Karē Pan (Japanese Curry Buns)

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Put your hands up for the savoury doughnut.

When I dream of doughnuts (which is more often than I care to admit), they’re filled with thick, chunky strawberry jam, vanilla custard and, only very occasionally, salted caramel sauce. I have pretty conventional doughnut needs really. So when confronted with a savoury curry-stuffed version in Japan, I was more than a little taken aback.

These ‘macho’ doughnuts are known locally as ‘karē pan’ or simply ‘curry breads’, and they’re hugely popular. Traditionally deep-fried but occasionally oven-baked, they come filled with thick curry sauce, curried vegetables or curried meat. The ‘curry’ is one of Japanese origin, the sort that’s also often served with rice and ‘katsu’ (deep-fried breaded pork cutlet) or ‘udon’ (thick noodles). Curry was supposedly introduced to the Japanese by the British (surprise surprise); the Japanese version typically contains curry powder and garam masala.

Unlike their conventional sweet cousins, curry breads are filled prior to frying; once the dough has been stuffed with curry sauce and sealed, it is egg-washed and rolled in Panko (Japanese breadcrumbs), before being left to rise. Once cooked they are texturally perfect; there’s something amazing about Panko, the King of all breadcrumbs, to whom ‘karē pan’ owe their supreme crunchiness. You should be able to find Panko in any Asian supermarket; they have a lighter, crispier texture than most other breadcrumbs, as they resist absorbing fat when fried.

To make 8-10 buns:

For the dough:
370g plain white flour
7g dried yeast (normally 1 sachet)
2 tbsp caster sugar
1.5 tsp salt
2 large eggs, beaten
160ml milk
40g butter, at room temperature

Panko breadcrumbs
An additional splash of milk (for the egg-wash)
An additional egg, beaten (also for the egg-wash)
A deep pot of vegetable/sunflower oil (for deep-frying)

For the filling:

Any sort of leftover curry will do just fine, although perhaps nothing too wet and saucy (so probably not butter chicken or lamb rogan josh). We curried some cauliflower with lots of onion, garlic and ginger. A dryer vegetable dish would be suitable – try saag aloo or aloo gobi (cauliflower). You’ll need at least 1 tablespoon of cold curry for each bun.

Prepare the dough:

