Puff Up The Volume!

Driving home this morning, seeing the luscious much-needed rain has brought the gardens back to greenery & lowered the temperature slightly, I felt rather peaceful.  Last week was particularly interesting, especially as we had to part with our beloved little Peugeot, Phoebe.  Although over the years she leaked, shivered & shook, little Phoebe was like driving a rocket strapped to a rollerskate & I adored her.  So it was rather reluctantly that we drove her to our local “Car Spa”, thinking we would never find another like her.   Fortunately, thanks to the magic of the internet & a rather brilliant chap called Richard (who really knows his stuff!), we bought a beautiful cream coloured Renault & promptly named her Erica (after Eric Clapton, because he was in a band called Cream & calling her Buttercream would have been a bit weird!).  Stress levels deflated, I could concentrate on baking again & two rather rapidly approaching birthdays!

Twenty-four years ago, I was nine months pregnant with my handsome Son & as he was born the day before my birthday, we always celebrate in a double way.  Some of my friends will know that I’m making a sugar lion at the moment (hopefully it will be ready in time!) & it’s rather large, so most of my fridge is full of lion parts (not real ones – please be assured they are all made of marshmallow, chocolate ganache & rice crispies!).  Once it’s finished, I’ll share some pictures with you.  When I bake up a birthday banquet, it’s usually a relaxed affair with everyone helping themselves to the various nibbles & treats, with a triple layer, triple chocolate birthday cake in the midst of it all.  One of our favourite nibbles is cheese pastry straws made from delicate flaky, buttery puffed-up pastry.  You know the sort I’m talking about – the crisp, light, shatter-into-a-squillion-shards-in-your-mouth kind of pastry that melts into a swirl of savoury cheesy butterness once it hits your tongue.

Now usually I would buy some shop-bought puff pastry, as it’s pre-made & quick to roll out – job done!  However, despite my best efforts, I can’t find one made with just butter so I make my own version, using a recipe my Mum & Grandma made when I was younger.  My Mum used to make all kinds of delicious pastries when I was a little girl & the scent of baked buttery delights would always entice me to the kitchen.  Sat on a high stool by the door, I would watch her working her magic & creating all kinds of tantalising treats.  Delicate voluminous layers of flaky fabulousness would crown rich fruit pies, be wrapped cocoon-like around sausage rolls or made into swirly sticks, simply showered in shavings of cheese.  Of course, all magic takes a little time & I was fascinated at how a few simple ingredients can be made into something magnificent (I still am!).  This pastry recipe is really simple to make (the basic recipe is just three ingredients BC – before cheese) & although it takes a little more effort to make than shortcrust pastry, the taste is amazing & it’s really worth it!

One of the most important things when making pastry is cool conditions, so it’s best to make it first thing in the morning (I like to do this when everyone is still in bed at the weekends).  To make sure your hands are cool, after washing them run your wrists under the cold tap for a few moments (trust me, it works).

The next thing to remember is take your time.  Some foods should be made slowly, it’s like a ritual binding all the ingredients together & each process is important, so you can’t skip anything.  This pastry is one of those slow foods, lovingly created by hand – your hands & not squished out of some huge machine into a packet (don’t get me started on the random ingredients list of unnecessary additives either!).  Once you master this flaky-layered lovely, shop-bought pastry will never taste the same again!  Ready?  Aprons on & here we go!

What you need:

For the Pastry:
8oz Self Raising Flour (plus extra for rolling out)
6oz Salted Butter, cold from the fridge & cut into 4 equal pieces (I used salted, as it omits the need for additional salt)
100ml Cold Water

For the Filling:
1oz Medium Cheddar, grated
Half an ounce each of Parmesan & Grana Padana, grated finely
Freshly ground Black Pepper
A bit of melted butter (a teaspoonful should be enough)
1 large Egg, beaten (for glazing)

What to do:

Tip the flour into a large mixing bowl & add one of the butter pieces.  Rub it into the flour until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.

Using a round-ended knife, stir together & slowly add enough water, just a little at a time, to bring it all together – take your time, as you don’t want a sticky gooey mess.  Once you have achieved a thick, dough-like consistency, that should be enough.

