Sourdough Saga: Episode 8 – semi-sourdough baguettes

It’s difficult to believe that it’s over three years since sourdough baking became a regular part of our life and our diet, back in May 2012. I predicted at the time that life would never be quite the same again and, in a variety of small ways, that’s definitely true. A lot has changed in our lives since then, but home baking has remained a constant despite upheavals and long working hours. We make a mix of sourdough and traditionally-yeasted breads at home, and they’re all wonderful in their own ways; the bar is set very high for bought breads and when time precludes home-baking, we’re inevitably disappointed by what we can buy in the shops.

Fresh from the oven

Bread can seem like such a small, inconsequential thing, a cheap commodity which requires very little consideration. But good bread – really good bread – is a thing of great joy, not an afterthought but the crowning glory of a meal, or even a meal in itself. Still warm from the oven, with wonderful cornish unsalted butter melting into the crumb, I wonder if there is any more satisfying food in the world?

My wholemeal sourdough starter, ‘Seymore’, continues to thrive, and in some sense procreated last year when I started the process of converting a batch of starter to white flour. Each white flour feed progressively shifted the proportions and the starter is now 100% white. I find the white starter raises white loaves quite a bit more effectively than the wholemeal one did (presumably because the balance of microbes within it is already adapted to using white flour as a food source), so now like raises like – Seymore has an outing when I’m baking wholemeal or spelt, and the new white starter makes a quite wonderful, airy and chewy 100% white sourdough loaf.

A year or more ago, I had a hankering for home-made baguette. Initial experiments and trials with recipes in my cookbook library were all rather disappointing – they produced baguette-shaped loaves, but lacked not just the flavour, but also the crumb and the chewy, toothsome, slightly elastic crust of a genuine French loaf. French cookbooks, of course, were no use whatsoever – no French housewife in her right mind bakes her own bread, when there’s still a traditional ‘boulangerie’ in almost every village and on almost every street corner.

So I kept reading, and asking questions, and stumbled upon Paul Hollywood’s recipe from his pre-TV ‘100 Great Breads’ book, which begins with an overnight sponge, much like my everyday sourdough loaf. A bake through of his recipe produced one of the worst-behaved doughs I have ever worked with, but also gave me the best results to date. But it was still most definitely lacking ‘something’ in the flavour and texture departments. The sponge step, though, gave me an idea – what if I incorporated some of my white sourdough starter into the mix? Might that add, not just the complex savoury flavour that was lacking, but also the chewy elasticity to the crust? I had to experiment.

A year of trials later, I have a process that, while it’s not a ‘novice bake’, works very well and reliably for me, and as a bonus, can even be baked the same day you start if you forget to start the sponge the night before baking. It’s a ‘hybrid’ bread, making use of both the sourdough starter and of bakers’ yeast (much as many commercial loaves labelled as ‘sourdough’ do!). And while the results can sometimes look a little ‘wobbly’ and rustic, they have every bit of the flavour and characteristics of the loaves I enjoyed for my breakfast on a visit to Paris back in March. Torn in half, with unsalted butter and jam and a big mug of coffee, I challenge you to find a better everyday breakfast.

Of course, you can bake these loaves without the sourdough starter – you’ll be baking something like Paul Hollywood’s original recipe, and it’s not bad, but it’s just not the same!

To make these semi-sourdough baguettes, you will require –

  • Ingredients200g of 100% hydration white sourdough starter (that is, made up of 100g of flour and 100g of water), which has been ‘fed’ within the last 24hours. You’ll need to adjust the quantities of ingredients if your starter is balanced differently.
  • 400g of French bread flour (you can use British-style strong white bread flour, but the texture and flavour aren’t quite right; you’re going to a fair bit of trouble for these loaves, so it’s worth tracking down the good stuff!)
  • 200ml of water at room temperature (or gently lukewarm on a cold day or when short of time)
  • 1tsp or a 7g sachet of dried instant yeast
  • 1tsp salt (this is my personal preference – recipes often double this quantity)
  • 50g of softened unsalted butter
  • Oil for kneading, and
  • Semolina for dusting the baking sheet

Make up the overnight spongeIdeally the night before, combine the 200g of starter with 100g of flour and 200ml of water, add the spoonful of instant yeast, and combine to create a thin batter. A whisk can be helpful. Cover with cling-film and set aside overnight, or, if you’re not that organised, for at least an hour and more if possible.

The overnight sponge after mixingThe loaves will work fine with the shorter resting period but you’re inevitably sacrificing some flavour from the longer, slower fermentation. After resting, there should be some bubbles rising to the surface of your batter (more if you’ve left it overnight).

Roughly mix the dough and allow to restNow add the remaining 300g of flour, the salt and the softened (melted is fine) butter, and combine to make what will be a very soft, wet dough. Before kneading, just let it sit in the bowl for about half an hour to allow the flour grains to absorb as much as possible of the moisture and help the gluten start to set up.

Dough during kneadingTip the dough onto a well oiled worktop, scraping out any that sticks to the bowl, and knead it for at least 10 minutes. It will be very sticky to start with, but this will improve to some extent with working. Try to resist adding extra flour unless absolutely essential, and if you do, add a very little at a time. This is never going to be an easy dough to work, you’re aiming to get it just on the right side of ‘impossible’. Working it with plenty of oil will reduce its tendency to stick to things other than itself, and avoids changing the hydration with flour from surfaces being incorporated into the dough.

Form a ball and allow to riseOnce the dough is well kneaded, form a ball and set aside in a well oiled bowl, loosely covered with plastic or a tea towel to retain moisture, until it has at least doubled in size.

Divide risen dough into threeNow, turn the dough out onto a well-oiled worktop and divide it into three as evenly as you can, but without faffing about (no grabbing a bit from here and sticking it onto there). You’ll see recipes instructing you to ‘roll the dough out into a baguette shape’, but don’t, ok? What you’ll get it you do that is a stodgy, even-textured dough shaped like a baguette (much as you get from most UK supermarkets, sadly). If you want the stretched curst and almost concentric-structured crumb of a genuine baguette, you need to form the shape properly. I got the clue I needed, oddly, from a TV travel show about Paris, where they popped into a boulangerie, and there in the background, when I paused and re-wound the programme, was a guy making baguettes. This way is rather fiddly, but it works!