1) Tip the flour into a large mixing bowl with the sugar, salt, dried yeast and softened butter. Rub the butter into the flour to combine, then add the beaten egg (remembering to reserve some for the egg-wash). Make a well in the centre of the mixture, then pour in the milk. Bring the dough together in the bowl, then turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface. Knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes.
2) Shape the dough into a neat ball and return it to the mixing bowl. Cover with cling film and leave to rise for at least an hour (and perhaps 90 minutes) until it has doubled in size.
3) While the dough is rising, prepare the curry filling; if you’re worried that whatever you’ve chosen still looks a little sloppy, reduce the liquid by cooking gently in a saucepan. Our cauliflower mix was already fairly dry, especially since being chilled overnight, and so all I needed to do was portion out 8 small piles, of approximately 1 large tablespoon in size. Make sure that the curry is fridge-cold before attempting to fold it into your dough.
4) Knock the dough back by pressing it down lightly with your fist. This action just expels some of the gas that’s formed within the dough, making it easier to work with.
5) Divide the dough into 8-10 pieces (8 if you want the buns fairly large – remember that the dough will also expand in the hot oil). Roll each piece into a tight ball, then leave to rest for 15 minutes under a damp cloth or sheet of plastic wrap.
6) Add a splash of milk to one beaten egg to make an egg-wash, then start shaping the buns. With a rolling pin, flatten out each ball of dough into a thin disc, then using a pastry brush or your finger, paint the edges very lightly with egg-wash. Place a small mound of curry in the centre of each circle. Gather up the edges of dough, sealing each bun into a pasty-shape (see photos below). Pinch the edges firmly to ensure they are well-sealed, then turn each bun upside-down, pressing the sealed edge directly into the work surface (so that the seam becomes the base of the bun).
7) Once all the buns have been stuffed and sealed, prepare the ‘pané’ line (get ready to coat the buns in breadcrumbs). You’ll need two similarly-sized rectangular containers – one to hold egg-wash and the other to hold the Panko – plus a large clean tray lined with baking paper.
8) Dip each bun in the egg-wash, making sure it is thoroughly and evenly coated (it can also be brushed on if you find this easier). Work with one at a time to avoid crowding the buns in the trays. Shake/brush off any excess egg-wash, then transfer to the tray of Panko, tossing thoroughly in the breadcrumbs to coat. Once well-dressed in crumbs, place the bun onto the lined baking tray. Finish coating all the stuffed buns before covering the tray lightly with cling film. Leave the buns to rise for one last time – in a warm place for about 30 minutes.
9) Heat the vegetable/sunflower oil in a deep pot to about 175°C.
10) If the buns have developed any holes along the seams then pinch them tightly closed before frying them. Carefully lift each bun off the tray and transfer to the hot oil (lower the buns gently to avoid splashing yourself with oil). Depending on the size of your pot, you might be able to fry two at a time – but take your time as overloading the pot will cause the temperature of the oil to drop. Fry the buns until golden brown on both sides – this shouldn’t take longer than 5 minutes per bun. If they’re colouring very slowly, the oil may be too cool. Likewise, if they’re browning almost immediately on contact then it’s likely that the oil is far too hot, and the doughnuts will not cook evenly throughout.
11) Remove each bun using a slotted spoon and transfer immediately to a plate/tray lined with kitchen paper to absorb any excess fat. If you’re worried that the heat has not fully penetrated the curry in the centre, then they can be baked in the oven afterwards, for about 8-10 minutes at 150°C.

Roll the dough into balls……

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Put a heaped tablespoon of cold curry into the centre of each disc…..

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Seal into a pasty/gyoza-shape…..

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Turn upside-down to hide the seam…..

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Waste Not Want Not: croissant-dough

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Our friend the croissant has undergone too many transformations to count. Over the last couple of years alone, it’s been the subject of more press attention and structural modification than any other French celebrity. It has inspired pastry hybrids (and low-brids) the world over (although not, interestingly, in France), and caused trivialities for Mr. Kanye West when he inadvertently ruffled the Association of French Bakers’ feathers for abusing the much-loved pastry on one of his recent tracks (the complaint was later uncovered as a spoof, innocently poking fun at the French and their precious culinary heritage).

I’ve yet to experience one of Ansel’s cronuts (forgive me, Cronuts™) firsthand. I’ve got respect for the old school, and have most likely eaten enough croissants to sink a ship, but would never turn down a chance to try something new (especially the September ‘fig mascarpone’ edition). I’m silently refusing to settle for less than a Cronut™ however; biding my time, waiting patiently for that trip back to Spring Street, Soho. We’re spoilt for choice here in Melbourne, currently home of the ‘dossant’, the ‘cruffin’ and even the ‘zonut’, but since I’m limiting myself to one-per-lifetime (it IS deep-fried croissant dough after all), I’m saving myself for ‘the one-and-only’.

Momofuku Milk Bar’s ‘Thanksgiving’ croissant is less of a hybrid and more of a seasonal adaptation; it’s essentially a croissant that contains the full works: turkey, cranberries, stuffing and gravy. They also prepare a kimchi and blue cheese version on a more regular basis. You may be surprised to learn that the French, with all their respect for tradition, have also been meddling. Although I never got around to trying one (I’ve put them on the Paris bucket list), Arnaud Delmontel’s honey-laminated rye croissants sound simply too good to be true. I don’t believe Gontran Cherrier sells his matcha/lemon croissants in his Parisian boutiques; as far as I know they’re strictly reserved for his Japanese clientele. I count myself lucky to have sampled one on my recent trip to Tokyo, and would almost go as far as saying that they’re better than their more traditional counterparts. Le Petit Mec in Kyoto is bravely experimenting with a mini anchovy croissant. So who knew laminated dough could be quite so versatile?

