Sunday, 30 May 2010

Fresh from the Garden

Here in North West England, it's been a pretty miserable Bank Holiday weekend so far in terms of the weather: yesterday it poured with rain pretty much full stop, and today it's so windy it's horrible. Still, no rain today, although I'm constantly checking out of the window because I've got the washing on the line.

Mind you, the rain was desperately needed, and it's made everything grow in the garden so much quicker. The sunshine last weekend had given the spinach and rocket a bit of a growth spurt, and I've just been to check on the other veg. The beans are shooting up, and needed re-tying, as are the sweet peas. Down in the South West, my mum already has flowers on her sweet peas. Most of mine are struggling to get over two feet tall, and some are struggling at one!

We've been eating salads from the garden for about three weeks now. Firstly it was lettuce which I bought as plugs from the garden centre, then home-grown rocket, and pea shoots, and finally the spinach is ready to be harvested. I'm hoping to keep on top of them to save them getting Popeye-like! I'm going to have a go at some successional sowing as well.

There are also some carrot-tops showing, and they look like carrots! These have had the hardest time, as they are purple carrots, which Tim bought the seeds for last year. I planted them, not really sure if they would germinate, in one of our deep planters. The soil in our garden is particularly stony, so I thought the deep bed, which is totally filled with compost, would be a good place for them. But they did germinate, and I obediently thinned them out on a still day, to avoid carrot fly.

Two days later, I noticed that the bed had been disturbed. One of our neighbourhood cats had clearly been for a little dig! The carrots seemed to have been totally submerged under the soil and some had been uprooted. I did what I could to repair the damage, but held little hope.

However, against all the odds, my little carrots are showing through the soil again, their feathery tops wafting in the breeze. I don't know when they'll be ready to harvest, probably not for ages, and I don't actually know if purple carrots are my thing, but they'll be worthy of a blog post.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Fresh from the Oven: Pizza

This was such a good Fresh from the Oven challenge, probably my favourite so far. Tim and I both love pizza, but we don't often have it. In fact, when Tim ran the London Marathon earlier this year, the one thing that motivated him was the thought of a large stuffed crust pizza afterwards!

This was a good pizza. An amazing pizza in fact. At least, that's Tim's opinion.

I followed the instructions carefully, as described below, by Lauren from Coffee Muffins. They were incredibly helpful, and stretching the dough was really tricky. Maybe it's easier if you're making a massive pizza, but for two small individual ones, I found a rolling pin actually worked better!

We added our toppings, carefully selected from tomato sauce, leftover sausage from the barbeque the day before, parma ham, mushrooms, peppers, mozzarella and pineapple. Tim's pizza was placed carefully in the oven for the required time... "It's brilliant!" He raved on tasting it. "You couldn't get this at Pizza Hut."

So my pizza, carefully topped, went into the oven. I checked it and turned it after a couple of minutes, as suggested. And finally, peeping through the glass of the oven, I could see it was perfect - the cheese was turning gently golden.

I opened the oven door, so excited, and so hungry.

Alas! Disaster struck! The pizza tumbled out of the oven and landed, topping side down, on the oven door and floor. Not my finest moment in baking history.

But the base seemed fine. So, I scraped the topping off, reloaded, and baked again. So my pizza base was a little crispy. But I'm going to value Tim's opinion more than ever. And always open the oven door very, very carefully.

The recipe amounts make 6 9-12 inch pizzas, which I think is rather a lot, even if you can keep the dough in the fridge for 3 days or in the freezer for 3 months! I made a third of the recipe, which was enough for two perfectly sized individual pizzas. The amounts for 1/3 quantities are given in brackets.

•4 1/2 cups or 20.25 ounces (6.75 ounces) of unbleached high-gluten bread flour

•1 3/4 teaspoons or 0.44 ounces (0.14 ounces) of salt

•1 teaspoon or 0.11 ounces (1/3 tsp) of instant yeast (if using active dry yeast you will need to increase this by 25%)

•1/4 cup or 2 ounces (0.67 ounces) of olive or vegetable oil, optional

•1 3/4 cups or 14 ounces (4.67 ounces) of ice cold water

While you don't need any special equipment for this recipe (I don't have any of the following) a pizza stone and peel may help with the final outcome. Oh and if you have an electric mixer with dough attachment that would be good - but if you don't you can do it the old fashioned way, just like me!

Stir together the flour, salt and instant yeast in a large bowl. With a large metal spoon (I used a wooden spoon and it didn't seem to make any difference) stir in the oil and water until all the flour is absorbed.

