The Japanese may not have centuries worth of baking tradition: their traditional cuisine is more likely to involve steaming or cooking in a pan. But they’ve taken to the Western idea of baked desserts with a vengeance and added flavours that are characteristically Japanese. Green matcha tea cookies are a favourite for many, but as I’m not particularly fond of matcha, so I’ve gone for a different flavouring: black sesame seeds. These cookies (黒胡麻クッキー or Kuro goma kukkī) are very popular in Japan, they’re easy to make, not too sweet and have a distinct taste that I remember from trips to Japan but not from anywhere else. Thanks to Nami and her blog justonecookbook.com for the recipe.
I’ve followed Nami’s recipe reasonably accurately for my first effort (she gives an option of keeping the sesame seeds whole or grinding them – I went for keeping them whole). Next time, I might go for grinding them and using a few more to get a bigger hit of sesame flavour. I might also take the sugar down a bit, although these aren’t extremely sweet by any means. If you’re looking at the photos, it’s clear that I should probably have sliced the cookies a lot thinner to get a crisper result.
40g black sesame seeds
160g plain flour
40g ground almonds
80g caster sugar
120g unsalted butter
Toast the sesame seeds in a pan until fragrant, leave to cool slightly.
In the bowl of your food processor, weight out the flour, ground almonds, sugar and salt. Stir until evenly mixed (or, if you dare, pulse the food processor briefly).
Take the butter out of the fridge and cut it into cubes. Add to the food processor and run until you have an even crumbly mix.
Add the egg and sesame seeds and pulse for a few seconds until everything is even.
Now take the mixture out of your food processor into a bowl and bring together with your hands until you have a smooth dough.
Form your dough into a long sausage. (Nami’s recipe says to cut the dough into two and do two sausages – I forgot). Wrap them in cling film and refrigerate for around an hour. Ideally, the sausage(s) should be round, but it’s fairly hard to avoid having a flat edge.
Meanwhile, prepare two baking trays with baking paper (or silicone mats) and preheat oven to 175℃.
Take the sausage of dough out of the fridge and cut it into circular slices around 5mm in width. Lay these out on your baking trays, allowing room for a bit of expansion.
Bake for around 15 minutes until a light golden colour.
Leave to cool on a rack for as long as you can manage without scoffing them.
The styles and sizes vary, but most food cultures have a filled parcel that you can eat on the street: China has bao dumplings, Japan has onigiri, most Latin countries have empañadas, and so on. The Maltese version is the pastizz, which is somewhere in size between a samosa and a Cornish pasty. Its case is flaky pastry which is made by creating a spiral cross-section of dough and shortening (the same trick, roughly, as used in Portuguese pastéis de nata); the filling can be pretty much anything but is often either based on ricotta cheese or peas.
Starting from a Maltese Youtube video and halving the quantities, I chose a lightly curried pea-and-tomato filling, which is pretty straightforward and comes out rather like one of my favourite Indian dishes, mutter paneer (without the paneer, but I can’t see a good reason not to include that if you want). If you are looking carefully at the photos, you’ll see that I ran out of peas on one of my runs and substituted some mixed veg.
As with all versions of puff pastry, getting the layers right is tricky, and I got it spectacularly wrong on my first attempt, not least because the ratio of flour to water in the recipe is way off what it needs to be. This isn’t the most time consuming puff pastry recipe you’ll ever see: there’s a lot of elapsed time for resting, but it’s not too bad on actual work. But it’s fiddly to get the layers thin enough and roll them up into a good shape without breaking them. If you’re like me, you’ll need practise.
Anyway, the results are well worth it: they make a really good mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack, tasty, filling and nutritious.
Although I’m giving the filling recipe first, you’ll almost certainly want to start the dough first and make the filling during the extensive resting times.
You could add any of garlic, ginger or chilies to this if you want a spicier version. I like adding curry leaves, too, which isn’t exactly Maltese but adds aroma.
Sunflower or other neutral oil for frying
2g (1tsp) cumin seeds
7g curry powder (or your own favourite mix of ground coriander, cumin, turmeric, chili powder)
70g double concentrated tomato paste (my favourite brand is Cirio)
350g frozen peas
Take the peas out of the freezer. You can do this in advance, but you don’t have to.
