Tuesday, 23 July 2013

La Belle France

So, we are back from our holidays, and very blissful they were too. I can summarise thus:

Mountains, cable cars, glaciers, flowery meadows, geranium-clad chalets and other associated features (see 'cows' below). God the Alps are gorgeous.

Sunshine. Lots and lots of sunshine.

Swimming pools. Empty at times. As I ploughed up and down a completely empty campsite pool in blistering 30something degree heat I promised to myself that I would try very very very hard to be happy if I ever win the lottery.

Turquoise lakes. Truly turquoise, like the turquoise felt-tip you use to draw 'mountain lake'.

Cows with actual bells on - how do Alpine farmers ever get any sleep - what a blimmin racket.

Bicycles. Lots and LOTS of bicycles. Men in lycra at every turn. MrB was in bikey heaven on those hairpins. I wonder if being in France while the Tour is on is a bit like being in Britain in the two weeks after Wimbledon when everyone is suddenly prancing about in tennis whites.

Food, obviously. Honorable mentions to ice cream, tartiflette (which is not exactly hot July fare, but when in Rome etc etc) and baguette viennoise. The Mighty Hunter returned from an early morning trip to the local boulangerie bearing this briochy stick of loveliness and we were all smitten. I suspect oldest b-boy liked it mostly because it is soft and does not necessitate the intensive chewing action required of a normal baguette and which I am forever nagging at him to practise. For he currently has FOUR front teeth. At the top, I mean, two, and then two more, like a shark. I was able to ignore it while the new ones were still but stumps, but now they're more or less completely in and the milk teeth are still there, and it's starting to freak me out a bit.Anyway, if anyone can point me in the direction of a really good recipe, I'll be very happy.

Decent coffee.

But really, indecent tea. They honestly have still not got it. We inadvertently turfed up at a very chi-chi lakeside hotel one afternoon, where I ordered a tea, foolishly thiking that if I was paying 5 euros for a cup of bloody tea (yes, that is FIVE EUROS, my friends. Like, practically five pounds when I have my real brain installed) then they would at least deliver it in a proper state to be drunk. But alas no. The same old: teapot of hot water, teabag in a little paper envelope and no flipping milk. Seriously guys, how hard can it be?? I'll come and teach you how to do it. Really. I'll even teach you in French if you ask me nicely. At least I was saved by the fact that at long last the French seem to have got over their historical aversion to fresh milk and dragged their sorry arses into the whole concept of, you know refrigeration, so I didn't have to put up with ghastly UHT in my morning cuppa.

On this subject, however, I would like to give an extremely hard stare to the Novotel in Reims, where we stayed overnight en route and which had nothing by little tubs of evaporated milk to put in the tea in the room. I was really very unhappy after driving for twelvety hours down the most boring roads in the known universe. French motorways are lovely and empty with nice big 80mph speed limits, but DULL is not the word. Nothing ever happens. I never thought I'd be glad to see the M6 again, but at least you get to change gear every now and then.

Oh dear. I had not intended to rant at all. We had a lovely time, really. The French are delightful in pretty much every other way, and their country is just fabulous, as you can see from the first part of this post. Next time I am stuck in a jam onthe M25 I'll rue my words. It was grand. And I must say it is most gratifying to come back to a sunny warm Scotland for once and see Twitter and FB full of people celebrating the end of term in England when my children only have 3 weeks' holiday left. Mwa ha ha.

Hope everyone else is enjoying a lazy summer break. I will post a picture of an Alpine meadow once I have finished with all the washing.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

A miserable excuse of a post

I've been away from my blog too long. I've been nudged into action by Malcolm Eggs of the London Review of Breakfasts (and author of The Breakfast Bible), who was very complimentary about my blog on Twitter this morning, even though I haven't posted anything for ages. So, I thought I'd better explain myself. Herewith my litany of lame excuses:

1. It's that time of year. Here in Scotland the schools finish next week, and so the past few weeks have been  a mad whirl of fetes and sports days and building lego models of playground equipment and walking round and round the school in circles to raise money for charity (what? Your school don't do that? Why ever not?).

2. I've been preoccupied with work. Which is odd, because for most of the last few weeks I haven't actually had any work to do. Not that I've been unemployed, just that the work that I do have has been stuck in the works. Theoretical work, it turns out, almost as preoccupying as actual work. And then some of it arrived and it's a bit like wading through treacle.

3. There is a good bit though. Tired of twiddling my thumbs (see above), and spending far too much time faffing about on the internet, I realised that I knew far more about Kim n Kanye and the cast of Made in Chelsea than I really cared to. So, in order to fill my time more constructively, I did what any self-respecting breakfastlady does, and baked some bread. And then I baked some more. And then one of my friends asked me if I'd bake some for her. And then someone else asked if I'd bake some for her. And then someone else. Within a week, I'd been approached to see if I might be interested in supplying a deli that might be opening near here soon. It's all gone a bit mad. So, I'm going to stop again (see also point 4 below) to regroup and decide what to do next. I'm really enjoying it, but if I'm going to do it properly, for money and all that, I need to stop and get all the red tape sorted and figure out what to do about equipment (my trusty Kenwood Chef really doesn't like kneading more than 3 loaves' worth of dough and starts steaming at the ears if I try it, and my oven is not exactly huge either). So, that's all been filling my time too, but in a lovely doughy way.

4. We're off to the Alps for some R&R in the mountains. I suppose I can't legitimately use something that has not yet happened as an excuse for not doing something in the past, but you know, one has to think about these things, buy sunscreen, organise travel insurance and check the passport validity umpteen times in a not-at-all OCD manner. Anyway, yippee. I'm excited about going to see a dear old friend whom I haven't seen for many years, and who has promised me home-made bagels, with (get this) home-made cream cheese and home-smoked fish for breakfast. Biggest breakfastboy is excited about getting to go to Switzerland for the first time, home of two of his favourite things, namely cheese and do I really need to mention that the 2nd thing isn't cuckoo clocks but chocolate? Smallest breakfastboy is just generally excited. Plus he quite likes the look of marmots, being a Big Fan of the guinea pig family (of which, so far as I know, marmots are not members, but y'know, mountain-dwelling cute things etc etc). MrB is excited at the prospect of tackling some of those Alpine passes on his bike, though obviously he is gutted that he will be missing the 100th Tour de France zipping past our campsite about 2 days after we leave. None of us is excited about the three-day journey to get to our destination from our northern outpost. 'It'll be an adventure,' we say half-heartedly. No it won't, it'll be ghastly autoroute hell, but still. The Alps. Yeay.

So, au revoir breakfast and salut le petit déjeuner!

All of which to say, I probably won't be posting for a while again, but on my return I will of course give you all a full rundown of the culinary delights I encounter on my summer odyssey.


Oh, and finally, while I've been away...cronuts. Really??

(Screen capture from ABC News video via Phoenix New Times)

Lionel Poilâne must be turning in his grave at the very idea. Though frankly, I'm astonished that the Scots didn't cotton on to this one years ago.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Chocolate and hazelnuts...you know where I'm going with this

A few months ago, I was reading about France's plans to increase taxes on palm oil, a key ingredient of Nutella and the fury this was causing among the citoyens. It's enough to bring them all out on strike, I shouldn't wonder. During the Olympics, the glorious Daily Mash ran a funny story about how European athletes in the Olympic Village were rioting because of a Nutella shortage. The articles made me think about a couple of things.

 Most of these big global brands have managed to cross boundaries fairly seamlessly, but there are a few, such as Nutella, that have maintained a kind of foreignness on UK supermarket shelves. Kinder eggs are another. And Hershey's. M&Ms used to seem terribly exotic and American when they first arrived here, but they've managed to blend into the confectionary counter now, whereas Reece's Pieces still scream 'U.S.A! U.S.A!' to me. Nutella makes me think of children with sharp bobs who don't have to wear school uniforms eating a tartine and a big bowl of hot chocolate before they trot off in the dark to their 11-hour school day.

Branding is a strange old business.

The article also reveals that the same people that make Nutella also make Ferrero Rocher. So now we know. Wafer balls filled with nutella. That's it. Not really spoiling us at all, Monsieur.