Those of you that have prepared and rolled croissant dough at home will know all too well that after the hard work is done, a handful of dough scraps and trimmings litter the table top, waiting to be transferred to the bin. I therefore present two ideas for your offcuts, both of which I witnessed in production at Gontran Cherrier, Tokyo branch. One we’ll call the ‘croissant croquant’, the other the ‘rock ‘n’ roll melon bun’. Before I begin, an apology – they’re both so tempting that it may be worth keeping a constant supply of laminated dough in the freezer. By all means use those tins of ready-to-roll stuff for either recipe too. Croissant dough takes time after all.

I’ll start with the ‘croquant’; essentially a messy pile of frozen cubes of dough offcuts, mixed with nuts and/or fruit and/or chocolate, risen and baked in either muffin tins or metal biscuit rings. You can be completely creative with these; anything goes. We’re at the height of apricot season in Melbourne at the moment (lucky us); my mind sprang to macadamia nuts next, but after seeing the price in the local store ($9.99/150g), I adapted! I roasted hazelnuts in butter until golden brown…see the full recipe below.

Apricot and Hazelnut Croissant Croquants

To make 6:

Croissant dough offcuts, cut into 1cm cubes and frozen
100g hazelnuts (skins removed)
4 small ripe apricots (3 if they’re large)
25g salted butter
2 tablespoons caster sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten (for the egg wash)

1. Prepare your cooking moulds: if using a muffin tray, make sure the cups are deepish (a cupcake tray will not suffice), and choose an aluminium version as opposed to a silicone one, which will conduct the heat more evenly, giving you the best possible bake on all sides. I used a silicone mould and ended up with beautifully crunchy tops and slightly flabby sides, which are best avoided. You could also use biscuit rings, or crumpet rings I suppose, although something deeper and smaller, say 6-8cm in diameter x 4cm-deep is preferable. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and arrange your rings, leaving a little space between each, remembering to butter them thoroughly first.
2. Heat a small frying pan over a medium heat and add the butter. Wait until it has melted before adding the skinned hazelnuts. Reduce the heat to low then watch the butter foam up around the nuts – shake the pan gently, rolling the nuts around in the foaming butter to ensure an even colour. When the butter begins to smell nutty (the ‘noisette’ stage) and the hazelnuts are nicely brown, strain the contents of the pan through a sieve, catching the butter underneath in a heat-proof receptacle. The leftover ‘beurre noisette’ could be used in a salad dressing or madeleine/financier batter, so keep it if you have the time. Leave the nuts to cool before either chopping them or crushing them lightly – the chunkier the pieces the better.
3. In a mixing bowl, toss the frozen croissant cubes with the caster sugar and hazelnut chunks. Chop the apricots into small chunks (perhaps a little smaller than 1cm), then toss these through the mix. You’ll notice I added some mini marshmallows too – an experiment that worked surprisingly well.

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4. Start to pile the mixture into your prepared muffin cups/biscuit rings. For a rough guide I threw about 13 pieces of croissant dough into each, leaving plenty of nooks and crannies in which to stuff the apricot and hazelnut pieces. Fill the moulds almost to the top, allowing a little room for expansion. The dough will expand into the crevices as opposed to up and over the edges.
5. Once all your moulds are filled, cover the croquants loosely with cling film and leave to rise for roughly 2.5 hours. The dough will take longer to expand if it is especially cold in your kitchen. DO NOT leave the croissant dough anywhere too warm (next to a radiator for example) – the butter will only melt out of the dough. You’ll know the dough is ready to bake when the layers have lifted apart (see the first photo).
6. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Gently peel back the cling film and lightly brush all exposed croissant dough with egg wash (use a soft brush and a ‘dabbing’ motion, taking care not to knock back or tear the dough). Bake in the centre of the preheated oven – they’ll need between 15 and 25 minutes, depending on your oven and style of muffin tray/moulds. I rotated the tray after 8 – at this point they were nowhere near the right colour. After another 6-8 they had developed a deep golden brown colour on top, though like I said earlier, remained a little soft around the sides. If not properly cooked and therefore ‘set’, the layers of pastry will collapse; ensure they are well browned and crispy (not burnt) before removing them and allowing the tray to cool. Don’t attempt to remove them from their moulds until they are completely cold.

