Around the world in 80 bakes, no.28: Sernik from Poland

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.28: Sernik from Poland

Last night was Erev Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year’s Eve), so there was a need to bake something suitable for a Jewish occasion, so what could be better than cheesecake? What I think of as “Jewish cheesecake”, which is broadly similar to what Americans call “New York Cheesecake”, actually hails from Poland, where it’s not particularly Jewish and is called Sernik. 

Dozens of countries have versions of curd cheese: paneer in India, Quark in Germany, túró in Hungary, labneh in the Middle East and many more. The Polish version is called twaróg: just about all the Sernik recipes I’ve found use this. It’s readily available in England; otherwise use any other curd cheese: farmer’s cheese, ricotta, etc.

There are many different variations of Sernik, regional or otherwise, which use different toppings and/or pastry bases; some even dispense with the pastry altogether. I’ve chosen the version from Kraków, Sernik krakowski, largely because it looks pretty and I’ve actually been to Kraków. The pastry is a fairly standard shortcrust, except that it includes baking powder, thus ending up somewhere between a pastry and a cake. The Kraków-specific bit is to top the cheesecake with a lattice made of the same pastry. I’ve included raisins (definitely part of the cheesecakes of my childhood) and separated my eggs, making a meringue with the whites: this makes the finished product lighter.

The pastry

  • 280g plain flour (OO if you have it)
  • 5g baking powder
  • 2g salt
  • 140g butter (start from cold)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 100g sugar
  • 50g soured cream
  1. In the bowl of a food processor, mix flour, baking powder and salt
  2. Cut the butter into cubes, add into the food processor and process for 20 seconds or so until you get to the consistency of fine breadcrumbs
  3. Add the eggs, sugar and soured cream, process for a few seconds until thoroughly blended
  4. Form the dough into a ball, put into a covered bowl and refrigerate for 30 minutes
  5. Preheat your oven to 180℃ fan
  6. Grease a cake tin around 28cm diameter
  7. Take about ⅔ of the pastry and roll out on a generously floured surface
  8. Line the base and sides of the tin, pressing the pastry firmly into the corners. Prick the base with a fork. Add any offcuts to the rest of your pastry and set aside
  9. Line with baking paper and fill with baking beads. Bake for 15 minutes
  10. When you’ve taken out the pastry, reduce the oven temperature to 150℃

The cheese filling

  • 2 eggs
  • 100g butter, soft
  • 500g twaróg or other curd cheese
  • 25 g flour
  • 100g sugar
  • vanilla extract to taste
  •  125 g raisins
  1. Separate the eggs.
  2. Beat the butter until smooth.
  3. Add the twaróg and mix thoroughly
  4. Add the egg yolks, flour, and vanilla and mix
  5. Beat the egg whites until soft, add the sugar and mix until stiff
  6. Fold the two mixtures and the raisins together

Final assembly

  1. Roll out the remaining pastry and cut into 1cm wide strips
  2. If you haven’t already, remove the baking beads and paper from your blind-baked pastry case.
  3. Fill the pastry case with the cheese filling
  4. Form a lattice over the top of your cheesecake with the strips of pastry (if you don’t know how to do this, YouTube is your friend)
  5. Bake for around 50 minutes until the pastry lattice is nicely brown
  6. Leave to cool
Around the world in 80 bakes, no.27: Lavash from Armenia

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.27: Lavash from Armenia

Everyone agrees that Armenia’s national bread is baked in a tandoor-type oven and is called Lavash. Beyond that, however, it gets confusing: there’s yeasted or unleavened Lavash, there’s thick, puffy Lavash or wafer-thin crispbread Lavash. I’ve gone for a thin, yeasted version, soft enough to use as a wrap bread.

The Wikipedia article on Lavash has a fabulous short video of two Armenian women making the bread: they toss the sheets of dough and fold them over forearms before one of them stretches it impossibly thin then places it on a rounded wooden board just suited for slapping it into the oven such that it sticks to the inside. You can’t really come close to replicating that in a Western kitchen, both because a domestic oven doesn’t behave remotely like the large wood-fired Middle Eastern version and because of the years of skill required to stretch the dough the way they do. Still, my approximation wasn’t bad, using wooden boards, a large rectangular pizza stone and a fan oven turned up to maximum.

As with most baking, you can rely on the quantities shown here but you can’t rely on the timings: they’re all far too dependent on the temperature and humidity of your kitchen,  the exact characteristics of your oven and on how thin you dare stretch the dough. Lavash should be pretty tolerant of a half hour or more either way on the rise times, but where you really need to watch it is on the baking time. At three minutes, my first one turned to crispbread: delicious, but with no possibility of using it for wrapping. Two minutes was a bit on the doughy side; two and a half was just about perfect.