First, find your widest, shallowest-sided baking sheet, and dust it generously with semolina. This will stop the dough sticking, and provides the characteristic ‘crunch’ to the base.

Shaped loaves on baking sheetTake each piece of dough, and fold two edges towards the centre. Without turning the dough, do this again and again in the same direction until you have quite a tight ‘cylinder’ with a centre seam on top, which will be about a third or half the length it needs to be. Now stretch out the cylinder lengthwise, gently, trying to keep the diameter even all the way along. Turn the baguette over so that it’s seam-side down, and tidy in the ends by tucking under into the traditional point if you can, though don’t worry if the ends are a bit dumpy. Tuck the sides under along the length of the loaf using a dough scraper, if you have one, and then, quickly so that it doesn’t sag, transfer the loaf to the baking sheet.

This takes some practice and your first baguettes will probably be rather funny shapes. But don’t worry – it’s not at all important! The process is a bit tricky to describe (I wonder if I should try and get a video of me shaping a loaf?) but hopefully should make sense once you’re doing it.

You could just as easily quarter your dough and make four shorter baguettes; arrange them across the baking sheet rather than along, if you prefer littler loaves. The smaller loaves are obviously easier to handle, so it may make sense to start that way.

Cook-shops will sell you shaped baking sheets with rounded bottoms for baking baguettes on, and that will give you the characteristic rounded base – baking on a flat sheet will obviously give you a flat bottom, though as the dough springs up in the oven it’s often less obvious than you might expect. I’ve tried quite hard to avoid acquiring clutter and kitchen gadgets during my home baking experiments, and actually I find most of the time you can do perfectly well without them!

Cover and allow to riseCover your shaped loaves (I have a large sheet of polythene that I use to form a tent over them) and leave to rise for at least an hour or until at least doubled in size. Now set your oven to pre-heat at its highest temperature.

Slash the risen loaves along their lengthOnce the oven is up to temperature, uncover your loaves, and very quickly using your sharpest knife, slash diagonally along the length. I find two slashes per loaf works best, overlapping over the centre third to half of the loaf. If you hesitate at this stage, your loaves will deflate a lot, so be quick and decisive, and get the loaves straight into the oven.

Turn the baking sheet at least once to help the loaves bake evenly. You may find they need as little as 20 minutes in all – they’re done once the crust is a lovely deep golden to mid brown colour and the loaves feel crispy and sound hollow underneath. Remove them from the oven then and set to cool on a wire rack.

Tear & enjoy

Once they’re (almost!) cool, rip into one. I love to tear rather than slicing my baguette, it makes the most of the wonderful texture of the crust and crumb. Enjoy as the Parisiens do, with unsalted butter and jam for breakfast, or as the ultimate versatile sandwich loaf. Who wants one of those nasty stodgy ‘subs’?

Enjoy with unsalted butter

I would really love to know how you get on with this recipe, so please please come and tell me how it works out for you, by leaving a comment here or tweeting me @CountrySkills!

Read all the posts in the Sourdough Saga >>

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The Eurovision Drinking Game – 2015 Edition

Hi! You’ve arrived at the archived 2015 Edition of the Countryskillsblog.com Eurovision Drinking Game. For the fully updated 2016 Edition, click here!

Well, folks, it’s that time of year again! The 60th Eurovision Song Contest will take place in Vienna, Austria, this coming Saturday May the 23rd. Where has the time gone?

This game is becoming a bit of a fixture on the blog, and slowly but surely is gathering a loyal following! Last year the Dutch broadcaster Pow.ned even recommended it to their viewers as part of their Eurovision coverage. How about that then?

Flags!Like so many good and worthwhile ideas, these rules started life at a university party, well over a decade ago. They have been carefully curated and updated over the years, and play-tested by a number of kind ‘volunteers’, some of whom even recalled enough the next morning to provide helpful feedback and suggestions! So, without further ado, I present to you – The Countryskillsblog.com Eurovision Drinking Game, 2015 Edition.

How to play –

This is a forfeit game. A variety of features of songs and the performances have been selected, and their appearance triggers a drinking forfeit. This is usually (but not always!) ‘take a swig’.

Shot glassesIt’s a really good idea to divide up the countries and songs between your players. You might do this by ballot, draw straws before each song, or adopt some other creative or arcane method of your choice. Smaller parties may chose not to allocate a player to every songs. All of the players playing for every song is likely to result in unpleasant consequences, and cannot be recommended!

The Competition –

Begin any song that you are playing with a fully-charged glass.

Certain features of the song and performance trigger a forfeit. These features can appear more than once in a performance (and sadly, often do!) and ‘score’ each time they appear – so the now legendary ‘Bucks Fizz’ skirt removal would represent a single costume change, because it happened in one go, but a song that repeatedly swaps languages or makes major-to-minor-and-back-again key transitions triggers a forfeit on each switch.

Take a drink for each instance of the following:

The song –

  • OrchestraChange of language
  • Change of key (take an extra swig if the key change is so egregiously telegraphed you can see it coming for miles)
  • Change of tempo
  • Wordless lyrics (da dum da, mana mana mana, lalalala)

The performer, costume and performance –

  • Folk DancersPerformer(s) not of nationality represented
  • Folk costume
  • Folk instrument
  • Folk dance
  • Weapons (with an extra-big swig if they’re ‘folk’ weapons – axes, pitchforks, flaming torches etc)
  • Uniforms – military & civil (including costume references to same – epaulettes, insignia, military-looking hats and suchlike)
  • Dubious uniformsOffice wear, three-piece-suits
  • Flags, banners, national symbols
  • Pyrotechnics, smoke, fog
  • Costume change
  • Bare feet, bare torsos
  • Underwear as outerwear
  • Spandex, lurex, sequins
  • Leather, rubber, PVC, bondage wear
  • LEDs or other lighting incorporated into costumes
  • Feather BoaFur, feathers, wings
  • Trapeze or wire-work
  • Magic, circus themes
  • ‘Booby Prize’ – if the performer does not appear to be human (note this rule applies whether or not the performer is human underneath!) – down the remains of your drink!

