Tuesday, August 26, 2014

recipe: ciabatta

I'll be honest, joining in with the technical challenges from GBBO has not, so far, been as inspiring as I had hoped. Whilst the first week went well, last week and this week have been less enjoyable. It's a shame really as I was looking forward to bread week. I've never made bread except in a breadmaker (apart from one Christmas where I rustled up some not altogether successful bread rolls on a whim). 

Firstly, I didn't use the semolina the recipe recommends. It is only for dusting, so I don't think it is too fundamental, but having scoured the supermarket to no avail, I decided that there were more enjoyable ways to spend a bank holiday weekend than wandering the North West searching for a bag of semolina. The man in the supermarket had helpfully brought me the tinned variety when I was looking for it, but I thought it was better not to try and improvise with that.

Secondly, these recipes are making me realise how much television trickery goes into the programme. Much like the chopping of the nuts from last week, there is a lot of prep in this recipe that I can only assume was pre-done for the bakers. However, in this case, it's actually the making of half of the dough, as it needs over six hours proving, which seems a bit of a cheat really.

Having never made bread, I had grand ideas that I would discover the wonders of home baking, and duly stocked up on yeast so that I was fully prepared for the many loaves I would be rustling up in the weeks to come. As it was, me and ciabatta dough didn't get along. This stuff is sticky, and clingy, and it felt like I left half of the mix behind, or all over my hands, every time I transferred it from bowl, to worktop, to bowl, to container, to worktop, to baking tray (it is another very convoluted recipe). You make a dough, then it needs to rest for over six hours, and the result is a gluey, stringy mixture which is so difficult to transfer that it seems like you end up knocking out all of the air  bubbles you have been patiently waiting for.

After that you then add more of the same ingredients and wait another one to two hours for it to rise (and I am assuming this is where the bakers in the programme started from). Then you tip it out and shape it, and again all the air bubbles seem to be lost in the process. After another half an hour proving, which didn't seem to make much noticeable difference, you finally bake it for half an hour. It felt like a long day for not much reward. As The Husband helpfully pointed out, we could have flown to Italy, eaten a ciabatta and flown home again in the time.

I really wanted to love baking bread, and my guess is that this was just a bad choice of starter recipe. I'm not patient enough for all of the different elements this method requires. The finished product was good, it had a crunchy crust, a soft dough, and I seemed to have got some of the uneven air bubbles in there, even though it felt like I had knocked them all out. I was just a bit disappointed with how long it all took, particularly as the programme looked like they had rustled them up from scratch in a couple of hours. The recipe is below, if anyone has a day to spare to try it, and in the meantime, I'd be ever so grateful if you can suggest some more beginner-friendly recipes that might give me the bread baking bug (Laura I'm looking at you after your #52loaves project). Particularly as I have a whole load of yeast to use up!


Recipe: Ciabatta

(Recipe reproduced from BBC Food)

Makes 2 Ciabatta Loaves


400g strong white flour (plus extra for dusting)
7g instant yeast
300ml water
30ml olive oil (plus extra for oiling)
7g salt
semolina for dusting


  • Combine half of the flour, half of the water and 4g of yeast to make a thick batter.
  • Stir batter well, then knead on an oiled surface for 5 minutes.
  • Return to bowl and cover with a damp teatowel and leave to rise for at least 6 hours at room temperature.
  • Add remaining flour and yeast, half of the remaining water (75ml) and the olive oil to the dough mixture. Use a food processor with dough hook to combine the ingredients.
  • Dissolve the salt in the remaining water, and gradually add this to the mixture, combining with a dough hook throughout. Continue to mix for 5-10 minutes until stringy.

  • Transfer dough into well-oiled one litre square container, cover with lid, and leave until dough has risen to three-quarters of the height of the container (approximately one hour).
  • Flour a surface with a mixture of flour and semolina. Transfer the dough to the surface, divide into two pieces and shape.
  • Transfer shaped dough to baking tray which is coated with flour and semolina. Preheat oven to 220°C. Leave dough to prove for a further 30 minutes whilst oven is heating.
  • Bake in oven for thirty minutes. Slice and serve.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

recipe: florentines

So the next of the GBBO technical challenges is brought to you by the letter F. F is for Florentines, Mary Berry's recipe which formed part of biscuit week, and which I duly made this weekend.

F is for fiddly fine chopping. What they don't show (and I assume they didn't have to do) on the programme, is that there is rather a lot of prep for this recipe. It includes finely chopped walnuts, finely chopped cherries, finely chopped almonds and finely chopped mixed peel. That's a lot of fine chopping which needs doing before you can get started, and which takes a little while, particularly when the almonds keep pinging across the kitchen every time you try to chop them.

