Sunday, 24 February 2013


Bagels under kitchen paper
...because Dan has them every morning for breakfast and I wanted to see if I could.

The recipe I used is from The Bread Baker's Apprentice and there's a good account of bagels being made from this recipe on the excellent amateur bakers' website, The Fresh Loaf - although I take issue with the writer's jaunty exclamation of how easy it is to make them. There are seven processes and the whole thing takes two days. Which is bonkers - though I did manage it. (My thanks to Marian Binkley - anthropologist and superior baker - for steering me towards this recipe.)

I'm not going to write down the whole method as it's on The Fresh Loaf. Instead, I thought I'd fill in one or two gaps between this and the description in the original book, and add my own commentary of how it went - which was not all according to plan.

Both the book and the website are American so, before the commentary, there's a UK-friendly ingredients list. (Does anybody else wonder how US cup measurements work? There's never any guide to exactly how much they should contain. Do you round a cup measurement? Or should they be level? And if there is no definitive answer, are American bakers more skilful than British ones? Or do they just use witchcraft?)  Thankfully, the book had ounce measurements as well as cups, so I was able to convert them easily.

3.5g (1 teaspoon) fast-action yeast
510g strong white bread flour
550ml (1 pint) water at room temperature

1.5g (half a teaspoon) fast-action yeast
490g strong white bread flour
20g salt
1 tablespoon malt extract (or honey, or brown sugar)

To finish
1 tablespoon bicarbonate of soda
Semolina flour, for dusting
Topping of choice - seeds, salt, minced garlic or onions, etc...
Gloopy sponge

Commentary on The Fresh Loaf method
Process 1
The 'sponge' is the first thing you make. Mix the ingredients in a large bowl, using a whisk until it has formed a thick, smooth, stretchy, gluey batter. Cover the bowl with a tea towel, or cling film, and leave it to stand for 2 hours, during which time it should roughly double in size. It will collapse a bit when you bang the bowl on the tabletop.

Process 2
Dry, heavy dough before kneading
This is the 'dough'. Add 400g of the flour and all the other dough ingredients to the sponge (I used malt extract rather than powder; it reminds me of weekly childhood doses to 'build up my strength'). Then follow The Fresh Loaf in order to mix, add remaining flour and knead. The dough is initially much drier and stiffer than a normal bread dough, but it was silky and pliable, if still quite heavy after 10 minutes' kneading.

Here's me, shaping a bagel
Make the hole  bigger than you
think is sensible
Process 3
Immediately shape into 12 x 125g rolls, then make these into bagel shapes, as described, and cover with damp kitchen paper. Leave to rest for 20 minutes.

Process 4
Once the bagels have rested, lay them on two baking trays lined with oiled greaseproof paper, put each try into a clean plastic bag, and leave to rest for another 20 minutes.

Process 5
Put both trays-in-the-bag in the fridge overnight, where the bagels will rise slowly.

Process 6
Next day, turn on the oven to 250C (500F, gas 9). Bring a large pan of water to boil and follow the instructions given on The Fresh Loaf. Dan and I really enjoyed this bit. There's something ever-so-slightly risky about turning bits of dough in wildly boiling water - especially when you're 9.

At this point, I made several mistakes. Here they are: 
(1) Although I turned over the greaseproof paper on each baking tray (so I got a new layer of oil), I didn't sprinkle it with semolina, thinking the oil alone would be enough. 
(2) I then found it impossible to believe that you should put the just-boiled bagels on the baking try while completely wet. So I patted them dry, particularly the undersides. 
The combination meant that my bagels stuck beautifully to the paper during baking so that I had to spend some time peeling it off the burning hot bagels when they came out of the oven. 

(1) do add semolina, 
(2) do put the completely wet bagels on the baking trays, and
(3) on advice from Marian B, mist the boiled bagels with a little extra water before topping them with your sesame seeds or poppy seeds or herbs or onions or whatever just before they go into the oven (I used sesame seeds on half of mine). Phew!

Process 7
Baking at last! Follow The Fresh Loaf instructions. It's a bit of a faff, but turning the trays round and the heat down does seem to ensure that all the bagels brown evenly. For each tray, I ended up taking the outside four bagels off first and returning the two in the middle to the oven, in order to get them properly brown - and you can imagine how much fun it was, getting the baking-hot outside bagels off the paper they were stuck to quickly enough to put the middle ones back in. Oh yes, there were burned fingers.

