Virginia Woolf Bakes Bread

woolf

As I spend most of my time in the kitchen these days. I find I listen to a heck of a lot of radio (and have less time for blog posts!). This morning, a programme called ‘In Our Time’ presented by the broadcasting legend Melvyn Bragg, was on BBC Radio 4 which discussed the 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Here’s a link to that very episode.

in our time

I happen to know that was as good a bread-maker as she was a novelist.

She used an oil cooker, called the Florence, and with it tutored her maid and cook to bake cottage loaves (a loaf I have never attempted as it appears to be of difficulty 10). Her cook, called Louise Mayer, recounts in the book Recollections of Virginia Woolf:

She liked trying to cook…but I always felt that she did not want to give time to cooking and referred to be in her room working.

But there was one thing in the kitchen that Mrs Woolf was very good at doing: she could make beautiful bread. The first thing she asked me when I went to Monks House was if I knew how to make it. I told her that I had made some for my family, but I was not expert at it. “I will come into the kitchen Louie” she said “and show you how to do it. We have always made our own bread.” I was surprised how complicated the process was and how accurately Mrs Woolf carried it out. She showed me how to make the dough with the right quantities of yeast and flour, and then how to knead it. She returned three or four times during the morning to knead it again. Finally, she made the dough into the shape of a cattage loaf and baked it at just the right temperature. I would say that Mrs Woolf was not a practical person – for instance, she could not sew or knit or drive a car – but this was a job needing practical skill which she was able to do well every time. It took me many weeks to be as good as Mrs Woof at making bread, but I went to great lengths practising and in the end, I think, I beat her at it.

Virginia gave Louise Mayer a top baking tip that I always use if it is possible; and that is to bake bread in a cold oven. The gradual heat increase gives you a really impressive rise before the outside crust develops, hampering it.

So there you go, a little window into the enigmatic lady’s life, which I thought might be of interest to you…

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Favourite Cook Books no. 2: Good Things by Jane Grigson

good things

This is not a manual of cookery, but a book about enjoying food. Few of the recipes in it will contribute much to the repertoire of those who like to produce dinner for 6 in 30 minutes flat. I think food, its quality, its origins, its preparation, is something to be studied and thought about in the same way as any other aspect of human existence.

Jane Grigson, introduction to Good Things, 1970

Good Things was Jane Grigson second book and was published in 1971. Although she is known for her later extensive and very comprehensive writings, this is relatively brief.

All of Jane Grigson books are wonderful, and this book is no different: logical, creative, witty and sometimes austere, she weaves a tapestry of each ingredient’s culinary potential; and this is why the book is so great, for each chapter focusses upon a single main ingredient. She shows you just how inventive humans can be with a single ingredient and how it should be savoured in its seasonality to be fully appreciated; something we no longer do. This book has spurred me on in my own efforts to be seasonal. Take, for example, the chapter on celery – a vegetable that we generally either add to the stockpot or crunch on in a boring salad – she says:

The fine pleasure of buying celery in earthy heads, after the first improving frosts of winter, is slowly being eroded by the wash of enterprise and aviation. Almost the year round, cleaned and slightly flabby greenish celery…is on sale at inviting prices. It’s the wise cook who averts her eyes from this profuse and plastic display and waits for November. Then crispness and flavour are at their peak …In any case one of the greatest luxuries you can have in Britain today is simple food of the best quality.’

She then goes onto her first recipe which consists of celery stalks, good Normandy butter and sea salt. This is the genius of Good Things, you are being shown how good something can be if prepared properly, grown skilfully and eaten seasonality and sensibly; essentially Jane is teaching us how to eat.

(NB, click here for a post of my own on the humble celery stick).

Every chapter also perfectly reflects Jane’s own lifestyle; spending half her time between England and France, with a smattering of recipes from other European countries. It really showed how she lived her life, though I can imagine her family got a little sick of some of the focal ingredients when she was recipe testing.

