pita pita patter

When I did my experimenting with sourdough (starter and loaf) at the end of last year I became a little obsessed with reading about different kinds of bread; how they are all made, the differences in each process and the origins and stories behind them.

My main question that I desperately needed answered was how pita bread gets the big bubble of air in the middle, that convenient little pocket we all use to stuff in our favourite ingredients.

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Surprisingly it has nothing to do with a cleverly shaped or hollowed out wheel of dough but it actually is all on the way it’s cooked.

Similar to the way a naan bread is speckled with charred air bubbles from the immense heat of the oven they are cooked in, the expansion of a pita bread comes from the heat of the pan or oven they’re cooked in. Essentially, as the active yeast begins to rise, the water within the dough begins evaporating – splitting the dough in half as it tries to escape, forming the helpful hollow we find so useful.

And this is how easy they are to make:

1 cup of warm water
2 teaspoons of instant yeast
2 ½ cups of flour
2 teaspoons of sea salt
2 teaspoons of olive oil

Step one: mix it all together.

Step two: knead I for five minutes.

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Step three: place in a bow, cover with a tea towel and leave to rise for an hour.

Step four: divide into eight equally sized discs, a bit like a UFO.

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(Note: step 3.5 should be heat the oven to 240°C with a tray in to heat as well)

Only once the oven is hot enough should you even think about cooking your pita breads, if it isn’t hot enough then they won’t balloon up and you may as well have just made bread rolls.

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Keep an eye on them: they will only need about 3 minutes – oh, the beauty of a hot oven!

They are best served hot, but delicious at room temperature too. I smeared mine with roast pepper hummus and stuffed them with pomegranate meatballs and fresh spinach. But to be completely honest, I would have eaten them plain, that’s how good they are.

 

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christmas countdown: stollen

The meaning of Christmas varies depending on where you are in the world. I’m not just talking about the way you celebrate it, or what it means to you – spiritually or otherwise. In every corner of the world, Christmas varies on all sensory levels; the way to looks, tastes and sounds, and the way it smells.

In New Zealand, a typical Christmas is a barbeque of sizzling sausages and an ice cold beer in the evening sun. On the flipside, my Christmases in France revolved around roasted goose and mulled wine, Christmas sweaters and staring out the window at the dreary, grey gloom. I know which one I prefer but here is something about a winter Christmas that is leaps and bounds ahead of the antipodes in festivity.

And that is the Christmas smells.

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This year I have found myself craving those warm, comforting smells; cinnamon, cloves, pine needles and ginger. Instead of brewing up a batch of mulled wine – which I didn’t think would go well with the temperature in the mid-twenties, I decided to try my hand at making stollen.

Stollen is a dense, festive bread from Germany, it is full of nuggets of sweetness and all of the flavours, textures and emotions associated with Christmas. Traditionally made with almonds, candied fruit and lemon zest, I decided to mix things up a bit by substituting in cashews, crystalized ginger and dried citrus peel.

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First things first, you need to get your dried fruit nice and drunk. I mixed a cup of raisins and a cup of candied ginger and fruit peel, chopped, with three tablespoons of Pimm’s – or orange juice if you’re not one for baking with booze. You could also use rum but I like the rich, fruity undertones of Pimm’s and use it in cooking often.

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Next up is the yeasty sponge; combine a tablespoon of yeast powder with ¼ cup of warm water, ¾ cup of warm milk, a teaspoon of clover honey and a cup of flour. Mix into a thick paste, cover with cling film and leave the yeast to do its thing. If your house isn’t too warm, then sit the bowl next to a heater for 30 minutes or until the surface of the mixture is speckled with bubbles.

In a separate bowl, whisk one egg and combine with ¼ cup of honey, ½ cup of butter and a pinch of salt. Toast ½ cup of chopped cashew nuts and add to the mixture, along with ½ teaspoon of nutmeg and 2 cups of flour.

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Add the yeast mixture and the boozy fruit and combine into a thick, wet dough. Slowly add another 1 ½ cup of flour until the dough isn’t so sticky. Knead for five minutes of a floured surface.