Turn out your pastry onto a lightly floured worktop & shape into a rectangle.  Roll away from you into a long piece, about a centimetre thick.  Try to keep the edges as straight as you can, but don’t worry too much or you’ll drive yourself loopy!  Using a dry pastry brush, dust off any excess flour as you go, especially when folding the layers (otherwise it may affect the recipe & you want flaky pastry, not floury).

Take one of the three pieces of butter & cut into small chunks of about 1cm (you can just pull it apart, but the heat from your hands might melt it).

Dot the butter all over the top two thirds of the pastry.

Fold the bottom plain piece over the next third of pastry, then fold the top piece over that.  Brush off the excess flour & press the open edges together to seal the layers of butter & air in.

Dust the worktop with a little more flour.  Turn the pastry one turn to the right & roll out again, just as you did above.

Repeat the above steps a couple more times, using up the last two pieces of butter.  Then turn the pastry to the right, roll it out again & fold into thirds, brushing off the excess flour as you go.

Lay your pastry on a piece of greaseproof paper, fold the top of the paper over your pastry & put it on a plate in the fridge for an hour (you might need to leave it longer during this heatwave we’re having, so probably add another ten minutes if you’re not sure – I’ve left it a couple of hours before & it didn’t do any harm).  Get yourself a cuppa, put your feet up & read a book or something (if you’re like me, you’ve probably been whizzing around, so relax for a bit).

Pre-heat the oven to 220*C & then prepare your tins (you’ll need a couple of baking trays).  Brush melted butter all over the inside of the baking tray & then run under the cold tap.  Tip away the excess, leaving a wet film on the tin.  Repeat with the second tray & set them to one side.

Once your pastry is rested & chilled, it’s time to get rolling!  On a lightly floured worktop, roll out the pastry into a wide rectangular strip, about a centimetre thick.

Cut into two equal pieces & on one of them, brush a little melted butter all over the top & sprinkle on two thirds of the cheese.

Place the other piece of pastry over the top, press down & roll out again, about 1cm thick.

Brush the top of your cheesy pastry with beaten egg – just the top, not the edges, otherwise your pastry won’t rise properly.

Using a knife or a ravioli cutter (my fave tool de jour), cut into finger width strips & twist each one loosely into a twirl of pastry with the egg glazed side outwards.

Place on the baking tray & repeat with the rest of the pastry, until you have a couple of trays of twirly swirls with about half an inch between them.

Sprinkle with the remainder of the cheese, taking care to get the majority of it on the actual pastry (although you will love the crunchy cheesy chips that this produces).  Give them a quick dust with some black pepper.

Bake in the centre of the oven for about 10-12 minutes, until they have risen & turned a gorgeous golden hue.  Carefully transfer them onto a cooling rack using a pallet knife or thin spatula.  Remember the crunchy cheesy chips?  Shake them into a dish for sprinkling on salad as a crispy garnish or just eat them as they are – Chef’s perks!

Serve your cheesy sticks either on their own or maybe dunked in an oozy, warm baked Camembert with a glass of chilled wine (you’ve worked hard & deserve a treat).  I doubt they will last long, but if you do have any leftover just pop them in an airtight container (they will keep for a couple of days, so I’m told).

So when your pastry needs to be buttery, puffed up, flaky & fabulous, have a go at homemade!  Stay hungry!  A 😉 x

 

 

One a Penny, Two a Penny, Hot Cross Buns!

It’s been a rather busy week of baking bread, beautiful buns & creating sweet sugar bunnies for Easter treats, so this morning was no different.  After a 5.00am start, one pot of “slap you round the face” coffee & some hot, buttered toast, I was up & at ’em!  Early mornings are special for me, when everyone else is still sleeping & I’m able to get as much done as possible.  Stopping for fuel this morning at my local Sainsbury’s, chatting about chocolates to the lovely ladies who were also up early (hello ladies!), I was able to shop in blissful peace, wandering around the shelves selecting supplies to make tiny bunny toes.  It was as if the world had stopped just for a couple of hours.  By 9.00am, I had managed to hit four supermarkets & be back home (I think my shopping ninja just levelled up!).

