Friday, 30 November 2012

Pimp your porridge for St Andrew's Day

Today, in case you've missed it, which is entirely possible, is St Andrew's Day, so in celebration of the occasion, I'm doing a Scottish breakfast. I could of course have gone in several directions here. Scotland is arguably the spiritual home of breakfast - Dundee marmalade, Arbroath smokies, Loch Fyne kippers, oatmeal porridge, heather honey, Stornoway black pudding, you name it, and breakfast-wise, the Scots are probably right on it. But today it's freezing outside so there's really only one place to go, and that is porridgeville.

I was reading a funny post by Claire over at the Crumbs blog the other week about how she feels she's a middle-class pariah because she doesn't like porridge. And it's certainly true that the humble oat has made a big comeback in recent years. You can hardly move in the cereal aisle now for variations on the oat-based cereal - rolled oats, oatmeal, oat bran, oats in clusters, oats in flakes, oats in bix (the less said about Oatibix the better- whoever invented that needs a good talking to. Bleuch.), porridge in individual pots with honey/blueberries/raspberries/apples/cinnamon/you name it. And let's  not forget my own childhood favourite Ready-Brek - 'Central Heating For Kids' - which now looks to me uncannily like dandruff. And that's before we even get started on the muesli shelves. But on a cold winter's day, it really has to be back to basics - a steaming bowl of porridge. My grandfather was brought up in the early years of the last century in a West Highland crofting family, and I was regaled from an early age with tales of him being sent off to school (no doubt barefoot...) across the hills with a slice of porridge in his pocket to last him a few days. I have no idea if any of it was true, but what is true is that porridge was, and still is for many, a staple of the Scottish diet.

The basic recipe, as any true Scot will tell you, involves oatmeal rather than rolled 'porridge' oats, salt and water and a bowl of cream on the side. F Marion McNeill, in the wonderful old Scottish book The Book of Breakfasts, tells us that 'a Scot nearly always declines porridge outside of Scotland' whilst also admitting that even here in Scotland, porridge is often not what it was. She blames modern milling and storage methods, and tells us that when she was a child (she was born in Orkney in 1885) the meal was poured into a meal chest and the children were stood on the top and told to tramp it down until it was tightly packed for storage.

She gives this recipe:


oatmeal  salt  water

Allow for each person a breakfastcupful [a wha'?] of water, a handful of oatmeal, and a small saltspoonful of salt. Use fresh spring water, and preferably, home milled-meal, coarsely ground. Bring the water to the boil, and just as it approaches boiling point, add the oatmeal, letting it fall in a steady rain from the left hand whilst you stir it briskly with a spurtle (porridge-stick) or wooden spoon. When the porridge is boiling steadily, draw the pot to the side and put on the lid. Let it cook for 20-30 minutes, according to the quality of the oatmeal. Let it cook for at least ten minutes before you add the salt, which has a tendency to harden the meal and prevent its swelling if added at once. On the other hand, never cook porridge without salt. Ladle straight into cold porringers or soup-plates, and serve with a small individual bowl of rich milk or thin cream. Each spoonful of porridge should be dipped and cooled in the milk or cream before being conveyed to the mouth.

Note: Children often like a layer of sugar, honey, syrup or treacle, or of raw oatmeal. A morsel of butter in the centre of the plate agrees with some digestions better than milk.
Porter, skeachan, and brisk small beer used to be popular accompaniments to porridge.
Porridge may be made with milk or whey instead of water, and with barley meal or wheaten meal instead of oatmeal."
Translation for sassenachs:
Porringer (this one's quite posh)
A spurtle

Now, I think we can make several assumptions here. First up, I'm assuming that most of you don't have the wherewithal to grind your own oatmeal. Or indeed the inclination. I'm also going to hazard a guess that you don't drink porter with your breakfast. I suspect that it is also a bit more difficult to get hold of decent oatmeal in England than it is here, where every supermarket sells oatmeal in different grades.You're looking for coarse or pinhead oatmeal to do it in the traditional way, and you should be able to get it in a health food store if your local supermarket is not forthcoming. Mr Breakfast, regular readers may remember, maintains that steel-cut oats are the absolute best, but they aren't easy to come by in the shops, and if you're going to be as obsessive as him you may need to go online to get them.

Secondly, I think most people are a little less puritanical in their breakfast habits these days. I actually prefer my porridge made with water too, but I think I'm probably a bit of an oddity in this respect and that most people probably use milk, or a mixture of milk and water to make their porridge.

And finally, most people are more than happy to add all sorts of wonderful things to their porridge to make it a little more interesting. When I mentioned to a few people that I was writing this post, I was given some lovely ideas for fancying up your porridge. Here are a few of them:

Alison at Alison's Garden loves porridge for breakfast. As you'll see from her blog, she's outdoors in all weathers, so she starts the day with 'organic jumbo oats with added oat bran, cooked with water, finished with a liberal sprinkling of cinnamon & fresh fruit'. Yum.

Bikelights in the Fruit Bowl has posted her 'super-magic porridge' recipe. I've never heard of adding ground almonds to porridge, but what a great idea - it sounds delicious. I'm sure Ms McNeill would throw up her hands in horror at the thought, but hey. That's progress. Constant process improvement, as they say in the big bad world of business.

