Although the kneading of dough is one of the most familiar and distinctive images people associate with making bread, it doesn’t have to be part of the process at all. So-called ‘no-knead’ recipes dispense entirely with this input of labour, whether human or mechanical. More →
Still on the subject of brownies, some recent experiments have finally borne fruit. For no particular reason that I know of, it occurred to me that salted chocolate brownies might be a good idea. By now we’re all familiar with salted caramel, which seems to be enjoying a spike in popularity though it isn’t by any means a recent innovation. The practice of combining sweet and savoury flavours is at least as old as the recorded history of cooking, and the inclusion of a little salt not only helps balance the sweetness of these brownies, but also mellows the bitterness of the dark chocolate, subtly transforming its flavour. I’ve included salt-caramel pistachios as well, and it’s well worth the minimal trouble of making them. Pistachios, with their distinctive, buttery flavour and flashes of bright green flesh, are the perfect complement to these brownies. My ex-partner reckons she can’t fault them. And that’s saying something.
You can use any sort of salt you like, but the more conscientious baker will probably go all Halen Môn and opt for sea salt flakes. If you go down this commendable road, it’s worth grinding the flakes first – they don’t dissolve easily in the brownie mixture.
Now, to work. Prepare the pistachios first, as the caramel will need to cool and harden before they’re added to the mix.
80g shelled pistachios
80g sugar (caster or granulated)
½ tsp salt
You can leave the nuts whole or roughly chop them, depending on preference. You can break them up by bashing them with a rolling pin or some other blunt instrument, but I find this gives uneven results, leaving some of them whole while reducing others to dust. Melt the sugar and salt in a saucepan over a medium heat. Watch it closely, and stir with a wooden spoon if it looks like it’s beginning to burn in one place while not yet melted in another (electric hot plates are particularly prone to hotspots that can cause this). Once all the sugar has caramelised, add the pistachios and give them a good stir to coat them thoroughly. Remove from the heat and tip the mixture onto a sheet of baking parchment or silicon. They will form a sticky mass, but don’t worry about that right now. Leave them to cool while you prepare the brownies themselves.
200g dark chocolate
220g sugar (caster or granulated)
1tsp vanilla essence or vanilla seeds from ½ pod
3 eggs, beaten
90g plain flour
In a heatproof bowl set over a pan containing a couple of centimetres of simmering water, melt the butter, chocolate and salt. Once melted, transfer to a mixing bowl and stir in the sugar and vanilla. Once that is thoroughly incorporated, add the eggs, stirring briskly. Finally, beat in the flour until the mixture is smooth. Sieving the flour or adding it from a shaker will make it easier to mix it in without it forming lumps.
Break the mass of caramelised pistachios into small pieces – despite my injunction about bashing nuts with a rolling pin, you can be more brutal now that they are locked in a matrix of hardened sugar. Actually, I use a meat mallet for this, and have used a claw hammer in the past. This operation will make a bit of a mess and you will probably need to recover fragments of pistachio from the far corners of your worksurface. Anyhow, once this is done, stir the nuts into the brownie mixture, and pour it into a foil or parchment-lined tin (this recipe makes enough to fill a 20x30cm swiss roll tin). Bake for 20-30 minutes at 180°c, until a skewer inserted into the brownie comes out clean. Rapidly cooling the tin in a centimetre or so of cold water in the bottom of the sink will prevent the residual heat from continuing to cook the brownies and help keep the interior softer for a more fudgy texture. When cool, lift them out and cut into squares or rectangles.
I haven’t tried making these brownies with milk chocolate, but I doubt if they would work as well: I can’t imagine that the relatively rich flavour of milk chocolate would complement the tang of the salt. The vanilla isn’t essential but, used in moderation, it does seem to play off the other flavours quite well.
I like my brownies cold, but with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream they’d be pretty good still warm from the oven. With all that salt, sugar and fat, they aren’t exactly health-food, but as a grown-up treat I don’t think they need to make any apologies.
Years ago when I lived in London I used to frequent a small newsagent-cum-delicatessen run by a Turkish family. From under a glass counter at the front of the shop they sold freshly-made pastries and, as it was directly opposite where I worked at the time, it was a convenient lunch stop. Among the regular offerings were chocolate brownies, sold in generous, inch-thick slabs. They were the best brownies I’ve ever had. I’ve long since given up trying to replicate their formula, although I’ve tried a great many recipes over the years.
