Mini experiments in bread and umami, May 2015 version.

(Sorry, no photos this time. I am remiss.)

Since getting my Leeds Bread Co-Op subscription I’ve more-or-less stopped making bread. This isn’t a good state of affairs, but we just don’t eat that much bread to begin with and one sourdough will last us the week. Anyway, I had a desire for flamiche (or pizza bianche, depending on how Italian you’re feeling) so sorted out some dough and did my usual trick of taking a blob off and sticking it in the fridge to use in the next batch of dough. This is a good habit to get into if you’re making a fair bit of bread, as it acts like a starter and will add more flavour and rise to your bread.

Of course because I’m not making bread any more it just sat in the box in the fridge, until I remembered it was there about six days later. I’ve made 48-hour bread in the past where I’ve left a full batch of dough in the fridge for two days without touching it and the slow ferment makes a very tasty, light, chewy, airy bread after shaping and proving, but six days feels like pushing it a bit. In fact there was almost no solid structure to the dough and it smelled like a very mature sourdough starter, beery and faintly acidic. I reckoned that the yeast was probably dead and there was little point in proving the 2oz blob, so just bunged it in the oven straight from the fridge and cooked until it was properly browned.

It did spring a bit, and the surface had those nice little bubbles just under the skin, but I wasn’t really too bothered about that; really, the most important thing was how it tasted. After cooling I broke it up into chunks, which were still quite airy and chewy, and had a nibble.

It tasted like Twiglets. I like Twiglets. But I’d not painted the blob with yeast extract, so where did that flavour come from?

Here’s what I think happened: so many life cycles of yeast had gone through this little blob of dough whilst it was in the fridge that when it was baked they cooked down into something that resembled yeast extract. As everybody knows you don’t need a lot of Marmite to make stuff taste like Marmite, so even though the proportion of yeast in the dough was still tiny, it imparted so much umami into the bread that I ended up with the same flavour profile.

Obviously further experiments are needed (as well as photographs, which I failed to take); breadsticks are the obvious way to bake these but I also think cracker shapes might do the job too. And it does go to show: slow fermentation will make your bread taste better.

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Roots to Shoots at The Swine that Dines

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Sometimes when you find a decent food place you tend not to shout about it because you kind of want to keep it to yourself and if too many people show up it’ll change and it’ll just be all wrong and you won’t get a table and all that malarkey. You know? I’m a bit like that about The Greedy Pig (North Lane, Leeds, gmap). Their veggie breakfasts are (IMO) the best in Leeds, their sandwiches are fun, their pie nights are legendary[1], and they recently branched out into doing evening dining, with themed set menus and a BYOB approach, seemingly just for kicks and giggles. Because a good pun is a good pun the evening events are called The Swine That Dines.

Here’s the thing about the Pig: it looks and behaves almost like a greasy spoon. It does bacon butties. Big mugs of tea. Fried stuff. Look closer and you find interesting flavour twists on the sandwich and burger menu. Home-made pickles which are bright and crisp and exciting. House specials which wouldn’t look out of place in a pub in Bray. Underneath this is a chef who has worked in some of the highly-regarded food spots in Leeds over the years, including Harvey Nicks and Leodis, and he’s just bloody brilliant at cooking. Stu has serious skills and knows how to get the most flavour out of a tiny kitchen and these events are great at letting him show off that skill. His partner Jo is a dab hand at baking amazing sweet treats and the pies that the Pig is getting a well-deserved reputation for. It may look like a regular cafe, but it really isn’t one. It’s like Tracy Island, if Virgil Tracy was a whizz at high-end cheffery and Lady Penelope could be seen with a bowl of eggs and chocolate.

When I discovered Jo & Stu were doing a veggie evening I booked up as soon as I found out. Except I didn’t, because they’d sold out all their seats (there’s only ten) in about fifteen minutes. It was only because some people dropped out that I was able to go along with my always-delightful dining companion Lianne from Everything Goes With Toast who was in a similar predicament.