And more soberly, it got me thinking about palm oil. So, for the past few months I've been buying an alternative palm oil-free hazelnut-chocolate spread that I found in Whole Foods Market. It actually tastes much better, more hazelnutty, and the breakfastboys didn't put up any resistance, so I've been happy to spend a little more for something that I think is probably a little better for them. But imagine my delight when I saw a link to this recipe today for a home-made version. Me and the biggest b-boy hot-footed it up to Sainsbos to acquire the necessaries and within 30 minutes, here it is, a great big pot of chocolate-hazelnut goo, whizzed up in the Magimix. Frankly, it takes quite a lot to persuade me to haul the food processor out of its cave and faff about with all the putting together and subsequent washing up of bits. Does anybody actually use food processors in the way that cookery programmes suggest they do - 'oh, I 'll just whizz this up in the food processor'? No, they do not.

A couple of tablespoons of sunflower oil and a great big pile of Green & Blacks' finest. I know, I know, really, for something the children will eat, I should have gone for regular cheapo chocolate, but, well, you know. It apparently lasts two weeks (and good luck with that), so may not prove to be an economically sustainable breakfast item in the long run, but for now, hurrah.

I'll bring you the verdict once the minibeasts have taste-tested it, because obviously I haven't licked the processor blade clean. Obviously. I'll also post a picture when MrB gets back from his Iron John weekend wild camping and drinking whisky on Jura with my camera.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Mostly about greens, part 2

You'd think that seaweed I mentioned the other week would be a pile of green slime by now, wouldn't you? Well, no, turns out it's preserved in salt and good until July, thereby giving me weeks to get round to deciding what to do with it.

A few months ago I went to visit the lovely people at Breadshare in West Lothian, and they showed me a packet of their new product - seaweed oatcakes. The baker explained that they are great for cooking in a cooling bread oven, once your day's baking is over, thereby using the energy you've already paid for - canny Scottish bakers (actually, he wasn't Scottish, but never mind)!

 Last weekend, a new shop opened in Glasgow called Locavore. It's a great place: they sell veg bags of seasonal produce, as well as locally-sourced produce, and aim to be a hub for local food production, with cookery classes, community gardening etc. And as my beady eye scanned the shelves, what should I spot but a basket of Breadshare oatcakes. So I snapped them up, and have hardly stopped eating them since. They are deliciously crumbly, with a hint of seaweed. Yum. Oats and fish have a long association in Scottish cooking - oatmeal-coated mackerel and herring is still a popular dish. So the addition of seaweed seems perfectly natural. And an oatcake topped with smoked mackerel pate or a sliver of smoked salmon is a fine thing indeed.

Interesting (if somewhat revolting) fact: in the days when the herring fleet used to follow the migration of herring round the British coast, teams of fishwives (and fishgirls) used to follow the fleet round the coast from Shetland right down as far as Yarmouth, spending time in the different ports, gutting and packing the herring in barrels of salt. The salt used to eat away at the webbed bit of skin between their fingers, and they would stuff the resulting holes with oatmeal, which is often still used to help skin complaints such as eczema.#truefact I admit it's not terribly appetizing, as facts go, but I kind of love the fish and oatmeal and sea connection, as applied to healing - there is a completeness to it that appeals to my inner organiser. I must also declare a slight obsession with the lives of the fisherfolk of Scotland. It must be my Aberdonian genes. If you look at old photos of the herring 'quines', they all look as if they are having the time of their lives, despite the fact that it must have been back-breaking work for little financial reward. See here for example:

or here:

What a hoot!

Anyway, I digress (as usual). I decided that I would try to replicate the seaweed oatcake in my own oven, and here is the result:

My recipe is based on Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's recipe here, with a few tweaks. I used rapeseed oil rather than olive oil in an attempt to keep my recipe local in the spirit of Breadshare and Locavore. I also used slightly more oats and oatmeal (150g of each), as I was going to be adding in the wet seaweed. I've reduced the amount of salt in the recipe too, on account of the seaweed. I just added a handful of seaweed (what my Scottish mother would refer to as 'a goupinfae'. I've no idea how one goes about spelling that, but it means something like 'oh you know how much, as much as you need, a sort of dollopsworth'), which I had rinsed, squeezed out and chopped fairly finely. Finally, I didn't use flour for dusting the worksurface as I wanted these to be wheat-free. I'm really pleased with them. Next stop cheesy oatcakes. How I LOVE a cheesy oatcake!

Oatcakes are so easy-peasy, so very good for you (esp if made, as here, with rapeseed oil), and very quick - you can rustle these up in about 45 minutes start to finish.

Turns out also that once you start rinsing the salt of it sort of expands into long gloopy strands, so I actually still have loads left. Watch this space. Seaweed, it's the new kale.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Mostly about greens

My mum was visiting last weekend and Saturday dawned bright and breezy, so we decided on a whim to take the breakfastboys over to the Isle of Bute for a day on the beach. For those of you unfamiliar with the geography of the west of Scotland, Bute is a small island at the mouth of the Clyde. That perhaps sounds pretty grim, if your image of the Clyde is of welders and shipyards and rusty old cranes. Well, let me put you right. The Kyles of Bute (the name for the bit of the Forth of Clyde where Bute sits) look like this: Lower reaches of the Clyde. It's kinda pretty. Admittedly, most of the year you can't actually see Arran (that's Arran in the background, with the hills) for the drizzle, or the clouds of midges, but on a good day, it's heaven. And it's less than an hour down the road to Wemyss Bay, and a short hop on the CalMac ferry to Rothesay. In the olden days, Bute was a popular spot for holidaying Glaswegians, who would travel 'Doon the Water' on the Waverley paddle steamer to Rothesay, on Bute. You can, in fact still make the trip, but I have it on good authority that unless your idea of fun is being trapped on a slow-moving boat with hundreds of very drunk Glaswegians, it is an excursion to be avoided at all costs. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Nearly empty mile-long beaches are my idea of a good day out, and the one we visited was particularly good for beachcombing, so while MrB and the breakfastboys were busy building things out of sand and stones, The Dowager Breakfastlady and I collected sea urchin shells and razor clams. The spring green of the fields was exactly like that lovely green in the Glasgow Boys' paintings:

 I'm probably making it sound a leeeetle bit more idyllic than it really was - smallest breakfastboy was in one of those moods, and the weather, whilst sunny, was not exactly balmy, but still. Retrospect and a pair of rose-tinted glasses are fine things.

All this talk of beaches is really by way of a preamble to the subject of seaweed. I bought a carton of seaweed at the supermarket the other day. Well, Whole Foods Market, not Tesco, you know. Not only do they sell seaweed, they sell different kinds of seaweed. Yeah. It's supposed to be very good for you, seaweed. It looks good for you, and it smells like the sea, and the sea's good for you, (sharks and riptides notwithstanding), and let's face it, you just know that if the Japanese are eating it, it's going to make you live to 115. Well, my research with the Great God Google tells me that it is the best source of hard-to-come-by-yet-essential iodine, has more calcium than broccoli, is high in vitamin B12 and vitamin A, and is rich in soluble fibre and protein. Hurrah. Now, what am I going to do with it? I'm going to make bread, obviously. I make little else these days. There is a recipe in Richard Bertinet's Dough, but I'm thinking that a beer bread with a briny hint of seaweed might be good. Guinness and seaweed bread, maybe? Or Oats and seaweed? Or Guinness and oats and seaweed? Hmmmm. I'll get back to you when I'm done. In the meantime, here is a picture of my beachcombed sea urchin.

The Japanese eat them as well, I believe, but this one was already uninhabited by the time I picked it up, so you'll have to make do with seaweed.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Baking on the wild side

I have mixed feelings about nettles. All my gardening books tell me that they are good, that their presence in my garden means I have fertile soil, and that I should lovingly nurture a patch of nettles because they are an ideal food for loads of beneficial insects. On the other hand, I think I have the fiercest stinging nettles in the known universe growing on my patch. You can honestly feel the sting for days afterwards.

Nettles are also, it turns out, frightfully good for you: high in vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium. Not bad for something that grows like, well, a weed, in my garden. I love the idea of eating your weeds - possibly the only way in which I can demonstrate mastery over my very unruly garden is by eating it.  And early spring is the perfect time to eat nettles (I think in this bizarre year late April counts as 'early spring', right?). You pick just the very young growing tips.

