Author: davidkarlin

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…

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.7: Fatayer from Syria

For this post, we’re travelling to the Middle East – or, more accurately, to refugees from the Middle East. It turns out that when you’ve been exiled from your war-ravaged home, the one thing they can’t take from you is your food memories. Food writers Itab Azzam and Dina Mousawi have done the rounds of Syrians in exile and produced a lovely book called “Syria – recipes from home”: this recipe comes from the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut – yes, that Shatila, the site of the appalling massacre in 1982.

Out of the oven…

The recipe is for “fatayer”, which are small pasties made of yeasted dough which is rolled thinly and then shaped and pinched around a filling of your choice. There seem to be two popular shapes: I went for a simple half-moon, which gets you something like a miniature version of an Italian calzone. You’ll also see lots of images of fatayer where a hexagon of dough has been folded into a characteristic triangular pyramid: this looks complicated, so I thought I’d leave it for a second time round.

A bit of reading shows that you can fill your fatayer with pretty much anything: I tried two of the three fillings that Itab and Dina list in the recipe: a spinach-based one and a labneh-and-cherry-tomato one. 

If you can imagine miniature folded pizzas filled with your favourite yummy Middle Eastern flavours, piping hot out of the oven, you’ve pretty much got it. What’s not to like?

In what follows, by the way, the recipe in the book has been tweaked mildly to adjust seasoning, follow my usual baking drills, etc.

First, make your dough

  • 200ml milk
  • 300g plain flour, plus some for rolling
  • ½ tsp dried yeast
  • ½ tsp sugar
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 2 tbs sunflower oil (or any other fairly neutral oil)

Put the milk into a saucepan and warm it to around 45℃, add the sugar and yeast, and wait for 5-10 minutes for it to go frothy. Mix the flour and salt in a bowl.

When the yeast mix is frothy, pour it into your bowl with the flour, add the oil and mix it well. You should get a soft dough: knead this reasonably vigorously until it goes nicely springy. Brush some oil around a bowl big enough to hold the dough when it’s risen, and put in a warm place. My favourite method is to heat an oven to 50℃ and turn if off just before putting the dough in to rise – it should take 60-90 minutes.

Now make the spinach filling…

  • One onion
  • 300g spinach
  • 4 tsp sumak
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • Pomegranate seeds
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Chop the onion very finely, fry very slowly in a wok or other large pan bit of olive oil until it caramelises. (The pan has to be large enough to take the spinach before it’s wilted).

Add the spinach and keep frying until it’s wilted right down. Add the sumak, lemon juice and pomegranate seeds, season, and keep reducing gently until virtually all the liquid has gone. You don’t want the spinach to burn, but you don’t want any surplus liquid either.

…and the labneh filling

This is even simpler and, if I’m honest, the better of the two…

  • 12 cherry tomatoes
  • 2-3 baby cucumbers (or perhaps ¼of a large cucumber)
  • 5g fresh mint
  • 4 tbs labneh
  • 2 tbs olive oil

Chop the three dry ingredients as small as you can manage (or can be bothered). Mix everything together thoroughly.

Put it all together

Preheat your oven to 200℃ fan

Flour your board and roll your dough out as evenly as you can. Itab and Dina say 3mm – I’d go thinner if you can do it without breakages.

Cut out circles of dough to a size of your choice: 8cm is about the minimum. Spoon a dollop of filling into the middle of your circle, then fold the dough in half to enclose the filling. You then need to pinch it closed, taking care (a) not to let any filling seep out and (b) that you haven’t left any gaps.

The tricky part is to do this without letting liquid from the filling making it impossible for you to pinch the dough properly so that it stays closed, so two pieces of advice: (1) use a couple of teaspoons for the filling so you don’t dirty your hands and (2) don’t overfill. I ended up giving each circle a little extra roll to thin it out and give myself more margin.

Once you’ve done your first batch, you’ll have a lot of left over scraps of dough. I rolled them all into a ball, re-kneaded them somewhat and then did a second batch.

When each fatayer is made, place it on an oven tray. When they’re all made, bake them until nicely brown – everyone’s oven is different, so keep an eye on them (opening the oven won’t hurt). They took around 15 minutes in my fan oven.

