Category Archives: Cookery books

Chuffed to bits by bread!

Sometimes, when you’re bread making, you have disasters. I’ve produced loaves even the birds won’t touch, and others which have been more air bubble than bread. I’ve made loaves which fell apart at a touch (how the heck did that happen?) and loaves I couldn’t get the bread knife to even scratch.

Those days have, due to huge amounts of practice, largely gone. Oh, I can still have my off days – who can’t? Days when I forget to set the timer, get distracted and have no idea how long the bread has been in for; days when I even forget that the timer exists and am only alerted to imminent disaster by the acrid smell of bread burning. Then there are days when I get everything set up and forget one vital thing. Like whether or not I’ve got enough starter.

I set everything up on Sunday and then looked at the Le Parfait jar in which my starter was sitting, allegedly ready. Only it wasn’t. I’d made the mistake of using almost all of it, and had then had to revive it big time. I’d thrown away most of the first revival – very watery – and done the second. I really needed to do a third, but I was also out of bread and out of fresh (or dried) yeast. And there wasn’t very much of the starter anyway, not if I wanted to keep some back and avoid making the same mistake again. But what there was did look quite lively.

Brilliant BreadThe inspiration struck – I thought I’d seen something in James Morton’s excellent book Brilliant Bread. And I had – a basic formula for a sourdough. One I could adapt to whatever quantity of starter I had available. So I got the scales, found a clean bowl, found the calculator, found a pen, found some paper, had to find the calculator again… but it was worth it.

Essentially the formula is 2 parts white flour to 1 part starter. Easy. I had 160g starter (measured out in my clean bowl), so I needed 320g flour.

Then I had to work out the water I needed – not quite as straightforward, but simple once you realise that the starter can be assumed to be 50:50 flour and water. You need 75% of the total weight of flour, so my starter could be assumed to  contain 80g flour – with the 320g, that made 400g. Three-quarters of 400 is 220g of water.

Made up tepid water in jug, put jug on scales. No idea how much jug itself weighed. Poured out tepid water, replaced empty jug on scales, set scales to 0 (thank goodness for digital scales). Filled jug with tepid water until it weighed 220g.

Salt, nearly forgot salt. Salt should be 2% total flour weight, so 8g in my case. No probelms.

And then I made my sourdough as normal, letting it prove in the fridge overnight. Second prove in the morning, only took about a couple of hours; result? Great – lunching on fresh bread. On the perfect mini sourdough (not so mini, come to that).

Mini sourdough

Obviously I had to adjust the cooking times slightly, but that’s no hassle. And – quite frankly – neither is working out the maths. And the next time I’m faced with a similar problem (OK, piece of stupidity), I know what to do. Find the calculator.

Oh yes. And remember to keep some of the starter back for that next time.

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Back to the future with retro cooking

A couple of days ago I was in search of a recipe. I knew I had it somewhere, but I searched everywhere and couldn’t find it. Then I thought about the cookery books I keep down in the basement/office/general store, and ended up down there. I didn’t find it, but I did find something else: The Hamlyn All-Colour Cookbook from 1970. Oh yes!

This was one of the first cookery books to have every single recipe illustrated, and illustrated in – drum roll, please – colour. Strange colour, in some cases, but colour. It was written by four people and the contributor of the first section is Mary Berry – in fact, it was her first foray into cookery books. Her part is largely devoted to baking and sweet recipes, and is predictably reliable, but I was looking for more savoury recipes. And I found them. Either the authors were under serious pressure (always possible), or these dishes were acceptable then, because some are – um – extreme. Many are extreme.

'rice salad'I found myself in a strange land, serving to remind me just how far we have come, and just how far food styling has come too (the images are printed at so low a res that my shots will have to remain small, btw). This is a rice salad, which consists of a large mound of cold rice with various uncooked ingredients placed on it in stripes, and surrounded by watercress. That’s it.

Should you wish to host a retro dinner party, then I can sincerely recommend this book as it is, and not as it is in any ‘modernised’ version. It was a classic – almost every home had one – and it is perfectly, absolutely of its time. Think Abigail’s Party.