To do by hand, you need to stir with one hand and turn the bowl in the opposite direction with your other hand. You need to do this for 5 to 7 minutes, occasionally changing the direction as to really help develop the gluten. This method of mixing is actually quite a difficult task, sort of like rubbing your tummy while tapping your head, but as long as you are mixing the dough it should work out ok.

To do in a mixer, make sure you are using the dough hook attachment and mix on medium speed for 5 to 7 minutes.

Either way you mix you should end up with a smooth dough which is a little sticky. It should clear the sides of the bowl but not the bottom. If it isn't clearing the sides then add a little more flour and mix again. If it clears the bottom then add a couple of drops of water, and mix again.

The finished dough should be springy, elastic and sticky but not tacky. If you use a thermometer it should register somewhere between 50 to 55 oF.

Now prepare a sheet pan with baking parchment and spray oil. Flour your counter and remove the dough on to the counter. Using a metal dough scraper (or your hands) create 6 equals sized pieces of dough. (I only made 2 using my 1/3 ingredients).
Flour your hands and shape each into a ball, if your hands stick add more flour and try again. Place each ball onto your sheet pan, spray each piece of dough with oil. Once all pieces of dough are on the tray, enclose it in a food-grade bag and pop it into the fridge.
Because I was only making a small quantity of dough, I didn't use a tray at all, I just added each ball to a food-grade bag which I had sprayed the insides with oil. Then popped each bag into the fridge.

The next day a couple of hours before you want to cook them remove the dough from the fridge. Dust your counter with flour (and your hands) then spray oil on top. Place each ball on the counter and then gently press each into a flat disc about 1/2 inch thick. Top each with a little flour and oil and cover with another bag. Let rest for 2 hours.
At least 45 minutes before cooking put on your oven on at it's maximum temperature (mine goes up to 250 oC, which worked ok) up to 800oF. If you have a baking stone put it in the oven now. If you don't have a stone then you can use a normal baking sheet, just don't preheat it first.

Now comes the tricky part to stretch out your dough, dust your peel or sheet pan with semolina flour or cornmeal. Coat your hands in flour including the backs and your knuckles. Gently lay the dough on to the top of your fists and carefully stretch it by bouncing the dough in a circular motion. As it starts to spread out you can move to the full toss method (flinging it above your head and hoping it doesn't fall on the floor - good luck!). If it sticks to your hands at any point lay it out flat and redust your hands, continue stretching until it is the desired width.
With my dough I found it really hard to stretch my dough this way (as it kept tearing) so I stretched it gently on a well floured work surface. You can also roll it out using a rolling pin, but this isn't quite such a good method for working with the dough.
Once you have reached the desired width place the stretched dough on the peel or baking sheet.

Now you can top it as you wish.

Now that your oven should have preheated, transfer the pizza to your oven. It should only take between 8 and 10 minutes to cook. You might want to turn it 180 degrees after 2 minutes, if you think it might over cook on one side.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Banana Bread

This is the cake that I probably make more often than any other. Not because I am particularly obsessed with it, but because I am fussy about how I eat my bananas. I will only eat them when they are yellow with a slightly green tinge at the ends. I know that's technically unripe, but that's the way I like them.

So when the bananas have passed that point, even if they have only one brown spot on them, I don't like them. Hence, this recipe. Its the perfect way of using up bananas, and it's really easy to eat. It's great at any time of the day because it's not ridiculously sweet or gooey, but just nice.

100g sultanas

175g plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
125g unsalted butter, melted
150g sugar
2 large eggs
Up to 4 small, very ripe bananas (about 300g weighed without skin), mashed
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

23 x 13 x 7cm loaf tin, buttered and floured or with a paper insert

Serving Size : Makes 8–10 slices
Preheat the oven to 170ÂșC/gas mark 3. Put the flour, baking powder, bicarb and salt in a medium-sized bowl and, using your hands or a wooden spoon, combine well.
In a large bowl, mix the melted butter and sugar and beat until blended. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then the mashed bananas.
Then, with your wooden spoon, stir in the sultanas and vanilla extract. Add the flour mixture, a third at a time, stirring well after each bit. Scrape into the loaf tin and bake in the middle of the oven for 1–11/4 hours.
When it’s ready, an inserted toothpick or fine skewer should come out clean. Leave in the tin on a rack to cool, and eat thickly or thinly sliced, as you prefer.
I have adapted this from a Nigella recipe, she soaks the sultanas in rum and adds walnuts. I prefer a simpler cake from time to time (plus I don't like walnuts).