Chop the onion finely
Heat cumin seeds in oil in a wok or medium size pan
Once the cumin seeds are spitting, add the onion and stir fry for a couple of minutes
Add the curry powder and continue frying until the onions are soft
Add the tomato paste and 100ml or so of water, stir until blended.
Add the peas, bring back to the boil, turn the heat down and simmer until the peas are cooked and the sauce is very thick.
Turn the heat off and leave until needed.
420g flour +40 second time, + 15g sunflower oil
125g shortening – Maltese recipes specify a vegetable shortening like Trex or Crisco, but you can almost certainly substitute ghee or melted butter if you prefer the taste (or use a mixture)
A little olive oil
Mix flour and salt in the bowl of your stand mixer; add water and knead on low to medium speed with the dough hook until you have a smooth but fairly stiff dough. You need enough water that you don’t have lots of uncombined flour, but not so much as to make the mixture sticky.
Form your dough into a thick cylinder, spread with shortening, wrap with cling film and leave to rest for around 30 minutes.
Roll the cylinder into a reasonably long and thin rectangle, spread with more shortening on both sides, place cling film over the top and rest again for another 30 minutes.
Now roll the dough as thin as you can possibly make it – still in a long, rectangle. Spread with shortening over the top.
Starting from one end, roll your dough into a long cigar shape, pulling the pastry as you go and making sure you get all the air out. You will need to go from side to side and back again, pulling and rolling. Leave to rest for another hour or two. Towards the end of this, preheat your oven to 200℃ fan.
Pull your cylinder so that it’s now very long. Cut the resulting cylinder into around twelve pieces.
Have a small bowl of olive oil ready. Dip both thumbs in oil, then pick up a piece of dough, dig both thumbs into one end and shape and stretch it into a cup – this may or may not remind you of primary school pottery classes.
Flip the cup inside out (so that the bit with the olive oil is on the outside, spoon a dollop of filling into it, and pinch the outside together to seal. When it’s done, put it on a baking tray, lying it roughly flat (don’t try to leave the seam pointing upwards). Repeat for the other eleven pastizzi.
Bake for around 30 minutes. Take out of the oven when golden (and, we hope, flaky).
While leaving to cool, attempt to sing Maltese folksongs. Or not.
With apologies to ciabatta-lovers, focaccia is the Italian bread par excellence. Its pillowy, soft texture, coupled with a crisp outside, a slight crunch of salt flakes and the aroma of olive oil simply can’t be beaten.
My focaccia recipe is, to be honest, a bit of a mongrel. Prior to this strange year, I was visiting Italy around twice a year, but the best focaccia I have ever had was not made by an Italian but by an Indian chef at a hotel in the mountains of Oman who swore by a triple proving. The softest, most pillowy dough – my ideal focaccia consistency – comes from the kneading method in the Persian flatbread recipe in Sabrina Ghayour’s Persiana. I’ve gone for Giorgio Locatelli’s recommendation for flour (from his Made in Italy, via Felicity Cloake’s round-up recipe in her excellent “The perfect xyz” series in The Guardian), and done toppings as suggested by Italian-American Maurizio, aka The Perfect Loaf. Personally, I think the results are well worth the extra effort, but there are certainly shortcuts available if you’re pushed for time.
Two important variables are the salt and oil content. I eat a fairly low salt diet and the amount in here is about the maximum I can take. For some, even this will be too much; for others, this won’t be nearly enough compared to the salt hit they expect from a focaccia. My focaccia is also relatively low in oil: you may prefer to drizzle on a lot more than me. You’re just going to have to experiment until you get these to your taste.
Also, I’ve opted for a 40cm x 30cm tray, which gives a flattish focaccia with a relatively short, hot baking time. A variation would be to use a smaller, higher-sided tin and a lower temperature (say 200℃) for a loaf with a higher ratio of inside softness to outside crust.
400ml warm water (around 40℃)
8g dried yeast
375g strong white bread flour
375g OO flour
100ml olive oil, plus 30ml for the drizzle
A tablespoon or so semolina flour (optional)
12 cherry tomatoes
24 black olives, pitted
Half a dozen sprigs of rosemary
20ml cold water
10g sea salt flakes
There are some options as to how to prepare baking trays. You’re trying to get high heat onto the base of your focaccia as soon as you can, so Cloake suggests that you preheat a pizza stone in your oven and “transfer” the focaccia to it. That’s all very well, but it’s difficult to transfer a large rectangle of dough while keeping its shape, without the toppings falling off. I opted for a metal baking tray placed onto the stone: metal is a good conductor and this did the job just fine. An alternative is to lay out your focaccia on baking parchment: if you don’t have a pizza stone, you’ll want to preheat the metal tray and then move your dough to the heated tray while still on its parchment base.
