Monthly Archives: June 2010

First fumblings with sourdough.

The reason sourdough, or natural leaven bread means so much to me, the reason I go on about it so, is that bread is the final frontier in cooking that I’d never been able to master. I’ve baked since I was seven (I used to make the cakes for my parents shop on the Bayswater Road in west London, probably illegally but there you go). But I’d never been able to make bread. I never worked out why. When I was a child I couldn’t wear a watch, they’d stop when I put them on. And if I ever tried to make anything with yeast in it, it’d die.  My bread was awful. I tried things like Danish pastries, thinking that maybe cos they were a cakey thing, I might have more luck. But no. It was actually hard to take failure, over and over again and I felt like you do when computers give you problems. Like it’s personal.

Some years ago, I went diving and fishing with a Michelin starred chef. I told him about me and bread. He laughed. “Anyone can make bread” he said, sounding like the chef in Ratatouille. “I can’t” I answered mournfully. “Come to my kitchen,” he offered. So I went.

He made the dough for the day and put it in this huge mixer. Then he asked me to shape it or something. I can’t remember now, but anyway, I touched it. We were making the bread for the entire evening’s covers. To cut a long story short, cos you must surely know what’s coming,  the bread I’d touched failed. The fact that I’d told him this didn’t appease his temper. He looked at me like I was a witch and not long after I found myself on the pavement outside, crushed.

Eventually bread makers came onto the market and I even failed with those, but I realised that’s because we had a shit bread maker. Our downstairs neighbour, the lovely Sarah, used to produce these huge loaves for her and her husband Ben. Her bread machine was a Panasonic (still the only make of bread maker I’d recommend) and eventually we bought one and what do you know, as long as I stayed away from the mixture with my hands – very easy to do with a machine – we were okay. As time went on, I got confident again. I really don’t know if bread senses fear but maybe it does. Because as I got more confident, I started making bagels and pizza, using the machine to make the dough and then shaping it myself. Success was mine. I don’t know, perhaps having children changed whatever freaky wiring I had going on that was such an efficient killer of bread dough. Perhaps the hands that had always been so cold, but made great pastry, were starting to warm up. The point is, I was able to make bread.

But my eye was always on the big prize:  sourdough. Proper Italian bread is sourdough bread: made without yeast but by using a starter of, basically, flour and water which uses wild yeasts that are present in the air and on the flour. In Italy we call this leaven a ‘biga’. Some bakers call it ‘La Mamma or La Madre’ – the mother. Fitting because the starter you, yes, start with, you make all your subsequent bread from. You use a bit of your starter every day to make your bread (or discard it if you’re not making bread) and then feed (or refresh) it with more flour and water. Some starters date back many years. It’s said that the starter that makes the famous Poilan bread dates back to 1932. Certainly the longer a starter has been going, the better it is and the more flavoursome the bread.

Sourdough bread is big, holey bread which you can’t squash into putty. It is deeply flavoursome, has a low GI (thus very satisfying) and can make a meal out of the most humble of ingredients. Add a squash of Brie and a few roasted peppers in olive oil and I’m happy. If you live in a big City – certainly London – you can buy sourdough bread pretty easily. But here, in Suffolk it’s not so easy.

Every weekly trip to London saw me coming back with something from Flour Station or Paul’s and I’d text my boyfhusband on the way home and say “we have good bread, we have a meal.” But I wanted to be able to make this bread myself.

I’d bought Dan Lepard’s The Handmade Loaf some years previously. I’d started a starter from his instructions which had looked promising, but then I got pregnant and other things occupied my mind. My friend Lucy gave me a bit of her starter but I’d let it go off in the back of the fridge. Then finally my friend Emily offered to send me some of hers. This seemed such an act of friendship and I liked the fact that Emily – whom I’d only ever got to know on line (I used to co-run a parenting forum), could send her starter across the country, in the post, and I could make bread from it.

It came. I tipped it into a Kilner jar, fed it for two days and opened the first recipe in Dan’s book, which was for white leaven bread. Dan’s recipes are deeply prescriptive: 8am, do this, 8.10am do that. They had put me off at first because it seemed you had to spend all day making bread. Maybe this was why sourdough loaves cost so much. But in fact it wasn’t so. It suited me perfectly. I found the bit that took the most time was the beginning, and refreshing the starter. Otherwise you hardly kneaded it at all – 10/15 seconds at a time. Leaving it to rest for 10 mins, 30 mins, an hour…it meant I could do it in between feeds/reading to my children/preparing dinner etc.

