I love experimenting. It’s probably my favourite thing of all, the act of changing a single variable and seeing just what that does to the outcome of a test. It is the way my brain is wired. Some of the easiest experiments to make – and everybody does this – is in the realm of cookery. You’ve done it whenever you’ve looked at a recipe and mentally substituted the herbs & spices, or have run out of onions so used shallots, or used a riesling instead of a merlot because that’s all that was in the fridge in a sauce or casserole.
Sometimes it’s not like that at all, though. Sometimes experimentation is not born out of necessity. Sometimes it’s because you want to mix a tiny bit of every bottle that’s in the bathroom together to see what’ll happen. I’m not saying that I still do that – I did that before I hit secondary school age, I don’t need to do it again – but sometimes just trying stuff out for kicks and giggles is the only excuse you need.
Which brings me onto experimental bread.
I love making bread. I really like eating it. Chorleywood process bread has its place but for preference I like a good slow-fermented sourdough boule, which is surprisingly expensive for flour and water. Last year I made some dried sourdough starter (from Richard Bertinet’s Crust, IIRC) and as I’d had to bin my previous starter because it had died – sourdough starter is like a middle-class goldfish – I thought I’d try using some. It reactivated fine (hoorah!) and after feeding it I had some to use. I also had some left over dough from a loaf I’d made the previous week with some easyblend yeast in the fridge. So! Instead of all sourdough – which can be a bit acidic – I thought I’d mix the leftover with the sourdough starter and bung that into my flour/water/salt without adding any extra yeast. Leave it overnight to ferment a bit, and bob’s your uncle.
It was freezing that night, so it didn’t rise very much but it smelled lovely, like apples and not too sour. I shaped it and put it into a proving basket then went out for a run, and came back to find it had barely risen at all (still pretty cold). So I left it for a bit longer, next to the oven, and did some other things. Eventually I got bored of waiting and decided to follow Dan Lepard’s advice (you don’t need to leave it to double in size, just half as much again, and it should spring back in the oven) and bunged it in the oven. Forgot to slash the top.
When it came out it looked and smelled fantastic. Bulged a bit because of the not slashing thing, but I’m ok with that. Left to cool for as long as I could and sliced it to see what the inside was like.
Well, it’s soft and tastes brilliant. It has a lovely crumb and although it’s not got huge bubbles and the chewyness of proper sourdough is reduced it does have a great mouth feel. Also you can slice it pretty thinly without it collapsing. I made the Best Sandwiches Ever (pesto, tomato, mozarella, salt, spinach, pesto in that order) and this bread suited them perfectly.
It also makes pretty decent toast.
So there we have it! Experimental bread rising techniques make tasty bread (shocker). To be fair, though, you do have to try very hard to make totally inedible bread.
It’s been a little while since I wrote anything here, and that’s bad. There’s a good reason, though.
I lost my foodie mojo.
It all started back in March. Some life stuff happened and I got all out of kilter, and it got to the point where I was almost contemplating buying a “ready meal” instead of having to go shopping for actual food. Fresh fruit & veg were not making much of an appearance in the fridge, in fact aside from some tomatoes & cucumber the fridge was to all intents & purposes empty. I was still eating relatively healthily – fresh pasta sauces, salads, the odd bit of fish – but it was on a day-to-day basis and some days I just couldn’t be bothered. (On those days I made mushroom risotto. There’s always dried fungi in the house.)
Cakes became a real rarity. Biscuits, ditto. Bread became a pipe dream, which was a shame because I had a pretty decent sourdough starter and some poolish hanging around that had to be thrown through lack of feeding. The cake thing really was a problem because I got some of my recipes in a book, and wanted to start making other people’s recipes from that book, but it all seemed like rather a lot of effort. There was a launch party for the book just before I started losing my mojo, and I had fun photographing it.
Anyway, over the last few weeks we’ve been on holiday (and spoiled by a brilliant farm shop at Chatsworth, over the road from where we stayed) and I gradually started picking up my cooking mojo again. It took more time than I would have liked, but I’ve made a pineapple upside down cake which was lovely and the sweet potato & pecan cake from the book.
Now, here’s where my mojo came back. I’ve been hearing a lot about “speculoos spread” recently – it seems to be an ingredient du jour – so when I spotted some in Sainsers I picked it up and, well, between us we ate most of a jar on toast. It’s lovely, but lethally addictive. It’s also very rich. My friend Becs started my brain working with some cupcakes with speculoos buttercream but my usual thoughts on cupcakes are unprintable and buttercream is one thing I really have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate because it’s just so, so rich. On the other hand I can eat cream cheese frosting quite happily. So I mixed 100g cream cheese with 100g of biscuit paste and a tablespoon of icing sugar, and realised this would be the perfect filling for the sweet potato & pecan cake.
