Japanese Cotton-soft Cheesecake

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Cotton Cheesecake

Wotchers!

I was in a frenzy of indecision this week over what to post. Looking through my recipe files, I kept changing my mind – no sooner did my eye alight on some choice delicacy than – Ooh look! Shiny, SHINY other recipe – something else would catch my eye. So to make even the slightest progress in whittling down the choice, I threw it open to Twitter and was rewarded with some excellent prompts – which is how we ended up at this delightful piece of froth – Japanese Cotton-soft Cheesecake.

Now I like a nice slice of cheesecake as much as the next person – probably more so – but I’ll be the first to admit that with all the cream cheese, eggs and cream they can, and frequently do, veer into claggy-land all too easily. And the last thing you want to round out a meal, or…

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sourdough doughnuts

Sourdough doughnuts

  • 100g sourdough starter (80% hydration, white plain flour)
  • 130g whole milk & cream mix
  • 40g sugar
  • Orange zest
  • Vanilla extract (few drops)

Whisk the above together well and then add:

  • 250g strong white flour which you stir in and incorporate well without kneading (use wooded spoon or silicon spatula etc)

Autolyse (ie leave the ingredients to mingle) for anything between 1 to 3 hours

Turn the dough onto a counter top that’s been lightly dusted with flour and knead then add:

  • 1 tsp salt

And knead before adding:

  • 60g butter
  • 1 egg yolk

And further knead in till all is fully incorporated and you have a smooth dough that no longer sticks to your hands and counter — may take up to 10′ to get there, and will be very wet, sticky, and messy (so don’t get discouraged); it’ll soon pull together nicely and stop sticking to the counter and your fingers

Leave somewhere warm to rise for 90 minutes.

Return to lightly floured surface and, knock out the air, knead a little, then cover, and refrigerate for 48 hours.

On frying day (48 hours after refrigerating)

Remove from fridge, knock out air, separate into 6 doughnut balls, leave for final prove on lightly floured kitchen towel somewhere draft free but not too warm for c. 3 hours.

Heat oil to 160-180C and fry about 3′ each side, then: either roll in sugar and cinnamon, or fill with jam and sprinkle with sugar, or cover in chocolate glaze etc. Whatever you like. I had mine dusted with caster sugar and cinnamon and with lashings of clotted cream. Will probably glaze one or two with chocolate ganache later.

They turned out very fluffy. And it’s sourdough!

NB., calorific content post-fry around 400 cals; with clotted cream and jam nearer the 550 cal mark.


 

sourdough pizza dough

I’ve been making pizza with my own 100% hydration rye sourdough starter with wild yeast from my area for quite some time now. It’s an easy hassle-free recipe which involves very little actual labour from start to finish. What it does require though is lots of patience as it’s a dough based on a protracted second proving stage under refrigeration to retard the proving process which contributes to the fuller, more soury, tang to the dough.

INGREDIENTS

  • 500g strong white wheat flour (or 400g 400g strong white wheat flour and 100g fine or medium semolina
  • 375g filtered water (do weigh it) at room temperature
  • 150g sourdough starter
  • 10g/2tsp fine salt