The first loaf I made I started just after school pick up, which is still the best time for me to make bread. I had already decided to be Master of the sourdough in terms of this: the final rise called for a time of 4-5 hours. I knew I could never stay up that long, so I decided to just leave it to rise overnight in a bowl lined with a teacloth on the concrete floor of the laundry room. At a temperature of about 15 degrees. I decided that the bread either had to cope with this, or it had no place in my life.

The next morning I got up and very clumsily took the bread off the teatowel, which it had stuck to, and wobbled it onto a cold baking tray (my technique finessed incredibly fast, fear not). Dan said an oven temperature of 220 for 50-70 minutes. After 30 minutes my loaf was frazzled.

I was upset, of course, but as I cut into the loaf I realised that there inside was proper sourdough. What’s more, as it cooled, I realised the crust had this wonderful taste. I was so excited that I sent a picture of it to Dan (whom I don’t know, but I figured he’d not be too freaked out as we work for the same newspaper) and he replied saying he thought it looked great and it looked better than his first sourdough. He probably says this to everyone, but I chose to believe him.

We – boyfyhusband and I, not me and Mr Lepard – ate it with a poached egg (Burford Browns) topped with herbs from our garden. I almost died of happiness that morning. I told everyone, all day, all week, that I had made bread. With my hands. I think I sent a picture of my sourdough bread to everyone with an email address. Finally.

First ever sourdough. Look at that crumb! This was proved in a bowl lined with a teatowel for nine hours at 15 degrees. I didn’t slash it, I cooked it for 30 minutes at 220.
And it worked.

Mummy’s Chocolate Mousse

Chocolate mousse, detail from.
Chocolate mousse was a big thing in the Barbieri household when I was a bambina. Mostly, I have to say, because my mum would serve it in those saucer champagne glasses – the sort that very few people use now (they let the bubbles out too fast, but how long does one hold a glass of champagne for??) but growing up, in the 1970’s, you used to see them far more.
I fully intend to serve my chocolate mousse in those glasses just as soon as I can nick them from my folks’ house. In the meantime I serve them in little white pots – Gu desserts used to come in them when Gu desserts first came out.
Having a six year old meant it was only a matter of time before I’d have to revive the tradition of chocolate mousse. We used to have it only occasionally when I was a child, but these days, we have it after Sunday lunch, every Sunday. Rituals are important to small children (and me). This is also a great dessert to make in advance and stick in the fridge, so it’s one less thing to think about if you’re entertaining.  It uses raw egg, which I guess I must point out you shouldn’t eat if you’re pregnant/old/young/allergic to eggs. Etc. Otherwise, this is the recipe and how you make it. And yes I will stop talking about food soon-ish.
This is a bastardisation of my mother’s recipe and Nigella’s. I’ve tried many others but this makes for a really nice, light, mousse that has zero added sugar, has all the natural goodness of high cocoa content chocolate, has a good chocolate hit without alienated small children or making them fly around the room afterwards. 
You will need:
For four people (this makes quite a small amount, the idea is that you have a good hit of chocolate so you don’t need to pig out on it). It’s easy to double up on if you need more.
50g 70% cocoa chocolate (I use Waitrose Continental Plain Chocolate, 70%. I recommend you do too, it’s excellent).
50g 37% cocoa chocolate (I use Green and Black’s Cooking Milk Chocolate)
2 eggs at room temperature separated. It doesn’t really matter if they’re medium or large, whatever you have. Remember it’s the white of the egg that changes with the size of the egg, not the yolk. So it figures that if you use large, or extra large eggs you’ll have more white of egg, ergo more whisked egg whites, ergo more mousse…so it’s quite a good way of making less go further or ending up with a slightly lighter mousse. *
a pinch of salt
Put the chocolate in a bowl above a simmering pan of water. When melted, take off the heat and leave to cool for a few minutes. In the meantime whisk the egg whites in a clean bowl, until they’re stiff and you can turn the bowl upside down.
Beat the yolks and the pinch of salt into the chocolate mixture, then gently fold in the whisked egg whites with a metal spoon. I find it works better with a metal spoon.
Poor into suitable receptacles: small espresso cups, ramekins, small pot things and chill overnight or for a few hours. I’d personally not keep this for more than about two days.
* update March 2013. If I need to make this mousse go further, or I just want to make it lighter, I just add more egg whites.
A nice topping for this is the white chocolate cream.