As ever, rising times depend completely on the temperature in your kitchen, and the alternatives should be obvious if you don’t have a stand mixer.
Combine water, sugar and yeast; leave for a few minutes until frothy
In the bowl of your stand mixer, combine the flours and salt and stir until mixed evenly
Add the wet mix and 100ml olive oil to the dry mix
With the standard paddle, mix for a minute or so until you have a smooth dough: you should find that it comes away cleanly from the sides of bowl
Switch to the dough hook and knead for 5 minutes
Leave to stand for 10 minutes, then knead for another 2 minutes. Repeat this.
Brush a little olive oil over the surface of a large bowl, transfer your ball of dough to it, cover and leave to rise for around 60-90 minutes.
If you’re using baking parchment, line your baking tray with it. Optionally, dust a tablespoon or two of semolina flour over this.
Knock back the dough and shape it into a rectangle covering the whole tray, Make it as even as you can: you’ll get some resistance, but you can pull it around with little danger of tearing.
Cover with a tea towel and leave to rise for another 45 minutes or so.
If using a pizza stone, put it into your oven now. Otherwise, slide the parchment sheet off your baking tray and put the tray into the oven.
Preheat oven to 250℃ fan (or as near as you can get).
Leave the dough for its second rise, around 45-60 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare your toppings: chop of blitz the rosemary very fine, halve the cherry tomatoes. If your olives came in brine, wash them thoroughly to remove the salt.
Uncover the dough and with a finger, press a pattern of 6 x 8 indentations into it with a finger, going deep. Press the cherry tomato halves and the olives into the indentations in a chequerboard pattern (that’s why I’ve been fussy about the numbers). Sprinkle the rosemary evenly over the top.
Cover with a tea towel again and leave for another 30-45 minutes.
Prepare a mixture of 30ml olive oil and 20ml water, whisking with a fork until emulsified. Spread this evenly over the focaccia.
Sprinkle the sea salt flakes evenly over.
Now work quickly: open the oven, take out the stone or tray, transfer your focaccia to it, replace it in the oven and close. Now reduce the oven temperature to 225℃.
Bake for around 20-25 minutes until golden brown.
Remove from the oven, slide the focaccia onto whatever board or tray you’re going to serve it on, and leave to cool for a few minutes before eating. This may be the hardest thing in the recipe, but you don’t want to burn your mouth!
It’s been a strange Fourth of July this year: the poison of the Trump era has made it harder than ever to summon positive feelings for the United States. Still, I’ll use the occasion to celebrate happy days in the past and hope for happier ones in the future, with some close family members and numerous friends in the USA firmly in mind.
I lived in California for a couple of years in the early 1980s and one of my fondest memories is of whiling away hours at Printers Inc., a bookshop-plus-café that was a kind of prototype Borders. Long before Starbucks had started to expand outside Seattle, Printers Inc. served really good coffee and superb brownies and carrot cake. Cake lovers would invariably spot some book they liked, while those in search of a book, with equal inevitability, would be entrapped by the aroma of fresh coffee and cake.
Sadly, I never did get the recipe for the best carrot cake I ever had, baked by Gigi Ellis, the wife of my boss at Fairchild, and I lost touch with Frank and Gigi decades ago. So this recipe, which is close to the Printers Inc. version, comes from the cookbook I bought at the time, a model of Californian eclecticism entitled San Francisco à la Carte. I’ve turned everything metric, because I just don’t see how you can bake accurately using measuring cups, or indeed why you would want to when digital scales are cheap, accurate and generate less washing up.
The quantities here will work for a single cake in a 23cm x 23cm square tin. That will do for 16 small portions (or 8 very generous portions, or whatever you pick in between). If you prefer, you can use more than one tin, which avoids the tricky process of slicing the cake in half, at the price of leaving you with an internal crust that you don’t really want.
Make the cake:
250g carrots (weight after peeling)
250g plain flour
10g baking soda
150g corn oil
Preheat oven to 175℃.
