Successful sourdough: how I got there

Sourdough loaf

My home-made sourdough starter is about to celebrate its first birthday, so it seems a good moment to revive this blog with a post about sourdough. Warning: it can take over your life (or at least your kitchen)!

A year ago today, we visited a working windmill where they grind flour and bake bread. I came away with a bag of freshly ground organic wholemeal flour, so it seemed as good a time as any to start. Of course it required some googling. There are many different methods touted as being the best, but I went with this one: just flour and spring water from the fountain. It’s worth reading this explanatory page too. This method requires you to feed the starter every 12 hours, discarding half of it each time, for a week to 10 days. This gives the good bacteria the maximum chance of taking over and stabilising, and it certainly worked for me — after a week, I had a frothy, sweet-smelling tub of starter.
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Torrijas

Torrijas

I love torrijas — if I see them on a dessert menu in Spain, all the other options immediately become irrelevant. They are basically the same as what Americans call French toast, even though in France they are called pain perdu (lost bread); stale bread soaked in milk and egg and then fried. In this Spanish version they are fried in olive oil and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. The perfect accompaniment is a scoop of vanilla ice cream and some butterscotch sauce.

They are so popular in some parts of Spain that bakers sell special pan para torrijas (torrija bread). This is a brioche-like loaf with quite a dense crumb that stands up well to being soaked in milk without falling apart. So a counsel of perfection is to use this, although failing that stale French baguette or any good white bread is fine (for heaven’s sake don’t try to use wrapped white sliced bread for this). If you do want to try the genuine article, I searched the web and eventually found a Spanish recipe for pan para torrijas, and adapted it for the bread machine — see below. I always make two loaves, cut them in half, and freeze them. Once thawed, I leave them to go stale — the staler the better, you can leave this bread hanging around for a couple of days. It makes good toast too.
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English apple pie

English apple pie

It must be over a decade since I last made an apple pie. Since I became French, my default option for apples and pastry is sinfully easy Tarte Tatin. Or occasionally, if I have time, a classic tarte aux pommes. But today I suddenly felt the urge to make an old-fashioned apple pie. I had to dredge long-unvisited corners of my memory for the little tweaks I developed in the years when I made it regularly. Painting the pastry with egg white to stop it going soggy. Mixing a little cornflour in with the sugar to thicken the juices, making it easier to serve cold. Adding a few sultanas. And above all, hiding bits of quince among the apples to perfume the pie and turn the filling a rosy pink. In fact it must have been the quince in the fruit bowl that gave me the idea in the first place.
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Mince pies with frangipane topping

Mince pies

I find mince pies can easily be too heavy on the pastry. So I was pleased to find a recipe for mince pies with an almond paste topping. Except … there were no almonds in it! I still liked the result when I made them last year. They are much lighter than the traditional version, and the almond flavour complements the mincemeat really well. This year I made my own version of the frangipane, with almonds. So here’s the recipe. Use whatever your favourite mincemeat recipe is (or buy some) and make a sweet shortcrust for the base.
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Fudgy chocolate brownies

The web is awash with recipes claiming to be “the best brownies ever”. I make no such claim for this recipe; they are extremely good, but tastes differ, and anyway the success of brownies depends above all on not overcooking them, whatever recipe you use.

No, what struck me about this recipe above all was that there is no chocolate in them! Don’t get me wrong: they are chocolate brownies, but they are made with cocoa, not slabs of dark chocolate. This is great for me, because whenever I buy chocolate to cook with, I put it in the cupboard, and when I come to use it a few days later, it has mysteriously disappeared, leaving only a crinkle of silver foil to mark its passing. Whereas the box of Dutch-process cocoa stays in place for months on end.

I found the recipe on Apple and Spice; the original is by Alice Medrich. If you can keep your hands off them long enough, these keep really well in a tin, and I’ve even sent some unharmed via international post!
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Three good things to do with mincemeat

I made my mincemeat this year according to Delia’s recipe, adapted to local circumstances (mine included chopped dried figs and apricots, and dried cranberries, as well as glacé cherries, raisins and sultanas). I used most of the first jar to make some common-or-garden mince pies, but was not satisfied with the results, so I hunted around for alternatives. Here are three other ways of using mincemeat.

1. The simplest: mincemeat palmiers

Buy a block of ready-made puff pastry and roll it out thinly into an oblong. Spread thinly all over with mincemeat, then starting from a short side, roll up the pastry like a Swiss roll. Cut into slices about 2 cm thick, and lay them on a non-stick baking tray (or a tray lined with silicone/baking parchment). Put in the fridge for half an hour or so.