Most people who cook with nettles make soup, but you can also chop them into a tortilla, or use them to make a pesto (in the same way you might with wild garlic), but I decided to use them to make some bread, after I came across a recipe for nettle knots in Hanne Risgaard's lovely book 'Home Baked'. This has to be the most beautifully illustrated cookbook ever - full of photos of billowing fields of wheat and rye in her native Denmark, where she grows and mills cereal crops on her family farm.Being Danish, it has a Scandinavian flavour - lots of rye, but also lots of spelt, and some interesting ingredients like elderflowers and, as here, nettles, that can be picked wild.

Anyway, I digress. The recipe uses chopped nettles in a fairly rich dough which includes milk and a beaten egg as the liquid. I used unbleached white flour from Gilchester's Mill in Northumberland, with a touch of wholemeal. The end result may look like one of those fake dog poos that so amuse the smallest breakfastboy, but do not be fooled: inside they are soft and lovely, not dissimilar to a bagel. I toasted some cheese on top of a split knot for lunch and we're having the rest with a butternut squash and coconut soup for dinner tonight. And never fear, there's not a hint of a sting when you eat them. However, I must point out that even once finely chopped - and that is the best use for a mezzaluna I have yet found - the stings are very much present when you knead the dough. I didn't follow the kneading instructions, as I'm still on a kneading-lite regime on account of my dodgy wrists, but used Dan Lepard's method of giving the dough a number of very light, quick kneads, and I then let it rise overnight in the fridge to avoid middle of the night baking. But even so, I managed to sustain a few stings. You might want to wear gloves, but that seems a bit weird.

So, if you're doing a little spring weeding in the garden, or foraging in the woods for wild garlic, spare a thought for nettles and get picking (carefully). If you can't get hold of the recipe I used, you could substitute nettles in another bread recipe - perhaps one that uses chives or wild garlic, or even one with seaweed like the one in Richard Bertinet's Dough. You get the picture. Jazz baking.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Scottish bread #2 - gather round Aberdonians and lovers of butter.

I am currently on a no-knead regime, on doctor's orders. Several months of somewhat over-enthusiastic breadmaking has left me with carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists, so I'm finding bread that doesn't need kneading (hello there rye!) and using my bread machine for the rest of the hard graft. So, bread machine it was today for the inaugural rowie bake (see here if you have no idea what I'm talking about). First things first, if you're thinking of giving these a bash - you'll need to set aside the best part of a day for this. Like croissants, there are rounds of adding fat, resting, adding fat, resting. It's perfect for those days when you have other things to do around the house, but hopeless for those days when you have two small boys hurling toys around and whirling about the house like small tornadoes. Which is why <ahem> I have sent my ailing man to the park with them while I am sitting here with a cup of tea and the computer for company.

You need to start by making a basic dough (flour, water, yeast, sugar, salt), in my case in the bread machine, though you could equally do it by hand or in a mixer. I used the pizza setting for this, which takes 45 minutes, rather than the regular dough setting, as there was going to be plenty more opportunity for the dough to have a good rest. Now, as this blog should really reflect the reality of my culinary experience, I'll tell you that when I opened the bread machine, I was met by a gloopy batter rather than a nice silky dough. The recipe instructed me to roll it out, so I figured that this could not be the way things were meant to be. So, I managed to scoop it out with a scraper and added quite a lot more flour and give it a quick knead before continuing to the next step. As a result, I've adjusted the original quantities, which I gleaned from a number of sources, including Elizabeth David's English Bread and Yeast Cookery, and adapted to be enough for about 8 rowies. I'll add at this point that I am very far from being a mathematical genius, so it may be that my tinkering is what led to the gloop in the bread machine. Anyway, what I've used in the recipe below should be about right, and if it isn't, then add a bit more flour or water until you have a soft, but not sticky dough. The method is basically the same as making flaky pastry or croissants. If you have a warm kitchen, it's a good idea to refrigerate the dough while it's resting.

Before I go any further, I would also like to offer you the following piece of advice. On NO account should you do what I did and use a baking tray without a lip all round for baking these.

Don't do this (flames not shown)

The rowies will produce melted fat, and without a lip, the fat will run off the tray and all over your oven, and if you are unlucky, you will come into the kitchen to find billows of acrid smoke emerging from your oven and actual flames in your oven. This is not a good thing. I hope you will agree that despite the fact that my rowies had to be hastily whipped from the oven and left on the side while I extinguished flames, cleaned up the mess and ran about opening windows and shouting obscenities at the top of my voice before reheating the oven and slinging them back in, they have turned out nae bad. They do however, have a faint hint of burning rubber in the flavour which is not entirely desireable.

Rowies (makes 8)

for the basic dough:
1 tsp quick yeast
300g strong white flour
1 1/2 tsp caster sugar
1 tsp salt
225ml water

140g butter
50g lard (both at room temperature)

1. Make a dough with the basic dough ingredients. If using a bread machine, follow manufacturer's instructions for order of ingredients. If making by hand, mix the ingredients together, knead until smooth and silky, cover and leave the dough for 45 mins to rest.
2. Chop the fats into small cubes, mix together and divide into 3 portions.
3. When the dough is ready, gently roll it out into a rectangle about 1.5 cm thick. Try not to knock too much air out of it - be gentle. Cover and leave it to rest for 30 mins.
4. Spread 1/3 of the fat onto the top 2/3 of the dough, then fold the other 1/3 over the middle 1/3 and then fold the top 1/3 down on the top to make an envelope. That sounds more complicated than it is. 'Fold it like a letter' is what I'm trying to say, but get the bit with no fat on into the middle.

(or show them a photo. That will help)

5. Gently, trying not to tear the dough, work the dough, prodding or rolling it gently it rather than kneading it, to slowly work it out into a long rectangle again. Cover and leave for 1 hour.
6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 twice until you have used up all the fat.

7. Cut the dough into 8 pieces. Flatten them out again by prodding gently with your fingers until you have flattish round or rectangular patties, and place them on a heavily floured baking tray - SEE TIP ABOVE! You may wish to use rice flour, or fine polenta, but wheat flour is fine if that's all you have. Cover and leave for 45mins.
8. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 220C. Bake for  about 15 mins until golden brown.

Eat with more butter if you can bear it, preferably salted. Serve with a strong cup of tea, especially if you have almost burned the house down whilst making them.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Scottish bread #1 - a Proustian moment with an Aberdeen buttery

Aberdeen butteries, or 'rowies' as the locals call them, are the equivalent for me of the Proustian madeleine, though a good deal less elegant than their French counterpart. A good deal less elegant even, than their French alter ego, the croissant. For if you ask someone to describe a rowie, they will often compare them to a croissant, as they are made in a similar way, ie oooooodles of fat layered in dough to make a flaky bread roll. The high fat content is explained by their origin as food for fishermen to take out to sea with them - the fat kept them fresh a little longer than ordinary bread, and no doubt kept the fishermen nicely insulated against the cold North Sea winds if they ate enough of them, in the manner of seal blubber. But, being Scottish, the fat in question is not butter, or not entirely butter, but a mixture of butter and lard. And a whole heap of salt. They are shaped into roughly circular shapes and baked. Sound disgusting? Taste divine. Really. Yeasty, fatty, and utterly glorious. It's almost impossible to find good rowies outside the Aberdeenshire area. Our local Tescos here in Glasgow occasionally has them in stock, but they are a pale imitation of their more northerly cousin. But even these have the same characteristic flavour, and one bite takes me right back to the 70s.

My grandparents lived in Aberdeen, and every summer, we used to make the long drive up to visit them from the south-east of England in whatever clapped-out old jalopy my long-suffering father was driving that year. I can remember my maternal grandparents' house, where we used to stay, so clearly: the mangle in the kitchen; the walk-in larder which always had exotic biscuits in it; my grandfather's shed, where our seaside buckets and spades were kept for us; and his rows of neat raspberry canes and strawberry beds. You might be under the impression that 1970s Scotland would not be the place to buy fresh bread, but you would be very much mistaken. Every morning, we used to take the long walk down the brae to Kelly's of Cults to buy fresh rowies. Kelly's was arguably the best place to buy your rowies, although this topic would be hotly debated each year, with the relative merits of Kelly's and Aitken's rowies batted to and fro between the adults. See, you could almost be in a little village in la France profonde, such was the level of culinary debate. And there was you thinking Scotland is all deep-fried mars bars and fish suppers. We could choose our own in the shop, and I would always look for well-cooked ones with a crispy outside. We would then trot back up the hill, and then slather them in butter (just in case there wasn't enough in them already). Oh how I loved them.

