Monday, 24 September 2012

Orange, Ginger and Walnut Cake

I was asked to judge a cake competition last week, at my old school Central High; I was quite honoured. They were looking for one girl to go forward to a national baking competition, to represent the whole school. I wasn't informed how many cakes there might be, or that it was open to the whole school, so was a little bit overwhelmed to arrive and be told I was judging sixty nine cakes...

Myself and Kate Emmett of Cake Poppins Bakery fame had the huge task of tasting every single one of them, all lemon victoria sponges, a Mary Berry recipe that she has created specially for the competition. We were judging on taste, presentation and technique. It was quite good fun to start with; I like lemon cake, most of them were pretty decent cakes, with only one or two disasters in the taste department, still not sure what on earth was in those ones... I made sure I said things like 'this one's a good bake' and 'I think this might be over worked' or 'too much raising agent here' to pretend that I was actually taking part in an episode of Great British Bake Off, or simply that I had some idea about baking in general...

It was all going well until we got about three quarters of the way round when it became pretty hard work. We were tasting tiny, tiny pieces, but even with that in mind it was difficult not to be overwhelmed by sugar, icing, sweetness... My head started to spin and I'm sure my sight went a bit funny... We did select some worthy winners in the end, a few of the cakes really stood out, so hopefully those girls will do us proud in the next round!

Inspired by the girls efforts and also just because I opened the paper and saw this Dan Lepard recipe and wanted to eat it straight away, I have also been baking... It is quite a simple cake to make and full of delicious sharp zesty orange, tangy ginger and warm toasted walnuts. It is not too sugary sweet, just a tasty slice of cake to have with your afternoon cup of tea. You could probably convince yourself it was acceptable for breakfast too, I did...

To start line a 30cm long loaf tin with baking paper and pre-heat the oven to 180°C. Then grate the zest of 5 oranges and keep the oranges and zest to one side. Add 225g of caster sugar to a pan, with 150ml of juice squeezed from the oranges and bring it to the boil. Remove it from the heat and add 100g of unsalted butter and leave it to melt. Taste it at this point, it tastes bloody lovely!

Leave the mix to cool slightly and then add the zest from the oranges, some grated fresh ginger, a piece about 2-3cm long, and 75ml of double cream. Then beat in 3 free range eggs followed by 325g of plain flour and 3 teaspoons of baking powder.

Finally spoon a third of the mix into the tin and add a handful of chopped walnuts evenly over the top with a sprinkling of cinnamon, then add the next third, more walnuts and cinnamon, then the final third and top with more walnuts and cinnamon. I used 100g of walnuts in total, I'd maybe use even more next time... Then bake for 50 minutes in the oven. It is delicious and actually gets better day by day. The crunchy sweet top with toasted walnuts was my favourite bit...

Monday, 17 September 2012

A Southern French Road Trip

I've been on a little French road trip for a week, it seemed like a lot longer as we took in so many different places. Driving from Nice to Marseille as the sun set in front of us was a pretty lovely way to start the holiday...

Marseille is France's oldest city, huge and varied and beautiful; I probably only saw the tiniest portion of what it has to offer in the three days we had there, but enjoyed it all. A huge port, tiny winding old streets, beautiful architecture, little beaches, bars, restaurants, a pretty cool hotel; we took them all in. A trip up to the Camargue was a beautiful day too. Driving along the waters edge we saw wild white horses in their hundreds, flamingos and black horned cattle.

After a spot of food poisoning, not much fun on holiday, we travelled back along the coast through Cassis and Bandol to Valbonne, where we were staying next. Unfortunately the first thing I chose to eat after 24 hours of no food were some snails. I've never had them before, I was in France, why not? Turns out I'm allergic to the little fellas; quite severely... A waiter throwing a lobster salad over me the next day brought an end to my food based dramas thankfully. I only wish someone had thought to take a photo of me with a whole lobster stuck to my arm and dress, it was a good look...

Our week came to a close with the wedding of some very special friends; a beautiful, beautiful day full of friends, flowers, laughter, a tiny bit of sunshine, quite a lot of wine, dancing and delicious macaroons...

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Rollmop Herring

Herring have a long historical connection with the North East of England. Originally the small scale exploitation of an abundant local resource, fishing grew to become a thriving industry all down the east coast during the last century, with whole families in the coastal community relying on Herring for their livelihood. Too much of a good thing eventually saw the fish run out and the industry decline but these versatile, if unfashionable, fish are still caught in the North Sea today.

The herring are in season over the summer in the North East and cost next to nothing. These little fellas were 50p each from the Grainger Market. I bought them to go into Mr. Smokerson, home smoked herring sounded delicious, even though the guys at Craster are pretty good at it I fancied a go. That was until I found out it took 5 days... And even by my standards taking 5 days off work to sit and smoke some fish seemed a bit excessive.

The herring season begins in June in Scotland and works its way down the North East coast over the summer months towards Lowestoft, coming to an end in November. Amble, Cullercoats and North Shields were our main local fishing harbours for herring back in the day. Amble harbour was built in 1830 and was famous for its fishing cobels, which were out in force to catch the 'silver darlings' as the herring became known.