Preheat the oven to 200C. Put the tray in and cook for about 10 minutes, till the pastry is golden. Remove and cool to lukewarm before sprinkling with icing sugar and serving. This is a great and easy alternative to conventional mince pies.

2. Classic and luxurious: almond paste mince pies

I used this recipe; I don’t know why it’s called “almond paste” because there are no almonds in it, only almond essence. I was very pleased with these; the pastry was crisp and golden, and the “almond” paste makes for a lighter topping than pastry. Delicious. I didn’t have a piping bag so I just rolled the paste into small balls, flattened them and placed them on top of the mincemeat. So they looked a lot less elegant, but still tasted good. If, or rather when, I make these again, I’ll substitute ground almonds for some of the flour in the paste though!

3. Comfort food: Eliza Acton’s mincemeat pudding

I loved this; it was my favourite of the three, although it’s a pudding rather than a teatime treat. I’d happily eat it instead of Christmas pudding. It’s basically bread and butter pudding with mincemeat in it. I found the recipe in Elizabeth David’s Christmas; the original is from Eliza Acton‘s Modern Cookery, and is labelled “Author’s Receipt”.
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Ginger stout cake

Ginger stout cake

The result of googling to find a way of using up the rather flat Guinness left over from making the Christmas pudding. Yes, I could have drunk it, but that wouldn’t have been enterprising enough. Anyway, my search threw up at least a dozen variations of this ginger cake, all based on an original from the Gramercy Tavern, whatever that is. Since I like ginger cake and I had all of the ingredients except molasses, the decision was made.

But first, the usual trip to Diana’s Desserts to convert all those dratted American cup measurements. I started out with the version of the recipe at Smitten Kitchen, then reeled in horror when I found that my conversions resulted in 220 g of flour and 650 g of sugar. Beurkh, as we say in France. “No wonder Americans are so fat,” I ungraciously muttered. I bet Deb isn’t fat at all. Although I have tangled with an over-sweet cake recipe from Smitten Kitchen before.

Anyway, one of the comments on the Smitten Kitchen post led me to Epicurious where there was a version of the recipe posted by its originator, Claudia Fleming. For the same amount of flour and eggs, half as much sugar. Phew.

Taking due note of the many comments about spending half an hour scraping caramelised batter off the oven floor, I was slightly nervous as I poured the alarmingly liquid batter into the tin. It was more like pancake batter than cake mixture. Even though the batter was well below the top of the tin, I took the precaution of putting it on a baking tray to ease cleanup. But in fact it was fine and cooked in the time advertised. The cake turns out very moist with a rather coarse crumb, and — dare I say it — it could have been a little bit sweeter. Don’t stint on the spices, it needs them. I also have a sneaking feeling that some sliced pears arranged in the bottom of the tin to make an upside-down cake could be rather good, in which case you could skip the icing. Or you could serve it with vanilla or cinnamon ice cream.
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Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons Cookery Book

Belgian bun cake: Margaret Costa's Four Seasons

Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons Cookery Book has always lived in the reserve collection. I honestly don’t know why. Nigel Slater himself says: ‘If I had to choose only one book to cook from for the rest of my life it would be this one.’ Picking it up and starting to read, I instantly saw that she and I were of the same mind. The preface begins:

Professional chefs are notoriously bad at giving recipes for domestic kitchens. They are unable to think in small quantities for a start, they are maddeningly vague about times and temperatures, they use words which create total, unreasoning panic in the mind of the ordinary cook: déglacer, dégorger, tomber, revenir, beurre manié — no wonder we lose our heads.

Even the words we think we recognise — blend, beat, sieve — all mean something different to them because they use different equipment. And then they are used to having things to hand. “Garnish with truffles,” they cry, “cook in clarified butter, stuff with a duxelles, finish with a spoonful of hollandaise.” “The sauce? Oh, just a simple jus lié with the addition of a little demi-glace.”

She sums up everything I don’t like about 99% of cookbooks by professional chefs (the Roux brothers are a very honourable exception). And she was married to a chef! I like her introduction to the canapé section too:

Just listen to the next big party you go to: a party where there are enough nice little things to eat has a warm, contented sound, a sort of purr, quite different from the harsh, strident noise where there’s nothing but alcohol and cigarette smoke.

I’d love to go to a party catered by her; her “nice little things to eat” are all mouth-watering, and most are easy to do.