STEPS

  1. mix the starter well into the water by whisking it with a fork or balloon whisk
  2. add this mix to a larger bowl in which you’ve put the flour beforehand, stir the mixture with a wooden spoon to the point that all the flour is wet – don’t over-mix – then squelch the dough, cover the bowl with cling film and leave it to rest for 30 minutes for the flour and water to autolyse
  3. now turn the dough onto an oiled work top, oil well your hands and wrists as the dough it quite wet and sticky, then flatten it out with your fingers – you’ll notice that there’s an enjoyable silk-like texture to the autolysed dough while you’re handling it – sprinkle the flattened out dough with the salt, before folding the dough and lightly kneading it for a minute or so. It really is almost a no-knead recipe. (See e.g., this and this video for more guidance)
  4. return the dough to the larger bowl, cover the bowl with cling film and leave somewhere warm (but not too warm) to rest for its first prove for c. 90 minutes.
  5. Turn the dough onto a well-oiled work top, oil your hands and wrists, and start flattening out the dough again. The silkiness and pliability of the dough would have increased by now, and it really is a pleasure to handle it. Now fold and gently knead for another minute or so. (Again, see this video for guidance).
  6. Pop the dough into an oiled plastic container and cover. Now store this in the fridge for the second prove which should take around max., 48 hours. In that sense, if you want to have pizza on Saturday evening say around 20.00, start working on your dough on Thursday evening around 19.00 or so.
  7. On pizza baking day (i.e., c. 48 hours after popping the dough in the fridge) turn the dough onto your work top which you’ve heavily dusted with flour and some semolina or polenta (see pics), cut it into three equally sized portions.
  8. Now flatten and roll each out with your hands to get three 30cm diameter pizza bases.
  9. Dust your baking trays with coarse semolina or cornmeal/polenta (NB., I prefer cornmeal/polenta), pop your dough disks onto each tray, add your toppings, and bake at the top shelf of a pre-heated oven for about 17-20 minutes at 250C (fan assisted). That’s the highest my oven goes but if you’re lucky enough to have an oven that goes up to 400-500C, or you’re using a wood-fired oven etc., then make sure you keep an eye on it as it’s probably going to be ready within 4-5 minutes or so (and it’ll have beautiful blisters around the crust).

FURTHER INFO

I have mine with a variety of toppings but these are usually: tomato sauce, torn mozzarella,  black fleshy/wrinkly olives, smoked ham, and finely sliced chestnut mushrooms – or – tomato sauce, torn mozzarella, fennel salami, finely sliced mushrooms, or whatever other combo is your thing.

I make three different types of tomato sauce: two cooked ones, and a raw one (I don’t use these together – it’s either/or). I spoon the sauce over the base and then spread it all out in a centrifugal way with the belly of a tablespoon or ladle.

  • cooked sauce no. 1: this one involves sweating an onion and a couple of garlic cloves with a chopped red chilli, adding a tin of tomatoes, seasoning, and 1/2 tsp of sugar, and a little olive oil, and then simmering on a stove top for about 40 minutes on the lowest setting;
  • cooked sauce no. 2: this one involves heating about 50ml of olive oil in a pot till its near smoking point, adding two cartons of passata (2 x 500ml) and stirring to make sure it emulsifies, adding 1 tsp sugar, 1 tsp salt, some cracked pepper and some chilli flakes (say 0.5 tsp of each), turning the heat down to a slow simmer for an hour or so, and adding a bunch of torn fresh basil leaves probably 30 mins before turning off (my favourite). Both cooked sauces last for at least a week in a jar in the fridge;
  • My raw revision involves blending together 1/2 tin of tomatoes, 1 garlic clove, 1/2 red chilli, 1 tsp dry basil, 1/3 tsp sugar, seasoning, 1 tbsp tomato paste, a glug of balsamic vinegar, and a 2-3 good glugs of olive oil. I only use this when I’ve ran out of cooked sauce.

sourdough croissant recipe

This recipe is based on my own wild sourdough (100% hydration) starter.

All in all, the process takes 3 days, but DO NOT be put off by this as it doesn’t involve a lot of work. It’s basically a matter of spending no more than 15 minute slots here and there so it works around your work etc., schedule. For instance:

  • Day One is about preparing the dough (and refrigerating it).
  • Day Two is all about the ‘lamination’ (i.e., rolling out the dough in a way that envelops a sheet of butter to create layers of dough and butter). This involves rolling out the dough and then letting it rest in the fridge for 30 minutes, and then repeating this process twice more during Day Two. This too doesn’t take much time as it literally takes about two minutes to roll out and re-fold the dough in between rests.
  • Day Three is about shaping the croissants, lightly egg-washing them, and leaving them to prove for a final time for a couple of hours at room temperature before baking them off for a maximum of 18 minutes at c. 190C (fan assisted).

My methodology of laminating is based entirely on the exceptionally helpful step-by-step instructions, video file, and other information, on the Weekend Bakery (Ed & Marieke’s) website, which I often visit for very rounded and well-researched guidance.

