Semolina bread with sesame seeds

Fridge-retarded, fan oven-baked second loaf.

I first had a semolina flour-based bread encrusted with sesame seeds when I lived in Chapel Hill, NC, in the early ’90s, from a store soon bought by Whole Foods called Wellspring Grocery. (The less said about my feelings about Whole Foods the better.) Fast forward to 2007, to the New York Times/Bittman/Lahey no-knead bread craze, as a result of which I realized I could make decent bread after a lifetime of thinking I merely hadn’t inherited a gene for it. Not only was my bread decent, I found I could play around with the flours and the coatings and still succeed; sesame-semolina (the link takes you to my old, inactive food blog) was my first creative triumph with this loaf. It had a crisp yet tender crust, and a moist, tasty crumb.

And now, another 4 years later, Joanna of Zeb Bakes lays her hands on some proper Italian flour with a lovely name, semola di grano duro rimacinata – finely ground durum semolina flour, grabs a levain-based semolina bread recipe from Jeffrey Hamelman’s Bread, and produces the gorgeous loaf (as well as terrific ciabatta!) that you can see here.

As the kids say, I am so there. Forgive my crappy pics, and the fact that I cut into the loaf with a substandard knife, before it was completely cool. Joanna’s loaf has a nice, crusty ear to the slashes that mine didn’t, and while mine was rounded on the bottom, I wouldn’t say it had optimum spring. I think I have to blame this – again – on my thin <1 cm) pizza stone, which I swear stays at a lower temp than the rest of the oven; I get springier and more evenly cooked bread and pizza on an M&S nonstick tin. Tonight, I’m simply removing the damn thing. Anyway, the pics:

I should’ve taken a pic of the shaping and how I got the seeds on, but let’s see if I can describe it. After the bulk prove, I made a tight boule shape with the dough (half of it, putting aside the rest for another loaf). I spread out a tea towel on a baking sheet and sprinkled a generous, even layer of sesame seeds on it. Then I picked up the boule, cupping the bottom or seam side in my hand, and rolled the smooth, top side of the boule around on the seeds. I gathered up the boule and seeds in the tea towel and plopped the whole thing in a medium-sized mixing bowl, sprinkling and pressing more seeds around the seam side (still facing up). I left the whole thing in the bowl to prove, and covered the bowl with cling film.

We enjoyed half of the loaf with some spicy Moroccan vegetable stew with Merguez sausage; the bread was a nice change from couscous, which we never seem to finish.

The loaves above proved 2 hours. I have left the somewhat larger portion to prove overnight in the fridge, and I’ll bake that tomorrow morning; it’s intended for some friends we’re visiting over the weekend.

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Bagels, part 2

We’re getting close now. This recipe is worth trying, and making your own. Made with very strong flour and less water, they’re chewier inside, retaining a crispy crust when fresh. Relative to my earlier recipe, based on that of Jo Goldenberg of Paris, these are less sweet. I also tried malt syrup in the dough as well as in the water, and didn’t like the colour or flavour. So, plain old table sugar it is. In addition, these bagels need less yeast because they rise in the fridge overnight once shaped. This makes them easier to manage in the boiling process, and a slow ferment is always good for flavour.

And more on upping the chewy-factor: Normally, for pretty much any yeast bread, I use the Dan Lepard approach to kneading, i.e. 10 seconds of kneading followed by 10 seconds of rest, in three cycles. In this case, however, continuous, serious kneading seems to be necessary to maximize the gluten, possibly, too, because the dough is drier. So it’s a good recipe to make if you enjoy getting your back into it, as well as, eventually, your teeth.

Finally, it has some sourdough starter in it, mostly for taste, so it doesn’t have to be terribly active. My starter began with a couple of tablespoons of yoghurt for the bacteria. Whether or not that makes my bagels dairy, after many generations with no further yoghurt added, is a question for the rabbis, but there are perfectly good starters with no yoghurt in their history, too.

New York/Boston-style Bagels

450 g very strong white flour
150 g active sourdough starter
250 ml warm water
1/2 tsp dry yeast
2 Tbsp honey (or sugar)
2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp malt syrup (or sugar, or treacle) for boiling
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 egg white+1 Tbsp water for glaze

Toppings: poppy and sesame are most traditional; nigella, caraway seeds, onion or garlic bits and sea salt are other possibilities – or all of the above: the Everything Bagel.

Combine flour with dry yeast, sugar and salt; stir with a fork. Dissolve starter in warm water and add to flour mixture. Stir till combined and let rest for 10 minutes.