  • 350ml warm water (around 40℃)
  • 8g dried yeast
  • 20g sugar
  • 500g strong white flour, plus plenty more for rolling
  • 10g salt
  • sunflower or olive oil for coating
  1. The usual start for bread: mix the water, yeast and sugar and wait for it to go foamy.
  2. Mix the flour and salt.
  3. Blend your wet and dry mixes to form a dough, then knead in a stand mixer for around 10 minutes.
  4.  Brush some oil over the inside of a large bowl. Form your dough into a ball and put it in the bowl, then brush more oil to coat the top of the ball also.
  5. Cover and leave to rise for around 90 minutes at room temperature, until the dough is large and nicely stretchy.
  6. When the dough has nearly risen, put your pizza stone into the oven and preheat to its highest temperature (mine was 250℃ fan)
  7. Punch the dough back, divide the dough into eight pieces and put each piece back into the bowl, coating it with oil as you go.
  8. Cover and leave to rise for another 30 minutes
  9. Once the dough is rising, get everything ready for rolling and baking: once you start putting things in the oven, you’re going to want to work quickly. Choose a board that you’re going to roll the bread onto and flour it generously. Have your flour jar, a spoon, a rolling pin and a scraper ready. And have a basket ready for the finished Lavash, lined with a tea towel and with a second towel next to it ready to be used as a cover.
  10. Take a ball of dough and roll it flat: make sure there’s plenty of flour on the board, on your rolling pin and on both sides of your ball of dough, or it will stick. When you’ve rolled it as flat as possible, if you dare, throw it back and forth over your forearm a few times to stretch it further.
  11. Now the tricky part: working quickly, open your oven, pull the stone out, lay the sheet of dough onto the stone, push it back into the oven and close the door. Set a timer for 2½ minutes.
  12. While the first Lavash is baking, roll out and stretch the next one.
  13. Open the oven, take out the Lavash and put it in your basket, lay out the second sheet on the stone, close the oven and reset your timer. Cover the bread with the second tea towel to keep it warm.
  14. Repeat until you’ve done all eight balls.

Our wrap filling, created by my daughter, was a layer of yoghurt and dill, shredded roast spiced chicken, and a salad of finely diced tomato and baby cucumber. The resulting meal was simple, outstandingly full of flavour and worth way more than the sum of its parts.

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.26: Shaker churek from Azerbaijan

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.26: Shaker churek from Azerbaijan

After taking on a bake with a serious degree of difficulty with make-your-own-strudel-pastry last week, it was time for something at the opposite end of the scale: a simple, unpretentious cookie that takes minimal effort and skill to prepare but delivers lovely flavour and texture. In short, Azerbaijan’s butter cookies called Shaker churek (to my shame, I have no idea how to pronounce the name).

This recipe comes from a splendid Dutch blog called the cookie companion. It’s the simplest version I found: there are other recipes that use yeast.

  • 14og butter
  • 100g icing sugar
  • 225g flour
  • 1 egg
  • vanilla essence to taste
  1. In a bowl, weigh out the icing sugar
  2. Melt the butter, not letting it get too hot, and add it to the icing sugar: mix until smooth
  3. Add the flour and mix thoroughly – you will get a dough that’s far too dry, which is fine at this stage
  4. Separate the egg; keep half the yolk aside and add the other half yolk and all the white to your mix.
  5. Add the vanilla essence, and mix thoroughly until you have a smooth, slightly damp dough
  6. Cover and leave in the refrigerator for around an hour
  7. Preheat oven to 180℃
  8. Line a baking tray with a silicone sheet or baking paper
  9. Divide the dough into eight equal parts (they should be just over 60g each). For each part into a ball, flatten slightly and place it on your baking sheet. Warning here: the cookies spread, so make sure you leave plenty of space around them. 
  10. With the end of a finger or some other implement (like the end of a rolling pin, if you have that kind of rolling pin), make a small depression in the middle of each cookie. Fill the depression with the reserved egg yolk.
  11. Bake for around 15 minutes

Like most cookies, shaker churek are really, really good straight out of the oven: but leave them to cool for a few minutes so that they don’t actually burn your mouth!

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.25: Apple Strudel from Hungary

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.25: Apple Strudel from Hungary

When I visit Budapest, which used to be pretty much a yearly occurrence before Covid-19, my first culinary port of call is the Első Pesti Rétesház – the First Strudel House of Pest. There’s a dizzying array of mouth-watering strudels with many different fillings, both sweet and savoury, made on the premises in front of your eyes. 

