Best Hot Cross Buns ever

140509 Baked Hotcross bunsJ’accuse! A small storm rocked the fragrant world of hot cross bun making a few years ago when nationally beloved cook Jo Seagar called out the Edmonds Cookbook over the poor quality of its recipe.  Shockingly, this staple Kiwi household recipe bible had proven unreliable!  Many people, myself included, had tried using this recipe and come to the conclusion that hot cross buns were too difficult and we lacked the secret to make them work.  Of course that was bollocks.

Lots of people lack confidence in using yeast, which is a shame as it’s really not that hard as long as your yeast is active (i.e. working and not too old) and you give it sufficient time to prove (or ‘rise’).

Happily Jo Seagar came out front and centre with her own glorious recipe which you can find via the link at the bottom of this post.  Thanks to Jo and a wet Easter weekend, I restored my hot cross bun mojo.  A couple of hours and some hands on dough time and I had thirty substantial and delicious hot cross buns.  They were brown and glossy, with a lovely yeasty, spicy flavour.  Thumbs up – would trade again!

140509 Hit cross buns before cooking

Buns pre baking after final rise

Next time I think I would just ice the crosses rather than using the recommended flour and water mix which was lumpy and not easy to apply.

And lets just say that again: thirty buns. One of the things I like most about Jo Seagar’s recipes is that the quantities are always very generous.  This is a major consideration when you have a tribe of hungry boys to feed and still want a little to freeze for lunches.

Weirdly, hot cross buns have been appearing in the local supermarket from February this year in the same venal sort of seasonal creep we’ve seen with Easter eggs.  Generally those hot cross buns are pretty disappointing too, soft pale flabby things with an unpleasant aftertaste.  I guess someone’s buying them, but I find it devalues the tradition when seasonal trappings are available all year around.  Surely the way to maintain the special nature of our traditions is to respect them and not to exploit them.  One way to do this is to make them yourself.  It’s just once a year after all, and thanks to Jo Seagar they’re not only achieveable but rewarding.

You can find Jo Seagar’s hot cross bun recipe along with many other truly delicious and reliable edibles here:

A wet and windy walk on Waiheke


This gallery contains 24 photos.

Waiheke locals often refer smugly to their microclimate which means that even when Auckland is cloaked in damp clouds, just a short ferry ride away, the Waihetians are often basking in warm sunlight. But sometimes even Waiheke succumbs to a fit of the dismals, and once you’ve been to the Cinema, Solar Cafe and the video shop you’ve exhausted most of the possibilities, especially those which won’t cost a bomb with three kids in tow. When tempers start to fray, the only answer is to man up, rug up and get out into the wet and windy weather. Fortunately although the weather may be rough, it generally isn’t very cold.  And … Continue reading

The family bach

15 April 14 HekeruaOften in New Zealand we hear people referring fondly to their family bach, a little house near the sea to which they would return each summer, building up a pleasant store of memories and shared deprivations, year after year as they grew up.  And while we had a fairly privileged childhood which featured plenty of love and fun, a bach wasn’t part of my family culture until recently.

Then a few years ago, my parents found a steep, bushclad and inaccessible section at Hekerua Bay on Waiheke Island, a cleansing forty five minute ferry ride from Auckland. Never ones to back down on a challenge, the only answer was to build a house on it, a saga which deserves its own book.  The result was a very comfortable tree house, nestled in the bush above a small rocky cove.

tartan pipiFor lucky us it makes a very welcoming retreat not too far from where we live.  Still inaccessible by road, it requires a walk in down a long steep zig zag and a breath defying slog up wooden steps dragging your volumes of planned reading and bottles of wine.  As you can imagine, it was with great joy that we moved beyond the stage of bulky nappies and baby paraphernalia.

The advantage of a walk in, is that once there, we don’t want to leave.  We settle in.  We read, we walk, we swim, we kayak around the headland for a samosa from the Four Square at Little Oneroa.

Dried flax flower

It has to be admitted that the inter-generational holiday will require some flexibility and tolerance on all sides, especially when your family features three lively, and loud boys, with not a lot of space around the house to run around.    Full credit to my parents for 1. continuing to invite us, and, 2. putting up with the sheer force of energy, volume and confrontation that is our offspring.  But sometimes things will spiral upwards and that’s when we know that, rain or shine, it’s time to get outside.

