Pane di Altamura

Pane di Altamura is my February bread challenge. Pane di Altamura is a regional Italian bread made out of durum wheat (semolina).

This is what Italian magazine Essen has to say about Pane di Altamura,

In Puglia on a tract of land in the mountains in Murgia, among a landscape of volcanic rocks, the passage from barbarism to civility was made beautifully possible with the Pane d’Altamura. Linked twice over with peasant culture since the end of medieval times, the “u skuanete,” or kneaded bread, is the principal good produced by the inhabitants of Alta Murgia and the centre of pugliese society. It is the best bread in the world – or, so said the Latin poet Horace – and the clever adventurer always took a loaf away with him. Made from durum wheat semolina, derived from the grains of the varieties “appulo,” “archangelo” “duilio” and “simeto,” water, natural yeast and salt. It is a process carried out in five phases: making of the dough, formation, proofing (the rising of the dough), shaping, and finally baking in a wood oven. These phases give the Pane d’Altamura an exceptional longevity. One loaf can be enjoyed even a few weeks after its baking, with tomatoes and extra virgin olive oil maintaining unaltered the flavour and nutritive properties.

The process

This bread was quite a challenge. For starters, it was not an easy bread to find out how to make.

I couldn’t find an ‘official’ recipe anywhere. I went to the library to see if I could find some Italian bread making recipie books, but none of them had this specific one. Searching on the internet was also a bit difficult – there didn’t seem to be an authentic Italian recipe. At one point I decided use Google Translate and search for recipes in Italian which is how I found the recipe that I’m using today.

My main point of confusion was what type of yeast I needed to use. Some recipes said that the usual yeast packet would do, while others were adamant that natural yeast was the correct way. Natural yeast is made by creating a ‘starter’ which uses the natural yeast spores in the air.

Luckily, Joe had been gifted ‘Herman the German’ (a chain letter starter which requires you to feed Herman until he has multiplied and then divide him up and give to five new friends) so I was able to use 40 grams of Herman for my bread. What really confused me was whether or not the bread required a starter made out of durum wheat or whether a plain flour starter would suffice.

In the end, I couldn’t find a straight answer on the Internet and as I was running out if time I opted to use Herman.

The other hard part was the kneading time – 30 minutes! It might not have been a problem if I hadn’t stretched my muscle in my hand from play cricket on Friday night.

Working with durum wheat (semolina) was fun. It’s a different kneading experience to using standard flour. Durum flour is much more course than standard flour and less fine. It’s grittier which is a weird feeling to begin with, but as you start kneading the dough, the coarseness disappears and you get nice silky, smooth dough. 

 

Despite leaving the dough in a warm place for three hours it refused to rise much. Clearly Herman was a bit impotent and was unable to make the dough rise successfully. Such a shame! Perhaps he should have been fed more.

Because the bread failed to rise properly, the marks that I cut in the dough did not open up as they are supposed to. Another consequence of the dough not rising well was the bread itself being quite dense, lacking the small air pockets that you would expect to be there.

In hindsight, I should have also shortened the time that the bread was in the oven. The crust was very thick and impenetrable due to the fact that the bread didn’t rise.

So this is a rather sad ending to this bread challenge. The next day, the bread became so hard that I couldn’t even cut it. We ended up having to through it in the bin.

The recipe for this bread can be found here.  Just remember to use good quality natural yeast!

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Cardamom, strawberry and vanilla bean bread and butter pudding

Yesterday at lunch I was pondering what my next blog post would be about. I’m not sure how it happened but I started thinking about a can of strawberries that I have at home in the pantry. I bought them as a back-up when I made strawberry and kiwifruit syrup last year for Christmas gifts. I bought this can because I was worried that I might not have bought enough frozen strawberries. I also had tight budget so I bought a cheap can as I didn’t want to buy an extra bag of strawberries.

Most of the time canned fruit is pretty ghastly. The fruit lacks a lot of taste, it’s often soaked in a ridiculous amount of sugar syrup and looks nothing like the fruit that it claims to be. The large cherry cans that are available are an exception to this because they taste delicious on pancakes and as a sauce for duck or chicken.

But canned fruit and vegetables can be a good option when you’re on a budget.

One of my favorite food bloggers at the moment is Jack Monroe. As a single mother on a benefit in Britain she struggled to put decent, nutritious food on the table for her and her son. While she was on the benefit she came up with tasty but cheap, affordable recipes and blogged about them. A lot of her recipes make use of canned fruit or vegetables as a way of saving money. I could talk a lot about her because she is an amazing woman who has done some brilliant work on anti-poverty campaigns in Britain but that’s saved for another blog post!

Back to the canned strawberries – inspired by Jack’s use of canned food – I wondered, could canned strawberries work in a baked dessert?