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.6: Pan Rustico

This week-end, I’m heading to Spain in the tracks of the Hairy Bikers for my attempt at their Pan Rustico (virtually, that is, since we’re all in coronavirus lockdown). Think of it as a kind of sourdough for those who don’t want the faff of maintaining a starter: basically, you make a flour, yeast and water mix and leave it to ferment for 24 hours, which you then use in the same way you would a sourdough starter. It avoids all the messing around with keeping the starter fed for a week and gives results that are not dissimilar. You get a bread that’s really soft and aerated, with a nice crust, perfect for a soup or a salad-and-cheese kind of lunch.

Here in the UK, a giant lockdown-induced rise in home bread-making has meant that you can’t buy flour at the moment: apparently, the problem isn’t that the millers can’t mill the stuff but that they’re used to selling to bakeries in bulk, and they’re struggling to get retail packaging for small quantities. Fortunately, I’ve been making bread for a few months now and I’d just placed my three-monthly order from buywholefoodsonline.co.uk when the crisis hit. But the selection of flours in the house is a bit idiosyncratic, so I used wholemeal spelt flour rather than the wheat flour in Si and Dave’s recipe. As it happens, I think that was a win – but that’s for you to decide.

To make bread for lunch, you’ll need to make your starter first thing in the morning the day before; you’ll then make the actual bread on the day.

I’m going to be honest, here: I’m not sure how particularly Spanish the results are… But it was lovely bread anyway!

Starter:

  • 150 ml warm water
  • 1tsp sugar
  • 1tsp dried yeast
  • 125g strong white flour

It’s the usual bread-making drill: dissolve the sugar and yeast in the warm water, give it 10 minutes or so to start frothing, then mix in the flour. Leave the whole lot for 24 hours.

The main action:

  • 200 ml warm water
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp dried yeast
  • 225 g strong white flour, plus lots more for your board
  • 100g wholemeal spelt flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp olive oil, plus a bit more for greasing your bowl

Before you start, choose a bowl in which you’re going to prove your bread and grease it with olive oil. Also preheat an oven to 50℃: as soon as it gets to temperature, switch it off.

  1. Start with same drill as before: dissolve the yeast and sugar in the warm water and leave it for 10 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, mix your flours and the salt.
  3. Once your wet mix is frothing nicely pour it into the dry mix and add the starter dough you made the previous day, as well as the olive oil. Mix thoroughly with a wooden spoon.
  4. Spread generous amounts of flour over your board or other surface and transfer your dough to it. Knead the dough for 5-10 minutes until it’s very elastic, then form into a ball and put it in your oiled bowl. You want to do a lot of stretching and folding in your kneading process, because you’re trying to get air into the dough. If your bowl has a lid, use it now; otherwise, cover it with cling film.
  5. Now let the bread rise. This takes about an hour if you do it using the “preheat an oven to 50℃ and switch it off” method; if you’re doing something different like using a boiler room or airing cupboard, I can’t guess… Wait for the bread to have risen nicely, and I’m not even going to attempt to define accurately what that means.
  6. Choose a baking tray and cut out a piece of baking paper to put on it.
  7. Shove some more flour onto your surface and carefully transfer your dough to it – keeping it in one piece as best you can. Now stretch and fold it a few times: what you’re trying to do is to get more air into it, and to stretch the ends and pull the surface tight, tucking the dough under (this is easier than it sounds). Form your dough into your favourite shape (a ball? and rugby ball?) on your lined baking tray. If you want the traditional pattern on the top, slash a few gashes in it.
  8. Now leave your bread to prove. If you have a double oven, put the bread back into the one you used for its first rise, and warm the other one up to 240℃. If you have a single one, you’ll have to find somewhere else that’s warm to do the proving (or be patient if it’s at a cold room temperature).
  9. I always struggle with knowing whether the bread has proved the right amount, so I’m not going to proffer advice here either. With me, 40 minutes was plenty enough.
  10. Bake for about 20 minutes. Take out and cool on a rack.

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.5: Borodinsky bread

When people use the words “Russian” and “Bread” in the same sentence, the chances are that the word “Rye” appears between them. And the most famous of Russian rye breads is Borodinsky Bread (in Russian: бородинский хлеб): a dark, dense, coriander-spiced sourdough.

