Saturday 30 November 2013


Yesterday I had a go at making Ciabatta. This is something I have not done before.

Having mastered the art of baking a simple white Bloomer, thanks to Paul Hollywood's book "Bread", I have been feeling the need to move on to something a bit more ambitious. Jane was cooking a Lasagne for dinner, so I thought Ciabatta would be the perfect accompaniment. The challenge was on!

So, out with Hollywood's book again... I read the instructions through, several times over. They sounded reasonably straightforward, though Jane (who has done these things before) did warn me that Ciabatta is "quite tricky"...

Paul Hollywood's recipe calls for half of the flour, yeast and water to be mixed up into a batter and left to stand for 6 hours before the remaining ingredients are used, and then there is an additional 135 minutes' rising time later on, so this is not a bread to make when you are in a hurry! The reason that some of the ingredients are made into a batter (Hollywood calls it a "sponge") and left to ferment is to add flavour, and I can say with the benefit of hindsight that this was indeed a really tasty bread.

The fermenting batter or "sponge". Blup, blup, blup...

After the batter has had its 6 hours you then put it and the rest of the ingredients into a food-mixer and mix then all up until you have a nice stringy elastic dough. Hollywood says to give it 10-15 minutes in the mixer, but our food-processor doesn't have a really slow "kneading" setting, so I gave it about 6-7 minutes. When the dough reaches the right point (it should be able to stretch 30cm without breaking), it is put in an oiled, lidded plastic container and allowed to rise for another two hours. Then the tricky bit... (No photos of this, because my hands were well and truly full. And sticky).

The risen dough (about 10cm thick) is tipped out onto a floured surface (50% flour, 50% polenta) and divided into two long thin pieces, which are stretched even further to make the characteristic Ciabatta-shaped loaf. Well, that's the theory anyway. The dough is very wet and sticky, and I found it very hard to shape. In the end I managed to get an approximation of two Ciabatta loaves onto a floured baking tray and put them inside a big plastic bag to preserve humidity during their final rising (15 minutes). During this time the oven is heated to 220C.

The loaves getting their final 15 minutes' rising

Then into the oven to bake...

The recipe says 30 minutes, but mine were ready in not much over 20. I think this is because they were flatter than desirable. I'm sure this is due to the dough being a bit wetter (and hence more mobile) than it should have been. I turned mine over for the last 5 minutes, to brown the undersides too - we like bread "Well Done". This is the end result:

The nearest one doesn't look too bad, though the furthest one is a bit wonky. Still, as they say "the proof of the pudding is in the eating", so as soon as the bread was cool enough to do so, we had a little taste:

The taste was very good - full of flavour - and the texture was better than I had dared to hope. The classic Ciabatta has lots of big holes in it, caused by the air-bubbles in the dough, so I reckon mine probably scored about 7 out of 10 in this respect. I was also proud of the crust. Despite the deep golden colour it was crispy but not hard. This is something that is improved by putting a roasting-dish full of boiling water in the bottom of the oven (as I did ) to create steam during the cooking.

I expect Paul Hollywood would find plenty to criticise in my results, but all in all, I am well satisfied. The main thing is we enjoyed eating the bread. I am also happy that my bread-baking repertoire has now officially expanded by 100%!

Thursday 28 November 2013

Shades of Autumn

It is very much the end of the year in my garden. There is hardly any veg left. Parsnips and Cavolo Nero are currently being harvested "on demand"; there are a few more Brussels Sprouts to come; the last few chillies; plenty of Parsley still; a couple of Lettuces... Otherwise, that's about it. The Chicories are not ready yet, and the PSB will not mature for another couple of months. This doesn't mean to say that there is nothing of interest in the garden, though. You just have to look more carefully for it.

The "Christmas Bell" chillis are incredibly slow to ripen. All the leaves on the plant have shrivelled up - most have fallen - but the fruits are stubbornly green. Well, OK, maybe a little bit reddish now, but certainly not red.

Chilli "Christmas Bell"

The Callicarpa is putting on a good show though. It has loads of berries this year.

Callicarpa, aka "Beauty Bush"

The white rose (variety unknown) is still producing one or two blooms. Where I have missed the odd one when dead-heading, some quite big rose-hips have formed, which are beautiful in their own right.


The shrivelled black berries of the Hypericum are also quite striking in a macabre sort of way. I wonder whether the birds will eat them?

Hypericum berries

I'm definitely leaving these Marjoram seedheads for the birds. I have seen Goldfinches tucking in to them in the past.

Marjoram seed-heads

Marjoram seed-head

The Dogwood shrubs have lost almost all their leaves now, and the colour of their stems is beginning to be more apparent:


I think this last photo epitomises the time of year quite nicely:

Maple leaf suspended on Dogwood stems

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Pheasant breasts in Calvados cream sauce

At the Farmers' Market this time, we bought (amongst other things) this pack of four skinless, boneless Pheasant breasts. At £5 for just over 450grams of high-quality meat, I thought this represented very good value, and game such as pheasant is at its best at this time of year.