Strudel (rétes in Hungarian) came into the former Austro-Hungarian empire from Turkey – it’s the child of Turkish baklava – and I could have assigned it to any of dozen countries in the empire. But having already visited Vienna for Sachertorte, I’ll give the honour to Budapest: and anyway, it’s further east, so the Turks probably got there first.

My favourite strudel fillings at the Rétesház are meggyes (sour cherries) and túró (curd cheese made from soured milk), but I didn’t have access to the right ingredients for either of these when baking for this post, so I’ve gone for the classic apple filling as found both in Budapest and at Schloss Schönbrunn in Vienna.

This is not a straightforward bake. Stretching strudel dough is a tricky business: the best tutorial I’ve found comes from the Lil Vienna website. This is my first attempt and as you’ll see from the photos, I got the dough pretty thin, but nowhere near the targeted perfect transparent rectangle big enough to fit all the filling. So I’ve suggested using about a third more dough than the quantities in the tutorial: you can probably reduce this as your strudel skills improve. (The Schönbrunn recipe, by the way, uses an egg in the dough, which I didn’t).

Making the strudel dough

  • 120ml water
  • 20g sunflower oil, plus more for coating the dough
  • 4g lemon juice or vinegar
  • 2g salt
  • 200g strong white flour, plus plenty more for flouring surfaces
  1. Combine salt and flour
  2. Combine water, oil and lemon juice or vinegar and mix
  3. Combine the wet and dry mixes and mix until you have a smooth dough. If the dough is too sticky, add a modest amount more flour and work it in thoroughly, but don’t overdo it: you want the dough to be moist.
  4. Knead the dough for around 10 minutes (if by hand) or around 7 minutes (if using the dough hook on a stand mixer). Form the dough into a ball
  5. Put a bit of oil into a bowl; roll the dough to coat it completely with oil, cover the bowl and leave it for an hour at room temperature

The apple filling

  • 170g raisins
  • 20g rum (optional)
  • 100g breadcrumbs
  • 50g butter 
  • 140g sugar
  • 10g ground cinnamon
  •  Around 900-1000g tart apples (I used Granny Smiths, American recipes tend to use MacIntosh)
  • 20g lemon juice (around half a lemon)
  1. Mix the rum and raisins and leave to soak
  2. Mix the sugar and cinnamon and set aside
  3. Melt butter in a pan, add the breadcrumbs and cook over a medium flame, stirring frequently, until the breadcrumbs are golden brown but not burning. Set aside.
  4. Peel and core your apples, then slice each apple quarter into 4-5 slices.
  5. Mix the apples, raisins and cinnamon sugar (but NOT the breadcrumbs)  in a large bowl.

Stretching the dough and putting it all together

  • 50g butter, melted
  • 1-2 tsp icing sugar
  1. Preheat oven to 190℃ fan. Identify a large, flat baking tray: typical would be around 40cm x 30cm. Either cut a piece of baking parchment to approximately the same size or identify a silicone baking mat of that size.
  2. Find a clear space of around 40cm x 100cm on a table or counter top and spread a tablecloth over it (or use an improvised alternative like a sheet); lightly spread flour over the tablecloth. 
  3. Spread flour somewhat more generously over the board onto which you will roll your pastry: you’ll  need a space of around 30cm x 30cm.
  4. Put your ball of dough in the middle of the board, and using a rolling pin, roll it out into as even and large a rectangle as you can manage.
  5. With both hands at one end, pick up the rectangle of dough and allow gravity to stretch it downwards. Working quickly, pass the dough around so that you’re holding a different edge all the time and the dough is stretching evenly across its whole area.
  6. Once you’ve stretched it as much as you dare without it tearing, spread the dough out on your floured tablecloth.
  7. Pull the dough from opposite sides to stretch it. Each time you put it down on the sheet, it will shrink back, but you should gradually be increasing its overall size. You know you’re done when the dough is nearly transparent: traditionally, the test was that you should be able to read a newspaper headline through it, which did not achieve (although I came close). You’re aiming for a length of around 100cm and a width slightly larger than the width of your baking tray.
  8. Spread melted butter over your dough.
  9. Spread the breadcrumb mixture over around one third of the rectangle of dough, around 2-3cm from one end and the sides. Spread the apple mixture on top.
  10. Fold three edges over in an attempt to stop the filling leaking out.
  11. Roll the strudel from the filled end, either by lifting the tablecloth as you roll or using your fingers.
  12. Finish by rolling the completed strudel onto your baking mat or parchment sheet; transfer this onto your baking tray. Brush the whole lot with more melted butter.
  13. Bake until golden, which should take around 30-40 minutes. Beware the photos: mine was slightly overbaked.
  14. Cool,  dust generously with icing sugar and transfer to the dish or board that you will serve the strudel from.
  15. Cut into slices to serve, either on its own or accompanied by any of vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, chantilly cream or crème fraiche. And, of course, coffee.