'lasagne pie'Mind you, there might be a problem in sourcing some of the ingredients. Or not, even though they might be missing from your cupboards at present. The ‘lasagne pie’ for instance, uses a tin of minced beef or a tin of chunky steak (I think the stylist went for chunks), and that’s almost it. Half a packet of lasagne, the aforementioned meat, 1 tbsp tomato puree, some garlic salt and pepper, with single cream and grated cheese (not for a Béchamel – you just pour cream over it, cook it and scatter the cheese on top when it’s nearly done).

IMG_0327Vegetarians, predictably, get few offerings. I spent ten years as a veggie – my family still are – and I well remember the Ubiquitous Omelette, now replaced (my brother tells me) with the equally ubiquitous mushroom risotto. This is the Vegetarian Sunburst Salad. In case it’s not obvious, it’s grated carrot, grated cheese, some lettuce leaves and cucumber slices. It does look pretty, though… oh, and the dressing is peanut butter mixed with (bought) vinaigrette.

reallyI’d not realised the extent of the 1970 pineapple obsession. Fancy fried pineapple, with sausages and baked beans? No problems. Try Sausage Beanfeast, with a bunch of spring onions, a can of pineapple rings, pork sausages and a large tin of baked beans in tomato sauce. You fry the onions and some chopped pineapple in butter, and add the beans and chopped grilled sausages (reserving some). While you’re doing this, you fry the remaining pineapple halves. Then you assemble as shown.

But for me the prize goes to this dish. Now, my mother had this book. Plenty of friends had this book. I took an updated copy of this book to Uni. I’ve eaten some good things made from recipes in this book. I am not belittling this book. But I am – gobsmacked, I think is the right word – by Pineapple Crowns.

aghThese are Pineapple Crowns. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I read the recipe title as I flicked through, but it wasn’t this. Ingredients? Mustard pickles, finely chopped; white bread with the crusts trimmed away; lard; slices of canned pork luncheon meat; another tin of pineapple slices (the mustard pickle is the stuff that looks like droppings on the top – thank heavens food styling has moved on). Basically it’s bread fried in lard, luncheon meat friend in lard, pineapple rings fried in lard, all piled on top of each other and topped with mustard pickle. Rather like a Noughties’ chef might produce a tower, though I don’t think lard would feature quite so prominently… just saying.

Some of the sections are a little random, leading to some alarming juxtapositions: Cheesy Buttered Noodles (they look like tagliatelle, with butter and grated cheddar, then baked) next to Butterfly Layer Cake, which is topped with a can – well, with the contents, dur – of blackcurrant pie filling. They’re both in ‘rice and pasta’ by the way – ‘continental favourites’ has a frankfurter salad next to crèmes au chocolat – but there are more elsewhere. For me, this is the opposite of appetizing: it makes me feel slightly ill, and that’s without eating Pineapple Crowns.

But I am so glad I found this book – if you see the 1970 version in a charity shop, do buy it. It won’t break the bank (mine cost me £1.50), and it may bring benefits. Remember the Rum Truffle? I don’t think I’ve eaten one since about 1987, but I did love them and there’s a recipe here and I’m going for it.

As a finale, how about this masterpiece of styling? Get those chiffon dresses and lurid corduroy jackets out now, because this is just fab:

IMG_0329Yeay!

(Chicken Chaudfroid – poached chicken, covered with mayo which has been set with aspic jelly, and decorated to within an inch of its life. Couldn’t you guess?)

Hot weather soups

Today the title of this post seems a little optimistic, but I’m hoping I can entice the warmer weather back by stating it as a fact. Well, it might work…

I am, without any doubt, a soup addict but at this time of year even I go off them a bit. After I abandoned a bowl of mushroom soup the other day I decided I needed an cold alternative, and one that wasn’t gazpacho. So I turned to one of my favourite books, Lindsay Bareham’s Celebration of Soup, and there were a few interesting suggestions, though not a lot – but many of them foundered on the fact that I’m lactose intolerant. I have to avoid milk and cream, and though I could now take a tablet which would enable me to digest lactose, many years of white liquids making me ill means I contemplate them with distaste (but yoghurt is fine; the bacteria in yoghurt help generate enzymes which digest lactose; go yoghurt).

cold soupThen I went back to some of my other, often older, books. An obvious choice, and a version of which does appear in Soup, was a Middle Eastern one, a classic which crops up in many sources: cucumber, yoghurt, garlic, mint. A lot of the versions I found used cream, like Lindsey Bareham’s, so I decided to go back to the absolute basics and see if it was really necessary…