I still had a tiny bit of challah bread left over from my last bread making adventure so I thought bread and butter pudding might be the answer. Especially because this pudding is close to French toast as you soak the crusty bread in an eggy custard.

Strawberry bread and butter pudding sounded nice but I felt like it needed a bit more flavour. The traditional bread and butter pudding has nutmeg and cinnamon in it. It adds a spicy warmth to the dish. I wanted to do something a bit different though so I used crushed cardamom and a vanilla bean. Cardamom is an aromatic spice used in Indian and Nordic cooking. It’s one of the major flavours in chai tea so I was hoping to impart some of this flavour to the pudding – a chai tea inspired pudding if you will. The vanilla bean however, takes this recipe out of the budget zone, so feel free to use vanilla essence.

The result

The result was…interesting. The bread/cardamom/vanilla aspect was delicious, but the canned strawberry didn’t quite work. They were rather mediocre in the pudding as they had lost the kind of tang and sharp sweetness that fresh or frozen strawberries have. I would recommend replacing the strawberries with fresh or frozen one.

Strawberry, Vanilla and Cardamom Bread and Butter Puddings

Serves 2

Ingredients

A quarter of a loaf of crusty bread – challah works best

150 – 200g fresh or frozen strawberries

1 ½ cup cream

3 cardamom pods, crushed and ground

1 vanilla bean

2 eggs

25 g white sugar

2 teaspoons of brown sugar

Method

Cut up the challah bread into small 2cm pieces. If using fresh strawberries, hull these and cut them into quarters. Arrange bread and strawberries in the base of two ramekins.

Crush the cardamom pods in a mortar and pestle. On a bread board, cut the vanilla bean in half and scrape all the seeds out with a flat knife. Add the crushed cardamom (minus the pods), vanilla bean seeds and the vanilla pod to a pot with the cream.

Heat cream, crushed cardamom pods and vanilla bean in a sauce pan until it is hot, but not boiling. While the cream is heating, beat the eggs and sugar until it is light and frothy.

Once the cream is just before boiling, strain it over the eggs (so you catch the pods and vanilla bean) and mix.

Pour cream and egg mixture over the bread and strawberries and leave to sit. You will find that you have too much cream and egg mixture at first, so wait for the bread to soak up the liquid and then keep pouring.

Sprinkle brown sugar over the top of each pudding.

Bake in a preheated 180 degrees oven for 20 mins or until the crust looks rich and golden.

Bacon is love you can eat

I’m ambivalent about Valentine’s Day. I don’t think there is any denying that it is an over commercialised Hall Mark day like Chrismas. Although I find Christmas considerably more  stressful!

But one thing I like about holidays is some of the traditions involved – making gifts at Christmas, hot cross buns at Christmas and roses on valentines. They’re a good opportunity to try out a new recipe, learn a complicated skill or give an unusual ingredient a go.

How do roses on Valentine’s day fit into this? Surely you just buy them from a florist? How can cooking fit with roses?

Ladies and Gentlement, I give you BACON roses!

I got up at 6am in the morning yesterday so I can make these for my boyfriend ( a known lover of bacon)

They are super easy to make, but a bit fiddly.

First, you need to buy some streaky bacon strips. Roll each strip up and place them on a muffin tray. Place them in a 180 degrees oven and cook for 30 – 40 minutes. Half way through take the bacon roses out of the oven and blot them on a dry paper towel.

You will also need to pour out the fat that has collected in the base of each muffin space. Do this again about 5 minutes before they are ready.

A lot of the instructions on the internet call for you to drill holes in the muffin tray but I think it’s a a waste of a perfectly good muffin tray. I would also recommend using a small muffin try as they keep the bacon nice and tightly curled.

For more fuller bacon roses, try rolling two strips of bacon together.

While you’re cooking the bacon, take some fake flowers and remove their heads so you’ve just got the stems and the bit where the flower used to sit. Once the roses are done, slide them onto the stems. Arrange your bacon roses in a nice vase or wrap them up like a bouquet.

Ta da!

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Sometimes a cigar is just…delicious

Today at work we had a bit of a competition. We’re currently in the process of re-launching our brand and product (a market research and brand positioning solution) and we had to incorporate some this into a dish. It’s a bit hard to explain without giving away too much, but the gist of it was that we needed to be quite creative.

A work colleague and I decided to team up and work together and we decided to go make these wonderfully indulgent blue cheese, honey and truffle oil cigars.

Blue cheese cigar

I’ve been dying to make these for ages ever since I received a copy of Simon Gault’s Nourish cookbook. These cigars are a retake on the classic after dinner cheese board or a bit of a re-imagining of the cigar and whiskey combo. The cigars are rich, pungent and impressive. The manuka honey provides a nice sweetness that offsets the sharpness of the blue cheese and the truffle oil adds a bit of nuttiness. night she came around and we made these wonderfully indulgent blue cheese, honey and truffle oil cigars.You only need to make one per person as they are quite full-on. 