‘Fair Dinkum’ bonus 60th Anniversary Australian rule set –

In this auspicious 60th Eurovision year, we wish our friends from Down Under a warm G’day and welcome. Australia grants the Eurovision Song Contest similar cult status to back here in Blighty – as an international Gay Pride event and an excuse for a darn good piss-up. This year, our Australian friends have been invited to join in the fun as special guests! So for one year only (unless they win, of course, and get to come back next year) here are some ‘Fair Dinkum’ bonus rules to help get you absolutely roaring.

Australian ClicheAh, that beautiful Land Down Under, where blokes wrestle crocs or kangaroos while wearing hats with corks hanging off them. Gorgeous bronzed sheilas surfing on Bondi beach. Koalas, kookaburras, gum trees. Waltzing Matildas. Very large red rocks in the outback. Vegemite, tinnies, and prawns on the barbie. And all while upside down!

  • For any reference to an Australian cliché or stereotype by Graham Norton (or your national broadcast commentator), everyone takes a swig.
  • ‘Booby Prize’ – In the event that an Australian stereotype is referenced on the Eurovision stage (or Green Room), everyone downs the rest of their drink.

The half-time performance (or the ‘Riverdance’ slot) –

The host country puts on a performance on during the ‘voting gap’. Everyone plays for this segment, using the same forfeit list as for the songs.

For your convenience, I have made a ‘cut-out-and-keep’ forfeit card. Aren’t I thoughtful? Click for the full-size version, print it out and hand out copies at your party, or save to your mobile devices and share the Eurovision love!

Cut out and keep forfeit card

Graphics for the cut-out-and-keep forfeit card are use under Creative Commons licenses, see links for details: Flags by Anka Pandrea, Glasses by Nora Raaum.

Bottles and bottles

Voting –

The voting round should be considered advanced play, and may be unsuitable for novice players or those with a delicate constitution. These rules are intentionally kept simple. They need to be, by this time in the evening!

  • Before each set of results are announced, everyone guesses where the 12 points are going. If anyone gets this right, those who got it wrong take a swig.
  • ‘Booby Prize’ – Everyone downs their drink if the presenter gets the country they’re speaking to wrong, calls the national representative by the wrong name, or gets their pronunciation corrected by the national representative.

 

Well, that’s all, folks! Have fun at your Eurovision parties, and if you do decide to try these rules, please do comment here or tweet me @CountrySkills, where it’s quite likely some Eurovision live twittering may take place!

And remember, please drink responsibly (*ahem!*), and definitely don’t drink and drive, attempt DIY, deep fat frying, change important passwords or operate heavy machinery. Finally, your hangover is your problem, not mine, so don’t come crying to me in the morning!

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Merry Christmas from the Country Skills Blog!

It’s been an incredible year (and one where this blog, I’m afraid, has felt rather neglected at times!). Here’s wishing all my lovely readers a very Merry Christmas – may your day be full of peace, joy, and laughter, good food and good company, and home-made goodies of course!

Merry Christmas 2014!

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The Eurovision Drinking Game – 2014 Edition

Dear visitor – this post is preserved for archival purposes.  Click here to view the fully updated Eurovision 2015 Drinking Game Rules (with bonus ‘Fair Dinkum’ Aussie round).

The 2014 Eurovision Song Contest is due to take place in Copenhagen, Denmark, on Saturday May the 10th. So, without further ado, I present to you – The Eurovision Drinking Game, 2014.

Get those bottles open!Could this be the very best Eurovision Song Contest drinking game on the internet? With all due modesty, I think it might be! Like so many good and worthwhile ideas, these rules started life at a drunken student party, well over a decade ago. They have been carefully curated and updated over the years, and play-tested by a number of kind ‘volunteers’, some of whom even remembered enough the next morning to provide helpful feedback and suggestions!

How to play –

This is a forfeit game. A variety of features of both the song and the performance have been selected, and their appearance triggers a drinking forfeit. This is usually (but not always!) ‘take a swig’.

European FlagsYou will need to divide up the countries and songs between your players. The best way to do this will depend on your personal preferences, and the number of people at your party. It’s probably unwise (though it may well be very entertaining!) for everyone at the party to play for every song. A small party might only want to play a subset of the songs available. You could allocate the songs by ballot at the start of the party, or draw straws before each song. The choice is yours!

The Songs – 

Begin any song that you are playing with a fully-charged glass.

Musical scoreSelected features of the song and performance trigger forfeits. These features can appear more than once in a performance (and sadly, often do!), and ‘score’ each time they appear – so the infamous ‘Bucks Fizz’ skirt removal would represent a single costume change, because it happened in one go, but a song that repeatedly swaps languages or makes major-to-minor-and-back-again key transitions triggers a forfeit on each switch.

Take a drink for each instance of the following:

The song –

    • Is not in an official language of the country being represented
    • Change of language
    • Change of key (take an extra swig if the key change is so egregiously telegraphed you can see it coming for miles)
    • Change of tempo
    • Wordless lyrics (da dum da, mana mana mana, lalalala)

Russian folk-dancersThe performer, costume and performance –

    • Performer(s) not of nationality represented
    • Folk costume
    • Folk instrument 
    • Folk dance
    • Weapons (with an extra-big swig if they’re ‘folk’ weapons – axes, pitchforks, flaming torches etc)
    • Uniforms – military & civil (including costume references to same – epaulettes, insignia, military-looking hats and suchlike)
    • 'Policewomen'Flags & banners
    • Pyrotechnics, smoke, fog
    • Costume change
    • Bare feet, bare torsos
    • Underwear as outerwear
    • Spandex, lurex, sequins
    • Leather, rubber, PVC, bondage wear
    • LEDs or other lighting incorporated into costumes
    • Fur, feathers, wings
    • Trapeze or wire-work
    • PyrotechnicsMagic, circus themes
    • ‘Booby Prize’ This is the big forfeit, down the remains of your drink! – Performer does not appear to be human (note this rule applies whether or not the performer is human underneath!)