Soviet Russia being what it was, there were officially sanctioned recipes. Therefore, if you’re on a quest for officially authentic Borodinsky Bread (and a Russian speaker) look no further than GOST 5309-50. There’s an even older source, which predates the GOST standards board, for “Borodinsky Supreme” (the 100% rye version; the “standard” has 15% wheat flour). It’s reprinted in a 1940 recipe book and lovingly recreated in this Youtube video. The origin of the name, by the way, is by no means as precise, with various stories to pick from. Choose your favourite: mine involves the wife of a general using coriander from her garden to make flavour the bread she was making to fortify the troops at the battle of Borodino (but don’t spend too much time considering the plausibility of a general’s wife feeding an entire Napoleonic army).

For an amateur baker in the West today, there are two problems with going for absolute authenticity. The first is that the process is seriously lengthy, with multiple stages of pre-ferment, “scald” and different rises and washes. The second is that you may struggle to get hold of one of the key ingredients: red rye malt (in Russian: solod (солод). If you’re desperate for the authentic, look out for stockists of home brewery supplies like this one.

While I may get round to trying for absolute authenticity one of these days, for regular use, I’m doing a cut down version based on the one in my usual bible, Andrew Whitley’s Bread Matters. I’ve approximately doubled the quantities for my large loaf tin and done a bit of flavour adjustment for my own taste: in particular, I’ve reduced the molasses, which I do find tend to take over the flavour to the exclusion of everything else, at the expense of the result not being quite as dark.

The first ingredient, as in any sourdough, is the starter: mine has been going for six months now. I bake a loaf more or less weekly, and refresh it with two parts water to one part dark rye.

Ingredients

  • 80g dark rye sourdough starter
  • 580g dark rye flour
  • 100g light rye flour
  • 10g salt
  • 10g ground coriander
  • 5g coriander seeds
  • 30g molasses
  • 30g barley malt extract

Method

  1. The night before you will be baking, make your “production sourdough”: mix your starter with 80g of dark rye flour and 100ml of water. Leave at room temperature overnight: in the morning, it should be bubbly and nicely fermented.
  2. Crush the coriander seeds in a pestle and mortar. Brush the sides of your loaf tin with oil, and line the sides with half of them.
  3. Make your dry mixture of the rest of the flours, the salt and the ground coriander. Make your wet mixture from the production starter, 400ml of lukewarm water (mine was at 43℃), the molasses and the barley malt extract.
  4. Mix the two together thoroughly till everything is smoothly combined into a wet, sticky dough. Pour the dough into your bread tin, shaping it to be somewhat domed at the top. Don’t bother trying to press the dough into the corners of the tin. (In case you’re wondering, by the way, I haven’t forgotten all about the kneading stage: it’s just that dark rye won’t form gluten properly so there’s no point in bothering).
  5. Sprinkle the remaining coriander seeds over the top of the loaf and press them in slightly.
  6. Leave the dough to rise in a warm place: my own technique is to heat an over to 50℃, put the bread tin in together with a mug of water, and switch the oven off. It’s hard to know how long the rise time is likely to be: mine took about 6 hours.
  7. Preheat your oven to 250℃. Bake for 15 minutes, turn the heat down to 200℃ and bake for another 30-45 minutes. I tend to take mine out after 40 when it’s still just a fraction damp, because I don’t like risking overbaked, dried out dense rye; you may be braver.

Like any dark rye, this won’t rise massively. But the combination of rye, sourdough ferment and coriander makes Borodinsky the most intensely flavoured bread I know and my favourite accompaniment to lunchtime soups and salads.

As usual, a few in-process shots:

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.4: Torta Negra

It’s time for this blog to cross a few time zones and head to the Caribbean coast of South America. “Torta negra” is the go-to cake for family celebrations in Colombia, if the Internet is to be believed.  It’s a fruit cake darkened by caramel (the name means “Black cake”) and it’s lighter in weight and darker in colour than a typical English fruit cake. On the basis of the recipe I started with, from Colombian expatriate Erica Dinho, Torta Negra is a lot less sweet than the average fruit cake over here – although this may vary, since it seems to be another of those bakes where every family has its own recipe.

Erica must have a large family or friendship group, because her recipe is for two substantial cakes at a time. I therefore started by halving her recipe; I’ve also turned the measurements into metric and the US names into English ones. That left the thorny question of the caramel: Erica recommends baker’s caramel or dulce quemado, neither of which I knew how to find (even in the foodie land of North London, where you really can get most things) or molasses, which make me nervous because they have a strong and distinctive flavour of their own which tends to overpower everything else. So I decided to go for making my own caramel, which is messy but not all that hard.