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Rock ‘n’ Roll Melon Buns

Traditionally known in Japan as the ‘melonpan’, and in Hong Kong as the ‘pineapple bun’, this sweet bun made with enriched dough is encased within crunchy cookie pastry. French pastry chefs often top their choux with a small disc of sweet pastry, just to give their profiteroles an extra ‘crunch’; the same theory applies to these. The sweet covering is also what gives these buns their unusual names; even though they don’t typically contain melon or pineapple, the rippled appearance on the surface (caused by the crack of the sweet pastry), resembles that of a fresh pineapple or rock melon.

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…fresh melon buns at a Japanese bakery in Tokyo.

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…and again at Gontran Cherrier, Shinjuku.

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…a pineapple bun in Hong Kong.

Since my imitations have been given the ‘fancy’ treatment (well, croissant dough isn’t just any old dough!), we’ll call them the ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ cousins. I did come across one bakery in Tokyo that stuffed their buns with melon custard, so feel free to experiment at home…I guess if you can put it into a doughnut, then why not a melonpan too!

To make 6: (I made double the amount of sweet pastry, just so that I could try six buns with chocolate and six without)…

Enough croissant dough to roll into 6 x 60g balls
For the sweet pastry:
40g unsalted butter (at room temperature)
45g caster sugar
40g egg (lightly beaten)
100g soft flour
1g baking powder
A handful of dark/milk chocolate chips (optional)
Granulated or nib/pearl sugar (for the topping)

1. Roll your croissant dough into neat balls (of approximately 60g in weight, although you could make them larger) and freeze – make sure the dough is tightly packed and smooth.
2. Prepare the sweet pastry – rub the butter into the flour, sugar and baking powder before adding the beaten egg. Bring the dough together in your hands, but do not over-knead (overworking the pastry at this stage will make it chewy later). Add the chocolate chips to the dough if you have chosen to, then shape into a thick sausage before wrapping tightly in cling film and leaving to rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

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3. Cut your chilled dough sausage into 6 pieces of equal size. Roll each piece into a ball, then remove your frozen croissant dough balls from the freezer. One by one, flatten a ball of sweet pastry in the palm of your hand and place a ball of croissant dough in the centre. Gradually push the croissant dough down into your hand, easing the pastry around it gently. Keep pushing and cupping your palm around the ball of pastry until it almost entirely covers the croissant dough. At this stage flip the ball over and simply roll it against your palm using your other free hand; this will smooth over the dough on the presentation side. Don’t worry if the pastry doesn’t entirely cover the croissant dough – as you can see, I ended up with a bit of a gap. This gap will allow the pastry to expand a little as the dough rises later on.

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4. Holding the base of each bun, dip in granulated or nib/pearl sugar before placing onto a tray lined with baking paper. Make sure each bun has a bit of room to expand on the tray (i.e. don’t sit them too close together). Cover the buns lightly with cling film before leaving them to expand.
5. Check the buns after an hour or so – croissant dough takes a fair bit of time to rise (because of all that butter weighing it down), but be warned that if left too long, the croissant dough will burst through the sweet pastry encasing it.
6. Once your oven has come up to 190°C, remove the cling film and bake the risen buns for at least 20 minutes. They should be golden brown and crunchy on top (it’s a little tricky to judge whether they’re fully baked in the middle, but I found that the level of colour on top gives a fairly good indication of ‘doneness’).