For porridge cheats, one of my friends highly recommends Dorset Cereals Proper Gingerbread Porridge. And she's a proper highlander, so I figure she should know her oats from her onions. It has pieces of gingerbread and dates in it and it does sound good - ginger is always great for warming you up on a cold morning and the combination of dates and ginger sounds like a winner to me. Being a cheapskate, I'm wondering how this could be done in a homemade way, without having to actually, you know, make  gingerbread. Ginger essence? Ground ginger? Hmm. I feel an experiment coming on.

Another Scot, Rachael at Tales from the Village, tells me that she likes hers made with milk and brown sugar, which is exactly how my Scottish mum used to make mine when I was little. I loved the way the brown sugar went all fudgy and would eat my way carefully around the brown blob in the middle so that I could save that bit for last.

Nowadays, we usually have ours fairly simply. Firstborn likes a banana thinly sliced into his as it's cooking, so that it melts away into the porridge and just leaves it all 'bananary'. He then likes a wee swirl of maple syrup on top (and cream if  he can get away with it). As an alternative, he'll accept a handful of raisins thrown in as the porridge is cooking.

So, how do you eat yours? However you like it, Ith gu leĆ²ir, and Happy St Andrews Day!

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Chocolate for breakfast

I've been inspired by the Kitchn blog's '5 ways to eat chocolate for breakfast' post. Delicious as they all sound (apart from Nutella, I can live without Nutella quite happily), it seems to me that they've forgotten the absolute best way to eat chocolate at breakfast, the pain au chocolat.

Now, obviously, making them yourself is a faff, there's no 2 ways about it. But I've made croisssant dough in my bread machine before with great success, and pain au chocolat is essentially croissant dough with added chocolate, so that does take some of the palaver away. Admittedly, you still have the malarkey with the butter and the folding and the chilling, but if you have an evening with nothing much to do then you can make the pastries, chill them overnight, then bring to room temperature and bake in the morning. I promise you that despite the time involved they are quite easy, and think of the payoff: warm pastries, big mug of coffee/tea, weekend papers? Bliss.

<ignores small children whirling round house>

The main secret is to keep chilled.Your ingredients need to keep cool so that the butter doesn't melt too readily, or they'll end up a bit more bready, and less flaky and delicious.

You can freeze the pains once they are made, before cooking, for up to 6 months. Take them out the night before you need them, lay out on a baking tray covered with a plastic bag overnight, then glaze and bake in the morning. So, you don't have to eat them allinonego. Though obviously, that possibility remains open to you.

Pains au chocolat - bread machine method

300g white bread flour
1/2 tsp quick yeast
1 tsp caster sugar
25g butter (wait though...)
1/2 tsp salt
150ml water
1 egg

when rolling the dough:
150g butter

A bar of good quality dark chocolate

Notes: Most croissant recipes don't use an egg in the dough. I haven't tried it without, but it's certainly possible to make them without an egg.
You can make these without a bread machine, but a freestanding mixer would be good as the dough needs to be good and silky before you roll it out.


1. Make the croissant dough as per bread machine instructions, following the usual order of ingredients for your machine.

2. Roll out the dough into a rectangle, approx 20x25cms

3. Divide the butter into three portions. Dot one portion over the top 2/3 of the dough. Fold the bottom third up over it and then fold the top 1/3 down over the top. Turm the dough a quarter turn. Many recipes use more butter than this and roll out the whole quantity of butter between sheets of cling film. The sight of a large slabby sheet of butter like that is too much for me. I think I'd just go and buy them instead so that I could ignore the butter content.

4. Roll out again into an oblong , dot the 2nd portion of butter over the top 2/3 as before and fold again as before. Make another 1/4 turn and repeat with the last portion of butter. Cover the dough and put it in the fridge for at least 30 minutes to rest.

5. Repeat the rolling and folding three more times, then rest dough for 30 minutes.

6. Roll out the dough into a large rectangle and divide into 4 smaller rectangles. Cut each rectangle into two long triangles. Place a couple of squares of chocolate along the wide end of the triangle then roll up the dough loosely. Place on a greased baking tray with the pointed end of the triangle on the underneath. Cover and allow to prove until doubled in size. Brush with beaten egg.

7. Bake in a hot oven at 225C for about10-15 mins until golden brown and crispy.

 Do you have a favourite way of eating choclate at breakfast? I'm thinking of a couple more ideas that I'll share one my ideas are fully formed, but in the meantime, if you have any ideas, I'd love to hear them.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Thanksgiving flapjacks - British style

So, we're British. We may do Halloween US-style, but we draw the line at Thanksgiving. I'll have no marshmallow-topped sweet potato in this house, thankyouverymuch. But in a spirit of transatlantic bonhomie, I wanted to make something for breakfast with an American flavour. I've plumped for flapjacks, with cranberries and blueberries. Now, I believe that when I say 'flapjack', an American will actually think of something quite different from what I have in mind - some sort of pancake? I'm not sure, but anyway, this is the British take on a flapjack, with the addition of the berries that I most closely associate with the US.

Now, I say these are breakfast flapjacks. To be honest though, I'd really only eat them for a breakfast on the hoof, on those desperate-for-carbs-but-no-time-to-eat days. Or possibly if today were a national holiday of some sort... I tried for years without success to make flapjacks that resembled the chewy, sticky ones my mum used to make. I've finally got there, but I'm afraid the results do not make happy reading for any dentists out there. The sugar and syrup are not exactly tooth-friendly, and there is a lot of butter in them too. But they are rather good, if I say so myself. I can convince myself that anything involving oats is health food, and blueberries are a superfood, so they are practically oozing with goodness when you think about it.