The whole “stretching strudel to paper thickness” process doesn’t actually take that long, but it’s fairly scary when you’re not used to it and it does generate laundry. But my result was palpably more authentic and had better texture and taste than using store-bought phyllo pastry, even though my first attempt had many imperfections: the stretched dough wasn’t thin enough, wasn’t an even rectangle and had several small tears. I’m sure that practice will make perfect and I’m not planning on going back to supermarket phyllo any time soon.

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.24: Alfajores marplatenses from Argentina

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.24: Alfajores marplatenses from Argentina

When my daughter’s Argentinian colleague returns to London after a trip home, you can predict with certainty that he will be carrying a number of packs of Alfajores, his country’s favourite sweet treat. They’re biscuits made from a dough rich in butter and cornflour; a layer of dulce de leche (caramelised condensed milk) is sandwiched between a pair of biscuits, with the edges of the filling rolled in desiccated coconut – or, as in the version I’ve made here, dipped in chocolate, in which case they’re called “Alfajores marplatenses” (from Mar del Plata). The combination of crumbly, melt-in-your-mouth biscuit, soft caramel and chocolate is a sure fire winner.

I made alfajores of the most often recommended size, around 5 cm diameter, which are substantial enough to make a complete small dessert on their own, the alternative being to make smaller “alfajorcitos” of 3-4 cm diameter.

Recipes for the biscuits vary to a fair extent and my choices were largely dictated by the ingredients I had to hand. Here are some of the things you can adjust:

  • Ratio of cornflour to wheat flour (many recipes put in significantly more cornflour than my 50/50).
  • Flavourings: some recipes choose a dash of cognac or orange liqueur in addition to or instead of the lemon zest that I’ve used.
  • You can add cocoa powder and/or use brown sugar to get a darker biscuit

The recipe that follows made 12 fully assembled alfajores with plenty of biscuits and a bit of chocolate to spare. But this will depend very much on the thickness and diameter to which you roll and cut them.

The dulce de leche filling

If you’re in Spain or the Americas, the chances are that ready made dulce de leche is available in your local supermarket. Otherwise, here’s how to make it from sweetened condensed milk (if you can’t find that, you can make dulce de leche from scratch from milk and sugar, as shown in this post on Epicurious, but that looks like a lot of work).

  • 1 can sweetened condensed milk (around 400g)
  1. Heat oven to 220℃
  2. Pour the condensed milk into a small oven proof dish
  3. Cover the dish with foil and place it in a high-sided baking tray. Fill the rest of the tray with water to around 2-3cm up the side of the dish
  4. Bake for around 60 minutes until the milk has turned light brown
  5. Remove from the oven and leave to cool, stirring occasionally to get any lumps out

The biscuits

  • 200g butter
  • 100g sugar (most recipes suggest icing sugar, which I didn’t have)
  • 3 egg yolks
  • vanilla essence to taste
  • grated zest of one lemon
  • 150g plain flour
  • 150g cornflour
  • 10g baking powder
  1. Preheat oven to 180℃ fan
  2. In the bowl of your stand mixer, whip the butter gently
  3. Add the sugar and beat until well creamed
  4. Add the eggs and beat
  5. Add the lemon zest and vanilla and mix in
  6. In a bowl, combine the flours and baking powder and stir evenly. Add to the butter/sugar/egg mixture and mix until you have a smooth batter
  7. Wrap the ball of batter with cling film and refrigerate for 30 minutes
  8. Place the batter between two sheets of cling film and roll out to around 3-5mm thickness
  9. Cut the batter into circles and transfer to a baking sheet lined with baking parchment. The biscuits will expand, so leave around 2cm gap between them (I didn’t leave enough), which means you’ll probably need two baking sheets.
  10. Bake for around 10 minutes until golden brown
  11. Leave to cool

Assembly and dipping

Warning: the many wonderful features of alfajores do NOT include structural integrity. They are very fragile – the crumbliness is part of the appeal – so handle with care!