Years later, after my grandparents died and when we no longer went so regularly to Aberdeen, my father decided that the absence of rowies from his life meant that he would have to make his own. He managed to get hold of a recipe from somewhere (in those pre-internet days that wasn't as easy as it sounds) and would spend hours in the kitchen, lovingly fashioning his butteries. They were never quite as good as the ones from the Aberdeen bakers, but he did make a pretty good stab at it.

Later still, after the advent of internet mail order, he discovered that Aitken's would deliver rowies, UK-wide. I will never forget the excitement in his voice when he phoned me one night and told me 'They are thundering down the A1 on the back of a lorry NOW!'. He was so thrilled.

In his honour, I've decided to have a bash at making my own. Elizabeth David has a recipe in English (*gasp*) Bread and Yeast Cookery. She says, rather puzzlingly:
They don't look as showy as croissants but, for all their homely appearance, I prefer them in some ways, because they are light and small and surprising.
Homely? Sure. But light? And small is somewhat odd too. My recollection is of a thing about the size of a side plate. I'm not at all sure she's eating the same thing as I was. So, I've decided to turn to the internet and see if I can't find someone a little more local to the north east who can provide me with a recipe. I'll post the results when I'm done.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Weasel words

<blows dust from keyboard>

Things have been a bit quiet around here. There are a few reasons for this. I was away baking bread (FUN!), then I got ill (NOT FUN!), then we're about to put our flat on the market (POSSIBLY EXCITING, BUT NOT EXACTLY FUN EITHER!), and then whatever I got ill with wouldn't go away (STILL NOT FUN!). Still, I think I'm on the mend now, and the hols start tomorrow and I have just about got to the bottom of the very long list of 'things that need painting before the photographer comes'. So, things are looking up.

However, the illness, and the painting, and the appalling weather mean I have spent an inordinate amount of time in the company of my computer lately. The end result is that I am officially Bored of the Internet. Yep. I've had my fill of it. Specifically I am bored of two words. Every time I click on a blog post or a website related to baking, or cafes, or restaurants, or flour millers or, frankly, anything, I read one, or both of these words. Or that's what it seems like. I realise that I may be about to alienate the entire population of Twitter but here we go. I do it because I care about words and how we use them, because that's what I get paid to do when I'm not brandishing the polyfilla.

Please note that I do not say 'I care passionately about words'.  And there you have word number one. Passionate. Everybody is passionate about everything at the moment. Passionate about customer service, passionate about baked goods, passionate about being passionate about things. My tipping point came when I was driving home the other day and passed a newly-opened funeral parlour near our home, which describes itself as 'professional, passionate, personal' in 3-feet high letters on its shop front. Now, I don't know about you, but I find something slightly alarming in the notion of a passionate funeral director. I think that 'dispassionate' is more what I'd be looking for, myself. I turn to my trusty Collins English Dictionary and find the following:

passionate adj
1.  manifesting or exhibiting intense sexual feeling or desire
2. capable of, revealing, or characterized by intense emotion
3. easily roused to anger; quick-tempered

So, any which way, it's not really looking good for your funeral plans, is it?

This same funeral director, I notice, offers the option of wicker caskets for the deceased, and I can't help wondering how long it will be before they start to advertise these as 'artisan caskets'. For there we have word number two. Artisan. Everyone who makes anything now seems to be an artisan. Technically, I suppose they are (CED: artisan (n) a skilled workman; craftsman), but the overuse of the word seems to me to be rendering it more or less meaningless. I imagine it's supposed to conjure up an image of some horny-handed son/daughter of toil labouring for hours over his/her lathe/wood-fired oven/embroidery hoop. I don't know. My inner voice just silently screams "home-made!" or "expensive!"'. For me, there's a difference between an artisan baker, someone who's done their time in a bakery learning their craft, and someone who is just good at making cakes or bread, even if they take ages to make it. I have read recently of 'artisan fudge', 'artisan hairdressers' and 'artisan seaweed'. What on earth is 'artisan seaweed'? And as for 'artisan hairdressers', the mind boggles. And for a positively Orwellian take on the word, may I offer you the Dominos Artisan Pizza? Yes, you read that right. The Dominos Artisan Pizza. Google it if you don't believe me.

I swear I'm going to start a picture gallery on the blog of the best ones.

So, when I start my own business, I shall be neither passionate nor artisan. I will try not to be uninterested and amateurish either, you understand, but I hope that my hypothetical customers would take that as a given.

What do you think? Am I just being unreasonably grumpy on account of the never-ending winter, or should these words be summarily despatched to the place where pan-fried blue-sky thinking is so the new black?

Thursday, 21 March 2013

A bowl-a granola

My kids love granola. But, being kids, and siblings, they don't ever love the same granola. Oldest breakfastboy likes his with raisins; youngest breakfastboy, who loves raisins, has nevertheless decided that he doesn't like his with raisins, but with what he calls 'super berries', in other words freeze-dried red fruit - raspberries, redcurrants etc.  The supermarket shelves are positively heaving with variants on the granola theme - with fruit, with seeds, with red fruit, with tropical fruit, you name it, so it seems that the great British public is in love with those oaty clusters. I'm actually unconvinced of the real health benefits of most of it - it always seems very sweet to me, but I figure that the oats and the fruit and so on are at least healthier than a bowl of Frosties.

I sometimes make my own granola - it's actually dead easy to make an oaty granola base, and you can then add whatever fruit you fancy to satisfy the whims of your own contrary family. For years I've been using Nigella Lawson's 'Fairfield Granola' recipe from Feast, but if you look at the recipe you can see that there is syrup and sugar and honey in it, and I must say that I've always used ready-made apple sauce too, rather than making my own, which means more sugar. So, I was delighted to see Deb Perelman's granola recipe in The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. She uses way less sugary stuff in hers, and indeed, when you make it, you don't really notice the difference. Now, dried cherries and walnuts are not our favourites, and so I decided to fiddle about a bit with the original. That's the joy of granola - as long as you keep the wet:dry:fruit ratio more or less the same, and stick with more or less the same quantity of oats, you can use whatever you have to use up, or whatever you like to eat in yours to make it. So, here's what I used:

Breakfast lady's granola (inspired by Deb Perelman)

Dry stuff:
240g rolled oats (the jumbo oats work well but it doesn't really matter - the ones in the photo are just regular porridge oats)
50g dessicated coconut
50g roughly chopped pecan nuts
50g sunflower seeds
20g oatbran
2 tbs milled flax seeds (I used a milled mixture of flaxseeds, almonds, brazil nuts and walnuts from Linwoods - you can buy it in Sainsbury's)
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

Wet stuff:
2 tbs olive oil
140ml golden syrup

Other stuff:
1 large egg white

100g roughly chopped ready-to-eat dates
120g raisins

1. Mix all the dry stuff together in a bowl.
2. Mix in the wet stuff.
3. Beat the egg white with a fork until frothy and mix in. Spread it on a parchment-lined baking tray.
4. Cook in a medium oven (150C) for about 45 minutes to an hour, turning the mixture halfway through.
5. Cool completely in the tray, then mix in the dried fruit and store in an airtight container.

The breakfastboys are in rare accord on this one - 'VERY good'. Praise indeed.

Incidentally, did you kow that you get more health benefits from milled linseed/flax seed than by just sprinkling it in whole? I didn't, until Jane Mason told me on my bread-baking course at the weekend. The tough outer shell means that if you don't use milled, it just passes right on through without releasing all the goodies such as omega-3 into your body. I did notice hulled linseed in Whole Foods Market this morning (imagine that for a job. I sincerely hope they have invented a machine for it) so if you like it a bit more seedy, that might be an option.

Monday, 18 March 2013

New bread angel gets her wings

The blog's been a bit quiet for the last few days. Last week was a frenzy of decorating (ongoing), but the main reason for the radio silence is that I'm just back from a weekend in London, where I was doing a bread-making course with the wonderful Jane Mason of Virtuous Bread and 5 other breadheads. And what a weekend it was. We baked (and ate) squillions of loaves and rolls, kneaded for all we were worth and talked lots about creating a baking business. It was great to meet Jane, who is just inspirational, and to talk to the other people on the course about their ideas and plans.

The moral, dear reader, is that you really must be extremely careful if you proclaim your New Year's Resolutions to the general public. A mere two and a half months ago I just said 'bake more bread', and now look at me, discussing the health and safety regulations and tax implications of running a baking business from home.