The history of the brownie is reckoned to go back to the late 19th century and the US. A brownie recipe pioneered at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago in 1893 is still made there (it’s now part of the Hilton chain). Although people generally associate brownies with chocolate, some early recipes didn’t use it. For example, Fannie Merritt Farmer’s The Boston Cooking School Cook Book of 1896 includes a recipe for brownies made with molasses. What makes this confection distinctive is really its texture, which is cake-like in many respects, but much moister and more dense because it contains no raising agents.
I was sufficiently intrigued by Merritt Farmer’s recipe to give it a go. The original amounts are given in cups, which I’ve translated into metric weights. Because of the relative uncertainty of cup measurements, my version can’t claim to be definitive, so I’ve included the original for comparison.
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup molasses
1 egg, beaten
7/8 cup bread flour
1 cup pecans, chopped
1 egg (obviously)
110g bread flour
I used walnuts instead of pecans (because I didn’t have any pecans) – about 100g, a bit less than a cup. The recipe – like many from older cookery books – is very short on detail. So much so that I’ll quote it in full:
“Mix ingredients in order given. Bake in small, shallow fancy cake tins, garnishing top of each cake with one-half pecan”
Yes, that’s it. Hard to imagine any contemporary author getting away with something as hurried as that. It seemed sensible to melt the butter before adding the other ingredients, although no mention is made of doing so (whereas we are told that the egg should at least be beaten). The end result is a very thick, sticky batter, thanks largely to the molasses. Molasses is a byproduct of sugar refining, and is a viscous, almost black syrup with a strong burnt flavour. It can be found in most health and whole food shops. Black treacle is virtually the same thing and is even more widely available in the UK, most often under the distinctive Tate and Lyle brand with it’s tins hardly changed since the 19th century.
This recipe makes less than most modern brownie recipes, which usually fill a swiss roll tin of proportions in the region of 2x20x30cm, and since I’m lacking in the ‘fancy tin’ department, I had to make do and bake my brownies in an oblong pie tin. If I was to scale the recipe up to fit my usual tin (which is of the dimensions above) I would multiply the amounts by three.
I baked the brownies for 20 minutes at 160°c, at which point I tested them with a skewer, which came out clean. Unlike the usual chocolate brownie, which has a rough, cracked surface, the Merritt Farmer brownies have a smooth, cake-like appearance. In fact, they are very similar to parkin, the dense ginger-cake from Yorkshire and Lancashire. Reviewing my recipe, I think I could have included a bit more butter – perhaps 80g would produce slightly moister results. Molasses contributes most of the flavour – it’s not to everyone’s taste, but if you do like it then these chocolate-free brownies-from-the-past might be right up your street.
You can reasonably expect most recipes to include directions on both the temperature that your oven should be at and the length of time it should take for the goods to be optimally baked. It wasn’t always so. The gas and electric oven-cookers we are familiar with today are a relatively recent innovation. Back when most domestic baking was done in cast iron ovens heated by burning coal or wood, fine temperature control was unheard of, and recipes were correspondingly approximate. Variations on the phrase ‘bake in a hot oven’ are commonplace even in cookery books of the early to mid 20th century, even though ovens regulated by thermostat were by then very widespread: people’s habits often lag behind the technology available to them. Nonetheless, people got along fine for thousands of years without the convenience of the temperature dial.
That being the case, it’s logical to deduce that the temperature at which we bake something is not crucial to within a few degrees; far from it, in fact. Generally speaking, this is true. A loaf baked at 200°c may not be the same as one baked at 240°c, but they shouldn’t be all that much different, either, though the former will take a little longer than the latter. Authors of recipes (myself included) usually stipulate a particular temperature because it is expected of them, rather than because failure to maintain a particular temperature will end in ruin. In times past, it was enough to talk about low, medium and high and get away with it (if you own an AGA or similar cast iron range this is still sufficient, of course, because traditional ranges have very limited temperature controls).