  • 300g cooking chocolate (I used 150g milk and 150g dark, but choose anything you like)
  1. Grease a sheet of baking parchment and put it onto a baking tray or board that you can put in the fridge
  2. Break up the chocolate into a heatproof dish wide enough for you to dip a biscuit easily. Place the dish over boiling water and wait for the chocolate to be all melted, stirring occasionally
  3. Spread the flat side of a biscuit with dulce de leche. The pros use a piping bag to do this, but if you don’t have one, a spatula works OK. Add another biscuit, flat side down, to form a sandwich.
  4. Using a couple of forks, dip the biscuit into the melted chocolate and cover it completely. Hold it up to allow most of the excess to drip off, and transfer to your sheet of baking paper.
  5. Repeat for the remaining biscuits
  6. Place in the refrigerator for several hours for the chocolate to harden

Several Alfajores recipes point out that step 6 is more or less impossible to accomplish, including the one which goes “my mum always says these should be eaten the next day but I’ve never managed this”. I can confirm that they *are* better the next day, but I’ll leave the decision to you and your self-control…

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.23: Ka’ak Al Quds from Palestine (Jerusalem sesame bread)

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.23: Ka’ak Al Quds from Palestine (Jerusalem sesame bread)

Almost every street corner in East Jerusalem has a vendor with a trolley piled high with hoops of sesame-encrusted white bread called Ka’ak Al Quds: the aroma of fresh baking and toasted sesame is overpowering and irresistible. London-based chef Sami Tamimi, originally from East Jerusalem, has published a glorious book on Palestinian cuisine entitled Falastin (the Arabic language, he explains, does not have a letter “P”, so it should perhaps be “Falastinian”). I cannot recommend the book highly enough and you really, really should go out and buy it, so I hope Sami will forgive me for reproducing my version of his recipe here.

  • 10g dried yeast
  • 20g sugar
  • 300ml lukewarm water (around 40℃)
  • 40g olive oil
  • 250g strong white flour
  • 250g plain white flour
  • 10g salt
  • 15g dried skimmed milk
  • 1 egg
  • 20ml milk (or water)
  • 60g sesame seeds

This will make six of the hoops-shaped loaves: you will be able to fit two at a time onto a typical baking tray (something like 35cm x 25cm). If you have three trays and a big enough oven, you can bake the whole batch at a time; otherwise, you’ll have to do them in two or three batches.

  1. In a bowl or jug, combine the yeast, sugar, lukewarm water and olive oil and stir well. Leave for 5-10 minutes until it’s frothing nicely
  2. In the bowl of your stand mixer, combine the flours, salt and dried skimmed milk and stir until evenly mixed
  3. Add the wet mix to your dry mix and knead with the dough hook until smooth (by the way, Sami’s recipe says 270ml, but I found I needed a bit more).
  4. Form into a ball and leave to rise in an oiled, covered bowl. Usual bread-making rules apply: the warmer the place you leave it, the quicker it will rise, so there’s no point in my giving you a numbers of hours it will take.
  5. Cut three rectangles of baking paper big enough to line your tray.
  6. Once your dough has risen, divide it evenly into six balls. Take the trouble to weigh them to make sure they’re about the same – expect around 150g each.
  7. Take a ball of dough, mould it to a flattened sphere, poke a hole through the middle of your sphere of dough and pull it apart to form an elongated doughnut shape. Pull it to most of the length of your tray, trying to keep the width as even as possible, which is tricky, and place it on one of your rectangles of baking paper; now repeat for the other five balls.
  8. Cover the loaves loosely with tea towels and leave for another half hour or so.
  9. Preheat your oven to 220℃ fan, with your baking tray(s) inside
  10. Lay out the sesame seeds in a dish longer than your loaves (or on a board if you don’t have one)
  11. Beat the egg together with the milk
  12. When you’re ready to bake, brush a loaf with the egg wash, dip it wash side down into the sesame seeds and ensure that it’s thoroughly coated.
  13. Put the loaf back onto the baking paper, sesame side up, and repeat for as many loaves as you’re going to do now.
  14. Take a baking tray out of the oven and transfer the baking paper rectangle with its two loaves onto it. To do this, you will probably either need two people or a tray of some sort.
  15. Bake for 10-15 minutes – you want the loaf to be a deep golden brown but not actually burning.

Leave to cool for a few minutes before eating: this bread is at its best straight out of the oven, but you don’t want to burn your tongue!



Around the world in 80 bakes, no.22: Fjellbrød from Norway

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.22: Fjellbrød from Norway

Two posts in two days, I know, but this one’s really straightforward!