Since there’s a very long waiting time in the middle of this recipe,  I’ve split the ingredient lists up according to stage.

Stage 1 – get some fruit macerating

  • 120g pitted prunes
  • 120g dried figs
  • 150g raisins
  • 120 ml port
  • 60 ml rum

Chop up the prunes and figs, then put everything into a tightly sealed jar (I used a Kilner of the sort you use for making jam). Before sealing the jar, do your best to press the fruit down so that as little as possible pokes above the surface of the liquid. 

Now leave the fruit to macerate for at least two weeks, turning it every few days to make sure that none of the fruit is simply drying out.

Stage 2 – make some caramel

If you do this immediately before starting to make your cake mix, it will be not too far off the right temperature to add to the mix: you don’t want the caramel to cool past its freezing point the second you add it to your mix, but you also don’t want it so hot that it’s baking the mix the moment it touches it. (By the way, this might be a good time to start preheating your oven, and to get your butter out of the fridge and softening).

  • 100g sugar
  • 15 ml water
  • 15g butter (optional)

Choose a small stainless steel pan. Put in the sugar and water, mix thoroughly, and heat it up, fast at first and then more gently as you’re trying to find the right caramelisation point. It’s going to bubble furiously, but keep stirring it and you’ll eventually get to a point (around 175-180℃, if you have a sugar thermometer) where it turns very dark. Take it off the heat and add the butter and mix thoroughly (the only point of this is it keeps it a bit more liquid).

By the way, you’ll have way more caramel than you needed. When I had used what I neede for the cake, I poured the rest onto a sheet of baking paper: once it had cooled, I broke it up and kept in a jar for future use.

Stage 3 – mix your dry ingredients

  • 240g flour
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • ¼ tsp ground nutmeg
  • ¼ tsp ground cloves

Mix all these together in a bowl.

Stage 4 – make your cake mix and bake

Grease a cake tin and line the base with baking paper. Mine worked fine on a 20cm diameter round springform tin, but I imagine you can use any shape you like.

  • 250g butter, softened
  • 250g sugar
  • 6 medium to large eggs
  • ½ tsp vanilla extract

Cream your butter and sugar together (I use a Kitchenaid stand mixer for this, but if you don’t have one, elbow grease and a wooden spoon works fine). Add the eggs, two at a time, mixing well at each stage. Add the vanilla extract and mix in.  Next, put in your dry ingredient mixture and mix thoroughly: you don’t want lumps and you don’t want bits of dry raw flour.

Now add around 2 tbs of the caramel you made above.  If you’ve left the caramel long enough for it to solidify, warm it up until it’s the consistency of toothpaste before trying this, or you’ll merely end up with shards of caramel through your mixture.

Take your macerated fruit out of its jar, giving it a squeeze so that you’re keeping as much as you can of the soaking liquid in the jar. Add the fruit to the cake mix and do your best to mix it evenly through the mix.

Put the mix into a tin and bake until the cake passes the usual test of a skewer poked into the middle coming out clean. Erica’s recipe says 1h45: mine was done in 1h15 in a 175℃ fan oven. Everyone’s oven is different, I guess – and I suppose hers might not be a fan oven.

Leave the cake to cool for 10 minutes or so, remove from the tin and leave to cool for another 10, then brush your remaining wine/port mix over the cake, letting it seep in.

Wrap the cake in cling film and foil, leave it to mature for a few days, and serve.

To end with: a few more of the usual in-process shots…

Unelectable opinions no.2: a National Pension Service

I would love to change our country and our world for the better. But there’s one overriding reason that I don’t go into politics: there are too many things that I think should be done that will never get taken up by any of our major political parties. So whether you agree or disagree with me, I’d love to hear from you.

The UK has a pensions problem. Everyone would agree that it’s a bad idea to let the elderly die in penury, and you have to go a very long way right to find someone who doesn’t think the state should play a part. But the level of the basic state pension is derisory (£4,566 per year in 2019, compared to a median pre-tax income of £29,400). At the same time, the cost of the old age pension is one of the biggest items of government spending – in 2019-20, it’s expected to be £101 billion or around 12% of total government expenditure (which is higher, for example, than education).

And it’s getting worse. People are living longer and requiring more money to be spent on their healthcare. Increased labour mobility has broken up families, destroying the model of multi-generational households and making it hard for people to care for elderly relatives who are now distant.