This is probably just as well, because oven thermostats aren’t always very reliable. It’s common for them to be less accurate at some temperatures than others, and they lose accuracy over time. An oven thermometer is a useful piece of kit for the baker, and is essential if you want to recalibrate a thermostat that is seriously out of whack.
As far as bread is concerned, 200-250°c is an acceptable temperature range within which to bake. Dough enriched with eggs, hard fat and/or sugar will brown more quickly, and at higher temperatures the crust can burn while the inside remains raw. These are better off baked at the lower end of the scale, while most other types of bread will benefit from higher temperatures; I would suggest 220°c as the preferred minimum. More important than the precise temperature is boosting your oven’s thermal mass – its ability to absorb and store heat. This is a topic in its own right, and one I will probably return to in due course. In the meantime, you can get the full story here.
Working with soft, sticky bread doughs – those containing 70% or more water by weight of flour – can be tricky. When it comes to shaping the loaf, you need to flour your hands and worksurface to help prevent the dough sticking. The problem is, even if you take care to distribute an even layer of flour onto your worktop (using a shaker or the professional baker’s technique of flicking a handful of it sideways at a shallow angle), it quickly piles up into shallow drifts as you start to manipulate the dough. Something I’ve started doing is rubbing a linen couche with flour and shaping the dough on that. The relatively coarse texture of the material traps the flour and prevents it being pushed around your work area, while at the same time providing enough friction to grip the bottom of the dough so that you can form a nice taut shape.
A couche, for the uninitiated, is simply a piece of linen cloth that is traditionally used for proving French ‘stick’ loaves: the baguette and its various cousins. The dough is shaped and laid across the floured couche, then a pleat is drawn up and the another shaped piece of dough laid next to it, and so on until all the loaves are laid out (or you run out of couche). Most commercial bakeries now use shallow aluminium pans that look like pieces of guttering to prove and bake these sorts of loaves, but some artisan bakeries still use the method. The word, which is French of course, means ‘bed’ (in the general sense of any place to sleep, rather than an actual bed, which is lit), and is the noun form of the verb coucher, made famous in English by the song Lady Marmalade: “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soi?”
Couche is available from a number of suppliers, but any piece of raw linen cloth will do. Mine is actually an offcut from a larger piece of linen that I used for painting on – canvases for oil painting, now often made using cheaper cotton duck (another heavy-duty canvas fabric), were originally made from linen, and linen canvas in various weights and textures can be obtained from good art supply shops. Now that I come to think of it, I’m sure cotton duck would do just as good a job, although it tends to have a closer weave and may be a bit more slippery than linen. I hope the picture below gives a fair impression of the texture of the cloth and how it holds the flour.
It’s necessary to anchor the cloth somehow in order to shape dough successfully, because part of the process usually involves dragging the dough across the worksurface in order to form a taut skin on the loaf: this helps produce a neater shape. I have the luxury of a kitchen table to work on (no central heating, mind you, but a kitchen large enough to accomodate a table), so I attach the couche to the tabletop using metal clips that are actually for securing sheets of paper to a drawing board. Alternatively, you could weigh down one edge of the fabric with whatever you have lying around.
Techniques for shaping dough are hard to describe, or even to show properly in pictures. I’m hoping to be able to upload some videos to the site at some point in the near-ish future, in which case I will be able to illustrate my point more clearly.
Last night I went to see musician and composer Richard Skelton perform with the Elysian Quartet at Snape Maltings, the concert hall founded by composer Benjamin Britten in 1967. Skelton’s music, which is inspired by the landscape, flora and fauna of the Pennine hills, is not often performed live, so this was a rare opportunity. I wasn’t disappointed: it was a truly mesmerising experience. Anyway, in a perversely roundabout way, I’m leading up to a discussion of something completely different.
Snape Maltings is, as the name suggests, a former maltings or malt-house, where cereal grains – usually barley – are turned into malt. The grains are steeped in water, then spread in a thick layer on the floor of the malt-house. Over a period of several weeks, the grains start to germinate. Just before the husks of the grains burst, they are dried in a malt kiln, a somewhat smaller room heated from below by a wood or coal fire. This halts germination, leaving malted grains. Today, the process is largely mechanised and the old maltings fell into disuse, which is why the buildings at Snape have become a concert venue – that, and the fact that malt-houses were usually very large, owing to the space-consuming nature of the process. The buildings at Snape are vast, and perfectly suited to their new use.