Easter is almost here & we always celebrate, as it’s when nature is springing & sprouting, new vegetables are in season & food becomes a bit lighter & brighter.  While baking bread this week, I decided to make my usual light, fluffy bread dough & also an enriched, sweet dough.  Yes, this did involve kneading by hand for ten minutes per batch & yes, my muscles would be worthy of Wonder Woman, but it was worth every minute!  For many years, I’ve been making bread with fruit in (my Husband loves it toasted with butter for breakfast), so thought I’d make some fruity buns.  Now you all know how much I adore proper plumped up fruit in my baking, so I’ve usually got a handful of sultanas soaking in a cup of tea ready for baking (& fluffy bread demands squishy, sumptuous sultanas!).

Hot cross buns were so loved, someone even wrote a nursery rhyme about them, so they must have been popular!  Although there are some splendid shop-bought ones out there, I do love making my own buns whenever I fancy some.  My hot cross bun recipe is really easy, I promise & they freeze really well, so you can have them anytime (just leave the cross off).  I will warn you, you’re going to get messy.  So, hands washed & aprons on, here we go!

What you need:

500g Strong White Bread Flour
1 tablespoon dried Yeast (or fresh if you like)
300ml Lukewarm Water (dip a finger in it & it should feel just warm)
1 tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil
50g Sugar
A good pinch of ground Sea Salt
1 large Egg
Splash of Semi-Skimmed or Full Fat Milk (not skimmed)
1 teaspoon each of Lemon & Orange zest (wash them first!)
1 ball Stem Ginger, chopped finely
8 Amareno or Sour Cherries, chopped chunky
A good handful of soaked Sultanas, strained
25g Melted butter (for brushing your tin)

For the glaze:

3 tablespoons Semi-Skimmed Milk
2 tablespoons Sugar
A pinch of ground Cinnamon for dusting (you won’t need much)

For the cross:

3 tablespoons Plain Flour
3 tablespoons Cold Water

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 220*C.  For any kind of bread-making, you need your oven to be really hot, so it pays to put it on now.

In a large bowl, tip the flour, yeast, sugar, sea salt & olive oil.

In a jug or bowl, measure your lukewarm water & add the egg, along with a splash of milk.  Using a fork, whisk into a cloudy, fluffy liquid & tip into the other ingredients, using the fork to combine everything into a lovely sticky dough.

Turn out your dough onto a lightly floured surface, ready for kneading.  You will find this dough rather stickier than usual, because there’s more liquid in it, but this will give you beautiful buns!  Get yourself a pastry scraper, in case it sticks to the work top (you don’t want to lose any!).

Knead for ten minutes until you get a pliable, smooth dough ball.

Place your dough into a lightly floured bowl & cover with oiled cling film (just rub a bit of olive oil all over it).  Put it somewhere warm away from draughts (like the airing cupboard) for 30-40 minutes to prove, until it is doubled in size like a big bubble.

While the dough is proving, prepare your tin.  Get yourself a nice, large baking tray & a sheet of greaseproof paper.  The paper should overhang the tray slightly, as it will be filled with dough balls & will stop them touching the tray.

Using a pastry brush, paint melted butter all over it thoroughly.  Press the paper down into the tray, buttered side up, to make sure you have painted it all.

Once the dough has proved & is doubled in size, remove the oiled clingfilm & set to one side (you’ll need this again).  Tip the dough onto your lightly floured work surface & knock it back to remove any large air bubbles – I throw it on the worktop a couple of times & this works really well.  Knead it lightly for a few seconds & spread out on the worktop into a rectangular shape.

Sprinkle the sultanas evenly over the top, followed by the chopped cherries, ginger & zest.  If you don’t like cherries, try adding dried chopped apricots.

Fold the dough into thirds & press it together well to seal everything in.

Carefully cut in half, then half again & once more (probably once more too), until you have sixteen even-sized little lumps of fruit filled dough.  By now your worktop is a bit sticky, but persevere – you’re getting there!

Using floured hands, roll each dough lump into a ball & place on the buttered greaseproof paper, leaving roughly an inch between them.

Once done, cover with the oiled clingfilm you used before & leave to prove again for 20-30 minutes, until they have doubled in size again (they will have already started to do so before you finished filling the tray).

