A couple of Focacce

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This entry’s been a long time coming, but I had to deal with a crushing blow last month when my beloved iPad failed me. It’s the only technology I’ve had with me for the last 15 months in Paris, and so I’ve suddenly had to resort to pen, paper, and occasionally the manager’s laptop at work. Not an ideal solution when the latter keeps trying to translate my thoughts into French, and who knew the characters on a French keyboard were in different places? Just when I thought I’d mastered touch-typing…..

So enough with the technical excuses; this post has actually been months in the making because I’ve been busy trying and testing numerous focacce recipes. It all started when my Chef, fully aware of my passion for bread-making, suggested I make a focaccia not for the staff, but for actual clients…..Parisian clients.

I’ve made focacce before, but I guess I’ve always had a suspicion that what I’ve actually been shown is the cheat’s version so-to-speak…..composed of a thick, pizza-style dough with lots of cheese, olive oil and sundried tomato. Focaccia is actually far less bread-like in consistency; the crumb or ‘mie’ as the French say, should be filled with lots of small and uneven bubbles, wildly distributed as opposed to uniformly and densely packed.

Over the last six months I’ve tried out four different recipes. The most recent attempt, using a recipe which coincidently uses a sourdough starter, was a resounding success and has since been served several times in the dining room as an aperitif. Indeed I add with pride; anything that the French are willing to serve with their precious Champagne, let alone an Italian bread made by an English girl, must be pretty damn good.

I must emphasise straight away – what I’ve realised from reading books, watching videos and my own personal experiences with focaccia dough is this: it’s not so much the recipe but the technique that needs mastering. The key to success lies in the handling of the dough. I’m going to talk through two recipes (the two most popular with my colleagues) – the first almost foolproof (one of the cheat’s versions I mentioned earlier, but tasty nonetheless); the second slightly more time-consuming. The result however, makes all those hours spent folding and waiting patiently, highly worth it.

Pumpkin and Gruyere Focaccia

For the pumpkin purée and dice:

1 medium pumpkin
Sea salt and freshly milled black pepper
Olive oil

– Cut ¾ of the pumpkin into large cubes and spread evenly over a baking tray. Drizzle generously with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Cover the tray with aluminium foil to prevent the pumpkin burning in the oven, then roast at 180°C for roughly 35-45 minutes until completely soft. If the pumpkin is very ripe, it may drop a lot of water – if it looks a little wet when it comes out, transfer the contents of the tray into a casserole and cook gently over a medium heat, stirring regularly. This will cook off some of the unwanted moisture and help concentrate the flavour. Transfer the hot pumpkin flesh to a food processor and blend until completely smooth. Weigh out 366g and chill until required. Freeze any remaining purée for another day.

– Cut the remaining pumpkin quarter into much neater, smaller squares (1cm x 1cm cubes). Again, spread across a baking sheet and drizzle with a little olive oil, but do not season until cooked. Cook at 180°C for around 8 minutes (if the pumpkin’s very ripe they may only need 5-6, so watch them closely). You want them cooked, not ‘al dente’ and by no means overdone; they must hold their shape when handled, as they will be rolled into the bread dough later. Season them with salt and refrigerate until needed.

For the dough (this recipe makes a large focaccia, enough to feed at least 6 hungry people):

1,125g strong white flour
366g cool water
366g pumpkin purée
22g fine salt (plus some good quality sea salt for sprinkling on top – Maldon’s best)
22g fresh yeast
3 generous handfuls of Gruyere cheese, cut into 1cm cubes (separate all the cubes into 3 equal-sized batches)
The cooked pumpkin cubes (separate into 2 equal-sized batches)
A bunch of rosemary (finely chopped)
4 heaped tablespoons of pumpkin seeds (lightly toasted)
Plenty of good quality olive oil

1. Using an electric mixer (or your hands if you prefer), mix the water, purée, flour, salt, yeast, chopped rosemary and toasted pumpkin seeds into a dough – always start by putting the wet ingredients into the bowl first, followed by the dry on top. Knead for 6-8 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic (if you’re using a machine fitted with a dough hook, mix on medium speed for 4 minutes, followed by 2 minutes on a higher speed setting). Cover the dough with cling film and leave to rest at room temperature for 10 minutes.

2. Transfer the dough to a lightly-floured work surface. Roll the dough to a large rectangle, approximately 50cm x 30cm, then cover the top two thirds (2/3) of the area of the rectangle with one batch of diced pumpkin and one batch of diced cheese. Try to distribute the filling as evenly as possible across the dough. Now, fold the bare third of dough up to cover the middle third, then continue to fold upwards to encase the final third of dough at the top (so in effect a letter-fold). Make sure all the edges are well-sealed just to prevent the cheese and pumpkin falling out, then rotate the letter by 90°.

3. Dust the surface of the dough with flour, and perhaps the work surface too if it looks a little tacky, then proceed to roll out to a rectangle once again. The dough will naturally be more elastic this time around so expect the rectangle to be a little smaller. Also, don’t risk tearing the layers of dough with the cheese by trying to roll it too thin. Repeat the same process as outlined in step 2 – cover two-thirds (2/3) of the surface of the dough with the second batch of cheese, and the final batch of pumpkin dice. Fold the dough up in exactly the same way, ensuring all the filling is securely encased within the seams. Gather the dough into a ball with a nice smooth surface, then gently lower into a large, lightly floured mixing bowl. Cover with cling film and leave to rise for 1 hour, or until doubled in size.

