Saturday, 2 May 2015

The square root of 800

This week at Bread of Heron, the Heron Corn Mill's community bread group, we were recreating a taste of childhood: milk bread!

Milk bread includes sugar and butter and possibly an egg as well as milk, so you could be forgiven for thinking it is getting towards the cake end of the baking spectrum, and nothing wrong with that. I think of it as a more restrained, more English version of brioche. Nell also provided a wholemeal recipe, courtesy of the Allinson's cookbook. This obviously produces a sturdier loaf, but the results looked very good, and I am waiting with interest to hear details of how it performed on the tea table.

This white loaf both rose and baked perfectly. It was first out of the oven and by general consent walked off with the loaf of the week award.

But not everybody took the classic white loaf approach, and we got a surprisingly wide variety of styles in our results. Bill looks surprised, anyway!

The similarity of milk bread to cake may explain why I seem (yet again) to have conflated two memories. In the confused place that is my noddle, I had it clearly set down that the 1970s bread known as "Nimble" was a milk loaf, of sorts. My dad had seen through the marketing hype and denounced Nimble as "faddist". Do you remember this advertising campaign?

Of course the hot air balloon is a subtle clue to the real nature of Nimble bread - all blown up full of hot air and no real substance to it. Nothing like our milk loaves in fact!

We decided not to go for the plaited look that some people would say is the sine qua non of a milk loaf. A pity in a way, as I had been practising with the tassels on my dressing gown all week, but I am sure that will eventually prove useful, like reef knots and that thing for getting stones out of horses' hooves. It's my strongly held belief that it's not what it looks like so much as what it tastes like. That's why I have a healthy scepticism towards web sites that concentrate on the "art" of bread. You can keep your art, I go for 'eart!

One slightly surprising thing we found was that as our milk loaves cooled, they tended to deflate slightly, so our originally pristine smooth tops developed a gently wrinkled look - not to the same degree as the gnarly monster above, rather the distingué air of one matured by exposure to le temps qui passe. Not unlike this hairy baker in a sense.


Which brings me nicely on to the supporting act this week - marmalade infused Chelsea buns. According to the radio this week, there are now so many Russian oligarchs living in Chelsea that it is known locally as Chelski. Nobody chose to add vodka to their buns this time, but there were several variations going on. Raisins stood in for currants; marmalade came in many flavours; cinnamon snuck in here and there; and marzipan made a sticky and very welcome appearance.

Ah, marmalade! It's a curious thing but everybody has a secret soft spot for this really rather silly kind of jam. I mean, why eat the peel when you could just eat the orange? It's entered the realm of the eccentric too, with the marmalade festival, which seems to divide our number straight down the middle: those who get it and those who don't. But let's not go down the road of schism! As Ogden Nash said - 

"There are two kinds of people: those who divide people into two kinds and those who do not".

I'm with the do nots. And so was my hero John Jorrocks, the great grocer of Coram Street (and surely a grocer should know about these things). He saw marmalade as a great oiler of wheels, to be offered as a bribe, to be withheld as a threat, to be thrown at a miscreant, and of course to grace the breakfast table on all occasions. Here he is using it to encourage his "bouy" of all trades Binjimin to aspire to the great qualities of the human condition -

So this marmalade Chelsea bun recipe. There was something troubling me about it. We were doing half the quantities, but the recipe said "roll it out to a 40 cm by 40 cm square". So how big should we roll ours out to if we were doing half measures? Those fortunate people who aren't pestered by mental arithmetic simply went for 20 cm by 20 cm, but I knew that couldn't be right - that was a quarter the size, so the dough would be twice as thick as it should be. Trouble is it was so hot in the shepherd's hut that my arithmetic unit was malfunctioning. Or to be more precise my applied arithmetic logic box was on the blink. I knew it had to have something to do with the square root of 800 (see below), but I couldn't get the cogs turning to work it out. Oh dear.

These dear ladies were clearly deep in a discussion about Pythagoras, and 22 feet per second per second - they're like that - but they were getting nowhere either, although the dough shape is right, in fact.


Most of us just dived in to the 20 cm by 20 cm plan without a second thought.

It was only when I noticed someone had a (roughly) 40 cm by 20 cm piece of dough and rolled it up lengthwise that I realised what was bothering me.

