Homemade bread

I have been making my own soup for years and we have long been thinking we might try making homemade bread to go with the soup – instant homemade lunches!

However this good idea was shelved along with so many others we have, as we got busier and busier. Then whilst at my sister’s house last week we got up one morning to the most amazing smell of bread .. I wondered if she had one of those part-baked loaves in the oven or some frozen croissants, but this really was a very strong scent… enough to raise Richard into an enthusiastic early breakfast!

Kate (my sister) assured us it was real home made bread, courtesy of her bread making machine and it was sitting waiting for us to road test the latest loaf. Cutting a long and delicious story short, it was wonderful and Richard especially, was madly keen as he loves bread and cheese or bread and soup even more than I do.

So courtesy of Amazon we pressed a button and this machine arrived a day or so later. Richard has now taken full control and it is obviously going to be a man thing, a bit like the BBQ. However you will hear no complaints from me – it’s lovely to share the cooking.

We have tried three different recipes this week: a French bread (delicious but a different shape to usual French bread obviously!), a standard white and a 50/50% wholemeal and white and I can honestly say that every crumb has been consumed and little Grace, our granddaughter, gave an enthusiastic thumbs up to the ‘Grandpa’ bread she ate for lunch today.

We chose the Panasonic SD-2511 as that’s what my sister had – seemed easier than choosing a different one and it not being as good. Then all you really need to keep in the cupboard is strong flour, water, salt, dried yeast and a touch of butter. There are plenty of other things you can add but the basics have worked well so far.

I have bought several books on machine bread making and I think we will be trying loaves with delicious little extras like olives or pecan nuts and maple syrup soon. But for now, I think it is unlikely we will bother to buy much regular bread from the supermarket as we just love having it all set on a timer and having that smell of baking bread first thing in the morning.

 

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When food gets weird…!

I always find it interesting how dishes and styles of food go in and out of fashion and how, sometimes, food gets weird! The Elizabethans had their sweetmeats while the Victorians used oysters in almost everything. Obviously, recipes reflect the cost and availability of ingredients – oysters used to be cheap, while chicken was a luxury.

I love reading about food and I was chuckling over some funny terms recently…

Fusion
A few years ago, ‘fusion’ cookery was all the rage. This always sounded a bit too much like physics to me, but it was the combination of various forms of cookery, so you might have South Asian and Pacific Rim, or Texan and Mexican (Tex-Mex). This is fine it theory, but chefs do get a bit carried away. I remember reading about curried porridge, spaghetti tacos and Japanese Scotch eggs. Hmmm…

Chocolate soil, copyright www.epicurus.com

Soil
One of the very ‘on-trend’ additions to posh restaurant dishes at the moment is soil. I think our friends on Masterchef are probably responsible for introducing this one! Call me old-fashioned (and people do!) but I instantly think of my flowerbeds, and I’m not sure I want a version of this, no matter how delicious, on my plate. It’s just… odd. Mostly, it is dark chocolate and I’d be a lot happier if we stuck to ‘sprinkles’ or possibly even ‘shavings.’ If you want to have a go at making some chocolate soil, there are recipes online. Here’s one from www.epicurus.com

Hand salad
Yes, I know, weird! Apparently, it’s just a salad you eat with your hands, dipping lettuce and cucumber into dressings. So really, it’s simply an American term for what we used to call crudités – dipping veg into dips and sauces. Here’s a recipe idea for hand salad from www.bonappetit.com

A nice bit of hand salad with buttermilk, grapefruit, and mixed seeds, copyright www.bonappetit.com

There are so many trendy terms out there, I sometimes feel I need a translation app to find out what’s on the menu!

Jus ­– why can’t we call it gravy or sauce any more?

Pithivier of chicken, squash and sage by Sally Abé, copyright www.greatbritishchefs.com

Pithivier – it’s a pie! If you want to make a posh pie, have a look here at www.greatbritishchefs.com

Foam – this isn’t quite as bad as soil, but… Anyway, it applies to things that are full of air bubbles… we used to call them things like whipped cream, meringue or mousse!

