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: http://joseagar.com/recipes/category:baking-and-treats/seagars-hot-cross-buns/

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.

Made from scratch: everyday pleasures

Homemade._SX260_Every now and again I get very excited by a new recipe.  But it’s never one of those Cuisine Magazine extravaganzas with 27 ingredients.  Instead, the recipes which float my boat are those which show how to make something I’d ordinarily be obliged to buy such as crackers, pasta, biscuits, jam and …marshmallows you know, just the essentials.

With this approach to cooking, the pleasure comes from a feeling of self sufficiency, a smidgen of frugality and a soupcon of sticking it to ‘big food’.  In going back to the way our grandmothers used to cook, there’s something of the pioneering spirit about it. If you have relied on preprepared or processed foods (and let’s face it there can’t be too many families with two parents working outside the home who haven’t) is can feel empowering to get back to basics and demystify food. For me it’s satisfying to circumvent the commercial powers that be, and I enjoy knowing what goes in to what we eat.  Some say growing your own food is a political act.  I’d say cooking it is too.

My favourite recipes are based around pantry staples, with the considerable benefit that you don’t need to get dressed to make them (no special trip out for pomegranate molasses!). Generally staples can be bought in bulk, meaning that otherwise pricy Lavosh crackers for example cost virtually nothing to make, and you can make a lot at once.

If a recipe is to make it on to the regular rota of things made in my kitchen they also need to be more delicious than ‘shop bought’. Putting some spectacular failures aside for a moment, this is often shockingly easy.  A wise gardening rule is only to grow what you really like to eat.  This rule applies to cooking and baking as well.  If the kids eat them, and they store or freeze well, consider me sold.

There are certain reliable guides I have found, and I highly recommend them.

Everyday-109x150Sophie Gray of Destitute Gourmet is my go-to for all basic household cooking.  My top five most cooked items, including birthday cakes and everyday baking come from her stable.  These are the cookbooks I wished to replace first after an unfortunate incident with a rogue watermelon.

Sophie is remarkable for her down to earth approach, her sense of humour and her understanding of the pressures involved in feeding a family well and healthily on a budget.

Homemade._SX260_

One indicator of long term value in a cookbook for me is the number of times I have had it out from the library before I buy it.  I just couldn’t let this one go.   Homemade is a gorgeous book by Yvette Van Boven, a Dutch chef with a lot of heart and a fearless ‘why not’ attitude to making hearty, delicious satisfying food, including the mucho moreish Lavosh crackers mentioned above.

 

Homemade pantry TopRight,1,0_SH20_

3. Another reliable indicator is the number of post it notes you stick into a book as you read through it for the first time.  This book, Homemade pantry – 101 foods you can stop buying and start making  looked like a little yellow 3M sponsored hedgehog by the time I had finished with it.  In fact, I’m still not finished with it.

Do you have a go-to cookbook for everyday or do you rely on friends and family for recipes? And what do you find you tend to make over and over again?

Thank you for spending your time on me

Scanned images 001My middle boy reached double figures today.

Any parent will tell you that each child poses his own particular challenges to their own self mastery as an adult.

This boy with his dramatic swings, verbal dexterity, persistence and emotional intelligence is capable of diabolical tempers, protracted negotiation, belly laughs and breathtaking sweetness.

This weekend he watched carefully as I made his birthday cake.  A wise move since one never knows when an M&M might go rogue. Tension rose as I tried to remember what I had forgotten to prepare for his small party. Just between us, I may not have had a pleasant and loving smile on my face.

My march to martyrdom was halted in its tracks when he looked across the table and said “Thank you for spending your time on me Mum“.

It is a choice to be an involved parent, whether you choose to express it via cake, or soccer coaching or endless standing knitting beside godforsaken dressage arenas (you know who you are). But even a rewarding choice takes time, money, energy and in the opportunity cost to personal projects.

Perhaps as a parent you can’t really expect to be thanked for what you do.  Maybe it’s only when you become a parent that you really realise what went into making you who you are. But when thanks comes, graced with a recognition that you could have spent your time differently, my goodness, it is appreciated.  I spent the rest of that day with a real glow, a feeling of  true delight.

Do you have memories of paging through the Woman’s Weekly cookbook to choose your next birthday cake, sometimes months in advance? The pages of my Australian Woman’s Weekly Kids Birthday cake book which aren’t stuck together are falling out from overpawing.

Even though my mother doesn’t really love to bake she has always been very good at it. Her baking is, without fail, delicious, and her scones are worldbeaters.  Few people can whip up a square meal for five with a heel of cheese and an old boot, but she can. It is usually garnished with a description of how it could have been better.