In terms of the ingredients’ list, mine departs from that on the Weekend Bakery website list in that mine includes my sourdough starter as the leavening agent in the dough as opposed to the dry yeast in theirs. However, I have followed all other steps faithfully so I would recommend that you do have a look at their website for a more detailed account (NB., from their section ‘Day Two’ onwards) although I do include a step-by-step guide here too.

INGREDIENTS

for the dough on day 1

  • 100g wild sourdough starter
  • 250g plain white flour
  • 125g water and milk mix
  • 1tsp salt
  • 30g sugar
  • 20g butter
  • 1 egg yolk

for the lamination process on day 2 

  • c. 150g butter

for the egg washing process on day 3

  • egg yolk
  • 1tbsp milk
  • pinch of salt
  • tiny drop of honey

STEPS

Day One

  1. whisk the starter with the water-milk mix to dissolve it, and add to a larger bowl in which you’ve already mixed the flour with sugar.
  2. First, squelch well and then mix with a wooden spoon, and leave the rough dough in a bowl covered with cling film on the work top for 30 minutes (NB., this is the ‘autolysis’ stage).
  3. Dust the work top and your hands with flour. Turn the dough onto the work top, knead for a minute – no need for longer than that – and flatten it out in a disc-shape of about, say, 30 cm diameter.
  4. Scatter the salt evenly all across the dough disc, smear with the butter, and knead the dough until you incorporate the butter well; add the yolk now and incorporate well. Should take no more than 15 minutes or so if like me you don’t have a stand mixer– it’ll be sticky but persevere.
  5. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with cling film, and let it rest for an hour somewhere warm (e.g., under a blanket, or in an airing cupboard close – but not too close – to the boiler).
  6. Now turn the dough on a work top that you’ve lightly dusted with flour. Knead the dough for about half a minute. Shape the dough into a rough disc, wrap loosely with a sheet of lightly floured cling film, and refrigerate it to retard the subsequent proving process.

Day Two

  1. Cut two c. 30x30cm sheets of baking parchment/greaseproof paper.
  2. Slice your chunk of cold butter into c. 1 cm slices and arrange them over one sheet of greaseproof paper into a c. 15x15cm square, and cover with the other sheet of paper.
  3. Now, gently tap down the butter with a rolling pin (a glass bottle would do nicely if you don’t have one), and gently roll out the butter into an even square (anything between 15x15cm – 20x20cm square sheet) in a manner aimed at getting the butter as evenly distributed as possible.
  4. peel off the top piece of paper, trim about 1 cm of butter from the edges of the butter square, add the trimmings in the middle of the square, cover the square once one with the sheet of paper, and repeat step 3 by rolling out evenly into a 18x18cm square sheet of butter which you should then (alongside the greaseproof paper) refrigerate on a flat surface (e.g., use a baking tray/sheet to store in the fridge) in order to keep the butter sheet flat).
  5. Bring the dough out of the fridge. Roll it out into a c.25x25cm square – try to get this done evenly so that the thickness is even – this is important to ensure your lamination is even. It helps to tap the sides of the dough into a square a little to get it even all round.
  6. Now take the butter square out of the fridge, peel off the greaseproof paper, place it over the dough square in a way that the points of the butter square at pointing towards the sides – not the angles – of the dough square.
  7. Now, fold each protruding flap of dough over the butter and seal it. You want the dough to totally envelop the butter, so the four points of the dough square reach the centre of the butter square (see attached photos if this sounds unclear).
  8. Now, dust your hands and rolling pin with flour and start gently rolling out the dough envelope. You want to get this into a 20x60cm rectangle so do this gently and start from the middle. As the Weekend Bakery website states: “Start rolling from the center of the dough towards the edges, and not from one side of the dough all the way to the other side. This technique helps you to keep the dough at an even thickness. You can also rotate your dough 180 degrees to keep it more even, because you tend to use more pressure when rolling away from you than towards yourself. You can use these techniques during all the rolling steps of this recipe. Aim at lengthening the dough instead of making it wider and try to keep all edges as straight as possible”. 
  9. Now fold this 20x60cm rectangle letter style, wrap it in cling film and refrigerate for a minimum of 30′ minutes.
  10. Take the dough out of the fridge, and repeat steps 8 and 9 twice more – remember to return to the fridge to rest the dough for 30 minutes after it has been rolled out and folded. NB., when you take the dough out to roll it out, do this with either of the ‘open’ ends of the dough (i.e., either of the two short sides of the rectangle) facing your body to ensure that you don’t have seams from which the butter layers might force themselves out.
  11. After the third ‘roll-out and fold’ return the dough to the fridge for a final rest overnight until Day Three.