Turn dough out onto smooth surface and knead vigorously for 10 minutes. Dough should be on the dry side at this point. When dough is very smooth and springy, put it in a lightly greased bowl, cover and let rise until doubled in volume.

Divide risen dough into 8 or 10 equally sized pieces and form into tight ball shapes. Let these rest for 10 minutes, then form your bagels thus:

–       Roll a ball into a snake shape about 6 inches long, its ends somewhat tapered.
–       Wrap the middle of the snake around the tops of your fingers and pull and pinch the ends together between your thumb and fingers.
–       With the bagel still wrapped around your fingers, roll the joined bit back and forth on your work surface to seal the join.

Put the formed bagels on baking paper (parchment) on a baking sheet with at least half an inch between them. Cover securely but not tightly with cling film (plastic wrap) and refrigerate overnight.

In the morning, preheat oven to 210°C. Take the bagels out of the fridge and let them rest while you get set up for boiling, decorating and baking. They don’t have to be completely warmed up to be boiled, however. Now is a good time to mix your egg/water glaze and set up your seed toppings.

Set a medium-to-large pan to boiling. Add sweetener and bicarb. Once the water boils, turn it down until the surface is just barely moving. Add 2 or 3 bagels to the water, flip them after about half a minute, and continue to simmer for half a minute more. Scoop out and remove to a clean tea towel. Be gentle, as they will be quite soft at this point; a big slotted spoon is good for this task.

Brush the boiled bagels with egg glaze and sprinkle with seeds to taste.

Bake for about 25 minutes in the middle of the oven. About halfway through baking, flip the bagels over to prevent excessive flattening of one side.

Update: My friend Azélia gave me a hint on the sweetener: apparently honey improves the texture of the dough, and it seemed to be the case the last time I tried the recipe substituting it for sugar. They came out smoother and shinier. Malt syrup, used in some traditional recipes, apparently has the same function, but I found it gave the bagels a misleading brownish colour given that they were actually made with white flour, and anyway honey is something most people are more likely to have around the house.

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A mini-honeymoon in Amsterdam

I always thought that a proper honeymoon was supposed to involve beaches and sleeping in a lot. But then I also thought that weddings were supposed to involve big, white dresses, ice sculptures of swans, and family rows, and I knew we weren’t having any of that either, so why sign up for a stereotypical honeymoon? Amsterdam seemed interesting, was quick to fly to, and neither of us had been there – oh, and it was possible we might find something good to eat, even if it was just classic Old World bread and cheese. So, done.

As it turned out there was plenty of good stuff to eat. The Time Out guidebook offered an enticing hint: that there were substantial snacks to be had, so that you wouldn’t starve between meals. One dilemma was that I have really been trying to lose a bit of weight. One the one hand we were on holiday so a bit of indulgence seemed OK, but on the other I did find myself making mental notes of calories consumed versus hours walked. And walk we did, until our feet hurt, although lot of that walking involved tracking down recommended food stops. Well, that is who I am.

Houses on the edge of the Vondelpark. You know you want to live there.

Tuesday evening, after getting settled in our hotel and having a quick wander in the Vondelpark, we hopped a tram to the Pijp, where efforts at upward mobility clashed gently with bohemian coffeehouse and immigrant cultures. This was evident in stoned graffiti on building-site plywood – for example, “A city sodomized by tentacles of distrust” – across from a pedestrian-only block filled with a variety of relaxed natives and tourists scattered amongst sidewalk cafés. Here, we learned our first bit of food-Dutch: Vlaamse friet, or Belgian (Flemish) fries, on offer alongside falafel. Yes, please. The menu had a bit of Hebrew on it, so I asked the guy in front of us if it was an Israeli shop; he told us most of the falafel shops in Amsterdam were run by Indians and, sure enough, some of the salads in the falafel bar had a touch of cumin and coriander seed, not what you’d find in Tel Aviv. Good though. More difficult to figure out was the long list of friet toppings; I picked the one that seemed most likely to be mayo, and it was. A satisfying snack indeed; we never got around to dinner that night, but after much walking we did succumb in the hotel bar to a (bad) slice of ‘New York’ cheesecake, which they seemed a bit too eager to get rid of.

Typical shop in the Pijp.