The half-time performance (or the ‘Riverdance’ slot) –

Traditionally the host country puts on a performance on during the ‘voting gap’. Everyone plays for this segment. Use the same forfeit list, but all penalties are doubled.

For the convenience of all my lovely readers, I have made you a ‘cut-out-and-keep’ forfeit card this year. Click for the full-size version, print it out and hand out copies at your party, or save to your mobile devices and share the Eurovision love!

Your cut-out-and-keep forfeit card

Graphics for the cut-out-and-keep forfeit card are use under Creative Commons licenses, see links for details: Flags by Anka Pandrea, Glasses by Nora Raaum.

Voting –

The voting round should be considered advanced play, and may be unsuitable for novices. Nevertheless, these rules are intentionally kept simple. They need to be!

Voting!Before each set of results are announced, everyone guesses where the 12 points are going. If anyone gets this right, those who got it wrong take a swig.

‘Booby Prize’: Everyone downs their drink if the presenter gets the country they’re speaking to wrong, calls the national representative by the wrong name, or gets their pronunciation corrected by the national representative.

Well, that’s all, folks! Have fun at all your Eurovision parties, and if you do decide to try these rules, do let me know what you thought of them, and any suggestions you might have for improving them in future years. You can leave a comment, or tweet me @CountrySkills (where it’s likely some Eurovision live-tweeting may follow!).

And remember, please drink responsibly (*ahem!*), and definitely don’t drink and drive, attempt DIY, deep fat frying, change important passwords or operate heavy machinery. Finally, your hangover is your problem, not mine, so don’t come crying to me in the morning!

As our Danish hosts might say – “Bunden i vejret eller resten i håret!” (Bottoms up or the rest in your hair!)

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Salmon with Leeks and Cream, from ‘Two Fat Ladies Full Throttle’ – Cooking the books, week 13

It was with great sadness that I heard of the death of the indomitable Clarissa Dickson Wright last month. She, and her Two Fat Ladies co-star Jennifer Paterson, who died in 1999, were in many ways quite the best sort of eccentric British women. They just don’t make them like that any more!

Two Fat Ladies - coverIt seemed right to choose a recipe from the Two Fat Ladies cookbook on my shelf – an Oxfam bookshop find a couple of years ago. The dust-jacket notes describe Clarissa and Jennifer ‘visiting the far corners of the British Isles in their continuing mission to rescue us from food fads and philistinism’ and really, wasn’t that always the point of the Two Fat Ladies?

The recipe I chose, as titled in the book, is ‘Salmon Cutlets with Leeks and Cream’ – and this immediately caused me a problem which would have Jennifer and Clarissa either spinning in their graves, or, I hope, chuckling gently to themselves.

Salmon cutletsThe humble salmon cutlet – or salmon steak portion – sliced straight across the fish with the backbone in the centre, and which I remember being a regular feature of the special-occasion dinner table while I was growing up has, it would appear, gone so far out of fashion that it’s no longer available from supermarket fish counters. Here in the Midlands, supermarket fish counters are they’re more or less our only fresh fish option.

The fishmonger shrugged apologetically as she explained that unless they had a whole salmon to sell off, it just wasn’t a cut they sold these days. Apparently fish with bones in isn’t the done thing any more.

And so, with profound apologies to Jennifer (for it is her recipe), salmon fillets it had to be. To serve two, you will need –

  • Slice & fry leeks Two salmon portions. Cutlets / steaks if you can get them, fillets if, like me, you can’t.
  • Two mid-sized leeks
  • 150ml double cream
  • Unsalted butter
  • ~100g of cooked prawns (mine were frozen, and defrosted before use)
  • A lemon
  • Salt and pepper

Preheat your oven to 190C. Slice the leeks reasonably thinly and fry until softened with a large knob of butter.

Whip creamWhile the leeks are cooking, whip your cream until it reaches ‘dolloping’ consistency. This is remarkably hard work to do by hand, especially if like me you’re carrying an old wrist injury, so I suggest you don’t follow my example and instead use an electric whisk if you have access to one!

Spoon the remaining leeks overLightly butter or oil two pieces of aluminium foil, large enough to enclose each salmon portion generously. Start with about half the softened leeks in the centre, lay the salmon portion on top of these, and then spoon the rest of the leeks over.

Ready for the ovenFinally add a generous dollop of whipped double cream and half the prawns to each portion. Squeeze over about a teaspoon of lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Now carefully fold up your foil parcels, place these in an oven proof dish, and put in the pre-heated oven for about 25 minutes.

Fresh from the ovenOnce they’re cooked, unwrap your little packages, and serve with your choice of accompaniments (I made some boulangère potatoes, which were a good match). Squeeze over a dash more lemon juice, if you like.

This is a really nice dish – probably a bit swish for a weekday supper but actually, apart from the cream whipping palaver, pretty quick and straightforward. It feels a little bit like food from another era – and in some respects, of course, it’s just that – but the flavours are fresh, distinct, and complement each other nicely. I wasn’t initially convinced by the idea of the prawns, but they do add a sweetness and a different texture to the dish.

And serve!

**
Two Fat Ladies Full Throttle, by Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Dickson Wright.
Ebury Press, 1998.
ISBN 978-0-091-865-016
Hard cover, 192 pages, single-colour printing with full colour plates. RRP £17.99.

[Full disclosure: This is my book, which I bought second-hand from a charity bookshop. I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

This book accompanied the third (and penultimate) series of Two Fat Ladies. The recipes are contributed equally by Jennifer and Clarissa and seem to leap off the page in their original voices, which is lovely. Yes, these are recipes full of sugar, butter and cream, offal, game and red meat. Really, what did you expect?

Two Fat Ladies - inner pageA lot of the recipes are highly seasonal or call for rather unusual ingredients (seafood and game feature strongly) and you may struggle to find all the bits and pieces on a trip to an average provincial supermarket! This is no bad thing in my opinion – too many recipe books these days seem to be compiled with one eye on the contents of the shelves of the local Tesco (I can’t help but think Jennifer in particular would have been appalled by how far the hegemony of the supermarkets has progressed in the last decade and a half).