The company was fun – everybody sits at the same table – so we all opened our bottles (wine and beer) and waited for the food to show up.

Course 1: tomato and celery.

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This was a crystal-clear tomato essence made with a touch of chilli for background and a tiny handful of black-eyed peas (which were tasty, surprise in itself) with some braised celery (which was also flavourful). The important thing here was the tomato, which smacked you in the mouth like summers in Grandad’s greenhouse. This was properly tomato, crisp and clean and fresh. That’s a neat trick to pull in February.

Course 2: rhubarb, beetroot and goats curd.

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A really fun salad of pickled beetroot and rhubarb with some chicory and blobs of home-made goats curd. I’ve never made curds before and fully intend to give it a go. The rhubarb was zingy and the pickling was pretty much bang on. Everything was helped by that zippy, creamy curd which tempered the pickling and natural rhubarb acidity.

Course 3: arancini, romanescu, artichoke and manchego.

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A charred artichoke heart was a nice side note to these little balls of rice, fried to crispy perfection and served with a romanescu cauli puree that was punched up with harissa. Slices of manchego cheese were a pleasantly sharp contrast and made a nice change from parmesan.

Course 4: grains, celeriac and a poached egg

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This was my highlight. I loved this dish. I could happily have eaten more of all of the food we ate this evening but I would have fought people in an arena if there was a chance of getting another one of these. Pearl barley in a malty sauce which instantly reminded me of Shreddies, with some tasty celeriac cubes and a perfectly cooked egg, was so comforting it tasted like a warm blanket in front of the fire. It looked simple but I’ll bet it wasn’t. And I don’t care if it was – this was perfect.

Course 5: lemon, raspberry, white chocolate

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I came out of this wondering how Jo had made this (and have told her not to tell me, I want to work it out on my own). It was like a brownie with a crisp top and fluffy middle, only with a crisp base and made with lemons and with the only chocolate on the side. It was crisp and clean-tasting with a pleasingly mouth-puckering zing of raspberry all rounded off with a whipped cream ganache that took the edges off. A perfect end to the meal.

So, there you have it. High-end food, without pretentious silverware or foams or gels or ipods playing birdsong. Veggie food without a mushroom in sight. Clever cookery and a meal that will remain in memory for a long time. I can still taste some of the elements now. A joy.

It was thirty quid. Anywhere else that meal would be at least fifty, and you’d be pushed into an overpriced wine menu or pay ridiculous prices for corkage. My advice? The next thing that comes up at The Swine That Dines which sounds good, book it. Don’t even think twice about it. Just go and enjoy the food for what it is: excellent. And underpriced.

(Dinner conversation, as you’d expect amongst a group of foodies, drifted onto the food scene here in Leeds. I wrote about this a few years ago and the landscape has changed a bit, so I’m going to revisit this topic soon. If you have thoughts on the foodie scene then please let us know.)

Lianne’s version of events is here.

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1: honestly, they needed some money for essential building works so on a whim decided to do pie and mash only available on very special occasions. On paper this looks like a disastrous idea but they’re well-attended, often sold out in under two hours, and are absurdly tasty. I’ve been to all of them so far and never had anything less than an excellent meal – experience has told me that pie and mash is a risky menu choice, but not at the Pig.

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Turtles all the way down.

Turtles

Only being subjected to British confectionary for 90% of my life meant that I had no idea what Turtles were when my friend K asked me how to make them. Apparently they’re an American/Canadian sweetie made from chocolate, caramel and pecans. Ok, I said. How hard can this be?

Trickier than I expected, to be honest. Photos of actual chocolate turtles showed something like a Caramel Cup (were they from Quality Street or Roses? I forget) with little feet. I discounted that idea out of hand, though. The important things were the nuts, the caramel and the chocolate. And longevity, because enrobing the lot would be faffy and apparently showing off the caramel is part of the experience.