If you think of Scandinavian bread, you think of dark, dense, rye-infused creations to keep you warm in a Nordic winter, or possibly well stoked up for a hike around the fjords: in short, Norway’s fjellbrød (which translates simply as “mountain bread”). I’m not terrifically sure as to how authentically Norwegian this recipe is – I’ve gone for a variation on two posts I’ve seen from Hazel Verden and  Finnish blogger Asli, which both seem to derive from Nigella Lawson – but it’s very easy to make, very full of flavour and agrees with my memory of trips to Bergen.

It’s also the oddest recipe for yeasted bread I know: the only one that involves no kneading, no leaving to rise, and putting your bread into a cold oven. But I can’t argue with the results.

  • 400g wholemeal flour
  • 150g light rye flour
  • 30g porridge oats
  • 100g mixed seeds (I used a seven seed mix including sunflower, pumpkin and linseed; you can use whatever is your favourite)
  • 10g salt
  • 270ml water
  • 270ml milk
  • 20g sugar
  •  7g yeast
  1. Put the sugar, milk and water into a saucepan and warm to your body temperature (around 36℃). Transfer to a jug, add the yeast and stir. Leave until the yeast is beginning to froth (around 10 minutes).
  2. Meanwhile, combine the flours, the oats, 80g of the mixed seeds and the salt in the bowl of your stand mixer (or other large bowl). Stir until evenly mixed.
  3. Once your wet mixture is frothing, pour it into the dry mix, being sure to incorporate any yeast that’s gathered on the bottom. Mix thoroughly with the standard paddle (or a wooden spoon) until you have a smooth but somewhat sticky dough.
  4. Grease a baking tin and pour in your dough.
  5. Sprinkle the top with another 20g of seeds (and perhaps a few more oats); push them into the crust.
  6. Cover the baking tin with foil and put into a cold oven. Turn the temperature to 110℃ non-fan and bake for 30 minutes.
  7. Turn the temperature up to 180℃ non-fan and bake for another 30 minutes.
  8. Remove the foil and bake until done, perhaps another 30 minutes. Use the usual skewer test: a skewer should come out dry.
  9. Cool on a rack
Around the world in 80 bakes, no.21: Pastéis de nata from Portugal

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.21: Pastéis de nata from Portugal

This recipe is dedicated to Conceiçao, who looked after me during many happy childhood summers in Portugal. There was only one option for the Portuguese bake: the little puff-pastry custard tartlets called Pastéis de nata – or Pastéis de Belém, in their most famous incarnation in the bakery in the Lisbon suburb of Belém, around the corner from the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and opposite the monument to Henry the Navigator.

A Pastel de nata has two components: a puff-pastry case and its custard filling. There’s nothing particularly unusual about Portuguese puff pastry recipes, so you can use whatever recipe you like. Since puff pastry is fundamentally difficult, the alternative is to simply buy the stuff ready made, but if you do this, try to get an all-butter version or the flavour balance will be seriously off.

What is slightly unusual is the mechanics of the tartlet: the trick is to roll the whole sheet of pastry up tightly, Swiss roll style, then cut it into rounds. You flatten each round and press into the depression of a shallow cupcake or muffin tin to form the characteristic snail shell pattern in the flakes of the cooked pastry.

The custard is also unusual: it starts with a simple flour and water mixture; you then add hot syrup, then you cool the whole lot and add egg yolks; the custard is then baked in the tartlets.

I’ve started from two Portuguese recipes: one for the pastry and one for the pastéis themselves. If you haven’t made puff pastry before, the recipe contains a handy video showing you the technique far better than I can describe it.

The puff pastry

  • 300g plain flour (OO grade if you can get it)
  • 7g salt
  • 170ml water
  • 250g butter (if you can, use a high melting point butter like Président)

Your key objective throughout this process is to avoid the butter melting and leaking out through the sides of your pastry. If it’s a very hot day, which it was when I made these, you will need to put things back into the fridge frequently to keep them down to well below the melting point of the butter. You can tell from the cover photo that I wasn’t entirely successful.