The book, in both its content and presentation, couldn’t be more of a contrast to Jamie Oliver’s ‘Naked Chef’ reviewed here a few weeks back – it’s a bit startling to realise that the Two Fat Ladies and The Naked Chef overlapped on UK television in 1999 (and indeed shared a production company, Optomen Television) – they feel so much like food culture from different eras. The publication date, 1998, is just a year before Jamie’s first blockbuster book offering hit our shelves.

If Jamie was the first in the vanguard of the young, cool, celebrity chefs, then Jennifer and Clarissa were undoubtedly part of the culture of old-school cooks. As a reminder, then, that it serves us to look backwards to our own traditional food culture, as well as outward to that of other countries, these recipes deserve a place in all of our collections.

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

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The Eurovision Drinking Game – because in the country, you make your own fun!

Making your own entertainment is, most definitely, a country skill. Living out of town, you don’t have access to restaurants, bars and cinemas without resorting to the car or a rather expensive cab. There’s the pub, and village activities – a great sense of community, but necessarily limited in it’s options!

European FlagsIt’s been said that, while the rest of Europe may feel embarrassed or nonplussed, sometimes, by the cultural festival that is the annual Eurovision Song Contest, the British are the only ones who seem to think it’s a drinking game. [If you’re not European, then I’m sorry, the rest of this post is likely to be pretty confusing!].

There are many variations, of course, but this one one is *mine*. I started developing it when I was still a student, and a number of victims have ‘play-tested’ it for me over the years (you know who you are!). Some even remembered enough the next day to make suggestions for improvements, which have been incorporated over time.

So, revised and refreshed, in time for the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest, which this Saturday will come from Malmo, in Sweden, it’s time to offer it up as a game for the world to enjoy! Break out the home-brewed cider, and play along!

Introduction –

This game is based on the songs and performances that make up the Eurovision Song Contest. Features of songs and performances are identified, and carry drinking forfeits (usually ‘take a swig’ with a small number of exceptions).

Euro shot glassesEveryone at the party *could* play for every song, but that may be unwise! Better, probably, to divide up the performances between the party-goers, either by drawing lots before the contest starts, or drawing straws between the performances, which adds a more immediate sense of peril and means some people might end up amusingly and disproportionately ‘picked on’ (clustering in random distributions is a bitch!).

Obviously, if it’s a very small party, not all songs need to be allocated, and likewise, in a big group, more than one player can play for any given song. (Also see ‘variations’ suggested below.) Non-drinkers & children can still have fun by identifying and shouting out the trigger rules when they appear.

And now, the rules –

Begin any song that you’re playing with a fully-charged glass.

These are the ‘trigger’ features of songs and performances for which the player should drink. These features can appear more than once in a performance (and sadly, often do!), and ‘score’ each time they appear – so the famous ‘Bucks Fizz’ skirt removal would be a single costume change, because it happened in one go, but a song that repeatedly swaps languages or makes major-to-minor-and-back-again key transitions gets a drink on each switch.

Sheet MusicThe song itself –

  • Song is not in an official language of the country being represented
  • Change of language
  • Change of key
  • Change of tempo
  • Wordless lyrics (da dum da, mana mana mana, lalalala)

Military 'uniform'The performer, costume and performance –

  • Performer(s) not of nationality represented
  • Folk costume
  • Folk instrument
  • Folk dance
  • Weapons (with an extra-big swig if they’re ‘folk’ weapons – axes, pitchforks, flaming torches etc)
  • Uniforms – military & civil (including costume references to same – epaulettes, insignia, military-looking hats and suchlike)
  • Flags & banners
  • PyrotechnicsPyrotechnics
  • Costume change
  • Underwear as outerwear
  • Spandex, lurex, sequins
  • Leather, rubber, PVC, bondage wear
  • LEDs or other lighting incorporated into costumes
  • Fur, feathers, wings
  • Trapeze or wire-work
  • Magic, circus themes

and, last but not least

  • Performer does not appear to be human – note this rule applies whether the performer *is* human underneath or not! – This is the big forfeit. Down the remains of your drink.

Russian folk-dancersThe half-time performance (or the ‘Riverdance’ slot) –

Traditionally the host country puts on a performance on during the ‘voting gap’. Everyone plays for this one. Use the same forfeit list above, but all penalties are doubled.

Voting –

I haven’t got rules for the voting – in my experience the mood of the assembled party generally doesn’t require any further ‘lifting’ by that stage in the evening!

Variations –

Rather than allocating countries’ songs to players by ballot, the enthusiastic party host could assemble a trivia question for each country in the contest (as simple or as fiendish as they like!). Players getting it wrong would play that country’s song. Of course, this is less fun if the host was planning on playing too, as they’ll know all the answers.

Well, that’s it, folks! Have fun at all your Eurovision parties, and if you do decide to try these rules, do let me know how you found them, and any suggestions you might have for improving them in future years.

And remember, please drink responsibly (*ahem!*), and definitely don’t drink and drive, attempt DIY, deep fat frying, change important passwords or operate heavy machinery. Finally, your hangover is your problem, not mine, so don’t come crying to me in the morning!

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Don’t be Sour – a dalliance with yeasted ‘quick’ bread

Regular readers of the blog (and those familiar with the intermittent Sourdough Saga series of posts) will know that I *love* my sourdough starter. It’s fair to say I love it like another pet, like a member of the family.  I feed it and care for it (and, admittedly, stash it in the fridge for a fortnight at the time – please note that this is not generally advisable treatment of household pets!) and in return it rewards me and feeds me with some of the very best bread I’ve ever eaten, anywhere in the world.  It seems a more than fair exchange for my time and effort!

