Month: May 2020

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.10: Scottish oatcakes

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.10: Scottish oatcakes

I eat between meals. Because I’m type 2 diabetic, I need things that I can snack on that are neither overly sweet (we’ll draw a discreet veil over the cake recipes in this series of posts) nor overly salty (I can eat bags of peanuts for days, but this is a terrible idea also). Scottish oatcakes contain little or no sugar, don’t have to be overly salty and are really delicious, either on their own or with a bit of cheese: in short, they are the perfect snack. And they turn out to be one of the easiest things on the planet to bake.

This recipe is only slightly modified from the recipe by BBC good food contributor “zetallgerman”: I’ve changed a few things and added some details, but it’s basically their recipe and hats off to them, because it works like a charm.

I’ve given quite a lot of detail on rolling and cutting here, because this is a really good beginner’s bake – I beg forgiveness from experienced bakers for whom this is all obvious.

Ingredients

  • 225g oats (ordinary porridge oats if you can; jumbo oats need to be blitzed first)
  • 60g wholemeal spelt flour (ordinary wholemeal whear flour is fine: my lockdown larder has spelt flour and it works very well)
  • ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda or baking powder
  • ½ tsp salt (zetallgerman says 1 tsp: I prefer ½ to ¾)
  • ½ tsp sugar (optional, as far as I’m concerned)
  • 60g unsalted butter (or use salted and reduce the amount of added salt)
  • 70ml warm water, plus 10ml or so more for the next round

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 190℃ fan
  2. Get a baking tray ready. If it isn’t non-stick, line it with baking paper. You’ll also need something with which to cut the oatcakes into circles: I use a fairly solid mug whose diameter is 9cm, so I just fit 12 oatcakes into my 30cm x 40cm tray.
  3. If your butter came out of the fridge, soften. My favourite way is to cut it into small cubes and leave it in a warm place in the kitchen: five minutes in spring sunshine is plenty.
  4. Mix the oats, flour, baking soda or powder, salt and sugar until everything’s reasonably evenly distributed.
  5. Add the butter and mix thoroughly, pinching with your fingers until all the butter is absorbed. If you can, do this with one hand to keep the other one clean. Pastry and biscuit recipes always say “to the consistency of breadcrumbs”: personally, I’ve never succeeded in achieving anything looking remotely like a breadcrumb, but it doesn’t seem to matter. 
  6. Add 70ml of warm water and combine everything together into a dough. The amount of water is a bit variable: if your dough fragments horribly when you try to roll it, add a few drops more, remix and try again.
  7. On a floured board, roll your dough out to 4-5mm thickness. Cut a circle (I use a mug) and transfer to your baking sheet (I have to first put the mug over my hand and then thump it for the oatcake to come out). Repeat: if all is well, you should be able to get six oatcakes.
  8. Now gather together the off-cut dough and put it back in your bowl, add a few drops more water and recombine. You can now roll out the dough again and repeat. Hopefully, you’ll manage another four oatcakes this time.
  9. At this stage, I normally have enough dough for two oatcakes. I divide it in half and roll them out individually
  10. Bake for 20 minutes. As well as the usual oven variability, the exact time is a matter of taste: longer = crispier but gives more danger of a burnt taste

That’s it folks – a really low effort bake which has given me reliable results every time!

The usual in-process shots:

Unelectable opinions, no.2: the ineptness of rule sets for Coronavirus lockdown

Unelectable opinions, no.2: the ineptness of rule sets for Coronavirus lockdown

Last Wednesday, tennis players across England celebrated being given permission to return on court – for singles, that is. Tennis coaches celebrated getting their earnings back and ceasing to rely on the prospect of government handouts.

But why, you might ask, was singles tennis banned in the first place? It’s one of the most socially distanced sports one can imagine, with players spending the vast majority of the game over 20 metres apart. Compare that to someone jogging along a narrow track, breathing heavily without wearing a mask, which pretty much guarantees that anyone coming the other way is going to breathe in their potentially virus-laden droplets. Yet running was actively encouraged at a time when tennis and golf (another sport with built-in social distancing) were banned.

Of itself, tennis isn’t the biggest issue in the world. But it’s an example of a more significant problem: the UK government’s rules on lockdown – and, indeed, those of most other countries – have seemed full of inconsistencies, creating consequences that just seemed to fly in the face of common sense. Why limit going out of the house to an hour? Why was this supposedly  the same if you lived in the middle of a busy city as if you lived in an isolated farmhouse?