4. Prepare a baking tray, ideally one that’s at least 50cm x 30cm x 2cm-deep, by lining with baking paper. Pre-heat the oven to 220°C, and set an empty tray in the bottom (unless your oven has a steam-injection button).

5. Gently punch down the dough using your knuckles to expel some of the gas, then transfer to a lightly floured work surface, smooth-side-up (this will be the surface of the finished focaccia). Gently roll to a rectangle, trying carefully not to tear the layers of dough and filling. Transfer the rolled focaccia into the lined baking tray, then using your fingers, gently push and mould it into all four corners, until the surface is as even as possible. If the dough springs back too much, give it 10 minutes to relax a little before trying again.

6. Scatter the surface with the remaining batch of diced cheese, pressing each cube down into the dough to secure it in place. Drizzle rather generously with olive oil, cover loosely with cling film and leave to rise for 45 minutes to 1 hour. When the dough feels light and springy to the touch and looks to be about double the original size, remove the cling film and sprinkle the surface with good quality sea salt. Lightly oil your forefingers, then gently press them into the dough to create indentations across the surface for that rustic rippled appearance.

7. Transfer the focaccia to the oven, tipping some cold water into the hot tray at the bottom at the same time. This additional steam will help the dough expand during the first few minutes of cooking. All ovens vary, but I would suggest cooking it for at least 8 minutes before rotating the tray, then perhaps another 6 minutes after that. The crust should be golden and crispy, and the base in no way soft or soggy. Leave to cool for 10 minutes in the tray before attempting to transfer to a wire rack.

Although this focaccia doesn’t look like much from the outside, the hidden layers of pumpkin, cheese, pumpkin seeds and rosemary reveal themselves upon cutting. It’s best served fresh and warm, but it’ll keep well too – just flash chunks through a hot oven for 2-3 minutes before serving.

Sourdough Focaccia

This recipe takes at least two days from start to finish. Once mixed, the dough can actually be stored in the refrigerator for up to three days.

Stage 1:
​7g sourdough starter
​​108g strong white flour
​​97g cool water

Stage 2:​
7g malt extract (optional – this recipe comes straight from a kitchen in America, where they love using this stuff in bread – it’s supposed to aid fermentation and browning)
12g fine salt (plus some good quality sea salt for sprinkling on top)
5g fresh yeast
35g olive oil (good quality, extra-virgin)
494g cool water
42g rye flour
42g wholewheat flour
504g strong white flour

1. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, mix together the sourdough starter, white bread flour and cool water (for stage 1 as noted). Cover this mixture with cling film or a lid, and leave at room temperature for at least 12 hours. It should start to bubble nicely.

2. Put the olive oil, cool water and pre-ferment from stage 1 into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment. Tip over the three different flours, along with the salt, crumbled fresh yeast and malt extract if using. Mix on low speed to bring the ingredients together, then continue to knead for 8-10 minutes at medium speed. The dough will be very loose and wet; do not be tempted to add any more flour. Using a plastic spatula or dough divider, scrape down the sides of the bowl and the dough hook a couple of times, just to make sure that all the ingredients are being evenly incorporated.

3. Transfer the wet dough into a lightly oiled plastic container. The container should be on the large side, as the dough will be worked and folded from within it. Now for the first fold – with slightly wet fingers, lift and stretch one side of the dough up and fold it back over onto itself, covering two thirds (2/3) of the surface area. Then, do the same on the other side, effectively folding the dough like a letter. Rotate the container by 90° and repeat the same process with the shorter edges. You should be left with a smaller pile of folded dough. Cover the container and place in the fridge for at least 1 hour.

4. Repeat this folding process twice, resting the dough in the fridge for at least 1 hour between each fold. These folds will produce a complex gluten network within the focaccia dough, and the stretching will build strength and volume. Because the dough is so wet and sticky, always handle using wet hands – have a small pot of water on your work station to dip your fingertips into. Although this organisation of the dough takes time and patience, the results are well worth the extra effort, as demonstrated in the pictures below. If you don’t have time to rush back to the fridge every hour, you can always leave the dough a little longer between folds and stretches – it’s relatively forgiving. Just make sure the dough is well de-gassed before baking.

5. Punch the dough down well before transferring it to the baking tray (to expel some of the carbon dioxide which has developed within the gluten matrix). Lift the whole mass up and place it gently into a large lined baking tray (ideally one at least 50cm x 30cm x 2cm-deep). Using your wet fingers, press the dough into all the corners, ensuring it sits as evenly as possible. Stud the surface with chunks of cheese or seeds, herbs, tomatoes…..whatever takes your fancy really. I sliced some baby waxy potatoes very finely and let them confit in olive oil with a clove of garlic until just cooked; I lay these slices, overlapping them a little, over the entire surface of the focaccia. I then studded the gaps with some cheddar cheese before leaving the dough to prove. This will take roughly 1 hour, maybe 90 minutes, depending upon the temperature of your kitchen. When the dough is well-risen and appears light and springy to the touch, it is ready for the oven.