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Sweetbreads: a Jane Grigson – and Neil Buttery – favourite

So what did she pick? Some are probably quite obvious such as venison, asparagus, woodland mushrooms, strawberries and ice creams; others are common and, perhaps, overlooked, like celery, kippers, tomatoes and carrots; whilst some were becoming forgotten or seemed obscure, ones that leap to mind are snails, quince, sweetbreads and fruit liqueurs. Jane’s gift to me is a love of such foods that I never would have sought out, that has demonstrated to me just how good, exciting and varied British food can be, as well as how its history is interlinked inextricably with other countries’ food histories.

Sweetbread Pie

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I think this recipe best sums up the essence and ethos of Good Things; it uses a delicious but forgotten meat cut, is French but you would think it quintessentially English. She discovered it in the charcuterie of a small town in Burgandy and it was the most expensive pâté in the shop. She made it into a pie, a pie so good it made it on my last Pop-Up Restaurant menu. The recipe requires you prepare some sweetbreads – if you’ve never eaten or prepared sweetbreads, have a look at this previous post all about them. In a nutshell, you poach them briefly in a light chicken or vegetable stock, or court-bouillon. For a post on stock-making click here. I am so self-referential these days! If you can’t get as much as the 500g given in the recipe, then use whatever you can get your hands on. I expect it would be excellent even with the sweetbreads omitted altogether!

I have changed only her Imperial weights and measures so that they are metricated…

For the pastry:

300g plain flour

150g of butter and lard

1 tbs icing sugar

water to bind

For the filling:

500g prepared lambs’ or calves’ sweetbreads

125g mushrooms, roughly chopped

2 tbs onion, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, crushed

75g butter

350g lean pork, or veal and pork mixed

225g hard back pork fat

2 rashers green (i.e. unsmoked) back bacon

2 eggs

heaped tbs flour

125g cream

salt, pepper and thyme.

‘Make the pastry in the usual way’, says Jane. I mean to write a post on pastry-making, I shall endeavour to do so soon. Whilst it rests in the fridge, cut up the sweetbreads into even-sized pieces, then cook the mushrooms onions and garlic in the butter, until softened but not brown. Next, make the forcemeat by mincing the pork and veal, if using, the back fat and the bacon through the course and then fine blades. Mix in the eggs, flour, cream and the mushroom mixture. Season with salt and pepper and add a good sprinkle of chopped thyme.

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Line a 450g loaf tin (an old 1 lb tin) with 2 thirds of the pastry. Spread over one third of the mixture over the base of the tin, then a layer of half of the sweetbreads, then a second third of the forcemeat, then the remaining sweetbreads, and lastly the final third of the pork mixture.

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Seal the pie with a lid, brush with egg wash and bake for 90 minutes in a moderate oven – around 180⁰C.

‘Serve warm’, she says, but it is also very good at room temperature. It keeps very well in the fridge if wrapped up tightly in foil or clingfilm.

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Filed under baking, Books, Britain, cooking, food, General, Meat, Recipes, Uncategorized

Yorkshire Curd Tart

Ah, Yorkshire. God’s Own Country and my home county (well, it’s 3 counties technically, but let’s not worry about that now). There are many delicious regional recipes to be found there, but this must be the best: Yorkshire curd tart. For some very strange reason it hasn’t really ever made its way out of Yorkshire. Essentially it is a baked cheesecake – something that Britain isn’t considered famous for, yet if you delve into the old cook books, you’ll find loads of recipes for them. The cheese in question here is, of course, curd cheese which is sweetened with sugar, and mixed with currants, allspice and sometimes rosewater.

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Now a few guiding words on the making of a curd tart: no matter what you read, and I want to be very clear on this, cottage cheese cannot be used. It must be curd cheese which is very different in taste and texture to cottage cheese. These days it is difficult to get your hands on it, but it is very easy to make yourself, as you’ll see below. Also, the only spice to be used must be ground allspice (or clove-pepper as it used to be called in Yorkshire). Not cinnamon, not nutmeg, and certainly not mixed spice. Another misconception is that lemon curd is spread on the pastry base of the tart. Well it’s not, Mr Michelin Guide. Lastly, and as already mentioned, it’s a kind of cheesecake, and not some kind of custard tart as some people seem to think (Mr Paul Hollywood, I’m looking at you).