The underlying problem is this: rather than carefully lining up the rules with the principles of what we were trying to achieve, the government preferred to make simple, prescriptive rules about individual points of behaviour. And that was always going to create idiocies which would bring the rules into disrepute and prompt people to ignore them.

The rules that we actually want are these:

  1. Don’t breathe on anyone else. To help guide you: when breathing normally, your breath travels under a metre, when speaking, it’s more like 2m, when breathing heavily as a result of strenuous exercise, it can easily reach 4m. Wearing a face covering – pretty much any sort, it doesn’t have to be surgical – reduces this to under 1m with acceptable probability.
  2. Don’t put yourself in a position where other people can’t avoid coming into range of you breathing on them. Guideline: your breath hangs in the air for around 15 minutes, or somewhat longer in stagnant air indoors.
  3. If you touch anything that someone else may have breathed on within the last 24-48 hours (in practise, almost anything outdoors), don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth before you have washed your hands thoroughly.

    (By the way, if you’re living in the same household and you get infected, everyone else in the household probably will too. So exclude them from “anyone” in the above rules).

Consider what this means for going out and meeting people. If you want to go out and meet your friends, it’s fine: you can meet as many of them as you like as long as (a) you’re keeping a couple of metres apart at all times (less if you’re wearing masks) and (b) you’re not standing somewhere making it impossible for other people to get past you. Getting together in a circle with your friends in the middle of a field is just fine. And it really doesn’t matter how long you spend. Sunbathing in the middle of a park – for any length of time, as long as there’s space – is fine, sunbathing on a park bench next to a path is not, especially if you’re talking.

For the runners I’ve mentioned above, this would have various implications to stop them breathing heavily into confined spaces – which is profoundly antisocial at the moment. Firstly, if they can, they should avoid narrow spaces: pavements, alleys, pathways with walls or trees either side. If that’s impossible, at the very least, they should wear a mask and do their best to steer clear of people coming the other way. Local governments could help by marking out official one-way lanes for runners in local parks, much as our larger supermarkets have done for shoppers pushing trolleys.

I’m not going to overburden this post with more examples: suffice to say that I could write hundreds of words going through irrational inconsistencies even within my own small area of life. What I’m more interested is the principle: why did government officials think that it was a better idea to micro-manage individual activities rather than explain the problem to people and expect them to make good decisions?

I don’t know the answer to this, but I have my suspicion and I don’t like it. My best guess is that the rulemakers think the majority of people are too fundamentally stupid and/or irresponsible to take a simple set of principles and deduce how they should behave. It’s an incredibly patronising attitude, which fails to recognise that it cuts both ways: for everyone too stupid to understand a principle, there’s someone else who recognises a stupid rule when they see one and draws the conclusion that all rules are stupid and should therefore be ignored. It also fails to realise that the really irresponsible people are going to be as irresponsible on detailed rules as they are on the big picture.

Our tennis coaches are mainly self-employed and will have been filing their claims under the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme when it opened – at exactly the time that the rumblings over “how are we going to pay for all this debt” have started increasing. Those claims were completely unnecessary: a result of poorly targeted rulemaking. I’m sure there are thousands of other examples.

Dear Government, please start treating people with some respect and make the rules line up with what we’re all trying to achieve, to minimise the havoc caused by this epidemic. Otherwise, you waste everyone’s time and resources and bring yourselves into disrepute.

Caveats:

In my guidance to rule 1, I don’t know whether 1, 2 and 4 metres are the best numbers to use: better scientists than me equipped with the latest evidence might choose different thresholds.

I’m talking about guidance to the public here. Obviously, there are many types of environment where there’s a need for clear guidance specific to that environment – hospitals, schools, offices, building sites and many more.

This all assumes that we agree with the basic strategy of “we need lockdown in order to minimise transmission of the virus”. Not everyone does, but that’s another story which needs to be explored separately.

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.9: Char siu bao from China

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.9: Char siu bao from China

Quite simply, Char siu bao are the best street food ever. These steamed, yeasted dumplings filled with sticky barbecued pork may have started life in the heat of Southern China, but they’ve migrated to every corner of the country (and much of Asia and the rest of the world). In Beijing and Shanghai, there are whole shops devoted to them, not least because they make a fantastic warmer in the cold winters. People argue about the finer points of whose version is best.

None of this is a secret, but there are two surprises. The first is that bao are relatively easy to make, if you’re used to baking: you mostly use standard bread-making techniques, the difference coming only at the end when you use a steamer instead of an oven (there are baked versions of bao, but the steamed ones are far more common). The second is that they’re as good a dish to make at home as they are to eat on the street or in a dim sum joint: they freeze wonderfully and 20 seconds in a microwave will get a bao from fridge temperature to a delicious and warming snack.