Recipes for these things made me laugh. “Microwave some caramels to melt” was one gem. One recipe used terrible chocolate and then added an additional boatload of fat, apparently to help it set. I don’t know what was going on there. But I got some useful tips out of them: toasting the nuts, for example, is a good one as it does develop some great flavours and the smell of warm pecans is amazing. Use silicone baking parchment (although I’ve not seen anything other than that for a while now). And, erm, that’s probably it. Look, it’s nuts and caramel and chocolate in a pile.

The caramel was fun, though. I wanted one that was runny enough to get into all the nooks and crannies of the nuts so they’d stick together firmly when it cooled, but not teeth-shatteringly hard when it set. So: dairy caramel with some glucose but not so much as I’d usually use. And I’ve been experimenting on making caramel, too – my traditional method has amazing results but takes ages, but getting it 90% as good in a quarter of the time was just fine.

I guesstimated at a 1:1:1 ratio of the three, which was more-or-less right. If you make this there will be caramel left over, but not enough to cause a problem if you pour it into a slab and chop into squares when set.

The bag of pecans I bought was 150g, so that’s the base weight. Your bag may differ, so adjust accordingly.

Ingredients: 150g pecans. 150g granulated sugar, 15g glucose, 25g water, 50g double cream, pinch of salt. 150g milk chocolate.

In a dry frying pan, toast the pecans until fragrant. Arrange in little piles on a baking sheet covered in baking parchment, like three pecan halfs or a little pile of broken bits. Put the sugar, glucose and water in a big heavy bottomed saucepan and heat up.

Now, the caramel making rules are these: you can stir once to distribute the water and sugar, but once it’s on the heat do not stir. Don’t even touch it. If you must, and there’s sugar crystallising on the sides of the pan, use a wet pastry brush to dissolve the crystals but DO NOT KNOCK THEM INTO THE MOLTEN SUGAR. Low temp until all the sugar has dissolved, then turn up the heat a little and WATCH IT LIKE A HAWK. In this case, wait until the caramel starts to go a golden amber colour, like the colour of honey – if it goes too dark the caramel will taste burned and you don’t want that. Once it’s mostly honey coloured take it off the heat and pour in the cream and the salt. IT WILL FOAM UP. Don’t be scared, just give it a gentle stir and stir until it stops bubbling by itself.

Don’t hold the pan over the piles of nuts and pour it on, as it’ll be too heavy and will knock the piles over, so while it’s still runny use a tablespoon to gently drizzle your piles of nuts with the caramel. Then leave it alone for an hour. Then melt your chocolate – however you like, but if you do it in a glass bowl over hot water take it off the water when 3/4ths of the chocolate has melted, then gently stir it with a clean, dry spoon until it’s all melted – then pour over the tops of the piles of nuts and caramels. Leave alone until set, then store in an airtight box. The caramel is hygroscopic so will suck in atmospheric moisture until it turns to goo. You don’t want that.

And there you have it. Enough to make a recently-returned-from-Canada friend very happy.

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Sometimes I do daft little watercolours.

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Just before Christmas NASA released a bunch of fake tourism posters in a 1930s style for exoplanets which are outside our solar system. I only saw them this week and they instantly reminded me of the classic British Railways tourism posters of the early 1900s, which defined (for me) brilliant examples of classic poster art.

(As an aside, I went to a Magritte exhibition in Liverpool a few years ago and it had huge amounts of the work he did for ad agencies; like most artists in order to survive he had to take on commercial work which wasn’t signed or included in catalogues or otherwise “official”. Why is it the vast majority of artists only seem to have their work make millions after they’re dead? Sigh.)

The most iconic of these is “Skegness is SO bracing!“, so well known that it’s still used as promotional material over a century after it was produced. It’s an amazing piece of humour and of course is embedded in our national psyche.

I couldn’t resist the mashup – the exoplanet tourism and equating Skegess with Mars – so did a quick sketch and watercoloured it.

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I’m ever so sorry. And I’m probably going to go back and do better, cleaner versions of it, too. I’ll try not to subject you to those.

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Colluding in mad plans, 2015 edition.