Deconstructed – this one makes me smile! All the ingredients of a classic dish, but the chef didn’t want to assemble it!

Big dipper
I had to sneak this one in as it left me speechless! For Easter this year, a certain supermarket was offering ostrich eggs for sale. They recommended 50 mins cooking time to produce a runny yolk, perfect for dipping into, like a large, vegetarian fondue. They even suggested using a baguette as a ‘soldier’ I don’t know why… but that struck me as very peculiar!

 

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We eat with our eyes…   

Mmm… I instantly think ‘yum’ with this delicious rich coloured dish of risotto, the pretty addition of nuts, mushrooms and herbs scattered on top is the finishing touch.

We eat with our eyes… That may sound bizarre but it is true! I think most of us recognise that a bland plate of something a bit beige or white isn’t very appetising, so we add a garnish of parsley or lettuce and tomato. Today’s chefs are taking ‘decorating’ to new heights – did you see any of the Great British Menu on TV recently – I mean, wow! Theatre as much as dinner!

Well apparently, there is scientific proof that food that looks good tasted better. Really. There is an emerging new science called ‘gastrophysics’ – sound like an area of science I might actually be interested in LOL – and Oxford University has been looking into how the appearance of food affects how we react to it. Not only does a beautifully arranged plate ‘taste better’, we are also likely to be happy to pay more for a dish laid out artistically than one just plonked on the plate.

Even more strangely, where things are on the plate matters too. While turning the plate around to a different angle can’t possibly affect the flavour, it does influence our appreciation of it.

We also like things prettily laid out on a plate. The current foodie trend to lay out a dish on one side of the plate is, so the researchers have found, not popular with diners!

Left: A fun and interestingly presented portion of fish and chips that you can’t wait to bite into… or (right) a pile of mushy stuff plonked on a plate. Which would you choose?

So, you are thinking, what has all this stuff got to do with me and my day to day cooking? Well, the same principles apply to what you produce at home. So if you’ve gone to a lot of trouble to produce something delicious, ensure maximum appreciation from your friends and family by taking a moment to make it look interesting on the plate. Even if you are producing something ‘bog standard’, like spag bol or a simple salad, pause to pretty it up a bit and it will, apparently, go down better with your diners!

If you are cooking a special meal for family and friends, you might want to think about what you serve your food on and eat it with as this also makes a difference. White plates and bowls seem to make people rate dishes as being ‘more tasty’, and using heavy cutlery as opposed to light, plastic handled designs also makes people enjoy their food more. What a funny lot we humans are!

What can I say? Seven artfully placed dots and a white pud on a black plate… all wrong surely? Well, I’d still like to eat it though, especially given all the strawberries!

And having said all that… here’s one design idea that you DON’T need to worry about. When I am planting in the garden, or arranging flowers etc. I always go for odd numbers of things (I’ve written about this before), so a cluster of three, five or seven, and so on, it looks more natural and attractive. So, you would think that three, five or seven strawberries or potatoes or whatever would be best on a plate… but no! Gluttony will out and research shows people simply opt for the plate with the most on it! That made me smile :o)

 

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The beauty of blossom

Blossom – it’s a lovely full, rounded, blousy word (or onomatopoeic if you want to be fancy!) – and at this time of year, there’s a lot of it about.

I absolutely adore seeing trees and hedgerows in bloom and can’t wait until things bursting out, usually in March. The best blossom occurs after cold snaps, so a good chilly winter should mean billowing blossom. Each blossom flower lasts for one or two weeks, weather permitting – so fingers crossed this year’s don’t all get blown or washed away too soon.

First up in the countryside in early March are the blackthorn hedges. Devon, where I live, is blessed with wonderful hedgerows and up on Dartmoor the frothy blackthorn blossom is really striking against the stark moorland. Blackthorn really makes the most of its blossom as it emerges before the leaves, so the white flowers contrast beautifully against the bare branches.

In domestic gardens, the wonderfully showy magnolia should also be out by this time and Cornwall is a great spot to see magnolias in bloom early.