Given my wrong-headedness over the semolina and the patting dry, they turned out pretty well. These are not the light fare that we're used to getting in plastic bags from Tesco - they are serious, chewy things that would keep you going for most of the day. Dan liked them a lot. My north-London Jewish husband says they remind him of the bagels he had in childhood - and Marian B thought they were OK too, if a little squat (that'll be the patting dry). Toasted, I found that they tasted rather more like a crumpet than a modern bagel. 

So, nice. But I'm not sure quite nice enough to fanny around this much, at least not often.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Vanilla bread

The finished loaf
There are only two sweet flavours that Dan likes. The first is chocolate - which led us to the chocolate teabread invention. The second, as you will have guessed, is vanilla. It's not a passion that I share - panettone is evil in baked form. But Dan is the ideas man on this blog, so time for me to just shush and get on with being the kitchen slave.

The recipe we came up with was a complete shot in the dark. I intended to adapt a recipe for buttermilk bread - yogurt being similar in character, I'm told - but the only recipes I liked the look of were for soda bread and I didn't want my first attempt with that style to be an invention. So I just made this up, using the usual quantities of butter, yeast and salt for a 500g basic white bread, and adding yogurt and milk until the dough felt about right.

Dan's Thumbometer
1. Double yum when fresh
2. Hmmmm after a day
500g strong white bread flour
30g butter, softened
10g salt
10g fast-action yeast
450g pot low-fat vanilla yogurt
1 vanilla pod
25ml semi-skimmed milk
1 egg, beaten

Score the vanilla pod lengthways through into the middle. Open the skin and remove the seeds by scraping them out with a knife. Add the seeds to the yogurt in the pot, and give it a good stir.

Place the dry ingredients and the butter in a bowl, as for the basic white bread. Add the yogurt and mix the contents of the bowl with your hand, using a circular movement. (You'll see from the video of my hands going into the mix that I didn't relish the prospect, though it wasn't quite as icky as I expected. You'll also notice that I was already talking when Dan started the film, going on pointlessly about something - the modern equivalent of all those childhood photos I took of my mum in mid flow, her mouth open, her look intent.) If the mix is too dry, add some milk, a little at a time, until all the dry ingredients have been picked up.

From here, follow the kneading and rising instructions for the basic white bread. (At this stage I was a bit worried that I'd added too much milk, as there was a lot of cratering on the surface of the dough, see above left.) Once the dough has risen for two hours, knock the air out, shape the dough into a round and place it on a baking tray lined with lightly oiled greaseproof paper. (There was no more cratering at this stage, see above right.) Place the tray inside a clean plastic bag and leave the dough to prove for an hour, then glaze with beaten egg and slash with a cross before baking in the oven set at 200C (400F, gas 6) for half an hour.

Cratered dough before first rise
Smooth dough ready for proving

Fresh bread
Much to my surprise, given the cratering in the original dough, this worked incredibly well. The finished bread is a brioche-style loaf that is especially lovely toasted. The vanilla flavour is not overpowering but is definitely there. I agree with Dan's double yum.

A day or so later
Hmmm, as Dan says. I noticed that he wasn't asking to eat the bread at every possible moment - which has been the case with all the previous inventions. So I asked him what he thought again, and he gave it the lower rating. Again, I agree with him. Although it is not at all stale, the toasted bread had become rather cakey and heavy. When I make this again, it will be a smaller loaf for immediate eating.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Chocolate teabread

There won't be many sweetened breads on this blog - and there will be none with fruit. Dan's sweet tooth never grew in and, as far as he's concerned, fruit is the work of the devil. What can I say, he's a savoury kind of guy. ('Not all fruits,' he's just said. 'All fruits except bananas and grapes. Although not all bananas. I don't like them when they're bruised.) Anyhow ... chocolate is an interesting beast because it satisfies both sweet and savoury, and Daniel absolutely adores it. So, the need for a chocolate bread was inevitable.

The finished loaf 
(flour not icing sugar on top - terrible light, bad camera; hey ho)

I based this recipe on a milk loaf because I thought it would provide a nice rounded, slightly sweet background for the dark chocolate. A milk loaf replaces water in the dough with milk, and is good with a bit of added sugar. Here's the teabread recipe.