Day Three

  1. Lightly dust the work top with flour. Take the dough out from the fridge and very gently roll it into a (longer this time) 20x100cm rectangle. Again, do this gently from the middle and by rolling out the dough from either side of the rectangle. Might be a good idea to do this on a kitchen table to allow you to go from either side of the dough.
  2. Try rolling out to 21x105cm and then tapping/tucking the dough back inward with your hands to get an even 20-100cm rectangle. Also ensure that while you’re rolling the dough out, there is sufficient – but never too much – flour underneath to stop the dough from sticking to the surface. Also make sure your hands are well dusted with flour.
  3. Score with a knife 1cm cuts every 12cm alongside one of the two longer sides of the rectangle. Score 1cm cuts every 6cm alongside the remaining of the two longer sides of the rectangle (NB., this should leave you with a rectangle of dough where the 6cm cuts are opposite from the middle of the gap between the 12cm gaps).
  4. Now take a pizza slicer, or knife, and cut the dough diagonally in a way which joins the 6cm cuts with the 12cm cuts. This would leave you with the number of triangles you’ll then be rolling into croissants.
  5. Make a 2cm cut into the centre of the base of each triangle (i.e., the shorter side of the triangle). Slightly roll out each triangle – be careful not to put too much pressure as the dough is probably heated up by now and you don’t want to encourage the thin butter layers to seep into the dough layers otherwise the distinct lamination would be ruined – and start rolling from the bottom up. The 2cm cut you’ve made helps you roll the croissants better without them becoming too thick around their middle part. As Ed and Marieke from Weekend Bakery say: “After you cut a notch in the middle of the short end of the triangle, try and roll the two wings by moving your hands outwards from the center, creating the desired shape with a thinner, longer point. Also try and roll the dough very tightly at the beginning and put enough pressure on the dough to make the layers stick together (but not so much as to damage the layers of course)”.
  6. Arrange the croissants on two baking trays lined with greaseproof paper, lightly brush with the egg wash  – this is the well mixed egg yolk and tsp of water -, and leave the croissants somewhere draft-free to prove for a further 2 hours. Don’t prove the croissants somewhere too warm as the butter would probably seep into the layers of dough and affect the eventual lamination. The temperature shouldn’t be more than 24C.
  7. The croissants should have risen following the 2-hour prove. Preheat the oven to 200C (fan assisted) and bake in the middle two shelves  initially for 6 minutes at 200C and then for 9 minutes at 165C.
  8. Take them out of the oven once they seem baked, leave them to rest for 2 minutes before transferring to a cooling rack to avoid them cool in their condensation.

Enjoy them as you’d have any croissant. I have mine with thick lashings of cream cheese and orange marmalade or nutella. Or with cream cheese and smoked salmon too.

hackney wild sourdough starter

I’ve been baking with my sourdough starter for quite a while now. It really is that easy to get a starter going. Ι got mine going initially on organic and unbleached plain white (wheat) flour and filtered water, and once I got it going, it was subsequently based on equal measures of organic stoneground rye flour and filtered water that I weighted on kitchen scales (in grams). There is a reason I keep mentioning ‘organic’ flours and ‘filtered’ water, and I’ll elaborate further down. Now if you want to go straight to the steps, scroll all the way down, otherwise you might want to get the low-down first. An early shout-out to Ed and Marieke – the Weekend Bakery team – for their amazing website which contains the recipe I’ve based my sourdough starter.