For my children, Hekerua Bay has become their happy place.  It’s where they have spent endless hours on the pebbly beach, collected treasures, and walked miles (ok, sometimes against their will). They’ve developed strength, observation and independence while kayaking around the coastline and sea channels around us. Surrounded by native bush and water wildlife they have learned to confidently spot and identify native birds and trees and occasionally large marine mammals such as seals and orca.

In Maori ‘Hekerua’ means Double Bay.  For us it means double happy.

It’s just not that hard to be nice to your customers: Better living everyone!

This post was first published as an opinion piece on marketing blog Stoppress under the title “Why lawyers make bad marketers”.  But as the subject matter concerns this blog itself I have reposted it here.  Do you agree with me? What do you think Clorox New Zealand should have done?

snap lock bagsAs far as I’m aware, my blog has around four readers, most of them closely related to me. But I recently gained another! An intellectual property legal firm called AJ Park. They’re very good, and I’ve used them in a professional capacity myself.

It turns out that I referred once to a certain type of recloseable plastic bag you may well have in your own kitchen. AJ Park representing Clorox New Zealand Limited sent me a letter, asking me to change the way I have referred to their client’s product, suggesting ways I could ‘help’ their client to ‘safeguard their rights’. Thoughtfully they attached a highlighted photocopy of my blogpost and a list of suggested alternatives.

Honestly? Kudos! I’m impressed that anyone made it that far through my lemon cordial recipe, let alone an IP lawyer’s clerk clutching a highlighter. I suspect a little help from Google Alerts or a special lawyerly search tool.

Confession #1: I was once admitted to the bar in an excruciatingly silly horsehair wig. So, as a reformed lawyer, I do understand why companies want to be able to protect their property. If their brand name becomes the generic name for the product (which, actually, some might argue it has), it may be able to be removed as a trademark, and they lose the investment they’ve made in the product.

Confession #2: I also acted as a professional marketer for many more years than I care to admit or recall. So I know that while Clorox via AJ Park are probably doing what they feel they have to do to defend their brand, it is also just plain stupid in terms of brand perception and word of mouth marketing. Also, at $300+ per hour for a law firm partner’s time, it is also represents a very poor allocation of resource.

First, there’s the negative frisson in receiving an unexpected letter from a lawyer. Apologies to my many lovely lawyer friends, but joyful anticipation is not uppermost. A lawyer’s letterhead ups the ante in a heavy-handed way, no matter how anodyne the content. Not a feeling I’d want associated with my brand, especially smack bang in the middle of the target market. Let alone in the hands of a gobby blogger.

Secondly, however much Clorox may be in the right, actually nobody likes to be told what to do. As a marketer defending your legal rights, you need to keep this in mind in order to ensure the situation is managed to the product’s best overall advantage.

Now, I’m a fan of the product in question. I have snack sized, sandwich sized and storage sized bags in my kitchen drawer at all times, despite the fact that they are the most expensive and patently unsustainable. I have more money than sense, clearly. They just happen to be terribly useful. Until now, I haven’t seriously questioned this. And as a keen cook/baker with three kids, my future purchase potential is shamefully large.

But now, guess what I’m going to think about next time I’m in the kitchen consumables aisle? How seriously, do you think I’m going to be considering the alternatives. Quite, I’d say.

When a company sees someone using its product name, correctly or incorrectly, it is a great opportunity to recruit that person as an advocate, along with their potentially extensive social network. The last thing you’d want to do is shut down that conversation.

So, how could Clorox approach this differently? How might they ensure that fans who inadvertently use the wrong nomenclature continue to feel good about buying, using and recommending their product?

  • The message comes from the company—a product manager, or a marketer, a community manager or leader, not the lawyer.
  • It uses an appropriate medium. Unless there is a specific legal reason why the communication should be in a formal letter, it should take the form of a blog comment or email.
  • It is friendly.
  • It refers directly to the use of the product.
  • It finds some common ground.
  • It presents the client’s argument in the context of a benefit to the user, not to the brand owner.