Cold cucumber, mint and yoghurt soup
(serves 2, generously)

a sliver of butter
1 tsp olive oil
2 shallots, peeled and chopped
1 cucumber, peeled, deseeded and chopped
1 clove of garlic, peeled but whole
a good handful of fresh mint, chopped
500ml natural yoghurt
salt and white pepper

Melt the butter with the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan over a gentle heat. Add the shallots and allow them to cook – without browning – for a few minutes and then add the chopped cucumber. Cook for another 5 minutes, stirring and checking that there’s no hint if browning, and then add about 300-400ml of water – enough to cover. Cook, very gently, for 5 minutes more. Keep checking that there’s enough liquid and add a little more if necessary. Add the chopped mint and cook for another 10-15 minutes, or until the shallot and cucumber are really soft and the liquid has cooked well down.

Put a sieve over a large bowl and empty the vegetables into it; remove the garlic clove and discard it. Work the soup through the sieve with a wooden spoon. Discard any bits which won’t go through – there shouldn’t be much – and scrape any pulp off the bottom of the sieve into the bowl. Test the soup base; by now it should be tepid. Add the yoghurt and stir it in (a whisk is useful) until it has a texture similar to single cream; thin with a little water if necessary. Check for seasoning, cover the bowl and chill in the fridge for a minimum of 2 hours.

(Removing the garlic after cooking is optional. Including it can make the soup taste overwhelmingly garlicky, but if it’s mild you could leave it in – chop it roughly before cooking, though.)

mintI grow a lot of herbs, and currently have six different mints; for this soup I used a mixture of spearmint, garden mint and a Moroccan mint, plus something described as ‘chocolate mint’ on the label. Happily, it doesn’t taste remotely of chocolate…

I also grow lovage, and that gave me an idea for another soup, made along the same lines:
celery and lovage soup.

I won’t bother to write out all the method again, as it’s essentially the same. For two, I used a whole head of celery, including the leaves, and 4 shallots; no garlic. I trimmed the celery but didn’t de-string it before chopping. I cooked these gently down, this time using a neutral rapeseed oil, and needed to add more water so they didn’t catch; they also took longer. I added a good handful of chopped lovage leaves after 25 minutes, and cooked the vegetables for another 10. The pushing through the sieve produces more pulp for discarding – mostly celery strings as far as I could see – and I had to be careful when scraping the pulp off the bottom of the sieve as some of the strings worked their way through at the end. I didn’t need quite so much yoghurt to get the right texture this time. This celery and lovage soup has a delicious, almost lightly curried flavour, and I ground some black pepper over it before serving rather than adding white pepper before chilling. Yum.

Very refreshing, and doubtless there’ll be more experimenting before the summer (HINT, weather gods) is over. I can’t do without my soups.

I can do without some things, though. Several of the authors of the older recipes I uncovered in my ridiculously large collection of cookery books obviously felt that subtle colour wasn’t good enough. Personally, I don’t see lots of green food colouring as a necessary soup ingredient (eek)…

Cooking the books

I admit it, I have an addiction problem. Cookery books.

booksI like to excuse my terrible tendency to amass great heaps of recipe books (let’s not get onto the ones about the history of food, health aspects of food, ethnography of food, politics of food, even archaeology of food) as being work, so it’s OK. Honest.

As a writer and editor I’ve often worked on food books, whether as the writer, the editor, the copyed, the recipe writer or even the recipe sense-maker. The latter is a special category, incorporating all those who work with Big Cheese Chefs, attempting to make their recipes both affordable (‘Do you have to use a cut of meat that costs £150 and fifteen truffles?’) and workable in a domestic kitchen (‘Most ordinary kitchens do not have blast chillers and three ovens,’ or ‘Can we reduce the serving size from fifty?’). It also comes in useful when dietitians are involved – ‘I think most people might have difficulty measuring 73.8g of flour…’

Living where I do in deepest Snowdonia, there are some things I cannot get exactly when I want them, and one of them is a good Chinese meal. There are some good restaurants, but there isn’t anything really worthwhile under an hour’s drive away and in the present weather – hurricane, anyone? – that’s not really an option. Anyway it hardly qualifies as an impulse if you have to make sure the car’s filled up and then drive halfway over the mountains to get there. My collection of books on Chinese cooking are a little tired, so I ordered everything recent which the library had in stock and settled down for a little experimentation. They’re a mixed bag, and I’m not going to name names because I honestly cannot recommend any of the ones I tried.