  1. Take the butter out of the fridge. Time this so that when you get to step 3, the butter will be soft enough to roll but still cold enough to be in no danger of melting.
  2. Put the flour, water and salt into a bowl and mix thoroughly until you have a smooth dough. Form the dough into a ball, cut a cross in top (I have no idea why), cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  3. Cut out two large sheets of baking parchment (perhaps 40cm long). Roll the butter between the two sheets to form as neat a square as you can manage: you want a constant thickness. Put the assembly back into the fridge.
  4. On a floured board, roll the dough until it’s slightly over twice the size of your square of butter.
  5. Removing the paper, place the square of butter onto one end of the dough, fold the dough over and seal the edges. Roll the dough out slightly more to make sure that it’s properly laminated.
  6. Fold the dough into three by taking one end to the middle and then the other end on top. Turn it by 90°, roll it out, fold into three again, then wrap with cling film and refrigerate.
  7. Repeat this process twice (if you want to follow the Portuguese recipe strictly, do a 4-way book fold as your second stage). Refrigerate for 20 minutes or more again.
  8. Have a set of muffin or cupcake tins ready. Grease them with a bit of butter.
  9. Roll the pastry flat, then roll the flattened pastry tightly into a cylinder. Cut the cylinder into slices: the recipe says 12, but my pastry came out a bit thick and I reckon that I should have tried to get a few more, perhaps 15 or 18.
  10. Flatten each slice into a circle with the flat of your hand and/or a rolling pin, then press each circle into a muffin tin so that it lines the bottom and sides.
  11. Refrigerate all of this while you make your custard.

The custard

  • 250 ml milk
  • Peel of one lemon
  • 150g sugar
  • 75 g water
  • 4 egg yolks
  • Ground cinnamon to taste

The tricky part of this recipe is to get as many of the lumps out as you can. Use a wire whisk and be ruthless with it!

  1. Preheat oven to 230℃
  2. Peel the lemon, keeping the peel whole in as few pieces as you can manage. Count the pieces. Keep the rest of the lemon for juice later.
  3. In a bowl, mix 100ml of the milk with the flour. Get as many of the lumps out as you can manage.
  4. In a saucepan, bring the remaining 150ml of the milk to the boil with the lemon peel.
  5. Pour in the flour/milk mixture and whisk vigorously, on the heat, for another couple of minutes until you have a thick paste. Remove from the heat and discard the lemon peel (that’s why you needed to count the pieces). You now have another opportunity to have a go with the whisk to get more of the lumps out.
  6. In another pan, mix the sugar and water. Bring to the boil and cook until you have a thick syrup. Mine got as far as 111℃ on a sugar thermometer, which is the top end of the “thread” stage, before it gets to “soft ball”.
  7. Take your pastry out of the fridge around now.
  8. A little at a time, dribble the syrup into your flour mix, whisking all the time. You can speed up towards the end: make sure the syrup and flour mix is as smooth as possible.
  9. Yes, you got it. It’s time to get the lumps out again. I did this by more frantic whisking: I suspect that passing it through a sieve might have been less work, at the cost of a bit of wastage and more washing up.
  10. Add the egg yolks and whisk until smooth

Assembly

  1. Pour the custard into the tartlets
  2. Bake for around 15 minutes. The custard should have blobs that are dark brown, on the verge of burning but not quite there; the pastry around the edges should look golden and flaky.
  3. Dust with a little cinnamon.
  4. Leave to cool for at least 10 minutes before serving. Pastéis de nata are fabulous straight out of the oven, but you don’t want to burn your tongue. Of course, you can have them cold later.
  5. The Portuguese would never pass up a chance to have these with a bica (short espresso).
Around the world in 80 bakes, no.20: Aish baladi from Egypt

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.20: Aish baladi from Egypt

Aish baladi is the Egyptian wholemeal version of the bread more generally known in the Middle East as “khubz arabi” (Arab bread) or in the West as “pita bread”. It’s a small, flat bread baked at high temperature which forms a pocket into which you will be stuffing your hummus, ful medames or other goodies.

Traditionally, aish baladi is baked in a very hot, wood-fired, open topped clay or brick oven (the Arab version is called a tabun, the Indian one a tandoor): the bread against the hot sides and left there for a very short time. That’s always going to make it difficult to replicate in a standard Western kitchen, the key requirement being to take your circle of dough from room temperature to high heat as fast as you possibly can. It’s the suddenness of this process that causes the water in the middle of the bread to vaporise quickly; the pressure from the resulting steam causes the two sides of the dough to separate and form the pocket.

The Saveur recipe I started from suggests that you use a pizza stone: I don’t have one, but I do have non-stick frying pans that can go into a very hot oven: these work just fine if I wind my oven up the its maximum temperature. If I start with the bread on a standard baking tin at room temperature and put the whole thing into the oven, the result is perfectly edible bread, but without the puffed up pocket, which kind of loses the point.