But there is little political agreement on what to do about it: in fact, there are hardly any ideas for a comprehensive solution. Rather, successive governments of all political flavours have provided a series of kludges: the Thatcher-era push towards private pension provision with “contracting out” and the “state earnings-related pension scheme”, the Blair-era “stakeholder pension schemes”, the “auto-enrolment” workplace pension system of the Cameron-Clegg coalition.

Each of these kludges has piled legislation upon legislation into the pension area. More regulation came about in response to scandals like Equitable Life (where a major pension provider became non-viable because it had not anticipated changes in the financial markets); more still resulted from the decreased trust in financial institutions in the wake of the 2007-8 global financial crisis. The result is a morass of complexity so great as to be almost totally impenetrable to the overwhelming majority of the population. To give you a flavour of how bad it is, here is a typical extract:

The trivial commutation rule will only apply to defined benefit schemes. This is because defined contribution benefits may be taken as an ‘Uncrystallised Funds Pension Lump Sum (UFPLS). You have to add all the benefit values of all types of pension (company pensions/personal pensions/stakeholder pensions/retirement annuities/buy-out plans, but not any state pension) together. If they do not exceed £30,000 trivial commutation may be a possibility. In addition, trivial commutation can apply from age 55, or earlier, if in ill-health.

Do you have the foggiest idea what this is talking about? Because I don’t. I’ve run multi-million pound businesses including subsidiaries of major public companies and I’ve done my own tax return and company VAT returns for years, which I figure puts me in the top 1% of financially literate people in the country. But when it comes to pension documentation, I don’t even come close to understanding enough to make a reasonable decision about anything. I currently have four pension schemes, none of them enormous,  accumulated from different jobs. They all send me masses of mandated documentation, all of which is largely incomprehensible. I have no idea whatsoever how to manage these schemes wisely.

Many of the reforms, from Thatcher onwards, have been made in the name of giving consumer choice. But when consumers are utterly unequipped to make any kind of informed choice, that’s a nonsense. The official response to this is to suggest that you get professional financial advice, but that’s simply shifting the problem: consumers are equally unequipped to make a good choice of financial adviser. Take a look at a “find an independent financial adviser” page like this one: I defy you to give me a reliable set of grounds for working out which of these providers are any good.

My one good pensions experience has come not in the UK but in the 18 months that I worked in Singapore in the early 1980s. The system was really simple: I paid what felt at the time like an alarmingly high percentage of my salary into an account held in my name in the “Central Provident Fund”. Had I stayed in Singapore until retirement age, my pension would have been paid out from the fund (since I left the country, they paid out early).

I believe the UK should have a National Pensions Service: a single fund in which every individual has a named account, into which they make substantial contributions from an early age. Everyone should get the same investment return rate: the whole concept of consumer choice and the morass of documentation around it should be abandoned. The concept of a workplace pension should also be abandoned, getting rid of the massive risks for pension-holders of the bigger schemes and the recent onerous bureaucracy of auto-enrolment for small businesses.

This isn’t to say that the private financial services sector has no role to play. I have no problem with anyone being able to make private investments: I just don’t see why they should be subject to any special tax relief. And I also think there could be a role in the National Pensions Service for private investment managers: the NPS could parcel out chunks of the fund for management by private companies, who would tender for the work and would be assessed according to their performance. Their fees, however, should be a small fraction of the 1-2% of capital per year currently charged by the industry.

The level of contribution – and to what extent the state should top up the contributions of those at the lower end of the income scale – is a matter for the usual left-right political debate. But the principles are clear: (a) have a system where the investment returns are the same for everyone; (b) get rid of the titanic confusion levels; (c) get rid of the titanic waste of money currently expended in the financial institutions on management, marketing and compliance as well as on their own salaries and profits.

The transition plan would need a lot of attention (and is probably the hard part of all this). Most probably, a deadline would be set for people to migrate any private schemes to the new NPS, or face loss of their tax advantages – but a softer transition may be more viable.

Are you listening, UK political parties? In the Labour Party, are you too mired in the past glories of the workplace pension to countenance such an idea? In the Conservative Party, are you too much in bed with the Financial Services sector? Or are you both too timid to tamper with something that is so long term and won’t translate into an easy vote-catching slogan?

Sources for the data:
https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/benefit-and-pension-rates-2019-to-2020/proposed-benefit-and-pension-rates-2019-to-2020