Amazin’ raisin polenta bread

Did you ever wonder where all the bread baking geeks hang out? I think I’ve found them. In the weekend I followed a trail of flour-dusted fingerprints to The Fresh Loaf, which is an amazing resource of bread recipes and advice. Most of the time the ‘artisan bread enthusiasts’ are speaking in a language I find quite tricky to decipher, but it’s addictive all the same. After my first visit I looked at my loaves and felt woefully inadequate. After the second, I made this raisin-studded loaf for breakfast. I’m not sure that it turned out as perfectly as a proper bread geek’s one would, but I was pretty happy with it all the same.

It’s probably best that you go here for the recipe, though it might be helpful to know that I played around with it a bit, using instant polenta instead of cornmeal, brown sugar instead of honey, and adding a tiny bit of allspice (but not too much, as cinnamon does bad things to yeast). I also soaked the raisins for a bit in hot water before adding them (and accidentally tipped the extra water in as well). If you have even the slightest bit of interest in bread, you’ve got to check this site out. Then come back and tell me what you made…

Sweet sweet Friday: Vegan Muffins

One of the cool things about my new(ish) job is that I get to ring up various cafes and restaurants on behalf of readers and request recipes. It might sound easy but it actually requires all the skills I’ve built up over a decade to convince some of these chefs to part with their recipes. Some of them are such hard work that sometimes I think it would be easier to go back to doing death knocks or interviewing media-trained celebs.

Anyway, this recipe is from Baobab, a cafe just down the road from our house. It’s a very laidback spot and the couple who run it are amazing. One day we’re going to manage to go there on a Friday night and have tapas, but in the meantime the Small Girl and I occasionally treat ourselves and stop there for one of these muffins when we’re out running errands or going to the library.

Easy Vegan Muffins From Scratch

Baobab’s Vegan Muffins

You don’t have to be a vegan to enjoy (or make) these hearty muffins. In fact, you might be just someone who wants to make some muffins for Saturday morning breakfast and realises they don’t have any eggs. Rachel, the chef at Baobab, makes these in six muffin tins but I find them too hard to get out of the tin that way and divide the mixture into eight. I also use spelt flour and add some orange zest. They’re pretty irresistable straight out of the oven (“Mummy, muffins!”) but they also freeze well for weekday lunches.

1 1/2 cups plain flour (or spelt flour)

1 cup rolled oats

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup coconut

2tsp baking powder

1tsp baking soda

1tsp cinnamon

pinch of salt

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1 1/4 cups soy milk (or milk of your choice)

1tsp vanilla

grated zest of an orange

1 ripe banana, mashed

Fruit – about a cup of sliced stonefruit, berries, or whatever else takes your fancy

Preheat oven to 175C and grease and flour eight medium-sized muffin tins.

Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda and cinnamon into a large bowl. Add rolled oats, brown sugar and  coconut and stir well. In a separate bowl, mix the mashed banana, oil, milk, vanilla and orange zest. Add the wet mixture to the dry ingredients and fold together gently until just combined. Spoon the mixture into the muffin cups until they are about half-full. Place some of your chosen fruit on top, then top with the rest of the muffin batter (the cups will be very full). Garnish the top of the muffins with the remaining fruit. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until a skewer comes out clean when you plunge it into a muffin. Cool for five minutes, then gently turn out of the tin and leave to cool on a rack.

Do you have an end of the week baking treat? Add it in here to spread the sweetness of Fridays…

Our daily bread

It’s the third week of 2011 and I have stopped buying bread. Well, I do have an emergency loaf in the freezer, but I am no longer a prisoner to the over-priced and not-that-great French bakery around the corner and I can smugly avoid the bread aisle at the supermarket. I haven’t gotten around to growing the sourdough starter yet (sorry Dom!), but definitely feel back in the swing of breadmaking.

These robust loaves have become our daily bread. They’re quick to make, have a good crust, a nice crumb and turn into excellent toast. The recipe comes from Stephanie Alexander’s The Cooks Companion, one of my most-used books for both recipe and reference purposes.

Country-style Crusty Bread
I have to thank my sister Marion for the baking paper technique described below – much easier than fluffing about with flour-covered teatowels and the like. This makes two loaves, so you have one to eat today and one to freeze.

800g unbleached strong flour
200g wholemeal strong flour
1Tbsp instant dried yeast
1Tbsp fine salt
2Tbsp olive oil
600ml lukewarm water

Put everything into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook and mix on low speed until you have a smooth but not sticky dough (about 8 minutes). If you don’t have a mixer, prepare to knead for about 15-20 minutes.
Divide dough in half (I weigh it to be sure) and put each half into a lightly oiled bowl. Cover with tea towels and leave until doubled, about one hour.
Knock back and knead each piece for a couple of minutes, then return to bowls and let rise again for about 30 minutes, covered with tea towels again.
Gently form each piece into a loaf (“like a fat cigar,” Stephanie says) and place on a liberally floured piece of baking paper. Allow to rise for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 220C, with a heavy baking tray inside. Carefully lift the baking paper and loaves onto the hot tray and bake for about 20 minutes, then turn over and bake for another five minutes (you can remove the baking paper at this point). The base of each loaf should sound hollow when tapped. Allow to cool completely on a wire rack before cutting.

