Sunday 30 March 2014

Five Years

It's Poires au Chocolat's fifth birthday today!

The past five years have taken me from being a 19-year-old fresher to a few months off 25. So much has changed but blogging has been one of the strongest threads through it all. It's hard to describe how important this space has become to me and how protective I feel - it's been a part of my entire adult life. As I sit here facing my next five years, I know that a lot of things will look very different. Though I'm sure my path won't make it easy, I really hope that Poires au Chocolat will reach ten.

In the end, I decided to celebrate five years by writing an ebook. I'd been looking for a fun project for a few months - something I could get my teeth into - and it seemed like the perfect thing to do. I wanted it to be different to the blog but still working along the same lines. I thought something historical with lots of references to stories and literature was the sort of thing that would work.

So the ebook I'm writing is about the food sent out to the front in parcels by loved ones in World War One. It's the sort of topic I love - slightly random but fascinating to research.

I studied WWI literature for my A Level synoptic paper in my last year of school. We could read anything we liked on the topic - poetry, prose, British, German, modern or contemporary. It was one of my favourite papers to study (tough competition came from my introduction to Chaucer and a paper on William Blake) and certainly my favourite to write, with the sort of open questions I came to love at university. The things I'd read stuck with me and suddenly resurfaced when I was thinking about possible topics.

The scale of the horror and suffering during WWI is hard to comprehend as someone who has never known war, looking from a century's distance. Despite that, I hope I can commemorate it with respect. I want to focus on the small moments of joy and on the comforting power of food from home. To remember those small personal details, in some ways insignificant and everyday, but vital nonetheless.

I'm not an expert on the history (it would take a lifetime - or at least several decades - to be that) and I'm not trying to write a textbook. In many ways this ebook will be a collection of all the anecdotes and comments that have made me smile or touched me as I've read and researched. It's a way of bringing together all the bits I don't want to forget and that I find myself excitedly blurting out to friends and family.

I think that blurting feeling comes from having found the research really gripping - it's had lots of moments, twists, and surprising gems. It's also been emotional at times. Sitting in the Imperial War Museum research room reading letters written in the trenches - touching the very paper - is an experience I won't forget.

I'll also remember - for different reasons - a day I was working in the Bod and stacked up a beautiful first edition of a 1915 cookery book to find that about a third of the edges had never been cut (it looked like it hadn't been read in several decades). I had to go and ask the librarians what to do and then sit there, paper knife in hand, slitting each page of the cakes chapter. The sound of tearing paper ripping through the silence in a no-seats-left lower Rad Cam is engraved upon my memory - I was half expecting a fellow reader to perform an enthusiastic citizen's arrest.

The ebook will be split into two sections. The first part will cover the sort of things that were sent out (from cakes and chocolate to two brace of grouse, smoked salmon & clotted cream), rationing, the rules, Christmas and various other topics, with quotes and contemporary photos and that sort of thing. The second part will contain ten recipes (things like shortbread and toffee) with headnotes that describe the letters and stories that mention them.

I'm going to experiment with selling it as a PDF from the blog (though You won't have to leave the site to buy it. I like the idea of a PDF ebook because I want to be able to design attractive, static pages with the images set in properly.

I'm planning to finish and release it in May - I'll let you know about a date soon.

I hope you'll all like it and find it as interesting as I have. Even if not, it's been just what I needed personally. It's felt completely different from working on the beginnings of bigger book projects (far less stress and fear). It's still a challenge, just of the right sort of size. There's something wonderfully satisfying - and, to let the geek really flow, thrilling - about being on a research hunt, chasing quotes and references from book to book and archive to library and back again. It's like fitting a puzzle together.

Anyway - back to the birthday. As I've mentioned many times, one of the reasons this blog is called Poires au Chocolat is because of the pear and chocolate loaf cake (as below) that I tested that fateful Easter holiday in 2009. Yet there's also another layer, in that one of my favourite desserts growing up - and today - is the humble combination of freshly chopped pear and melted chocolate.

It's too simple for a recipe but I thought it would be perfect as the background to this post. If it helps I reckon we usually use roughly 10-15g dark chocolate per pear (melted as per the glossary) and a pear serves one. A few splashes of double cream finish things off.

My first, 100th, 200th & 300th posts (this post makes 332 overall):
1: Lemon Curd Cake
100: Butterfly Fleur de Sel Caramel Cake
200: Toffee Apples
300: Dutch Baby a.k.a. Puffed Pancake

Thursday 20 March 2014

Introducing the Glossary

A few months ago I was watching the Sport Relief Bake Off when one of the contestants - I can't remember exactly who - looked at the recipe in front of him and said that he didn't even know what half the words meant (or something to that tune).

It got me thinking about recipe language and how the words we use convey a meaning that can be converted into action. I can write an instruction and hope and expect that anyone will be able to replicate my movements and technique just from seeing that word. Each term is loaded with information and experience that has has to be supplied by the reader. It made me realise that a recipe - especially, perhaps, a baking recipe - could feel quite foreign.