Once the dough has come together, roll it in a little vegetable oil and leave to rise. What I hate about so many bread recipes is that it always says the dough will double in size; mine never does and it makes me nervous for the end product. Nervous without cause, in fact.

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Divide the dough in half and roll into flat ovals. Brush the surfaces with melted butter and sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. I used granulated sugar, but you could use icing sugar or even a layer of marzipan. Fold the ovals over on themselves and knit the edges together, making sure no air is trapped inside and the seams are tightly secured so they don’t rip open in the oven like one of mine did!

Leave to rise for another 45minutes before baking at 190°C for 25 minutes.

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As soon as you take the loaves out of the oven, baste them again in melted butter and dust with a thick layer of icing sugar which will melt and be absorbed into the breads outer crust. Delicious!

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Serve it hot as it is, or cold next to a steaming cup of coffee. On the rare chance you have anything left past a day or two, smear each side of a thick slice in butter and pan-fry until crisp and golden. A decadent, toasty holiday treat!

the chapter continues: making sourdough

I have always imagined that becoming an artisanal baker would be a rather idyllic and romantic way of living life. That is probably because while my imagination cascaded ideas of kneading dough and eating crusty bread, drenched in olive oil, it also conjured up an image of doing so in a 17th century villa surrounded by fields of sunflowers that doubled as my (currently non-existent) children’s magical forest play land.

I know the reality of that ever happening is slimmer than a slice of biscotti, but it’s nice to have dreams, isn’t it? Maybe I would settle for having a house with a wood fire oven, that way I could make pizza too!

It’s great to have things we want to attain in life, but most of the time we have to start out small; in this case, a small oven – this is how my first attempt at making sourdough went.

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To say it was a dreary morning sounds like the beginning of an unoriginal film noir script, but it was. I only mention that because the drear filled me with dread that I was not in the best of weather conditions for bread making. But I did it anyway – I’m a trooper.

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I measured out two cups of my pungently fresh sourdough starter and swirled through a tablespoon of melted butter and ½ of a cup of warm milk. Next, I sprinkled in a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of sugar before sifting in 3 cups of plain white flour.

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The best way to make bread dough is with your hands, though I do suggest loosely combining the mixture with a wooden spoon before taking to it with fist one and fist two. Tip the dough (and any particles that haven’t stuck together) onto a floured surface and knead with the heel of both hands for about 5 minutes. You will probably definitely need to add a touch more flour.

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Using your fingertips, roll the dough into a big, flat oval and roll up like you would if you were making a cinnamon roll. Knit the edges together between thumb and forefinger, place on a tray and leave to rise for about 3 hours.

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If you’re a little bit phobic about it not reaching the optimal rising temperature like me, try putting it in a warm oven for the time it takes to rise.

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Remove the loaf from the oven and heat to 190°C. Bake the bread at this temperature for 10 minutes before turning the temperature down to 175°C and baking for further 40 minutes.

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It is ready to eat at soon as you pull it out of the oven. Dense and zingy, it is perfect just smeared with a layer of butter, but it also makes a great accompaniment for dinner because it is so flavoursome and savoury. Serve on the side of a stew or top with left over tamarillo salsa!

a chapter on baking: sourdough starter

They say a holiday has been successful once you start missing reality; once you have reached your capacity of relaxation and have exhausted your to-do list of enjoyable activities. In the meantime, it is helpful to use this new found free time constructively as well as lying about lazily, curled up with a book and a glass of wine.

I spent the last week doing just that at my parents’ house in the countryside. The fresh air, the warm breeze, nature, paddocks and orchards as far as the eye can see; the perfect environment for making a sourdough starter.

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Sourdough uses wild yeast as a rising agent, so there is something ancient and traditional in the process; very at one with the earth if you don’t mind my hippy frame of reference. Catching nature’s own yeast particles from the rolling spring breeze is what gives the bread its unique and zingy flavour, a palate that will be specific only to that ball of dough – an imprint of the landscape in bread form, if you will.

