Tag Archives: baking

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.


Whatever happened to afternoon tea?

I’ve been fiddling about in the basement office – well, I say office, but at this time of year it’s a store for garden furniture, kindling and unwashed fleeces – and I came across a book from the 1980s, Jane Pettigrew’s Tea Time.

afternoon tea...A little idle flicking through brought instant nostalgia – for the habit of afternoon tea, not for the scary big hair in the author photograph: 1986 may have been a good year for teashops, but it was evidently a fantastic year for anyone selling hairspray.

A brief read of the intro was enough to make me realise that a great gulf of time had suddenly opened up, however. And some of the recipes – Downton, pure fantasy Downton. Admittedly they were self-consciously nostalgic even in the 1980s, but kidney paté on toast? Did anyone really make that? Devilled sardines?

All of this made me think seriously about the role afternoon tea has played in my life. It’s barely conscious, but it is a constant. And it’s quintessentially British, too – not English, oh no, it’s got a fine place in Scotland and Wales, and in Ireland. Especially at funerals, but that’s a specialist sub-set of the afternoon tea. And of course it’s present in literature – the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, for instance.


It’s been a constant for me for as long as I can remember (though dormice in teapots have been remarkable by their absence).

Constant right from being a child, when we regularly had afternoon tea at my grandparents, all fine china and salmon and something slithery my step-grandma called ‘shape’, or when we went on celebratory trips, all dressed up, to Betty’s of York. Then it persisted, in a bastard but equally enjoyable form, though college – Fitzbillies cakes and crumpets cooked by being slapped onto the bars of a gas fire – and my first years down in London, where I indulged at Fortnum and Mason; I know, I know, but I worked almost next door. It was a marked feature of holidays in Ireland and of holidays in Yorkshire.

(An Irish friend developed a Yorkshire–English phrase dictionary. This included such phrases as ‘let’s just stop for a cup of tea’, which was translated as ‘let’s just stop for a few buckets of tea, a sandwich, an unfeasibly large scone and a ginormous piece of chocolate cake’. I can’t think what she was going on about, really… it’s not unique to North Yorkshire. And nor were the arguments about who was paying, either. Think about Mrs Doyle and Mrs Dineen slugging it out over afternoon tea payment in Father Ted. and you’ve got about the right image – er, apart from our appearance, that is. We were both goddesses and neither of us wore a hat.)

But it’s not a constant now – or not in the classic sense. We seem to have lost the habit of afternoon tea. Or perhaps it’s just changed (and got infintely, unbelievably expensive if you will have it at the Ritz). No more devilled kidneys, no more sitting down over cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off, no more smoked salmon pinwheels. When did you last see a three-tier stand with sandwiches on one layer, little scones in the middle and elegant small cakes on the final one? Rather than one filled with lurid cupcakes or, more latterly, equally lurid macarons?

But there’s a lot more ‘meeting up for a coffee and a cake’ going on (and notice the pattern on the oilcloth – referencing afternoon tea):

coffee and cake

Perhaps we’ve turned Viennese, with our kaffee und kuchen instead. I’m not decrying that; I love it, it’s really enjoyable and damn near perfect when you’ve got good places to go like the Llew Glas Deli In Harlech and T H Cafe in Dolgellau (though there can be a downside, which I’ve moaned about elsewhere).

There’s no doubt that there’s a baking revival underway, with the Great British Bake Off, things like the Clandestine Cake Club and the popularity of cupcakes (they’re not popular with me, though: I detest the oversweet, sticky, tasting-of-damn-all-except-sugar, squishy little sugar transporters – and no apologies for repeating ‘sugar’, either). And there’s been an increased interest in good tea, too. But it seems to me that the interest in afternoon tea as such is more style than substance. So far.