I might add that the knitting is going nowhere.

Monday, 11 March 2013

A pudding and a prize

Miraculously, there was a bit of the fig and orange challah left over by Sunday, so I decided to go ahead with that bread and butter pudding I mentioned. And ohmygoodness it was well worth it. I realise that this is not really the place for a pudding recipe, what with it being a breakfast blog and all, but it works so well with the sweet white challah, and I'm all in favour of using up leftover stale bread, so don't want to waste the  opportunity.

I based this on Hugh-Fearnley Whitingtall's recipe in the River Cottage Bread book, but with a few tweaks of my own, not least the challah itself, which replaces the plain white bread in the original recipe. If you aren't up for making a whole loaf of bread just in order to make a pudding, I'd also add that I often make this with day-old hot cross buns, which are obviously, well, one a penny, two a penny, at this time a year (if only...). If you don't have enough leftover bread you can make up the difference with a different loaf (there are actually a few stray bits in this one from a wholemeal loaf, although I wouldn't recommend making the whole pudding with wholemeal bread - with 6 egg yolks and all that cream there's really no way that this could be described as healthy eating)

Challah bread & butter pudding

About 500g-600g day-old challah (see here for the recipe)
300ml double cream
300ml milk
1 vanilla pod
zest of one orange
a handful of raisins
jam for spreading (any flavour - I used blackcurrant, but apricot would be nice, or maybe even marmalade)
6 medium egg yolks (freeze the whites and use them for meringues of something later)
150g caster sugar
demerara sugar to sprinkle

Oven 170C

1. Butter a shallowish casserole. Slice the bread and cut it into triangles or (if the bread isn't square) into squares. No need to be too anxious about the size etc. Butter each slice and then spread a very thin smear of jam on each and arrange in the casserole with one slice in front of another, a bit like in a toast rack, only leaning on each other. Don't go mad with the jam - the custard is already quite sweet. Poke any last wee bits of bread in where you have space. Put the raisins in between the slices as you go, trying to make sure that they don't remain too close to the surface where they are likely to burn during cooking.

2. Put the cream and milk in a pan. Split the vanilla pod and scrape in the seeds, then add the empty pod and bring to just boiling. Remove from the heat and leave for 10 minutes then remove the vanilla pod and grate in the orange zest.

3. In a large bowl or jug whisk the caster sugar and egg yolks together briefly. Then pour the hot milk mixture into this, whisking all the time. Pour this custard over the bread, making sure that it soaks each piece. You should have a few bread peaks sticking up through the custard sea. Tuck in any stray raisins that are above the surface. Leave the whole thing to soak up the custard for 20 mins or so. Boil a kettle.

4. Sprinkle the demerara sugar over the top of the pudding. Put the casserole into a large roasting tin and carefully pour in some boiling water until it comes about half way up the side of the casserole. It's easiest to pour the water in once the tin is in the oven!

5. Cook for 20-25 minutes until the custard is just set.

6. Serve warm. But it's also very good cold the next day. Leftovers of the leftovers.

7. Start diet the next day.

In other news, I found out today that the two jars of marmalade I entered in the World's Original Marmalade Awards have both won awards! The pink grapefruit got a bronze and my orange marmalade got a silver award in the 'dark and chunky' category. I'm chuffed to bits, especially with the silver, which got 19/20. Tis was the first time I'd entered. Needless to say, I'm already thinking about how I can go one better in 2014!

Saturday, 9 March 2013

A fig roll for my Jewish Vikings

Wikinger.jpg(222 × 337 pixels, file size: 45 KB, MIME type: image/jpeg)

I found the breakfastboys in the hall this morning doing battle with a toy guitar and a plastic sword.'It's OK, mummy, we're fighting because we're Jewish Vikings' they informed me, before parrying off down the hallway and round the corner. My roots are in the West Highlands and the North East of Scotland, and my name suggests my roots are quite likely to be with the Vikings. In fact, if you saw the oldest breakfastboy you'd probably put money on it. Apparently though, just about everyone with vaguely Scandinavian looks likes to think they are a Viking, and people are always terribly disappointed when their DNA tests inform them that they are in fact not Vikings at all. So, who knows. Meanwhile, MrB's gang on his mum's side are Eastern European Jews. So, for my little Jewish Vikings, I decided to make some Challah with a twist (don't worry, it's not herring, not even soused herring) - my first attempt at a plaited bread. Also my first attempt at Challah.

Challah (or Chollah, or Hallah) is a celebration bread, and that seemed apt, as it was International Women's Day, so what better way to celebrate MrB's female line than a loaf of sweet honeyed and egged bread to tear apart and share. The plaits represent love, with all those entwined arms, so it's also perfect to eat with your loved ones. Say on Mothers' Day. Say.

So, to the twist. I saw this recipe in Deb Perelman's Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. You may know her blog about cooking in her New York kitchen, and now her cookbook is out in the UK. I've already made a couple of things from it and so far, they've all been hits.The black bean ragout smelled gorgeous all day as it was cooking in the slow cooker. I presented it to the breakfastboys with some trepidation - you know, vegetables, black, etc etc, but the eldest at least wolfed it down and even smallest BB managed a few mouthfuls.

Anyway, this is a challah whose ropes are filled with a paste made from figs and oranges. Not being Jewish myself, I have no qualms about messing with the traditional challah, and I love any kind of fruity bread. The orangy figginess is a real winner here. The link above will take you to the recipe on the blog. I was a bit anxious about the plaiting, but it wasn't nearly as hard as it looked in the pictures, and the fact that I managed to tear a couple of the ropes a bit didn't lead to major disaster either.

Although figs are most definitnely not a Viking kinda fruit (although apparently they got as far south as North Africa in their roamings, so perhaps they were partial to a fig or two), the act of rolling the paste into the bread dough put me in mind of those fig roll biscuits that we ate as kids. Yum. I managed to squash it a bit by turning it upside down in the oven at the end to make sure the bottom was cooked, so the plaits are not as impressive as they were when it went into the oven. But I'm still pleased with the result. It smells divine and tastes great too.

The figgy paste could be used in lots of other things I think - buns and possibly biscuits of some sort - the recollection of fig roll biscuits makes me wonder about some sort of figgy shortbready thing. Will have to put my thinking cap on.

Deb Perelman says that any leftovers make great French toast, but I'm thinking that a suitably Viking (or at least British) take on that might be to use the leftovers to make a bread and butter pudding. What do you think? Orangy, figgy, bread and butter pud with a nice creamy custard, perhaps with a hint of orange too. What's not to like there? That will of course, require us to not eat the whole lot before I get to that point, so don't hold your breath. I'll be back with a recipe if I get that far...

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

A community bakery

We decided on a whim (or a sugar-crazed rush from the cinnamon buns possibly) to take ourselves over to The Whitmuir Organics cafe near West Linton for lunch and a trot in the hills at the weekend. It's based on an organic farm in the Borders, whose aim is to become a proper community farm for the local area. We had a few reasons for schlepping over there, but among them was my desire to see a community bakery in action. Bakery hours being what they are, much of the 'action' in the Breadshare Bakery was over by the time we stumbled in at lunchtime, but after a really good lunch in the cafe (creamy mushrooms on toast for MrB, falafel burger with potato salad for me, and two big mugs of soup for the breakfastboys), and a pootle round the farm shop, I was taken over to the bakery to meet the bakers.

I think I've mentioned before that one of the things I've noticed since starting this blog is what a lovely bunch of people bakers seem to be, and the people at Breadshare were no exception. We had a wee chat about bread and community baking, and they showed me their mixers and ovens, and sent me away with a very fine caraway rye bread, which I've been eating with cream cheese and pickled gherkins - mmmm. I also got a sneak preview of their new oatcakes. I won't tell you the secret ingredient, as I'm sure they'll be launching them with a splash in a couple of weeks, but if you're near Edinburgh, do drop in or go to one of the farmers' markets they visit for lovely bread or oatcakes with a twist soon. Their aims are very worthwhile and it would be great to see more businesses like this in local communities.