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Iced Fingers with Butterscotch and Lime

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This is a recipe I tried and tested several months ago during our stay in Japan. I wanted to introduce our Japanese hosts to something quintessentially British, and since I was heavily absorbed in the new Great British Bake Off episodes at the time (a huge thank-you goes out to whoever uploaded them all to YouTube), iced buns immediately sprang to mind. I’m not in the slightest bit ashamed to say I love that show, although I’ve since discovered the French version, ‘Le Meilleur Patissier’, which almost puts it to shame. Anyway I probably shouldn’t admit to having watched British TV whilst staying in Tokyo…..but I suppose everyone misses home sometimes.

I could have kept it simple and made traditional iced fingers, but instead spruced them up a little. The Japanese are notoriously difficult to impress, so I chose to stuff my buns with a butterscotch cream, and glaze them with a fresh lime icing; both components were straightforward enough to make, and complimented each other almost perfectly. I borrowed the butterscotch sauce recipe from the ‘Smitten Kitchen’ blog; to this I just added whipped cream.

Iced bun dough itself is usually pale, soft and only semi-sweet; it’s the filling, normally cream-based, and the white icing, which give the fingers their notorious sweetness. I seem to remember our local bakery adding glacé cherries to the cream filling too; avoid indulging in too many of these if you want to avoid actual ‘fat finger’ syndrome.

For the bun dough (enough to make 6):
250g strong white flour
25g caster sugar
20g unsalted butter, softened
1 medium egg
1 x 7g sachets instant yeast (or 15g fresh yeast)
1 tsp salt
75ml warm milk
70ml water

For the lime icing:
200g icing sugar
Zest and juice of 1 lime
2-3 tbsp water

For the butterscotch cream:
4 tablespoons butter
109g dark or light brown sugar
118ml double cream
2g sea salt
1 1/2 tsp good quality vanilla extract/paste, or 1 fresh pod, split
200ml double cream (approximately)

To prepare the butterscotch:

1. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan then add the sugar, cream (118ml) and sea salt. Whisk well until all the ingredients are thoroughly combined.
2. Bring to a gently boil and cook for approximately 5 minutes, whisking from time to time.
3. Remove the caramel from the heat and add the vanilla. Taste the caramel (careful it will be extremely hot!) and adjust the seasoning – it may be necessary to add either more salt or more vanilla. Whisk well until completely smooth and glossy, then transfer to a clean bowl/container and leave to chill in the fridge.
4. Whisk up the 200ml double cream until it forms soft peaks. Pay attention not to over-whip, as it will be folded into the cold butterscotch sauce later.
5. When the sauce is completely cold, fold the whipped cream through it gently, little by little. If you desire a strong butterscotch flavour, you may want to hold back some of the whipped cream. The final consistency should be creamy and light, but still firm enough to pipe.

To prepare the fingers:

1. Start by making the bun dough – place all the ingredients into a large mixing bowl, holding back 1/4 of the water for the moment. Stir the mixture with your hands until it resembles a rough dough, then slowly add the remaining water. Bring the dough together in the mixing bowl by kneading gently.
2. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead well for 10 minutes or until the dough is smooth, shiny and elastic. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with cling film or a clean tea towel and leave to rise for at least 1 hour.
3. Use this time to prepare the butterscotch sauce, then leave to chill.
4. The dough should have doubled in size. Turn it out gently onto the table top and divide into 6 pieces, each about 70g in weight. Roll each piece into a ball, then extend the balls into fingers about 13cm long by placing the palms of your hands flat against the work surface and rolling back and forth.
5. Place the dough fingers onto a greased baking tray, leaving a small gap of about 1cm between each. The dough will expand, filling the gaps and connecting the buns in a line. Cover the entire tray lightly with cling film to prevent the dough from drying out, then set aside for at least 40 minutes to allow the buns to rise.
6. Preheat the oven to 220°C. When the fingers are well risen transfer to the hot oven and bake for 10 minutes until lightly golden brown. Transfer the line of buns to a wire rack to cool, without separating them just yet. Leave them to cool completely before gently tearing them apart, then either cutting or breaking them down the middle.
7. Fold the whipped cream through the butterscotch sauce to finish the filling.
8. For the icing, sift the icing sugar into a large bowl and add the freshly grated lime zest. Gradually stir in the lime juice, followed by a small splash of water to form a thick paste. If it’s a little too thick, add a drop more water. You could even add more lime juice if you prefer the flavour really pronounced.
9. Pipe or spread the butterscotch cream evenly down the centre of each cooled finger. Be as generous as you like, according to your taste. Now spread the lime icing across the top of your buns, not worrying too much if it drips down the sides.

My fingers were met with complaints – according to Adam, an iced finger should be split in half directly across the top lengthways, as opposed to sandwich-style along the side. I’ll leave the decision up to you – who am I to tell you how your fingers should be stuffed and served! I suppose it depends on where you come from. Cutting them along the side however, definitely makes the icing easier.

O Holy Crumpets!

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Nothing compares to a crumpet. I won’t say that nothing compares to a homemade crumpet, because that would be a lie. Shop-bought versions are very good, and as most of them are destined for the toaster anyway, freshness is never really an issue. I lived off crumpets for weeks at a time whilst at university (crumpets with Marmite followed by crumpets with Nutella to be more precise) – not only do they last for months in the fridge, but at less than 70p for six, I was able to save my pennies too. You could of course spend these on the butter instead (I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone to eat crumpets without it)…..Lurpak ‘slightly salted’ was our usual choice, but you could go crazy and splurge on some really good quality French stuff. But whatever the butter, as long as it melts and trickles down into all the piping hot holes…..that’s crumpet magic.

Crumpets are true Brits. We managed to find them in the supermarkets of Paris (alas no, not in the boulangeries), but they still remain elusive outside of the UK. Maybe this is what makes them so special; after all both the muffin and scone have long-since emigrated, been imitated and a little lost in translation…..some of their foreign counterparts are almost completely unrecognisable. Here, in Tokyo for example, in addition to being square (?!), scones are much denser and crunchier (the edges are usually quite crispy, which gives them a pleasant texture, but not strictly scone-like). They like to play around with the flavours and fillings too – we’ve seen chocolate chip, banana, black sesame, cheese and green tea to name just a few.

And so perhaps this is why crumpets are so cherished; it seems that no other culture completely understands them and the charm of their little bubbles. Below is a Paul Hollywood recipe, which is in fact very similar to one of Elizabeth David’s. Although many other crumpet recipes use simply one flour or the other, she advises combining strong bread flour with soft plain, and this completely makes sense. The higher gluten content of bread flour gives the batter a more robust structure and therefore the resulting crumpet a stronger honeycomb and a lighter texture. However the addition of a softer flour will prevent them being too chewy, and will ensure that soft, fondant-like interior that absorbs melting butter so well. The bicarbonate of soda acts as another raising agent and releases carbon dioxide upon contact with the hot griddle.

This is by the way, after many years of crumpet-gluttony, the first time I’ve attempted making them at home…..I can’t say I’ll be making a habit out of it, but it was good fun and tremendously satisfying watching all the bubbles pop. Mum and I took a special trip to Lakeland and Limited (any excuse) to buy the metal rings, and we cooked them on her old-fashioned scone griddle.