A few subtleties before you start:

  • You will need a steamer, either purpose-built or jury-rigged. The ideal is to have one or two Chinese bamboo steamers set over a wok with a couple of centimetres of boiling water (they stack). But you can use anything you like that gets steam flowing around your bao without them ending up in a pool of hot water.
  • The bao you buy off the street in China or in dim sum joints are preternaturally white. That’s because they’re made from highly bleached flour (if you’re in a Chinese shop, ask for “Hong Kong flour”). Personally, I’m not bothered.
  • Tracts have been written on the best way to achieve maximum fluffiness of the bun. I’ve still got room from improvement here: when lockdown ends, I’ll be trying some different types of flour and technical variations on when to add the baking powder, whether to do a second prove, etc. For now, I’m going with a 5:1 mix of strong white bread flour to cornflour (it’s what I’ve got). Ideally, use a white flour with a low protein content.
  • The filling given here is an example. Use your favourite Chinese flavourings: bean pastes, oyster sauce, whatever; add chili if want it spicy. The choice is yours.
  • Choose your favourite spelling: Char siu vs Char siew vs chāshāo. And choose your favourite recipe for making it: I’ve given you one below.

Dough

  • 8g dried yeast
  • 50g sugar
  • 180g warm water (around 40℃)
  • 20g oil (I used sunflower oil, any fairly neutral oil will work)
  • 300g white flour
  • 60g cornflour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  1. Preheat oven to 50℃ (you’ll be using it to prove the dough).
  2. Combine water, sugar and yeast; stir well to dissolve; leave for 10 minutes or so
  3. Combine flour, cornflour, salt and baking powder and mix thoroughly
  4. Once your wet mixture is nicely frothy, add it to the dry mixture. Mix thoroughly into a ball and then knead for around 5-10 minutes – you’ve kneaded it enough when the dough is very elastic and bounces back nicely when you stretch or punch it.
  5. Put the dough into a large bowl with a damp tea towel over it. SWITCH OFF THE OVEN and put it in. Leave the dough to to rise for around 60-90 minutes. I can never figure out what people mean when they say “until it’s doubled in size”: I leave the dough until it’s mostly filled the bowl.

Filling

You’ll have time to make your filling while the dough is being left to rise.

  • 200g Char siu (see below for recipe)
  • 90g red onion or banana shallots
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 3 spring onions
  • 1 tbs oil (I used sunflower oil, any fairly neutral oil will work)
  • 1 tbs hoisin sauce
  • 1 tbs dark soya sauce
  1. Chop the Char siu very finely (around 3mm dice would be ideal). Chop the onion, garlic and spring onions very finely also.
  2. Heat oil in your wok to high heat. When hot, add the onions and garlic, stir-fry for a couple of minutes
  3. Add spring onions, stir fry until onions are transparent
  4. Add Char siu, hoisin sance and dark soya sauce, mix thoroughly, then turn the heat down and stir fry for a minute or two until everything is combined and fragrant.
  5. Remove from heat and let cool while your dough is rising. If you’re going to use the same wok for steaming, you’ll now need to decant the filling to another bowl and wash up the wok.

Assembly

  1. Cut twelve squares of greaseproof paper, around 8cm square.
  2. Take the dough out of its bowl and divide into twelve portions, as evenly as you can manage (the easiest way to get them even is to roll the dough into a cylinder, chop it into half, chop each half in half and then each remaining piece into three).
  3. With a floured rolling pin on  floured surface, roll a portion of dough out into a flat disc, around 12cm in diameter.
  4. Spoon a dollop of filling into the middle (don’t touch it with your fingers or you’ll then stain the dough)
  5. Pinch up the dough into pleats, ensuring at each stage that the filling isn’t being allowed to drop out. You end up with a shape a bit like the onion dome on a Russian church.
  6. Put the completed dumpling on a square of greaseproof paper and transfer it to your steamer.
  7. Repeat for the remaining bao. Depending on the size of your steamer, you may have to do this in several batches.
  8. Steam the bao for around 12-15 minutes until fluffy and cooked through.

Making your own Char Siu

Char siu is barbecued, marinated pork. The first thing you have to decide is what pork to buy. My preferred cut is shoulder, which has some fat in it but not too much. Fillet (aka tenderloin) or loin is OK, but has so little fat content that it tends to dry out. Belly is the opposite: your char siu will be beautifully soft but you may find it rather fatty.