Some general background info to put the whole thing into context:

Baking breads requires the use of a leavening agent to get the dough to rise. Doughs rise due to two processes: firstly, due to the release of gases from the interaction of leavening agents with the other ingredients in the dough – in this case, the gases get trapped in, and expand, the dough surrounding these – and, secondly, due to the hydration in the dough turning to steam and seeking to escape from the surrounding dough. Both these processes interact with the dough to alter its taste and texture. For instance, gases impart aromas to the dough they press against while the heat and the steam cook the dough and consequently we get those holes in the crumb – in the case of high hydration sourdough bread varieties, and other high hydration breads such as ciabatta and focaccia, we see those large bubbles due to the increased aeration.

Leavening agents used in baking are things such as bicarbonate of soda (‘bicarb’), or/and buttermilk as is the case with Irish Soda bread. Bicarb is used a lot in cake baking, and you don’t really want to get an elastic bread-like consistency and texture with cakes,  hence why the cake mix/batter is not ‘doughy’. A cake mix is more runny so it’ll be like a batter that you don’t want to be mixing too much otherwise you’d be strengthening the gluten bonds within the flour and getting it too elasticky. You don’t want this with sponge cakes as you want these to have a different texture nor do you want it with biscuits which you’d want to snap rather than chew. Coming back to bread and yeasted-dough product baking, the most frequently used leavening agents are either baker’s yeast (i.e., the fresh grey-brown plasticine-like product — I get mine in 50g chunks from my local supermarket) or dried yeast granules sold in sachets or small tins. In relation to the dried yeast granules, there you can get ‘fast action’ or conventional granules. The former can be added straight to the flour and the other ingredients while the latter has to be ‘activated’ in some liquid, and, in some cases depending on the recipe, with some flour added along side it and the liquid. I rarely use dry yeast as I usually bake sourdough bread products (pizza, garlic bread, savoury or sweet buns etc), or use fresh yeast in things such as tsoureki or my Christmas Stollen (recipe soon to follow). Very occasionally I make Lardy Cake in which I use a sourdough starter base and a tiny amount of fast action dry yeast granules (recipe soon to follow).

Baker’s yeast (fresh yeast) and dry yeast granules all contain various types of yeast micro-organisms that thrive in a moist warm environment that is rich in carbohydrates for them to feast on. Hydrated flour – i.e., dough – provides such an environment. These yeast micro-organisms multiply and produce gases as a by-product of feasting on the carbs. These gases get trapped in the elasticity of the dough which causes it to rise. Also, as alluded to briefly above, the use of wheat and other gluten-containing flours means that by kneading the dough, the gluten starts developing into strands that bind with one another and make the dough more elastic bringing it firmly into the bread zone (rather than the cake or shortcrust/biscuity zone). This gluten development process interacts with the gases and heat produced by the leavening agent — remember the microorganisms’ carb fest — and the heat produced during the kneading stage to cause the dough to rise as the gas gets trapped amongst the dough’s elasticity. This is the ‘proving’ stage we read about in bread and yeasted dough product recipes though in reality what is being ‘proved’ isn’t the dough per se but whether the yeast actually works. Bread recipes usually call for one or two ‘proves’. I usually rely on two proving stages for most of my bread and yeasted dough product baking (e.g., my sourdough pizzas, pitta breads, ciapatta, focaccia, garlic breads, sweet buns, savoury buns, cinnamon rolls, tsoureki, etc).

Now the difference with a sourdough starter is that there is no use of a ready-prepared/made leavening agent — the sourdough starter, once successful, becomes your leavening agent. So no need for bicarb, baker’s yeast, dry yeast granules, etc to get dough to rise. What I use to get a sourdough starter is two ingredients: plain flour and water. The kit I need is a jar and a knife/spoon/fork to stir. The conditions I need is the warmth and darkness of an airing cupboard. The other resource I need is time, by which I mean mere patience rather than effort.  As I said, I use equal amounts/measures (in weight) of plain unbleached flour and filtered water. I use tap water that I pass through a water filter for reasons I’ll explain below. Microorganisms exist all around us; on our hands, in the air, on surfaces, and so on. Such microorganisms are viruses, natural yeasts, and bacteria. Our food we eat, the water we drink, things we touch, and so on, contain, or are surrounded by, them. Functioning immune systems habitually fend these off or aren’t that much compromised by these. The point about trying to get a sourdough starter going is to harness those types of bacteria and natural yeasts, from those which surround us, that are likely to produce tangy, sour-ish, starters, rather than the types that spoil your starter. The latter can happen too and the smell and hue of it would usually give it away. Also, this is the reason I use organic and not overly processed flours in the hope that there is a greater chance for microorganisms to have survived on the grain and in the flour free from pesticides and/or from bleaching.  Also, this is the reason I filter my water so that there are fewer chemicals in it that are likely to kill off those microorganisms.