To make 10-12 crumpets:

175g strong white flour
175g plain flour
2 x 7g sachets instant yeast
1 tsp caster sugar
350ml warm milk
150-200ml warm water
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp salt
Sunflower oil or butter for cooking

1. Weigh the two flours into a large mixing bowl. Add the dried yeast and mix through.
2. Heat the milk to blood temperature, then add the sugar and stir to dissolve. Pour onto the flour then using a wooden spoon, beat the mixture until you have a smooth batter. Beat for a full 4 minutes to work the gluten in the strong bread flour – this is vital to increase the strength of the internal honeycomb structure.
3. Cover the batter with cling film and leave to rest for at least 20 minutes (you can leave it for up to one hour). The batter should rise quite considerably, and then begin to fall.
4. Add the bicarbonate of soda and salt and beat into the batter. Add about 3/4 of the warm water, then keep adding until the mixture is the consistency of double cream. Cover again and leave to rest for a further 20 minutes.
5. Heat a flat griddle or heavy based frying pan. Grease the insides of four metal crumpet rings with butter or oil, and the surface of the griddle too (although very lightly). Sit the rings on the griddle over a medium heat, then drop two dessertspoonfuls of crumpet batter into each ring – just enough to come almost to the top. After 4-5 minutes bubbles will appear and the surface should be showing signs of setting. Carefully turn the crumpets over in their rings and cook for a further 3 minutes upside down.
6. Remove the crumpets from the rings, which can be re-greased and set back upon the griddle for the next round. The hot crumpets can either be served immediately, or left to cool and toasted later.

Be sure not to get the griddle too hot – this will result in burnt bottoms and undercooked tops. The base should be a deep golden brown and the batter just starting to set before the flip…..

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These are ready to turn…..

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Forever my topping of choice…..

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A Cottage(-style) Loaf

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As kids, my brother and I ate a lot of good bread. We were spoiled rotten to be honest; not only did mum make a fresh sandwich loaf twice a week (for pack lunches), but we also lived, for most of our childhood and teenage years, next door to the village bakery. Although tiny, the couple somehow managed to churn out bread, croissants and tarts – custard, jam and lemon I seem to remember – every morning from 7am. Of course when I was much younger I didn’t appreciate all this; I just enjoyed the thrill of buying warm croissants in my pyjamas (which was very often the case).

Now that I’m older, and slightly wiser (about bread at any rate), I realise how lucky we were. I used to moan at the sight of my school lunch; my ‘homemade’ wholemeal bread never looked as appetising as my friends’ thick and fluffy ‘pre-sliced’ white Hovis. I’m ashamed to admit now, but my pack lunch would, more often than not, sit squashed at the bottom of my rucksack until homework began. How I kick myself now! These days, I can safely say, I appreciate my mum’s fresh bread more than any other.

Back to the village bakery…..the croissants were nothing like the hundreds I scoffed in Paris, but they were fresh, local (!) and a damn-site tastier than Shredded Wheat. One thing they did make very well, and that dad always used to snap up when they were really fresh (I think he secretly craved white sandwich bread too), was Cottage Loaf. Super soft, super fluffy, and generally just super simply spread with butter and Marmite (or Bovril I suppose, but I’m not getting into that family debate at present).

I love the cloud-like, slightly lop-sided shape to them, which according to some experts, may have come about as a way of saving oven space. You don’t see too many around nowadays; unfortunately so many people prefer their bread sliced and wrapped in plastic.

The following recipe was translated for me by a friend – find the original in the book available from bakery Signifiant Signifié, Tokyo: “酵母から考えるパンづくり”. I was shocked at the amount of detail the recipe states – it specifies pH, water temperature, proving temperature AND humidity level…..most of which I’ll admit I guesstimated. The translation below is the more basic, home-baker-friendly version so-to-speak! I’ve also altered the quantities; the following should make two large cottage loaves.

This recipe took three days in total – it could be rushed along a little, but if you have the time to play with, the flavour of the bread will be notably better if you use it. I made the ‘old dough’ on the first day, the final bread dough on the second, then shaped and baked on the third. As the photo above shows, my loaf turned out a little on the flat side – the two separate sections so characteristic of a traditional Cottage Loaf sunk into each other a little too much, perhaps because my dough was not quite as stiff as it should have been. The flavour, texture and crust however, were all exceptional.