Cranberry and blueberry flapjacks

175g unsalted butter
175g golden syrup
175g light muscovado sugar
300g rolled oats
25g dried cranberries
25g dried blueberries
finely grated rind of 1/2 lemon

Notes: If you don't have light muscovado, a soft brown sugar would also work, but will make a slightly lighter flapjack.
Try to use good quality rolled oats - I find that some of the cheaper 'porridge oats' tend to be a bit dusty.
The dried blueberries and cranberries can usually be found with the raisins, sultanas etc in the supermarket. The ones I used are labelled 'dried and sweetened'. I haven't tried it with unsweetened berries, or fresh berries. I'd imagine that unwseetened blueberries might be OK, but cranberries are very tart. Although with all that sugar and syrup, that may not be such a bad thing. You could use all blueberries or all cranberries if you prefer, or another dried fruit such as raisins.
The lemon rind can be ommitted, but it helps to cut through the sweetness a little.

1. Preheat oven to 150C (140C for fan ovens). Line a square baking tin (about 25cm square, but slightly bigger or smaller is fine) with baking parchment
2. Melt the butter, then brush a little of this on the baking paper before adding the syrup and sugar to the butter in the pan and warming until the sugar dissolves.
3. Remove from the heat and stir in the rest of the ingredients.
4. Put the mixture in the tin and squash down a little to level the surface.
5. Bake for about 35-40 minutes until golden brown. The mixture will still be a bit sticky and bubbly-looking, but this will set once it's out of the oven.
6. Leave in the tin for 15 minutes or so, then remove and cut into squares.

Couldn't be easier!

Even if we don't celebrate Thanksgiving, it's always good to have an opportunity to stop and think about the good things that have happened this year, especially when 2012 has been a bit of a doozy for bad news in this family. So, along with the usual family/friends/good health etc, today I'm giving thanks for the following two things that have improved my life, particularly the kitchen-based parts of it, over the last year:

Easy-cut cling film. I cannot tell you how infuriated it makes me to lose the end of the cling film at 7.30am when I'm trying to get the packed lunches done. That awful sinking feeling when it peels off half a width and you just know you're in for a half hour of trying to find the end and the bit where the tear ends. But no more!

The person who invented this needs a knighthood, or a Nobel Peace Prize (well, if 'Europe' can win one, then why not easy-cut cling film wo/man?). It's a blimmin marvel.

My laundry pulley. The downside of living in the west of Scotland is that the weather is, quite frankly, dreadful. It rains a lot. My mum, who grew up in Aberdeen, and so really should know better, is always telling me that it's not that much worse than it is in south-east England where she now lives. Yeah, right mum. The climate means that outdoor drying is one of those things you do once in a blue moon, and then spend the rest of the day nervously twitching the curtains. I have a drier but y'know, not very green and all that, and also expensive to run.

The upside of living in the west of Scotland, however, is that you are quite likely to live in a house with great high ceilings, just begging for a laundry pulley. We had one in our old flat and I really missed it when we moved here about 5 years ago, so I'd been thinking about getting a new one ever since and finally got round to it this year. And hurrah. A load of washing on, up and out of the way, and dried in a few hours. The drier is hardly ever on and I am ridiculously, almost Stepford-wifely, pleased with it.

A note of caution, however. The rope on ours broke, and so I pootled over to Amazon in search of a replacement. The things that 'customers who were looking at this rope also looked at' would make you blush. Artificial dog poo and how-to books on Japanese bondage featured heavily, though I am not sure if it was the same customers looking at both. *mind boggles*

Happy holidays y'all!

Monday, 19 November 2012

The Magnificent Tunnock's

Tunnock's (and the apostrophe is intended, grammar fans), for the uninitiated, is a Scottish institution. Generations of Scottish school children have trotted off to school with a Tunnock's Caramel Wafer in their lunch box, and tea with a Tunnock's Teacake is a regular ritual for many a Scot.

I've been desperate to go and see the factory in Uddingston ever since I read about it in this book, (a great choice if you're looking for a quirky guide to Scotland, by the way). And today I finally got my chance. The company is still very much family-owned, and they are kindly donating some teacakes and wafers to our school Christmas Fair this year.  So, I jumped at the chance to go and collect them and get behind the doors of the factory. Yippee! I was beside myself with excitement.

And let me tell you, it is a proper biscuit factory - just what you'd expect from reading Roald Dahl. I only made it as far as reception (the waiting list for the factory tour is a year long), but it was full of lovely friendly staff and had the most insanely brilliant display cases, full of wee models made out of various Tunnock's biscuits.

Here is a helicopter made of teacakes:

Here is Andy Murray in caramel wafer form:

And here, for some inexplicable reason, is a cat with a teacake on its head.

Across the road there is a bakery (which apparently runs at a loss, but they just like having it), with a little tea room in the back selling the usual cafe fare, along with the whole Tunnock's range - including all sorts of exotica that you don't usually see in the supermarket (Florida orange wafers, Meringues, and Cream Wafers for example) as well as the better-known Caramel Logs and Wafers, Snowballs and Teacakes. The front window is stuffed with yet more of the strange little models. It is one of the most wonderfully eccentric places I have ever been, and cheered up an extremely wet Monday morning.