Malt is one of the main ingredients in beer, and is also used to make Horlicks, Ovaltine and various soft drinks. It can also be used in bread. The popular ‘Granary’ loaves and flour from Hovis contain malted wheat ‘flakes’ – grains that have been crushed flat. I suppose they ought to have called it ‘Malthouse’ flour, because a granary is just a building used to store grain. In any case, malt tastes mildly of caramelised sugar and can be used to flavour bread as well as to add colour and to serve as additional food for the yeast. The reason for this is that during germination a lot of the starch in the cereal grains turns into a sugar called maltose.
As dried grains or flakes, malt can be added directly to bread dough for texture as well as flavour. It is also available as flour and as a more concentrated extract, in liquid or powdered form. Malt flour is diastatic, that is, it contains naturally occurring enzymes called diastases. These enzymes help convert the starch in flour into simpler sugars that the yeast can ferment. This happens naturally in a simple flour/water/yeast dough, but the addition of a little malt flour will boost this enzyme activity. This can speed up rising times, increase the volume of the loaf, soften the crumb and delay staling. Most malt extracts are non-diastatic – the enzymes are destroyed during the extraction process. But, just to complicate things further, there are also diastatic extracts that are manufactured using a process that preserves the enzymes. Malt flour and diastatic malt extracts are sold as dough-improvers because of the effects the enzymes have on bread. It is easy to use too much, however, which can result in a sticky texture and large holes running through the loaf.
Liquid malt extract has been around for a long time and is widely available in health and whole food shops. From Victorian times it was popular as a food supplement among impoverished households with poor diets, although the claims made for it in its heyday now look far fetched. It does contain some vitamins and is a good source of energy. Recent research suggests that it also has antioxidant properties. As a miraculous cure-all, however, it doesn’t live up to the hype. A very thick, sticky syrup, liquid malt extract can be difficult to measure out accurately, and is a devil to clean up, but it is reasonably cheap and easy to obtain. Dried malt extract is harder to source. Home brewing suppliers will stock it, although real-live home brew shops are a rarity these days and most people (in the UK, at least) will have to buy online. It comes in light, medium or dark varieties. The darker malts have been kilned for longer and have a slightly stronger flavour. If you want a deeper coloured crust the dark malt extract is the one to go for
The powdered extract is very fine, very hygroscopic (it absorbs water readily), and prone to caking. In fact, if you squeeze some of the powder between your fingertips it will form a friable solid. It’s worth keeping it in an airtight container where moisture can be kept to a minimum, as it will quickly form clumps in a more humid atmosphere.
So, you can have whole malted grains (flaked or natural), malt flour, liquid malt extract, dried malt extract (in several varieties), diastatic liquid malt extract and diastatic dried malt extract. And don’t forget that malt flour is also diastatic, but less concentrated than the extract. I should also point out that many writers – including some who should really know better – refer to dried malt extract as malt flour.
You don’t have to memorise all that.
Add malt flour or extract with the other ingredients in your dough at the initial mixing stage. If you just want to add flavour and perhaps colour to your bread, use a non-diastatic malt extract. If you want to use the malt as a dough-improver, use malt flour or a diastatic extract.
If you’re using malt flour or non-diastatic malt extract you can use 1-2% as a baker’s percentage. That’s 1-2g per 100g of flour. If you’re using diastatic malt extract, you should use a tiny amount: this is powerful stuff and can have an unfortunate effect on your bread, as I’ve described above. We’re talking less than ½%, or between 0.1-0.3g per 100g of flour. Few of us own scales that will measure these quantities, but the smallest amount (liquid or powder) on the very tip of a teaspoon per average-sized loaf is about right.
Malt, in it’s various forms, is another string to the baker’s bow. To know if there’s anything in it for you, you’ll need to experiment, which is what is fun about baking, and about cooking in general.
