August 2011

If you’re always on the lookout for new recipes then you’ll no doubt have various scraps of paper cluttering up your house, each featuring a scribbled or printed recipe that you’ll just never get round to sticking or copying into that special dedicated notebook you got for Christmas (and the person who gave you that book is probably sick of the clutter too). Guilty as charged, over here.

The best onion bhaji recipe I ever found was printed on the back of a gram flour packet, and I’ve only gone and thrown it out. So last night I was forced to branch out and try a different recipe (as much as anyone can be forcibly compelled to make onion bhajis). I’ve made sweet potato bhajis to Rose Elliot’s New Complete Vegetarian recipe before, so I tried her suggested variation to make the more traditional onion version. It wasn’t wholly successful, as there didn’t seem to be enough gram flour mixture to hold each bhaji together; they worked better that I thought they would, though, and were light and crispy. The dried chilli gives just the right amount of kick, and I love that Rose Elliot includes fresh coriander. I’ll try them again soon to work out the optimum quantities, but please send me your tried-and-tested bhaji recipes! I’m desperate.

Onion bhajis
 (from Rose Elliot’s New Complete Vegetarian)

Makes eight, apparently. They don’t hold together too well, so smaller ones might be your best bet, in which case obviously you’ll end up with more than eight.

450g onions (red or white)
125g gram flour
1 tsp dried red chilli flakes
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
3 tbsp chopped fresh coriander

  1. Slice your onions. A straggly onion bhaji is a beautiful thing, so keep your slices longish rather than chopping them finely.
  2. Put the sliced onions in a bowl and add the gram flour, chilli flakes, baking powder, salt and coriander. Give it a really good mix – you can do this with a wooden spoon, but you might find it easier with your hands; I know I do. The moisture will be drawn out from the onions so everything should start to come together, but you can add a little water after a good mix if everything still feels dry. I find it easiest to form the mixture into lumps of whatever size you fancy (I wouldn’t go bigger than about a tablespoon of mixture) at this stage, laying them out on a chopping board ready for frying.
  3. Choose a medium-sized saucepan and pour in enough vegetable oil to half-fill the pan (you can always strain and reuse the oil afterwards, once it’s cooled down), setting it over a medium-high heat.
  4. Start adding your bhajis once the oil reaches 180°C, or when a cube of bread rises to the surface and turns golden brown in under a minute. To be honest, I just take a punt on it and start putting them in when it looks hot. Depending on the size of your pan, it’s probably best to only fry three or four bhajis at once, to prevent the oil cooling.
  5. After about four minutes, the bhajis should be deliciously golden and crisp, and cooked right through. Drain them on kitchen paper and keep them warm in a low oven while you fry up the rest.
For a really tasty sweet potato variation, peel and grate 350g sweet potatoes in place of the sliced onion in the recipe above, and add one very finely chopped onion to the mixture too.

After a couple of weeks of admirable almost-austerity, this has been a week of sheer indulgence. Not only have I managed to acquire a new laptop (unlike my last one, it actually works for more than five minutes without the display dissolving into a migraine-inducing quivering fuzzy mess), but I’ve eaten at St John Bread & Wine, da Polpo and (fanfare please) The Ledbury. Add to this some quality boozing at Zetter Townhouse and B@1 – I can’t apologise for the latter; I love it there – and I really have no idea how I woke up at 6.30am today. Oh yeah: my laptop was due to arrive and I was as excited as a child at Christmas.

St John Bread & Wine was as fantastic as ever, and I was particularly pleased to see my old favourite, fennel and Berkswell with pickled walnuts, on the menu. No trip to Fergus Henderson’s Commercial Street outpost would be complete without one of their incredible Eccles cakes with Lancashire cheese. Every time I have one I’m tempted to order a spare for the next day’s breakfast. One of my favourite festive moments involved unexpectedly running into my friend Adam on the train up to Northants a few days before Christmas, and discovering that we’d each brought an Eccles cake for the journey. AND he’d brought a wodge of Lancashire cheese. Unfortunately, neither of us had thought to bring a hip flask.

I’m a huge fan of Russell Norman’s Polpo group of restaurants, and da Polpo, the Covent Garden-based new addition to the family, is no exception. The queues are of a far more palatable length than at the Beak Street original, and although da Polpo’s menu is less varied, the convivial atmosphere, friendly service and unfailingly tasty food makes for a reliably great night out. I headed there, with my friends Vicky and Helen, after four cocktails apiece at B@1 (it’s buy one get one free until 7pm, and you just can’t argue with that), all distinctly peckish but unwilling to end our evening too early. We gorged ourselves on pizzette, ‘meatballs’ and two salads (zucchini and Jersey royals), stuck to tap water and left very happy and each only £11 lighter of pocket.