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Like most things medieval, the process takes several days and is far from methodical. Begin with ½ a cup of flour and mix with an equal amount of water. You can use any flour; because the dough will have no commercial grade yeast, it will be denser than a loaf we would expect to buy today – so fluffy, refined white flour isn’t a bad choice. I used a bag of organic flour I found in the cupboard. A shade of mousy brown, I can only assume that it was wholegrain, bran or rye, but I really have no idea – all part of the mystery I say!

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Cover the bowl with cling film or (preferably) a tea towel and leave somewhere warm – near the fireplace or oven, and ideally somewhere near an open window and leave the yeast to work its magic.

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The following day, add another ½ cup of water and flour, combine well and leave to grow.

Repeat again on day three, the yeast should be becoming quite strong by now, and the mixture should smell of old beer. Bubbles should be forming on the surface as small bursts of carbon dioxide begin to form.

The next day, after the fourth addition of flour, the mixture should have the consistency of thick custard and the aroma of sulphur. Like me, your first thought will probably be that it’s all gone terribly wrong and you have somehow created a bucketful of caramel coloured toxic waste; don’t panic, it’s meant to smell like that. You may want to add a little less water than flour on the last day if it looks a little watery.

Based on how much wild yeast has inoculated and environmental factors such as temperature, your starter may need a fifth day with an additional dose of flour. But if it’s nice and bubbly, and perfuming the room like the Heineken Brewery, you know it’s ready to rock and roll!

Tune in next time for my recipe on how to make the dough!

banana almond muffin pudding

The heart wants what it wants, and so does the stomach. During winter I don’t give strawberries a second thought but I could eat them any day of the week when they are in season. But there are some foods that you can’t help but crave – regardless of the season and once your head starts asking for it, your stomach won’t stop needing it until it is satisfied. The other day, despite the humidity, I decided that I needed bread pudding.

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Maybe it was the little bout of rain we had last week that make we want to curl up on the couch with a nice, steaming bowl of pudding. I am not one to ever deprive my stomach of what it wants – it really is the force that drives, and controls me, so I made this little variation of a traditional bread pudding.

I am not a huge stickler for sticking too close to a traditional recipe; if you can change it to make it better – do it! While a bread pudding usually uses bread (as per the name), I have seen it made with brioche and croissants so I don’t think anyone is going to be too scandalised by the fact that I made mine with muffins.

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To begin, break or cut three large and slightly stale muffins into eight chunks each. You could use three croissants or pain-au-chocolat instead of muffins, or six slices of white bread. The muffins I used were banana and almond flavoured which I knew would give the pudding a lovely moreish flavour and it also meant that I wasn’t going to have to add much else to make it delicious – the work was already done for me!

Place the muffin pieces into a baking dish and set aside. In a recipe using just bread, pouring a little melted butter over top of the bread chucks is recommended, but these muffins were practically bleeding butter so I decided to skip this step for time’s sake.

For each muffin that you use (or for each two slices of bread) whisk one egg, a ¼ cup of sugar and a ½ cup of milk with a teaspoon each of vanilla and cinnamon. This is essentially going to form he custard that the bread absorbs.

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“Custard-soaked bread” is not a description that does this dish any justice, so we need to make it a little more exciting. Sprinkle about a ½ cup of dried fruit or chocolate drops over the bread and pour over the custard mixture. You could use raisins, pistachio nuts or even cubes of apple. As I mentioned, my muffins already had banana in them and were topped with almond slithers, but I topped mine with fresh slices of banana and a few dried cranberries for a little colour.

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Bake your assembled pudding at 175°C for 45minutes until crisp and golden on top.

A nice crunch on top, and an oozy warmth in the centre; folds of bread filled with bursts of custard – just what the doctor ordered! And by doctor, I mean my stomach. Enjoy piping hot while staring out the window as the rain runs down the window, like tears at the realisation that summer will eventually finish, or refrigerate overnight to enjoy as a cooling treat in the midday heat. Or eat the leftovers for breakfast. I did, and trust me, your arteries might not thank you, but your taste buds surely will!

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bunny ears and easter buns

Fact: Hot cross buns are the best. When I think about it, they are not the kind of thing that I ever particularly crave, but I do enjoy them so much every time Easter rolls around. The great thing about Easter is that, no matter which continent you’re on, the weather is usually nice and crisp, making these such a moorish treat. I was recently faced with a rather large pile of hot cross buns and I was astounded by the variety of flavours, no longer just your standard spiced fruit, no; Nutella, salted caramel, chocolate chip, gingernut, on and on and on.