With less effort, and considerably less expense, Clorox could have commented/emailed the following:

“Hi Jennifer, We love your blog (a little flattery never hurts, right?), and we are delighted you are finding our products so useful. We have an online community you might enjoy here, where keen cooks share ideas and recipes. We’re really flattered that you have mentioned our product by name and hope you will continue to recommend us. When you do, we would ask if you would please use our trademark*. The reason for this is that it helps us to fight bad copies of our product and ensure you are able to keep buying the quality product you’ve come to expect.”

A smart marketer who respects their target purchaser could choose to use any of the following tools in order to encourage a customer to become an advocate for their products, while correcting any misuse of trademarks:

  • Give a compliment.
  • Generate a conversation.
  • Provide sample products.
  • Offer discounts.
  • Incentivise friend get friend bonuses.
  • Ask them to like your Facebook page or join your online forum.
  • Invite to join your customer panel.

It’s just not that hard to be nice to your customers.

*For those who are interested in helping to safeguard Clorox New Zealand Limited’s valuable trademark rights, you may refer to a recloseable plastic bag as a ‘Snap Lock (R) bag”, a “SNAP LOCK (R) bag” or a “Snap Lock (R) bag”. If you’re feeling all relaxed and informal, you may apparently use the catchy phrase “SNAP LOCK resealable bag”.

He was my dog

HectorHe was nothing but a skittery pompom with a sharp little nose when we first brought him home.  He was small enough to fit into the pocket of my fleece.  His life spanned the length of our marriage.

Smart and fully engaged, he was excellent and constant company.  Dethroned successively by three babies, he generally took his demotion in good part.

Nosier than the Microsoft Paperclip, he always had to be involved, or at least present.  A naughty, loud fellow, scourge of the neighbours.   He was badly disciplined, an unrepentant pizza thief, a problem barker.

As he aged, he became blind and sick, and the sickness spread, despite our energetic denial.  What made it hardest to bear is that we could see in his eyes that he was still in there.  Barely able to walk he would still leap joyfully in the air when we came home.

When we broke the news of his condition, the children said ‘I wish I had been nicer to him’ and ‘it’s worse because he doesn’t know’

Towards the end, we ran a shift where one of us had to get up twice or three times per night and let him out.  We could never sleep past 5.30am.  It felt like having a newborn but without the upside.  It was unsustainable.  We walked like the undead, dealing with our kids and our jobs, but unable to bring ourselves to the point of what we had to do.

We heard many stories from others, some who had been to amazing extremes to keep their old dogs alive.  They all told the same story: ‘We kept him alive too long because we couldn’t bear to let him go’.  They were stories of bargaining, rationalising and denial.

In the end it was quite simple.  We carried him into the vet.  The vet spoke to us quietly and reassuringly, like a kindly priest.  The tears ran unguarded down our faces from the moment we arrived until we left.   When he was gone, he was gone.  I wish I had not looked into his eyes as they changed.  The right thing to do did not feel like the right thing to do.

Now, we can leave our food on the table without losing it.  We can walk around the back lawn without the danger of stepping on landmines.  We can sleep.

But weeks later I still hear his claws making fickety fickety noises behind me when I walk down the hall.  I throw food on the floor and it stays there. When I rise from reading, there is no attentive dismount beside me.  Coming home lacks a leaping celebration.

He was my dog, and I miss him every day.

The Signature of All Things – A Book Review

Book Review: The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

signature of all things cover tiltedElizabeth’s Gilbert’s historical novel The Signature of All Things swings into action at a critical juncture between the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution.  Exploitation of the New World is a fraught but lucrative enterprise bringing lands, fresh resources, and most importantly, valuable plants for a rapacious coterie of collectors.  Far from an elegant pursuit, botany is brutal but profitable, and many will die in the quest for the new.

Red haired, choleric and amoral, Henry Whittaker, is surely one of the liveliest and compelling historical figures never to have lived.  Discovered stealing plants to sell, the ‘useful little fingerstink’ is brought before self-noting botanist Joseph Banks, and sent as a botanic spy on Captain Cook’s third voyage.  Used and humiliated by his mentor, Henry forges a future and a pharmaceutical empire from medicinal plants.