Four Seasons cookbook

It’s a wide-ranging book, organised roughly by season (some dishes can be cooked all the year round though) — and within each season by theme. So Winter for example includes chapters like Christmas Classics, Party Pieces, Comforting Breakfasts, Winter Soups, Cooking with Wine (a sign of the 1970s that you had to have a special chapter for this!), Proper Puddings, Marmalade … Costa is from the same school as Jane Grigson: erudition worn lightly, with unpretentious yet elegant and classic dishes covering the whole range from dinner parties through everyday meals to preserves and bread baking. Perhaps part of the reason I don’t use this book more is precisely because Jane Grigson is my first port of call when I’m looking for this type of book.

Again like those traditional writers (Grigson, Elizabeth David, Patience Grey) this is a book you can read for sheer pleasure, even if you don’t cook a thing from it. The party pieces, the “proper puddings”, and the preserving chapters are the highlight of the book for me. So this post isn’t exactly a vintage feast, just a sampling of a couple of items from the book (which now sprouts a forest of bookdarts heralding future cooking sessions).

I have never cooked chutney in my life, apart from a brief and fairly successful flirtation with mango chutney. This is possibly due to traumatic memories of a house reeking of vinegar from top to bottom when my mother was engaged in her annual days-long chutney-making session, during which the rest of the family would move out to the garden for the duration. So it’s perhaps surprising that the first recipe I chose from here was the tomato and red pepper chutney, from the very comprehensive preserving chapter. Partly because I bought a big bag of peppers from the market for 3 euros, partly inspired by the chutney-making fervour displayed at the Cottage Smallholder forum.

Costa doesn’t weigh you down with instructions — she just tells you to mince or chop everything up, put it in a pan with the vinegar, sugar, and spices, and “simmer till thick”. The suggested 2 hours’ simmering stretched to 5 hours; I think my simmer must have been too low. But it did eventually acquire a jammy consistency, and I decided this was good enough. Into the jars it went, looking very convincingly like chutney. Verdict in a month or so, when it’s matured! Meanwhile, all the windows are open to eliminate the vinegar smell.

While that was bubbling away, I made some Belgian bun cake, because I’d made some lemon curd a couple of days ago. This is basically a rich brioche dough, spread with lemon curd and sprinkled with candied peel and currants, rolled up and baked. It turns out like a lemony panettone, best eaten while still slightly warm and fragrant from the oven. Delicious, and I already have plans for a very luxurious bread and butter pudding with part of it.

I won’t give the recipe for the chutney here, because I’m waiting to see how it turns out. But here’s my version of the Belgian brioche.
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Rosemary-spiked apricot and almond tart

Rosemary-spiked apricot and almond tart

I never cease to be inspired by apricots, one of my favourite fruits for cooking with. This tart has many of the same ingredients as apricot frangipane tart, but with quite different results — and it’s much quicker to make. It’s based on the very English Bakewell tart, but the usual raspberry or strawberry jam is replaced with an apricot compote flavoured with vanilla and rosemary. I venture to suggest that the result is better than the original; apricot and almond are a classic pairing, and the sharp, intense flavour of the apricot layer contrasts well with the light, spongy topping. You can serve this lukewarm as a pudding, with a dollop of crème fraîche, a pool of custard, or simply some pouring cream. Or when cold, serve as a cake with tea.

The recipe makes much more compote than you need, but this is no hardship; store it in the fridge and serve folded through Greek yoghurt, with ice cream and crisp almond biscuits, as a layer in an apricot trifle, or as a cheesecake topping.
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Candied clementine cake

Somehow from Christmas onwards, our fruit bowl seemed to be permanently full of clementines. At one point I found myself with a 2-kg sack of remarkably tasteless ones. What to do? I remembered Claudia Roden’s famous Middle-Eastern boiled orange and almond cake; maybe that would do the trick? Googling around I found many references to it, including Jill Dupleix’s version. I tried it with a few of the clementines but wasn’t very impressed. It was heavy despite the whisked egg whites, and not very tasty (clementines no doubt to blame for that). Darn, six eggs used on that.

More googling, and I hit upon Vegan Yum-Yum’s version. Aha, no eggs! I tried it and was really pleased with the result (and so were the choir members who got to taste it).

It was a bit soggy, and I messed up the frosting by cooking it too long, but candying the clementines gave it a really marmaladey flavour which I liked a lot. You can serve it for tea or as a dessert — skip the frosting and add a dollop of Greek yoghurt or crème fraîche. I’ve made it twice since then; it freezes well too. You do have to plan in advance to cook the clementines, but they’ll keep in the fridge for up to a week, or you can freeze them. Use the remaining syrup to make champagne cocktails (or just top up with sparkling water).
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