Sourdough loaf selection

The beauty of a sourdough loaf, its rich deep flavours and developed texture, are the result of the long, slow, patient process of fermenting, kneading and raising, followed by a blistering hot (and preferably steamy!) baking oven.  My ‘big batch’ of sourdough bread makes two large loaves, or two smaller loaves plus some rolls or a pizza, uses 1.25kg of flour, and lasts us about 10 – 14 days, freezing the second loaf.  But making it takes about 24 hours, starting the night before baking with the creation of the sponge, followed by a whole day during which the dough has to be kneaded and shaped periodically, finally baking around dinner time.  It’s not a chore – to me at least! – but it does require a whole day at home, and of course I don’t always have that pleasure!  The trouble with getting used to really fabulous home-baked bread is that nothing that you can get in the shops comes anywhere close.

So, obviously, I needed a solution for good, home-baked, ’emergency bread’.  The sort that, if I needed to, I could start in the evening after I get home from work, and have baked and out of the oven before I go to bed – about a 3 hour window.  Yes, you could use a bread machine in that time frame (and we have done, in the past), but I find the bread too sugared and salty when made according to the instructions, and highly ‘unpredictable’ in its behaviour if you start deviating from the recommended formulae!

Sourdough loaves keep basically forever (she says, without a scrap of exaggeration!), in that they don’t go off the same way as yeasted loaves (they’re protected from mould growth, it turns out, by one of the fermentation products of linoleic acid – you can read the paper, in the Journal of Environmental Microbiology, here).  Sure, they go stale and dry with time and exposure to air, but they don’t go furry – and once they’re too dry to eat, you can turn them into breadcrumbs, so there’s no waste, either!  My emergency loaf needs to be a yeasted loaf, and obviously needs a smaller batch size, so that we’ll get a chance to finish eating it while it’s still at its best!

I asked around on Twitter (what did we do before Twitter, folks?) and the lovely Lisa (@Cookwitch) offered me her version of a recipe for Pain D’Epi, which looked like it might well fit the bill.  I was pretty pleased with my first attempt at it a couple of weeks ago, but didn’t think to take photos at the time (bad food blogger, no biscuit!).  We’re out of bread again, I was working this morning, and I fancied something nice to go with breakfast tomorrow, so I’m making it again right now.

As I make it, you want the following –

  • 275g of strong bread flour (white flour is traditional, and it won’t be a ‘Pain D’Epi’ otherwise, obviously, but use whatever you like – or a mix, if you have ‘rag-tag’ ends hanging around like I usually do)
  • 175ml of warm water
  • 7g sachet of fast-action bread yeast (the sort that comes in the little double-sachets of small yeast pellets, that you can buy everywhere)
  • A scant half-teaspoon of sea salt
  • A good ‘glug’ of olive oil

Start by combining all the dry ingredients in a bowl and mix together – you could use a whisk, but I’d use my fingers!  Now add the 175ml of warm water, and combine to form a dough.  Add a little bit more flour or water if you need to get the consistency right, just not ‘sticky’ but not too dry as a dry dough will make too dense a loaf.

Kneading your doughNow give your dough a really good knead on a floured work surface.  Set aside 10 minutes to do this, and really give it the time and effort.  This is a single-levened bread, so this is the one and only chance that you get to develop the gluten in the flour and consequently the texture in your final loaf.  Once the dough is starting to develop a silky, elastic texture, rather than just feeling like play-dough, add a generous glug of olive oil and continue to work this in.

Shaped loaf in tinOnce you’re happy with the texture, shape your loaf, and either put it in an oiled and floured 1lb loaf tin, or shape it as required and place it on a sheet of oiled baking parchment on a good thin metal baking sheet.

I would guess that this batch could also make about 8 reasonable-sized dinner rolls, though I haven’t tried this myself.  The traditional form of the Pain D’Epi, as you might infer from the name if you’re francophone, is in the shape of an ear of corn – you can see the finished effect, and how you achieve it (surprisingly straightforwardly, using scissors!) here.  It’s a great tear-and-share shape and I really must try it some day!

Covered with oiled cling filmBut back to my loaf, which is sitting in its much more traditional British loaf tin.  Cover the tin loosely with oiled cling-film (PVC-free, please, especially if you’re using it with oily food), and put it somewhere warm.  Mine is going by the fire this evening – because yes, we have the fire going in what, really, is mid-March. Isn’t that depressing?

Allow it to rise for an hour or two, depending on temperature, until it has at least doubled in size (and filled the tin nicely, if you’re using one).  The initial preparation and kneading takes about 15 minutes, which means that I can usually squeeze it in while dinner’s cooking.

Risen loafOnce the loaf is nicely raised, score the surface with a sharp knife in a pretty pattern of your preference (or construct ears of corn, if you’re feeling flash!) and put it into a pre-heated oven at 200 degrees centigrade for about half an hour – it will rise some more in the oven, if you’re lucky (though not anywhere like so much as I’m used to with the well-developed sourdough) and is done when it’s a lovely golden colour all over and the base sounds hollow when you tap it.  I tend to take tin loaves out of their tins and return them to the oven for a final few minutes to get a nice crispy crust all over.  Free-formed loaves may benefit from being taken off their baking sheets and placed straight on the oven rack, in the same way, to make sure they’re not at all soggy-bottomed!

Baked loaf, coolingOnce your loaf is baked, take it out of the oven and allow to cool on a wire cake-cooling type rack if you have one – I only bought mine very recently, and always used to use a cold oven rack I’d taken out before starting to bake the bread, which unsurprisingly works just fine!  Revel in the lovely smell of fresh bread that now permeates your house, and look forwards to the morning!

Overall, this is a really quick, useful, ’emergency bread’ recipe, that seems to work very nicely with all sorts of flours (today’s loaf was made with some malted granary bread flour I had sitting around at the back of the baking ingredients shelf).  It’s streets ahead of anything you can buy from the supermarket or corner shop, though it doesn’t quite stack up in terms of flavour and texture against slower-fermented yeasted loaves that you might make at home, or buy from a good artisan bakery.  Texture wise it does tend to be a bit ‘cakey’ and edges towards being a little on the heavy side, which I ascribe to the single kneading and rising cycle and lack of opportunity for gluten development.  Still, these are knit-picky complaints when you consider how quick and convenient it is to make, and how much nicer it is than any of the commercial alternatives!