F is for faith. I thought I would never manage to find mixed peel in the middle of August, however not only did I find it in Holland and Barrett on my lunch break (having googled "buy mixed peel" and striking lucky) I also found a great big tub of it reduced. Now I just need to find a recipe that requires another 400g of mixed peel - suggestions welcome. Side note - I hadn't realised initially that mixed peel and candied peel are the same thing so it's probably available in supermarkets too, I was just googling candied peel to begin with! 

You also need to have faith that yes, that miniscule amount of ingredients in the bowl, is enough to make 18 (or 36 in my case) florentines. You need to have faith that yes, those tiny little mounds of gluey mixture will spread into something that resembles a florentine. 

F is also for following the instructions about spacing out the mixture properly. If you place them too close to the edge of the tray you get these unusual quadrangle effects, which I do not feel would have passed muster with Mary.

The final F is that florentines are a faff. It may have been that it was a Friday night, it may have been that I had spent more time that I anticipated finely chopping fruit and nuts, but it's a recipe that calls for quite a lot of faffing around. It isn't particularly complicated, and you could do things quite easily in between the stages but when I started needing to temper chocolate at ten o'clock at night I have to admit I corralled The Husband to come and lend a hand.

Once you've done the chopping and made the mix, they take ten to fifteen minutes in the oven. If you were only making three trays that wouldn't be too tricky but because I doubled the recipe it became a bit convoluted swapping the trays in and out (the curse of batch baking strikes again). After that though the florentines need to cool for about half an hour.

Then you need to start tempering chocolate. By this point it was late, and the very specific temperatures included in Mary's recipe were putting me in a temper of my own, hence The Husband coming in to melt chocolate with me and agree that the technicalities of tempering were not imperative to an enjoyable florentine. Once you've melted the chocolate, you then have to wait until it cools and thickens enough to spread on the florentines without dripping through the biscuit. Finally, you then have to wait a good while longer until the chocolate has set enough for you to decorate the chocolate with the classic swirls.

Overall, I was pleased with how most of them turned out (a few of the deformed ones aside!). They were nicely crunchy, and a few even had the crucial lacing around the edge. They are wonderfully festive (there's another f), and it's quite a simple recipe but they are not fun to make when time is of the essence. If you fancy a bit of leisurely baking though, here is the recipe for 18 florentines, which doubles up easily!

Recipe: Florentines

(Recipe reproduced from BBC Food)


50g butter
50g demerara sugar
50g golden syrup
50g plain flour
25g glacé cherries
50g mixed peel
25g whole blanched almonds
25g walnuts
200g dark chocolate


  • Preheat oven to 180°C. Line three baking trays with greaseproof parchment.
  • Finely chop the almonds, walnuts, mixed peel and cherries.
  • Add the butter, sugar and syrup to a pan and cook on low heat until butter is melted. Remove pan from the heat and add the nuts, mixed peel, cherries and flour, stirring mixture well.
  • Divide mixture between the baking trays, placing six equal teaspoons of mixture on each tray, spaced well apart.
  • Bake in the oven for 8-12 minutes until mixture has spread and has turned golden brown in colour. 
  • Lift out trays and leave florentines to cool and harden before lifting onto a wire rack to cool completely. (Mary notes in the recipe that if you have greased the tray rather than using paper, the florentines can harden too much to remove. If that happens, soften again in oven for a few moments.)
  • Melt half of the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water (if you want to temper properly - the temperatures are given in the link above!). While the chocolate is melting, finely chop the remaining chocolate (that's right - more fine chopping!). Lift the bowl off the water and add the chopped chocolate, stir until fully melted.
  • Once the chocolate has cooled and thickened slightly, spread on the back of the florentines and leave face down to cool on a wire rack.
  • When the chocolate has set slightly, use a fork to decorate the chocolate with a zigzag pattern, and leave to cool completely.
  • Once cool, the florentines can be stored in an airtight container.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

a very friendly lion called parsley

As you might recall, I mentioned in this post about hoping to get some jobs done in the garden, and grand ambitions for a miniature herb garden. Well, that weekend, we surpassed all expectations, and got lots of jobs in the garden finished. The furniture was repainted and the wooden arms stained a lovely dark brown. The new barbecue we bought second hand had a fresh paint job and was duly used that evening to sit in our lovely tidy garden for a celebratory meal with my parents. 

We spent the whole day watching grey clouds pass overhead, waiting for rain to stop our work (The Husband may well have been crossing his fingers for a downpour!), but miraculously they blew over every time. Which also meant all of the washing was dried on our new washing line too. It was a wonderfully productive day, and the next weekend we had another meal outside, enjoying the last of the evening sunshine and our lovely new garden.