I was a little late for breakfast at the cafe today, but the tea was proper builder's tea (see the picture atthe top), and the presence of bacon rolls on the menu will lure me back very soon. Like I need an excuse. Mug of strong tea, bacon roll, Tunnock's Caramel Log. That there is a pretty perfect breakfast, despite the conspicuous absence of any of my 5-a-day.

Chocolate is more or less a vegetable, no?

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Breakfast - famine or feast?

Photo by Gastev:

I read this brief history of breakfast (and lunch and dinner) on the BBC website this week.

One thing that strikes me is that the Romans still don't really eat breakfast. However fabulous the coffee, standing at the counter in a cafe drinking an espresso isn't breakfast. I dare say a single shot of coffee is all they can afford, judging by the eye-watering prices in Roman cafes the last time I was there.

From the sublime (absence of carbohydrates notwithstanding) to the ridiculous. I have an old history of breakfasts called The Great British Breakfast, and in it is a chapter on typical country house breakfasts. In the 19th century, one Major L published a book called Breakfasts, Luncheons and Ball Suppers, which included numerous menus 'deemed suitable for meals in English country houses'.

'In a country house, which contains probably  a sprinkling of good and bad appetites and digestions, breakfasts should consist of a variety to suit all tastes, viz: fish, poultry or game, if in season; sausages and one meat of some sort, such as mutton cutlets, or fillets of beef; omelettes, and eggs served in a variety of ways; bread of both kinds, white and brown, and fancy bread of as many kinds as can be conveniently served; two or three kinds of jam, orange marmalade, and fruits when in season; and on the side table, cold meats such as ham, tongue, cold game, or game pie, galantines*, and in winter a round of spiced beef of Mr Deague of Derby.'

*A galantine (no, I didn't know either) is a dish of de-boned, stuffed meat, usually poultry or fish, that is poached and served cold, coated with aspic (yeurch).

Suggested delicacies on the menus include Roast Larks, Buttered Eggs aux truffes, Devilled Pheasant and Turbot au Gratin.

Blimey. It's a wonder Lady Edith could get up from the breakfast table, let alone dash off to London to write her newspaper column, all whippet-thin in her flapper dress, if the aristos were still at it by the 1920s.

Oh, and the Victorians were also very partial to a wee snifter over breakfast too. Beer or claret with your cornflakes, anyone?


Friday, 16 November 2012

My new beehive!

With super efficient speed, the BBKA sent my Adopt a Beehive pack (it arrived the very next day) and here are some of the goodies that came with it:

There's even a photo of the bees that I've 'adopted' (you can just about see it on the right of the picture) - I seem to have got a free beekeeper into the bargain - he's called Phil.

Now, you will also notice that I got a pot of honey in the pack, so I've been thinking of something I can make to spread the honey on. It's been a bit of a manic week, and next week's not looking much better, so I'm thinking soda bread.

We once spent a very exciting week in a cottage on a farm in Dumfries and Galloway. Exciting mostly because the farm caught fire on the first night we were there (yeah, see? Told you it was exciting), and MrB was forced to be all manly and go and help the farmer try to contain the fire until the emergency services arrived. You can probably imagine the bitter disappointment of two small boys waking up to discover that they had not only slept through a FIRE, but also through the arrival of a giant red fire engine. They've never quite forgiven us for not waking them up.

Anyway, the upshot of all this excitement was that the fire knocked out the electricity in our cottage for a couple of days, but the lovely farmer's wife kindly kept us supplied with fresh eggs, and soda bread which she'd baked in her Aga. I always associate soda bread with rural living (the Irish connection, I expect), so it seemed very fitting to be handed a lovely warm loaf all wrapped up in a clean tea towel each morning. It really needs to be eaten fresh, so supermarket soda bread is always horribly dry in my experience, and not worth buying. It is, however, an absolute cinch to make, because it doesn't contain yeast, so there's no sitting around waiting for the dough to prove. On the contrary, in fact. Because the bicarbonate of soda (which is what makes it rise) starts to react as soon as the wet ingredients are added, it's best to form the dough and get it into the oven as quickly as you can. So, if you have never made bread, then I urge you to try this.

I fancied a slight twist on a normal soda bread, so I used oats in mine. This is Dan Lepard's recipe from Short and Sweet, as featured in The Guardian. Just the thing for breakfast, with butter and honey, or for lunch with a big chunk of good cheese and a pint, or a bowl of soup, or some smoked fish. The possibilities are endless!

Oh, and by the way, and nothing at all to do with soda bread or honey, I've also just taken delivery of these two handsome fellows, beautifully packaged in little boxes (I'm coming over all Dr Seuss with the foxes and the boxes...) from Mrs Fox's. I can hardly wait to get the Christmas tree now! Their online Christmas shop on Folksy is just lovely - really worth a look.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

I'd like to be, a busy busy bee...

Do you remember dear old Arthur Askey singing The Bee Song?

"Oh what a glorious thing to be, 
A healthy grown up busy busy bee, 
To be a good bee 
One must contrive, 
For bees in a beehive 
Must behive. 
But maybe I wouldn't be a bee, 
Bees are all right when alive, you see, 
But when bees die 
You really should see 'em, 
Pinned on a card 
In a dirty museum."

