Friday, 27 May 2011


If Apple ever decided to go into food, this would be the kind of place they'd set up. Stickybeaks is bright, light, with a cool kind of vibe leaving you plenty of room to think, read and gossip.  Like a Mac it's a great combination of form and function, so there's good coffee - flat whites of course - and pretty cakes and even prettier salads. Tucked away on Hobson St in Cambridge, Stickybeaks Cafe is mercifully free of tourists;  today there are a few women eating a light lunch and sipping glasses of white wine; on my left is a twenty-something with a lot of shopping bags (Giulio); and on my right a guy languidly surfing on his Mac Air with iphone at his side. It's a relaxing place, the staff are friendly and helpful ... but don't bother bringing your clapped out PC laptop. It's just not a Microsoft kind of place.

Monday, 23 May 2011


This loaf, based on Pierre Nury's Rustic Light Rye in Dan Leader's Local Breads, is our standard weekly bake.  It has adapted itself over time: we now usually make it with white flour rather than rye (or with only a scattering of rye anyway), though this varies.  The bread has all the qualities needed for a routine loaf: it is easy, flexible enough to fit in with our other routines, and it tastes good. 
This week is a special bake, however, as we have brought back from Paris some flour from the Poilane bakery on rue du Cherche-Midi; I know you can get this flour in London now, but somehow it feels different, more authentic, to have lugged the bag back on the Eurostar.
And I am sure it makes better bread: waxier in texture, fuller flavoured, altogether more of a French loaf.

500g      strong white organic flour
200g      sourdough starter (50% water, 50% flour)
300g      water
10g        salt

In a mixing bowl, stir together the flour, starter and water to form a rough dough and let it stand for 30 minutes to hydrate. 
Turn it out and knead it for 10 minutes (no need for flour on the work top or hands); it will starts out very sticky, but will gradually become smoother and begin to come away from your hands and the work top.  Leave the dough to stand for 2 minutes - I use this time to clean out and lightly oil the mixing bowl.  Then knead the dough for a further 5 minutes, by which time the gluten will have developed to become stretchy and elastic.
Place the dough back in the mixing bowl, cover and leave in a warm place for two hours.  The refrigerate for 18 - 24 hours.
Remove the dough from the fridge and leave to stand for 3 hours - it won't rise much.
An hour before baking, place a baking stone or tray in the oven and heat to 250 degrees.  
Just before baking, prepare some floured baking paper, and sprinkle your work top with more flour and turn out the dough; scatter a little more flour on top of the mound of dough.  With minimum handling, form the dough into a rectangle and cut it in half.  Pick up the first half and stretch it to about 12 inches as you place it on the baking sheet.  Repeat with the second piece of dough.

Slide the loaves onto the baking stone, still on the floured parchment; place a dish of ice cubes in the bottom of the oven to create steam.  After 5 minutes turn the oven down to 200 degrees. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes until the crust is walnut brown.  
Slide onto a wire rack to cool.
Eat while still warm.  It needs no more than a smear of unsalted butter - French of course.

Saturday, 14 May 2011


Anya von Bremzen describes these as "coffee rolls," and they certainly make a substantial mid-morning snack. Her eclectic book on Russian Cooking, Please To The Table, is fascinating not only because of its unusual recipes but also because in 1990, Russia meant the USSR in its full pomp, and its territories included (among other now independent states) Latvia, Estonia and Kazakhstan, in addition to Armenia.

I have converted her original recipe to make sourdough-raised rolls (my starter is made up of 50% water and 50% flour; you may need to alter the quantities of flour and water in the ingredients if your starter has significantly different proportions). Otherwise, this pretty much follows Anya's description.The resulting buns are sweet, soft, sticky and rich with the sesame flavour of the tahini. They smell fantastic!


500g flour
140g milk
120g water
110g sourdough starter
100g  melted unsalted butter
1 egg, beaten
1/4 tsp salt
2 tbs sugar
1 jar tahini paste (300g)
16 tbs soft brown sugar
1 egg yolk beaten with 1 tsp milk to glaze.

1 In a large mixing bowl, combine the first eight ingredients, stirring to form a rough dough. Cover and leave to stand for 30 minutes.
2 Tip out the dough onto a work surface and knead for ten minutes. It will be very sticky at first but persevere! It doesn't need extra flour. Leave the dough to rest for 10 minutes (I used this time to wash out the mixing bowl and to grease it with any remaining melted butter). Then knead again for a further ten minutes. By the end, it should have formed a soft, silky dough which comes away quite cleanly from the work surface and your fingers.
3 Place the dough back in the mixing bowl and turn over to coat with the melted butter. Cover and leave in a warm place to rise for 2 - 3 hours.