Breakfast was not included in our hotel package, for which I was thankful; I tend to eat too much mediocre food, just because it’s there, blowing my calories much too early in the day. We noted a cheese shop near to the hotel with an offer of belegte broodje met koffie, filled rolls and coffee. What more do you need, really? I chickened out and ordered in English, though, too scared of making a mistake. The choices were old, young and mild cheese; we got a young and an old, and I’m afraid I didn’t write down the names. The coffee, by the way, although obviously not the focus of the shop, was spot on, as would be each of the subsequent cups we drank in Amsterdam. How do they do that?

We had a good chunk of time that morning to explore the city centre, the Dam (main square), the red light district (how could I not? I’m a public health professional after all) and the Oude Kerk, the old church – right smack in the middle of the red light district, and there’s even a statue of a sex worker on the grounds. A classy little bakery with pretty sweets and really good bread was a few steps away, and we stopped in for an almond-curl biscuit, amandelkrull – I got an approving nod from the baker for sounding out the word correctly. Result! OK, that was an easy one. How about koekje? Am I right in guessing that this should be pronounced, approximately, ‘cookie’? We didn’t spend as much time in patisseries scrutinising the koekjes as we should have. Given that each cup of coffee was accompanied by a different one, I suspect that there is a whole new world out there. Anyway, here’s a pic of the window of the bakery in the red-light district:

Let's call it Munchies Bakery, since I can't remember what it was really called.

While we shared our amandelkrull and drank coffee, a young American guy came in. The proprietor threw a wry, knowing (but not unkind) glance to his assistant that said ‘You want to take this one?’ American guy proceeded to order, rather passionately, a brownie and a slice of carrot cake, at 11 am. It seems the many cannabis coffeeshops in the area are good for business.

That afternoon, after a light, leisurely lunch back in the Vondelpark – it’s so easy to get around! – with a friend and her lovely twin babbies, we braved threatening skies and headed over to the Jewish History Museum. We walked via the somewhat disappointing flower market – mostly tourist souvenirs, at this point, and to be honest (eek, don’t hate me!) I don’t even like tulips all that much. But if I lived there, I might pick up a few perennials. Amazingly, though cannabis seeds were on sale everywhere, I don’t believe I saw any growing, anywhere. (Perhaps it’s grown indoors? I ask purely out of theoretical interest, honest.)

One thing we knew we wanted to try in Amsterdam was Indonesian food, which seems to take the place of Britain’s Indian restaurants, since Indonesia was for a long time a Dutch colony. Our friend referred us to Orient, a family-run business near the famous Concertgebouw and the big art museums. Wednesday was buffet night, which made it easy to try many dishes – the equivalent of a rijstaffel? I managed not to overeat, but I could have done quite happily.

Bloemenmarkt

We shared a fabulously buttery almond croissant, nabbed earlier in the day, on the way back to the hotel. Perfect.

Thursday morning rained buckets on Amsterdam, so it was a good day to hit the museums, but first, breakfast. We had to try Bagels and Beans, if only because it looked like an inviting place for a sit-down. The menu was great, the coffee was again lovely, and some American students were happy to share the shop’s wifi password with us. The only disappointment with the breakfast was, I’m afraid, with the bagels themselves. They lacked that boiled, chewy quality and were somehow a bit crumbly.

Never mind; we survived, and were fed, and braved the queues for the Rijksmuseum. Delftware, check; Old Masters, check (except for the Vermeers, which were in The Hague); celebration of faded imperial glory, check. Truly, though, we love old Rembrandt – he’s a Master for good reason – and it was exciting to experience his work in person.

For lunch Thursday we wandered around the canals in search of a recommended sandwich shop. The wander was worthwhile in itself, but when we got to the shop, there was truly nothing on the long, mostly meat menu I really wanted, and the bread was only just meh.

A Delft violin, with strings and all. I can only imagine it sounds pretty weird.

Andrew bought one and I abstemiously settled on tangy frozen yogurt with berries, in preparation for the inevitable afternoon attack of the friet. We sneakily borrowed a seat outside the yogurt shop where I made myself available to help Andrew consume the biggest, sloppiest sandwich we’d ever seen, a takeaway item that really should have come with its own table, plate, cutlery and napkins.

Which brings me to the topic of mayonnaise. I love the stuff, but not as much as the Dutch do. It’s everywhere! The supermarket deli/ready-meal section we visited had shelves and shelves of mostly mayo salads and sandwiches. As noted above it’s the default topping for friet. Where do they put it all? Why are Amsterdammers not fat? I can only assume it’s because they cycle everywhere.