1.5kg strong white bread flour
30g fine salt
45g soft brown sugar
15g malt extract
60g sourdough starter
30g ‘old dough’ (see following recipe)
150g cool milk
885g cool water
105g unsalted butter (softened)

‘Old dough’ (I’d suggest making this the day before):
250g strong white flour
5g fine salt
1.5g malt extract
1g instant yeast
165g cool water (the recipe specifies 22°C)

1. Firstly prepare the ‘old dough’ – mix all the ingredients together and knead lightly (if you’re using an electric mixer, beat on medium speed for 4 minutes).
2. Cover the dough and leave to rest for 1 hour, at approximately 26°C (80% humidity).
3. Flatten the dough out lightly using the palms of your hands (this will also expel some of the gas) – fold the dough up like a letter (it should overlap in the middle), then rotate by 90° and repeat the fold (this is just to help build dough strength).
4. Cover and leave for a further 70 minutes at 26°C (80% humidity).
5. Transfer the covered dough to the refrigerator – it can be kept at 6°C for up to 24 hours – weigh out 30g for the final recipe (I used my leftovers to make a small pizza, but you could always freeze it for another day).

Now to the final dough:

6. Mix together the milk, water, salt, sugar, malt extract and sourdough starter.
7. Turn the machine to low speed – add the flour, then the ‘old dough’ (break it apart into chunks and add it piece by piece).
8. Now add the butter, again a little at a time until it is well incorporated.
9. Mix the dough at medium speed for 2 minutes, then at high speed for a further 3.
10. Rest the dough in the mixing bowl – cover and leave for 10 minutes at 26°C (80% humidity).
11. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and flatten out to a rectangle with the palms of your hands. Fold the rectangle up like a letter (in exactly the same way as the ‘old dough’ was folded earlier, although this time do not repeat the fold).
12. Transfer the dough to a large rectangular container or mixing bowl (big enough to contain at least four times the current volume of dough) – cover and leave to rest at 21°C (80% humidity) for 18 HOURS.
13. The dough should be very active at this point – mine had risen to the top of the container and was bubbling quite dramatically! Transfer in one sticky mass to a floured work surface. Dust the surface of the dough lightly with flour, then divide into two 700g pieces and two 300g pieces (the tops and the bottoms). Shape the pieces of dough into smooth balls; the dough will be quite sticky, but be careful about how much flour you add – too much will only toughen the dough, and prevent the pieces sticking together when it comes to building the loaves. Leave the balls to rest (on the work surface is fine, just cover loosely with cling film) for 20-40 minutes at 26°C (80% humidity).
14. Now for building – carefully place the two 700g rounds onto a large tray (or two smaller trays) lined with baking parchment. Gently sit the two 300g rounds on top of the larger bases (try to place them as centrally as possible). Dip your forefingers in flour, then one loaf at a time, push your fingers directly through the centre of the top piece and down through to the larger piece below, binding the two sections together.
15. Cover the finished loaves with a tea towel or loosely with cling film, then leave to rise one final time, for approximately 60-90 minutes at 27°C (80% humidity). My loaves seemed to expand outwards as opposed to upwards (I guess because of the strange distribution of weight), and so they looked a little flat when I eventually put them into the hot oven. The initial blast of heat did the trick though, and they looked fantastic when they came out, if a little different from the perfectly proportioned shop-bought versions I’m used to seeing. The recipe states a cooking time of 50-60 minutes at 200°C – I seem to remember taking mine out after about 40 minutes, as they coloured so quickly I thought they might burn. It’s important to get that dark crust though – the flavour was UNREAL.

The dough after 18 hours at room temperature…..

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The tops and bottoms waiting patiently…..

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Light AND full of flavour…..

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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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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