This meat formed the basis for a scrumptious meal: pan-fried Pheasant breasts with Cavolo Nero, in a creamy Calvados sauce, served with Potato, Celeriac and Leek boulangere.

This is how I did it...

Ingredients  (serves 2)
For the main dish:
4 skinned and boned pheasant breasts (approx 450g)
250ml cream (We always use a cream substitute, Elmlea, because it is more stable)
1 shallot, peeled and finely diced
1 tablespoon vegetable oil, for frying
10 leaves Cavolo Nero, de-veined and torn into small pieces
2 tablespoons Calvados (apple brandy)
Parsley for garnishing, chopped finely.

For the boulangere:
350g potatoes, peeled and thickly sliced
Approx 350g Celeriac, peeled and sliced
1 large Leek, cleaned and sliced
1 litre stock
25g butter
Start the boulangere about 90 minutes before serving-time.
Heat the stock to boiling-point.
Layer the sliced vegetables into a shallow ovenproof dish, with a layer of potatoes on the top; season with salt and pepper and add enough stock to cover the veg.
Cover with foil, place in oven and cook at medium heat (approx 150C) for about 60 mins, or until tender.
Add a little boiling water if the stock reduces too much.
Temporarily remove from oven, discard the foil and dot the top layer of veg with small knobs of butter.
Return the dish to the oven for approx 30 mins, during which time the buttery potatoes will brown.

Approximately 10 minutes before serving-time...
In a large frying-pan, gently soften the diced shallot in the vegetable oil.
Add the pheasant breasts and cook for approx 7 minutes, turning occasionally. [Less if the breasts are small or sliced thinly.]
Pour in the cream / Elmlea and bring to the boil.
Add the Cavolo Nero and cook for a further minute or two, during which time the Cavolo Nero will wilt.

Turn the heat right down, add the Calvados, and stir in until fully incorporated.
Season with salt and pepper.
Serve, garnishing with chopped Parsley:

I'm afraid my photo of the finished dish doesn't do it justice! It looks too messy. I'm always in too much of a hurry to get stuck in and eat what I have cooked. I could arrange it prettily and make it look photogenic, but...

Seriously, the meal really did work well, and there was so much of it. The pheasant breasts were a lot bigger than I had expected. To be honest, one each would have been plenty, but we had two! That £5-worth of meat could have fed four people quite comfortably. I felt that the addition of the Calvados made the creamy sauce just that little bit more special too. I think perhaps if I made this dish again I would add some segments of dessert apple, caramelised to give them some colour. Another appropriate finishing touch would have been a spoonful of Cranberry sauce, or maybe some of my homemade Hedgerow Jelly.

Monday 25 November 2013

Harvest Monday - 25 November 2013

This is my weekend harvest basket (with the days being so short I haven't been able to do any harvesting or gardening during the week).

Stars of the basket were the Parsnips. Although the five roots varied in size a lot, I think three of them were very respectable. The biggest one weighed just over 300 grams. And no wierd shapes this time, either!

The head of  Broccoli was quite nice too - not big, because "Matsuri" is a miniature variety, but it tasted good (made into Broccoli and Stilton soup).

The Cavolo Nero is doing well this year. The leaves developing now are smaller than the earlier ones, but they are very clean, with very little insect damage. I'm picking individual leaves rather than whole heads, which spins out the crop for a lot longer.

Unusually for me I have a fair bit of nice Parsley on the go at present, so I'm using it as often as possible.

This is what the Parsnips looked like after being washed:

Now, I wonder if we have any goose fat in the fridge... Parsnips roasted in goose fat are SO delicious!

Sunday 24 November 2013

Broccoli and Stilton soup

An old favourite! I thought this would be a fitting way to use my recently-harvested "Matsuri" broccoli. One head of broccoli (especially a miniature one like "Matsuri") doesn't make much of a meal on its own, so I bulked it up with a head of calabrese from our weekly Abel and Cole veg box.

Miniature broccoli "Matsuri"

In this soup, the broccoli is paired with one of England's best, and most well-known, cheeses - Stilton. This is a fairly hard, salty blue cheese ideal for adding flavour and texture to a soup.

Here's my recipe (I'm sure there are many other ones like it!)

Two small heads of broccoli, including peeled stems, cut into large pieces.
One onion, peeled and chopped.
Approx 30g Stilton cheese, rind removed, chopped into 1cm pieces.
Half a litre of stock (vegetable or chicken).
Approx 25ml vegetable oil.

Cook the broccoli in a pan of water, until just tender (approx 3 minutes).
Drain the broccoli and set aside.
Using the same pan (rinsed), soften the onion in a little vegetable oil until translucent but not brown.
Add the stock and bring to the boil; simmer for approx 5 minutes to ensure onions are fully cooked.
Turn off heat and allow the pan to cool for a few minutes.
Place the broccoli in a food-processor and add the onion + stock mixture.
Blend until desired texture is reached (I don't like mine too smooth).
Return mixture to pan and reheat gently for a few minutes.
Turn off the heat.
Add the cheese and allow to slowly melt in the residual heat, stirring occasionally.