The dough is a pretty straightforward yeasted wholemeal dough. I’ve broadly followed Saveur’s method (although I reduced the water content considerably – the dough from their recipe is really wet), but I suspect I could have used my standard method of “start the yeast with a teaspoon of sugar and some warm water” without a problem. Wholemeal wheat flour should be fine; if you want to be historically authentic, use emmer wheat; I used spelt. Do not use wholemeal rye flour, which doesn’t form enough gluten: my first attempt at aish baladi went comically wrong when I opened a packet of dark rye flour by mistake and couldn’t understand why interminable amounts of kneading appeared to be having no effect whatsoever.

  • 7g dried yeast
  • 240ml lukewarm water (around 40℃)
  • 300g wholemeal flour, plus more for rolling
  • 6g oil
  • 5g salt
  1. Mix the yeast, the water and half the flour in a bowl and leave for 30 minutes: it should go nicely frothy.
  2. Add in the oil, the salt and the rest of the flour and blend to a smooth dough. Knead for 7 minutes with the dough hook in a stand mixer, or around 10 minutes by hand.
  3. Leave to rise for around 90 minutes
  4. Put your pizza stone (or frying or baking pan) into the oven and preheat the oven to its hottest setting (mine is 250℃ fan)
  5. Flour a surface for rolling with more wholemeal flour. Use a generous amount.
  6. Cut the dough into 8 or 9 pieces, then roll each piece into a thin circle, perhaps 15cm in diameter. You may find it easier to go for an oval than a circle: make sure you know exactly how many pieces of dough are going to fit onto your stone or pan.
  7. Optionally, sprinkle the top of each circle with some bran (if you have it) or some of the excess flour from rolling.
  8. Leave to rise for a further 20-30 minutes.
  9. Prepare somewhere to keep the bread warm: I used a basket lined with a tea towel
  10. Now work quickly: open the oven, take the stone or pan out, and put one or more circles of dough onto it, put it back in and close the oven. The faster you can do this, the more likely you are to get the approved puffiness.
  11. Bake for around 6-8 minutes. Take the pan out, transfer the bread to your basket (or whatever you’re using) and repeat until you’ve done all the batches you want.

Be careful: bread straight out of the oven will be really, really hot: you want to give it a minute or two before allowing anyone to risk biting in or they’ll burn their mouths! But the bread is at its best in the next 10 minutes after that.

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.19: Bolivian cocadas

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.19: Bolivian cocadas

Cocadas are everywhere throughout the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking world. They’re the bake is for coconut lovers: there’s nothing I’ve ever mode which has a higher percentage of pure coconut.

In most places, cocadas show up as balls or swirls (they’re often translated as “coconut cookies” or “coconut macaroons”). In Bolivia, they make them as “bar cookies”, which I take to mean baked in a tray and cut into squares, somewhat like brownies.

Western recipes tend to use sweetened condensed milk: I’ve started with a recipe from “Bolivia bella” in which you make your own condensed milk by starting with coconut milk and sugar. The original then adds freshly grated coconut, but I didn’t have any, so I’ve put in desiccated coconut at the beginning of the process to allow it to rehydrate while the coconut milk is condensing. I’ve also considerably reduced the proportion of sugar to coconut – you can increase it to 200g if you prefer a sweeter end product.

  • 400ml coconut milk
  • 150g desiccated coconut
  • 150g sugar
  • 3 egg yolks (mine clocked in at around 54g)
  • 10g sesame seeds
  • 25g butter
  • grated rind of 1 lemon (around 2g)
  1. Heat oven to 160℃ fan
  2. Line a baking tin with parchment: I used a 23cm x 23cm tin
  3. Mix the coconut milk, the desiccated coconut and the sugar into a saucepan.
  4.  Bring to the boil and simmer gently, stirring frequently, until thickened to a paste. Take it off the heat and stir in the sesame seeds, butter and lemon rind – mix until the butter is melted and combined. Leave to cool for a couple of minutes more: you don’t want to scramble the eggs in the next step.
  5. Beat the egg yolks thoroughly, then add them to the mix and blend them in quickly
  6. Return the saucepan to a low heat and cook for a few minutes longer until the mixture is very thick.
  7. Remove from the heat and spread the batter evenly into your tin.
  8. Bake for 30-40 minutes until firm to hard. Use a longer time for a crisp biscuit, a shorter time for a softer brownie-like consistency.
  9. Leave to cool in the tin. You’ll struggle to extract it when it’s still warm.
  10. Remove the whole thing from the tin and cut into squares or rectangles.

Confession time on the photos: I got the baking temperature/time badly wrong on my first attempt and then inexplicably used the wrong baking pan on the second. So my final cocadas are too thin and unevenly baked. But they still taste great…