Named after the town of Eccles, a few miles west of Manchester, Eccles cakes are thought to date back to the late 18th century when a gentleman by the name of James Birch began selling them to an enthusiastic public. Patties made from flaky pastry wrapped around a sticky filling of spiced currants, Eccles cakes are very similar to the Banbury cakes of Oxfordshire as they are today. Banbury cakes have a longer documented history 1, one well-known early recipe being found in Gervase Markham’s Countrey Contentments, or The English Huswife of 1623, a work that helpfully outlines “The inward and outward Vertues which ought to be in a compleate Woman.” Whatever the striving ‘compleate Women’ of the 17th century might have made of his efforts, it is clear that early Banbury cake recipes are quite different to the later Eccles cake. Banburys were originally yeast-leavened (using barm), and the lack of clarity of old recipes makes it uncertain as to whether the end result was more like a pastry or a bread. On this evidence, it seems to me that Banburys evolved to become more like their northern cousins and cannot claim a longer pedigree in their modern form.
Eccles cakes are one of those things for which many people hold closely guarded secret formulae, but the essential characteristics are simple. The casing is made from puff or flaky pastry with a sugar-glaze, while the filling is made of currants, sugar and butter, with various additions such as orange zest, chopped peel, and spices in various combinations.
I don’t think puff pastry or détrempe 2 works that well with Eccles cakes. In fact, I’m not a great fan of the stuff. There’s a time and place for it, I daresay, but I prefer flaky pastry, which isn’t quite as explosive. In making flaky pastry I’ve found Delia Smith’s method of grating very cold butter into flour works very well and is relatively quick and easy. I also find that many recipes produce a filling that is overbearingly sweet and greasy. Subsequently, I’ve tried to tame tradition by reducing the fat and sugar content.
First, the pastry.
500g plain flour
300g butter, chilled in the freezer for an hour or so
A pinch of salt
Sieve the flour into a mixing bowl and add the salt. Grate the very cold butter into the flour using the coarse side of a hand grater. When I first tried this method I thought I was pretty clever using the grating disc of a food processor. This turned out to be far messier and more time-consuming than just grating it by hand. Add a few tablespoons of water and with a spatula or wooden spoon start bringing the ingredients together. You will need to add more water, but it’s better to add a little at a time, just enough so that the ingredients form a dough. Towards the end you can use your hands, but try to handle it as little as possible. To acheive the flakiness you want, the strands of grated butter should remain reasonably intact – squishing the pastry with warm hands will tend to blend it into the dough. On the other hand, don’t be afraid of it. Making pastry isn’t nearly as difficult as some people make out.
Once the pastry is done, wrap it in clingfilm and put it in the fridge for at least 30 minutes. Now you can make the filling.
70ml orange juice or brandy
40g soft brown sugar
A nugget of butter – about 10g if you must measure
1 tsp grated nutmeg
1 tsp allspice
Put the currants in a flat-bottomed bowl or container and pour over the orange juice or brandy. You could experiment with different liquors, but I’ve tried these and I think they work well. Crush the fruit down with the bottom of a glass so that they are more or less covered. Leave to soak for at least a couple of hours, preferably overnight.
Now transfer the fruit to a small pan, along with the sugar, butter and spices. If you’re using orange juice, drain some of it off; you can leave the brandy in as it will evaporate more quickly. Heat the mixture on medium until the butter and sugar has melted and the liquid has reduced and become sticky. Be careful not to let it burn. Now transfer to a bowl and leave until cool.
To assemble the Eccles cakes, roll out the pastry to a thickness of about 5mm on a well-floured worksurface. Using a plain round cutter about 9cm in width, stamp out circles. This recipe will make about 12 cakes. Leftover pastry freezes well. You’ll find a use for it. Place a tablespoon of the fruit filling in the centre of each disc. It’s very sticky, so you will probably need a second spoon to scrape it off. Now the fun part: gather up the edges of each disc with your fingertips and bring them together, drawing the edges closed over the filling. Squish the pastry together to seal the casing. Place the Eccles cake on the floured worksurface and, with the heel of your hand, press it gently but firmly down to flatten it slightly. Turn it over so that the sealed edges are underneath and place it on a tray lined with baking parchment. Some people cut three slashes in the pastry, but I prick each cake a couple of times with a fork instead. I don’t know why, I just prefer it.