Born into privilege, Henry’s daughter Alma resembles her father: ‘Ginger of hair, florid of skin, small of mouth, wide of brow, abundant of nose’.  A stoic, clever girl, with a love of argument and understanding, she becomes a dedicated naturalist while young.  Disappointed in love, and confined by duty, she rejects sorrow and buries herself in the tiny universe of mosses, edging towards a major discovery.  The walled garden of Alma’s life is both illuminated and utterly transformed by the late arrival of a ‘fellow soul’, the enchanting and delicate artist, Ambrose Pike.

Alma’s journey towards personal and professional enlightenment is touching and transfixing. Engaging, salty, and vivid, her story is immersed in a relentless, and fascinating flow of historical detail.   Often lyrical and quite beautiful on Alma’s pure love for her work and catastrophic love for Ambrose, the novel is clear eyed on the grimmer issues of  the day such as slavery, venereal disease, asylums and shipboard sodomy.

Perhaps Gilbert’s greatest achievement, is to bring to life the commitment and passion of the naturalist for her field of study, at a time when science poses a greater challenges biblical truth through the closer examination of nature.  Alma is unimpressed by the mystical idea of a divine code (the ‘signature’ of the title), based on God’s arrangement of plants and objects.  Falling firmly on the side of science and argument, she nevertheless struggles to square her discoveries with her experience of human nature and altruism.

Gilbert feasts deeply upon the language of the period and studs the text with beguilingly archaic words such as ‘ensorcelled’, ‘gallimaufry’, ‘marplot’ and, importantly for Alma’s self discovery, ‘quim’.   The rich and inventive description uplifts and occasionally disconcerting.  Can a servant really be described as a ‘competent young washbasin of a girl’?  But the reader is nevertheless enslaved and borne along by the impulsive, rhythmic energy of the writing and ongoing discovery.

Fans of Gilbert’s phenomenally successful memoir Eat, Pray, Love may see her as having diverted from form with this historical epic.  But it is entirely typical of Elizabeth Gilbert to take a brave creative risk and carry it through wholeheartedly and I, for one, am glad of it.

Both Eat, Pray, Love. and The Signature of All Things feature as protagonist, a strong, intelligent and self-critical woman, for whom work is its own reward.  Both open themselves to transformational new experiences, seeking only to know and to be known.  It seems that in The Signature of All Things, the apple has not fallen all that far from the tree.


Note: This book review was published in Metro Magazine, Jan 2014 edition.


Longbourn by Jo Baker: A review

longbourn coverA giant fibreglass Mr Darcy arises from the Serpentine, in a TV channel promotion.   Slapstick movie Austenland staggers on to screens and Bridget Jones is resurrected.  The Pride and Prejudice juggernaut rolls on, exploiting and warping our fascination with its characters in ways which Jane Austen could never have conceived or, one supects, countenanced.

And so it is in hope, but slight trepidation, that an ardent admirer of Austen might approach Longbourn.  Its cover copy line‘Pride and Prejudice - the servants’ story’ raises not just our hopes but also the zombiesque spectre of fan fiction in which beloved characters are reanimated, but somehow not quite as they were.

Fear not, dear reader.  The unsparing Austenian observation and inventive wit of author Jo Baker have conspired to create a world of convincing character and detail in which the most die hard Austen devotee can die happy.

In Longbourn, the freshly imagined servants of the Bennet family, command centre stage in a compelling drama.   Readers may be lured by the repressed aura ofMr Darcy, but they will stay for the struggles and hopes of gutsy strong-minded housemaid Sarah, redoubtable Mrs Hill, exotic Ptolemy and mysterious, war damaged James Smith.

The story marches alongside Pride And Prejudice like an adjoining property.  Familiar landmarks are glimpsed but from a fresh perspective, and it is in these differences that the greatest fascination lies.

Until now, we, and the young ladies Bennet, have been insulated from the gritty daily realities of running a small country house. Exhaustion, laundry, chilblains, excrement and job insecurity feature daily. One’s best and finest creations are destined always for others.