There are a million different recipes for the marinade. They pretty much all involve soy sauce, garlic, five spice powder, a sweetener (sugar / honey / hoisin sauce) and something to make it sour (vinegar / tomato puree). Shaoxing rice wine is a popular addition. Quantities can vary wildly according to taste.

The best suggestion I’ve found for simulating the way the Chinese make char siu comes from Woks of life: set your oven to its highest setting (probably 250℃ fan) and roast your meat on a grid over water. I’ve gone for a simplified version of what they do.

By tradition, char siu is red. In practise, this is typically achieved by using red food colouring. Personally, I can’t be bothered, so my char siu is brown.

  • Pork shoulder – 1 kg
  • Garlic – 3 clove, crushed
  • Five spice powder – ½ tsp
  • Dark soya sauce – 1 tbs
  • Hoisin sauce – 1 tbs
  • Shaoxing rice wine – 1 tbs
  • Tomato puree – 1 tbs
  1. Cut the pork into large strips (around 6-8 cm in diameter). If you’re using tenderloin, that’s pretty much the width of the whole thing, so just cut it in half.
  2. Mix all the marinade ingredients in a bowl big enough to hold the pork, dunk the pork into the marinade and make sure it’s all properly coated, cover and leave overnight.
  3. Preheat oven to 250℃, with an oven shelf near the top.
  4. Use a deep oven dish half-filled with water. Place a grid over the oven dish, then put the pork on the grid. 
  5. Put the whole lot into the oven and roast for around 40 minutes. You want the pork to be cooked through, but not dry. You may want to baste the pork with any remaining marinade every 10 minutes or so.

The quantities given are for 1 kg of pork, which is over three times what you’ll need for one batch of bao. The idea is that you’re going to eat some freshly cooked for a main meal, and then use the leftovers for bao a day or so later, freezing any you have left after that.

Guest post: how to make coronavirus masks

Guest post: how to make coronavirus masks

The “I” in this post is my wife Alison, who has spent much time making brightly coloured masks for family and friends from an assortment of materials hoarded in our home. She doesn’t have her own blog but very much wanted to share this with anyone who might find it useful.

There are other blog posts for making masks online, but for one reason or another I didn’t get on with them as they failed to give exact measurements where I most needed them and provided a video when I prefer images that I can study. Here is a complete version of masks that family and friends have found fit our faces well, and look stylish.

The cotton I have recommended is very crisp and has a very tight weave. This means if you hold it up to the light you should find it doesn’t let much light through. It is not stretchy if you pull it. The idea of this is that tightly woven material lets through fewer germs. A double thickness of the material is recommended. I tried adding a non woven fabric within the mask and found it too thick to allow me to breathe comfortably.

What you need

  • High thread count cotton fabric: 2 pieces 23 cm wide by 20 cm high. 
  • Cord elastic or 3mm flat elastic 50 cm
  • Tape 14 cm long x 2 cm wide – ideally cotton so it does not fray easily, but if you can’t find that bias binding or ribbon 2 cm wide (Note it’s very fiddly if the tape is 1 cm wide)
  • Wire for nose Garden wire, or a paper clip unwound, or a pipe cleaner, select anything from length 9 cm (paper-clip) to 15 cm (garden wire).
  • Thread