It so is.
And that was that. I’ve been baking bread again (disappointing results, probably because the baking sheet wasn’t hot enough but it’s a start). I decanted the marmalade rum & gin that I kicked off back in February (photo above) and used the gin to make Tom Collins (no kidding, this was a joy when the sun came out). I’ve made more cakes. Mushroom pasta. A home made minestrone which lasted for days and was fantastic. Felafel (failed when frying, but I think I know where I went wrong). There’s a new sourdough starter going – we got some sourdough crackers from Chatsworth which were surprisngly tasty, so I want to see if I can make my own – and I’ve got an artisan patisserie course coming up next month. And I’m doing more chocolate demonstrations at the Arch Cafe in Leeds at the end of the month, being thrown in with what used to be Leeds Loves Food and is now Leeds Food Festival.
The mojo is slowly returning. And it’s more than welcome.
(I’m also playing with watercolours, but I won’t inflict that on you!)
You know how you occasionally have a spare day and you don’t know what to do with it? Like a bank holiday, or something like that? Well, we’ve got a few bank holidays coming up and it might be worth doing a little bit of planning if you fancy a museum day.
I came across Feeling Listless’ blog about finding visitor information (go & read it, I’ll wait). He has concentrated on “how accessible is the visitor information on Liverpool’s museum websites?” making the very important point that these are physical spaces which people need to find and get into. You can’t do that without knowing (i) where they are and (ii) what time they open.
Long-term readers of my ramblings may remember that I visited five museums in one day a few years back. So, shall we do something similar for Leeds?
The majority of museums in Leeds are run by Leeds City Council, so the websites all use the same back-end and style sheets. These all follow a similar pattern. “Visitor information” is on the first or second row of fairly clear buttons in the centre of the front page. Its positioning is quite interesting, though: reading left-to-right, top-to-bottom the visitor information can be in any, from the first to the fifth spot, occasionally behind “Shop” and “Celebrations and Corporate”. Read what you like into that.
The visitor information itself is good; opening times are shown by default in the bottom half of the page while directions, as well as public transport and parking info are shown at the top. There’s a map which can be a bit confusing to navigate at first, too. But how hard would it be to have a “we are open at these times” box on the front page? Click-and-scroll – especially on a page that has a strange map on it that might take ages to load (if at all) and eat bandwidth – is no use to smartphone users who just want to know “is it open?” while trying to marshal three bored children who are hitting each other with plastic stegasauruses. Is there too much information in the top half of the page, too?
Also, the map occasionally did really strange things, and that’s on my desktop with a standard up-to-date browser.
Ok, I won’t belabour the point; the LCC-run sites are ok, could be better laid out and have a strange map that could confuse smartphone browsers, but you can find opening times with a click and a scroll and I thought that wasn’t too bad. You may disagree. They’re all the same so I don’t need to perform detailed analysis on them.
Let’s start with the Thackeray Medical Museum.
Opening times and “how to find us” are on separate pages. Once you’re on the opening times page actually finding out the location requires a few clicks – it’s not tremendously clear. Is it on “plan your visit”? Nope, it’s another page off there. They advertise online ticket sales, except the link that tells you that you can buy tickets online isn’t actually a link, it’s an underlined bit of text that looks like it should be a link. The “buy your tickets” link is actually at the bottom of the page and apparently that bit isn’t working yet anyway.
Click a link, it’s the top link and it’s on an easily spottable bit of the page. And once you’ve clicked the opening times are in the main body in bold text. Not a bad effort.
Oh! Look at that! It’s on the front page, in the highlighted text body, and it’s reasonably easy to spot! It also shows you what the outside of the building looks like now, so if you have an idea of how Leeds is laid out you can guess the location even if you’ve never seen it before.
The Royal Armouries at Leeds
Also, the Armouries wins with opening times on a low-bandwidth front page which is the same no matter which site you want to visit. There are multiple Armouries sites across the UK and they all observe the same opening times. That seems like such a simple thing but it’s great, because they can advertise this on the front page of their whole site and then if you need to know more about locations you can drill down a bit.