Once the sourdough starter is ready, I take the necessary quantity of starter and mix this with flour and water to make the dough I use for my sourdough pizza, sourdough croissants, and for other baked goods. It is this starter – rich in bacteria and natural wild yeasts – that acts as the leavening agent in my doughs. It does this in the following way: the microorganisms in my starter consume the carbs in the flour and produce gases that cause a dough to rise/expand. The long retarded ‘proving’ that I use – namely, 48 hours refrigerated second prove for my sourdough pizza dough – means that the leavening process is protracted, and this drawn-out infusion of the dough with the gases imparts the aroma of the gases into the dough, hence the sourness and tang that one gets with good sourdough. Now, different microorganisms produce gases that impart different aromas into the dough. For instance, it seems to me that the yeasts I manage to catch are responsible for the fruitier, more sour scent while bacteria such as lactobacilli, which a sourdough starter may also contain, seem responsible for the cheesy tang I get particularly when I’ve not fed by sourdough starter regularly. More about that below.

What is more, the gassy environment combined with the depletion of carbs for the microorganisms can lead to a noxious environment that could become lethal for the microorganisms in the starter, hence the need to replenish the starter regularly (I’ll refer to this as ‘feeding’ the starter). Think about all these microorganisms competing for food. Bacteria tend to reproduce faster and thus outcompete the yeast microorganisms in the starter. This means that if the bacteria side becomes more dominant, the starter, and the baked goods you make, are likely to lack the fuller flavour/aroma profile of a more balanced starter. Again, a further reason to feed regularly to give those yeasts a better change which all improves the taste of your final products.

Now, ‘feeding’ is also a simple process. I tend to use my sourdough starter twice a week hence why I keep it in an open jar on my work top and feed daily. This is far from too fiddly or arduous as it might sound. It basically involves me throwing away almost all of it, leaving a tablespoon of the starter at the bottom of the jar, to which I then add 50g of stoneground rye flour and 50g of filtered water — I weigh these with a digital scale — which I then mix very well with a butter knife, and leave on the work top without the lid on. If I plan to use my sourdough starter within the next 24 hour or so, I leave it on the work top. till the moment I use it. If I plan to use it a few days or a week down the line, I let it rise first and then seal it with the lid and refrigerate until the day before I’m to use it. I then bring it to room temperature, throw all but a tablespoon away, feed it as per the above, and use it whenever it has risen. This could be anything from 3-24 hours depending on weather conditions and the strength of the starter. I’ve named the article ‘Hackney sourdough starter’ as it it’s likely to contain wild yeasts from the part of London it was ‘conceived’.

Now the precise steps to making a sourdough starter

  1. Add 50g white unbleached plain wheat flour and 50g water to a jar (yes, weigh the water), stir well and leave (without the lid) in a warm dark airing cupboard (but away from direct contact or too close to a hot boiler);
  2. now every 24 hours for the next 3 or 4 days take the jar out of the cupboard, stir the thick batter-like mix, and return to the airing cupboard to rest (again, without the lid);
  3. by Day 3 or 4 there should be bubbles in the batter mix – if so, congrats! There is life in your batter, and it’s producing these gases;
  4. this is the stage where you take your jar out of the cupboard, throw all but a tablespoon of the starter away, mix in 80g rye flour and 80g of filtered water, mix it all very well, and leave for anything between 3 to 24 hours to now use in your bread-baking recipes. It really does depend on how warm the enviroment is and how strong the starter is (i.e., how high the microorganism count in the starter) that determines how fast it’ll rise.