Ok. Good. Glad we got those issues out of the way.

Curd tarts were traditionally made around Whitsuntide from left-over curds from the cheese-making process and seem to originate in the early-to-mid 17th century. Most families kept their own cow in those days. For those of you that don’t know (and who does?), Whitsuntide derives from the words White Sunday which is our name for Pentecost, which, if my memory serves me correctly, is the seventh Sunday after Easter. The important thing is that there’s a Bank Holiday the next day and a whole week off for half term for the schoolkids.

In dairy farms with several cows, special curd tarts would be made after the cows had calved, using the cows’ colostrum to make the curd for the tarts. Colostrum is the milk produced straight after a mammal gives birth. It is particularly rich in nutrients and fat, and is yellowish in colour. I’ve always thought of this as a bit mean of the dairy farmer’s wife, but then again, she’d also have to tuck into umbilical cord pie the next day, so I suppose it evens out.

To Make Curd Cheese

It’s really easy to make your own curd cheese. All you need is some gold top Channel Island milk, some rennet, salt, and some muslin or other cloth to drain the whey from the curds; I have used an old pillowcase in the past with much success.

Rennet is an enzyme that curdles milk. In the old days a piece of a freshly-slaughtered male calf’s stomach lining would have been popped into the milk (as still occurs in the production of some non-vegetarian cheeses). These days with the magic of science, we can produce it from bacterial culture.

This recipe makes around 750g curd cheese.

In a saucepan, warm a litre of Channel Island milk to 37⁰C, also termed ‘blood-heat’. Use a thermometer if you like. Pour the milk into a dish or bowl and stir in half a teaspoon of salt and your rennet. Follow the instructions on the bottle to see how much to add, as different brands vary. Stir it in, along with half a teaspoon of salt.

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Leave the milk to stand for 10 or 15 minutes. Upon your return, you’ll see that the milk had gone all wobbly and can be easily – and satisfyingly – broken into curds.

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Scald your straining cloth with water straight from the kettle, spread it out over a bowl so the edges hang over, and then pour in your curds and whey. Tie up the cloth with string and hang up the cheese above the bowl to strain for 4 or 5 hours. Hey presto! You have made curd cheese. It keeps for several days covered in the fridge.

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To Make a Yorkshire Curd Tart

Here’s the recipe I use which is based on the one that appears in Jane Grigson’s English Food. It makes enough filling for one 10 inch diameter tart tin, though you can make several small ones if you prefer. The recipe only requires 250g of cheese, so if you’re making your own, you might want to adjust the quantities in the recipe above, or just make three tarts.

The tart is not overly sweet and has a lovely soft centre and a golden brown colour.

125g salted butter

60g caster sugar

250g curd cheese

125g raisins

pinch of salt

2 eggs, beaten

¼ to ½ tsp ground allspice

1 tsp rosewater (optional).

blind-baked 10 inch shortcrust pastry shell (made or bought)

First of all, cream together the butter and sugar well, then mix in the cheese, raisins, salt and eggs. Season to taste with the allspice and rosewater.

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Pour the filling into the pastry shell and bake for 25 to 30 minutes at 220⁰C. Cool on a rack.

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Filed under baking, Britain, cooking, Dairy, Desserts, food, General, history, Puddings, Recipes

Spotted Dick

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It’s been a while since I wrote a post on a good old British steamed pudding, and this is one of my all-time favourites. Spotted Dick is a great pudding because it lies somewhere in between a suet pudding and a sponge pudding and is borne of that period of prolific pudding invention: the Victorian Era.

If British puddings are new to you, I’ve already written a couple of posts on the history of puddings (the first one here, and the second one here).

If you’ve never heard of Spotted Dick, it is a spongy steamed pudding that contains suet instead of butter. It is only slightly sweet and flavoured delicately with lemon. The spots on the Spotted Dick come from currants. You don’t want a pudding that is too sweet, the sweetness – I believe – should come from the currants and the custard that must be served with it (for a custard recipe, click here).