Before they go in the oven, you need to put the crosses on.  Mix the plain flour & water in a cup using a fork, until it resembles a gloopy paste.  Scrape into a piping bag & snip the end off (don’t make it too big, just enough to draw a decent sized line), then pipe crosses on the tops of your buns, which will have all snuggled up next to each other nicely & filled the gaps.

Put the tray in the centre of the oven & bake for about 15 minutes.  You will need to turn the tray around a couple of times to ensure they are baked evenly (trust me, you don’t want raw ones in the middle).

When the buns have turned a gorgeous golden colour with lovely cream coloured crosses, they should be ready.  To check any bread, just tip it over & tap it on the bottom – if it sounds hollow, it’s ready!  Be careful not to break up your big batch of buns!

Lay the whole lot out on a cooling rack, placing the greaseproof paper carefully underneath the rack on the worktop.  This will stop your worktop getting messy & you can just roll it up afterwards.

Immediately brush on some cold milk & sprinkle with sugar, then dust very lightly with a little Cinnamon.  The milk will absorb quickly & they will smell absolutely heavenly!

While they’re still warm, gently pull apart or cut into batches of four or even just individual buns.  Freeze any extra ones in bags & you’ll have a treat anytime.  These fluffy, flavourful buns taste fabulous just as they are, lavishly spread with butter (the good stuff), or toasted.  They’re great for tea breaks, breakfast or just when you need something nice to nibble.

So when Easter comes around, why not bake some beautiful buns & share with family & friends!  In fact, I might just have one now with another cuppa!  Stay hungry 😉  A x

 

Dunk Dastardly & The Unsinkable Biscotti

Sunday mornings are one of my favourite times to be up early (I like to begin baking before everyone wakes up) & this weekend was no exception.  The stunning sunrise at  “OMG it’s early” o’clock was glorious, bringing with it a bright, albeit chilly, day & …. (drumroll please) …. a new hob!  After being hob-less for eight very long weeks now, you can imagine my eager anticipation!  With a fresh biscotti & coffee in hand, I sat fantasising about heavenly hob cooking: silky Spaghetti alla Carbonara, rich risotto & fat, fluffy pancakes – it was as if my Fairy Godmother had popped in for a coffee & brought Prosecco instead!

While the two great guys from a well-known electrical company (think spicy food) turned up & got to work fitting the new hob, I discovered they had been on the road since 6.30am with no breakfast or coffee (& they were still smiling!).  Obviously, I had baked & there was a selection of biscotti & breakfast bars for them to share, as my way of thanking them (I did the Mum thing too, packing them off with a little bag of goodies).  Big thanks to Michael & Steve, you are stars!

Italian food has always been my passion & when our Son was working in Naples last year, we would chat almost daily about the amazing food there, the fabulous people, wonderful fresh food markets, coffee, Grappa & of course, the Biscotti!  Biscotti are one of our favourite treats, especially as they travel well & can resist a good dunking in a drink.  When you’re having a relaxing afternoon break sipping your caffè macchiato, you want a good solid biscuit to dunk.  That first, almost trepid, dip as you submerge it a little into the steamy liquid & the smug relief you feel as you retrieve it is quickly replaced with sheer horror, as you helplessly watch collapsing chunks plunge back into your cup!  It’s happened to us all & when your dunk is sunk, no matter how fast you try to spoon it out, it’s gone to the bottom of that cup faster than a brick & is now a murky, mushy mess waiting for you to sup up.

It’s as if biscuits are just not dunkable anymore – they lull you into a false sense of security, thinking their dense sweetness will hold up to that cappuccino you’re so carefully clutching – believe me, it won’t!  Then there’s that sneaky fracture, the one you can’t see until it’s too late & half of your biscuit is bobbing around like flotsam on a coffee pond, the rest sunk to the dark depths of your cup.