Yesterday, in celebration of the lovely Sarah’s ‘big birthday’, five of us headed west… to Notting Hill’s Ledbury Road. The Ledbury is a two-Michelin-starred establishment that boasts the best service I’ve ever been lucky enough to experience – so wonderfully good-humoured yet faultlessly efficient. The staff didn’t even laugh at me (too much) when I arrived and thought I spotted my party at the back of the restaurant, only to discover that it was in fact their reflection in the huge mirror that makes up the back wall.

And the food…

Our waiter cheerfully produced an entire vegetarian set-lunch menu for me to peruse over a shared bottle of Nyetimber (this alone made my day), from which I chose a heritage tomato salad followed by celeriac baked in ash. I can’t even begin to tell you just how good the tomato salad was: served at room temperature for maximum flavour, the mixture of dark-skinned, green, cherry and classic red tomatoes was accompanied by a herby (but not overpowering) dressing and dried olives, as well as two flawless feuille de brick pastry tubes filled with perfectly light, creamy goat’s curd.

The celeriac, with its deliciously ashy coating, was beautifully combined with hazelnuts, summer truffle and grated hen’s egg. I’m not usually a truffle fan, but these had an extremely delicate flavour that only added to the perfectly balanced dish. And as Mr Ottolenghi has shown us, nuts should be liberally sprinkled over pretty much all food for instant yumminess.

The set menu dessert of elderflower panna cotta didn’t appeal (not veggie-friendly), so I chose brown sugar tart with gooseberries and stem ginger ice cream from the full menu. It was as amazing as it sounds. I don’t think I could do it justice with mere words. This feast was followed by coffee (fresh mint tea for me and the birthday lady) and petits fours in the form of raspberry jellies, salted caramel chocolates and tiny hazelnut shortbreads sandwiched together with something delicious and a bit creamy.

For the first time ever, I’d managed to attain that ideal level of fullness and tipsiness that leaves you warm and happy rather than alarmed and queasy. Still, a bit of a walk was in order for Paul and me after lunch, and we headed towards Books for Cooks on Blenheim Crescent. I managed to resist buying anything, and Valentine Warner was there. All in all, a perfect afternoon.

(Photos courtesy of Paul)

Once you’ve got your starter, making a loaf of sourdough bread is dead easy. My standard loaf is adapted from Dan Lepard’s recipe for white leaven bread in The Handmade Loaf.

Transfer 200g of lively starter to a big bowl and add to it 325g of warm-ish water. Combine the two with a spoon or a whisk and then add the flour. The recipe calls for 500g of strong white flour, which makes a fine loaf. However, you can happily experiment with different flours. Stealing an idea from another standard sourdough recipe (in Richard Bertinet’s Crust), I often substitute some of the white flour with spelt flour (say, 425g white and 75g spelt). This makes a slightly darker, more characterful loaf.

So, add your flour and, at the same time, 1½ tsp sea salt. Give it all a good mix and start to form it together into a dough. You might need to add a bit more water or flour to get the right consistency. As ever, what is right for you, in the conditions you’re working in, is moot and it’s hard to make generalisations. You need a looser, wetter dough than most people are used to, so you are looking for something that does stick annoyingly to your hands and the work surface (for that reason, little plastic scrapers are strongly recommended). However, there’s always a limit to it – you still have to knead it and so there has to be scope to manipulate the stuff. Most people tell you to avoid adding more flour but sometimes you just have to, or it’s impossible to work with.

In the various guides to bread-making, people always give their tips and their ‘do’s and ‘don’t’s. These can add up to a baffling and restrictive code for how you might operate when you make your bread, and they can really take the fun and spontaneity out of it. I’m sure a lot of the things I do would be frowned upon, but they seem to work and I’m therefore loathe to try to fix them. However, I’ve found two techniques in particular that are well worth taking seriously when it comes to the often arduous task of kneading.

Firstly, Richard Bertinet has a method which mercifully gets you away from the exhausting heel-of-the-hand-based pummelling of the dough that many of us have grown up to think is (k)needed. It’s hard to describe it so you should maybe just get either get one of his books – Dough or Crust – or, given that there are videos of it online, just google ‘Bertinet kneading method’. He manages to use his thumbs and fingertips to flick the dough deftly over on itself in a frankly quite stylish movement that really is very effective. In no time, you’ll find yourself with the kind of smooth, elastic dough you’re looking for. It’s still a bit tiring, obviously, but you don’t feel quite so bruised and battered afterwards.

Secondly, Dan Lepard helpfully points out that there’s no sense in bashing away at a dough continually when the proteins you’re working on carry on doing their thing regardless of whether or not you’re actively kneading. In other words, if you give a dough a bit of a knead and then leave it a few minutes, when you come back to it you’ll find that it’s much easier to work with – it has actually gained in elasticity since the last time you touched it. You still have to do the kneading thing – that’s what traps air inside the dough – but the proteins that form the cellular structure needed to hold gas inside the dough respond best to alternating spells of rest and manipulation. Mr Lepard writes out a detailed schedule of resting and kneading for you for most recipes, but you can be a bit more maverick than that and allow yourself to multi-task as you knead. So, give it a knead for a minute, do a bit of washing up, then come back to the dough and knead again for another couple of minutes, then make a cup of tea, knead again, and so on. It’s magic – it works amazingly well.