6. Preheat the oven to 230°C. Drizzle the top of the focaccia generously with more good quality olive oil, and sprinkle the surface with sea salt flakes. Bake for approximately 8 minutes, rotate the tray, then continue for a further 6-8 minutes, until the crust has turned a deep golden brown. Leave to cool in the tray for 10 minutes before attempting to turn out onto a wire rack.

Sourdough focaccia with confit potato slices and cheddar cheese…..

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…..and one with cheddar cheese, sun-dried tomato and rosemary…..

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Look at those bubbles…..

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A good paratha…..in Paris!

I’ve never seen Adam more miserable than during our first three months in Paris. The reason for this? Severe curry withdrawal. He’s difficult to please mind you; born to a Pakistani father, raised in London and trained as a cook, he knows good Indian food, and can be quite a harsh critic. Unfortunately Paris is not the best place for curry-lovers; what you’re likely to find if you haven’t been pointed in the right direction, are poor imitations of Westernised dishes. Occasionally it’s even worse – think chicken tikka masala but with more cream and more butter…..the French interpretation of one of the most popular British dishes of all time (which, of course, bears little resemblance to anything truly Indian).

After doing our research online, we found a vegetarian restaurant serving up vegetable biryanis, dosas and idlis; everything got the ‘thumbs up’ from me, but I suspect the lack of meat had something to do with Adam’s disapproval. Eventually the Sri Lankan cooks at work invited us into their ‘club’, which gathers almost weekly on Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis, round the back of Gare du Nord. Here you’ll find a handful of excellent Sri Lankan curry houses…..what a find! One in particular out-shone all the others, for me in particular, because of the bread (this finally brings me to the point of this entry). In fact, if I could only eat one bread for the rest of my life, it would be the paratha from Muniyandy Vilas.

A paratha looks a little like a crêpe, but is actually made up of several layers of dough and melted clarified butter, or ghee as it’s otherwise known. Because the butter is laminated through the dough, steam created when the paratha hits the griddle lifts the folded layers apart, creating a flat bread that’s light and flaky. Don’t let yourself be put off by the words “butter” and “lamination”; if made correctly, parathas are neither greasy, nor complicated to make at home.

I tested a fair few recipes during my college years; the one I include below uses wholemeal flour. The dough is rolled thinly, brushed with melted butter, then folded; the technique is fairly straightforward really…..I think they’re much quicker to make than any of the other Indian breads. The process is slightly more complex at Muniyandy Vilas (see the photos below), but the theory is basically the same. He uses a technique similar to one you might see in an Italian pizza restaurant, whereby the pizza base is tossed up into the air to make it bigger and thinner. The paratha dough is so strong and glutinous that he’s able to stretch it to a sheet that looks thinner than paper. It’s then brushed with ghee and gathered up in a haphazard sort of way, rather like a small wreath of fresh tagliatelle, before being rolled (this time with a pin) and griddled. Once they’re golden brown on both sides he lifts them off the griddle and claps them between his hands, I think to expel the steam.

They’re so proud of their parathas (and rightly so) that you can watch them being made, non-stop by expert hands in the window of the restaurant. I could stand and watch these guys all day – it’s a skill not unlike noodle-pulling or dim sum folding…..totally mesmerising! You can of course order them stuffed with spinach, potatoes, cheese or Nutella (!); I’ve not tried the latter…..I’m not yet so Parisian that I can’t go one meal without it!

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Muniyandy Vilas, 207 Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis, closest Metro La Chapelle (line 2) or Gare du Nord (line 4 or 5)

To make 8 (recipe from ‘Curry’, by Vivek Singh)…..
400g wholemeal flour
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon carom seeds and/or 1/2 teaspoon black onion (nigella) seeds
200ml water
2 tablespoons vegetable or corn oil
5 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter)

Set aside about 4 tablespoons of the flour and put the rest in a mixing bowl. Add the salt, carom and/or black onion seeds, water and oil and knead until everything comes together into a smooth, stiff dough. Cover with a damp cloth and leave to rest for 20 minutes. Divide the dough into 8 pieces, shape them into balls and leave to rest for another 15 minutes.

Flatten each ball lightly with the palm of your hand. One by one, sprinkle with a little of the reserved flour, then roll out into a circle about 20cm in diameter. Brush the top with ghee and sprinkle with a little more flour. Fold the dough in half to make a semi-circle, then brush with more ghee and sprinkle with flour. Fold again, making a small layered triangle.

Roll out each triangle to make a large triangle, taking care not to roll the dough too thin or the layers will be lost – roughly 3mm thickness is fine. Heat a heavy-based frying pan or a flat griddle over high heat, and cook the triangles for 2-3 minutes on each side, until the dough begins to dry out and colour slightly. Reduce the heat to medium, then brush the top of the bread with ghee and turn it over again until it develops a deeper colour. Brush the top and turn again. As the parathas cook the dough will puff up when the layers separate. The application of ghee and flour between the layers facilitates this. Cook the remaining breads in the same way, wrapping them loosely in foil to keep them warm.