I found something better than mayo, or even ketchup (another Indonesian word!), for friet. After circling back around to the Portuguese synagogue, which we hadn’t fit in the day before, I did indeed get drawn in by the ubiquitous friet. This time, though, on a hunch, I asked if one of the sauces on offer was peanut-flavoured and, sure enough, I got satay, a rich, dark, sweetish, slightly spicy sauce that was better than those particular friet to be honest.

I wish I’d gotten a larger portion, but it was just as well I didn’t, as dinner – tapas, at Sal Gorda, not far from our hotel – was very filling indeed (the restaurant is much prettier than the website). And even though my Dutch is nonexistent, our lovely waiter was only too happy to speak Spanish! We had the classics here: marinated anchovies, Merguez sausage, a big bowl of olives, patatas bravas (with more mayo, natch), shrimp in garlic sauce, and more. As it was still light, I forgot it was 9 pm and ordered a cappuccino (just to go wash down the crema Catalana of course); amazingly, it didn’t keep me awake.

Friday morning – our last morning – was again rainy, and we breakfasted at Le Pain Quotidien, a Belgian chain that’s really very good, though I did find myself wondering if there was a seamy underbelly. They sell beautiful sourdough loaves, but when I asked the waiter if he’d had a chance to make them, he admitted that the loaves are prepared and shaped elsewhere, and only baked in the local shop. Fair enough…I suppose. It is a chain after all.

We weren’t sure these were the loaves we wanted to bring home, though, so we poked our heads in a few shops in this (very posh) neighbourhood and ended up in an organic grocery, where we bought a sourdough nut loaf and some young geitekaas (goats’ cheese), having previously bought some aged geitekaas, quite different, at a shop in town. And with our last few euros – luckily they didn’t take credit cards as we could’ve done some serious damage here – we bought some fruit jellies for Andrew’s mum, in the most beautiful sweet shop you’ve ever seen, Van Avezaath-Beune.

Café at Schiphol Airport. These wooden loaves looked better than the actual bread, unfortunately, but they had good coffee and free mini-stroopwaffels.

Amsterdam, we love you and will be back, armed with a better knowledge of Dutch… there is so much more to eat!

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Scones. Just scones.

Real flour from a working water mill.

As skeptical as I am of the whole royalty thing, I felt I had to watch the wedding today, if only to join in the general Twitter levity – which was fun. And then, this afternoon, I had the urge to make scones, which I hadn’t done in over a year. Shocking, I know, given how much I like them.

I started with a recipe from Houghton Mill, a National Trust property just outside St. Ives in Cambridgeshire, where we’d stopped on a recent walk with friends. We’d nodded and smiled briefly at the mill itself but were famished and tucked right into their cream tea, with scones made from the mill’s wholemeal flour. Of course, I bought a bag of it, and the nice people there also insisted I take free packets of vegetable seeds, which I was happy to do.

The original recipe called for cream of tartar, which – too tired to figure out the substitution – I went out and bought, and margarine, for which, naturally, I subbed in butter. The scones were pretty tasty, a worthy showcase for their flour, with raspberry jam and cream.

Houghton Mill Whole-Wheat Scones

275 g whole-wheat flour
125 g plain white flour
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp cream of tartar
75 g chilled butter, diced
50 g sultanas
300 ml milk (replace a little of the milk with lemon juice to make it sour, or use buttermlk)

Flour lightly a nonstick oven tray. Heat oven to 200°C. Sift together flours, aking soda, cream of tartar. Rub in margarine with your fingers. Add milk and mix to stuff dough. Roll out on a floured board to 3 cm thick and cut out with a large pastry cutter. Brush the tops with milk and place on baking tray. Let stand for 15 min then place in centre of oven for 15 mins. Remove and cool on rack.

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Now what have they done to bagels?

Posted without comment, except to thank Simon for the pics.

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Meet the new fish, (almost) like the old fish.

There’s something about Passover that makes me want to cling to traditions, to the way I’ve always done things – not to everything, but to some critical mass of practices or foods tied to family, the Ashkenazi culture I was raised in, and plain old childhood memories. Firmly in all of those streams of tradition was gefilte fish: the kind in a jar of jelly that you could just barely convince yourself was tasty, or a good vehicle for really hot horseradish, or something so much a part of the ritual that you couldn’t not have a bit. Some seder attendees always boycotted it outright. Funny, there was always an extra jar at the end of the holiday, and I remember finding one at some other time of year and wondering how long it had been there. More than a year? Possibly.

