Thursday, 25 April 2013

Baking on the wild side

I have mixed feelings about nettles. All my gardening books tell me that they are good, that their presence in my garden means I have fertile soil, and that I should lovingly nurture a patch of nettles because they are an ideal food for loads of beneficial insects. On the other hand, I think I have the fiercest stinging nettles in the known universe growing on my patch. You can honestly feel the sting for days afterwards.

Nettles are also, it turns out, frightfully good for you: high in vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium. Not bad for something that grows like, well, a weed, in my garden. I love the idea of eating your weeds - possibly the only way in which I can demonstrate mastery over my very unruly garden is by eating it.  And early spring is the perfect time to eat nettles (I think in this bizarre year late April counts as 'early spring', right?). You pick just the very young growing tips.

Most people who cook with nettles make soup, but you can also chop them into a tortilla, or use them to make a pesto (in the same way you might with wild garlic), but I decided to use them to make some bread, after I came across a recipe for nettle knots in Hanne Risgaard's lovely book 'Home Baked'. This has to be the most beautifully illustrated cookbook ever - full of photos of billowing fields of wheat and rye in her native Denmark, where she grows and mills cereal crops on her family farm.Being Danish, it has a Scandinavian flavour - lots of rye, but also lots of spelt, and some interesting ingredients like elderflowers and, as here, nettles, that can be picked wild.

Anyway, I digress. The recipe uses chopped nettles in a fairly rich dough which includes milk and a beaten egg as the liquid. I used unbleached white flour from Gilchester's Mill in Northumberland, with a touch of wholemeal. The end result may look like one of those fake dog poos that so amuse the smallest breakfastboy, but do not be fooled: inside they are soft and lovely, not dissimilar to a bagel. I toasted some cheese on top of a split knot for lunch and we're having the rest with a butternut squash and coconut soup for dinner tonight. And never fear, there's not a hint of a sting when you eat them. However, I must point out that even once finely chopped - and that is the best use for a mezzaluna I have yet found - the stings are very much present when you knead the dough. I didn't follow the kneading instructions, as I'm still on a kneading-lite regime on account of my dodgy wrists, but used Dan Lepard's method of giving the dough a number of very light, quick kneads, and I then let it rise overnight in the fridge to avoid middle of the night baking. But even so, I managed to sustain a few stings. You might want to wear gloves, but that seems a bit weird.

So, if you're doing a little spring weeding in the garden, or foraging in the woods for wild garlic, spare a thought for nettles and get picking (carefully). If you can't get hold of the recipe I used, you could substitute nettles in another bread recipe - perhaps one that uses chives or wild garlic, or even one with seaweed like the one in Richard Bertinet's Dough. You get the picture. Jazz baking.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Scottish bread #2 - gather round Aberdonians and lovers of butter.

I am currently on a no-knead regime, on doctor's orders. Several months of somewhat over-enthusiastic breadmaking has left me with carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists, so I'm finding bread that doesn't need kneading (hello there rye!) and using my bread machine for the rest of the hard graft. So, bread machine it was today for the inaugural rowie bake (see here if you have no idea what I'm talking about). First things first, if you're thinking of giving these a bash - you'll need to set aside the best part of a day for this. Like croissants, there are rounds of adding fat, resting, adding fat, resting. It's perfect for those days when you have other things to do around the house, but hopeless for those days when you have two small boys hurling toys around and whirling about the house like small tornadoes. Which is why <ahem> I have sent my ailing man to the park with them while I am sitting here with a cup of tea and the computer for company.

You need to start by making a basic dough (flour, water, yeast, sugar, salt), in my case in the bread machine, though you could equally do it by hand or in a mixer. I used the pizza setting for this, which takes 45 minutes, rather than the regular dough setting, as there was going to be plenty more opportunity for the dough to have a good rest. Now, as this blog should really reflect the reality of my culinary experience, I'll tell you that when I opened the bread machine, I was met by a gloopy batter rather than a nice silky dough. The recipe instructed me to roll it out, so I figured that this could not be the way things were meant to be. So, I managed to scoop it out with a scraper and added quite a lot more flour and give it a quick knead before continuing to the next step. As a result, I've adjusted the original quantities, which I gleaned from a number of sources, including Elizabeth David's English Bread and Yeast Cookery, and adapted to be enough for about 8 rowies. I'll add at this point that I am very far from being a mathematical genius, so it may be that my tinkering is what led to the gloop in the bread machine. Anyway, what I've used in the recipe below should be about right, and if it isn't, then add a bit more flour or water until you have a soft, but not sticky dough. The method is basically the same as making flaky pastry or croissants. If you have a warm kitchen, it's a good idea to refrigerate the dough while it's resting.

Before I go any further, I would also like to offer you the following piece of advice. On NO account should you do what I did and use a baking tray without a lip all round for baking these.

Don't do this (flames not shown)

The rowies will produce melted fat, and without a lip, the fat will run off the tray and all over your oven, and if you are unlucky, you will come into the kitchen to find billows of acrid smoke emerging from your oven and actual flames in your oven. This is not a good thing. I hope you will agree that despite the fact that my rowies had to be hastily whipped from the oven and left on the side while I extinguished flames, cleaned up the mess and ran about opening windows and shouting obscenities at the top of my voice before reheating the oven and slinging them back in, they have turned out nae bad. They do however, have a faint hint of burning rubber in the flavour which is not entirely desireable.