However, there is something to make difficult dunking a thing of the past: the bellissimo Biscotti.  Actually, to refer to these luxurious lovelies as a mere biscuit doesn’t do them justice!   Here’s a bit of history for you:  Biscotti comes from an old Latin word “biscoctus”, which basically means twice-baked.  In the old days, storage options were quite limited & so by cooking them twice, the biscotti would keep for a lot longer & still be good to eat (I knew those Latin lessons would come in handy one day!).  For a while, I’ve been buying them from a little local supermarket & at one point, we had a serious stock pile in the pantry (just in case there was a world shortage, you know).  Recently however, they didn’t have any & our stash was running low, so my Husband (who adores them as much as I do) suggested I make some.  Challenge accepted! This recipe is for a nutty biscotti called Cantuccini & although I’ve adapted it slightly, it’s as close to a traditional recipe that I can get, so I hope our Italian friends like it as much as we do!

What you need:

300g Plain Flour
175g Golden Caster Sugar (or use Golden Demarara Sugar & chuck it in the coffee grinder until fine)
2 large Eggs
25g melted salted Butter
1 heaped teaspoon of Baking Powder
Half a teaspoon of Vanilla Extract
200g whole Almonds (or 100g each of Hazelnuts & Almonds)
Zest of an Orange (optional – you can make it with either nuts, zest or both)

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 180*C.

Firstly, you need to toast your nuts.  Lay a sheet of greaseproof paper on a baking tray & evenly spread the almonds (& hazelnuts too if you’re using them).  Place the tray in the oven & let them toast up for about ten minutes, until their colour deepens slightly & you can smell their toastiness.  Once done, turn the oven down to 150*C & remove the nuts from the oven.  Gently ease the greaseproof paper, with the nuts on top, onto a chopping board (not a plastic one!).  Leave to cool for about five minutes or so.

Wearing oven gloves, pick up a small handful of the nuts & gently massage together in your hands, which will remove some of the papery skin easily.  Chop the nuts into large pieces – you want to be able to taste the nuts in your Biscotti, so take it easy when chopping.  Set to one side for later.

Prepare your orange for zesting by giving it a good wash in some warm soapy water.  It’s best to use unwaxed or organic oranges for this, as the last thing you want is a mouthful of icky wax!  Once washed & dried, get a fine cheese grater or zester & give it firm, quick strokes to just skim the top off the skin – if you’re getting the white pith underneath as well, you’re doing it too hard (don’t take the pith – it’s bitter).  Set the zest aside too.

Get a couple of medium-sized mixing bowls – one for the dry ingredients, one for the wet. In one bowl, sift the baking powder & flour together.  In the second bowl, crack the eggs in, add the sugar & vanilla extract.  Whisk well for a couple of minutes or so by hand until it becomes a creamy coloured, glossy mixture, then gradually pour in the melted butter & whisk again as you do so.

Add the zest & mix well, then pour the creamy mixture into the dry ingredients, stirring well with a spatula & as everything begins to combine, tip in the chopped nuts & mix to form a firm dough.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured worktop & shape into a flattish sausage shape, about half an inch deep & roughly three inches wide.  Carefully transfer onto a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper, cutting the sausage into two equal portions if necessary & leaving a couple of inches gap between the two on the tray.  Make sure any escaping nuts are squished back into the dough, otherwise they might burn & spoil your biscotti.

Place in the centre of the oven & bake for about 25-30 minutes, until firm & slightly risen.  Slide them onto a cooling rack & leave for about 10 minutes or so, keeping the greaseproof paper on the baking tray for later.

Once cool enough to handle, cut the large biscotti into slices, about half an inch wide.  Return them to the greaseproof lined baking tray, standing up & slightly separated, then pop them back in the oven for about 20 minutes for round two, until lightly golden & bronzed on top.  I like to turn the tray around halfway through, just to make sure they are toasted all around.

Remove from the oven, leave to cool completely on a wire rack & your biscotti are ready!  They make great gifts, or will keep for a week or so in a jar (if you hide them, otherwise they last about an hour if you’re lucky!).  I also like to use them as a base for no-bake cheesecakes (I make a mean lemon cheesecake with these crumbled up).

Traditionally, Biscotti are dipped in a glass of gorgeous Vin Santo wine, but these unsinkable beauties can be enjoyed with a coffee whenever you need a nutty nibble.  So for a dastardly dunk, be brave with a bellissimo Biscotti!  Stay hungry 😉 A x