Maybe it is time for a 1980s-style revival of the 1930s interpretation of the nineteenth-century tradition of afternoon tea. Maybe we need to be hunting out those china three-tier cake stands in junk shops and using them as they were intended to be used, and laundering damask tablecloths. Maybe we need to revisit parts of the 1980s – not the hair or the politics, please – and go full throttle for reinventing the British tradition of afternoon tea. It’s ideal, sometimes. If you’re going out in the evening, why rush over eating a meal which then leaves you doubled-up with indigestion in the theatre? Why not have a good afternoon tea instead? Oh, I know, work. It gets in the way of so much. But perhaps we could introduce proper afternoon tea breaks? Just a thought. No more polystyrene, get out the bone china. Yo!

well, quite

(I’m sorry about this. I found it on Pinterest, sans credit, and couldn’t resist…
Those animals are stuffed, and possibly the child too.)

Flour power

Oh, I know, such a predictive post title – but I couldn’t resist! Yes, it’s rant time. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s more a ‘shaking my head in sad bafflement’ time.

IMG_6863I’m a baker. I love making bread, hands and/or ancient Kenwood permitting, and do so on a regular basis. I slice it and store it in the freezer, and always try to have stock in. That’s because if I run out I’m back to the boiled baby’s blanket that passes for a loaf – even a supposedly ‘artisan’ loaf – in a local supermarket. Oh, all right – rant alert: what the heck is ‘artisan’ about any Tesco bread anyway? But I suppose ‘mass-produced in some giant factory and then shipped out to stores for a quick tart up’ doesn’t have quite the same marketing spin, does it?

Artisan, my arse. Ahem.

I buy flour in bulk. I used to share a sack with a friend, but I’m using much less wholemeal now, having finally twigged about excessive fibre giving me digestive problems. So I now buy five 1.5kg bags of Marriages Strong White Organic from a wholefood co-op, and add a little wholemeal for extra oomph. I’ve been quite happy with that, but the latest batch has been rather different. It’s softer than normal, much lighter, even finer. It’s got a completely different feel, and I’d be happy to make cakes with it which I would normally avoid with bread flour. It also makes perfectly good bread, but I’m intrigued. I know flour varies enormously – even the flour you get from one field of wheat can be different from that produced by the grains grown in the next field – but this is a huge change. Maybe it’s time to look at some different flours?

white flourI’ve tried quite a few, all stoneground – the Marriages is roller-milled, but until now I’ve been fine with that; it’s the only roller-milled flour I’ve felt was comparable. I’ve tried other roller-milled flour (the standard way of producing flour, at least in a more ‘commercial’ setting) and I can tell the difference, or I think I can. I like my flour to taste of something, and I find that other roller-milled flours are rather bland for breadmaking. Great if that’s what you want (or, of course, what you can afford) and absolutely fine for some circumstances, but I did a comparison bread test and yup, I could tell. Or maybe it was a case of emperor’s new clothes – I’m still not sure.

If I am right, there might be good reason for it. Many bakers think roller mills run too quickly, thus generating enzyme-damaging heat and giving rise to flour which lacks character. In addition, roller-milled flour has all the goodies – like the wheatgerm – removed and then added back in at the end of the milling process.

quernBut I’m not going back to prehistory, either: grains ground between the stones of a quern like this one could a) take forever – I know, I’ve done it, and b) add extra tooth-grinding grit to the flour, depending on the material used for the quern. Using a quern also wrecks your knees, neck, back, hands and wrists – women’s work, eh?

Nope, I’m happy with perfectly normal stoneground for my bread, so I’m going on a mission: to try all sorts of flours from small mills, big mills, artisan mills, little mills up obscure lanes in the Welsh countryside who sell their flour though a single outlet in Aberystwyth, Machynlleth, Conwy or Bangor. Whenever I find something a bit out of the ordinary, I’ll buy it and give it a go.

I can easily get Marriages and Dove’s Farm, and those are what I’ll use in between. I can also lay my hands on Bacheldre (the mill was up for sale in the summer, can’t work out if it’s been sold or just withdrawn from sale), Gilchesters, Little Salkeld Watermill and Shipton Mill, because they’re all available through the co-op or local healthfood shops. But I’m really after the unusual (plus I had a weevil-based experience with Shipton Mill’s strong white which has rather put me off retesting that one).