Longbourn obliges us to confront some fond notions of elegance and refinement through the lens of the loaded mistress/servant relationship.  Although the young ladies might present themselves as ‘smooth and sealed as alabaster statues’, their linen reveals them to be ‘frail, leaking, forked bodily creatures to their laundress.

Lizzie’s long admired disregard for bad weather is naturally viewed rather more critically by her maid:‘If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah thought, she would be more careful not to trudge through muddy fields’.

Despite the physical hardships of the servant’s life it becomes clear that material comfort is not a panacea “Perhaps it was actually quite a fearful state to live in – the knowledge that one had achieved a complete success”.  Elizabeth, for all her brilliant match is obliged to be ‘what she is required to be’.  And even Derbyshire’s largest fortune cannot protect her against that great equalizer, childbirth.

The passionate love affair between James and Sarah is all the more touching for its awkward organic beginnings and its contrast to that other relationship.  Sarah’s freedom to choose, both in work and in marriage is hard won and deeply satisfying.

The greatest fun is to be had in the subtle but masterly rehabilitation of familiar characters.  Mr Bennet’s scandalous new back-story generates new compassion for scatty, fractious Mrs Bennet.  Even perennially pompous Mr Collins emerges surprisingly sympathetically. Meanwhile, it ought to come as no real surprise to anyone that a young housemaid ought not to be left alone with Mr Wickham.

Longbourn will delight both new fans and Austen purists alike.  A vivid and engaging story, its characters live on in the imagination.

Readers, we have a new classic.

This review was published in Metro Magazine in December 2013

The secret to super easy flower arrangements – five ways

131116 glass bottles and PierreHow to make perfect flower arrangements with whatever you have in your garden, using one simple tool

Happily we don’t have to be florists, or have a Sissinghurst style picking garden. The prettiest arrangements are perfectly within reach.  All you really need are need are some simple little glass bottles.

You can buy bottles like this cheaply from homeware stores or Trademe. However, there are plenty of small bottles which can be recycled into new life.  It still makes me laugh that mine started life as IV paracetamol bottles.  Well cleaned, and with labels scraped away, they have been pressed into a new and more decorative life

Right now in our part of the world the burgeoning, budding spring loveliness is all around us.  Even if you don’t have a garden it isn’t hard to find a few buds or blooms.  This type or arrangement is marvellously non-discerning.  Here are five ways you can use bottles like this to satisfying effect:

131116 Pierre bud vase1. One perfect bloom in a bud vase

Meet Pierre (de Ronsard).  I get ridiculously excited when M. de Ronsard decides to pop out a few fat, heavy buds, the petals of which open gradually into this lovely old fashioned quatrefoil arrangement.  It speaks for itself and doesn’t need any further embellishment.


131116 burgundy sweet peas

2. The tiny, fragrant bouquet

I wish I could link you through to the amazing old fashioned scent of these purple sweet peas.  If anything will take you back to your grandmother’s garden, it will be these.  The stems are not always as long as you might like, which is why these little bottles are just perfect.


131115 Purple Opium poppy

131116 poppy flower heads close3. the ‘personality’ seed pod arrangement

These glorious purple opium poppies bloom and then give way to these plump upraised seed pod faces.  They seem to have their own comical characters and I like to see them in chatty little groups. My children sometimes draw fierce little faces on them when I am not looking.  It can be quite disconcerting to have a flower arrangement stare back at you!

131116 dinner party flowers

4. The easiest dinner party arrangement ever

I used eleven small glass bottles and whatever I could find in the garden to create this centrepiece for a dinner with friends last night. This is an extremely simple arrangement to create but it brought lovely colour and sparkle to the table creating and a real sense of occasion.  On a practical note, the cakestand makes it easier to remove the arrangement from the table when it came time to put the main dishes on the table.

131116 centrepiece deconstructed

131116 fresh flower ringTo make the arrangement simply, cut the stems to roughly the same height and place them in their bottles on the base of a glass cake stand or plate. This brings them together and give them some height.. Add simple tealights in decorative glasses for a bit of glimmer.