You may remember that a while ago I posted about honeybees in France producing luridly coloured honey. Since then, I've been reading A World Without Bees by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum, about the decline of honeybees and the threat that this poses, not only to honey production, but also to the pollination of crops around the world. According to the British Beekeepers' Association, one in three of the mouthfuls of food we eat is dependent on pollination, so when you're eating your breakfast, even if there's no honey involved, honeybees almost certainly are.

This year, of course has been even more devastating because of the monumentally lousy summer we had here in the UK. Don't laugh, non-UK readers, this one was really bad, even by British standards. Overall honey production at the end of September was over 70% down on last year, from about 30lbs per hive to only 8lbs. Not only this, but the poor weather is likely to have a longer term impact. Queens mate on the wing on fine summer days (doesn't that sound lovely?), so the poor weather is likely to affect bee numbers next year.

So, what can be done to help save the honeybee? There's not much we can do about the Great British Summer, more's the pity, but there is a need for wider research into the more general decline in honeybee numbers, which have been badly affected by colony collapse disorder and varroa mite, not just here in the UK but in Europe and the US as well. To help fund this, the BBA is offering an Adopt a Beehive gift pack in their online shop. All the proceeds go towards honeybee research and education. For £30 you get to pick a hive and also get:

*A mix of wildflower seeds specially selected from HabitatAid, so that you can create your own bee-friendly patch
* Pocket guide to the honey bee   
* Burt’s Bees lip balm
* 20% off Burt’s Bees voucher  
* Set of  beautiful bee cards  
* Hive Talk – 3 Seasonal newsletters with updates from the Hive   
* Plus your choice of either a  jar of British honey or a  jar of honey mustard

Now, in principle, I am not generally in favour of buying charity donations as gifts. I believe that charity is a personal matter, and buying someone a charity goat seems to me to be more about the giver than the receiver - a bit holier-than-thou. 'You have enough, so I'm going to donate to charity on your behalf. THINK ON, small child'. I don't like that. So, I'm not going to suggest that you all adopt a beehive for your loved ones. Unless they are fanatical bee fans, in which case, go right ahead. However, with Christmas coming, I've just had a L'Oreal moment and adopted myself a hive as an early Christmas present. If you have the means, and are interested in the plight of the honeybee, would you consider making a donation as well?

Monday, 12 November 2012

Bagels - wholly holey homemade bread, part 2

Well, would you believe, making bagels, it turns out, is a. quite easy and b. a roaring success.

First up, the recipe. I consulted various books and websites on this one, and they were all pretty much in accordance with each other on quantities and methods. By the by, I'd like to recommend Claudia Roden's The Book of Jewish Food.  If you are the sort of person, as I am,  who enjoys cookery books as bedtime reading (you know who you are - you have Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries and Nigella's How to Eat on your bedside table, don't you?), then I really recommend this. Claudia Roden is such an evocative writer, and this is a really comprehensive cookery book, but has all sorts of fascinating snippets about the dishes and the traditions associated with them. In the end, I didn't actually use her recipe, which includes an egg, as this is not traditional (as she admits), and I wanted to start with a more basic traditional recipe. But I do recommend it as a good read.

As to quantities, I didn't want a huge batch, as bagels are really best freshly baked (though also very good toasted for a day or so afterwards), so I used 500g bread flour as a starting point. This makes about 10 bagels.

Basic bagels
500g strong white bread flour
5g easy-bake yeast (more or less - a gram or so here and there won't make too much difference to the finished product so don't worry too much)
about 1tbs salt (I tend to use rather less salt than most bread recipes suggest because of the fact that I'm feeding children)
2 tbs/about 20g sugar  (I used caster sugar)
50 ml vegetable/olive oil
250 ml lukewarm water

To finish: 
either 2 tbs malt extract or 1 egg, beaten (see method below for details)
poppy seeds and/or sesame seeds (optional)

1. My first confession here - I used a breadmaker to make the dough. I don't often use mine for baking bread, because I'm not mad about the big square shape of the loaves it makes, but they are great for making dough - just bung everything in and leave it for a couple of hours to mix and prove. Then skip to stage 3 below. However, if you don't have a machine, never fear - a mixer with a dough hook, or indeed your bare hands will do just fine! If you're using a breadmaker, just follow the maker's instructions for dough - on my Panasonic machine, you put in the ingredients yeast-first, though I believe some machines work differently. The setting on mine is 'basic - dough'. 

 If you're not using a machine, you'll need to knead the dough (ie using all the ingredients in the first section above) for a good 10 mins or longer - you want a nice smooth dough.

TIP: my Kenwood Chef has a metal bowl, and when I'm making yeast doughs in it, I always give it a wash in hot water before I start so that the bowl is nice and warm when I put in the ingredients - this gives the dough a good start.

2. Cover the bowl with cling film and leave to prove for an hour or so - it should double in size.

3. Knock back the dough and give it another quick knead. Then divide the dough into about 10 pieces. My kitchen elves helped with this next part: roll out each piece into a fat sausage and then wet one end and join the ends together to make a ring, squashing the ends down to seal them. I then spent a little time tweaking to get them looking nice(ish). Place the bagels on an oiled tray. Cover the tray with a cloth/clean tea towel and leave to prove again for about 30 minutes, until doubled in size again. Alternatively, you can form the bagels into little buns to prove and then carefully make a hole in them and leave them for another 10 minutes before the next stage. In retrospect, this would probably make a more 'perfect' bagel.