For some unknown and crazy reason, Spotted Dick doesn’t appear in my favourite cook book of all, English Food by Jane Grigson (to see why it’s my favourite, see my other blog).

Now for the big question: who the heck is Dick?

The pud is first mentioned in a book from the 1850s by the famous Chef Alexis Soyer called The Modern Housewife, or, Ménagère. Alexis Soyer was the first celebrity chef and he deserves a whole post just to himself! He mentions Spotted Dick in passing when listing a typical week’s meals during tougher times. This was Tuesday’s dinner:

Tuesday. – Broiled Beef and Bones, Vegetables, and Spotted Dick Pudding’

The ‘Dick’ in Spotted Dick seems to come from the shortened Old English names for pudding: puddog or puddick. In Scotland it is often called Spotted Dog Pudding.

Spotted Dick is a very simple pudding to make; it can be steamed in a basin or be rolled out like a sausage and covered in buttered foil and then steamed. Sometimes it takes the form of a roly-poly pudding with the currants and some brown sugar making the filling. Personally, I prefer to use a basin.

Anyways, here’s the recipe:

For a 2 pint pudding basin, that serves 6 to 8 people:

300g plain flour

10g baking powder

150g beef suet (fresh or packet)

75g caster sugar

100g currants

Zest 2 lemons

225-250ml milk

butter, for greasing

In a bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, suet, sugar, currants and lemons. Add the milk, mixing slowly until all is incorporated. You’re looking for a mixture of dropping consistency.

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Liberally butter a 2 pint pudding basin and spoon in the mixture. Cover with a lid. It’s easiest to buy a plastic basin with a fitted lid. If you’re using a glass or porcelain basin, make a lid from a double sheet of pleated foil and secure with string. It is worth making a foil or string handle for the pudding so that you can get the basin out of the steamer safely.

Place in a steamer and steam for 2 hours. Make sure there’s a good brisk boil for the first 20 minutes and then turn the heat down to medium-low. If you don’t have a steamer, simply place an upturned saucer in the base of a deep saucepan and pour over it boiling water straight from the kettle. Gingerly place in the pudding.

Turn out the pudding onto a serving plate and serve immediately with plenty of custard.

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Filed under baking, Britain, cooking, Desserts, food, General, history, Nineteenth Century, Puddings, Recipes, The Victorians, Uncategorized

Wassail!

Wassail

Wassail! Wassail! all over the town,

Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;

Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;

With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee.

A Gloucestershire Wassail, dating to the Middle Ages.

Yesterday was the 6th of January, the final feast day of Christmas, the day of epiphany, Twelfth Night. Down in the counties of South-West and South-East England a very old and special ceremony takes place in the apple orchards; the Wassail was a way to celebrate the end of Christmas and to bless the trees so that they will bear plenty of fruit for the cider. It was a time of celebration and merry-making. All of this happened at dusk, a magical time of day, where the world faeries and spirits overlapped with the world of Man. In different parts of England, the day upon which the Wassail occurs changes: some celebrate it on the 5th of January (the Eve of Epiphany), and others on the 17th of January (this is day Twelfth Night would occur before the Introduction of the Gregorian Calendar, “Old Twelfthy Night”, as it was called).

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A blurry, dusky Levenshulme Community Choir leading our Wassail

For the Wassail ceremony a Wassail King and Queen are nominated who lead the other revellers a merry dance around the trees. In the largest trees, the Queen is lifted into the boughs so she can spear pieces of toast that have been soaked in Wassail punch (I’ll get to that in a moment or two) as an offering to the tree spirits of the orchard. As folk dance about the trees, other run around banging pots and pans to drive out the evil spirits.