Everything Bagels

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The first time I ever ate an ‘everything’ bagel was in New York (not too shocking). It was in the form of a miniature bagel-shaped ice-cream, topped with sesame and poppy seeds and served with smoked salmon ‘threads’ (more shocking). To be honest I’ve always preferred bread over ice-cream so I wasn’t quite taken with the dish…..but the dining experience I had at wd~50 (on Manhattan’s Lower East Side) was extremely memorable; one in fact that I will never forget. Wylie Dufresne, the inventive cook behind this dish, named his inspiration the ‘thinking-man’s bagel’ – apparently it has “depth and complexity”. Put simply, it’s a meal in itself, and a New York favourite.

I remember watching them being made on TV (The Great British Bake Off I think it was…..), and ever since I’ve wanted to have a go. I found a recipe in one of my American baking books; a mighty thick and rather technical one aimed at professionals (I seem to remember having to persuade mum that it was worth carting back to the UK). It’s not a book I’ve used often…..but on this occasion it proved it’s worth. A quick word of warning – this recipe makes a very firm dough, so don’t reach for the flour when it comes to rolling and shaping.

250g water
15g fresh yeast
500g strong white flour
8g salt
4g oil (I used olive)
2 tablespoons clear honey (a last minute addition to the original recipe)
2 tablespoons black treacle (for the poaching water)

‘Everything’ for the topping…..

Black sesame seeds
White sesame seeds
Poppy seeds
Garlic flakes
Sea salt
Polenta (a good tip from Adam, this gave them added crunch)

1. In an electric mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment, bring all the ingredients together into a smooth dough – knead for 8-10 minutes on medium speed
2. Shape the dough into a neat ball, cover with a damp tea-towel and leave to rise for at least 1 hour (until it has doubled in size)
3. Knock the dough down, then divide it into 50-55g pieces – roll each piece into a tight ball, then cover all the balls with a damp tea towel
4. Working with one at a time, roll the ball into a short rope using the palms of your hands, then loop around into a doughnut shape – seal the ends together well by rolling against the work surface (I put my fingers through the hole and rolled back and forth)
5. Once all the dough has been shaped, arrange the bagels on a large baking tray lined with parchment paper – cover lightly with cling film then leave to rise for a further hour
6. Prepare the poaching liquor – my American recipe called for malt syrup, but treacle is a good alternative – bring a large pot of water to the boil with the treacle, then leave to gently simmer
7. When the bagels have risen nicely, lift them gently from the tray (you might want to cut the parchment and lift them one by one by the paper underneath), and lower them into the simmering water – don’t do more than four at a time
8. Poach them for approximately 1 minute on each side, then transfer them to another baking tray lined with parchment paper (be sure to space them at least 1-inch apart)
9. Brush the exposed surface of the poached bagels with beaten egg yolk, then scatter the topping on generously
10. Bake in a hot oven (230°C) until golden brown – I gave mine about 8 minutes before turning them over, then another 6-7 upside-down

Ma Mère Française

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So for the last year I’ve been making all my bread at work, for the simple reason that my kitchen at home is tiny (think ‘The Little Paris Kitchen’ but in miniature). I consider myself lucky to even have an oven, and I’d use it more often, if it weren’t for the fact that it either does very little or scorches everything within reach. Using the kitchen at work has it’s advantages; the oven’s a fancy one with a button for injecting steam, there’s plenty of workspace for rolling, kneading and throwing flour around, and most importantly, I don’t have to do the washing-up! I don’t, however, always have the time to play with bread as much as I’d like to. On several occasions I’ve made mistakes trying to juggle bread dough with risotto or ravioli-making. This may come as a surprise but we only have the one oven; twice now my bread’s been ready to cook (i.e. on the verge of over-proving) before my colleague’s finished cooking meat at 60°C. I also prefer to be in a relaxed, happy mood whilst making bread, but unfortunately this is seldom the case at work. Professional kitchens are messy places and ours is no exception…..we’re usually rushing around from 8am until midnight trying to get things done. But because making bread usually puts me in a better mood, I try to do it during the afternoons in the two short hours we get to chill out between services. I’m pretty sure the others chefs think I’m crazy, but bakers often are.

So I’ve decided to start taking things a little slower, by attempting my very own sourdough starter or ‘levain’ as they say over here. I went straight to Justin Gellatly of St. John’s for a recipe – you’ll find this one in ‘The Complete Nose to Tail’ cookbook…..

1 stick of rhubarb (I used my pastry chef’s unwanted peelings and trimmings)
210ml water
2 tablespoons live yoghurt
50g rye flour
50g wholemeal flour
100g strong white flour

Day 1:
~ chop the rhubarb into slices 5mm-thick and mix with the water and yoghurt
~ add the flour and stir – the mixture will be wet and lumpy
~ place in a clean container, dust with white flour and leave somewhere warm (around 26-28°C)
Day 2:
~ give the mixture a stir and dust with white flour again
Day 3:
~ stir it again, then add 4 tablespoons of white flour and 4 tablespoons of water – mix well and dust with white flour
Days 4-5:
~ discard about a third of the mixture and replace with a fresh quantity of all the ingredients except the rhubarb (repeat on day 5)
Day 6:
~ the starter should now be ready to use – it should be bubbling and smell strong and sour

So what exactly is a sourdough starter? Well apparently this batter of flour and water is in fact filled with living yeasts and lactobacillus bacteria. These little “friendly” microorganisms multiply when mixed with more flour and water (the dough). The naturally occurring enzymes break down the starch into sugars, which the yeast feeds off. When the yeast feeds on these sugars it converts them to carbon dioxide and alcohol – it’s this carbon dioxide which leavens, or raises, the dough. Any sugars left over are fermented by the lactobacillus bacteria – this creates lactic acid, which gives ‘sour’-dough it’s sour flavour. It’s actually the perfect working environment – “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine, and we’ll all live happily-ever-after”!