4. While the bagels are proving, heat the oven to 220C and bring a large pan of water to the boil. Now the malt extract - this suggestion is from Nigella Lawson's recipe in Domestic Goddess). If you have malt extract, add a couple of tbs to the cooking water - this will give the bagels a nice authentic-looking glaze. You can also use sugar or honey in the boiling water, or glaze them with beaten egg once they have been boiled instead. Malt extract just makes me feel all motherly, like Kanga in Winnie the Pooh. You can buy it in most chemist's shops if you can't find it at the supermarket.

5. Once the bagels have puffed up, add them to the boiling water in small batches of 2 or 3 and boil hard for a minute on each side, then transfer back to the oiled baking sheet (you may want to re-oil the trays to prevent sticking). Sprinkle with sesame seeds or poppy seeds if you want them.

6. Bake for about 15-20 mins until golden brown on top. Here's the finished article. They don't look like perfect round bagels, but they are nice and shiny on top, and they have at least got a hole in the middle!

Best eaten fresh, but also good toasted. We had ours for lunch with smoked salmon and cream cheese, but you could also make the dough the night before, prove slowly overnight in the fridge and then proceed with forming, poaching and baking in the morning. Or make like a real baker and get up really early.

The verdict? Well, freshly baked bread always goes down well, but these were a big hit. The boys told me 'not bad for a first attempt mum' (praise indeed), but then both demanded seconds, and MrB, the ultimate bagel judge...also came back for more. Oh, and he scarfed the cheesecake too.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Bagels - wholly holey homemade bread (part 1)

Mr B is Jewish. Not practising, more a Woody Allen sort of Jewish that largely seems to involve going to the doctor because he thinks he's got something, being told that he hasn't got it, then telling me that just because he didn't have it when he was at the doctor's being told he didn't have it, that doesn't mean he hasn't got it now.

Now, this poses problems for me (not Jewish) whenever I go anywhere near anything like chicken soup or cheesecake. Firstborn turns 7 this week and has demanded cheesecake instead of birthday cake, so I'm getting my kitchen implements ready in self-defence, and even though I shall follow Nigella Lawson's London Cheesecake recipe to the letter, I have already been told that Philadelphia cheese is not the right sort of cheese at all, to which I respond 'Phooey. Don't eat it then'. He will of course be unable to resist, and all will be well. Considering.

When it comes to bagels, I have *until now* drawn the line at making my own, and we often take a trip to the Jewish deli in Giffnock, the most marvellously named shop in all Glasgow, to get our bagel fix. It's called 'Hello Deli'. I come over all Barbra Streisand when I see it and burst into a spontaneous chorus of 'Don't Rain on My Parade'. If your only experience of bagels is of those branded multi-packs that you can buy in the supermarket, you really should hunt down some proper freshly cooked ones. They really are a different animal.

Being non-Jewish, and growing up in the English countryside in the 70s/80s, I'd never tasted a bagel until I reached adulthood, but since then, I have stored up many happy bagel-related memories. I think the first bagel I ever ate was lox and bagels from an NY diner, with a bottomless cup of coffee - my goodness, that was unthinkable in Britain in 1986! "A wha'? What do you mean 'as many refills as you want'? Are you mad?" How times have changed. New York bagels are supposedly the best - something to do with the water - though I imagine New Yorkers are also extremely good at bigging up their bagels. That was always going to be a hard act to follow, and so it proved to be. I had a job for a few years in a language school in London whose owner was Jewish, and she used to buy us bagels for lunch every day. Unfortunately, she left the filling of these to her Danish au-pair, who was extremely heavy-handed with the salt, to the point where they became almost inedible, and were referred to by the staff as 'The Dead Sea Bagels'. They must have been so buoyant that they could have doubled as lifebelts for drowning mice in an emergency...erm... mouse-drowning situation.

My other London bagel memory is of queuing up for hot bagels from the Brick Lane Beigel Bakery in Spitalfields after a night of clubbing (creeeeaaaak - none of that nowadays). See here for a great blog post and lots of lovely photos of this magnificent London institution. A good freshly-cooked bagel in the middle of a cold winter's night is a thing to bring tears of joy to your eyes. I absolutely command that any visitor to London should go there. It is splendid. In fact, I'm getting all nostalgic for London now. I'll be on Rightmove any minute.

Bagels, because of their circular shape, represent the continuity of life, which seems particularly appropriate at the moment, and not just because it's Remembrance Sunday today. Not only do we have a birthday in the house this week, which always takes me back to lying in the hospital in the middle of the night with my newborn boy, but we seem to be surrounded by death this year. We've lost two close relatives in the past 6 months, and more  going on besides. Time then to be thankful for what we have and appreciate the simple things in life. To which end, today I am making my first ever bagels. Mr B will despair, but after a 50-mile bike ride this morning, I dare say he'll manage to force one down.

Part two (with pics and recipe) once they're done!