I have very strong memories of cakes Mum made for me such as ‘The Garfield‘ c1985 in particular. However special mention is reserved for the inventive jelly topped cake (still remembered by Lucy C some thirty years later) which was consumed shivering under a cold concrete ledge at the Parnell Baths.

As an adolescent I lounged about like a sneering know-it-all, not lifting a finger while the domestic arts were conducted around my prone form. Now I find them surfacing in me spontaneously, like a coma victim who wakes to find they can suddenly speak fluent Aramaic.  My mother for her part has been extremely gracious about me discovering these skills as if I was seeing them for the first time and acting as if I may well have just invented them.

It’s too big for one blogpost, but it all just comes down to one thing really:

Thanks for spending your time on me Mum.

 

 

Let them eat cake; a baker’s manifesto.

Birthday cakeI am a huge fan of cake. I love baking cakes, decorating cakes… mostly eating cakes.  I have had to make peace with the fact that despite my ‘A’ in Feminist Legal Theory, one of my happiest places is in my kitchen with a spatula.

Personalising the perfect cake for the right person on their special day is a true creative pleasure. As officiously self-appointed official family cakemaker, I’ve probably made made more than 150 cakes for friends and whanau over the last ten years.  I’m no patissiere, but I have a couple of very reliable recipes and as an enthusiastic amateur I  now know my way around a garden variety celebration cake.

I used to have to consult my cookbooks, go to to the library and  internet for inspiration and that fellow cake enthusiast feeling.  But it was pretty exciting to see the emergence of YouTube tutorials, television shows, and truly excellent websites dedicated to celebrating both brilliant cake making and, er, epic fails.

But here’s the thing – what has happened to cake decorating over the last three to four years is just plain nuts.

It’s no secret that most cakes fall within the high sugar, high fat treat food, category.  It’s not meant to be an everyday food. But I am staggered by the trend to sheer excess and overuse of fondants, and frostings  The decorations have taken over and the ratio of icing to cake is way out of whack.

The emphasis now seems to be on the form rather than the flavour.  The result is sometimes amazing but not an amazing eating experience, as anyone who has ever chowed down on a plug of fondant will tell you.  I’ve made my own share of fondant bumblebees and monkeys, but I’m growing increasingly uncomfortable with the priority that appearance is taking over the edible experience. I feel strongly enough that it may even be a personal manifesto: It has to be all about the delicious.

I blame the world domination of the cupcake, which has gone from a near muffin with a glaze and some sprinkles to an entire business model and the tired inspiration for a thousand chicklit covers. The cake acts simply as an apologetic support for an effulgence of overcoloured buttercream.  Is it weird or a natural correlation that at this time of concern about body image and obesity, when type 2 diabetes is epidemic that there should be such an obsession for sugared decoration?

TV shows have to take a lot of the responsibility.  Television is a visual medium, so the drama comes from how the cakes look rather than how they taste.  The shows are fun, but they don’t have to focus on flavour and, lets face it, not every cake needs its own working hydroslide, thanks Ace of Cakes.

Pinterest is in the dock on this one too.  While there’s some serious skill involved, fondant crafting seems to have taken over where Fimo left off, with ‘”Amazing ‘lil cowfaced mermaid cake topper tutorials” popping up all over Facebook, Youtube and Craftsy too.  And maybe that’s the point, that it has become crafting rather than cooking.

Another personal rising concern is the seductively intense colour offered by the modern gel colourings. Again, I can’t claim high ground.  I have three sons and have eaten a miniskip’s worth of bright blue icing during my parenthood.  But am I the only person who thinks this probably isn’t quite right? If someone came along with some decent and effective ‘natural’ colourings I’d be an instant customer right there.  But despite my searching there doesn’t really seem to be a good alternative offering just yet. Perhaps I should take a hint: maybe we just weren’t meant to eat cyan?

miette_bookGorgeous San Francisco bakery Miette put out a beautiful and useful book recently.  I understood their philosophy is that a cake must be more about taste and texture than architecture and fashion.  Their cakes are so so mouth watering and yet so simple and beautiful that I defy your mouth not to water when you look at them.  And not a single one is overdone in its decoration.

Interestingly, Miette cakes aren’t huge either.   The European influence at work here dictates that a small slice of divine quality is worth far more than an enormous slab of banality.  I’d go with that.

Maybe you’re well ahead of me on this, but as my children leave their primary coloured baby years. I’m feeling a pull towards a more ‘natural’ style of baking.  The low cal, artificial sweetener, apple-puree-butter-substitute is not for me – unless I am baking for someone with diabetes and my experience to date is that they don’t want it either.  But I am interested in trying more nut flours and fruit ingredients such as those set out in New Zealander Amber Rose’s recently published book Love, Bake, Nourish.  I’ll bet I can find a way to personalise those suckers.

What’s your favourite celebration cake?