Once you’ve got a nice bit of dough, flour it up and leave it in a warm place. I’ve got a little lined basket (a ‘panneton’, no less) for mine but you can just as easily use a floured or oiled mixing bowl with a tea towel over the top. They say this bit takes an hour but, frankly, I’ve left it overnight in this condition and it doesn’t seem to matter. Next, you take it out and stretch it. Don’t expect it to have expanded much – everything is so much slower in the world of sourdough that you don’t tend to get that revelation of your dough having ‘doubled in size’. Stretch it out on a lightly floured surface, and then wrap it back up again, folding the corners into the centre a couple of times and then working back into a ball. Flour it again and stick it back in whatever container you’re using to prove it.

How much time you need here is pretty infinitely expandable, in my experience. It is possible to over-do it, in which case it collapses back in on itself a bit like a dying star (too much Brian Cox there), but generally the longer you can leave it, the better. I think overnight is ideal but I’ve left them up to 24 hours before and that seems to work fine still. Transfer your loaf to a floured tray, slash the top with a sharp knife (for artistic effect and to facilitate expansion) and then bake it in a hot oven. Start as hot as you can and then lower the temperature to somewhere around 180-200 degrees C after five minutes. It helps if you can spray a bit of water into the oven just as you close it, creating a damper atmosphere for the first phase of baking.

It should need around 35-40 minutes, but you’ll find you have to open up the oven and test it a few times to be sure, lifting it up and tapping its bottom in the time-honoured fashion, listening for the hollow sound you’re after. A bit of colour is nice, but don’t let it burn on the top. Flouring the top of the loaf before baking can help to avoid this but, even then, I find I often have to shove a bit of kitchen foil over the top to stop it burning while it has its last five to ten minutes in the oven.

And that’s that. The bread you get is, as always, best eaten fresh. It will keep for about a week (bread with a higher water content tends to keep longer) although probably needs to be toasted from day three onwards which, for sourdough, is no bad thing anyway.

Once you’re proudly munching your sourdough, it’s worth reflecting that you’ve truly made yourself a part of the honourable continuum of bread-making. All bread would have been made this way until the last couple of centuries. You’ve done justice to the traditional ways: you’re no slave to the yeast, you don’t rely on strange packets of dried ‘fast-acting’ stuff. You are master or mistress of the loaves. Here’s to the inner baker in all of us!

Although heavy on theory, getting sourdough going is surprisingly low-tech in practice. All it really needs is for you to leave flour and water lying around to fester. If you keep adding a bit more flour and water every day, you can easily end up with a viable ‘starter’ or ‘leaven’ – a bubbling source of yeast cells lively enough to make bread within about five or six days. Once you’ve got it going, you keep feeding it with fresh flour and water every three days or so, or you can give it a strategic boost a day or so in advance of making a new loaf.

Man discovered this simple process thousands of years ago and has been making use of it ever since. Today, we’ve managed to make cobbling together a leaven a pretty complicated business: there seem to be as many different methods as there are books about bread-making.

Some writers swear by flour and water alone. Others indulge in a little sneaky baiting of the mixture, leaving things in it that will attract more rapid yeast growth – such as yoghurt and dried fruit. Some people stick to a rye starter which does, admittedly, seem to be the easiest to get going and keep alive. Others branch out into leavens made with other flours. Some get very particular about the conditions, the container and the temperature, others uppity about the water (tap water is frowned upon, although I’ve never found it a problem). Conveniently for most of us, it is also said that you should avoid over-zealous cleaning in the kitchen as this runs the risk of killing off your bacteria.

Although I’ve got starters going by a number of different methods, the one I successfully make most of my bread from is straight from Dan Lepard’s The Handmade Loaf. It has a small amount of rye flour in it, but it’s basically a wheat flour starter and used to make wheat-based bread.

He starts off with 2 tsp rye flour, 2 tsp strong white flour and 50g of water, with 2 tsp currants or raisins and 2 tsp live low-fat yoghurt. You mix all of that up in a covered plastic container and leave in a warm-ish place for 24 hours. The next day, you add 2 more tsp of each of the flours and another 50g water. On day 3, you double the quantities and leave again. On day 4, just when it’s probably starting to look good, you counter-intuitively chuck away three-quarters of it. Add 100g water to what you’ve got left, stir well and then strain the whole lot, removing the manky dried fruit and the flour goo, leaving only the liquid. Add 125g strong white flour to this, stir again and leave another 24 hours.