I do have some concerns over how community baking works in practice - is it just another source of luxury bread to middle-class people who have enough money to afford a £1.50 loaf and ignore the 50p loaf of sliced Chorleywood bread in the supermarket? To me, £1.50 doesn't seem like much, but I know that I'm lucky in that respect. How can these bakeries ensure that their stated aim of bringing real bread to people who need it (ie people who are, for economic reasons, bulking out their meals with cheap bread) is met? For years supermarkets have kept the cost of food artificially low, and we are now seeing the results of that in the form of horsemeat and goodness knows what else in processed food. However, acknowledging this fact is not at all the same as solving the problem, because of course if we all had to pay the 'real' cost of decent food, then the poor would merely be poorer, and more numerous. Is the only answer for people to grow their own/bake their own food? And how is that possible in a society where people are being 'encouraged' back to work in poorly-paid jobs, or indeed being forced to work for nothing in government schemes or internships? Looking after a productive garden, and baking bread takes time that many people simply don't have (assuming they actually have access to a garden in the first place). We seem to have created a dysfunctional society in which we are unable to feed ourselves properly at a reasonable cost, and the consequences of that are potentially disastrous. I don't have the answers to these questions, but they are worth pondering, I think.

On a brighter note, we had a walk through the farm afterwards, in the company of of the farm sheepdog, seeing the e.nor.mous brown pigs, the field of gorgeous hens scratching about like truly happy chappies, and the polytunnels full of good things. And the view from the top of the hill, out across the Pentlands, to Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh and right across the Firth of Forth to Fife was stupendous on a lovely spring day.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

A bun in the oven

My new year's resolution to bake more bread has got a little out of hand. I've made four loaves this week - a wholemeal loaf, a raisin loaf, a spelt loaf and a beer barm loaf. Unfortunately, the problem with home baked bread is that it is so darned good that you just go and eat it all. And once you get the hang of fitting the timings into your day, and figure out how to time things so that you can bake something reallyverygood on a Friday night in order to eat something reallyverygood for breakfast on a Saturday, well, it's also very easy to find yourself sitting in a supermarket cafe with a cup of coffee and a fairly meh cinnamon bun, thinking 'You know what J Sainsbury? I could make a much nicer cinnamon bun than this'.

And so here I am on a Friday evening with a batch of dough proving in the bread machine, and a bowl of cinnamon bun filling in the kitchen and a pan of sugary glaze on the hob, and really things are not looking too good for my waistline tomorrow. They are, however, looking extremely promising for breakfast.

I've used Jane Mason's recipe from All you Knead is Bread. She's also given the recipe on the Virtuous bread website, but I do recommend the book. I've made a few things from it already, including the Russian Rye loaf that I blogged about a few weeks ago. I like this book a lot - it's very straightforward, and handily gives instructions in each recipe for instant yeast, and fresh yeast and whatever the other kind of yeast is called that comes in little balls, so that I can use fresh yeast if I'm feeling brave and instant yeast if I'm feeling lazy (today).

I won't regurgitate the recipe here - I've linked to it above, but it's dead easy, especially if you cheat like me and let the breadmaker rustle up the dough for you while you devote some quality time to your children. And yes, I do realise that really good quality time with my children would actually involve getting them to help me make the buns, but y'know, it's Friday, they were a bit tired and cranky, and I quite fancied a quiet evening pottering in the kitchen. So. A bit of rolling:

 a bit of of dipping:

and a bit of proving and baking. And a whole heap of Mmmmmm. Though mine do seem to have rather more glaze on them than the picture in the book suggests, even though I didn't use more than about 2/3 of the glaze mixture. MrB couldn't wait until breakfast when he saw them, and went for the late-night snack option. He has deemed them 'really good', praise indeed from Mr Power Shake himself.

There is something about a swirly bun that's very appealing. Chelsea buns full of plump raisins and spices, cinnamon buns full of...well...cinnamon, and possibly later this week the rather tasty looking cheese twirly buns in Deb Perelman's Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. I love the way the buns snuggle together hunker-munker in the tin and puff up against each other. And the way that you can untwirl them to eat them. And obviously the fact that a bready thing filled with a fruity thing, or a spicy thing or a cheesy thing is almost always a fine thing.

You will gather from this post that the news that Ms Mason is currently writing a whole book about buns has been warmly welcomed in the breakfasthouse.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

The great marmalade crash of 2013

So, my enthusiasm for marmalade has come to a sticky end.

I was out at a party last night and stumbled into bed at about 1am. A couple of hours later I was woken by an almighty crash. Since we've already had one ceiling collapse saga in this flat, I stumbled back out of bed to see what had happened, in case a ceiling had fallen in on, say, my children.

But no, turns out a shelf had fallen off the wall. In the middle of the night, for no apparent reason. That's quite bad. But when it's also the shelf upon which you have placed an entire season's Seville marmalade (and some of last year's too), and an entire season's pink grapefruit marmalade, and an entire season's apricot jam, and...well, you get the picture. The whole blimmin lot. It wouldn't have been quite so bad if the shelf had merely fallen to the floor. But no, it's in a cupboard full of stuff in our hall, so the cascading jars hit boxes of wires, and guitar cases, and files of papers, and old vinyl records and turntables from when we were young and hip, and pretty much anything else you can think of that one might put into a hall cupboard. It was like an episode of Paddington gone bad. At 3am. I quietly closed the door and went back to bed.

This morning was spent decanting the cupboard contents into the hall, scraping marmalade and broken glass off various items and rationalising our collection of plug-in heaters (a collection we amassed when our boiler packed up in the middle of a particularly cold winter a few years ago). I'm not sure they work so well full of congealed marmalade.

I'm happy to report that the cupboard is also carpeted, which is bad when it comes to cleaning marmalade off it, but good in that a cushioned landing meant I managed to salvage a few jars. But some of them look mighty dented and may have to go as well if the seals have been broken, I fear.

The survivors (note, some of these jars are empty):


I feel sure there is a valuable life lesson here. Possibly:

1. Never make more marmalade than your family can reasonably consume in a year.

or maybe:

2. Don't keep piling glass jars onto shoogly shelves.

and almost certainly:

3. Throw out the crap.

I actually had a big clear out of the cupboard a couple of weeks ago, and so what remained at the time of the Marmalade Disaster was actually the really good, important crap. It had survived the first cut. Though quite why a really manky old cushion inner for which I will never find a replacement cover because it's a sort of saggy pyramid shape had reached this stage in the competition, I cannot say. It is now in the bin. Along with two broken car sunblinds, a halogen heater and a mildewed guitar case. See what I mean? The sort of thing you just can't live without.

So, perhaps my rude awakening had a greater purpose. I feel lighter, and a step further on the path to domestic Enlightenment. Though in the dark, marmalade-drought days of December 2013, I may think otherwise.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Are you a lover or a hater?

I'm afraid that this post will probably mean next to nothing to any readers outside the UK. For it is about Marmite, that love it or loathe it feature of the British breakfast table. For the uninitiated, it's yeast extract, and Marmite fans are usually extremely partial to a thin scraping of this salty, deeply savoury, sticky brown gunk on buttered toast.

I count myself among the lovers. I was brought up on Marmite and I absolutely love it. There are days when I'm not in the mood for the sweetness of cereal or honey or marmalade at breakfast, and Marmite is just the ticket. It's one of those things that can make my mouth water just thinking about it. I spent many of my formative years eating very little for lunch but Marmite sandwiches. The breakfastboys are split on the issue - youngest likes it, oldest hates it, and MrB has never liked it either.

Now, the other day, I chanced upon a tweet by Edesia's Kitchen which got my Marmite glands going straight away - a link to her recipe for Marmite Bread. Marmite and Cheese bread in fact. Now, youngest breakfastboy may like Marmite, but he doesn't like cheese, so there I had a conundrum. Two people who don't like Marmite, one person who doesn't like cheese, and me. Who loves cheese, and Marmite, and making bread. Well, what's a girl to do?

I'll give you one guess.

The recipe just told me to 'make the dough'. So I thought I'd just let the breadmaker do that bit - fling in the ingredients and leave it for a couple of hours, job done. Then you have to spread on the Marmite and the finely grated cheese, roll it up and 'knead it gently'. I'm not sure how 'integrated' the ingredients are supposed to be once kneaded and so mine was still quite 'rolled up' rather than one solid ball, and so tended to unravel a bit once it was cooked.

But oh my. The smell from the oven! And the taste! Quite the most moreish thing you can imagine. Edesia's Kitchen says she's done it as a 'tear and share' type loaf and I guess you could also do it as one of those 'monkey bread' loaves made up of small doughballs with stuff spread in between, piled into a loaf tin, which would overcome the unravelling thing. Or make it more of a feature anyway.