As I usually make pizza dough regularly for myself – and given that each batch of pizza dough is about 500g flour to which I add 150g of sourdough starter – I tend not to need more than 300g of active sourdough starter weekly unless there’s some extra baking going on that week. This means that I tend to feed my starter daily but only replenish it with about 60g of flour each time as to avoid wasting too much flour.

Hope you succeed in getting your sourdough starter going and that you find it as rewarding as I have using mine.

Great sites for more info about sourdough:

http://sourdough.com

http://www.thefreshloaf.com

http://prozymi.blogspot.co.uk (Greek)

Photos to be posted soon.

τσουρέκι – Greek Easter loaf (‘tsou-rekkie’)

There is a continuum of sweetened yeasted bakery goods across several gastronomic cultures: namely, the corek-tsoureki-brioche-challah-colombina/pannetone type of yeasted bakery goods. Tsoureki (pl. ‘Tsourekia’, the ‘t’ and ‘s’ are not silent) is the Greek (and no doubt Balkan) version of this sort of bakery good.

It is lightly scented with ‘mahlepi’, the pounded dried kernels from the stones of wild cherries, that imparts a sort of earthy nuttiness to it. I’m unable to liken the smell and taste of mahlepi to anything else I’ve tried. If pushed I’d say there’s a very faint whiff of paint stripper about it which, admittedly, doesn’t really make it sound all that appetising. But it is indispensable to a classic tsoureki.

Pounded ‘mastic’ – the resin drops from the Mastic plant that is indigenous to the island of Chios in the North Aegean – is also used for a classic tsoureki. Again, that’s a scent there really isn’t anything to which I could possibly liken it.

Both those scents, albeit rarely used in Greek cuisine, are familiar to those who’ve lived in Greece, or in contact with the Greek diaspora, as these are scents associated with particular festive foods (e.g., tsourekia at Easter), or with particular comfort foods (e.g., rice pudding). The aroma of mahlepi permeates many a Greek home on tsoureki-baking day, which is usually a few days before Easter Sunday. Mastic, for its part, whilst used on more occasions than mahlepi in Greek cuisine, is again a scent and ingredient that, whilst quintessentially Greek, doesn’t really feature all that often. Kaymaki ice cream – essentially ice cream based on double cream – is scented with mastic which, as a type of emulsifier, imparts a more dense, more ‘stringy’ type of, texture to it. Rice pudding is also scented with mastic which, again, gives it a much more emulsified/set texture than, say, English rice pudding.

Every household is likely to have its own recipe, which is likely not only to vary in the exact proportions of the main ingredients, but, also, on the ingredients themselves (e.g., lemon zest instead of mastic or orange zest etc). I’ve used this recipe here (in Greek) successfully on several occasions and have been pleased with the results. It has resulted in consistent bakes so I’ve stuck with it. I prefer working with fresh yeast as there is a difference in taste and texture (or so I think).

ingredients

1kg extra strong flour
500ml whole milk
250g sugar
4 eggs
125g butter
1 level tsp salt
60g fresh (i.e., baker’s) yeast
1 orange, zest only
1 level tsp pounded mastic
1 level tbsp pounded mahlepi &
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Egg wash ingredients
1 egg yolk
2 tbsp milk
1/2 tsp honey
pinch of salt flakes or ordinary salt &
flaked almonds
(to sprinkle after washing with the egg and before popping into the oven)

steps

1. Heat 100ml milk to lukewarm – don’t overheat as you’ll end up scalding and ruining the yeast – add to a bowl with the yeast and 60g of the flour to make a yeast sponge. Cover with cling film and leave somewhere warm to get the yeast going. About 20′ should be fine.

2. In the meantime, melt the butter in a saucepan in which you’ve heated the remaining milk. Mix in the sugar, orange zest, mahlepi, vanilla, and eggs. Again, make sure this milky buttery mix isn’t too warm by the time you add the eggs as it’ll scramble them. You want it to be tepid.

3. Empty the yeast sponge into a larger bowl and mix in the milky sugary buttery ‘wet’ mix. Add the remaining flour and salt, and mix well with a wooden spoon. The dough will be quite wet and sticky, and won’t come together in the way that bread dough does. So you won’t be kneading it against any surface. Just mix well with a big wooden spoon to incorporate the ingredients, cover the bowl with cling film, and leave the dough somewhere warm (but not hot) to rest and prove for three hours.