Grease the bottom of your cake tin, line it with baking paper, then grease the bottom and sides.
Mix together the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt and cinnamon. There’s no need to sift the flour.
Peel and grate the carrots.
Beat the eggs (I use a stand mixer). Add the oil and beat until the eggs and oil have combined into a smooth mixture.
Add the flour mixture to the egg and oil mixture and beat until smoothly combined.
Add the carrots and stir until they’re evenly distributed.
Pour the whole mixture into your baking tin, ensuring that you spread it evenly including the corners.
Bake for 30 minutes – use the usual skewer test to ensure that it’s done. I’m always surprised by the way the cake can be really raw at 25 minutes and just fine at 30. By the way, some people like their carrot cake sticky: if you’re one of them, make sure the skewer *does* come out with some mixture sticking to it.
Cool in the baking tin for 5-10 minutes and then on a wire rack.
Make the frosting:
200g cream cheese
150g icing sugar
Vanilla essence to taste (optional)
Beat these together thoroughly until very smooth.
Cover and leave in the refrigerator: especially if it’s summer, the frosting will be very runny and you want it to hold its shape when you spread it.
Assemble the cake:
90g pecan halves
Reserve 16 of the best pecan halves for decoration (this will use around 40g). Chop the remainder into small pieces.
Transfer the cake from the wire rack to whatever you’re going to serve the cake on: cake plate, board, tray or whatever.
With a long knife, slice the cake horizontally into two approximately equal parts. Take the top half off and set aside – I do this by sliding a plastic chopping mat between the two halves, sandwiching the top half between the mat and a wire rack and lifting it off.
Spread half the frosting over the bottom half. Scatter the chopped walnut pieces evenly across the cake.
Put the top half of the cake back into place.
Spread the remaining half of the frosting over the cake and decorate with remaining pecan halves, in whatever pattern takes your fancy.
It’s probably a good idea to chill the cake at this point, because the frosting really is quite liquid. Take it out of the refrigerator half an hour or so before serving.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, there have been calls for black history to be taught in our schools. I’m broadly in favour of this, but I’m unconvinced that it’s the most important step in the fight against racism: it’s all too easy for the racists to brush it off as “someone else’s story”.
To confront racism head on, I believe that the most important step is to teach the history of empire and colonialism the way it was, which includes not only white-on-black violence but also white-on-yellow, white-on-brown and white-on-white. Only in that way can we persuade children to repudiate the racist behaviour of our forebears at a time where they held supreme power over swathes of the globe.
Most Chinese remember the British Empire not for any of its beneficent qualities but for Opium Wars, in which we burnt down their capital to support our drug runners in the havoc they wrought on Chinese society. Many Indians remember us not for their railways but for the Salt Tax and the Amritsar Massacre; Ireland remembers us for the Potato Famine. And that’s without mentioning our genocides of the Aborigines or Maoris or our invention of the concentration camp during the Boer Wars.
Inasmuch as British imperialism is taught in schools, it tends to be in the context of “we may have done a few bad things, but we glorified our nation and brought good to the world”. This way of representing the past must no longer be permitted: from an early age, potential racists must be made to understand the consequences of the evil wrought in the days where racism was normality pure and simple. Racist instincts may be built into all of us in some shape or form, but the mark of a truly civilised society is the ability to overcome those instincts. And that starts with being taught that they are evil and have always been so. Humanity should trump glory every time.
By the way, it’s not like we British are uniquely dreadful in this. The Americans with their native population, the French in Algeria, the Belgians in Congo, the Spanish in South America, the Japanese in Korea – I find it hard to think of a rich nation that’s untainted and that has ceased to glorify these episodes in their murky past. Of course, it’s more comfortable to focus on the good things in our past and erase our misdeeds. But that’s not the way to fight the cancer of racism today.
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
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).
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
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
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…
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?
For the next year or two, I’m planning to explore breads, cakes, pastries and other baked goods from many different countries, including places we don’t normally hear about as well as the obvious ones. Being a rank amateur, will I get to 80 before I give up? I don’t know, but watch this space…
A Plăcintă (the plural is Plăcinte) is a flat pastry or filled bread from Moldova or Romania. It’s a pretty broad term: look up recipes online and you’ll find dozens of different variants: the filling can be sweet or savoury, the dough can be yeasted or not and can be made and rolled in various ways.