Unfortunately, none of this massive pile of yeasty goodness was for me. Even more unfortunate is the fact that come the morning of Easter Sunday, I realised we had completely forgotten to get any and due to all of the shops being closed we feared that we may have to go without.

Instead I decided to make some myself.

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I am not sure why, but the idea of baking bread-based products fills me with an overwhelming sense of dread. I am always convinced that it is going to be a complete disaster due to the yeast not rising, or the fact that I am not very good at properly measuring the ingredients ever.

However, it went of mainly without a hitch. And you can do it too! Here is what you will need: 200mls of milk (full fat- duh!) 50mls of water 55grams of butter 14grams of yeast 455grams of flour 55grams of sugar 1teaspoon of salt 1 egg

Here is what I added but is in no way essential for them turning out so it is really up to you: 6 cloves a dash of vanilla 1teaspoon of mixed spice 1teaspoon of cinnamon ½ a teaspoon of nutmeg ½ a teaspoon of ginger ½ a teaspoon of paprika 120grams of dried fruit, almond slivers and chocolate drops.

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I used about 70grams of raisins, 20grams of almonds and 30grams of chocolate. The almonds add a nice crunch which emphasises the plump, juicy raisins. I added paprika because I think it gives a good kick to the mildness of the mixed spice, and with the addition of chocolate it is reminiscent of chilli chocolate which is up the on the list of faves.

Combine the milk, water, butter, cloves and spices in a saucepan and gently heat until the butter has melted. Remove it from the heat and while you are waiting for it to cool, combine the flour and sugar in a large mixing bowl.

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Once the milk mixture has reached blood temperature (that’s 34°C), mix in the egg, vanilla and yeast and mix in with the dry ingredients. If you are fancy and want to use a vanilla pod instead of vanilla essence like I did, add it to the milk before you heat it so it has time to infuse and take it out at this point… also take out the cloves… if you want, I didn’t because I thought they would be a fun little surprise to find when eating them, no one else thought this. I know that it says 14grams of yeast, that is because most sachets of yeast are 7grams, if yours are 8 then just use 16grams, or if you don’t have sachets, there is nothing wrong with 15grams.

From my extensive research before starting this recipe, there are so many different ways the above steps can go. Some melt the butter and heat the milk separately, other add the egg and yeast to the flour instead of the milk. I can’t speak for how this affects the end product, I did it this way because it meant less dishes afterwards.

Once you have mixed the milk and flour together, knead the dough for a good ten minutes, place back in the mixing bowl, cover with a tea towel and leave to proof for an hour.

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Once it has doubled in size, take it out of the bowl and sprinkle/dump the fruit and/or nuts and/or chocolate on top and knead to combine.

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Divide and roll into 12 equal sized balls and leave to rise for another 30minutes. While you’re waiting, mix 2tablespoons each of flour and water together to make the paste for the crosses. Coat the buns with eggwash and pipe the crosses on top.

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Bake at 190°C for 20minutes, glaze with warm apricot jam, warm caramel or just rip them open and enjoy with a knob of butter!

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Happy Easter, everyone!

brioche à la praline

Why, hello there, 2015! How are you? Exhausting, that’s how. We are a mere four days in and I already just want to curl up into a ball and sleep for a week. But seeing as that is not possible, I instead just daydream about all the delicious food I ate a Christmas-time.

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This year, Christmas breakfast was accompanied with homemade brioche laced with sugar-coated almonds. The morning was unusually humid so the dough didn’t rise as well as I would have liked it to, but it was still really delicious and rather easy to make.

Easy to make and not too time-consuming, however, should not be thought as two of the same, especially in this situation. Regardless of when you want your bread to be ready, you will need to start the day before; the dough is best when refrigerated overnight.