To try and help, I thought it might be useful to put together a glossary that explains and shows what I mean by each word I use. Currently it has 60 entries, each with a photo, series of photos or video to illustrate the definition. I've added tips, links and foundation post references. While many of the images have come from previous posts or outtakes, there's also a lot of new images and five new videos (separating eggs, flouring a tin, dusting a surface, scraping down, dropping consistency). The alphabet at the top should link you to the beginning of that letter section but you can, of course, just scroll.

Are there any other words or terms you think I should add? Do you think it'll be helpful?

You can find the glossary here (it's also now in the 'Links' section at the top of the sidebar) - I hope you find it useful.

The three entries that the images/video in this post correspond to are:
Ice Bath
Separate the Eggs

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Garibaldi Biscuits

I think the simplest way to explain this recipe is to tell you that the biscuits photographed here were the ninth batch that I've made in a little over two weeks. Only the first four included any changes to the recipe - the rest, including a double batch, were because we were craving more. The last of this batch disappeared this afternoon and I'm already having to restrain myself from making a tenth.

It all started when Yotam Ottolenghi tweeted about the Garibaldi they've started selling online. Curious, I searched and found the great piece Bee Wilson wrote about their history. Garibaldi are slightly unusual in that they have been factory produced from the beginning, so there isn't a big home baking tradition - but I think they're well worth it (and quite different - though still recognisable - to the ones you buy).

I started my testing with Delia's recipe. I added an egg yolk - partly because I didn't want to have one left over - and more milk to the dough. I added lemon zest to the middle (though it's not traditional) and I doubled the amount of fruit (adding bit by bit - it was the main change between my first four tests).

It's hard to explain why they're so good. I wasn't expecting to love them. They're somehow both plain and flavourful. The fruit becomes a little caramelised around the edges and the chew it provides contrasts with the short, crumbly texture of the biscuit itself. A few fingers with a cup of tea makes for a solid, satisfying snack. They also travel well - I had a little box on my flight home last weekend and took some on a day trip to London yesterday - and don't take long to whip up when a craving hits.

So here's to the homemade squashed fly biscuit, my new favourite.

Garibaldi Biscuits
(I started with Delia's recipe)

110g plain flour
1/4 tsp baking powder
big pinch of fine sea salt
25g unsalted butter, cold
25g caster sugar + bit extra to sprinkle
1 large egg
3 tbsp milk
100g dried fruit - I tend to use 1/2 currants + 1/2 sultanas
zest of 1/4 lemon

Preheat the oven to 190C/375F (fan). Line a big baking tray with baking parchment. Mix the flour, baking powder and salt together in a bowl. Chop the butter into cubes then add to the bowl and rub in. Stir in the caster sugar. In a bowl or mug whisk the egg yolk and milk together, then add to the bowl and gently mix in just until the dough comes together. Use your hand to bring it into a ball.

Dust the worktop with plenty of flour then place the mix in the middle and dust again. Roll out to a rectangle of roughly 7 x 11" or 20 x 30 cm, using more flour when needed. Tip the fruit onto one half and zest the 1/4 lemon on top. Spread the fruit out into an even layer so it covers half the dough. Fold the other half over the fruit. Check it hasn't stuck to the surface, dusting again if needed. Roll out to 7 x 11" or 20 x 30 cm again.

Trim the sides with a sharp knife so you have a clean rectangle (the offcuts are delicious) then cut into two lengthways. Cut each strip into 8, so you have 16 small strips. Transfer to the baking sheet. Brush the tops with some of the egg white (you'll only use a small amount) then sprinkle with a little extra caster sugar. Bake for 14-16 minutes until deep golden brown. Cool on a wire rack.

(Makes 16)

Three more biscuit recipes:
Whole Vanilla Bean Biscuits
Caramelised Milk Chocolate and Espresso Shortbread
Roasted Hazelnut Butter Biscuits

Monday 3 March 2014

Best of... Pancake Recipes

As I've mentioned before, Pancake Day is the only food holiday I always celebrate. This year Shrove Tuesday falls on the 4th of March (a.k.a. tomorrow).

I'm not sure lemon and sugar can be beaten for Pancake Day but in case you fancy a change, I thought I'd round up all of my pancake/crêpe posts. The best place to find my basic pancake recipe is here - it's the one I'll be whisking together tomorrow.

- Brown Butter Wholemeal Crêpes with Vanilla Ice Cream, White Nectarines & Maple Syrup

- Dusky Caramel and Raspberry Crêpe Cake

- Crêpes Suzette (a.k.a. fire, caramel, blood oranges and cinnamon ice cream)

- Pancakes with Lemon Thyme Sugar or Maple-Butter Bananas and Cream

- Nutella Crêpes with Toasted Hazelnuts