My great grandfather used to have two cobels in Amble harbour; they were beautiful boats, each being built specifically for its user. Boats fished with seven or eight lines, about 200 metres long, with 500 to 1,000 hooks on each, baited with mussels. Baiting the lines was a very timely task usually left to the women, old men and children at home; with children often being absent from school during the herring season. A harbour in Lowestoft once recorded a catch of 60 million herring in one day, so you can see why they were an important visitor...

The rollmop, essentially a pickled herring, has been a staple in Northern Europe since Medieval times, probably being more popular in the Baltic areas of Northern Europe than over here. I have always enjoyed them so decided to give them a go. I went with a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recipe for my first attempt, a cider vinegar and orange pickle. The flavour is really deep and rich compared to other roll mop I have had, spiced and orangey, but fresh and sharp with sweet soft fish.

To start you need to take the fillets off each of the fish as carefully as you can, I'm not the neatest at this yet but am getting better... Then remove any bones left in the fillets, running your fingers along them to feel where they are and pulling them out with some little pliers or tweezers. Dry each of the fillets with kitchen roll and then place them into a plastic Tupperware type container. Dissolve 60g of salt into 500ml of cold water and pour this brine over the herring fillets, then leave for 2 to 3 hours.

To make the pickling mixture add 500ml of cider vinegar, 250ml of cider, 12 allspice berries, 12 black peppercorns, 6 bay leaves, 1 tablespoon of brown sugar, 1 teaspoon of mustard seeds, the zest of an orange peeled in wide strips and a thinly sliced small onion. I also added a pinch of general pickling spices. Bring this all to the boil and simmer for a few minutes, then leave to cool.

When the fillets are ready to come out of the brine dry them carefully with kitchen roll. You will need a large kilner jar or something similar that seals tightly. Roll up each of the fillets, skin side out, from tail to head; and pack them into your container tightly so they stay rolled. Then pour over the pickling marinade, make sure you have orange and spices in the jar with the fish and liquid, then seal the jar. Store them in the fridge for at least 3 days before eating, they will keep for about a month, and are best between 5 and 10 days. The longer you leave them the softer the fish becomes and the more pickled they will taste.

Pickled fish doesn’t immediately set everyone's taste buds tingling, but these are really fresh and delicious, sharp vinegar with rich orange and spices and the fish tastes fresh, soft and delicious. Hugh recommends serving with some brown bread and sour cream; they have been a treat to have in the fridge over the past few weeks. I will definitely be making more, trying different pickling combinations as I go. I have come across recipes using mace, white wine vinegar, dill, cloves, fennel... I had best get back to the Grainger Market before the season ends...

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Red Pepper, Thyme and Anchovy Damper Bread

I have a new love... baking! It's something I have tried now and again in the past to varying degrees of success, but not really been that enthused by. I don't really like making cakes, they always seem the same to me, cream butter with sugar, add eggs.... Creaming sugar and butter is hard work and the mixture always curdles when I add the eggs. I'll just leave all that to the professionals I think. I had thought I felt the same way about baking, but I don't! I've discovered I like making dough, I really enjoy kneading it, it's relaxing and feels like a real skill. I enjoy waiting for it to 'prove'... look, I even know proper baking terms now. It's very rewarding.

This bread was pretty simple as breads go, it doesn’t take that long, there's no waiting for it to prove, just mix, shape and bake... I watched Lorraine Pascale make an olive and rosemary version of it on her new show and decided to give it a go. I had some peppers that had roasted slowly in Mr. Smokerson the night before, a tin of anchovies and some thyme, I was ready to bake. Also being trapped in a Lakeland cottage with a monsoon going on outside it was a pretty good way to pass the time.

To start heat your oven to 200°C and mix 450g of self raising flour with half a teaspoon of salt, a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil and the leaves from 5 or 6 sprigs of fresh thyme. Add 225ml of water and mix everything thoroughly until you are left with a ball of dough.

Dust your work surface with some flour and flatten out the ball of dough into a circle. I peeled and chopped one roasted red pepper and chopped half a tin of anchovies for my filling. You could use any combination of fillings you fancy really; chopped green or black olives, roast soft garlic, diced chorizo, roasted tomatoes. I'll be trying some more combinations soon, but the pepper and anchovy mix was delicious.

Pile your filling into the centre of the dough and start to fold the edges over the top until it is sealed. Turn the dough over and knead it to distribute the pepper and anchovies. This is quite a messy process, especially with a wet filling, as they do start to squidge out, but just push them back in with your finger and keep going. The aim is a ball of dough with the filling mixed through inside. Once you have it under control flatten it out a bit and squash the handle of a wooden spoon into it to create triangular segments.

Finally bake in the oven, Lorraine said 35 minutes for her olive version, mine ended up taking about 50 minutes, which is probably because of the plentiful wet fillings I used. It should be golden and risen and sound hollow on the bottom when tapped. The combination of sweet smoky peppers and salty anchovies, with fresh thyme, layered through warm fresh bread is totally delicious. It's a good, simple and tasty place to start experimenting with baking.