4 Sprinkle a rolling pin and the work surface liberally with flour. Turn out the dough and rotate it so that its surfaces are well floured. Divide the dough into 8 pieces, more or less of equal size.
5 Roll out the first of these smaller pieces until it is quite thin, but not fragile. Anya's method suggests rolling the dough into a circular shape about 8" in diameter, but I found creating a rectangular shape made the next steps easier.
6 Spread 3 tsps of tahini evenly across the flattened dough; then scatter two tablespoons of soft brown sugar evenly on top. If in doubt, add a bit more tahini or sugar.
7 Roll up the dough into a thin cigar shape; then roll it into a pin-wheel, tucking the outside end underneath. Place the bun onto a buttered sheet of baking paper on top of a baking tray.
8 Repeat for the remaining seven pieces of dough.
9 Cover and leave the buns to rise for 30 minutes.
10 Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees,
11 Just before placing the rolls in the oven, brush generously with the egg/milk glaze. Bake for about 30 minutes or until golden brown.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011


I know it's not cool to gawp, but The Gilbert Scott Brasserie is just neck-craningly beautiful. You feel you could linger forever in the cosy Pugin bar, wrenching yourself away only for lunch in the airy, spacious Brasserie. Here there are vaulted ceilings with the tracery of a tasteful wedding cake, foxed mirrors and crisp coolness: Victoriana without the stuffiness.  
The menu reflects the decor: a whiff of the past with a modern sensibility, unusual flavours and a touch of whimsy. Marcus Wareing's English take on Brasserie food is a triumph. It all sounds so darn comforting, this is not food but victuals: Soles in Coffins, The Queen's Potage, Dorset Jugged Steak maybe with Sage and Onion Paxo on the side.

A crab salad is pretty and juicy. 

My artichoke tart is as nice as anything I have put into mouth since ... (maybe the creme egg at Easter) 

Kentish Pigeon in a Pot.

Cornish Sea Bass with Cullen Skink.

Oh yes we had puddings too ...
Orange Marmalade Jaffa Cake Pudding with Earl Grey Ice Cream
Eccles Cake with Cheddar Cheese Ice Cream

Although this is no ordinary railway caff it's not ruinously expensive with a good, reasonable wine list; mind you if they do start doing bacon butties... 

Sunday, 1 May 2011


This is my pipe dream: a small-holding containing

  •  A pig, preferably a rare breed with a funny squashed face 
  •  Beehives (me in fetching veil collecting honey)
  •  A potager patch where blowsy hollyhocks and honeysuckle combine in riotous harmony with wigwams of scarlet-flowering beans and rows of carrots and cabbages
  •  Not chickens - they frighten me. 

This is the reality: commuting to East London and walking the mean streets of Hackney to my job. Yes, I know, not so bucolic... but like superman I can assume a dual identity and these recent bank holidays give me the opportunity to indulge my inner HF-W.  I decide to cure my own bacon. 

Here's what I did:

  • Researched the net and various books 
  • Discovered you can no longer buy saltpetre any more as it is used to make explosives 
  • Bought some curing salt off e-bay: curing salt has a small percentage of nitrates which help the preserving process and maintain the colour of the meat
  • Found an enormous tupperware container and took it to the butcher's to say 'can I have a piece of pork belly to fit in here' 
  • Forgot that you have to fit a load of water in the container as well as the belly, so go and buy another container
  • Discovered bigger container doesn't fit in fridge - scale down operation
  • Mixed up the solution (for 5 litres of water you need 900 g curing salt); I added crushed juniper berries for flavour and weighted it down as the pork belly floats (I used a Le Creuset lid wrapped in a plastic bag)
  • After 6 - 7 days I decanted the belly and wiped it dry 
  • Decided to smoke half of it (my HF-W side was coming out strongly at the time)
  • Lit barbecue bucket and when smouldering chucked on fresh rosemary, fennel and sage to create smoke and flavour the meat. Had to keep rushing out to check on it - very exhausting and made worse by T calling me 'saddo' 
  • Following morning sliced the smoked and unsmoked belly. It looked like bacon, it smelled like bacon and bloody hell it tasted sooooo salty. The smoked half tasted as though it had spent the night in a pub (before the cigarette ban) with no trace of herby flavours ...hmmmm...
  • Looked again at books and realised I had forgotten to soak it overnight in fresh water to remove excess salt - swore fulsomely
  • Returned belly to container and added water. Lost my balance while returning it to the fridge and fell backwards. Container also overbalanced and slid out of fridge covering floor and me in porky water. Had a tantrum and left spouse to clear up and return bacon and more water to fridge
  • After the soaking I left the bacon to dry out for a few days in the fridge.
The moment of truth ... the first slice hits the pan. It sizzles and crisps up nicely, no watery liquid exudes unlike the vacuum-packed stuff. It does taste good, full of bacony flavour with a firm texture. 

So was it worth it? Yup, although better next time I think. For my next HF-W adventure I may well experiment with a dry cure ... better for my mental health and (possibly) marriage.