Sweet sweet Friday: Apricot Chews

My friend Jeremy, a filmmaker, stay-at-home dad and Renaissance man, recently told me that multi-tasking was overrated. Yesterday, after managing to simultaneously burn a pot of porridge and embarrass myself by running down our street in my threadbare nightie to catch the binmen while writing a blog post, I felt inclined to agree. But right now I am writing while consuming possibly the best biscuits I have ever made – and multi-tasking seems like a very good thing indeed.

I’ve had this recipe for nearly nine years and can’t understand why I’ve never made it before. It comes from my dearest friend Anna, an amazingly talented artist, crafter, cook and gardener. Anna and I shared a house together for a year in a funny New Zealand provincial city, where she taught me to bake, sew and occasionally pose for drawing purposes. We’ve been separated by geography for most of the time since then, but my notebooks are full of her recipes and when we talk on the phone her laugh still sounds like music.

Anna’s Apricot Almond Chews
You do need a food processor for this recipe, so if you don’t have one, go and find someone who does. (Put a coat on over your pyjamas first.)

250g ground almonds
80g (1/2 cup) dates, roughly chopped
80g (1/2 cup) dried apricots, roughly chopped
4Tbsp brown sugar
4Tbsp maple syrup (or golden syrup, or date syrup, or a mixture of the two)
grated zest of an orange
1 egg white
about 2/3 cup desiccated coconut

Preheat the oven to 180C. Line a baking sheet with baking paper. Throw all the ingredients except the coconut into a food processor and whiz until you get a chunky paste. Divide into walnut-sized balls and roll in the coconut. Put on the baking tray and press down slightly. Bake for 10-12 minutes until light golden brown. Cool on a rack and store in an airtight container. Delicious for breakfast while blogging…

Do you have an end of the week sweet treat? Add it here to spread the sweetness of Fridays…

Give us today our daily bread…

Chief among my New Year resolutions is the one to make bread. About 10 years ago I had a sourdough starter on the go all the time and made bread a lot, partly because I was living in big shared flats and there were always lots of willing eaters. I’ve decided that 2011 is the year to get back in the saddle and am challenging myself to make bread of some sort at least once a week.

But because I wasn’t organised enough to have a sourdough starter on the go for January 1 (that was the old me, so 2010!), I used Hugh F-W’s recipe for a ‘cheaty yeasty sponge loaf’. This is brilliant, no-stress breadmaking – especially if you employ a mixer to do all the kneading. I do love kneading but I think I love being able to do other things while the mixer is doing all the work even more. I haven’t quite got it nailed yet, but for once time is on my side.

Cheat’s Sourdough (from River Cottage Everyday)
These instructions assume a working knowledge of basic breadmaking – if you can’t follow them, then you can definitely find far more experienced advice elsewhere on the interweb!

500g strong bread flour (I used some Italian 00 flour lurking in the pantry)
5g dried yeast (about 1 1/2 tsp)
2tsp fine sea salt
325ml warm water

The night before you want your bread to be ready, combine 250g of the flour with the yeast and water. Beat to form a thick batter, then cover with cling film and leave overnight.
In the morning, beat in the remaining flour and salt, then knead for about 10 minutes, until smooth and silky. It will be fairly sticky and wet to start with. (I use the dough hook in my freestanding mixer so I can have a cup of tea and check my emails while the bread is doing its thing).
Put the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with oiled cling film and leave to rise for an hour or two, until  doubled in size. Knock back (deflate) the dough and shape, then cover loosely and let rise until doubled in size again.
Preheat the oven to 250C. About five minutes before you want to put the loaf in the oven, put a baking tray in the oven to heat up. Take the hot baking sheet from the oven, dust it with flour, and carefully transfer the risen dough to it by tipping it out of the proving basket/bowl, upside down, on to the sheet. Slash the top of the loaf a few times with a very sharp knife or pair of scissors.
Put the loaf into the hot oven and give a few squirts of water from a clean spray bottle over and around it. After 15 minutes, reduce the heat to 200C, give the oven another spray, and bake for a further 30 minutes, or until the loaf sounds hollow when you tap its base. Leave to cool completely, on a rack (or wait at least 20 minutes) before slicing.

Do you have any foodie New Year resolutions? Better still, do you have a great bread recipe for me to try?