Saturday morning pancakes

 Saturday morning pancakes. And yes I know I posted this on a Sunday.

I saw Jamie Oliver doing these on the television just before Christmas. He was making them with his two eldest daughters. I’m not short of pancake recipes, but I’ve never been wholly pleased with the result. Not least, most pancake recipes need you to rest the mixture overnight or for an hour. Despite being really organised in many respects, I just get annoyed at the thought of having to make pancake mixture in advance like that. But I guess I’d have been able to get a*** into gear if the result had been worth while. And, have I mentioned, it’s not been.

Three things struck me about the Jamie pancake recipe that made me want to give it a try:

1) Its immediacy: you mix it up and away you go

2) You don’t have to weigh anything, you just use a cup – any coffee or tea cup – and that’s the measure you use for both flour and milk, so it’s great if you haven’t got scales/can’t be bothered with them.

3) It has grated fruit in it. This could only be a good thing. Then I made them and they were so delicious that they’ve become a regular Saturday morning fixture ever since.

Here is the recipe:

One cup of self raising flour (update, to make these more ‘wholegrainy, I now make them with half a cup of self raising flour and half a cup of wholemeal plain and then add half a teaspoon of baking powder)
One cup of milk (I use semi skimmed since that’s what we get)
One egg
Pinch of salt
A nice pear or apple or banana

to serve: blueberries, maple syrup and live yoghurt. (Jamie’s recipe called for yoghurt and honey, I prefer to serve them slightly differently.)

Here is what you do:

Whisk together the flour, milk and egg. You can use an electric whisk if you want, or a hand whisk or even a fork. It doesn’t need much, just enough to make a smooth batter. Add the pinch of salt – I use Maldon sea salt. Take a nice ripe pear or apple and wash it, then great the whole thing into the mixture, peel and all. Jamie did it pips and all, I fish those out, or grate around them. Bananas work well too but it makes for a very strong banana flavoured pancake and we’re not so fond of them done this way in this house. Pears and apple are, I’ve found, the best. They impart a sweetness with no obvious presence. I don’t say this as one who believes you have to hide fruit from children. I don’t like subterfuge like that. But what I’m getting at is you end up with a really delicious pancake that just happens to have fruit in it.

Once the mixture is mixed together, heat a frying pan with a tiny bit of oil (I use sunflower, any relatively flavourless oil would do) and a tiny bit of butter. (You’ll need to repeat the oil and butter for each batch, but you only need tiny amounts.) Then I use two tablespoons per pancake and in my pan I can fit three in in one go. They don’t take very long to cook on each side – about a minute or so, just use your common sense – you’re looking for golden brown to fairly dark brown. Flip and repeat. I put mine in the warming drawer whilst I’m doing the rest but if you don’t have one then wrap them in silver foil or pop them in a very low oven. The whole batch is fairly fast to make and I’ve never had to ‘sacrifice’ the first few, like you do with regular pancakes. Using a true cappuccino cup (which I can measure if anyone is interested) I get about 12 pancakes done this way.

I serve with live yoghurt, blueberries and maple syrup and they are truly delicious and a great way to start the weekend.

ps: I’ve just enabled comments on this blog as I get quite a few emails/comments on Facebook. If you have a comment on this blog, please can I ask you put it here so I don’t look like Noddy Nomates. Thank you.

An addendum to this, written on 29th November:

I’ve since experimented with adding half wholemeal and half white self raising and it makes for a really delicious pancake, slightly nuttier in taste but not at all off-puttingly ‘worthy’. But it fills me up for longer because the GI (glycaemic index) is lower in wholemeal flour than white. If you can only find plain wholemeal flour, then add half a teaspoon of baking powder to the mix as well.