Finished loaf

I wrote, back in June of last year, after my first successful sourdough loaf, that “the bar for ‘good bread’ has just shot skywards in our household, and I suspect things may never be quite the same again.”  I was right.  I’m such a bread-snob now!  But this is good, quick, simple bread, and definitely earns a place at our table.

Read all the posts in the Sourdough Saga >>

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Stocking Fillers – perfect home-made giblet stock – Blog Advent (24)

We made it, WE MADE IT!  First of all, a huge thank-you to those of you who’ve followed me through this little blogging adventure, for your kind comments, ‘likes’, and contributions.  We did it!  24 days of daily blogs for Advent.  Well, it’s Christmas tomorrow, NORAD is tracking Santa towards us as I type (best get to bed before he gets here!), the Boxing Day ham is boiled and glazed, the gifts are wrapped, and the giblet stock is made.

Giblets are so often overlooked.  The grotty little plastic bag that accompanies any ‘special’ roasting bird (sadly now completely absent from generic supermarket chickens) and which, I fear, most people will be throwing away some time tomorrow morning.  Offal is so horribly out of fashion that an awful lot of people – certainly those who aren’t of the older generation – have no idea where to start.

Last year, on Christmas morning, while I was waiting for my guests to wake up, I blogged my ‘how to’ for giblet stock.  I didn’t have any photos at the time, so here it is again, in the hope it’ll be useful to some of you, re-edited and with some new photographs to help you along!

If you’ve bought a bird for roasting today, there’s a good chance it’s come with a little plastic packet of ‘bits’.  Whatever you do, don’t throw them away!

All the gibletsThese bits are the giblets – the offal – from top-left, clockwise –  the neck (in one or two pieces), the gizzard, the liver, and the heart.  The gizzard is a thick, muscular structure with two hard abrasive grinding plates that the bird uses to crush up corn and other food items to make them digestible.  

Giblet stock is quick, simple, and makes the most wonderful Christmas gravy.

I have a goose this year, but the following applies just as well if you have a chicken or turkey.  Personally, I use the goose heart and liver in one of my stuffings, so only the neck and gizzard are available for the stock.  But if you’re not going to use the heart and liver this way, just chop them roughly and add them to the stock-pot with the rest of your giblet meat.

Stock vegetables, herbs and spicesIn addition to the giblets, you need the following:

  • Stock vegetables.  I use one onion (red or white) and a couple of carrots.  I don’t like celery so I don’t use it, even though it’s the often-quoted third member of the stock vegetable trinity.  But if you do like it, you should add a couple of sticks.
  • A bouquet garni.  This is just a posh culinary term for some herbs. I use some bay leaves, rosemary, and sage, along with some whole peppercorns.  Dried herbs are fine, if you don’t have fresh to hand.
  • Water.  Glug of white wine (optional).
  • A splash of olive oil.

Prepared gizzardsPrepare your gizzard by cutting away and discarding the hard plates (use a small sharp knife inserted below and parallel to the plates).  It can be a bit tricky to get your knife through the outer membrane, but once it’s in, as long as it’s sharp enough, you can just run it behind the plate.  Discard the hard plate material, along with any grotty-looking offcuts.  Then, simply chop the rest of the meat roughly into cubes.

Brown giblets and vegetablesAdd a splash of olive oil to a nice big saucepan, and brown the neck and gizzard meat, and then add the roughly chopped onion and carrots and sautee for a couple of minutes.  Now add about a litre of water (and the splash of white wine if you want) and the bouquet garni, bring to the boil and simmer for about an hour.  

Stock, before simmeringOnce you’re happy with your stock, strain it, discarding the solids, and return the stock to the pot and boil again until reduced in volume by half.  That’s it.  Set aside in the refrigerator until you make your gravy (the stock will easily keep overnight – so make it on Christmas Eve if you have time). You won’t regret it!

Well, here we are – the advent candle is all but burned down, and the Blog Advent journey is over.  I’d love to say it’s been an undiluted pleasure – more than one evening I’ve got home from work, sat down after dinner, and muttered something about ‘still having to do the sodding blog!’, but it’s great to know that I can do it, even at this time of year.

Advent - day 24

I plan to have a few days off now – I think Hubby’s feeling like a bit of a blog-widow!  I wish you all a wonderful Christmas (don’t forget that tomorrow is only the start of the 12 Days of Christmas, which go on until Epiphany – it’s not called Twelfth Night for nothing!), and after the dust has settled I’ll have a few updates, and things which are still secrets for now, to share with you.

Merry Christmas everyone!

I’m trying to write a post a day during Advent, so, please come along with me while I try to Blog Advent – the Country Skills Way – and forgive me if I don’t quite manage it!

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Pressing The Flesh – home-made coarse farmhouse pate – Blog Advent (23)

While I suppose a lot of people have their eyes firmly on Christmas Day at the moment – family and friends, food and drink, gifts and treats – I’m also looking through and out the other side, to Boxing Day.  Probably if I’m honest I put more time and effort – certainly ahead of time – into the food on Boxing Day than I do to the food on Christmas Day itself.  After all, Christmas dinner, in the end, more or less boils down to a roast dinner with pretensions!

Boxing Day dinner so often is Christmas leftovers – but in my house it’s a feast of cold cuts.  The ham, which I smoked earlier this month, is slowly defrosting ready for cooking tomorrow. I have a handful of lovely cheeses, all ready.  The spiced plum chutney I made in the summer is now nicely matured.  The sourdough, of course, I made yesterday.  There may be some leftover goose, depending on our appetites.  There’s a game pie, which we collected today from our local farm shop butcher.  And to complete the feast, of course, we’ll be wanting some pate.  I’ve always bought this in the past, and always been slightly disappointed compared to the rest of the wonderful spread.

This recipe is mostly inspired by Delia Smiths’ recipe for Coarse Country Pate, and by the Farmhouse Pate recipe in Raymond Blanc’s classic ‘Cooking For Friends’ which I picked up in the Oxfam shop last time I was in Launceston.