What am I doing this year? Here’s the brief outline of what I’d like to get on with.

  • Part 1: hangovers from last year that I’d still like to do.
    • making cheese
    • brewing beer
    • horseriding, just to try
  • Part 2: new things that I’d like to have a go at.
    • standup comedy course, for kicks and giggles
    • sailing classes, as the last time I did this was 25 years ago and I want my RYA1&2
    • breadmaking class, to see just where I’m going wrong in technique
  • Part 3: things that I really should do more of.
    • practicing baking
    • blogging what I make
    • exercise, but this is a perennial thing – I can always do more
    • photographing stuff
  • Part 4: things that people are helping me to get on with.
    • drop spinning (am looking forwards to this – I’ve got a kit and some gorgeous raw wool from my dear friend Beff) and knitting what I drop
    • writing for websites (like Exposure Leeds and T&C – and if you ask me to guest blog I probably will do)

    Is there anything else I should be getting on with? Let me know!

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    Reviews of 2014, part 2: 40things whilst being 40

    Last year I started a mini-project; 40 Things To Do Whilst Being 40. As I turned 41 back in December the project should probably come to an end now. So, how did I do?

    It turns out I didn’t really come up with a comprehensive list of what could be done. The end result was “if it feels like a project thing it’ll be a project thing” and so as they happened I tended to assign daft stuff into this particular bucket. So, all of the running was a 40-whilst-40, and whilst I didn’t get sub-30m on my 5k I did measurably improve. I didn’t really do much swimming, and failed at finding a stables.

    Making a bucketload of chocolate robots was something not on the list, too, mostly because I had no idea I’d be doing it. In fact, doing multiple chocolate workshops through the year all counted, because (i) I wasn’t paid for them[1] and (ii) I had fun doing them. And they were explicitly on the list. Other foodie stuff was done: I made kimchi (which was tasty but had to be binned as it made the fridge smell terrible). I did one batch of sourdough which went ok but I never remember to do them during the summer, so the rise in the cold kitchen wasn’t brilliant. I didn’t make cheese or beer; they’re going on a different list, I think. I did make marmalade, some plum jam (which I’m very proud of) and although I didn’t make quite as many chocolates as in 2013, 2014’s chocolates were very tasty. I also started making pâte; de fruits, specifically rhubarb ones and blackcurrant ones. They’re confectionary jellies set with pectin, and are very nice indeed. Of course I made cake, too. Lots of cake.

    Speaking at Bettakultcha counts, too: specifically “speak in front of a paying audience”. I did that twice last year, about doing standup and about vegetarian cooking. That was enormous fun, even if I did pull the veggie one out of thin air being asked three days before the event if I could do something, and having to have the slides ready in a day. There’s the fledgeling details of a plan about this sort of thing for this year, too (details in the next post).

    Knitting happened: I made hats, mittens and scarves for mutiple people. I attended a crochet workshop, too (run by Sarah of Alder Sign) where I discovered where I’d been going wrong all these years and made a start on a little amigurumi alien. I organised my cookbooks (and bought more, so now that list is out of date) and failed, totally, to keep track of what I’d read.

    Arguably one of the biggest things I did was Lindy Hop classes; there were a few Lindy socials, but after only starting Lindy in March last year ended up with my being part of a charity showcase event in the Carriageworks. This was a really big thing for me, because I have terrible personal space issues. I’m not keen on touching people I don’t know, let alone dancing with them, and historically I am a dreadful dancer. But not only did I do a four week Lindy basics course I went back to the same teachers and did a swingout course, and the rehearsals and routine learning and all of that. It was amazing and scary and fun and frustrating and everything that I expected and hoped it could be and more. Also, swing music is fun.

    In the end, then: I did some stuff, and failed to do some stuff, and some other stuff was thrust upon me. I grew as a person and learned a few limitations, and then smashed a few which I thought I had to pieces.