At serving time, reheat soup and season to taste. Serve accompanied by crusty bread. Your soup will look something like this:

Unfortunately, during cooking the broccoli loses some of its vibrant green colour, and the cheese tones down the colour as well, but what this soup lacks in colour it makes up for in taste. 


Saturday 23 November 2013

A different way to roast lamb

I am very partial to a nice leg of roast lamb, but I was looking for a way to cook it that was something other than plain roast. This is what I came up with.

I started with a piece of leg meat that had been "butterflied". This means that the bone has been removed, making a flatter, wider joint. The piece that I bought was actually quite thick, more like the cut known as "rump". I cut it into two pieces, for easier serving, and then marinated it for about four hours in a marinade made from chopped Garlic, Rosemary and Thyme bound together with some vegetable oil:

The meat marinating
I then arranged the meat on a rack above a roasting-tin filled with potatoes, onions and Flageolet Beans covered with stock. This meant that as the meat cooked (25 minutes per 500g plus 25 minutes - at 190C), juices from it dripped down into the dish below, producing a lovely flavoursome gravy. Making gravy often means a last-minute panic just when you need to be carving meat and dishing-up vegetables, but my dish avoids all that.

I did find though that since I needed to use quite a lot of stock to keep the potatoes mostly submerged the gravy came out fairly thin, and at the last minute I thickened it with some slaked cornflower. Other than that, the dish turned out just as I had hoped it would:

Although the skin was nice and crisp, the meat stayed really moist and tender. I think this may have been partially due to the fact that the stock produced a fair bit of steam. And I just love the combination of creamy beans and soft potatoes infused with lamb-ey juices! I served the dish with some broccoli just to add a bit of colour, but I have to say that the broccoli was definitely a minor element of this meal.

Friday 22 November 2013

Making chilli powder

Some of you may have read what I wrote the other day about making smoked paprika. Now I have done a similar thing to produce some unsmoked paprika / chilli powder.

Over the last few months I have been accumulating a stash of chillis and sweet peppers in a basket in the airing-cupboard. Most of them had dried out completely, so I judged it to be the right moment to make some chilli powder. Actually, even the chillis were mostly pretty mild in heat terms this year, so the powder is somewhere between a hot paprika and a mild chilli powder.

The majority of the chillis in that batch were "Cyclon", "Sumher" and "Cayenne". I think the "Cayenne" was the hottest of the three, and "Cyclon" the mildest, with hardly any heat at all - effectively a sweet pepper.

Not all of the chillis were completely dry, so I have put them back in the airing-cupboard for a bit longer. They don't grind well if they are not crispy.

I ground the dry ones into a coarse powder, using our spice-grinder aka coffee-grinder. That trayful of chillis produced this amount of powder:

I didn't weigh it before putting it in a jar, but it looks like about 5 or 6 times as much as the batch of smoked paprika I made, which weighed 25g, so this is probably 125 - 150g. It filled half a jam-jar.

Jane says it looks very like the Kashmiri chilli powder, which is noted for its vibrant clour, not for its heat. Yes, it's certainly vibrant! It should add some nice colour to a curry or goulash.

Thursday 21 November 2013

More fungi

I know next-to-nothing about wild fungi, but I like photographing them. On the other side of the road to our house there is a patch of spare ground shaded by Silver Birch and Scots Pine trees. It is a place where lots of fungi grow. This week there has been a sudden flurry of new arrivals.

These ones have appeared in a number of lines, each several metres long:

Initially, when the young ones push up through the grass and leaf litter they are almost spherical, a bit like puffballs

They then gradually open out, a bit like an umbrella or parasol.

The undersides of the mature ones are dark brown and deeply ribbed.

I am certainly not going to risk eating any of these without a positive identification, but does anyone recognise them?

I also saw a few of these, which appear to be a different type:

There were only a few specimens of this type and they all had a distinctive concave cap. They were also a more yellow/cream colour than the other type descibed above, which was a greyish brown.

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Autumn sunshine

Just recently we have had one or two really classic Autumn days, with clear blue skies and bright sunshine, frosty first thing in the morning, but in the absence of any significant wind, very pleasant. Good conditions for photography too!

Callicarpa berries

Curly Endive

Frost-covered Cavolo Nero


Cotinus - with a dusting of frost

We were driving through the country lanes on Saturday, and everything looked really nice in the sunshine. The beech trees are especially impressive just now, with bright golden leaves. The leaves have been very slow to fall this year. By the end of November I would have expected the trees to be practically bare, but this year they are not.

The Maple tree in my garden still has a fair few leaves on it, but lots of them are accumulating in various corners:

Somewhere underneath those leaves is my miniature pond. I do try to remove a pile of leaves every few days to try to make sure that there is water available for the local wildlife.