Yes I was right to be thinking that the area of my half-measures dough should be 40 * 40 / 2 cm2 and that the length of the sides of a square using all my dough rolled out to the same thickness as the recipe should be equal to the square root of (40 * 40 / 2) i.e. 1600 / 2 = 800, sqrt(800) = 28.3 cm. And yes the dough people were rolling out to 20 cm was therefore too thick.

But the real trouble was that original would have more layers of dough and currants in each slice because it was 40 cm rolled up, not 20 cm rolled up. So when one person rolled the dough out to 40 cm by 20 cm and rolled it up lengthwise, he and he alone (or possibly she and she alone - I'm not telling) was accurately following the recipe. Gold star to that baker - you know who you are. And the correct way to work out the right size for rolling out the dough was - half of "40 cm by 40 cm" is "40 cm by 20 cm". Simples.

And here were the results -

If everyone else's tasted as good as mine did, we'll all have been happy.

Bloomsday approacheth

We may not all have realised it, but the spirit of James Joyce's Ulysses was thick in the air again in the hut this week. After all, Bloomsday is only a little over 6 weeks away now. Here we are acting out  chapter 1 (using the 1922 text) -


"Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:
-- Introibo ad altare Dei."
(For "yellow dressinggown, ungirdled" read "Heron pinny, done up".)

Is anybody out there?

It's a lonely thing, blogging. You often wonder if there is an audience - anybody at all - who has the time to pick over the entrails of your week. Apparently there is! The internet really is an amazing thing. Not only does it help friends stay in touch, but it helps makes friends, and most astonishing of all, it randomly gives total strangers a brief glimpse into the bizarre inner workings of someone else's head. This blog, for instance, has been looked at, and probably puzzled over for 10 or 20 seconds before moving swiftly on, by people in several places I would have trouble finding on the map - 

Where for instance is this "United States"? Glad to see I'm going viral in Turkey anyway!

Notes from Palestine - conversations across the generations

My blog has had a lot of reminiscences about time past, and the good old days. But I have a feeling that the changes in my lifetime are pretty small beer compared to the changes Bouran's dad has lived through -  

"Dad told me that in his time the country was self sufficient in producing wheat that catered for the needs of the whole nation. They used to eat flat bread made of wheat flour only. The wheat was milled using a stone mill, but sadly enough stone mills no longer exist now. Other kinds of bread were available 60 years ago yet on a smaller scale. Barley and corn flour were also used especially if the families could not afford to buy wheat. Nowadays, only bread made from wheat flour is on the market. When I was a child, most Palestinians made their own bread, and baked it either on wood fire or simply took the loaves to the baker (forno) who would bake it on wood fire too. I still vividly remember doing that when I was 10. But now such bakeries do not exist and instead we have lots of bakeries which bake using electric ovens. The outcome is nowhere near the old wood fire baked bread but I think this is the trend now when this wave of commercialization has taken over."

I saw a similar thing still happening in Italy on TV - two ladies walking to the baker's, each holding one end of a piece of cloth, and their dough nestling between them on the cloth. The baker them picked the dough up, stamped it to show who it belonged to and put it into the wood fired oven. Think how firm that dough would have to be to stand up to that treatment!

These "cheese boat pies" that Bouran made seem to have something in common with Turkish cooking -

It looks to me like these start off flat, like little pizzas, and then the dough is squeezed together at the sides to produce a shallow lip all round. That seems to be the same idea as these "pide" from Tas Anatolian Turkish restaurant near Shakespeare's Globe in London -

We had these recently, mainly filled with lamb mince. The red cabbage went really well with this!

Isn't cooking amazing? It is so rooted in the place where it is done, yet it is completely transcends nationalities and borders. I suppose the common factor is history, which unites us and separates us at the same time.

More from Bouran next time, when we'll get on to traditional ovens.


Quite rightly, we keep coming back to talking about olives and olive oil. If we're not adding oil to our dough, we're chopping olives into it or onto it. We're blitzing olives and spreading them on our bread, or sticking them into the top of focaccia and drizzling it with oil. And finally we're dunking our bread in oil and balsamic. It's little short of an obsession.

This week the question of cold pressing came up. My son spent a year in Italy, and was given a very special parting gift by a friend: a bottle of the first pressing of their best home made olive oil. Oh joy! I think of cold pressing in the same way as stone grinding: it avoids brutalising the product and extracts the natural goodness gently and slowly, and blow the profit margin.