Pate ingredientsTo make this pate, you will require –

  • 800g of really good quality minced pork.  Mine was a mix of minced shoulder and minced belly pork from the butcher. The unidentified packs of minced pork in the supermarket will work, of course, but I suspect at the expense of flavour and quality.
  • 275g of smoked streaky bacon.  I used my home-cure smoked Christmas bacon – so I suppose you could substitute the most expensive artisanal pancetta money can buy… not that I’m biased!  More seriously, make sure it’s dry cured, you don’t want nasty phosphate water from smoke-flavour brine-injected bacon leaking out into your pate!
  • 225g of liver.  Strictly the recipes call for pigs’ liver, but I couldn’t get any this morning I used lambs.  Actually I prefer lambs’ liver, it’s softer and creamier in flavour, but it will be interesting to see how this affects the flavours.
  • To season, 20 each of juniper berries and mixed peppercorns, a teaspoon of salt (I used smoked salt, but this isn’t compulsory), a pinch of mace, two crushed cloves of garlic, and a heaped teaspoon of chopped fresh thyme leaves (dry would do, but make it a level teaspoon).
  • To lubricate, a small glass of dry white wine, and a single measure of brandy.
  • Finally, to decorate, some bay leaves, a few more juniper berries, and a couple of slices of streaky bacon.
  • A 2lb loaf tin, or terrine, and a roasting tin big enough to contain it.

SeasoningsMince up the bacon in a food processor, leaving a bit of texture to it (how much texture is up to you!).  Then, seperately, mince up the liver, again to leave a bit of texture though this will go smoother faster, so watch carefully!  Combine all of these together in a mixing bowl, do it thoroughly and for goodness’ sake use your hands!  Now crush the juniper berries and peppercorns in a pestle and mortar along with the salt.  Add the herbs and spices to the meats, and again mix as thoroughly as you can.  Finally, add the liquids, and mix again.

LubricantsSomething magical happens when the wine and brandy mix with the meats – what started out a bit like a big bowl of sausage meat suddenly becomes silky and the aromas, oh my! Allow the bowl to rest for an hour or so in a coolish place.

Arrange the bay leaves and juniper berries in the bottom of your loaf tin.  Now take your two rashers of streaky bacon, and place then between two sheets of baking parchment.  Roll them out really thin with a rolling pin. They will easily double in width, and a bit more.  To get them into the loaf tin, I cut away all but the parchment under them, and push this rasher-side-down into the bottom of the loaf tin before carefully peeling away the paper.

Bay leaves & juniper berries   Streaky bacon  Rolled out streaky bacon

Now pack all the pate mix into the tin, levelling it carefully.  Put the loaf tin into the roasting tin and fill this half way up with boiling water, and put the whole lot in an oven at 150 degrees for an hour and three quarters.

Bacon in tin  Before cooking  After cooking

The block of pate will shrink back from the sides of the tin during cooking, and will be surrounded by fat and jelly juices. Let it stand until nearly cool, and then it’s time to press the pate.  It’s pressed for two reasons – firstly, to compact it and reduce the risk of it crumbling when you slice it, but secondly – and just as importantly for me! – to compact the bottom so you can turn it out neatly!  It smells *wonderful*, just as I would have hoped.  To press it, I covered the top with a double layer of tinfoil, put an old tupperware container on top, and then piled it up with all the weight I could muster.  So, four tins of beans, and four litres of fruit juice ought to do the trick!

Pressing the pate

Once it’s had a really good squeeze, and cooled right down to room temperature, put the pate and whatever weight you can conveniently keep on top of it, move it into the fridge, where it will keep quite happily in its juices and rest and improve for three days before serving.

It’s a new recipe to me, so I’ll be back to tell you how it worked out!  But the smell, oh my, I can’t see it being anything other than lovely!  With crusty (maybe toasted, even?) home-made sourdough.  And pickles!

Advent - day 23

I’m trying to write a post a day during Advent, so, please come along with me while I try to Blog Advent – the Country Skills Way – and forgive me if I don’t quite manage it!

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Not Long Now – final preparations for Christmas – Blog Advent (22)

So, somehow it’s got to be the final weekend before Christmas, and it feels like only a few days ago that we hung out the fabric advent calendar, and I started on my mad-cap plan to blog every day in Advent, as if there wasn’t enough to do in the run up to Christmas!

There’s always a lot to do in the final few days, and while today has been almost entirely occupied with preparations for the big day, there’s not an awful lot in there which is very blog-worthy, mostly for reason of avoiding spoilers for guests and gift recipients reading this blog.

christmas sourdough

The sourdough loaves for Christmas and Boxing Day are baked.  Sourdough has been one of my great discoveries this year – I really can’t figure out how I lived without great home-baked bread!  On Christmas Day, we’ll have it as a starter, with home-cured and smoked trout and goats’ cheese.  On Boxing Day, it will be part of the traditional day-after spread of cold ham, meats, pates, cheese, pies and pickles – and I think it’s going to stand up to that, really, very well!

We did our final shop for food and drinks today – it’s always a blasted nuisance, but fortunately we’ve planned ahead and sourced as much from local suppliers, farm shops, and home-made as we could, so it was less of a chore than it might have been.  Good to feel everything is under control, and we collect the goose from the local farm butcher’s tomorrow.

I spent quite a bit of time this afternoon sorting out, labelling, and wrapping the Christmas gift hampers that are a big part of my gift giving for close family and friends.  I know that some of them read this blog, so no details for now I’m afraid!  But here they are, all packed in recycled boxes (I’ve been saving, begging and borrowing Amazon boxes and suchlike from colleagues the last few weeks!), and the contain jams and preserves (which, if you’ve been paying attention over the last six months, you may have had a hint about!), hedgerow liqueurs, and some other home-made surprises which I’ve carefully not been writing about here!

Hampers almost ready to go

And we’re very close now, three sleeps ’till Christmas, and the Advent candle that started burning 22 days ago is now very nearly gone…

Advent - day 22

I’m trying to write a post a day during Advent, so, please come along with me while I try to Blog Advent – the Country Skills Way – and forgive me if I don’t quite manage it!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>