Friday, 9 November 2012

Manky old bananas - where I was going wrong

Turns out those rotten old bananas aren't muffin-fodder, they are art. I would actually like a print of those tomatoes to hang on my kitchen wall. Like one of those still lifes in the National Gallery designed to remind us of the vanities of life. The vanity of spending £2.50 on those Taste the Price Tag on-the-vine teeny plum tomatoes that are now going mouldy in the salad drawer.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Manky old bananas

Exhibit A:

We always seem to have a few over-ripe bananas hanging about hopefully in the fruit bowl. When my children see them, they look at me, roll their eyes and suggest politely that we get on and make some banana bread. The relevant page of Nigella's How to be a Domestic Goddess is so covered in cake batter and fingerprints that it's almost illegible. But today I was looking for something quick and easy to make with Smallest of All, who had declared that he had a burning desire to do some baking. The banana loaf is not exactly challenging, in fact it's pretty foolproof, but I wanted super-quick-before-the-others-get-back-from-the-supermarket. Muffins! Again! But you can freeze them, and if you take one out first thing, it's defrosted by breaktime, so perfect for the school snack or lunch box as well as for breakfast.

Clearly, the first thing you must do when baking with bananas and a 5 year-old is to perform the magic trick of Making The Banana Sink Into The Table. <dim the lights, roll of drums>

Exhibit B:

<rapturous applause>

You can then proceed to the baking proper. This time, we decided on banana and blueberry muffins. I based this on Gordon Ramsay's recipe from Healthy Appetite, which we've made often before. Packed with fruit, and made with wholemeal flour, they are pretty healthy as cakey things go. I feel a need to at least pay lip service to health with my children's breakfast. I've made a few changes to the recipe in the book, mostly for reasons of wanting something I could fling together with what I had in the house. I've used a mixture of wholemeal and plain flour. GR uses just wholemeal, which is also good; I just wanted something a bit lighter. The original recipe also uses buttermilk, but I didn't have any and I always use milk in muffins because I never do have buttermilk (well, do you?) and it's always worked fine. I also use frozen blueberries, because they are a fraction of the price of fresh blueberries. I use a slightly smaller quantity, and just bung them in frozen, so the batter will take a little longer to cook.

Smallest of All loves breaking eggs, pouring wet into dry, mixing, and sprinkling the demerara sugar on the top ('The bad thing is, you see mummy, I really like this part' <shoves whole hand in sugar jar>).

Blueberry and banana muffins

The dry stuff:
150g plain wholemeal flour
150g plain flour
100g brown sugar
1.5 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt

The wet stuff:
2 large manky bananas, mashed
280ml milk
75g oil or melted butter
1 large egg, beaten

The extra stuff:
250g-300g frozen blueberries
demerara sugar (for sprinkling)

The method:
1. Preheat oven to 180C and prep the muffin tray (ie put the cases in the holes).
2. Mix the dry stuff together in a big bowl.
3. Mix the wet stuff together in a jug/bowl.
4. Add the wet stuff to the dry stuff until it's just mixed and there are no floury bits. Add the blueberries with the last few stirs.
5. Pour into the muffin cases - they'll be quite full. Sprinkle the demerara sugar on top. Bake for about 25 mins. Small helpers may lick bowls and spoons, assuming you aren't too concerned about raw eggs.
6. Cool in the tin for a few mins and then on a rack.

Exhibit C:

Bon app!

Monday, 5 November 2012

Disaster management

OK, so it's not quite Superstorm Sandy, but I have an embarrassment of rhubarb. My lovely neighbour arrived at my door with carrier bags full of rhubarb from her mother's garden a couple of months ago. I'm not sure if her mother lives on a rhubarb farm, but there were pounds and pounds of it. I made some jam, and a couple of crumbles, which didn't make much of a dent in it, so I froze the rest and have since been pondering what to do with it. I'd decided on some orange and rhubarb jelly (by 'jelly', I mean jam without lumpy bits in) so yesterday I got out the jelly bag and cooked up the rhubarb and squeezed orange juice, but after hours of straining there wasn't enough juice to make the jelly, so I was left with a small bowlful of rather pretty orange goop. What to do?

Well, if there is a thing I like more than jam on nice white bread, it's lemon curd. I know you can make orange curd, so how about rhubarb and orange curd? The best curds are made with the sharpest fruits - the more powerful citrus fruits in particular. Well, it was worth a try. I didn't have a recipe,  but I found one for gooseberry curd in Marguerite Patten's Jams, Preserves and Chutneys, and used that as a basis for this. In my own personal in-my-head fruit classification system, rhubarb and gooseberries are quite closely related (and yes, greengrocery pedants, I know rhubarb is a vegetable, but of course it's actually a fruit in my head). They share a tartness and need quite a lot of sugar to make them palatable. *Nostalgia alert*. When I was a child, we used to eat sticks of raw rhubarb, which we would dunk in a bowl of sugar before each bite. Yeurch.

So, here we have it, my on-the-fly rhubarb and orange curd. This quantity made 3 jars. You might find that your rhubarb gives a bit more juice and makes a bit more curd. My rhubarb was cut very late in the season and had also been frozen, so I think it was probably a bit drier than it would have been with younger, fresher fruit. See notes on quantities below:

Breakfast lady's rhubarb and orange curd

900g rhubarb, washed, end bits chopped off and then cut into chunks
zest and juice of 3 large oranges
1 tbs lemon juice
225g granulated sugar
2 large eggs
55g unsalted butter

Notes: You need about 300ml juice in total. Make up the difference with more squeezed orange juice or a bit more lemon juice if necessary. If you have more, the quantities should be 450g sugar, 3 large eggs  and  115g butter to every 600ml juice.