It doesn’t have to be wheat, either; of course there are other grains to try. I’ve used spelt and I love it for soda bread; its perfect for that. I’ve tried emmer and einkorn (as an acrchaeologist, even an ex-archaeologist, I felt obliged to give these neolithic grains a go) and I’ll happily have a bash at almost anything. But for me, it’s fundamentally wheat flour. But which one? I’m no nearer to my answer, though I have now set myself off on a Flour Quest for 2015 (think Shrek and Donkey going after Princess Fiona, though I’m female, not green and am unaccompanied by Eddie Murphy). But am a lot nearer to a beautiful fresh loaf. Must let it cool down, must let it cool down…


PS: since writing this I’ve been in contact with Marraige’s, and they’ve asked me to send a packet back to them for them to check out. Luckily I still had one unopened pack – the rest had gone in the flour bin – and it’s on its way back to Essex as I write. A strange Christmas present for the miller, but there you go… us flour-obsessives are a strange lot.

Summertime tart

I do pastry. I do bread, too. But I can’t do cakes – or rather there are a limited number of cakes which I can do, and which work well. But something like a Victoria sponge? Touch and go. However, pastry – no problems. So when I know people are coming round I don’t make a cake, I make a tart. Or perhaps I’d better call them flans, to avoid any sniggering at the back. Nope – tarts they are, and tarts they will remain. Or tartes, since the origin of mine is indisputably French.

tarte aux brugnonsThere is something about a slice of fruit tart served on bone china, with a healthy dollop of cream or Greek yoghurt. It somehow feels special, more special than a slice of Victoria sponge – given the nature of my sponge, this is not surprising, mind. So when I knew I had people coming round and spotted that the Co-op had suddenly received a consignment of white-fleshed nectarines and were selling them off cheaply for some reason (I’m not complaining), I felt the call.

So what about pastry? Is it phenomenally difficult? I don’t think so, but then there are people out there who wouldn’t believe that a grown woman could mess up a Victoria sponge. There are all sorts of stories about chilling your hands in cold water or – I kid you not – wiping ice cubes over the surface, and lots of people have unorthodox methods that work for them. You do need to keep pastry cool, of course, but my hands aren’t particularly chilly, my worktop is unbrushed by ice cubes and my pastry still works. Just chill it (man). As long as the pastry is a fine crispy shortcrust, it doesn’t really matter how it’s made.

Anyway, here goes, my fruit tart made with pâte brisée, a version of the classic French shortcrust which I have found works really well. In the UK, it’s usual to rub the fat into the flour first; in France you don’t. I go for the British way because I just hate breaking up raw egg with my fingers (eeeeuuh).

Nectarine tart with almonds
for a 23cm loose-bottomed tin

For the pastry:
50g butter, at room temperature
125g plain flour
I small egg

Make the pastry first, because it needs to chill for 30 minutes and will be baked blind, anyway. Put the butter into a large bowl and cut it into small pieces with a knife. Sieve the flour into the bowl and then rub the two together with your fingers until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs – this always takes longer than you think. Then add the egg, break it up with a fork and mix it in well. The pastry will come together gradually into a soft dough but don’t knead it like bread, just press it together gently and add a little very cold water if necessary – but it probably won’t be. Form it into a ball, put it into a clean bowl and cover it with clingfilm. Chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C, 180 fan, gas 6 and grease a loose-bottomed quiche tin. Lightly flour the worktop and take the pastry out of the fridge. Warm it up in your hands a little to soften it, then carefully roll it out into a circle, changing direction and turning it over; keep the worktop floured while doing so. Lift the pastry up, over the rolling pin, and carefully drape it over the tin. Then gently manipulate it into the corners and folds of the tin (patch any gaps; dip a pastry brush in milk and stick a new piece of pastry on top). Trim off the excess, ready for baking the case blind. Prick the bottom of the pastry and line it with a generous circle of greaseproof paper, tip a load of dried pulses or baking beans on top of the paper and bake for 15 minutes. Set it aside to cool for 10 minutes, then remove the baking beans and paper and let the case cool completely.

tarte 2For the filling:
80g butter
80g vanilla sugar
1 large egg, beaten
2 tsp Amaretto (optional)
100g ground almonds
1 tbsp flour
5 small nectarines

Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C, 180 fan, gas 6.