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They’re some healthy-looking bubbles…..

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If you’ve never tasted a sourdough loaf before, they tend to be denser and almost waxy in texture. Because the bacteria produce enzymes that break down proteins (and therefore gluten), bread made using a sourdough starter will be heavier, but on the plus side it keeps for much longer…..all it needs is a quick flash through a hot oven before eating (try 220°C for 2-3 minutes, just to refresh the crust).

So a few notes on starter-making; they’re very easy to create…..it’s the looking-after that takes some time and effort. It is a living thing after all, which does require some love and care. It’s taken me a while to pluck up the courage to try – I’ve always been afraid of killing my starter through lack of use/time/care. So this is what I said to myself before I started: “if it dies, it dies, but hopefully I’ll get a great loaf out of it before it does”. And boy, the sense of pride I felt when I gingerly carried my first crumpled loaf out the oven…..is this the feeling new parents get?!

Advice is easy to find; there are books and online forums dedicated to sourdough bread-making…..the trouble is that everyone gives different advice. I’m going to trust my instincts. If my starter’s bubbling away, I’ll take it as healthy. I’m also going to keep mine in the fridge, as I can only see myself making two loaves per week maximum. Justin’s advice is this: “you can leave it in the fridge without feeding it for months but it will take a few days to restart it by feeding it…..discard about a third and feed it equal parts flour and water”. So if I plan on making a loaf, I’ll feed it the day before and leave it at room temperature until it starts bubbling again. I don’t see the point in mollycoddling it, or feeding it Yakults (flick through some of the online advice forums and you’ll understand)…..I may give it a name though. A chef-baker I once worked with in England lovingly referred to his as ‘The Bitch’; a starter is more commonly known as ‘The Mother’. It’ll add character to your bread, and the more often you use it, the better the flavour will get and the more active it will become.

One more thing, again from the book – after making a loaf with the starter it will need feeding with half and half flour and water, in equal quantities to the amount you took out. The first recipe I used required 130g of my starter, so I replenished it with 65g of strong white flour and 65g of water. Next time I’ll add wholemeal flour instead of white, just to lay the groundwork for the next challenge…..a brown loaf.

Now to my first loaf…..I was fully prepared for it to take some time, as sourdough starters don’t work quite as quickly as commercial yeasts. I made my dough at 14:30, straight after lunch service. It was ready for the oven after our nightly clean down…..at 23:30! We had it for breakfast the next morning.

250g strong white bread flour
8g fine salt
13g buckwheat flour
38g rye flour
130g starter
162g water

I simply put all the ingredients into the bowl of an electric mixer and mixed for a good 6 minutes on medium speed. I followed this with 2 minutes on high speed, until the dough looked smooth and left the sides of the bowl clean. I shaped it a little by hand on the work surface (it was slightly sticky so I used a light sprinkling of flour), then I put it into a bowl, covered it with a clean tea towel and left it for a full 3 hours to rise in a warm place. It rose a little, but not a great deal. I then transferred it to my proving basket which I’d generously coated with flour, covered it again and left it all evening (about 5 hours). It started to show signs of life in the form of a few air pockets on the surface…..

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I carefully up-turned my precious dough onto a baking sheet and slashed it a few times with a sharp knife. At this point I panicked a little trying to get it into the oven…..someone had already taken my kitchen cloth downstairs to the dirty laundry pile and my loaf seemed to be sinking before my very eyes…..so I burnt my fingers trying to arrange the oven racks. To be honest I was so nervous I can’t really remember how long I cooked it for – I think about 10 minutes with steam, then an additional 5 minutes without.

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It was definitely worth the effort and the wait; the flavour was pleasantly sour and the texture, although dense, was just what you’d expect from a traditional sourdough loaf. I’m going to try my best to keep it up; I’ll probably be finding chunks of rhubarb in my loaves for a while yet though!

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My ‘Piña Colada’ Escargots

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Pineapple and coconut is one of my favourite combinations. Last year we went to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, where I practically lived off piña coladas for four days! I’ve wanted to attempt a Vasseur-style escargot ever since I first set foot in Du Pain et Des Idées – I’m proud to say that this version is my very own creation. Since I’ve never actually made an escargot or pain au raisin before, these were a little experimental to say the least.