This is not, however, the end of the story. For a most remarkable thing happened. A thing that I have never heard of before. I'd been led to believe that the entire UK population can be divided into Marmite lovers and Marmite haters, and that any jump between the two is as impossible as it is for a horse to become a cow (outwith the processed food industry). But I can now reveal to you that erstwhile Marmite hater MrB is a convert. 'Mmmm', quoth he. 'This is great! So savoury!' And I've even caught him scarfing it between meals, so he definitely wans't just being polite.

Such was our haste in eating it that I clean forgot to take a picture of the finished article in all its glory. Oozing with cheesy marmitey bits and all golden brown on top. 

So, go on. Try it. You too may see the light in the bottom of a Marmite pot.

Dictionary corner: language nerds, did you know that 'marmite' is the French for a cooking pot like the one on the Marmite label, and in fact the same shape as the Marmite jar itself - a sort of witch's cauldron?

Australasia corner: don't try to convince me that Vegemite is a. the same as or b. better than Marmite. It isn't the same AT ALL. That is my final word on the subject. <gavel>

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Blackcurrants, apples, snowdrops, and spring in the air

Having been given a wee packet of sourdough starter last weekend, and having already made a wheat flour starter the week before, I thought I'd use my Redbournbury starter to make a rye leaven. I'm thinking of calling it Rye [sic] Cooder, with thanks to Betamother, who suggested that I call the other one Ray. Ray and Rye. The Sourdough Twins (cue slide guitars). Anyway, I got it going before I managed to kill it off, so by this weekend, I was itching to get baking, and I decided on Dan Lepard's Currant and Cassis loaf from The Handmade Loaf. I've had the book for ages, and had always been drawn to that recipe, due in large part to the fact that I love fruited bread of any kind, but until now I never had the requisite rye starter.

MrB was duly dispatched to the supermarket in search of Cassis and came home with an extremely handsome bottle, which took me whooshing straight back to my teens. The town where I went to school was twinned with a famous vine-growing town in Burgundy, and being a keen student of French, I went on several French exchange trips in my teens. We (patently underage) participants were invariably sent home weighed down with bottles of fine Burgundy for our parents, and also a bottle of Creme de Cassis, which was also made in the town, and whose factory we visited as part of the trip. The smell of Cassis always takes me back to that trip (isn't smell the most powerful sense for that? I certainly find it so), and this label is just like the ones on the bottles we used to bring home. I'm afraid that my home counties town offered little in the way of reciprocal gift-giving opportunities, being famous for very little other than roses and a tenuous connection with Bob Hope. Which may go some way to explaining the penchant for shoplifting trips to Oxford Street among the French teen contingent.

Anyway, I digress. The currants are soaked in the cassis and some water overnight, resulting in a juicily plump pile of currants to add to the dough the next day. The dough is a mixture of rye, wheat and wholemeal flours and I ended up with two lovely loaves. They look a bit burned in the photo, but in fact they aren't, it's just my crap photography. Dan Lepard told me (gasp, yes, really him) on Twitter that sugar in the cassis makes the crust browner than a reglular loaf and I am not to worry. I was a teeny bit disappointed that the finished loaf isn't purple, actually, but it tastes lovely, and is great toasted, like all sourdoughs.

The breakfastboys had all headed off to the swimming pool, so finding myself at a loose end, and clearly with too little else to do, I decided to make another loaf with my wheat starter, the oat and apple loaf, also from the Handmade Loaf. This uses apples to keep the loaf moist and it apparently keeps well for a few days.

Not that it gets much of a chance round here. Today was the most beautiful day, with a definite sniff of spring in the air so, with MrB out on his new bike, the breakfastboys and I sliced up the loaf for sandwiches and took ourselves off for a day in the Trossachs, where the  breakfastboys pootled about in the river and invented a game called 'dirty dusty rocks', which, as its name implies, appears to consist of picking up a big rock and carrying it along. It's true what they say about bought toys being a waste of money.

A day of baking and a day of spring sunshine in the hills. That's a pretty good weekend there.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Chain chain chain, chain of fooooood

<with apologies to Aretha Franklin>

OK, somewhat off the breakfast topic today, but something I care passionately about. Food in schools. You may remember that a few months ago I blogged about the idea of putting domestic science back into the National Curriculum, so I was delighted this week to see that the government is planning to do just that. We'll have to wait and see just what it means in practice - how many schools still have the facilities for pupils to cook, for example, and how will teachers be trained to implement this part of the curriculum - I don't imagine there are many Domestic Science specialists these days? I would LOVE to see something like the wonderful Edible Schoolyard project in the US. Alice Waters' work is truly inspirational - children grow their own food, and cook it, and in the process learn about history (how people grew their own crops in the past, the Silk Road and the spices that have come to us along it), geography (where ingredients come from, what people eat in other countries), biology (how plants grow, how they decompose), maths (weighing, measuring etc), you name it. The benefits of working outdoors, especially for children in very urban areas are obvious, and the responsibility of looking after plants and tending the garden, clearing up the kitchen, and the social benefits of serving and eating food together are all great life lessons too. This holistic approach to food education is so exciting and sensible and I really wish that something similar could be brought in here - that would be a legacy to be proud of Mr Gove.

I'm much less happy about the accompanying proposal to ban packed lunches. In theory, I can appreciate where this policy is coming from. Far too many children are sent to school with nutritionally empty lunchboxes full of crisps, chocolate bars and fizzy drinks, and this is something that needs to be addressed, but I'm not at all sure that a blanket ban on packed lunches is the best way to achieve this. School lunches in our authority cost £1.20 a day, and I think that in most places they cost no more than £2.00 a day. This includes a starter of some sort (which I don't think many children take), a choice of two hot meals, two cold meals (sandwiches, usually), a pudding, and a choice of drinks - milk, flavoured milk, juice etc. This seems pretty standard too. On the face of it, that looks like a pretty good deal, doesn't it? Well, yes, but what about the quality of that food? Youngest breakfastboy used to love macaroni cheese, but was presented at his school induction with a plate of something that I wouldn't feed to a dog - pasta in a congealed sauce, overcooked and really really horrid, and has refused to touch it since at home or at school. So thanks for that South Lanarkshire Council. And of course this week there are all sorts of more sinister question marks over what exactly is in the penne bolognese that is being dished up to our children. I don't object to horse meat per se, but the questions raised over food safety are very serious (horse painkiller anyone?), and the lack of transparency is very alarming. I'm afraid that I have some concerns about meat that is this cheap.

There's also an astonishing and depressing amount of waste. At a recent Parent Council meeting at our school, one of the teachers mentioned that she was surprised that so many children chose fish and chips on a Friday because she didn't think most children were keen on fish. 'They aren't', said the deputy head. 'Most of them eat the chips and throw the fish in the bin'. So, you may think that your child is getting a nice well-balanced meal, but the only way of actually knowing that for sure is to send them with a packed lunch (they bring back anything they haven't eaten so I can see if smallest breakfastboy has eaten his carrot sticks).

When I was at school, we went to the canteen and were presented with lunch. One main course, one pudding. Sure, there were things that I loathed (the thought of macaroni pudding still makes me shudder all these years later), but none of it scarred me for life, and I feel sure I was a less picky eater than my children. The local authority claim that it is all about 'encouraging children to make healthy choices', but how healthy is the choice of fish and chips without the fish, or strawberry milk rather than plain milk, or lasagne that contains meat of a rather dubious provenance? And is a four-year-old really in a position to make those healthy choices effectively? I'm not at all sure that s/he is. In the meantime, I think I would prefer to send my children to school, if I choose to do so, with a packed lunch containing food that I've prepared, where I feel confident about the food it contains.

So, what's the solution? I'm not sure, but I do feel that before we start insiting that all children eat school lunches, we need to look at the quality of what we are serving up and at the astonishing amount of waste: I'm not sure if anyone has calculated how much food waste schools produce, but I'd be really interested to see the figures. If schools are looking to save money (and this seems to be one of the aims of this policy - to increase take-up of meals and therefore make more money), then here's the place to start, I'd suggest. Personally, I'd prefer a much more limited menu of a higher quality. I wouldn't offer my children a choice of four meals at dinner time, and I don't really understand why it's so important to do so at lunchtime, allergies and other medical conditions aside.