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Gradually beat in the egg, adding a little of the flour as you do so. Then stir in the Amaretto, ground almonds and the rest of the flour; mix everything together well. Put this mixture into the tart case and level it down. Cut the nectarines into slices and put them on top of the filling in a circular pattern, saving the smaller slices for the inner circles. Then sprinkle a little more sugar on top and bake the tart in the oven for 10 minutes. Lower the temperature to 180/160/gas 4 and cook for another 20 minutes or so – check towards the end to make sure the fruit isn’t catching (a little caramelising is fine; burning is not, ho ho, don’t ask me how I know).

Serve warm (rather than hot) or cold. Cream or good Greek yoghurt served on the side is wonderful. Sigh.

Pre-ferment bread perfection

This blog shouldn’t, strictly speaking, be called ‘twelve miles from a lemon’. Things have moved on since Sydney Smith’s day, and I’m about 500 metres from a lemon (about 3 metres if you count the ones in the fridge). No, strictly speaking it should be ‘fifty-five miles or several clicks and an interminable wait for the postie from fresh yeast’. Gripping, huh?

Yup, I ran out.

I’ve ordered some now, of course, but in the meantime I had to find a solution to my immediate bread-free problem that didn’t either involve buying boiled baby’s blankets from the Co-op, waiting a few days to revive my sourdough starter or purchasing some dried yeast which would get used once and languish in the back of the cupboard until I threw it out. I’ve been corrupted, you see, by the delights of using fresh yeast. Unfortunately it can be a pig to get.

But I remembered a friend of mine, a man who has recently returned to breadmaking, telling me about his overnight pre-ferment which used very little yeast. There were some broken bits in the container, and I weighed them out – about 5g.

So I set to. And it worked, and it worked WONDERFULLY. I make no apologies for the sudden appearance of caps; the end result justifies them. In fact, I may take to pre-fermenting my bread on a regular basis. It’s a version of the sponge method, for any other bread nuts out there.

This is what I did. And thanks, Jon!

Basic bread – with an overnight pre-ferment
Makes one large loaf

pre-ferment 1For the pre-ferment:
100g wholemeal flour
250g strong white flour
a small pinch of sugar
5g fresh yeast – a teaspoon, roughly
425ml tepid water

Mix the flours and sugar together in a large bowl. Put the yeast in a jug with the water and stir until it is blended in, then add the liquid to the flour. Stir until you have something that looks attractively like wallpaper paste. Ignore its appearance, cover the bowl with cling film and pop it in the fridge overnight.

pre-ferment 2You might think this would kill the yeasts, but no; the following morning there should be plenty of bubble action going on. Take the bowl out of the fridge and allow it to come up to room temperature.

Now for the rest of the process.

350g strong white flour
1.5 tsp salt

Mix the flour and salt together in a bowl, then add the bubbly pre-ferment. Stir everything together well, using a spoon at first if you don’t want to get too messy but hands are easier. When the mixture has begun to come together as a dough, tip it out onto a lightly floured work surface.

Start kneading, firmly pushing the dough away, bringing it back towards you and turning it as you go, and do so for 10 minutes; I set a timer or I give up too early. The texture of the dough will change – it starts to feel silky – and it should become much warmer to the touch.  Roll it into a ball, put it in a large bowl and cover with cling film. Set it aside to prove (aka rise) for about an hour or so, until approximately doubled in size.

dough in bannetonThen take the dough out of the bowl and knead it lightly once more, shaping it into a round ball (or in my case, a sort of oval ball; perhaps I was influenced in my choice by the rugby that was going on at the time).

