Saturday, 30 October 2010

The bake-a-thon gets underway

“First line your springform tin” might well be the most complicated instruction in the English language.

Oh yes, it might sound easy, but by the time I’d finally managed to do exactly that this afternoon, there was rather more baking parchment lying scrunched and torn on the kitchen floor than in the aforementioned tin, while the air had turned a vivid shade of blue.

This was well into the weekend’s bake-a-thon, but I can only hope that it was the apotheosis of the project’s fraught moments.

In a fit of charitableness a couple of weeks or so ago, I’d decided to take up a challenge from Greenpeace to raise money for that organisation through ‘flour power’: “bake a cake, not the Earth” runs one of the slogans.

Thinking something along the lines of: ‘Eh? I can raise money by doing something I enjoy and by making things that other people will like’! I signed up.

It’s worth noting here that my colleagues have enjoyed previous culinary treats – homemade chocolate bark and truffles – so this wasn’t a wildly optimistic appraisal. Indeed, once the news was out in our department, the first phrase on several pairs of lips was: ‘It has to involve chocolate!’ Even with this weekend to come, there was a frisson of expectation in the office yesterday.

And I’d picked Monday because … well, because it’s a Monday and because it’s the first day of November, so everyone probably needs a little cheering up. Add into that equation that it sits between Halloween tomorrow night and Bonfire Night on Friday, and it seemed perfect.

After my recent chocolate tart trials and tribulations, I had decided not to make any of those: too much work for too small a return anyhow.

So the first thing I chose was a ginger cake, using my mother’s recipe and which I’ve baked a number of times over the years. It’s carefully written out (with imperial measurements) in a hardbacked notebook that I bought something like 30 years ago in order to copy down recipes before going to college. There aren’t even half a dozen pages full.

It seems funny, after what I was writing about yesterday, to be contemplating anything my mother baked. But as I said then, there has always been, I think, a struggle going on within her. Perhaps the fact that neither my sister nor I were ever asked to help her bake was her concession to that Wesleyan attitude: ‘bad enough to make things they’ll enjoy, but let’s draw the line at letting them enjoy helping make such things’.

Not that I don’t adjust her original recipe. For goodness sake, it calls for “marg”! In my version, that obviously becomes butter.

One of the points that Greenpeace make about ‘flour power’ is that, if you can, it’s nice to look for environmentally sounds ingredients – so, for instance, is the flour organic?

Well, my flour has not been organic: shopping for baking basics in Waitrose earlier this week, I realised that there was a choice between their own-brand organic flour, which comes from a number of un-named countries, and their non-organic flour, which comes from their own farm in Hampshire.

I opted for the latter on the basis that I knew where it came from and that it hadn’t racked up air miles – and that their farm is run to good standards in general anyway. Besides, if we’re doing food ethics, then Waitrose is part of the John Lewis Partnership and is, therefore, a co-operative. Which is good of itself.

The sugar is fair trade. So is the chocolate and ground ginger. The eggs and cream and milk are all from farmers on Broadway Market and are from livestock that is kept to the highest standards.

Butter is from La Bouche and is unsalted and French. Baking powder and bicarbonate of soda are from Waitrose (I have no idea of their provenance beyond that).

Anyway, part of these were bought this morning, at Broadway Market – the weekly trip also having to provide the ‘ordinary’ food for the weekend too.

I picked up excellent frankfurters from the German deli stall to make a sauerkraut dish from Stéphane Reynaud’s Ripailles: Traditional French Cuisine this evening: a dish that is really more German than what we think of as French, but such is Alsace cuisine.

There were parsnips and apples to blend together for lunchtime soup. Plus braising steak from Wild Dartmoor Beef for a Boeuf Bourguignon tomorrow evening – I’ll pop that in a marinade later.

But then, because the very best laid schedules of mice and men are only there for the overturning, I spotted punnets of something unfamiliar at the Chegworth Valley Farm stall. On closer inspection, it turned out to be medlars – a fruit that was very popular in England in Tudor times, but fell out of fashion in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Now apparently, it’s possible to eat them raw, but only after the fruit has ‘bletted’ – or got almost rotten, as the man on the stall described it.