I have a bottle of ginger extract in the cupbaord and I was tempted to add a little to see what happened, but decided against it in the end. As I still have pounds of rhubarb, I might try it next time. I'll let you know if it works.

1. Put the rhubarb, orange zest and juice and lemon juice in a pan and simmer gently until you have a thick puree. Try not to cook it for too long, so as not to evaporate too much juice. You could use a pan lid to keep in the moisture and just give it an occasional stir.

2. Rub the resulting puree through a nylon sieve, and discard any remaining pulp. I had already put mine through a jelly bag at this stage, but there is no need to do this.

3. Put the puree into a heatproof bowl, along with the butter and sugar and place the bowl over a pan of hot water. Gently simmer until the butter melts and the sugar has dissolved.

4. Beat the eggs and then add (make sure the mixture isn't too hot at this stage - you don't want the eggs to cook as soon as they hit the mixture or you'll end up with eggy lumps). Mix thoroughly and then cook gently until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon.

5. Pour into sterilized jars, seal. Or eat. Because of the eggs, it won't keep as long as jam. But that's not going to be a problem in this house...

Boy, it's good. The tang of the fruits with the rich creaminess of the butter and eggs. Scrummy. Lovely on toast or soft white bread. But the great thing about curd is that it can be used in all sorts of other things:

  • pancakes
  • meringues sandwiched with cream and curd (though possibly not for breakfast...)
  • as a middle for sponge cakes and swiss rolls
  • add a dollop inside an American muffin. Use a basic muffin recipe, spoon the mix into cases until half full,then add a spoonful of curd and top up the cases with muffin mixture and cook as normal.
Alternatively, just get a spoon.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

How to cook a celebrity chef

Thing 1 was looking at this book today and wondered what would be the best way to bake GBBO judge Paul Hollywood.

He thought folded up and squashed into the oven.

Thing 2, who has more of a love of the grotesque and grisly, thought he should be cut into tiny pieces and fried, before being covered in 'man-shaped pastry' and baked.

They are both big fans of GBBO.

Which celebrity chef would you bake, dear reader, and how?

Friday, 2 November 2012

A bowlful of words

You can see from the photo above what I do for my day job. I get paid for being a language nerd. No no, I see your eyes glazing over, but bear with me. In an idle moment yesterday, I started flicking through one of my dictionaries in search of some little breakfasty linguistic nuggets to share with you.Yes, I am that sad. I read dictionaries for fun.

1. Muesli: comes from the German word mus, meaning mush or puree, and the diminutive li. So, in other words it means 'little mush'. I can see why they stuck with the German. I'm not sure that 'Little Mush' would have taken off here in quite the same way. 5 points to the Alpen marketing department.

2. Treacle. In Britain, we now think of treacle as something similar to molasses, a black by-product of the sugar-making process, or as something similar to golden syrup (as in a 'treacle tart'), but there is a much older meaning of this word, which comes from the Greek word therion meaning 'wild beast'. It was once used to describe any liquid that was used by a herbalist or apothecary as an antidote to poisoning, especially venomous bites. Originally, these potions used honey as their base. And in that wonderfully convoluted way that English has, the origins of the word molasses, treacle's first cousin, lie in the Latin word mel, meaning, you guessed it, honey!

Strangely, modern treacle seems to have held on to these medicinal roots - or perhaps it's just me. I seem to remember being encouraged to eat treacle when I was pregnant because it's full of iron. Spike Milligan claimed that his uncle treated himself for some malady (was it baldness? I forget) by 'sitting naked in a darkened room, with a mixture of cow dung, saffron and treacle spread on his head'. I don't remember whether he was cured of whatever it was that ailed him. 

The truly nerdy among you may be interested to note that the 12th century St Margaret's Church at Binsey in Oxfordshire has a 'treacle well' in its grounds, which was believed in the past to have healing powers, and is mentioned in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. It is not, I understand, a well full of treacle (sadly), but a well full of healing waters.

'Treacle', as Eastenders fans will remember from the days of Pete Beale and Dirty Den, is also used in Cockney rhyming slang to mean 'sweetheart', ('treacle tart').

3. Did you know that the words toast and thirst are related to each other? The Latin verb torrere, from which both words derive, means 'to dry with heat' so if you're thirsty, you've been dried with heat, like a piece of toast. And incidentally, the word torrid, which you might perhaps use as you choke on 50 Shades of Grey over your cornflakes, has the same root. Scorching!

4. In France, you can cast spells, play the drums, and eat Chinese food with baguettes, as well as eating one for breakfast. A baguette is familiar to us Brits as a long French loaf, but the word in French simply means 'stick', and pops up in all sorts of non-bready places.

5. Finally, let's hop back to Germany, to a word whose origins are a little more dubious, the word pumpernickel, that dark, dense rye bread that is so good with cheese and gherkin pickles. My large Collins dictionary glosses over this one with a swift 'of uncertain origin'. My Oxford Dictionary offers 'lout, bumpkin, of uncertain origin'. But Merriam-Webster offers us the much finer 'German, from pumpern to break wind + Nickel goblin; from its reputed indigestibility'. In other words, it's so indigestible that it'll make you fart like a devil ('Old Nick').

I'm not sure if it's true, but if it's good enough for Merriam-Webster, it's good enough for me.

Bon weekend!