I use French bannetons – linen-lined proving baskets which are old, well floured and were dirt cheap in Carrefour – for the next stage, but the bread can also be put into an oiled and floured tin. (Personally, I find it spreads a bit much sideways if I just put it on a baking sheet, but I am the Queen of Sloppy Dough.)

Put the dough in the basket (or whatever), untidy side uppermost. Cover it with a clear plastic bag, pulling the bag up so there is no danger of the rising dough touching the bag.*

banneton 2Leave it in a warm place to rise until doubled in size again. This may take less time, possibly about 45 minutes. In the meanwhile preheat the oven to at least 220 degrees C, GM7 – you want it as hot as you can get it, really.

Put a lightly-oiled baking tray over the top of the basket and turn it over, carefully holding the basket in place; the dough will drop down and the basket can be easily lifted off. Slash the loaf three or four times with a really sharp knife – a sharp bread knife is good, or a purpose-made blade known as a lame or grignette – and put it in the oven quickly.

bread yumBake for 30-35 minutes – until the base sounds hollow when rapped, and the top looks golden-brown and delicious.

Cool the loaf on a rack, and resist the temptation to eat the lot. Like all loaves, it slices more easily the following day, but it did have to be sampled yesterday. Especially the crust. With raspberry jam. Might have been poisoned or tasted vile. You never know…This was, after all, an experiment.


Well, I have to say that I found this loaf every bit as good as my normal loaf – in fact, possibly even more flavoursome. And, of course, it is much more economical with the yeast, certainly something to consider when the fresh stuff can be so fiddly to obtain.


I love Bakery Bits for potential supplies – but it’s not cheap and I tend to use it for drooling and idle speculation. On the other hand, if I find myself in a perfectly ordinary French supermarket I automatically head for the homewares section. I’ve found round bannetons, long bannetons, oval bannetons – and all linen-lined and costing a fraction of what I’d pay online or in a posh kitchen supplies shop. Sometimes they are evidently intended to have a decorative purpose, but even those which lurk among the cushions and tablecloths are usually perfectly practical. And are just a few euros.

*Plastic bag + sticky dough = unbelieveable mess. Ectoplasm. Something from Withnail’s sink – matter. Worse. Ergh.

Dealing with The Great Apple Glut, II…

Last year was wonderful. We didn’t have a summer as such, except in March, and that was just at the wrong time. My apple trees flowered early in a bit of a panic, there were only a few bees about and, as a consequence, I had very few apples. This gave me a breathing space which I appreciated. But this year I’m back to normal. I’m not complaining; I’m just running out of ideas.

There were three old apple trees in this garden and, when I moved in, I thought they’d be too elderly to present much of a problem. Wrong.

One doesn’t do much. Another is a Cox, and the apples it produces are prolific but beloved of the birds. The third is un-be-lievable. We’re talking carrier bags. So far this year I’ve given away nine, and I’m not talking half-full bags either. I’m talking bags so full the handles give way. And we’re picky when we’re picking – anything chewed, nibbled or pecked gets thrown over the wall into the wildy bit next door. Then I’m faced with the problem of what to do with what remains. A lot get given away, though my picking companion has his own problem and I can’t offload give him any. Chutney gets made, of course, and crumbles. And I’m also very fond of an apple cake which always goes down well – even though it only uses about three…

The original recipe has been much adapted. It came from a Good Housekeeping book on wholefood cookery that was published in 1980, on appropriately brown and gritty paper. Mind you, the attitudes in the text are rather 1950s – readers are warned, for instance, not to have too many spicy foods like curries because they ‘may overload the system’, and are told that business lunches can be a problem ‘for the husband who eats so much at lunchtime that he cannot face the large meal his wife has cooked in the evening’.  Grr. Sisters may be doing it for themselves, but not men – or not in the 1980 world of Good Housekeeping, evidently. Also some of the recipes are, quite frankly, disgusting. What on earth would possess anyone to make ‘breakfast in a glass’ with coffee substitute (?) boiled up with milk, strained through a sieve, then blended with – wait for it – an egg and a teaspoon of honey. NOOO.

