Sunday, 28 March 2010

Hot buns full of heresy

Last year's holy buns (photo by Fiona Beckett)

This year's hot cross loaf (the buns were all snaffled up before photos could be taken)

Being of Norwegian-Irish-Scottish-Jewish-Lithuanian-German extraction I've stopped crossing my buns.

What inspired such subversive behaviour in the week leading to Easter? Misplacing my piping bags. And out of sheer laziness I decided to forego making my own piping bag from silicone paper and just skipped the wobbly white crosses altogether this year. Not Cross Buns taste just the same as Hot Cross Buns, and come to think of it a pinch of heretical cardamom made its way into this spiced spelt dough. Hot cross bun purists will tut and shake their heads but I go by what tastes good, not some arbitrary notion of culinary tradition. Besides M&S are putting apples and cranberries in their buns so I'll stick to my cardamom thank you very much.

Anyway! These slow-fermented Not Crossed but rather tasty buns are suitable for lazy Sunday breakfasts so I hope you'll give them a whirl, with or without the crosses, the spelt, the cardamom...

Not cross buns (adapted from the Leiths bible standard hot cross bun recipe)


200ml milk, scalded (ie, brought to boiling point and then allowed to cool)
85g butter
300g refined spelt flour
150g wholemeal spelt flour
55g caster
1/2 tsp salt (1 tsp if using unsalted butter)
1 generous teaspoon mixed spice
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp cardamom (not strictly kosher but who cares)
20g fresh yeast or 7g sachet dried yeast
2 medium eggs, lightly beaten
100g sultanas


I slow ferment this dough overnight before baking off the buns/loaf. You can of course make them in a few hours but I find the slow fermentation adds a complex flavour and reputedly the slower the fermentation the more digestible the buns or loaf...

First, scald the milk along with the butter and cool to less than 50°C. Above 50°C and the heat will kill off the yeast so if you don't have a digital thermometer stick your finger in and the milk should feel lukewarm but not hot.

Meanwhile sift the flours, spice, salt and sugar in a large bowl. If using dried active yeast add it at this stage. If using fresh yeast, mix with 1 teaspoon of sugar in a small bowl. It should dissolve after a few minutes, and foam slightly - this is a sign the yeast is active. A good sign!

When the milk has cooled sufficiently, make a well in the centre of the dried ingredients and add the milk, butter, eggs, and (if using) fresh yeast.

Stir through and bring together with a large spoon. The great thing about spelt is it doesn't require much kneading. The dough should be quite sticky but simply stir through with your spoon for 5 minutes. You should see the dough become pliable and a little stretchy from the gluten strands forming.

Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, large enough to allow the dough to double in size, and then cover with oiled clingfilm and refrigerate for 12-18 hours, depending on when you're ready to bake the buns.

When the time comes to start shaping the dough into buns, take the dough out of the fridge and allow it to 'come to' temperature. Ie, let it warm up for 1 hour.

Meanwhile, soak the raisins in enough water to cover and drain the excess liquid off after 15 minutes.

Roll your dough out into a rough square or rectangle shape and scatter the raisins over. Bring the dough together like a parcel, sealing it off, and then just give it a couple of kneads to seal the dough and make sure the raisins haven't all clumped in one section of the dough.

Using a sharp un-serrated knife, slice the dough into 12-16 bun shapes of equal size. I weigh mine to 60g portions so they all bake evenly but you don't have to be as fastidious a fuss-pot as me.

Roll the buns into as round shapes as you can by gripping each bun in the palm of your hand, cupping your whole hand over it and then swirling around on your work surface in tight circles for a few seconds. This creates a tight;y structured bun and a round, even shape. I found I had too much dough to make buns for one tray to fit in my small oven so the remaining quarter of the dough I shaped into a mini loaf and baked after the buns were finished.

Place the shaped buns a couple of centimetres apart on the baking sheet and cover with a sheet of oiled clingfilm on top, allowing the buns to double in size in a warm place. This should take 30-40 minutes, but keep checking after 25 minutes. The buns will be ready to bake when you poke one and the imprint of your finger remains, ie. it doesn't spring back.

Finally, preheat the oven to 220°C. Brush each bun with a little milk - this will help to make a soft crust when the buns bake.

Place the baking sheet on an upper-middle shelf of the oven and turn the heat down to 200°C after 5 minutes, bake a further 15 minutes. Keep an eye on them so they don't burn. The buns will be done when they're golden brown, and sound hollow when you tap them. For the loaf allow an extra 10-15 minutes depending on the size of the loaf.

That's all there is to it. Freeze the buns or loaf for future use as they refresh really well in a 150°C oven for 10 minutes...

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Peter's Yard Crispbread: more than the sum of its parts

Those who know me will tell you few things make me happier in life than good bread slathered with indecent amounts of butter. When time permits the ritual of baking and breaking of bread is one of this cook's favourite pastimes, but more often than not I'm racing around like a whirling dervish and the bread baking goes by the wayside.