I decided on a croissant dough – Philippe Conticini’s croissant dough to be precise. Most pain au raisins contain a hidden crème patissière, so I searched for a simple coconut custard recipe. As for the pineapple…..a compote made with fresh pineapple, desiccated coconut and a splash of rum. Then finally, to give them a shiny finish, a Malibu sugar syrup. All the recipes are in fact Conticini’s…..sorry to be predictable, but it just so happened that he had an answer for everything I was looking for. I cooked the pineapple compote for a little longer than his recipe suggested because I wanted it very dry (I was worried that a wet compote would lead to soggy pastries). What I was left with was stickier and sweeter than Conticini himself probably intended, but it worked perfectly with the buttery dough. As soon as the escargots came out the oven, I brushed them with the Malibu syrup to give them a lasting shine. The Malibu’s optional of course – you could just make a plain syrup with sugar and water.

If you fancy attempting these, then I’d suggest starting the day before you want to serve them. On the first day make the croissant dough, pineapple compote and coconut custard, then all you have to do on the following morning is assemble the escargots before leaving them to rise…..and remember, you’re using croissant dough so they’ll need at least 2.5 hours to rise. The following recipes work together almost perfectly, i.e. one quantity of each recipe below will make approximately 16-20 large escargots, with no leftovers (although I will confess to eating a few spoonfuls of pineapple compote whilst working)…..

Step 1 – the croissant dough:

340g plain flour
10g fresh yeast
335g unsalted butter (at room temperature)
8g fine salt
55g caster sugar
40ml water
40ml semi-skimmed milk

For the ‘poolisch’:
90g plain flour
20g fresh yeast
80ml semi-skimmed milk

Prepare the ‘poolisch’…..
– in a small bowl, mix the flour with the yeast
– add the milk then stir vigorously with a whisk to form a smooth paste
– cover the bowl with cling film and leave to rise for 1-1.5 hours (it will start to bubble)

Prepare the dough…..
– add the yeast to the bowl of an electric mixer, followed by the water and milk (at blood temperature). Cover with the flour, salt, sugar and 85g of the butter (softened slightly), then add the finished poolisch
– mix at low speed until the dough comes together, then at medium speed for a following 5 minutes (to start working the gluten). Transfer the dough to a clean bowl, cover tightly with cling film and leave to rise at room temperature for 1.5 hours (or until it has doubled in size)
– knock back slightly before forming into a neat ball. Wrap the ball of dough in film and chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours
– place the remaining 250g butter between two sheets of baking paper. Use a rolling pin to work the butter into an exact square measuring 15cm x 15cm x 1cm-thick. Store in the fridge until ready to use
– roll the chilled dough into a rectangle 60cm x 20cm. Place the butter-block in the centre, then fold the two edges towards the centre of the butter, overlapping the edges of dough just slightly
– roll the package into a rectangle 60cm x 20cm. Letter-fold the rectangle, then rotate by 90°. Place the dough onto a paper-lined tray, wrap tightly and rest in the fridge for at least 1 hour
– REPEAT THE LETTER-FOLD STEP TWO MORE TIMES, leaving the dough to rest in the fridge for at least 1 hour between each roll and fold

…..once you’ve got to this point the hard part’s over, and you can safely leave your finished croissant dough (well wrapped up in film) in the fridge to rest while you tackle the compote and custard.

Step 2 – the pineapple compote:

370g fresh pineapple
270g coconut purée
40g desiccated coconut
100g caster sugar
15g lemon juice
25g rum

– peel the pineapple and remove the core, then cut into small dice (of about 0.5cm)
– in a saucepan, mix together the remaining ingredients with the diced pineapple. Cook over a medium-low heat for about 1.5 hours, stirring from time to time
– when the compote is just starting to catch the bottom of the saucepan (i.e. has become very dry), remove from the heat and leave to cool completely

Step 3 – the coconut custard:

100g semi-skimmed milk
100g coconut purée
1 level soup-spoon plain flour
1 level soup-spoon cornflour
30g demerara sugar
2 egg yolks
15g unsalted butter

– bring the milk to the boil with the coconut purée, then remove from the heat and leave to infuse for 30 minutes
– whisk together the egg yolks and brown sugar, then add the flour and maizena – mix well until smooth and homogenous
– bring the milk to the boil again, then add half to the egg yolks and sugar – whisk well before adding to the remaining milk in the saucepan
– bring the custard to the boil, then cook for 2-3 minutes over a high heat, whisking continuously – remove from the heat when thick, then beat in the butter (cut into small pieces)
– pour the hot custard out onto a tray and cover the surface with cling film to prevent a skin forming – leave to cool completely in the fridge, then transfer to a piping bag

Step 4 – assembling the escargots:

Important stuff you’ll need…..
– a rolling pin (obviously) and a little flour for dusting
– a palette knife (for spreading the compote)
– a blunt(ish) knife (for cutting the escargots from the roll)
– two large baking trays lined with parchment paper
– one lightly beaten egg for ‘glueing’ the edge of the escargot roll, and for glazing the risen pastries before baking

Before you start rolling, give the pineapple compote a quick soften in the microwave – this will make spreading it across the dough much easier. I’d also suggest cutting your rectangle of croissant dough in half – return one piece to the fridge whilst you work with the other.