    So, that was a (very) brief outline of 2014. And you know what? I have plans for 2015. Lots of plans. In fact, more than I thought I had – it was only when someone asked me what I was doing this year and I started off by saying “well, not much really…” and then talking for ten minutes that it turned out just how many there were. And I’ll do some, and I’ll fail to do some, and that’s fine. It’s not about ticking items off a list; it’s about expanding ones horizons and seeing what’s next. So what’s on the list? That’s for next time.

    [1] aside from consumables

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    Reviews of 2014, part 1: running & hiking.

    Everybody does this review thing, don’t they? I know I always used to do it in Another Place when I had time to update that constantly, but I’ve got out of practice in recent years and so I’m not sure if it’s still de rigeur. Anyway, this is part one of my “review of last year”. It’s about running.

    I’d spent the tail end of ’13 unable to run for medical reasons but was determined to kick off the year with some sort of run, and Jan 1st saw the first NYD Parkrun at Temple Newsam. So I went along to that. 36:32 for a 5k, which I was happy with as it was the first run I’d done in a while and Temple Newsam is a bugger of a course, being both very hilly and very muddy at the same time. After that I managed to get a bunch of Parkruns in at my home course which got my 5k time down to 32:39, and then I had a short break for weather and did a few hikes instead, including a gorgeous one from Hebden Bridge to Haworth in March.

    The Leeds-Liverpool canal is a regular fixture in my hiking routine and I did that a few times over the year, getting my time for Leeds-Saltaire down to 3h33m. I wasn’t running much of that because I was carrying a backpack and had the wrong footwear, and my plan is to get the train to Saltaire at some point in April carrying minimal gear and running back, just to see how I get on.

    In July was my disastrous Leeds 10k, where I beat my previous 10k by 16s. To say I was unhappy would be an understatement: I clearly needed help of some kind, I just wasn’t entirely sure where I’d get it or what I needed.

    Other hikes? I did a brilliant transpennine one with CW in June, and did my default “let’s go for a stroll” Ilkley-Saltaire one a few times, and there was a new one around Falmouth one morning in September which I thoroughly enjoyed because it was my first time out for a while.

    In the meantime I did get back into regularly parkrunning, with the assistance of JB who was an incredible help pacing me and getting myself measurably better. He got me doing intervals and I got my 5k time down to 30:57 at the end of August. I was also going out training by myself more often and going out with the Hyde Park Harriers on Tuesdays.

    And then one Saturday I was doing my usual Parkrun when I felt I’d been punched in the chest. Bam. I went to the GP who got me a referral to the cardiac unit (who have been amazing, by the way). Informed that I had to stop intervals and I should probably take the training easier too, like maybe stopping it, I stopped. An angiogram came up clear, so I was told I could restart training; this was handy because four weeks later I was scheduled to do the Abbey Dash.

    The Abbey Dash is a huge thing on the Leeds Running Calendar; I think there were 12,000 people in it, or something equally daft. The last big run of the year (November) it’s usually crisp, cold, sometimes a bit damp. Clothing choice is very important. 20 minutes after the gun went off our group was allowed to leave, and I went off pacing myself, distracting myself with trying to recognise people on the return leg – you’d be surprised how distracting it is looking at faces passing you – and managed to do the whole thing without stopping or walking, even up the horrible slip road at the end which gets many people. I’d knocked 5 minutes off my 10k time and was absolutely over the moon about it.

    I finished off the year with parkruns again; I’m now up to having done 46 of those (only 4 to go to get my tshirt!) and I started 2015 the same way I started ’14: with Temple Newsam parkrun. This time I did it two and a bit minutes faster than last year, partially because I’m fitter but also because I’m still getting over having lost ten weeks of training before November.

    Some numbers: in 2015 I ran or hiked for just over 69 hours, burning up just over 48,000kCal over 309 miles, climbing 25,000 ft in total, the same as 10,000 double decker buses (which is a standard unit of measurement) or 165 Nelson’s columns.

    (FWIW I also ended the year reading the Oatmeal’s book about running, a review of which might show up in another 2014 review blog post.)

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