So it was with some breadgeek joy that I chanced upon Peter's Yard wholemeal crispbread this time last year. Served with smoked salmon as a canape at a Scandinavian dinner hosted by "Denmark's Delia" Trina Hahnemann at the emporium of pong La Fromagerie, I may or may not have snaffled more than my fair share of these canapes.

Why the excitement at finding a new crispbread? To a Scandinavian wholemeal crispbread is practically a birthright, we love it so much it's rare a storecupboard is without a packet of Wasa rye or sesame. Suffice to say I was mildly horrified when I first bought Ryvita as a university student back in the pre-Peter's Yard 1990s. Just a glance at the oesophagus-busting Ryvita in supermarkets still makes me shudder, it's very existence constituting a singular crime against gastronomy.

So when I tasted Peter's Yard sourdough crispbread and was reliably informed this was made solely with wholemeal flour, milk, honey, and a smidgeon of butter (oh yes!) I was transported to crispbread nirvana. The pure wholemeal taste, enriched with a touch of sourdough goodness and a gentle sweetness from the honey... it's hard to convey how delicious this crispbread is. It's Wasa for grown-ups, even those like me who suffer from periodic arrested development.

As I was soon to discover, the nascent crispbread business is run by two of the most generous and lovely people I've met in this hard-boiled industry: Wendy Wilson-Bett and Ian Tencor. We met one fine day at the Real Food Festival last year and I've been an advocate for their awesome crispbread ever since. Unpaid of course, lest you think this is a PR-led product placement. I do it because Peter's Yard is a bona fide sourdough crispbread and if it were up to me I'd mandate that every restaurant, deli and cheese emporium up and down this country serves this glorious product alongside proper homemade bread.

Peter's Yard deserve to be successful and I do what I can to help them, so when they asked me to join on a two-day innovation session at Shipton Mill in the heart of the Cotswolds I had to pinch myself. Recipe-testing is something I never tire of, and gallivanting around the English countryside is great but getting to see a MILL IN ACTION! My cup runneth over...

In the coming weeks I'll be sharing recipe ideas for crispbread, which of course you can easily apply to open-faced sandwiches. In the meantime, here are a few snaps of the Peter's Yard and Shipton Mill team in action:

Swedish guru of baking and patisserie Jan Hedh

Peter's Yard baker-in-chief Troels Bendix


Tools of the trade

Troels rolling the crispbread

Wendy and Jan discuss recipe ideas

Ian tentatively checks the sourdough starter, or Mother

Mamma Mia! (sorry, had to be done)

Clive of Shipton Mill, if you want to learn about bread he's your man

Clive's delectable scones, best I've tasted

Clive gave me a lesson in sourdough


Check out the soft lighting *bread porn*

Sacks of Shipton Mill flour from the original Shipton Mill

Visit to the old mill

Grain being processed

After all the excitement of that day's recipe testing at Shipton Mill with Clive, Troels and Jan we had an excellent dinner with Shipton Mill owner John Lister at his hotel Bibury Court.

And then it was back to the big smoke. Thanks to Peter's Yard and Shipton Mill for such a fantastic experience, the future of sourdough crispbread is a bright one indeed.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The *sweet* taste of success

I want a log cabin.

A modest Norwegian log cabin of course, heaven forfend none of those plush Alpine chalets. Just a quaint log cabin with a few basic amenities: workable kitchen, a fireplace and a sauna. Moose antlers to grace the front door, a polar bear rug on the floor and a few choice pieces of vintage Norwegian furniture to lend the cabin authenticity. There will be books scattered all over the place, and comics, lots of old comics. Under-floor cable heating installed throughout the cabin will mean I can scamper around barefoot from sauna to kitchen, foregoing the thermal and fleece socks I've been wearing all winter back in London. A requisite fat sofa will sit in front of a window with a magnificent panoramic view of the local fjord, the surrounding forest and the little woodpecker nest hidden in the nearest tree.

In this cabin I'll retreat from the world, read books and comics, drink aquavit, and take in the breathtaking vista of my fatherland, all whilst having exceptionally warm feet.

There's only one problem.

In order not to be lynched by the locals I need to ski. It's no good retreating to a cabin in Norway and not ski. Norwegians are fierce ski enthusiasts and some wise scribe once irritatingly claimed we Norwegians are all born on skis, suggesting we're pre-destined to be superhuman skiers. My parents met when dad was a ski instructor in Breckenridge and mama johansen was a voluptuous snowbunny, so I had no choice but to ski from a young age:

Snowbunny junior ca.1984

But there is a grain of truth in the notion that we're born to ski: one of my earliest memories is of dad holding me carefully as we skied slowly down gentle slopes in Oslo. From the age of five I was racing both cross-country and downhill in the local Tomm Murstad ski school. It was practically the law. Back in the '80s there were no plump Norwegian children playing on their playstations. We were all skiing six months of the year, eating wholesome sandwiches, fruit and the requisite kvikk-lunsj (akin to a kit-kat but somehow cannily marketed as an essential foodstuff for skiers). It was the Norwegian Ideal and a perfect parenting strategy: expose children to crisp winter air all day and total exhaustion will render us sweet and placid.