Finally, The Leeds Gallery
If you look at this what you get is a banner image for the current exhibition, and the menus have a “location” spot. Hm. Nothing here about opening times. Except if you scroll down a little…
There they are! If the info box was a little narrower then the opening times box could fit in a bit higher up. But the times and admission detail is all on the front page if you’re prepared to look beneath the fold.
Have I missed anything out? Smaller galleries, undoubtably. Places like Pavilion and PSL who don’t have a real physical home at the moment. But it’s interesting to think about this sort of UX stuff (especially when you don’t work in UX but are a consumer of it) where it relates to real-world, physical spaces. The website should advertise the space, not be more important than it.
Occasionally you want cake, but can’t be bothered with the whole process involved in it. The creaming, the folding, the waiting anxiously at the oven, the angst over whether to use vanilla bean paste or the cheaper vanilla extract (or is this the cake to try the home made vanilla-and-rum puree on?), what to fill it with and whether there’s enough cream in the fridge, and will it come out of the tin?
Or, its 9pm and you want to make something but don’t fancy staying up until 11pm for it to finish baking. Or it’s 8 in the morning and you need to make something for breakfast but it’s a Sunday, you’re feeling lazy (or didn’t prep your croissant or brioche dough the night before) and you want something a bit swishier than toast but not as artery-hardening as a full english. Or your wife suddenly goes “Erm, I’ve got a script reading tomorrow, could you make something I can take with me for the actors please?”
In these cases, muffins (American, not English) are your friends.
I’ve been making muffins for years, and have written recipes galore for them. The thing is, though, the recipes are all pretty much the same. It’s “self-raising flour, eggs, oil, milk and sugar, and whatever fun stuff you might have kicking about”. They take three minutes to mix up, half an hour to bake and as long as you have muffin cases (or big cupcake cases) hanging about you’re laughing. They don’t keep very well (although ten seconds in the microwave will sort that out nicely) but then they probably won’t hang about for more than a day anyway. And eating them warm is part of the joy. It’s nearly impossible to muck them up, as long as you bear in mind the proportions of wet to dry, and remember what counts as inert.
So with that in mind, last night I made chocolate & marmalade muffins.
(I had to look up my own recipe article on T&C to remind me of what the base should be. Getting old and forgetful.)
Base muffin mix (250g self-raising flour, 175g caster sugar, with 2 medium eggs, 100g milk and 100g sunflower oil whisked up separately) with a tablespoon of marmalade mixed in with the eggs, milk & oil and 100g chocolate drops in with the flour & sugar. Mix together until just combined (don’t overmix or the cases will stick). Half fill the cases with mix, a teaspoon of marmalade on top then top off with the rest of the mix. GM5 for 30 minutes. Makes a dozen. Tastes phenomenal, and uses up another jar of marmalade – only 36 (or something) to go…
1x bottle very cheap gin
1x bottle very cheap rum
Jar home-made marmalade
Dark brown soft sugar
In a 1l kilner jar put 200g marmalade, 50g sugar and a bottle of whatever cheap booze you’d like to experiment with. Shake. Leave for a month. Shake again. Repeat until 3 months are up (which means I won’t be able to try tonight’s experiments until May 8th, by which point I’ll probably have forgotten about them).
Rationale: I was horrified at how expensive marmalade vodka was.
A couple of weeks ago I made some doughnuts, and in the process noted that they were basically deep fried balls of brioche dough. Well, I decided to put my money where my mouth was and give it a try as a brioche. It worked, but browned awfully quickly and didn’t rise quite as well as I would have liked. No photos of the actual brioche loaf, but I also made some mini-loaves that were filled with marmalade (and were very tasty) with spare dough in the mini loaf tins I bought a few weeks ago (and are enormous fun for such a small thing).
The weekend was also about the pastry. I’d had a hankering for Bakewell tart for a couple of weeks and then GBBO did one for comic relief a fortnight ago, so everywhere nearby was out of ground almonds. I’d finally got my hands on some, so made some pate sucrée and a half-batch of frangipane. Frangipane is strange stuff (and if it’s really fluffy it becomes creme amandine) in that it’ll set if you bake it for long enough but if you let it cool while baking – by, say, opening the oven door – all it’ll do is set as a lump when it cools, not become textured. And if you get to the state where it sets as a lump it’ll stay molten and runny until it cools. So: get your frangipane light and fluffy, and use a piping bag to get it in the tart case.
I spread a layer of rhubarb jam on the base (otherwise it’s a tarte amandine) and with this one there’s no need to blind bake. You can, of course, if you’re worried about the dreaded soggy bottom, but make sure the case is cool before adding the frangipane or it’ll melt too quickly.