apple cakeHowever it is worth persisting, if only for the baking section. Perhaps not surprisingly, given that it’s a Good Housekeeping book, this is rather better and I have used a lot of the recipes in it. They are fine once I’ve worked on them a bit to make them less heavily penitential; there seems to have been some feeling that the proverbial reputation of wholefoods had to be maintained by producing worthy, weighty slabs of brownness. I find this odd, as by the 1980s even Cranks had begun to lighten up a little, both literally and metaphorically. So here is my heavily adapted, very heavily adapted – perhaps I should say ‘inspired by’ instead – contribution to coping with the apple glut, part two.

Apple and walnut cake

175g butter, soft
175g unrefined sugar
3 medium eggs
175g self-raising wholemeal flour (or 100g wholemeal and 75g white)
100g chopped walnuts
75g sultanas
half a tsp ground cinnamon
350g cooking apples (about three medium ones)
25g Demerara sugar

Preheat the oven to gas 4 / 180 degrees C (conventional; 160 fan). Grease and line a round 18 cm loose-bottomed cake tin.

Cream together the butter and sugar in a medium bowl. Then beat in the eggs, one at a time, and add a little flour with each one to help prevent curdling. Gently fold in the rest of the flour, half (50g) the chopped walnuts, all the sultanas and the cinnamon. Peel the apples and grate them straight into the bowl, folding them into the mixture one by one. It is easier to grate them if you leave the core intact for holding, then discard it afterwards. Spoon the mixture into the tin and level it out.

Put the rest of the walnuts on a chopping board and chop them even more finely using a large knife. Mix them with the Demerara sugar and sprinkle this crunchy topping evenly over the surface of the cake. Bake it in the oven for 90 minutes, then test to see whether it is cooked – a skewer or, if you’re me, a fine knitting needle, should come out clean – and you may find you need to leave it in the oven for another 10 minutes or so. When it’s done, take it out of the oven, put it on a wire rack and allow it to cool in the tin for at least 15 minutes before very carefully removing the tin – don’t turn the cake upside down to do this as some of the topping will fall off. Allow it to cool completely before serving.

A few tips to avoid unfortunate consequences (don’t ask me how I know):

1. This cake will not rise overmuch because of the topping, so do not be alarmed if the tin appears rather fuller than you might expect. Do not be tempted to transfer it to a larger tin. One word. Biscuit.

2. Even if you have another 67,945 carrier bags full of apples, do not be tempted to add more to the mix to see if it works. Err on the side of caution. Unless you like a sort of apply, slimy, slithery bread pudding, that is. I hate bread pudding. Any kind.

3. The cake mixture can seem a little heavier than you might expect. Do not be tempted to add liquid. See reason 2 above. The apples provide enough juice. Really.

4. Using dessert apples makes a sweeter cake, but it’s not supposed to be intensely sweet; it should have a slight tartness to it which is refreshing (according to some of the village garden club who have just tested one I made for an open garden event). Also eating apples can be too juicy. See reason 2 yet again.

5. I use the coarse half of a flat grater and rest it over the bowl; it works fine. The apples shouldn’t be too finely grated and if you do them in a food processor they can either go to mush or go brown, or both. Using the old-fashioned method doesn’t take long, works much better and doesn’t involve so much swearing (or washing up, come to that, for those of us who can’t have dishwashers because we rely on 200-year-old soakaways).

6. Depending on your oven, you might need to cover the cake with foil towards the end of cooking to prevent the top from catching. Only open the door to do this in the last 20 mins or so. Alternatively, cook the cake towards the bottom of the oven rather than in the middle. Especially if the unfamiliar oven you are using has an overhead element that cannot be turned off, unless you want a cold oven. Not a good experience.