131116 House elf 5.  The birthday party

I had no time, and not many flowers.  But a surprising number of the few blooms went with the froot-loop inspired bunting. Keeping the arrangement on the windowsill took advantage of the sunlight and kept them out of the way of serial small party-hyped elbows.  (You will have to supply your own house-elf though.  This one is ours ;-) ).

There you have it, five ways with everyday flowers, glass bottles and no time.  Do you have any favourite tricks with flowers?

From Scratch – The results of the no-knead bread experiment

bread white boule dark and rye

Regular readers (Hi Ma!) may recall I’ve been playing with no-knead bread recipes, trying to create one of those crusty, artisanal, country style boule loaves you might see at the Sullivan Street Bakery in NYC or,closer to home, up the road at Olaf’s.  The frugal side of me would like to think I can do it for less than the $7.50 market rate for good bread.

And here’s the upshot:: The no knead white bread recipe by Jim Lahey/Sullivan Street Bakery is a definite keeper.  No fluke.  It’s good, really good.  It’s my new go-to bread recipe.

The pros are:

  • It really is the closest you’ll get to making a real ‘artisan’ country style white boule, especially in my kitchen, with my crappy old oven (the Bermuda Triangle of my kitchen renovation)
  • It’s seriously bragworthy in appearance.  If you’re shallow and approval seeking like me, this counts
  • The inside ‘crumb’ is moist and appropriately slightly holey.  It is the bread which disappears from the bench before all others.. It’s delicious and I find it better, more authentic than the artisan bread in five minutes per day method, probably due to the longer fermentation period.
  • The kids like it.  They like to risk dismemberment with the serrated knife and cut it themselves.   The crust is chewy and thick and the minions like to walk around chewing them
  • It’s damned easy with the smallest possible hands on time.  Five minutes to mix, then five minutes shaping plus baking time.
  • While some people will laugh at the idea of a bread which has been left for 12-18 hours to ferment being called easy, or quick, the fact is, it bubbles around in a bowl for 99.8% of that time. If you’re the sort of person who regularly uses a yoghurt maker or remembers to take meat out of the freezer the night before (yeah, sometimes me neither), then you can do it!
  • Makes tasty toast
  • Cheap.  Three cups of flour, 1/4 teaspoon of yeast and some salt aren’t going to break the bank anytime soon.
  • It feels good to make good bread!

The cons are:

  • Sticky business: the fermented dough is quite wet and sticky to handle which takes a little getting used to handling.
  • Burny hot! If you check the method here you’ll see that the loaf’s caramel exterior and moist interior are created by the atmosphere within a lidded metal casserole inside your oven. Getting a red hot metal casserole or ‘dutch oven’ in and out of the oven is a bit tricky.  Those suckers are heavy! If you have removed the knob from the lid, then levering the lid on and off again is trickier still. If your knob is metal, then you’re fine but the black bakelite type ones don’t handle above 240c well, so I have had to remove it and fill the screw hole hole with foil to maintain the seal. As a result, I have been eyeing up those daft silicone non slip oven gloves with a little more serious consideration than usual.
  • It’s a round boule shape, so it’s not conveniently shaped for your lunchbox (that’s a future mission)
  • Not a quick fix.  It’s still bread. If you’re in a hurry, make scones.

I tried three mixes: The white, whole wheat and rye flour.  What I learned (a no brainer really) was that the recipe is designed for the properties of white flour only, the others were difficult to handle, very wet and not entirely successful.   I have Jim Lahey’s book My Bread now, so I’ll take a closer look at how he handles whole wheat recipes.

bread white wholemeal comparisonAs a result of my going off-piste in my non-informed way, the whole wheat was very disappointing (see loaf to the left). It hardly rose, was dry, and quickly went stale.




Bread rye flatHowever the big surprise was the rye bread.  As rye contains very little gluten, I didn’t expect much of a rise, and as you can see here, it’s pretty flat.  However it was delicious, moist, and flavoursome, slightly tangy and chewy.  It also stayed fresh and edible much longer than expected.  Sliced, it was perfect with avocado and a little haloumi or smoked chicken (all conveniently oblong shaped foods!) It also made really yummy toast.  I would definitely make it again, although I will look at some mixes with higher gluten flours for a more ‘high-rise result’.