As for how to ensure that packed lunches contain nutritionally valuable food, I think that is a more tricky issue to solve. I know that school policing of packed lunches is controversial, and I'm not sure that I agree with it - parents really do have to take responsibility for their own children, and I've seen stories of some very strange decisions by schools. But is it possible to make sure that children are not penalised for their parents' decisions about food? I don't have the answer.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Pancakes and watermills

We spent most of Pancake Day on the motorway on our way home from the shenanigans surrounding the Festival of MrB. So I'm afraid I do not have any exciting breakfast pancake tales to share with you. We did manage to rustle up some this evening, but that would be cheating a bit wouldn't it, in a breakfast blog? For the record, I was going to use Jamie Oliver's 1-tweet recipe (1 cup s-r flour, 1 cup milk, 1 egg, pinch salt, whisk, fry), but it sounded as if it would make thick American pancakes, and the breakfastboys were adamant that it should be thin crepe-style pancakes for pancake day, and I agree really, so I went with Delia's tried and trusted standard pancake recipe from the Complete Cookery Course. It's a book I rarely open these days, but it's great when you want an absolutely standard recipe for anything at all.

On any other day, I'm happy to experiment with pancakes: buckwheat/oatmeal/spelt/thick/thin/you name it, I'll give it a go. But when it comes to Pancake Day, I'm a purist. A thin pancake with lemon juice and sugar for me. MrB and the smallest breakfastboy were right with me on that, and only oldest breakfastboy ploughed his own furrow with some cream and maple syrup - a nod to mardi gras, I like to think.

Well, it's been a right old weekend. We deposited the breakfastboys for the night with their lovely aunt and uncle, who showed them a high old time. In amongst trips to safari parks and waffle houses they stopped by Redbournbury Watermill, where they very kindly bought me some of the mill's own flour - a bag of white and bag of wholemeal and a wee bag of their sourdough starter, which I've just used to start a rye leaven. I'm not too sure what it is - it looks like wholemeal flour, and smells of yogurt, but I've followed the instructions to get it started and hopefully haven't left it too long with all the travelling and killed it off.

I am itching to get bread baking again after a few days away, especially now I have some special flour to use. I'll definitely have to pay the mill a visit myself too the next time we're down south, as they also have a bakery selling bread made with all their freshly milled flours, which comes highly recommended, and have a wider range of flours on sale too. Much of their grain is also grown locally, and I love the thought that everything is grown, milled and baked within a mile of the mill. It's just a shame that I have to travel 400-odd miles to get there!

Meanwhile, MrB and I went off to our own high jinks, which included a very fine breakfast at our hotel. It was one of those menus where you could really make an absolute pig of yourself - porridge, scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, French toast, you name it. MrB went for the full English while I plumped for waffles, which appeared in a very ta-da kinda way on a board, with a baked banana, sprinkled with icing sugar and with a little brass pot of maple syrup on the side. It was all very civilised indeed, and I felt extremely grateful for it after a looooooong night of fun the night before. Grateful also for the fact that it was served until 11am, so that I didn't even have to fall out of bed too early to appreciate it.

Back to business tomorrow, so I'll let you know what's happened to that Redbournbury Mill flour. In the meantime, if you want to try it, you can buy it online at the Bakery Bits website. This is a site I've only discovered recently, and I haven't bought anything from them yet, but it looks fabulous for everything to do with bread baking and fairly reasonably priced.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

The Festival of MrB

Every year at about this time, just as we've polished off the last of the Christmas cake and got smallest breakfastboy's birthday capers out of the way, there dawns what has become known as 'The Festival of MrB'. Not just a one-day festival this. It lasts at least a week and basically involves everyone being extremely nice to MrB, food and presents.

Now this year's Festival is a bit special. It has a zero on the end. And, falling midweek as it does this year, it allows him to have not one but two whole weekends of fun-filled MrB-centred action. This weekend is half term here, so we're off for a long weekend of fun with some dear friends and a grown-up stay in a swanky hotel. I will obviously be paying very close attention to the breakfast dept and reporting back to you on my findings. Assuming that I actually make it as far as the dining room after a night of karaoke (not my idea dear reader, or indeed MrB's), and the cocktails that will obviously be required to get through that. And me virtually a teetotaller. Should it get messy, expect a very thorough analysis of the room service options. Or a very nice photo of a glass of Berocca. I'm not too optimistic, given that one of the people who will be there once presented me with a carrier bag of chocolate bars and a tub of multivitamins with the words 'there's dinner'.

But the festival is already in full swing and so we had friends up last weekend too. A full English breakfast was commissioned for the morning after. I was interested to see how bacon, sausages, tatty scones and baked beans fitted in with the 'training schedule', but this information was not forthcoming.

But it got me to wondering what exactly constitutes a full English. Not tatty scones, for example, which are a decidedly Celtic thing I think, and I think that many people would be affronted by the baked beans. MrB, meanwhile, objects forcefully to the very notion of black pudding, despite being a committed carnivore. And here in Scotland, there is a thing called a 'full Scottish', which as far as I can gather is exactly the same as a full English, only the sausage is square and the black pudding may be white. To me, the word 'full' suggests that you really ought to include all of the possible options, but I guess the joy of it is that the list is fairly extensive and so it's possible to pick and choose and still have a plate heaving with food. Anyway, here's my list:

black pudding
eggs (fried or scrambled)
grilled tomatoes
grilled or fried mushrooms
baked beans
tatty scones or hash browns or saute potatoes or fried bread. Or toast I guess?

Any advances on that list? To be perfectly honest, the very thought of it makes me want to heave. But each to his own. Especially with a birthday in the mix. I nibbled my toast and gazed upon the ravening menfolk as they devoured their meaty breakfasts. He'll need to do a whole heap of turbo training to work that amount of cholesterol off.

And Tea. It has to be tea, doesn't it? MrB would sooner drink dishwater than tea at breakfast. He can't start the day without his cup of full-strength freshly-ground Joe. But it's all wrong. <shakes head>. Even I know that.

Bon weekend tous!

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

My first sourdough

10am: So the day is here. My sourdough starter has been bubbling away for a week or so now and I'm going to embark on my first sourdough. I'm planning on doing all the necessary kneading in between delivery and assembly of a cabin bed, getting a huge tree cut down and swimming lessons, so I probably could have chosen a better day, but it's a busy week, so here we go. I feel surprisingly nervous. I think I'm probably making this a bigger deal than it needs to be. It is, after all, nothing more (quite literally) than flour and water and a pinch of salt. What could possibly go wrong, right? Wish me luck.

I'm using a recipe from the River Cottage Bread book (the 'My Sourdough' recipe), which starts with a sponge, so I got this going last night with a big dollop of my starter mixed with some of the flour and some warm water to make a batter, and by this morning it looked like this:

You might not be able to see them (try clicking on the pic to make it bigger), but it's covered in tiny holes where it's all fermenting away busily. I am told that fermentation makes all the goodness in the grain available to us, the eaters of the grain, and that bread without added sugar makes it more available because added sugar allows the grain to ferment more quickly, but keeps much of the goodness locked up. That was the technical bit, but I'm afraid I'm not too hot on the terminology. Or indeed the scientific facts...

11am: I followed the River Cottage kneading instructions to the letter and have ended up with a lovely silky dough. It's still quite sticky, but I'm told that's quite normal for a sourdough. It's sitting in a bowl having a think. Meanwhile the men came to put the bed together. It ended rather poignantly with one of them telling me that he too slept in a cabin bed the same as our new one in his 1-bed flat, while his sons slept in bunk beds in the same room. As I prodded the holes in my dough after its first prove I found myself wondering about the situation that had left him thus and felt a bit melancholy. This is what comes of living with a frustrated writer (MrB), and of having the time to ponder these things when kneading dough.

5.30pm: Back from the swimming lesson. The loaf has been sitting in its floury linen for two hours for its final rest before baking and is now in the oven! It seems to have done its 'oven spring' nicely and is browning up a treat.

6.00pm: Ta-da! It smells a bit like cheese on toast, and is full of lovely big holes so the wild yeast was obviously doing its job.

I remain amazed by the fact that this started life as a pile of flour and a jug of water.

Smells divine. I need to work on my slashing technique. There's a sentence I never thought I'd write.

You will note from my timings that this is not aimed strictly at breakfast. However, sourdough bread, in my experience, makes fantastic toast, so if there's any left over after dinner, it'll be great with a bit of marmalade or honey in the morning. Yum.

Now, I need to go and lie down. the excitement has quite done me in.