I bake a lot of bread, as you’ve probably noticed, but I’m just a novice … there’s so much to learn about turning the most basic of ingredients – flour, yeast, salt, water – into something so elemental and elegant as a loaf of bread.
I have a long way to go, and this is a large part of what draws me to bake bread. It’s a process that’s never finished.
None of this stops me from searching for that perfect loaf, that fortuitous combination of ingredients, technique, environment and luck that leads to a truly outstanding loaf. I’ve been close a few times, and it’s true that the general standard of my bread nudges gently upwards the more and more I bake, but the self-critical part of me isn’t satisfied, and I doubt it ever will be.
Good books help, and I’ve bought many. My bread making canon includes the superb River Cottage Handbook dedicated to bread, the best tenner an aspiring baker will ever spend, Daniel Leader’s Local Breads for everything European, the frankly beautiful Tartine Bread, and now Dean Brettschneider’s Bread.
This is a compact list of dependable books, and it’s rarely added to. Brettschneider’s book is the first new one on there in years.
In very broad terms, most of my bread baking is either traditional British, Italian or French, with the odd nod towards American ideas about things like sourdough, which normally all point back to Europe anyway.
This misses out a whole school of baking centred around Germany, Eastern Europe and parts of Scandinavia that has rye flour at its heart.
Rye is a different thing altogether, and it produces heavy, dense loaves that are substantial and rugged, the type of loaf that look as if it’d be useful on a building site once it goes stale.
I’ve decided to investigate, and this is the first of a few bread related posts that include rye, this time in a Central European tradition of baking.
The introduction to this recipe is Dean Brettschneider’s excellent book, Bread, places this rye and caraway loaf in Jewish New York, but a little cross-referencing, notably with Daniel Leader’s superb Local Breads: Sourdough and Whole Grain Recipes from Europe’s Best Artisan Bakers reveals its roots lie in Poland and the Czech Republic. The similarities between this loaf and a rye sourdough I sometimes buy from the local and long-established Polish bakery are striking.
This type of bread is an acquired taste. It’s as far away from a standard British white sliced loaf packed full of preservatives as it’s possible to get. Caraway isn’t for everybody, rye is not forgiving. Together, you’ll consider them either sublime or intolerable. There’s no space for indifference, but try, you must,
This isn’t difficult baking – the methods should be familiar to anybody who’s baked bread before. The difference is simply in the ingredients.
I’m on record as stating quite firmly that a burger cannot be classed as ‘gourmet’ in any way shape or form.
It’s not that a burger can’t be good. It can be. It can be just the thing at times, but the thought of anywhere labelling their burgers as some kind of fine dining, gourmet affair is a bit, well, daft.
In general, I stand by that, but I’m prepared to soften my stance a little after eating at Meat Liquor, the latest burger joint in Leeds. These were burgers on an entirely different plane to any I’ve tasted before.
These places are cropping up everywhere around the city. A few months ago, it was ribs and Americana on a plate, now it’s burgers. Burger place after burger place after burger place.
Some haven’t covered themselves in glory, with their crass sexism and frankly stupid stunts, others have quietly dominated dull shopping streets. Meat Liquor just snuck into a very unpromising afterthought of an alley running into the Trinity Centre and started making burgers and playing Marilyn Manson really loudly.
Ok, so…food. Cocktails and burgers. Lots of burgers, with chips, sorry, “fries” on the side.
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There’s a little, traditional-looking restaurant on rue Keller in Paris that’s not what it seems.
It isn’t a bistro as such … there’s no fairly predictable list of French classics washed down with red wine, nor is it an ultra-modern temple of haute cuisine. Instead, it serves a menu based around minced meat, formed into tartare, burgers or meatballs.
The three friends behind Cafe Moderne – one a very handy chef, the other two addicted to street food – realised on a jaunt around New York that there’s more to the meatball than the grey and unappetising ones from that ubiquitous Swedish furniture store, the one where you always mentally factor in a second trip to return the stuff that just falls apart, or the burgers from that temple to Americanism, the one with the drive-thru golden arches.
They were right. At their best, a burger or meatball can be sublime – a carefully seasoned, carefully flavoured dish centred around either can change the course of your day. It’s simple food, but when it’s done well, it’s got the potential to be astonishing food.
A lot of the food I cook at the moment is about convenience.
Not ‘convenience’ in the sense of ‘piercing the film on some ready meal and throwing it into a microwave’, but convenience in terms of getting the best results with the least effort.
That doesn’t mean that my food is becoming ‘bad’ – there’s a very real misconception out there about food that’s convenient not being good, but it does mean that I’m putting less effort into some meals than I might have done when I had, well, more time.
But again, there’s another misconception … ‘convenient’ doesn’t equal fast, either – far from it … many times, I spend a far greater amount of elapsed time cooking, it’s just that the active time spent at the stove is shorter, with longer gaps between interventions.
It’s lazy or smart cooking, depending on your perspective.
This is a classic example. It’s a chicken sofrito, a speciality of the city of Jerusalem, which arrived there via the Sephardi Jews millenia ago.
As with most dishes that stretch back that long, there’s good reason it’s endured – it’s simple, and absolutely delicious. The basic premise is that a butterflied chicken is lightly and slowly cooked in a big, shallow, covered pan in its own juices for a long time.
That’s just about it.
The chicken emerges tender and perfectly cooked, and there’s hardly anything to wash up.