To make this delicious beauty, you will need…
240grams of flour
25grams of sugar
5grams of salt
7grams of instant yeast
70milliltres of milk
2 eggs
125grams of softened butter cubes

Mix your dry ingredients together before adding the milk and eggs. Use an electric mixer at a low speed for a couple of minutes before moving to a medium speed for another eight or so. Or use your own arm strength like me until you have an elastic dough like this.

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Mix in the butter a cube at a time; I find that this way the batter is smoother. Cover the dough with cling film at chill overnight, if you cant wait that long, a few hours should suffice.

DAY TWO
Roll your dough out into a large square on a surface dusted with flour; it should be about a centimetre thick. Brush the dough with egg wash and cut into 16 evenly sized pieces. Sprinkle about two thirds of almonds overtop, fold each piece in half and arrange them in a loaf tin. Brush again with egg wash and sprinkle the remaining almonds overtop before leaving in a warm place for 45 minutes to rise.

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Bake for 30 minutes at 180°C or until you can poke a knife into it without any dough sticking to it.

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The food colouring used in the almonds will run through the dough as the sugar coating the almonds melts giving it a beautiful marbled effect.
This is a perfect sweet snack to dunk into your coffee, and having divided the dough into pieces before baking, it is so easy to break into chunks and share with loved ones.

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say cheese!

As I was lying on the beach today in 31°C weather, under the cloudless blue sky, eating strawberry vanilla ice cream (Yes, this really is how my life works at the moment. I know, I am the epitome of glamour, the definition even. Check the dictionary, I’m there), I realised that it had been far too long since I had updated this.
So I made a mental note to fix this issue. I also begun to think about everyone that I left behind at home, and how they are probably all freezing right now as winter begins to creep in. As I chuckled at my good fortune of avoiding winter/laughed at their misfortune of being stuck in it, I knew what the perfect thing to make the cold weather seem not so terrible; Raclette!

Raclette is wonderful, it is a type of cheese which originates from Switzerland or the part of France on the Swiss border. It is also a dish made with said cheese that belongs to the same family as fondue, the machine that you use to make said dish with said cheese, and the party you throw in which you use said machine to make said dish with said cheese. Following?

machine editedA couple of weeks ago I went to stay with my friend who lives in Montpellier, most probably the cutest little city I have seen and maybe ever will. It’s about two hours from Marseille so I hopped in a car with a bunch of strangers (which is a lot less dangerous than it sounds since its all sorted through a legit website) and off I went!

Now, Raclette is meant to be a winter food, but I had never tried it and everyone decided that it was something I needed to experience right away. So, after a wonderful day of sightseeing I sat down for a life changing meal.montpellier collage

 Another great thing about Raclette is that it is so easy to make, providing you have a Raclette machine… Although we can easily get around that..

Step one: Boil some potatoes. Leave the skin on until after they have cooked so that they keep their shape. Do as many as you want, depending on how many people you are feeding and how hungry everyone is.

Step two that probably should actually go ahead of step one: Assembling your ingredients. This is probably the most time consuming part of the whole process. Slice and arrange whatever you want to eat with your melted cheese. Traditionally the cheese and potatoes are eaten with charcuterie; cured meats. We used ham, a couple of kinds of salami, a kind of blood sausage and some prosciutto but we also included pickled onions and gherkins to trick us into thinking we were being slightly healthy.  Oh, and bread, of course.SAM_0622

Step three: Melt your cheese. With the Raclette machine, the cheese sits in mini frying pans underneath the element. I am slightly stuck for ways you could do with without the machine but I guess that melting it in a normal frying pan could work, maybe, as long as it doesn’t stick to the pan and just make a terrible mess.

Anyway, while your cheese is melting put whatever meat you want to eat with it on the element (which I suppose could also be substituted for another frying pan). The element doesn’t need to be oiled or greased because the meat is so fatty anyway, so just slap it on there. Yum! While the meat is toasting and the cheese is melting, peel a potato and cut it into chucks in a bowl or on a plate and wait. When the meat is crispy, or just warm if that’s how you want it, take it off the element carefully and cut it up on top of the potato. Now cover it with the melted cheese and voilà!

Continue this until you’re full, the potatoes and cheese run out or until you pass out into a food coma.

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It is meals like this that make me dread the cold European winter a little less… just a little.