For this one, working from a Youtube video from someone called Katy’s Food, I’ve chosen a cheese filling and a yeasted, layered dough, which results in a kind of cheese bread. Each ball of dough is rolled out thinly and wrapped around its filling into a sausage-shape, which is then formed into a spiral before being baked.
The result is a layered, flaky bread that’s very delicious.
Vera, the only Moldovan I know and the person who suggested I try making plăcinte, gave them her seal of approval, although she recommended adding chopped spring onions to the cheese filling and she would have used a medium-soft curd cheese: the nearest you get in London is “twaróg”, which you can find in Polish food shops or larger supermarkets. As far as I can see from the web, quark is similar (though I’ve never tried using it).
I’ve reduced the recipe to make 6 plăcinte, which is what fits into my oven. There’s 100g of flour and 80g of cheese in each one, so they make for a very large snack or a substantial component of a lunch.
600g strong white bread flour
300 ml of warm water (around 40℃)
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
8g dried yeast
500g cheese (I used 300g feta and 200g grated cheddar, but see above)
2 large eggs
Method I won’t give instructions for bread-making basics like mixing, kneading, proving, testing for doneness: if you’re already a bread-maker, you’ll have your favourite methods for these; if you’re not, this probably isn’t the right recipe to start on. The best book I’ve found so far is Andrew Whitley’s Bread Matters.
Weigh out and mix flour and salt
Mix warm water, sugar and yeast, leave 10 minutes or so until foamy
Combine wet and dry mixes and knead until you have an elastic dough. then leave to rise
While the dough is rising, make your filling. If using a hard cheese, start by grating it, then beat the eggs and combine them with the cheese(s) to form a paste.
Cut the dough into six pieces (it’s probably a good idea to weigh these out to ensure they’re all the same)
On a floured surface, roll a piece out into as thin a circle or rectangle as you can manage. Transfer the circle of dough onto a large plate or other surface, and brush with a thin later of oil until the surface is covered. Repeat for the other pieces, stacking the circles on top of each other.
And now the tricky part of the recipe: take your first circle of dough and transfer it to your original surface, stretching it with your fingers as far as you dare without tearing it. Take a sixth of your filling, spread it into a sausage the length of one end of a circle of dough, then roll it up into a cylinder. Now form the cylinder into a spiral and transfer to a baking tray lined with baking paper or parchment.
When you formed all six plăcinte, leave them to prove
Brush with beaten egg
Bake at 180℃ fan (mine took around 20 minutes, but your oven may differ: I get the distinct impression that mine runs hotter than most.
Finally, here are some photos at various stages of the process:
“If you only visited Shanghai, you would leave thinking that China is undoubtedly bound for greatness.” After a day and a couple of nights in the last city of our brief tour, I can’t sum it up any better than Rob Gifford, who had been a China expert for decades when he wrote his superb travelogue China Road in 2008. You can’t help but be swept up in the sheer brash optimism of the place, the bright lights, the bustling crowds, the sense of boundless opportunity.
Shanghai reeks of the scent of money being made. In any restaurant of mid-price range and up, you’ll see mixed groups of Westerners and Chinese, most usually businesspeople stitching deals together – or, more accurately, lest we forget that business isn’t simply a series of deals, simply getting on with managing their joint ventures. A typical snippet of conversation, overheard in a decidedly not-top-end dumpling restaurant, was this vote of thanks from a German accented man to his Chinese hosts: “thank you for facilitating this construction project, both by official and unofficial means.” In our brief stay, without making any particular efforts at an inventory, we came across a chemical engineer, a conference organiser, executives from the automotive and semiconductor industries.
The most obvious manifestation of Shanghai’s go-get-em atmosphere is the city lights, and the best place to see them is from somewhere high on the Bund, the former trading area of the foreign concessions (we were at the smart Sky Bar on the roof of the somewhat elderly-looking Roosevelt Hotel, but I’m sure there were dozens of other possible places). The neon glitters and dazzles for kilometres each side of the Huangpu River, much of it in building-sized animations: a meteor shower here, a moving figure there, the “Welcome to Shanghai” slogans on top of the 632 metre Shanghai Tower (the second tallest in the world). On Nanjing Road, the city lights are of a different kind: kilometres of high end retail, the ground floor lights spilling opulence onto the pavements, the product images on the upper floors blazing out their consumerist messages, the quality of the photography up to the highest international standards. And the shops get as high end as the proprietors can manage, from the “Starbucks Reserve Roastery” (I assume some superior form of Starbucks) to the Maserati dealership.