If I ever had homemade gefilte fish it was only once or twice. It was one of those projects that seemed only ever to be undertaken by Eastern European-born bubbehs or do-everything yummy mummies, either of whom were happy to stay up till 2 in the morning elbow-deep in ground fish, if they even knew where to get the right kind of freshwater fish that you weren’t supposed to eat raw because of parasites, adding an element of danger for the OCD among us. The frozen kind that comes in logs that are boiled with an onion and a carrot and then sliced were nicer, almost gourmet by comparison, so I would sometimes contribute that to group seders.

In Britain, it turns out, they do gefilte fish differently. It’s fried; how exciting! What doesn’t taste better fried? You can even get it in little trays during the rest of the year at Marks & Spencer. Fried gefilte fish does seem to be a British thing, according to this article in the Forward. And obviously fried doesn’t lend itself to jars full of fishy jelly, and to have it in quantity for a family seder, you’d want to be able to make enough. Finally, Britain is islands surrounded by salt water, and the relative lack of freshwater fish means that people are not too fussed about what kind of fish you use. Homemade was starting to seem less of an insurmountable ideal.

Reader, I made my own fried gefilte fish. It wasn’t hard or technical, didn’t keep me up till 2 am, wasn’t even that messy, and I would do it again. We even enjoyed eating it. What surprised me the most was how much it tasted like what I expected gefilte fish to taste like, even though it was more or less a fish cake… but I doubt anyone would miss the jelly.

Fish mixture and shaped, matzo meal-breaded balls.

The wok: my new secret weapon for deep-frying.

Also breaking from tradition, we decided to have gefilte fish balls for our main course, rather than yet another a starter that risks being forgotten in the fridge.

Fried Gefilte Fish (adapted from the Forward’s recipe)

Makes 10-12 patties

1 pound fish (I used farmed trout fillets, and pulled the skin off before grinding in the food processor)
½ onion
1 egg
1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
½ tablespoon sea salt
3 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 cups matzo meal
¾ cup oil (the original recipe said olive oil, which is kosher for Passover but not so great for frying at high temperatures; your decision)

1) Grind fish and onion in food processor, then combine with, egg, pepper and salt and 3 tablespoons of the matzo meal.

2) Form the mixture into small balls, each about the size of a lemon. Roll each of these in the remaining matzo meal, creating an even coating.

3) Fill the bottom of a wok with frying oil and set carefully over a medium-high flame. When a sprinkling of matzo meal sizzles in the oil, add as many patties as will fit without crowding the pan.

4) Fry for 2 minutes on each side, at which point patties should be crisp and golden brown. Check that the fish is cooked all the way through (the center should be white rather than translucent). If not cooked through, continue cooking on lower heat.

5) Serve hot or cold with chrain (horseradish). (I also threw together some tartar sauce with mayo, a pickle, a hard-boiled egg and some dill, as I wasn’t sure how the fresh horseradish would go down.)

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52 Loaves by William Alexander

So what have I been doing this week, during Passover, when it’s forbidden me to eat bread? Reading about bread, of course, and wishing I’d written this book, which my mother gave me for my birthday; clever Mum.

American writer William Alexander also wrote a book called The $64 Tomato. He’s not a professional gardener or baker. What he’s great at is capturing the zen, the process and the frustrations of learning to master something that he finds important to master. 52 Loaves is a quick read – I read it in no more than 4 hours – as he covers his subject most efficiently. The gist is that, a lifelong bread hater, he experiences an epiphany upon tasting real bread in a good restaurant, and sets about learning how to make the perfect peasant bread, even growing his own wheat, building a clay oven in the garden and of course developing a levain. He spends quite a lot of time doing research, and is hardly a DIY genius, so it’s a bit surprising that he gets he far as he does in a year (evidently). The culmination of his bread-baking experience is reviving the craft of breadbaking in a French monastery, and you’ll definitely want to read about it; the balance of humility and confidence he has to muster to accomplish this is in itself awe-inspiring.

I think all of my intrepid bread-baking friends – and those who eat their bread – will want to read this book, as many of Alexander’s adventures will be familiar. Alexander is funny and honest, particularly poignantly so about the impact of his project on his family.

The book does include a few recipes; I will try the one he offers for baguettes. The recipes are designed to be manageable; more importantly, I can tell that the details he’s chosen to convey are in fact the result of the experiences he’s relayed in the rest of the book.

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (4 May 2010)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 1565125835
  • ISBN-13: 978-1565125834

It’s available in the UK at Amazon, and more widely in the US.

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