What I can do, however, is have a chunter in more general terms. Because so much of my work as a freelance involves working with food books, I am an exceptionally fussy customer. Or am I?

garlicFor example, I don’t think it’s asking too much to expect that a photograph which supposedly illustrates a recipe should actually illustrate  the recipe and not include things which aren’t in the ingredients – such as the chillies and carrots in one I tried, for instance. I know why the stylist put them in, though.

I’ve worked with stylists but it’s not that which gives me the understanding, it’s the fact that the dish, when prepared as given, was beige. Beige with a hintette of green, but essentially beige. Lumpy and beige. Very beige. What a strange word that is when you type it repeatedly, and what a bland and boring dish it would have been to photograph. Quick, sling some chillies on top; nope, that’s not enough – shove some carrots in…

I do tend to feel that if you want to use a photo but can’t illustrate the recipe for whatever reason – seasonality perhaps – then you should use a generic pic. Like the garlic above which has nothing to do, directly, with the text around it. Or you could leave it unillustrated, but that’s not always an option.

My next grumble, one which almost everyone will have experienced at some time but which seems to be becoming more and more common and was certainly present in my Chinese books, is the editing. Not even the editing, really – more the proofreading: ingredients in the method which aren’t in the ingredients list; ingredients in the list which aren’t in the method. Many’s the time I’ve been left standing in the middle of the kitchen shouting at a book (like it could answer) ‘All right, what the **** do I do with all this spinach?’ or ‘What tomatoes?’

I know why this happens. In simple terms, it’s the money.

Editors are not particularly well paid, and proofreaders are paid even less (contrary to the small ads for proofreading courses in the back pages of the Guardian), but even so it’s seen by some publishers – not all, I stress – as an area where economies can be made. And food editors / proofreaders do have certain skills which more general ones do not. Some are a bit specialist (will the recipe, as written, actually work – ‘Yes, I know it’s allegedly tested, but if I add X and then do Y it will curdle, so I doubt it’), and some are not. I once had a chat, for example, with a starting-out proofreader who had been asked to proof a recipe book – very cheaply – and who didn’t realise that the order of the ingredients in the list should always match the order in which they appear in the method.

Then there’s the fact that editing and proofing plain text is much more straightforward – hah, generally, ironic laugh – than working on recipes. Publishers often ask for a ‘normal’ book to be copy-edited at, say, ten pages an hour. With recipes, that comes right down – three recipes, depending on length and complexity, is an average per hour. (Particularly when you have to keep going back to the author with truffle-elimination and serving-size-reduction queries.)

Sometimes – and I’ve worked on both sides of the counter, as it were, so I know what goes on – a stage is eliminated: a copy-editor will be used as a proofreader or vice versa, or someone in-house will do both. The former is just about acceptable, though it depends on the extent of the copy-editing: you can’t spot mistakes or logical leaps in your own work as easily as someone who is new to it, so a proofreader is vital if a copy-editor has had to do a lot of rewriting. But a proofreader is not automatically a substitute for a copy-editor, who is generally expected to take a more wide-ranging view and occasionally rewrite huge chunks. Copy editors turn sow’s ears into silk purses; proofreaders make sure the stitching on the purse is right. They’re different skills. Or they are sometimes.

But it does have to be said that some books (and some publishers) are much more reliable than others, and that it’s always been an issue to some extent. One of my favourite titles, Claudia Roden’s Mediterranean Cookery from 1987, is covered in graffiti – things like ‘half qty fine’ and ‘WHERE DOES THE AUBERGINE GO??????’. When M&S published books under their own name, they were meticulous – everything not only got checked and double-checked by the publisher producing the book for them, but was checked again by their own proofreaders, and then went out for testing by their staff (don’t get me going on recipe testing; I’ll save that rant for later). So an old M&S recipe book might be boring – though that’s by no means a given; their French Country Cooking, for instance, is fab – but boy would those recipes work.

And the photos matched.

Now I must go and see if adding chillies to by beige mountain will help at all. I suspect not, but maybe that stylist was onto something…