Once things start to warm up, ideally by April (fingers crossed!), we can look forward to the gorgeous sight of cherry blossom. I love seeing its pretty pink and white blooms, so cheering. I have been fortunate enough to visit Japan several times through work, and if you can time it to coincide with the cherry blossom, it is a wonderful sight to behold. They have over 200 varieties of ornamental cherry and it is such an important part of Japanese life that they have a daily ‘Cherry Blossom Forecast’ to tell people where the best blossom can be found as ‘The Cherry Blossom Front’ sweeps slowly north.

Unsurprisingly, the month of May sees the arrival of may blossom, or hawthorn. Again, Dartmoor is a great place to see may blossom where hawthorn is widely used to produce tough stock-proof hedges.

Apple blossom, so delicate and pretty, will start to appear in May. Apple orchards are wonderful things and it is great to see how much work has been put into saving old apple varieties, or ‘heritage’ apples as we are supposed to call them. Just the names make me feel all nostalgic – Worcester Pearmain, Orange Pippin and Egremont Russet – like characters from a Wodehouse novel!

June sees pretty much the end of blossom in this country and the last one to make a showing is the enchanting elder, its frothy blossoms being wonderful in cordial and wine. While many other parts of the world have exotic and technicolour blooms, I remain immensely fond of our delicate and slightly restrained spring blossom.

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Surprise pies…

This week has been British Pie Week – the list of ‘national awareness days’ just keeps on growing! The past week has also been ‘National Conversation Week’ (and I do mean conversation and not conservation!) and the whole month of March is designated ‘National Bed Month’! But let’s focus on the all important Pie Week… I decided to do some Googling about pies and it was quite a surprise!

Pies have been around a very, very long time. Technically, everything used to be a pie. The pastry shell was originally nothing more than a baking dish and storage container for the filling. The Romans would use meats, oysters and fish in their fillings while a mixture of flour, oil and water made a sturdy shell, or case, to keep the filling in place. Not surprisingly, the pastry was tough and inedible and designed to be thrown away. Our wonderful west country pasty’s distinctive ‘D’ shape was apparently designed to enable hardworking miners and labourers, with grubby hands, to eat their meal more easily using the thick crimped crust as a handle.

It’s hard to believe a culinary dish can have a sinister side to it, but the pie does. As someone always on the look out for an ‘interesting’ way of finishing people off for murder mystery purposes (literary, not literally!), I was amazed at how often the pie has been used as a way of killing characters.

The evil Sweeney Todd has to be the most famous pie-killer. He and Mrs Lovett baked their victims in pies and sold them. A fictional character who first appeared in a Victorian ‘penny dreadful’, it has long been speculated that it was based on true events, but I couldn’t find any clear evidence. Even the bard himself, William Shakespeare, has turned to the pie as a weapon and killed off two characters with a pie! In Titus Andronicus, Titus wreaks revenge on Queen Tamora and her family for their evil deeds by baking her sons into a pie and serving it to her. Ugh!

That king of killjoys, Oliver Cromwell, virtually banned the pie in 1644, when he decided it was a ‘pagan form of pleasure’. It wasn’t a complete ban on pies though, just a ban on Christmas celebrations and foods that were associated with the ‘pagan’ holiday, such as mince pies and turkey pies. Fortunately, the ban was lifted, but not until 1660.

I think most of you will remember the nursery rhyme ‘Sing a song of sixpence’ that contains the rather worrying line ‘Four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie’. It seems that in 16th century England ‘surprise pies’ were all the range among the upper classes and live animals would jump out when a pie was cut open – extraordinary! All kinds of creatures were placed inside pies including frogs, squirrels, foxes and, as we know, large numbers of blackbirds. Some records even suggest that at a dinner attended by Charles I, a huge pie was put on the table and when the crust was removed, a dwarf jumped out! My goodness, we think there are some strange things on the internet these days, but it seems some people have always had a taste for the bizarre!

After discovering such a lurid background, I’m not entirely sure I shall ever be able to regard a pie as just a tasty thing to eat ever again!

Main photo: @britishpiesweek

 

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