But the busy, get-on-with-it atmosphere shows up in improbable places. The Jing’an Buddhist Temple isn’t particularly venerable, but it’s large and thriving, with new buildings and new statues added to the extraordinarily beautiful pair of jade buddhas that are its crown jewels (it’s often known as the “Jade Buddha Temple”). It’s also obviously a working monastery: you walk past groups of monks chanting, copying out scriptures, setting up votive incense sticks and generally going about their business. This is 21st century China, however, so you also see them with heads buried in their cellphones – a common complaint that the Chinese older generation make about today’s young people.
The game has winners, losers and people in-between. You may not see many of the losers, but we certainly saw the winners in the restaurant we went to on the Bund, and we talked with one young woman who earns a decent living in her adequate day job, but who dreams of being a businesswoman and is unsure how to climb the career ladder. We met another in-betweener in hilariously scary circumstances, when our Chinese Uber-equivalent failed to show up, so our guide hailed a public taxi. The driver confessed that this was his first day driving a cab, and it can’t have been many days into his driving career, as he barely had clutch control of the car, stalling several times in our 40 minute journey. He was clearly terrified of the fairly aggressive lane-changing tactics needed for the Shanghai rush hour, with our guide coaching him on which lane to change into as we went. But we arrived at our show in time (albeit only just), and if he doesn’t crash his taxi, he’ll probably be fine in a month’s time. I certainly hope so.
Broadly, it must be said, the transport infrastructure seems to work. The big expressways make traffic relatively OK during normal times, while the rush hour is no worse than, say, London or New York. Parking is thin on the ground, but not the disaster it is in Beijing. One local complained to us that to save fuel, the maglev train to the airport doesn’t run at full speed except in peak hours – it runs at “only” 300 km/h, the speed of the bullet trains. And once again, I can’t help being struck by the fact that things work. The airport is well laid out, the immigration and security systems run as smoothly as you could imagine: you cannot escape the contrast of the experience to that of the London airports, with their abysmal layout optimised for shopping, not flying, or of Los Angeles, with its random disorganisation and its casual disregard for passenger inconvenience.
Shanghai still has things you won’t easily find elsewhere. The food really is great, from the restaurants to the moon cake vendors (the term “moon cake” here seems to mean anything that’s baked and round, whether savoury or sweet: the pork moon cake we had was like the flakiest, most mouth-watering sausage roll I’ve ever had). The acrobatics show at the end of our novice taxi driver’s journey was a dazzling display of strength and precision body control. The “free silk factory tour” was an effective fifteen minute zoom through the process of how silk goes from worm to garment (vegetarians look away, because the silkworms do die in the process). However, it was free only if you had the strength to ignore the bewildering array of silk garments, bedding and other products in the huge showroom behind. I don’t imagine that many people do: we certainly didn’t. The posh hotels are super hi-tech: we heard from one traveller who ordered a room service coffee and was astonished when his room bell rang and he opened the door to a robot, which dutifully brought the coffee into his room, left it on his table and departed.
Will China become truly great? The picture that Shanghai paints is of a country that will continue its break-neck pace of progress out of poverty and become a beacon of prosperity for the world. Or will China implode from the contradictions of its sclerotic, corruption-ridden political system, or from the sheer size of the environmental challenges it faces? I don’t think anyone can be sure, but I’ll point you again in the direction of Rob Gifford, who explores the question thoroughly and thoughtfully in China Road. Broadly, we’ve only seen the good bits of China on our travels, so I can’t really judge. But after reading a decent amount about China and seeing it at close quarters for the first time, I understand a huge amount more about the country, and particularly how much of what it does is an inevitable consequence of its history. It’s been fascinating, and I’d like to be optimistic.
The river Li, in Guangxi province, meanders gently through a bountiful land: a land filled with rice, water chestnuts, kumquats, oranges, long beans, taro and dozens of other crops. When you see a field being hoed before planting, the soil itself seems to invite you to grasp its richness. The backdrop to this fertility is of the most dramatic kind: tens of thousands of sheer limestone peaks, all but the most vertical overhangs covered in lush green forest.