I didn’t know what I was going to do with them – although The Other Half, who was with me this morning, suggested a jelly – but decided that I couldn’t miss such an opportunity, so I picked up two punnets.

When we got home, the first thing I did after putting everything away was sit down in the garden with a coffee, a fag, Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook and Jane Grigson’s English Food, to see exactly what to do with the medlars.

Sure enough, a jelly proved to be the obvious thing. The only question was whether to follow the instructions of Ms Grigson or Ms Raven. The main difference was whether one chopped up the fruit before simmering to release the juices – or not. In the case of the latter, Ms Raven urges readers to resist the temptation to break up either medlars or quince, and simply simmer them patiently until they spilt all of their own accord.

I opted for this version and – after quickly photographing the medlars with a couple of quince and a pumpkin – piled the medlars into a large pot, together with the pair of quince I’d bought last weekend, covered them with water and set them to simmer.

Then came the ginger cake – I doubled the ingredients (eggs, Golden Syrup, sugar, butter, milk, self-raising flour, salt and ground ginger) and also sifted the flour with the salt, although this isn’t mentioned in the recipe. Later, I used a skewer to test that it was completely cooked – and left it until it was.

Unfortunately, it didn’t come out of the tin cleanly – I probably should have buttered it lightly. However, the taste is good, so after letting it cool thoroughly, I’ve cut it into nice chunks – it’s almost more like a parkin, which is perfect for this time of year.

After lunch, it was on to the chocolate cake – and lining that springform tin. After I’d achieved that – thanks to instructions found on the internet – the actual mix was easy.

Set your oven to 180˚C. Take 80g good quality cocoa powder and mix carefully with 300ml boiling water. The add 550g light brown sugar and 250g butter and melt over a gentle heat.

Meanwhile, sift 400g plain flour with 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder and 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda and beat four eggs.

When the sugar, cocoa and butter have melted fully, let the mix cool a little before beating in the eggs. The blend in the flour, mixing carefully until you’ve got a completely even colour.

Pour into your lined tin and pop in the oven. It’ll take between an hour and an hour and 45 minutes. Mine took the latter before the skewer came up easily clean. Then leave to cool a little for about 15 minutes before carefully removing from the tin and peeling away the parchment. Leave upside down on a cooling rack to even out the shape. The sense of triumph was huge.

That’ll be finished tomorrow.

Dinner was easy. My adjusted version for two people goes like this: take a chopped onion and soften in duck fat, before drained sauerkraut, eight juniper berries and some bay leaves are added. The recipe mentioned cloves, but I substituted more of George’s celery salt.

Add stock or boiling water to cover. Pop on a lid and leave for around 40 minutes on a low heat.

After that, pop in some diced smoked bacon and leave for a further 20 minutes. Then add a glass of white wine and some diced potatoes and give it another half an hour. Finally, pop some frankfurters on top and leave for another 10 minutes. Serve with some good German mustard. Very nice.

Not daring to stop for too long, I diced the beef, tied the herbs into a bouquet garni, crushed four cloves of garlic and lobbed them all into a bowl, sloshed in a bottle of burgundy and covered the lot with cling film. It’s now in the fridge, ready for cooking tomorrow evening.

The medlars and quince have long been taken off the heat and are slowly dripping sweet juice through a muslin-lined colander. I’ll nip to the corner shop tomorrow for granulated sugar – they have plenty of pectin themselves, apparently, and don’t needed preserving sugar.

For the third summer running, I lost weight while we holidaying in Collioure. For the first year, though, I haven’t out it straight back on after returning to Blighty. I suspect it’s all these weekends in the kitchen – I barely seem to stop for breath!

Don’t let that fool you though – tiring it might be, but I love it too. But thank goodness the hour goes back tonight and I get an extra hour's kip!

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