Many recipes involve glazing the cakes with egg white and caster sugar, but I brush them with a little milk and then sprinkle the sugar over. The only benefit of using egg is the slight sheen it gives, hardly worth it in my opinion. Now bake in an oven pre-heated to 200°c for 20-25 minutes, keeping an eye on them to make sure they don’t burn. They should be golden brown when done.
Eccles cakes are best eaten when cold; wait a day if you have enough willpower. I don’t pretend my recipe is in any way authentic or representative of the proud northern tradition of the Eccles cake, but it works for me. Further experimentation is certainly possible – replacing half the currants with dried cherries might complement the brandy-steeped version of the recipe. I just hope the good folk of Eccles will forgive me taking such liberties.
- Some online sources claim that Eccles cakes were banned by Cromwell’s Puritan government of 1653-1658, but I haven’t been able to find evidence of any such act, nor any mention of Eccles cakes at such an early date. ↩
- From the French adjective détrempé meaning ‘sodden’. Puff pastry rises because layers of fat folded into the dough melt and release steam during baking which separates and lifts the layers; the pastry is therefore said to be sodden, waterlogged ↩
In my last post I talked about Sekowa ‘Special Baking Ferment’ and how to prepare a starter with it. Once the starter is established it can be stored in the fridge until required, and doesn’t need to be revived as a refrigerated sourdough starter does. But how do you actually make bread with it?
The instructions that come with the ferment include a recipe for a mixed strong white/wholemeal flour loaf. While straightforward enough, the quantities involved are rather large – the recipe requires nearly 2kg of flour! I reduced the quantities and experimented with several different formulae before finding one that worked pretty well for me.
The first step is to prepare a sponge. This includes some of the starter you’ve prepared and a small quantity of the Sekowa granules themselves.
15g Special Baking Ferment starter
5g Special Baking Ferment granules
150g water at about 30°c
150g strong white flour
In a bowl, add the starter and the granules to the warm water and whisk until dissolved. Then add the flour and mix thoroughly. Leave, covered with a tea towel or clingfilm, in a warm place overnight or for about 12 hours. It does seem like the Sekowa ferment needs warmer temperatures than usual, about 25°c upwards. At lower temperatures I found it took much longer to start fermenting. This applies to the starter, sponge and the bread dough itself.
After this time the batter should be full of bubbles. Now add the remaining ingredients to the sponge.
150g strong white flour
200g strong wholemeal flour
Knead the dough for about 5 minutes. The dough will be soft and sticky, but it will become a bit easier to manage with kneading. Leave the dough to rise in a clean bowl in a warm place. This will probably take about 2-3 hours, perhaps more depending on the temperature. Now shape the dough and leave it in a tin or proving basket to prove. This shouldn’t take as long – about 1½-2 hours. By this time it should have approximately doubled in size. Bake in an oven pre-heated to 220°c for 40-50 minutes.
This gave me a loaf with a nice open crumb and a chewy crust. There was no pronounced sourdough flavour, which could be a plus or a minus depending on your preference. One thing I did notice was that the doughs I made with the Sekowa ferment were noticeably softer and stickier, relative to the amount of water in them, than I would have expected. This is usually due to the activity of the enzyme protease, which breaks down the gluten in the dough. There are various reasons why protease activity may be higher than usual. One possibility is that the higher temperature that the ferment seems to prefer may lead to increased enzyme activity. At any rate, it’s something worth bearing in mind.
Personally, I doubt that I will use the Special Baking Ferment much in future. I have a couple of thriving sourdough starters that work reliably, and the Sekowa product offers little advantage over using sourdough. Besides, I like the slightly acidic tang of sourdough bread, which the Sekowa loaves lacked. Still, there are reasons why someone might prefer it. Advocates for biodynamic food and agriculture claim that bread made with the Sekowa ferment is easier to digest. I have not seen any research into Special Baking Ferment specifically, but there is some scientific evidence to show that sourdough bread is more easily digested by some people than rapidly-fermented bread made with baker’s yeast (see this post). The Sekowa ferment is closer to sourdough than baker’s yeast and requires fairly long fermentation times, so there may be truth in this. I think the main attraction might be the relative ease and speed with which a starter can be made with Special Baking Ferment, along with the fact that it is low-maintenance. Anyone who has a hard time getting a starter going, or keeping it healthy once it’s established, may find using Special Baking Ferment a simpler alternative.