Wassailing predates the Battle of Hastings and is thought to have its origins in Ancient Rome, where people would make sacrifices to the Pomona, the Roman Goddess of Fruits. The word Wassail originates from the Anglo-Saxon waes-hael, meaning “to your health” and the word is used just as we would use Cheers! today. Below is one telling of its origins by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 1135 book History of the Kings of Britain:

While Vortigern was being entertained at a royal banquet, the girl Renwein came out of an inner room carrying a golden goblet full of wine. She walked up to the King, curtsied low, and said “Lavert King, was hail!” When he saw the girl’s face, Vortigern was greatly struck by her beauty and was filled with desire for her. He asked his interpreter what it was that the girl had said and what he ought to reply to her. “She called you Lord King and did you honour by drinking your health. What you should reply is ‘drinc hail.'” Vortigern immediately said the words “drinc hail” and ordered Renwein to drink. Then he took the goblet from her hand, kissed her and drank in his turn. From that day to this, the tradition has endured in Britain that the one who drinks first at a banquet says “was hail” and he who drinks next says “drinc hail.”

I was lucky enough to go to a Wassail in Levenshulme in Manchester, which is not in the south of England, but the north. In Levenshulme there is a lovely community orchard, and it should be blessed just like any other. It was a great evening and really interesting to see just a glimpse of old England. If you have apple – or any fruit – trees, they why not have a Wassail. Indeed anything that needed blessing could wassailed like other crops like barley and livestock. Of course you’ll need to make some wassail to drink…

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Spiking the trees with toast offerings

The drink wassail is essentially a hot mulled cider or ale, sweetened with sugar and made aromatic with spices and made much boozier with sherry, brandy or sack (a sweet, fortified ale similar in taste to sherry) and sometimes thickened with eggs. An essential ingredient in the wassail drink is roasted apples, which would quickly burst and fall apart, giving wassail its alternative name ‘lamb’s wool’. Also floating on the surface would be plenty of toast.

The hot wassail is poured into a large carved wooden bowl and it is passed around the crowd so that everyone can take a good mouthful, raise it above their head and shout “Wassail!”. It is because of this celebration, we “raise a toast” when having drinks.

Two Wassail Recipes

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Here’s a recipe dating from 1722 that appears in the excellent book Food in England by Dorothy Squires:

Take 1 lb. of brown sugar, 1 pint of hot beer, a grated nutmeg, and a large lump of preserved ginger root cut up. Add 4 glasses of sherry, and stir well. When cold, dilute with 5 pints of cold beer, spread suspicion of yeast on to hot slices of toasted bread, and let it stand covered for several hours. Bottle off and seal down, and in a few days it should be bursting the corks, when it should be poured out into the wassail bowl, and served with hot, roasted apples floating in it.

I liked that it is diluted with beer! What brew it must have been.

Below is my rather pared down recipe for wassail:

Ingredients:

4 to 6 apples

3 litres of good cider

6 cinnamon sticks

dark rum, to taste

soft dark brown sugar, to taste

around 500ml of water

toast (optional)

Prepare the apples; cut around them a circle halfway down, this stops them bursting when cooking, place on a tray and bake in a moderate oven until they have begun to collapse, around 30 minutes. Whilst you wait for the oven to do its job, pour the cider into a large pan with the cinnamon stick, at least 3 generous tablespoons of sugar and 250ml of rum and half of the water. Bring to a simmer and add more sugar and rum, and dilute accordingly with more water. Lastly, for tradition’s sake, atop with slices of toast.

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Filed under Christmas, Festivals, food, Fruit, General, history, Recipes

Fruit Curds Revisited

 

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By recent request, I have written another post on fruit curds. I have come up with several more recipes since I wrote the original post and they all originate from a common source; a single recipe that pops up in River Cottage Handbook No.2: Preserves by Pam ‘the Jam’ Corbin. This is a truly excellent book (as are all the RC Handbooks), that deserves a post of its own as part of my rather irregular Favourite Cookbooks series.

Anyway, this recipe is the best I’ve come across, it is for lemon and Bramley apple curd – and it is ripe for modification. Apple purée is used, giving a great texture, making a light nicely-set curd that needs less sugar than your typical lemon curd. Below is the original recipe that I have only very slightly tweaked, and then there is a few more: blood orange, spiced orange and pink grapefruit.