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Dust the work surface very lightly with flour, and try to work as quickly as possible – remember that the warmer the dough gets, the more sticky (and therefore annoying) it will become. Roll the dough (the half batch) into a rectangle – 20cm x 25cm. Arrange the rectangle so that the shorter side (20cm) sits parallel to the edge of the work surface (you’re going to roll-up the escargot sausage starting at this side). Now to pile on the filling – start with two generous spoonfuls of compote and spread it around as evenly as possible, dragging it right to the edges so that every escargot gets a good portion. Follow suit with the coconut crème patissière, although go for a slightly lighter covering, otherwise it’ll ooze out all over the place later.

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Starting at the edge closest to you, roll the dough up into a pineapple/coconut sausage. If some of the filling oozes out at the end, just scrape it off and set aside for the next roll, then brush the final edge with a little beaten egg just to help seal the seam. When you’re happy that the sausage is as evenly shaped and as tight as possible, take a large knife and cut each escargot off at 2cm intervals (to keep the pastries neat and tidy, wipe your knife between each cut).

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Once you’ve successfully rolled, stuffed and cut both batches of dough, carefully transfer the finished escargots onto your prepared baking trays, leaving a good gap between each one. Very lightly cover them with cling film and leave them AT ROOM TEMPERATURE for at least 2.5 hours – the dough should rise by about 80% it’s original size. This part’s easy for me because there’s always something to do in a professional kitchen, but if you have an impatient nature, you may want to leave the house for a while. Do set a timer though, otherwise you might return to find pineapple compote on the ceiling.

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They start to look impressive once they’ve risen, as all the layers in the dough suddenly become visible. Once you’re confident they’re ready to go, gently remove the cling film and brush them with beaten egg (just to give the dough a golden colour in the oven). I cooked them at 200°C for about 8 minutes, but the oven I use at work is very powerful – if you’re using a domestic model they may need a little longer. I also put an empty tray into the oven whilst it was pre-heating, into which I tipped some cold water when the escargots went in. This trick creates some steam, which is useful during the first few minutes as it will help keep the dough soft, allowing the pastries to expand more freely.

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Whilst the escargots are baking, attack the Malibu syrup:

10g Malibu
20g water
30g caster sugar

…..simply tip all the ingredients into a small casserole and stir together over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved. Increase the heat and boil for 2-3 minutes, then leave to cool slightly. Transfer the cooked escargots to a wire rack to cool, then paint them liberally with the syrup. If you can wait any longer, they’re better eaten when cold.

Doughnut Day!

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So I finally got around to making doughnuts! I think it was my recent trip to London that inspired me…..mum treated me to lunch at St. John Bread and Wine in Spitalfields, where I spent too much time admiring the doughnut display. Last year whilst in NYC, Adam (my partner in crime) and I went on a doughnut hunt. Looking back I’m not really sure why…..we wanted to sample the best deep-fried dough the city had to offer, and we must have been hungry I guess. It was a well planned adventure…..we even installed the ‘Yelp’ app just to help us on our way. OK so we took it too far, but we did uncover some beauties. From sugar-coated jam and custard-filled fatties to traditional iced US ‘donuts’…..we even managed to find the holes on sale! My personal favourite…..the ‘crème brûlée’ – a rich yeasted doughnut stuffed with vanilla crème patissière and topped with brûléed sugar.

If you’re looking for a good doughnut in the UK, I’d recommend heading straight to Justin Gellatly’s doorstep at either St. John Bakery or St. John Bread and Wine (all addresses below). I took this doughnut recipe from Fergus Henderson’s “Nose to Tail Eating”, in which you can also find several basic recipes for custard fillings.

So for 25 large doughnuts you’ll need…..

500g strong white flour
65g caster sugar (plus extra for coating afterwards)
10g salt
15g fresh yeast
4 large eggs
Grated zest of 1 lemon
155ml water
125g softened unsalted butter
A large pot of sunflower/vegetable oil for deep-frying

1. Place all the ingredients except the butter and oil into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment – mix together on medium speed for 6 minutes, then scrape down the sides of the bowl
2. Start adding the butter (about 20g at a time) whilst mixing on medium speed again – once all the butter is incorporated, keep mixing for 6-8 minutes until the dough looks smooth, glossy and elastic (NOTE: the recipe states that at this point the dough should start to ‘come away from the sides of the bowl’…..mine did not, and was in fact very wet and sticky at this stage…..but have no fear and just plough on)
3. Transfer the dough to a large bowl and cover with a tea towel or cling film – leave to rise for 2-3 hours in a warm place until doubled in size, then knock back the dough (give it a few soft punches, then shape it back into a neat ball)
4. Re-film the bowl of dough and rest in the fridge for at least 4 hours or overnight
5. Once chilled, cut the dough into 25 pieces and roll them into smooth balls – place on floured baking sheets (or even better, trays lined with baking paper…..I’ll explain why later) leaving about 5cm between each one – cover very lightly with cling film and leave to prove at room temperature for 2-3 hours…..they should double in size
6. Heat the sunflower/vegetable oil to 190°C (too hot and the doughnuts will burn; too cool and they will absorb the oil, making them greasy)
7. Fry the doughnuts in batches of 3 or 4 at a time, until golden brown (about 2 minutes on each side) – drain the doughnuts one by one on kitchen paper before tossing in caster sugar (put a decent amount of caster sugar into a large mixing bowl then you can really roll them around in it)

NOTE: getting the doughnuts into the hot oil can be a tricky business, but I’ll let you in on a little secret – if you leave the doughnuts to prove on baking paper, you don’t even have to lift them off. Using scissors, cut around each doughnut and lift the baking paper (doughnut-attached) up and into the oil. As soon as the dough starts to cook the paper will slide away easily…..genius! I’ve included a photo of this step below just in case you’re confused.