Rowies (makes 8)

for the basic dough:
1 tsp quick yeast
300g strong white flour
1 1/2 tsp caster sugar
1 tsp salt
225ml water

140g butter
50g lard (both at room temperature)

1. Make a dough with the basic dough ingredients. If using a bread machine, follow manufacturer's instructions for order of ingredients. If making by hand, mix the ingredients together, knead until smooth and silky, cover and leave the dough for 45 mins to rest.
2. Chop the fats into small cubes, mix together and divide into 3 portions.
3. When the dough is ready, gently roll it out into a rectangle about 1.5 cm thick. Try not to knock too much air out of it - be gentle. Cover and leave it to rest for 30 mins.
4. Spread 1/3 of the fat onto the top 2/3 of the dough, then fold the other 1/3 over the middle 1/3 and then fold the top 1/3 down on the top to make an envelope. That sounds more complicated than it is. 'Fold it like a letter' is what I'm trying to say, but get the bit with no fat on into the middle.

(or show them a photo. That will help)

5. Gently, trying not to tear the dough, work the dough, prodding or rolling it gently it rather than kneading it, to slowly work it out into a long rectangle again. Cover and leave for 1 hour.
6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 twice until you have used up all the fat.

7. Cut the dough into 8 pieces. Flatten them out again by prodding gently with your fingers until you have flattish round or rectangular patties, and place them on a heavily floured baking tray - SEE TIP ABOVE! You may wish to use rice flour, or fine polenta, but wheat flour is fine if that's all you have. Cover and leave for 45mins.
8. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 220C. Bake for  about 15 mins until golden brown.

Eat with more butter if you can bear it, preferably salted. Serve with a strong cup of tea, especially if you have almost burned the house down whilst making them.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Scottish bread #1 - a Proustian moment with an Aberdeen buttery

Aberdeen butteries, or 'rowies' as the locals call them, are the equivalent for me of the Proustian madeleine, though a good deal less elegant than their French counterpart. A good deal less elegant even, than their French alter ego, the croissant. For if you ask someone to describe a rowie, they will often compare them to a croissant, as they are made in a similar way, ie oooooodles of fat layered in dough to make a flaky bread roll. The high fat content is explained by their origin as food for fishermen to take out to sea with them - the fat kept them fresh a little longer than ordinary bread, and no doubt kept the fishermen nicely insulated against the cold North Sea winds if they ate enough of them, in the manner of seal blubber. But, being Scottish, the fat in question is not butter, or not entirely butter, but a mixture of butter and lard. And a whole heap of salt. They are shaped into roughly circular shapes and baked. Sound disgusting? Taste divine. Really. Yeasty, fatty, and utterly glorious. It's almost impossible to find good rowies outside the Aberdeenshire area. Our local Tescos here in Glasgow occasionally has them in stock, but they are a pale imitation of their more northerly cousin. But even these have the same characteristic flavour, and one bite takes me right back to the 70s.

My grandparents lived in Aberdeen, and every summer, we used to make the long drive up to visit them from the south-east of England in whatever clapped-out old jalopy my long-suffering father was driving that year. I can remember my maternal grandparents' house, where we used to stay, so clearly: the mangle in the kitchen; the walk-in larder which always had exotic biscuits in it; my grandfather's shed, where our seaside buckets and spades were kept for us; and his rows of neat raspberry canes and strawberry beds. You might be under the impression that 1970s Scotland would not be the place to buy fresh bread, but you would be very much mistaken. Every morning, we used to take the long walk down the brae to Kelly's of Cults to buy fresh rowies. Kelly's was arguably the best place to buy your rowies, although this topic would be hotly debated each year, with the relative merits of Kelly's and Aitken's rowies batted to and fro between the adults. See, you could almost be in a little village in la France profonde, such was the level of culinary debate. And there was you thinking Scotland is all deep-fried mars bars and fish suppers. We could choose our own in the shop, and I would always look for well-cooked ones with a crispy outside. We would then trot back up the hill, and then slather them in butter (just in case there wasn't enough in them already). Oh how I loved them.

Years later, after my grandparents died and when we no longer went so regularly to Aberdeen, my father decided that the absence of rowies from his life meant that he would have to make his own. He managed to get hold of a recipe from somewhere (in those pre-internet days that wasn't as easy as it sounds) and would spend hours in the kitchen, lovingly fashioning his butteries. They were never quite as good as the ones from the Aberdeen bakers, but he did make a pretty good stab at it.

Later still, after the advent of internet mail order, he discovered that Aitken's would deliver rowies, UK-wide. I will never forget the excitement in his voice when he phoned me one night and told me 'They are thundering down the A1 on the back of a lorry NOW!'. He was so thrilled.

In his honour, I've decided to have a bash at making my own. Elizabeth David has a recipe in English (*gasp*) Bread and Yeast Cookery. She says, rather puzzlingly:
They don't look as showy as croissants but, for all their homely appearance, I prefer them in some ways, because they are light and small and surprising.
Homely? Sure. But light? And small is somewhat odd too. My recollection is of a thing about the size of a side plate. I'm not at all sure she's eating the same thing as I was. So, I've decided to turn to the internet and see if I can't find someone a little more local to the north east who can provide me with a recipe. I'll post the results when I'm done.