Lemon and Bramley Apple Curd

This recipe makes around 1200ml of curd.

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500g Bramley apple curd, peeled, cored and chopped

150ml water

Zest and juice of 2 lemons

125g butter, cubed

350-400g granulated sugar

5 medium eggs

Put the apples and water in a small saucepan, cover and simmer until the apples break down into a purée. When cooked, put them into a large glass mixing bowl with all of the remaining ingredients except the eggs. Mix together – the heat of apples will dissolve the sugar and begin to melt the butter – and place the bowl atop a pan of briskly simmering water, making sure the water doesn’t touch the base of the bowl.

Whisk the eggs well and pass them through a sieve straight into the mixture, stirring them in well. Keep an eye on things and stir the curd frequently until it thickens; it doesn’t require constant stirring, but don’t be going off and dusting the sills. If you want to be scientific about it, eggs thicken at around 80⁰C, but temperatures of 75⁰C and above will thicken the curd sufficiently. Taste and add more sugar if liked – remembering that cold curd will taste much less sweet than hot curd.

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Pot in sterilised jars (25 minutes in a 125⁰C oven does the trick), cool and refrigerate. The curd will keep for 5 weeks.

Some variations

You can pretty much use any fruit juice you like, but you always need a little bit of lemon to add bite as well as to take advantage of its flavour enhancing properties.

Blood orange curd: as above but use the juice and zest of one lemon and two blood oranges.

Spiced orange curd: use the juice and zest of two lemons and two oranges, along with half a teaspoon of mixed spice. When the curd has thickened, add two teaspoons of orange flower water.

Pink grapefruit curd: use the juice and zest one lemon and two pink grapefruits.

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Forgotten Foods #4: Cock Beer

cockerel

Recently I have been thinking of re-igniting my interest in home-brewing. Previous attempts to make alcohol have never been successful. I have made white wine that tasted of rotten eggs, and made dandelion wine that, when bottled, exploded spectacularly in my lounge. Now I have a couple of books that spell out the process, and I am a little more confident that I can do it.

Naturally I have been hitting the old cookbooks for some historical inspiration and came across this recipe for cock-beer. In this recipe from 1780, you essentially make a giant cock tea-bag to impart its essence into your brewing beer:

Take 10 gallons ale, a large cock (the older the better). Slay, caw and gut him, and stamp him in a stone mortar. Add spice and put all in a canvas bag. Lower him into the ale while still working [i.e. fermenting]. Finish working and bottle.

That is actually a toned down receipt – many times live cockerels were used. Goodness knows how people didn’t die. Perhaps they did!

It doesn’t stop at cocks in beer, oh no, in Cornwall sheep’s blood – hot from the slaughter – was added to cider; and what did it taste like? According to Andrew Boorde, the 16th Century physician and traveller: “[it] is stark nought, looking whyte and thicke as pygges had wrastled in it.”

There were many tales of men’s heads being thrown into the hogshead along with the beer, and perhaps they weren’t just tales, because the cockerel wasn’t added to the beer for flavour (I suspect that the spices were added to mask the flavour of the bird). The idea is that the animal’s strength, courage and vigour would be imparted into the brew. So these beers were in fact more remedies than proper drinks.

King William III

William III: Cock Beer Lover

That said, two brave brewers called Chris Thomas and Adam Cusick, brewed a batch from this very recipe, obviously with a certain amount of interpretation. They did welch a little bit by using a cooked chicken. However a delicious ale was produced that was mellow and ‘shared distinct similarities with a strong Belgian ale’. Apparently, William III’s drink of choice was cock beer, and it has been noted several times through the centuries for its superior quality.

My gut feeling is that is must be foul (no pun intended), yet it gets all this praise. Well, when I become a seasoned brewer of beer, I might just give it a go.

One last thing:tantalisingly, it has been suggested that the word cocktail (a work whose origin is famously unknown) comes from cock-ale. O how I wish it was true.

 

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