you end up chained to the frying pan unless you can convince someone to takeover so you can rest your tossing arm. The great thing about pancakes is that they're a vehicle for so many delicious fillings. I favour the simplicity of fresh lemon juice and caster sugar or savoury cheese and ham. However, there's a lot of fun to be had with chocolate buttons, smarties, cream, bananas, ice-cream, caramel sauce etc etc (well Shrove Tuesday is about getting rid of all your fattening foods after all).

British pancakes are much thinner than their fluffy American counterparts but they're not quite as light as Gallic crepes. I find that the trick to good pancakes is to discard the first one that you make. This one tends to be a bit leathery and difficult to handle, but once the pan has been christened the rest should be fine. Wipe your pan with a little melted butter or oil in between each pancake and slide the batter evenly around the pan. Once the batter has started to brown at the edges you can flip (or toss) it to cook the other side. Roll your light little circle around your chosen filing and you're good to go.

Basic Pancake Batter
Makes 8-10 pancakes
4oz plain flour
Pinch of salt
1 large egg
1/2 pint milk

  1. Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl.

  2. Using a wooden spoon make a well in the centre of the flour and drop in the lightly beaten egg.

  3. Slowly pour half the milk into the flour, gradually working the flour into the milk with a fork.

  4. When all the flour is incorporated use a whisk to make a smooth batter.

  5. Allow the mixture to stand for a few minutes and then add the remainder of the milk. The consistency should be that of single cream.

  6. Heat enough oil or butter to gloss the bottom of your frying pan and pour a thin layer of batter onto the base. The butter/oil should be bubbling hot but not smoking. Once the edges of the pancake have browned, flip it over and cook the other side.

  7. I'll be having mine with sugar and lemon. Enjoy!