The Li valley isn’t the only karst formation in the world, and it’s by no means the only beautiful river valley in China. But its combination of lush fertility and the extraordinary backdrop is perhaps unique: certainly unique enough to be printed billions of times on the country’s 20 yuan banknote and to attract throngs of tourists – nearly 30 million a year, 90% of them from the rest of China. Maybe it’s something spiritual that attracts them: if you’ve spent time in Asia, you’ll understand that when you see the lush green of a paddy field, the stems groaning with rice waiting to be harvested, there’s a deep, visceral feeling that all’s well with the world.
In point of fact, not everything is well with the world. All that lush produce is coming from smallholdings and the need to keep food prices low for a burgeoning urban population means, as it has often done through history, that farmers barely earn enough to feed themselves: most farming families require other sources of income. There are government subsidies, but in spite of the huffing and puffing from both Donald Trump and Barack Obama before him, they sound painfully low to me: our guide told us that a mu of land near Guilin, Guangxi’s capital, will attract just 100 yuan (in English: the subsidy for an acre is £67), although subsidies in the famous rice terraces of Longqi attract up to 100 times that, since they are expensive to farm and rightly considered a priceless tourist attraction. And while Guilin and Yangshuo (the town at the other end of the most popular Li River cruise route) look bustling and prosperous, you still catch snatches of underdevelopment and poverty: Yangshuo’s main food market was packed with wonderful fresh fruit and vegetables, but hygiene standards were indifferent. In another Yangshuo market, just before opening time, I saw a number of women crouched among the refuse sacks, reclaiming the contents of half-eaten lunch boxes: one hopes it was for animal feed, but I felt alarmingly uncertain.
The truth is, though, that these are isolated instances in what looks like an improving picture. The main food streets are incredibly busy, which attests to tourist money flowing into the local economy: there are lots of specialities made with local produce, amongst which the large scale hand-chopping of chilies, garlic and ginger into the fiery pickled paste beloved by Guangxi foodies is a delightful sight. Local young people say that their parents and especially grandparents are continually enjoining them to appreciate what they have, compared to the incredible levels of hardship those grandparents had to survive. And it’s become possible to leave government service to be an entrepreneur: we bought tea from a former English teacher who had become fed up with the ten hour working days and low pay and had joined his family in setting up what appeared to be a successful tea business (before he retrained as a tea master, he confessed, none of them had any prior experience). At Guilin’s “Elephant Trunk Hill”, the stall renting traditional dress for children to pose in photos was doing a steady trade. Elephant Trunk Hill, by the way, gets lit up at night in spectacular fashion, with constantly changing colours.
The name Guilin (桂林), by the way, means “Osmanthus forest” – the second kanji character is delightfully pictorial. No, I hadn’t heard of the Osmanthus tree either before I came here, but it’s a dark leaved thing which provides masses of tiny yellow flowers which are incredibly aromatic and make a delicious tea.
One of the signs of increasing prosperity is a kind of slow motion building boom. Most rural families aspire to a bigger and better home. They have enough land to build one on their plot, but they’re short of ready cash to buy building materials: whenever they get a bit of spare cash, they plough it into the next step of building their new home. As a result, you see large numbers of part-finished houses, anywhere from concrete shells with no walls yet through to places that are obviously being lived in but still need work. Another impressive sight is watching a rice paddy being blitzed by a kind of miniature combine harvester: it’s only a tiny thing, not much over a couple of metres in length, but it powers through a small rice field leaving a pile of stalks behind, arriving at the end of its trip to disgorge its pickings into the awaiting farmers’ rice sacks. It bears no comparison with the giant tractor-driven behemoths that you’d see in an English wheat field (let alone its American equivalent), but it’s small, neat and effective.
But setting aside such musings about China’s economy and prospects, the main impression that Guangxi on one is the extraordinary beauty of its scenery. As someone with pretensions to being a serious photographer, I normally spend my life looking around a landscape looking for a good angle. Here in the Li River valley, the lovely slow-flowing river and those amazing karst pinnacles mean that you can stand somewhere and pivot full circle with a good angle for a stunningly framed shot in almost any direction you look. If this place isn’t on your bucket list yet, it should be.