4. Now turn the dough out onto a floured work top. Lightly dust the dough and your hands with flour too. It’s a wet dough so don’t want it to get all sticky. Gently divide the dough into four lots without knocking out of it too much air. Then, further divide each lot into three to get your braids. Roll out these three into cylindrical shapes and then braid these into a plait. See photos. Repeat with the remaining three lots.

5. Butter two deep baking trays and line with baking parchment all the way up to the sides – this will help you remove the tsourekia after you’ve baked them. Place two plaits side by side in each tray.

6. Heat the oven to not more than 50C and place your trays in it so that the dough proves for a final time for not more than 30 minutes.

7. Remove the trays from the oven, turn the oven up to 180C (fan), brush plaits with egg wash — do this carefully as to not pierce the skin of the plait as it’ll deflate — and then sprinkle the plaits with almond flakes. Bake one tray at a time at the middle rack for 15-20′. Check at the 15-minute point and if they have browned enough, they’re done.

8. Remove tray from the oven, let the plaits cool for 10′ then remove, by lifting the sides of the parchment, and place on a rack to cool. Once fully cooled, wrap in cling film or store in some airtight container to keep the loaves fresh and soft. Tsoureki can keep for about a week or so.

And that’s how you make tsoureki! I enjoy eating mine sliced and always with lashings of butter and either apricot jam or nutella.

Other versions include: making a sugar glaze (icing sugar plus a drop of vanilla and 2 tbsp orange juice) and brushing the tsourekia once out of the oven (in this case don’t use flaked almonds); and rather than braiding, I lightly roll the dough out into rectangles, sprinkle/spread a filling containing chopped walnuts, chocolate, cinnamon, raisins or figs, butter, and moist brown sugar, (or an alternative filling with pistachios, candied pistachios, and butter) on it, then roll this into a log which I then either slice into 3-inch rolls or simply coil the log into a round bun. See photos for ideas.

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home-made pitta breads

 

Was watching Paul Hollywood make cypriot pitta breads on BBC and thought I’d make it with my own spin (basically the addition of chilli flakes)

Things to note: do keep an eye on them and check past the 5 minute point as they may be on the cusp of over-baking. I’d say make the dough more wet so that it’s slightly more hydrated when it hits the hot oven as they didn’t rise as much as I’d hoped.

Here’s his recipe in PDF form and in text below:

Ingredients

250g strong white flour

7g sachet instant yeast

20g nigella seeds or black onion seeds

1 tsp salt

160ml/51⁄2fl oz water

2 tsp olive oil, plus extra for kneading

1 tbsp chili flakes

Preparation method

1. In a bowl, mix together the flour, yeast, nigella seeds and salt. Add 120ml/4fl oz of the water and 11⁄2 teaspoons of oil. Using your fingers mix the ingredients together. Gradually add the remaining water and oil until all the flour has come away from the sides and you have a soft dough. (You may not need all the water; the dough should be soft and not sticky.)

2. Pour a little oil onto your work top. Place the dough on top and knead for 5-10 minutes. The dough will be wet in the beginning but will form a smooth dough once kneaded. Once a smooth dough is achieved, place it into a clean, oiled bowl. Cover and leave to prove until doubled in size.

3. Preheat the oven to 250C/475F/Gas 9 and place a clean baking tray or baking stone on the middle shelf.

4. When the dough has doubled in size, tip it out onto a work surface dusted with flour. Knock the dough back by folding it inwards over and over again until all the air is knocked out. Split the dough into 4-6 equally sized balls. Roll each ball into an oval shape 3-5mm thick. (NB., here I didn’t dust the surface – rather, I oiled it well for this step. This may have made the surface of the pitta too oily that when it hit the oven heat made it crisp up faster than dough had a chance to expand. One for me to experiment further next time.

5. Remove the hot tray from the oven, dust with flour and place the pitta breads on it. You may have to cook them in batches.

6. Bake for 5-10 minutes, or until they just start to colour. Remove them from the oven and cover with a clean cloth until they are cool.

 

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