The recipe for these cigars can be found here. I used Kapiti Kikorangi cheese instead of the cheese that Gault recommends. I also bought ready grated parmesean cheese as its much easier to divide up and weigh. You will also want to play around with the microwave timings. Gault recommends 30 – 40 seconds to melt the parmesan but we only needed 17 seconds.

We won the competition and in a moment of being a bit of fan girl I cheekily decided to tweet the picture and tag Gault in the tweet. I was quite delighted when he retweeted it to his followers. Amazing! Nice to have a bit of an endorsement from a professional.

Challah Bread


Last night was the the 31st of January, the last day in which I could achieve my January bread goal – making challah bread. As usual, I’ve left things to the last minute and I’ve now sacrificed my Friday night to stay at home and making bread. I’m not that that disappointed though. Last weekend I was insanely busy so it’s nice to have a quiet one at home.

Challah Bread

The first time I tried challah was on a road trip across the United States in a small city called Asheville in North Carolina.

I didn’t know anything about Asheville, but one of my friends on the road trip had some contacts there so we decided to spend two nights there. I was pleasantly surprised by Asheville. Its main street was dotted with cute alternative indie shops and the food that I ate in Asheville was some of the best I had in the US. My favourite memory of the city was the French toast that I had at little café called Over Easy Café.  This French toast  – challah bread topped with house-made granola, vanilla lavender yoghurt and powdered sugar was the best French toast I have ever had. This is not an exaggeration. According to my friends, when I took my first bite I made an involuntary enraptured grunt. It was that good.

I suspect that it was the challah bread that really made this dish. Challah is an eggy bread which means when you dip the bread in the egg, milk and vanilla custard and fry it, it enhances the creaminess of the toast and adds a delicious richness to it.

A little about challah bread

Braided challah is a Jewish Sabbath and holiday bread. According to Claudia Roden, challah is

surrounded by folklore and tradition and loaded with symbolism. On festive occasions a blessing is said over two loaves, symbolizing the two portions of the manna that was distributed on Fridays to the children of Israel during their Exodus from Egypt. The breads are covered on the table by a decorative challah cover or a white napkin, which represents the dew that collected on the manna in the morning. Poppy and sesame seeds sprinkled on the bread also symbolize the manna that fell from heaven.

The bread also comes in different shapes and sizes and as Roden explains they all have different meanings:

Challah is made in various sizes and shapes, all of which have a meaning. Braided ones, which may have three, four, or six strands, are the most common, and because they look like arms intertwined, symbolize love. Three braids symbolize truth, peace, and justice. Twelve humps from two small or one large braided bread recall the miracle of the 12 loaves for the 12 tribes of Israel. Round loaves, where there is no beginning and no end, are baked for Rosh Hashanah to symbolize continuity. Ladder and hand shapes are served at the meal before the fast of Yom Kippurthe ladder signifying that we should ascend to great heights, the hand that we may be inscribed for a good year. On Purim, small triangular loaves symbolize Haman’s ears; at Shavuot, two oblongs side by side represent the Tablets of the Law. The bulkah is a segmented rectangular challah. Sweet challahs with honey or raisins are baked during the festive season to bring joy and happiness.

My attempt

I used Deb Perelman’s recipe from Smitten Kitchen – one of my favourite food blogs.

The process started well until I was in the middle of weighing the flour and realised that I was short around 400g of flour. Quelle Disastre!

Normally this wouldn’t have been a problem, a quick trip to the shops would have solved things. Unfortunately for me, I had already mixed the yeast, sugar and water together and it was expanding rapidly. As you can see from the picture, it only took five minutes for the mixture to start threatening to spill over the jug. I hurriedly sent Joe out to get more flour (and our Friday night takeaways) and transferred the yeast monster into another bowl while keeping a watchful eye over it.

After Joe arrived back, the process of making the dough was relatively easy.

The challenge with making challah bread is the time that it takes. If you want to get a really rich and tasty bread you do need to let it rise three times. These risings take at least 2 and half hours to complete.

Braiding the dough was also quite difficult. For starters you really do need to get the six strands of dough the same size and length and it’s not always easy to do this. When you’re braiding the dough it always looks amateur which can also be a bit disheartening.

A final point to note is that you need to work quickly with this dough. After I had completed the braiding for the second loaf I turned around to place it on the baking tray and was shocked at how fast my first loaf had grown. It had almost taken up the whole half of the baking tray.

Despite some of the obstacles, I think the bread turned out pretty good. It certainly smelled amazing when I pulled it out of the oven.

This morning I sliced up a few pieces of the challah bread and used them to make french toast. I usually make french toast with basic toast slices but I’ve now realised the error of my ways. Challah bread takes french toast to a whole new level. It was so creamy, rich and deliciously eggy! I will never again use sandwich bread again.