Method

  1. Cut out your fabric into 2 pieces of material 23 cm wide by 20 cm high. Put the right sides together.
Masks cut 20 cm high x 23 cm wide, right sides together
Wire to shape around nose
  1. Machine sew the two pieces together along one long side 1 cm from the edge of the material.
  2. Open out the fabric with the right side facing down. The hemmed edge faces up. Place your piece of wire in the middle, between the two edges of material 
Wire between two edges of material
  1. Bring the top piece of the material down so you trap the wire in place. Hold it there by pinning it into position leaving equal amounts of room to the left and right.
Pin the nose wire into position marking the ends
Nose wire sewn in mask
  1. Now flip the material so you have the right sides together again and sew the second long seam, parallel to the first seam, again 1 cm from the edge and when down, turn inside out so you now have a cylinder of material, right side facing out. You’re now ready for the pleating!
  1. The pleating is easy once you get used to it but the first time seems really fiddly. Remember your pleats must face down your mask, away from the nose wire. You need a total of 3 pleats. The top of one pleat should approximately meet the bottom of the next one. You want to end up with a mask which is 7cm wide at the sides. You fold the material starting just under the stitching of your box for the wire, about 2cm from the top.
Making pleats for mask, 2 out of 3 done
  1. You pin the pleats into place and once you’ve made your 3, check the width of your mask is no more than 7 cm wide, perhaps slightly less. When you’re happy with it, zig-zag stitch the edges of the mask to hold the pleats in place.
Zig-zag stitch edges of mask
  1. Cut your tape exactly into two so you have 2 pieces 7 cm long. Zig-zag the short edges so they don’t fray. These must not be sewn onto the mask to enable you to get the elastic in and out (in case the knots in the elastic come undone.)
Zig-zag edges of tape to stop fraying
  1. Pin the tape to the edges of your mask as shown below. Try to get the same amount of tape on the back and the front of the mask. 
Tape pinned onto mask
  1. Stitch the tape to the mask as close to the edge as you dare. 
Stitch tape close to its edge to allow the tape to go through easily
  1. Now cut the elastic exactly into two 25 cm lengths. Using either a tapestry needle to thread the elastic or a tiny safety pin, wiggle the needle or safety pin through the tape to bring the elastic from the bottom to the top.
Elastic for masks
How to thread elastic using a safety pin
  1. Now tie the ends of the elastic together to make a secure knot – maybe a reef knot, 1 cm from the end of each piece of elastic and you have your mask
Thread elastic through the tape
Finished mask, adjustable by tightening the knots

I hope you enjoy making these and that they keep you cheerful and safe.

Around the world in 80 bakes, no. 8: Brigadeiros from Brazil

OK, so I’m cheating here: the Brigadeiro, pretty much Brazil’s national sweet, is cooked in a saucepan, not in an oven. But they’re really delicious (batch 2 was demanded immediately), really easy to make and by a long way the most Brazilian thing I could find. So here goes.

Brigadeiros have a relatively short history: they were created in Rio de Janeiro in 1946 and named after a presidential candidate, Eduardo Gomes, who happened to be an army Brigadier. Gomes lost the election, but these gooey chocolate truffles won the hearts of the Brazilian people and have been a favourite ever since.

With the possible exception of some flatbreads in posts to come, I’m unlikely to provide any recipes with a smaller number of ingredients:

  • 1 can of sweetened condensed milk (approx 400g)
  • 30g cocoa powder (unsweetened)
  • 30g butter (if it’s unsalted, add a gramme or two of salt)
  • Dessicated coconut for rolling

In fact, you can roll your brigadeiros in anything you like: in most recipe photos you’ll see, they’re coated with chocolate sprinkles; some recipes go for chopped pistachios or almonds. I happen to love coconut and think it brings extra Brazil-ness, but the choice really is yours.

The steps in the method are just as simple:

  1. Put the first three ingredients into a saucepan and mix thoroughly
  2. Heat, mixing continually, until you have a sticky paste that comes away from the sides of the pan
  3. Leave to cool until they don’t burn your fingers
  4. Shape into balls around 3cm in diameter, and roll in your favourite topping

There are, however, some details worth mentioning:

  • Cocoa powder clumps. A balloon whisk is a good idea for the first five minutes or so until it’s really smooth, then switch to a wooden spoon. If you don’t have a balloon whisk, go for elbow-grease.
  • “Mixing continually” means what it says. Don’t leave the mixture on the heat for more than a few seconds without stirring it to get some off the sides of the pan, especially towards the end.
  • Knowing when to take the mixture off the heat is tricky. Too soon and you have a liquid chocolate sauce that you can’t mould. Too late and your brigadeiros are decidedly chewy. My guidelines for the best point: (1) wait until the point where, when you run a wooden spoon through the liquid, it flows back very slowly and reluctantly, then give it another couple of minutes, or (2) when the mixture temperature is just above 100℃. Or just keep practising until you can do it by feel, at risk to your waistline.
  • You want to cool the mixture enough so that it doesn’t burn your fingers. If you want the mixture to cool more quickly, dump your saucepan into cold water when you’ve taken it off the heat. 
  • If you’ve overcooked and then over-cooled the mixture so that it’s too stiff to mould, warm it up slightly – it won’t hurt. But if that’s happened, be kind to your tasters’ teeth and make smaller balls.

Having said which, this is relatively simple stuff. And the results are incredibly moreish…

P.S. For added Brazilian authenticity, pronounce the name with the “Bri” rhyming with “Me”, the “ei” rhyming with “hay” and the “os” rhyming with “louche”. If you can be bothered.

Mid-process shots follow, somewhat more boring than usual…