470g strong white bread flour
30g cocoa powder
30g butter, softened
10g fast-action yeast
10g salt
25g caster sugar
320ml semi-skimmed milk, tepid
125g chocolate, roughly chopped - either all dark (not the really heavy stuff, just 35% cocoa solids - Bourneville the best for this) or equal proportions of dark, milk and white

Shaped dough ready to prove
Make the dough using the same method as for basic white bread, adding the cocoa powder with the flour; the sugar with the salt on one side of the bowl; and incorporating the warm milk a little at a time at the end. As ever, you may not need it all or you may need a little more to get the right slightly grainy and just-a-bit-moist feeling. Knead the dough in the usual way (see film) and set aside for two hours.

Spread the chopped chocolate on a flat surface and, once you've punched the air out of the dough, knead it in until all the chunks are fully incorporated. Some bits may keep falling off, but if you stick them on and they will be engulfed by the dough as it proves. Leave it to do so for an hour, flouring and slashing the dough after half an hour, as usual, and turning on the oven to 200C (400F, gas 6).

Completely, utterly delicious. In fact, I think Dan could have done with three thumbs for this. It's like a bready cross between chocolate cake and pain au chocolat, but with far less of the fat and sugar.

Dan's Thumbometer- double yum
Dan liked it with butter and Marmite(!). I liked it toasted (NOT in the toaster) and eaten hot with lots of butter. It's called 'teabread' because the combination of toasted sweetish bread with salty butter reminded me of a toasted English teacake.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Cabbage, bacon and onion focaccia

Don't ask me how it happened, but Dan likes cabbage. He likes it so much that he chose it as the subject of our next invention. Actually, that's a big lie, because I know precisely how the cabbage-liking thing happened. We punched it up with onions, bacon and chicken stock until Dan (and big brother Eddie) had grown such a love of the dish that even naked cabbage is now met with enthusiasm.
Dan's Thumbometer - Double yum

But we decided against nakedness for this invention, and have gone back to the best-loved ingredients. Use the focaccia bread recipe, but leave out the sea salt and herbs, and replace them with the following extras.

Special topping
3 large leaves savoy cabbage, shredded
one large onion, finely sliced
2 rashers streaky bacon, finely chopped
200ml chicken stock
olive oil, for frying

For the bread, follow the focaccia bread recipe all the way to making dimples in the risen and proved dough. (Note: Although this dough is meant to be quite sloppy to begin with, the one I made this time was initially too wet, due to over-enthusiastic adding of water. I brought it back to what felt about right during the initial kneading by carefully adding flour, half a teaspoon at a time. But I don't think I added quite enough, as the dough was still a bit sticky by dimpling stage (see film). Even so, the bread worked well enough.)

As the stretched dough proves in the final hour, prepare the topping, making sure to leave enough time for the cooked ingredients to cool before being sprinkled on the dimpled dough. There are three steps to the topping.
(1) Put the stock in a small pan and heat to boiling. Add the cabbage and simmer for five minutes. Drain the cabbage and leave in the sieve to drain off any remaining liquid.
(2) Heat a little olive oil in a pan and fry the onion on a low heat for 10 to 15 minutes, covering the pan with a lid or some greaseproof paper. When they are done, the onions should be caramelised and sweet, with as little browning as possible. Put aside to cool.
The raw...
(3) Using the same pan, add a very little more oil and fry the bacon until just crisp. Drain off as much oil as you can, and add the bacon to the onion to cool.

When you have made dimples in the focaccia dough, scatter the ingredients evenly over the surface. Depending on the shape of your bread, you may not have room for it all.

...and the cooked
Well, I thought this was a real candidate for our first disaster, but it turned out OK. The bread rose and browned well under the topping. It was a little too oily for me, but had a good flavour and Dan is very happy with it indeed. (I'm beginning to suspect that he might be a little biased, but then what 9-year-old boy would care about a bit of oil? And like I said, it did taste good.)

If you've ever had 'seaweed' at the local Chinese, the flavour of the baked cabbage will be familiar - for that is all the 'seaweed' is. I didn't add all the topping ingredients as I thought they might stop the bread from cooking properly, but I think it would have been OK and the flavour would have been even better with more. Next time, I think I might use sea salt instead of bacon - because it was responsible for at least some of the oil - although a certain amount of oiliness will always come with focaccia anyway.