Peter Gott the pig farmer (nice hat) says he is not interested in giving the customer the cheapest price. He wants to get the best price he can because he is providing the best product he can. That makes sense to me. Likewise, if low yields or slow production mean a good product is more expensive than a commercialised, industrialised "equivalent", then so be it.

In that spirit, while I don't push the boat out when buying olive oil for bread making and cooking, I do always go for extra virgin. All the health benefits seem to be associated with the extra virgin oil, and I prefer not to have anything to do with oil that is separated by floating in a bath of chemicals. On holiday last year I found a bottle of "pomace oil" in the cupboard, and I cooked with it. Not an experience I would repeat, I tell you!

When it comes to olive oil for salads, and anywhere where it will be properly tasted, then I think it is worth spending a bit more for an oil that really tastes good. There comes a point of course where your own taste buds will tell you the taste is not worth the extra cost. But a bottle of olive oil last a very long time, so I have no hesitation in jumping at either of these oils, which I find to be very delicious indeed.

Italian oil

Il Casolare

Our son brought this home from Italy, and it subsequently turned up in Sainsbury's and Tesco's at £7.50 for a litre bottle. If you are canny you can sometimes find it reduced, particularly if it has gone cloudy on the shelves. This disappears when the oil warms up slightly. This is a very strong tasting oil, and can be a bit of a shock at first, but when you get used to it, it is really delicious. By the way, and on the spot, the best known Italian brand in this country (Filippo Berio) is not known in Italy, apparently.

Greek oil

We had a fantastic holiday tour guide when we went to the Peloponnese. As well as bringing the history of Greece to life for us, he did a very clever Trojan Horse thing by suggesting that Italian olive oil was commonly "beefed up" by the addition of good quality Greek oil. As evidence, he suggested we look at the label, which was likely to say "from more than one country", and we would know what that meant. A bit like the serpent in the garden of Eden, or Iago in Othello: sowing the seed of doubt that we would never again be free of! As Virgil says (Aeneid II.49) -

Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes
I fear the Greeks, even when they bear gifts

or should that be

Timeo Danaos et olea ferentes
I fear the Greeks, even when they bear oils

A really good sign these days is the regional provenance supplied even by the supermarkets, where you can practically choose the hillside in Italy or Greece where your olives should come from. One such Greek oil is from Kolymvari on the north-west corner of Crete. This is a really fruity oil, and not at all sharp.


You can sometimes find this in larger Tescos for about £6 a litre, and I've also seen it for slightly less in Venus Turkish supermarket in Manchester, which is quite open-minded of them!

We were also very lucky with our tour guide in Crete. As well as teaching us a few indispensible words like "kal' emera", "kal' espera" and "kale nycta", she pointed out the interesting fact that Crete is geologically the same thing as Kalamata - it's just drifted off to sea a bit. It works, look -

Ergo, if you like Kalamata olives, you could do worse than consider Cretan olive oil. You'll have noticed that both these recommendations from yours truly are cold pressed.

Strong flour

Stuart the miller can tell you the technical definition, but in simple terms the more protein and gluten there is in flour, the stronger it is. So for instance, Allinson's strong white has 12% protein, and Allinson's very strong white has 14% protein. Waitrose's Canadian wheat has 14.9% protein. The man at the Woodbridge Tide Mill told me their excellent stoneground wholemeal flour clocked in at about 16% protein.

English wheats generally tend to have lower levels of protein, which means they will be less vigorous when it comes to rising. Andrew Whitley's book contains the following table - apologies for the picture quality -

A quick Google suggests these figures for Italian flours -

Definition of sponge

We'll be baking with a sponge again soon, and it still seems to be causing some confusion in the group, so here's my simple version of what it is. Typically, you mix a quarter of your flour, half your water, no salt and some yeast (either commercial yeast or the wild yeast in a sourdough culture) and leave it to get going overnight before you bake. The absence of salt and plentiful water means the yeast is in ideal conditions to get feeding on the flour, and by the time you add the sponge to the rest of your ingredients, it is well on the way to breaking down the flour and developing flavour for your bread in the process.

The confusion probably comes from the many different terms used to describe the same type of thing. This page gives a pretty good explanation of the subtle differences between the various terms. If you just keep it simple, a sponge is part of the dough that is given a head start and improves your flavour. 


We'll have to get a tin that says "The End" on the side.