All right, that used three apples. Hmm:

strewthRemember tip 2. Remember tip 2. Remember tip 2…

Yeast Quest 2013

I bake my own bread. Well, sometimes I bake my own bread – most times, really, unless I’m unwell or in a frantic rush or have a broken freezer. I didn’t, once upon a time, and that was because I couldn’t. Really. I produced slabs which would have made good ballast and which even the birds rejected when they were thrown on the lawn (where they made a substantial dent). And then I finally got round to leaving London, eleven years ago.

While I lived down south, and while I had a respectable income – not excessive as I mostly worked in the book trade, just acceptable – I could afford to buy the bread I liked. Sourdoughs, perhaps; granary cobs crunchy with sunflower seed toppings; white loaves which didn’t taste of boiled baby’s blanket. There’s a place for the BBB loaf though – a bacon sandwich isn’t quite right without soft and slightly soggy bread – but it wasn’t right for my everyday life, which was what it looked like becoming. Getting those artisan breads was then next to impossible without a long drive, even had I not managed to halve my income.

I found a wholemeal loaf that wasn’t too bad, or so I thought. It would fail to go off even after a week which I found rather suspicious, but it didn’t leave a strange aftertaste or turn to putty when you ate it. And then I read the ingredients, and came face to face with the fact that I was going to have to do something. I’ve always held to the line that if you can’t pronounce the ingredients, then you shouldn’t be putting whatever it is in your mouth. So how about ‘mono- and di-acetyltartaric esters of mono- and di-glycerides of fatty acids’? They’re emulsifiers, basically, but… but…

I was going to have to learn to bake bread.

Financially, I had it planned. It would work out either cheaper or at roughly the same cost; I’d also have bread I liked and would be less likely to throw out for the birds. I’d my two freezers, I was part of a wholefood co-op and I knew someone who would be prepared to split a sack of flour with me. But practically? Hm. I was back with the awful reality of The Slabs. I told a friend of mine – a male friend of mine, an essential fact – that it was no good, I couldn’t bake bread. I’d just have to get to like E471, E481 and E920. (The latter is L-Cysteine, derived often from pork and also, sometimes, from hair – human hair, it has been alleged.)

My friend assumed an insufferable expression of masculine superiority and told me, in incredulous tones, that anyone could bake bread. He baked bread, for heaven’s sake. This of course, is all the incentive a self-respecting independent woman needs. Anything a man could do, I could do, and so there. And I did.

loavesMy breadmaking got better and better; I branched out from tin loaves to cobs and from using easy yeast to starters. I made olive bread and sunflower loaves and loaves containing sun-dried tomatoes. I made soda bread, pain de campagne and pitta; I made plaits and foccacia and San Francisco sourdough. I foreswore the E920, and used flour, salt, yeast and water. Sometimes I used olive oil; sometimes I used buttermilk.

And then I got hooked on real yeast. It’s no good, it just gives a different taste. It’s not that it’s difficult to use.

It’s difficult to find.

I swear it’s easier to score hard drugs (should you wish to do so, ahem). This is one problem I cannot ascribe to being ‘twelve miles from a lemon’, as it also besets foodie friends in London. Once upon a time bakers used real yeast and could be persuaded to sell some to members of the public, apparently. Not so now, though one friend has found a local bakery which will part with a little, reluctantly and at a surprising price. A hefty price for a small piece, barely enough to bake a single loaf, which they then dispense as though it was crack – secretly, furtively, behind the counter. Goodness gracious.

Surprisingly, a supermarket came to the rescue. Morrisons, but only Morrisons in Aberystwyth – 55 miles away, approximately. A keen baker friend had to go there regularly and would bring some back for both of us (50p for 126g), but circumstances have now changed and she’s no longer travelling south every week. You can get fresh yeast online, but supplies are erratic and you often have to buy a minimum of 400-500g. As 15g will do for 700g of flour, I don’t really need half a kilo.

In the short term, we’re sorted – you can freeze fresh yeast for a while, so we bought up Morrisons supply, cut the blocks up into individual portions, wrapped them up and shoved them in our freezers. But what happens when that’s all used up? Yeast Quest, that’s what. Again.