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…..the proving stage

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…..the frying stage (notice the baking paper floating in the hot oil)

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So finally to the really messy stage…..the filling. If you’re making doughnuts in a rush and need something quick and easy, then I’d suggest buying a good quality jam and using that…..could be any flavour…..the traditionalist in you might lean towards strawberry, but why not blueberry or black currant?? However, if you’re not a fan of getting your hands sticky, and/or opening a jar of jam just doesn’t suit your ambitious side, then attempt one of the recipes I’ve included below. Once again these have been taken from “Nose to Tail Eating”…..a book I’d highly recommend if you’re into old fashioned English puddings. Both recipes make enough to fill 25 doughnuts.

Chocolate Custard:

1 litre full-fat milk
12 large egg yolks
130g caster sugar
65g plain flour
200g dark chocolate, finely chopped
250ml lightly whipped cream

1. Bring the milk to the boil and whisk together the egg yolks and sugar
2. Sift the flour into the egg yolks and whisk well to combine
3. Pour the boiling milk over the egg mixture, whisking constantly
4. Tip the mixture into a saucepan and slowly bring to the boil, whisking occasionally – once boiling, whisk continuously for about 5 minutes, until very thick and smooth
5. Strain the custard through a fine sieve into a heatproof bowl – add the chocolate and whisk it into the hot custard until fully incorporated
6. Cover the surface with cling film to prevent a skin forming, leave to cool then chill
7. Once completely cold, gently fold in the whipped cream

Apple and Cinnamon:

8 large Bramley apples, peeled, cored and cut into small pieces
200g soft light brown sugar
50ml water
1 cinnamon stick
Juice and finely grated zest of 1 lemon
2 tsp ground cinnamon (optional)

1. Place the apples, sugar, water and cinnamon stick in a saucepan and set it over a low heat
2. Cook for 5 minutes, then add the lemon juice and zest
3. Cook for another 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the apples have collapsed into a purée
4. If you’re using the mixture to fill doughnuts, add the ground cinnamon to the sugar for dusting the doughnuts after frying them

Once your filling’s finished, transfer it to a piping bag and make the holes in your doughnuts. Do this by inserting a small knife through the crust, then give it a slight wiggle until the hole is large enough to accommodate the tip of the piping bag. There’s no rule against overfilling…..the more you can get in there the better really, so load them up! You might find some of the custard oozes out a little…..just have a mouth on standby. And don’t forget, eat the doughnuts hole-first…..or perhaps wear a bib.

Our top NYC picks:

Dunkin’ Donuts (all over Manhattan)
You can’t pretend to know anything about the American donut if you’ve never sampled a ‘Dunkin’. Sticky, incredibly sweet yet satisfyingly soft, they’re almost impossible to resist. And the toppings, oh boy there are toppings…..glazed, frosted, powdered sugar, cinnamon, blueberry cake, jelly…..the list just keeps going! The really fun part is choosing the filling. How about ‘apple n spice’ or ‘cocoa coconut’ or even (my personal favourite) ‘dulce de leche’! The ‘reverse Boston kreme donut’ sounds really interesting…..I’ll be having that one next time. You can even wash all this American goodness down with a flavoured coffee, another of the chain’s specialties.

The Donut Pub, 203 West 14th street
Apparently there are several different ways of making a donut. Some bakers choose to roll the dough into a sheet, then simply stamp out rings ‘cookie-cutter-style’, whereas others prefer to roll the dough into balls and then make the holes by gently poking a finger through. I’m not sure which method is considered more traditional…..but I like the idea of putting the scraps to good use, especially if they taste just as good. They do exactly this at ‘The Donut Pub’ – not only were the donuts we sampled fantastic, the holes (available by the dozen) made a perfect, if slightly addictive afternoon snack. I guess they’re the closest American alternative to the French chouquette…..a little heavier maybe, but just as satisfying, especially when eaten straight from the greasy paper bag. They were even available in different flavours…..we tried cinnamon, plain sugared and ‘apple cake’.

Sullivan Street Bakery, 533 West 47th street
So this is probably the trendiest of all three, not to mention the only proper bakery, i.e. they make good bread here too. Ever heard of bombolini? Well we were told this was the place to go for a good bombolone! Bombolini are Italian filled doughnuts, and the Sullivan Street’s signature dessert – they make them with vanilla and fresh lemon zest, then stuff them with either fresh jam or vanilla bean custard. They’re much like a traditional British doughnut, although they tend to be filled from the top rather than injected from the side. They were very light and fluffy in the middle, and the fillings were pretty good too. If you decide to visit, try out one of the ciabattas or flatbreads while you’re at it.