That came out looking like this:
See? Not quite cooked in the middle. But it held, and as it cooled it set. Towards the edges was textured and fluffy, though. Crisp top, too.
Because it’s hard to make a half-batch of pastry I used the rest to make a tarte aux citron on Sunday. I love coming across different recipes for lemon tart because they’re all different in tiny ways. Do you blind bake (yes, the filling is too runny otherwise) or whip the cream before adding it to the eggs/lemon/sugar (if I remember – it’s worth it in creaminess but not essential)? How about ratios of eggs/lemon/sugar/cream? What about using mascarpone instead of cream? Or a mix of lemons & limes? Or oranges? How much zest? Usually I don’t have enough lemons so will add limes, have added mascarpone in the past (it works but sets firm) and try to avoid too much air in the mix or you get a foamy top, or else get loads of air in so it’s consistent. Anyway, yesterday’s tart came out like this:
Barely set (yay!) filling, crisp base and slightly overdone pastry edges. This is because in the final bit of blind baking the pastry shrank and tore on one side, and I didn’t have any offcuts to patch it. Alas! I had to under-fill the case so it didn’t leak out and go everywhere. Disappointing in that respect but otherwise not bad.
And that was my weekend’s baking!
This weekend was all about the marmalade.
So, what happened was this:
- I asked on Twitter for someone near to the markets to see if anywhere had any Seville oranges. Someone I know said they’d pop in. They found some, asked me if I wanted any, and I said “yes, ok, get me a fiver’s worth” because I knew that in Sainsbury’s Sevilles were about £2/kg, and I figured these would be about £1/kg.
- Alison then got back to me and said that they didn’t have a fiver’s worth, would £3.50 be enough. I replied that would be fine. It’s two batches of marmalade, after weeding out the really bad quality ones you expect to get from a fruit stall at the back of the outdoor market.
- After work I met up with Alison for a cuppa and she gave me two carrier bags full to the brim of oranges. “They were 50p a kilo. I couldn’t have physically carried a fiver’s worth”, she said. I’m mildly horrified. Also, I bought the tea and promised her a jar or two, so she refused to take any money for the oranges.
- I went home, looked at all these oranges and thought “I don’t have enough jars.” I filtered out the truly bad oranges and was left with about 6kg. Six batches. The recipe I use reckons on 6 1lb jars per batch, but I know damn well that it makes closer to 8. So I bought 8kg of sugar, and the next day asked on the werk email list if anybody had a carrier bag of jars they didn’t need.
- The next day I get an ikea bag full of jars, in exchange for a handful of oranges – so I’m down to 5kg – and a case of mixed 1/2lb & 1lb jars in exchange for the promise of a jar of the finished product. I can’t carry the case home, so I leave it on my desk and plan to pick it up in the car on Saturday.
- I prep some oranges on Thursday night to cook on Friday (it’s a 8hr min process). On Friday I do one batch, then it starts snowing. Can’t drive to get the jars. So I prep another batch, and while batch 2 is cooling & 3 is waiting to be cooked I get the bus to werk & fill my rucksack to the brim with jars.
- I finished the last of the batches of marmalade off at lunchtime on Sunday. In total, 45 jars and a tumbler where I’d run out of sterlised jars and needed somewhere to put the remnants of the second batch. The whole house smelled of oranges for two days. It was fantastic.
There was a batch of just orange, cooked to 107°C. This is a bit stiff but perfectly edible. I might use this for cooking with, though. There’s another batch of just orange, this time to 104°C, which is a softer set but much easier to spread on toast. I’m really happy with this one. Then there’s some Orange-Lemon-Lime – because I had all these lemon shells piling up & wanted to use them instead of binning them, and thought lime juice would be nice to go in there for a change, and some orange & ginger using the jar of stem I bought to use in chocs at xmas, and then forgot about.
So, for the price of 8kg of sugar (about £7), 39p on end-of-day lemons, and the gas used to boil up the fruit, I have 45 mixed-size jars of marmalade. And even if I do say so myself, they’re bloody tasty, too.
Oh! The recipe! Well, it’s basically up to you how you do this, there are boatloads of recipes out there, but I prefer to juice & slice my oranges before cooking (about 1Kg, leave to soak in the juice & water for 8hrs or so), then boil until soft enough to squish between your fingers, then add sugar (2Kg) & juice of two lemons, then boil until you can pass the crinkle test. Or, if you have a thermometer, until it hits 104°C. Then pot in sterilised jars.