As part of the bout of productivity that weekend, I found some brilliant ceramic pots on our supermarket shop, and potted up some fresh herbs, for an immediate herb garden. Some internet searching seems to suggest they might not last in the long term, but I have since bought some seeds to add to the pots to try and encourage new growth.

I think the chives are my favourite, and they seem to have survived the potting fairly well, and the mint is holding up too, with a fabulous smell. Basil looks a little beleaguered, and parsley is fading fast. The other problem was that as pretty as the new pots were, they didn't have drainage holes, and so my herbs spent their first few days swimming in sludge.

So, the following weekend, The Husband took his trusty power tools, and we spent a quick fifteen minutes fixing the problem. I gingerly held the pots on their side, whilst The Husband slowly drilled holes into the bases, and Millie ran between us lapping up all of the dirty water that was dripping onto the floor.

Yes, those herbs are arranged alphabetically, but if you have spotted that I figure you are similarly afflicted with a need for order! Whilst we were in getting things done mode, The Husband also repurposed a left over piece of wood from the shed into a little stand, so that the pots could drain properly. I'm very happy with my new little herb garden under the kitchen window, I just need a handy set of secateurs and to start cooking with them now! 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

recipe: cherry cake

Unless you have somehow managed to avoid all of the hype in recent weeks, you will know that Great British Bake Off is back on our screens. It's one of the programmes that I really enjoy, and I was very excited to round off my first day at the new placement with a cup of tea and the promise of a brilliant series ahead.

I have noticed with previous series that people sometimes bake along with the programme, and although I thought actually trying to bake and watch at the same time sounded like a multitasking step too far for me, I liked the idea of using the series to inspire me to bake a little more, and also to venture into making recipes I haven't tried before.

Realistically, I felt that choosing to cook up a showstopper every week might be a bit ambitious, and having seen this week's requirement to make 36 mini cakes I'm glad I made that call! Instead, I thought that doing the technical challenge, albeit with the luxury of having the full recipe at my disposal, would give me the chance to learn some skills as well as enjoying some baking.

So on that basis, this weeks recipe was a cherry cake, which is something I would never have thought to try. Luckily the BBC release the recipes when the programme is screened, and so it was that on Friday night The Husband I were doing a tour of supermarkets trying to locate a bundt tin, whilst I rued the fact that I hadn't bought one on all those occasions when I had seen them.

Thanks to a bit of internet searching as we perused the baking aisle, I found this one at Ikea which doubles up a normal springform cake tin, and the store near us had them in stock. The Husband earned some serious brownie points agreeing to venture into the Swedish labyrinth on a Friday night after work, knowing full well we would likely lose at least an hour on the hunt for some bakeware, even more gracious considering he isn't a fan of cherries!

So I had a lovely Sunday morning baking with Millie and the radio for company. It was great to get up early and have the cake baking while The Husband and I had breakfast together. A really cheerful way to start the day, and I can feel myself making a habit of it in future.

The cake itself was pretty straightforward, the fiddliest bit being chopping the cherries. I used undyed cherries for the mix, but put French glacé on the top as I thought they would look a bit brighter against the icing.

When it came to decorating I went for what Mary would call "bold icing" rather than neatly piping the drizzle, but I was pleased with how it turned out overall. I didn't turn the cake upside down from the tin because the shape was better if I kept it upright, but that oh-so-crucial distribution seemed to be fairly well balanced so my cherry prep must have been satisfactory!

It was possibly a touch dry, and I think it should probably have risen a little more, but it went down very well with my grandad and my step-dad after Sunday dinner. I enjoyed it too, and was very pleased with my first attempt at a hallowed GBBO recipe! The rest is packed up ready for The Husband to take into work, and I'm already looking forward to next weeks challenge of Florentines.

Cherry Cake
(Recipe reproduced from BBC Food)



200g glacé cherries
225g self-raising flour
175g softened butter
175g caster sugar
1 lemon - finely grated zest
50g ground almonds
3 large eggs


175g icing sugar
1 lemon - juice
15g flaked almonds - toasted

  • Preheat oven to 180°C. Grease a 23cm bundt tin.
  • Cut the cherries into quarters. Keep back 5 for the decoration. Put the rest in a sieve and rinse under cold water. Drain well and gently pat dry thoroughly using kitchen paper. Toss the cherries in two tablespoons of flower until well coated.
  • Combine the rest of the cake ingredients in a bowl and beat well for two minutes until thoroughly combined. Gently fold in the cherries and spoon the mixture into the tin.
  • Bake in the oven for 35-40 minutes, until lightly golden, and a skewer inserted into the cake comes out clean. While cake is baking toast almonds lightly in a non-stick pan.
  • Leave cake to cool in tin for 10 minutes and then turn onto a wire rack until completely cool.
  • Combine icing sugar and lemon juice and drizzle over the top of the cake using a spoon.
  • Decorate cake with almonds and cherries.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

a ticket to my destination

(Simon and Garfunkel - Homeward Bound)