UV Tent

UV tents are a great idea in principle, you pop them up and they instantly protect everyone in them from the sun. Except they’re not all equal. If your tent is too small, or doesn’t allow for adequate ventilation, what you end up with is a UV shelter, but one that is so unbearably hot you can’t sit in it.

I like the idea of personal shelters on the beach/in the park/in my own front room if need be. But then I am half hermit and I like to have somewhere to retreat to. I like the idea of my own little zone. But UV tents are also a great idea in the garden, in this weather. And children love them because I guess it taps into some primal response of having a ‘nest’ (you only have to watch children play to see how they love making hidey holes).

A few years ago, when I was writing the Personal Shopper column in the Guardian, I came across the UV Protector by Shelta. It’s this one here. My one hasn’t got any garish yellow, it’s all blue, which is much more chic but the yellow probably serves a purpose.

Anyway,  it’s an excellent tent – think very hard before buying an inferior one and here’s why.

It’s big, but folds up small. The base is nearly 2m squared and when assembled it’s 135cm high or thereabouts. Small children can easily walk around in it.

It’s got poles in the design, but there’s no having to thread them through. To assemble it is a synch (although there is a rider, which I’ll tell you about in a moment), you just pull on two cords and up it goes. I struggle a bit as I’m only 5’2″ and so I’m at arm’s reach doing the initial pulling bit. But I just get someone to help me or stand on a chair. Taller people won’t struggle at all and you don’t need brute strength.

It’s also very easy to take down, takes seconds.

The carry bag it comes with is compact, but roomy. By that I mean it’s not one of those products that looks great when you first buy it, but to ever get it back in its carry case is impossible. You’ll have no problem getting the folded up tent back in.

It’s light and easy to carry and doesn’t take up much room in a boot.

You can vary the ventilation quite a lot, so you can have it open on both sides, or variations thereof. Plus cos it’s bigger than the average UV tent, it’s not so claustrophobic.

You can fill it up with blankets and pillows and be very comfortable. Although that yellow…


About three years after our eldest was born, I bought my boyfyhusband a cocktail shaker. I searched very high, and very low for one that looked good and would last and finally found it at Alessi, that Italian design emporium that produces some truly wonderful, but also truly awful, designs.

 This the 870/50 Alessi cocktail shaker in 18/10 matt stainless steel which at the time of writing costs £63. It’s worth it.

Thus Friday nights became cocktail nights.  At the end of every week, when our daughter had gone to sleep and I was reasonably sure she wouldn’t want a feed til morning, I’d indulge in some beautiful, hard liquor.

Now my favourite cocktail has always been a vodka Martini, straight up, with three olives. (No idea if shaken or stirred since I never make my own, I just say “my usual” and it’s made for me.)

I love Martinis so much that I wrote it into my birth plan that immediately after the birth of our second daughter, and whilst I was waiting for placental transfusion to stop (the cord to stop pulsating) I was to be offered a vodka Martini. And indeed, I was.

But with a cocktail shaker comes the need for a proper cocktail book. Again, here is a field that is saturated with offerings but I went into a proper old fashioned book shop (okay, the Selfridges book department) to select. I ended up choosing, which is a neat little tome with no pictures but lots of smart writing and a very comprehensive list of recipes. It’s the cocktail book I’d recommend still.

What has any of this to do with Chambord? Very little directly. Except when you get into making cocktails you do need to start thinking about having something very grown up: a well stocked drinks’ cabinet. And in that cabinet appeared a very ornate bottle of ‘black raspberry liqueur’ aka Chambord.

The Chambord bottle is hideous, all plastic, gold coloured ornateness topped with a crown. The sort of thing the Pope would drink, if he drank, and he should if he doesn’t. I’ve heard that people feel the bottle is so ‘special’ they don’t know what to do with it when it’s empty. So instead of putting it in the recycling bin, they donate it to charity. Chambord made a feature of its bottle last year, releasing a very limited edition of one jewel encrusted version for $2million.

The world’s most expensive bottle of booze.
Chambord is an excellent liqueur. You can make all sorts of complicated cocktails with it (the website tells you how) but I like it best splashed into the bottom of a glass of fizz. It can turn even a humble Cava into something rather tasty and lovely. It’s very easy to drink and of course you’ll get drunk quickly. But it’s raspberries so it’s one of your five a day.