By day 5, the whole thing should smell pretty ripe and acidic. Again, chuck away three-quarters of it and add 100g water and 125g strong white flour. In another 24 hours, you have a starter you can use to make bread. The rule of thumb after this is to keep on repeating day 5 by adding flour and water – a process known as ‘refreshment’. The ideal proportions seem to be around about 1 part existing starter, 1 part water, 1.25 parts flour.

If you’re canny, you’ll develop a routine whereby you only end up refreshing the starter immediately after taking out the right amount to make a loaf of bread. That way, you won’t have to throw any away. So if, for example, you have around 300g of starter and your recipe asks you to use 200g of it, you’ll end up with about 100g left in the pot, which becomes just over 300g when you next add flour and water, and you’re back to where you started. If you’ve had a break from making a loaf, you’ll probably have to throw some away when you do your next refreshment. Or, you can slow down the whole process by putting it in the fridge, in which case you might only need to refresh the mixture every 7-10 days. If you need to make more than two loaves in a week, you might need to do some forward-planning and adjust the quantities so that you have more ‘left-over’ starter and you add proportionately more flour and water when you refresh it.

It all sounds complicated and I’ve put in quantities as a guide but, as with all of this, you don’t have to be too precious and you can get away with a lot of haphazard management. All you really need to know is that a ‘hit’ of flour and water should get a sluggish starter going again. Even if you follow all the instructions to the letter, sometimes there just won’t be much happening. It’s really all about being sensitive to what a lively and a dormant starter looks and smells like. Never be afraid to throw a lot away and do try to resist building up a big lifeless stock of goo.

There are some fantastic books out there on how to make good sourdough bread, but they won’t give you the same story on what the method is or even on the things you should and shouldn’t do. You’ll just have to see which best suits the way you do things. Or, more probably, you might pick one based on which has the best-looking pictures.

I’m going to mention three I’ve found really useful – Bread matters by Andrew Whitley, Crust by Richard Bertinet and The Handmade Loaf by Dan Lepard. They may not necessarily be the best ones out there but I happen to own them and they also nicely illustrate three contrasting approaches to the topic.

Bertinet’s approach to making sourdough is definitely the quickest and probably the easiest to follow. His kneading method is also well worth adopting, and I’ll cover this in part four. I reckon his book Dough is about the best basic guide to making really interesting bread with fresh yeast. Crust, the follow-up, does the job for sourdough. His real strength comes in methods that involve using a combination of sourdough and fresh yeast – the baguettes he makes this way are really delicious.

While Bertinet is all about being inspired by French baking, Lepard casts his net a little wider. He is strong on areas like breads from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, and his method of making a leaven is the one I use most often. He is also a bit more experimental, being a fan of using something more interesting than water as the liquid in the mixture – red wine, cider and cucumber pickle juice all get a look-in

Andrew Whitley really is the purist, the zealot. Bread Matters is much more than a recipe book – it’s a manifesto for how we should change our attitudes to making, buying and eating bread. This is very much the baton (the baguette?) that Michel Roux Jr picked up during his recent television programme about bread in The Great British Food Revival.

If you want to do things properly, and if you care about what you eat from a nutritional perspective, Whitley is definitely your man. Much of the first part of his book is a critique of commercial bread-making methods. It sets out some pretty compelling reasons why sourdough is so much better for you than your average shop-bought loaf. He reserves particular disdain for the apparently dishonest use of various enzymes as additives to change the look, texture, flavour and shelf-life of shop-bought bread. For example, he suggests that gluten intolerance is more to do with reaction to such additives than it is to gluten itself.

Unlike the ‘Lepard process’ I describe in part three, whereby you use your starter directly to make your dough, Whitley sticks with traditional methods and uses an intermediate stage. After making your starter, you use it to create what he calls a ‘production sourdough’, which itself needs to prove. Only then can you use it you create your final dough. As this suggests, his method is comprehensive and quite lengthy – but it does generally work. He also covers starters and breads made from a range of different flours. I find he’s particularly strong on rye breads and I do keep a rye starter going according to his instructions.

Bertinet’s method is a bit of a short-cut. It gets around the need for a starter by getting you straight to the stage of having a dough which you use as your source for wild yeasts (a bit like Whitley’s production sourdough, in fact). This means it is rather less wasteful of flour than other methods and you can get a loaf made a bit quicker. The downside is that the refreshment process is, as a result, a bit more time-consuming. You end up refreshing a sort of stiff dough rather than a liquidy starter, so combining the ingredients is trickier.

What I have found is that you can combine people’s approaches but you need to do it thoughtfully. The fact that they all use a different kind of leaven means that you can’t just substitute, say, Bertinet’s in Whitley’s loaf. It seems to work better if you just stick with one basic method for making your leaven and then plunder specific techniques and combinations of ingredients from others.