Living on top of a mountain in Oslo, our house was near a ski jump called Holmenkollen where the winter olympics were held in 1952. As I was musing on the abovementtioned log cabin fantasy I discovered the beloved Holmenkollen ski jump of my childhood had recently been renovated:

Yowzers. The world's fastest ski jump on your door step. Times have changed.

While I watched the winter games last week it occurred to me how spoilt we are in Norway: you walk out the door, put on your skis and simply set off into the wilderness for a day's cross-country, or head for the nearest slope to go downhill. The easy access to nature and great ski terrain is a constant reminder of how achingly beautiful Norway really is, thus making die-hard patriots of us all. Despite my better instincts I get pangs of nostalgia when I think of Nordmarka, the national park behind our house, and of course Holmenkollen.

Being contrarian I decided at a young age that downhill was for adrenaline junkies, and adrenaline junkies who are co-ordinated at that. With cross-country you have time to absorb your surroundings and it also means you're less likely to ski into a tree, as I was prone to with downhill. As you might imagine, this didn't go down so well with the parents. Dad's visions of my becoming an olympic downhill champion were shattered, and to this day he still ribs me about my dislike of downhill. Sadly I haven't skied cross-country with any regularity since moving to the UK ten years ago. For shame!

Norway goes bananas during the winter olympics, and as I watched the games I found myself thinking the following:

1) I need a log cabin

2) I need to swallow my fear and start downhill skiing again

3) why the frack is Norway always doing do well in the winter olympics?

Canada with their 14 gold medals may have reigned supreme on home soil, but Norway had its moments of owning the podium, matching that sporting colossus the U.S. with 9 gold medals. We're talking about a nation of 4.7 million people versus 300 million in the U.S.

For a time last week the most read article on the Wall Street Journal was one which asked the same question, what lay behind Norway's success in the games? I suspect the reason it was WSJ's most-read feature that day was 4.7 million Norwegians were clicking on it.

Pondering this question I wondered if it might be related to diet. Not the celebrated Nordic Diet, but something specific to Norway. Could it be the large volume of fish we eat? If that were the case, Japan, Iceland, Spain and other piscine-loving nations would surely do just as well as Norway in the winter games. No, that couldn't be it. What about our love of smoked fish and cured meat? A lot of top Norwegian skiers come from the west Norwegian town of Voss, where the local tradition is to serve smoked sheep heads to guests.

No, this wasn't it either. Icelanders eat things like sheep buried in the ground and other weird cured meat. They hardly gained a medal in the winter games.

Then suddenly...Eureka! It struck me as I was nibbling a slice of this:

It must be our geitost, or goat's cheese!

Lest you think this is any old white goat's cheese, it's known in Norwegian as brunost, or brown cheese. Made from pasteurised goat's whey mixed with either goats' or cows' milk, this cheese is cooked in large vats over a long period until the lactic sugars in the milk start to caramelise. During the slow cooking process, excess liquid evaporates and the cheese turns brown and firm. It's ready to eat and requires no maturation. Think dulce de leche with a salty twist. It's sweet and savoury cheese, with the consistency of firm yet creamy fudge.

The most popular variety of geitost in Norway is actually Gudbrandsdalsost which has the right balance of goat and cow's milk, but you can get pungent, artisan versions that are made from unpasteurised goat's milk, such as this Slow Food one from Undredal, a village near my grandparents' farm that we used to visit when I was growing up. Today the artisan brown cheese appeals, but as a kid I found it too intense, and I remember watching my grandmother cook with it. Oh yes, brown cheese as you might have guessed is full of umami, making it an excellent flavour-enhancer in sauces and stews.

Divisive as Marmite, you either love or hate this cheese, and I'll admit it's an acquired taste, but every child in Norway grows up eating brown cheese sandwiches as part of their school lunchpack. Nothing tastes better on freshly baked wholemeal bread than a pat of butter and a couple of thin slices of brunost. The ski queen equivalent you find over here is powdery and crumbly compared to the real stuff back in Norway.

As brown cheese is something of an acquired taste, babies are often weaned on Prim, a spreadable buttery version of brown cheese that isn't cooked as long as the firm cheese version. It's a sort of nutritious caramel:

Forget being born on skis, we're born with the taste of this cheese in our mouths. Everyone in Norway eats it. At the Lillehammer winter olympics in '94, then prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland was asked why Norway did so well despite being such a small country, and she replied in all earnest "It is typical Norwegian to be good" to howls of laughter from my father, who to this day still quotes Brundtland's nugget of jingoism.

Sorry Gro, it's not typically Norwegian to be good, it's typically Norwegian to eat mounds of brown cheese. It's our secret to olympic success, I promise you.

And now I'd better stop musing on log cabins, skiing and cheese. Time to start plotting how to acquire that log cabin, find a hot ski instructor to re-introduce me to the joys of downhill, and make myself a sweet brown cheese sandwich for lunch... ;-)


photo credits:

Top photo of Aksel Svindal CBC Canada,
Second photo of Marit Bjoergen
Third photo: my parents
Fourth photo of the new Holmenkollen
Fifth photo of ekte geitost
Bottom photo of synnove prim