I travelled by train today, for the first day on my new placement. It makes a real change from commuting by car, and although I suspect the novelty might wear off at some point over the next twelve months, I thought I'd share with you some things that I have realised:

1. I'm going to have to ditch the heels. As I made my way precariously up the cobbled hill to the train station the need for some smart flat shoes became immediately apparent.

2. There will be a queue. I completely didn't consider that anyone other than myself would need to buy tickets for the train, and consequently missed the (luckily very early) train I was planning on taking as I stood in line.

3. Headphones seem to be customary attire, it amazed me how many people were plugged in, face down into their screens. On one hand it felt more than a little bizarre how isolated everybody managed to be on such a busy train, on the other hand, I really missed having the radio on, so I may end up joining the masses of wired up workers.

4. The morning train was cramped. To the point where I couldn't even open my bag without elbowing three different people in the face, so if I do want to use my phone/read a book/take up knitting I need to have it in hand before I climb aboard.

5. Similarly, standing on a commuter train provides a logistical nightmare when it comes to positioning yourself in the aisle. Trying to find a place to put yourself that does not involve at least one person in the seats having a close up view of your crotch is not an easy task, but the vague shuffling I did to try and rectify the situation passed the journey, stranded as I was without access to my bag.

6. Standing on a crowded train in August makes you remember why it is important to have breakfast. At least, I suppose, if I had fainted, no-one would have noticed, held upright as I would have been by the people crammed in around me.

7. No-one, that I could see, has mastered the art of sleeping elegantly on public transport.

8. Train travel is a great leveller. The high powered businessman looks slightly less dominating as he drools against the window. The brunette with the beautiful hair was doing her make up on the journey, making me realise she was someone like me who chooses more time in bed whenever given the option. The two girls in jeans who looked to be off for a day shopping, turned out to be going on a course (I think) about dental nursing. I love guessing everyone's stories.

9. Don't assume the main station is the nearest. It was only when I got off the train I realised the penultimate stop would have been closer. At least I learnt it on a day when I had plenty of time.

10. I love working in the city, the city I studied in, the city I was born in, the city my mum worked in when she was my age. It feels like coming home.

Friday, August 01, 2014

first things first

The first of August and what a promising month it seems to be.

The first weekend in a while (since some time in June) that is free from plans. We have, in recent months, been somewhat inundated with weddings, stag dos, hen dos, dress fittings. All very lovely occasions, but at times fairly relentless (I am toying with the idea of some wedding themed posts, as I feel I am something of an expert bridesmaid/wedding guest these days). It is an eerie, but welcome, calm this evening, although I am so full of things that I want to get done now we have some time that it may turn out to be an even busier weekend than normal.

The first day that I can finally, properly, look forward to the new job. I have, since February, been due to start a new role next week. It is a secondment rather than a complete move, but as such it has been more than a little testing trying to co-ordinate a range of different organisations and departments to all approve the temporary transition. Today (nothing like cutting it fine) it has at last been confirmed, and I can now allow myself to get excited, and believe it is actually happening. I've also used it as an excuse to order some refills for my filofax, and some new pens. I will always associate the first day anywhere with an overwhelming desire to buy new stationery.

The first summer where we have had a garden that feels like a space we want to use. Over the last few months there has been much in the way of garden makeovers, a new drive, a new fence, a new shed, and lots of lovely new plants that so far Millie has managed to leave rooted (another post I am thinking of writing although I fear I may have missed the boat by forgetting to take before pictures). There are a few final touches required, the chairs need a re-paint and the fence needs staining, but I've got fingers crossed for some sunshine this weekend so that we can finally get it finished. I've even got grand plans for a mini herb garden on the table under the kitchen window. Then some lovely summer evenings beckon, and perhaps our first al fresco dining.

The first of Amanda's August prompts over at writealm is "modest", and I read the above paragraphs and think it feels quite fitting. An uneventful weekend, a meal in the garden, the first pages of a new diary. None of these are particularly exciting, but for me, they bring a sense of serenity, of order. There feels, finally, to be a pause, a sense of things calming down, and plans coming together. I have high hopes that August will be filled with simple pleasures, a month of modest joy feels promising indeed.

The obvious omission from the list of firsts is that this is my first blog post in a fair few months, but let's just pretend it's like I've never been away.