If you want to have a go yourself  I’d really encourage you.  Clearly, kneading is not necessary and you can surprise yourself with some pretty delicious and impressive results.  Not to mention saving yourself a bill at the bakery.

Check out the recipe here.

Let me know if you’ve had a play around with no knead recipes.  I’d be keen to hear about any old favourites.  And please let me know if you have a good reliable sandwich loaf recipe.


The need to knead: How to make fantastic artisan style bread in your own kitchen

bread dough in bowlsFrom scratch: A no-knead bread experiment:

Bread has a reputation for labour intensiveness, however the amount of hands-on time required is actually not that high.  A measure and mix, 10 minutes kneading and popping in and out of the oven is all that’s required for the most part.  In between, you can be getting on with giving the laundry a bump, or finishing your powerpoint presentation. Whatever floats your boat ow!

For a couple of years I have been experimenting with different bread recipes.  I still find it miraculous that you can combine the four simple ingredients of yeast, flour, water and salt to create something everybody needs, likes and eats (we can talk gluten later).  The properties of yeast are downright magical.  The outcome is warm, fragrant and deeply satisfying in a Little House on the Prairie, back-to-basics way.

When I have the time, I enjoy the therapeutic exercise of kneading.  The bread becomes warm, smooth and elastic and is a pleasure to handle. Certainly it is a nicer sensory experience than a trip to the supermarket, though I am certainly grateful to have the choice.

jim lahey my breadAlthough kneading is not hard, it does add an extra step to the process. Enter the ever expanding (geddit?) popularity of no-knead breads.  The king is Jim Lahey’s method, originally profiled in the New York Times dining section (recipe below) and in his book “My Bread”.

The Jim Lahey method below requires less yeast, and a much longer rise, at least 12 hours and preferably 18 hours.  18 hours!! You can see where the extra planning ahead and added dedication to the craft come in.  But his bread looks seriously good, he’s certainly a focussed looking baker and I’m curious.

Artisan bread coverA year or so later after Lahey exploded on to the blogosphere, Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois brought out the slightly more commercial ‘Artisan Bread in five minutes per day”, a seductive promise if ever there was one.

Both recommend baking the bread in a ‘dutch oven’, a lidded cast iron casserole, removing the lid for the final browning stage.  Both also use a very wet sticky dough which can take a bit of getting used to handling.

The ‘Artisan in 5 minutes’ method only requires 2-3 hours to rise before baking.  You can make a huge batch and keep it in a big tub in the fridge for up to two weeks, over which it will develop sourdough-like flavours, although you will see less of a rise the older the dough gets.  When you need it, you can rip off a grapefruit sized chunk,  shape it, rest it and bake it.  It’s convenient, and the hands-on time is very limited.  The results can be very good, a crisp chewy crust and nice fine crumb.  I also often use this for homemade pizza bases.

photo (5)On a recent trip to catering mecca Gilmours, for an entirely different reason, I over-optimistically bought 1.5kg of active dried yeast, thanks to Nico the chef and chief enabler!  Key Nico phrase: “it’s just your money!”.  Time to make good on that investment:

Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread – The reality:

So, in a retrospective attempt to justify that purchase I’m going to be having a bit of a play with the Jim Lahey method over the next two days or so.  We are a pro-bread household with no current gluten issues so I’ve got three doughs on the go: White bread, wholegrain and rye.

bread dough in bowlsAlready the wholegrain seems to need more flour to reach the same consistency as the other mixes, and I added 1/2 a cup more.. I much prefer recipes which ask for weights rather than notoriously inaccurate cup measures.  If I can track down the weights for the recipes below, I’ll post them

I’m also thinking of doing an artisan white bread mix at the same time for direct comparison. Obsessive, moi?

I’ll report back on my results.  Wish me luck.

Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread – The recipe form the New York Times:

Adapted from Jim Lahey, Sullivan Street Bakery
Time: About 1½ hours plus 14 to 20 hours’ rising

3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
¼ teaspoon instant yeast
1¼ teaspoons salt
Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed.

1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.

2. Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.

3. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal; put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

4. At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.

Yield: One 1½-pound loaf.