Category Archives: The Ordinary Cook

Greek Tsoureki bread

Greek tsoureki

I am a very lucky woman.  I get to do something that I love for my job.  I fell in love with bread when I realised that it was a challenge and that I could keep on learning about it forever more. Then I decided I want to spread the bread love and set up my bread making classes. All of this is my way of explaining why I am making a Greek bread that is usually made at Easter when I have barely taken down the Christmas decorations. I have to plan ahead in this game and as I popped an Easter Baking Day in the calendar last week I thought it best that I get cracking with perfecting the Tsoureki.

Tsoureki is traditionally braided and has a dyed red egg, to symbolise the blood and rebirth of Jesus, popped in the dough before the second rise so that it is nestled within the dough.  The bread is enriched with butter, egg and milk and flavoured with mehlep and given a slightly stringy feel by the addition of mastic gum.

I already had the mastic gum and the mehlep seeds to hand because our lovely Cypriot Londoner friend Tony had bought some up for me when he visited. The mastic is the sap from an evergreen from the pistachio family grown only on the Greek  island of Chios.  It reminds me of the (very posh) sugar crystals my mum used to have  for guests back in the 80’s. But pop one of the mastic gum crystals in your mouth and you get a chewing gum that is lightly scented pine forests (I am chewing, vigorously, as I type). Mastic gum has been used for centuries as a breath freshener and has anti bacterial properties and is said to be good for indigestion and stomach complaints, amongst a long list of other things. In the case of Tsoureki, you grind a small amount (I used three crystals) to a fine consistency and it imparts a delicate spicy, pine flavour as well as a slight stringiness to the soft dough.

The mehlep (aka mahleb) seeds are from the kernel of a species of cherry and have an almond flavour and impart a wonderful smell to this bread.  Again you use them sparingly in this recipe. I ground five seeds along with the mastic and together they made about ¼ tsp (a pinch of each).

You can make the Tsoureki without the mastic and mehlep seeds, but it won’t have quite the right flavour or texture, so if you can get hold of them, then do. I think they are fairly easy to get online and if you are a keen cook can be used for other dishes.

550g strong white flour
1 sachet of easy bake yeast
10g fine sea salt
50g caster sugar
grated zest of 1 orange
3 pieces of mastic gum, finely ground to make a pinch
5 mehlep seeds, finely ground
150ml milk, warmed
50g butter, softened or melted with the warmed milk
150ml water
1 egg
Syrup glaze:
50g caster sugar
50g (or ml) water
flaked almonds to decorate (optional)
Dyed red egg (if you want to be proper and traditional) or mini eggs to decorate

Method
Place the flour, salt, yeast (keep the salt and yeast separate), sugar, orange zest, ground mastic and mehlep in a large bowl or the bowl of your stand mixer.

Warm the milk to hand hot, I add the butter to the pan to melt it but you can just add softened butter. Add the  cool water to the milk to bring the temperature down. Check it’s not too hot (too hot and it will kill the yeast) and add to the flour. Add the egg. Now you can mix by hand or use a stand mixer.

If you use a stand mixer, then mix until well combined, turn off, leave the dough to rest for ten minutes (covered with a large bag), then mix on speed 1 for 1 minute. Leave dough to rest for ten minutes and then mix again for 1 minute. Cover the dough with large bag and allow to double in size.

If you are mixing by hand you can either mix with a clawed hand until combined and then knead for ten minutes until the dough is satiny smooth and a small piece stretches thinly before breaking or you can mix until well combined and leave to rest for ten minutes.  Keep the dough in the bowl and take the half furthest away from you and stretch it over the half nearest you, turn the bowl a quarter turn and repeat the stretch and fold. Repeat this action 8-12 times until the dough starts to resist you.  Cover the bowl with a large plastic bag and leave for ten minutes. Then repeat the stretches and folds. Leave to rest again and then repeat the stretches and folds.  Cover the bowl and leave the dough to double in size.

Lightly flour your work surface and tip out the light and airy dough. Deflate slightly and separate into three even sized pieces. Roll each piece out into a long sausage and braid the loaf. I start from the centre and work to each end. Tuck each end underneath slightly. If you are using a dyed red egg place it in one end of the braid and the loaf will prove around it. Place the braid on a tray, cover with a large inflated plastic bag and leave to prove for about 30 minutes, until it is light and airy and has increased in size. Preheat your oven to 190°c, gas mark 5, or use the top of the baking oven of the Aga. Place a baking tray onto the shelf to heat up so you can put the tray directly onto a hot tray. It will make a difference to the rise of the loaf.  Bake for 25 -30 minutes until dark golden and when pressed with a finger it resists your pressure.

In the last five minutes of baking prepare the sugar soup by placing the sugar and water in a small pan and dissolving over a gentle heat, then turn the heat up and simmer for a couple of minutes.  Brush the Tsoureki with the sugar syrup as soon as it comes out of the oven. Decorate with flaked almonds, that you have toasted lightly and some mini eggs if wished.  Place on a cooling tray to cool completely. It is delicious with or without butter.

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Merry Christmas

It’s Christmas Eve already.  I love this day, it’s probably my favourite, with the excitement and anticipation in the air, the cooking, baking and then a celebratory meal tonight playing cheesy Christmas tunes.

I am taking a moment in the middle of this madness to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful 2018. May this next year bring you happiness and good health and plenty of opportunities to get into your kitchen and bake.

With love and best wishes,

Kath x

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VonShef Stand Mixer – A review

VonShef Mixer

Photo courtesy of Domu

Domu sent me a stand mixer to put through its paces. The VonShef stand mixer has a 1260w motor and comes with a dough hook, whisk and paddle.  It has a similar styling to the KitchenAid with its curved body and stainless steel bowl.

I was interested to see how it would perform against my KitchenAid. I use my KitchenAid mixer daily, mixing bread doughs for the family, making cakes and occasionally I use it for students at my bread courses who want to learn how to mix their doughs in their stand mixers.

The Vonshef is a fraction of the price of the KitchenAid, but then it doesn’t have the sturdy workmanship that you expect of a stand mixer in the KitchenAid price range. The VonShef is made of plastic and so does not have the heavy, sturdy feel of the KitchenAid, but the benefit of this is its portability – the VonShef can easily be lifted in and out of cupboard if you don’t have the workspace to store your stand mixer on the worktop. The VonShef’s plastic is slightly more lightweight than the cheaper Kenwood Mixers on the market, but the VonShef is also cheaper than the cheapest Kenwood.

I have been thoroughly testing the VonShef over the past couple of weeks. It has made cakes and mixed the enriched doughs and pizza dough ahead of a bread class. I have been impressed with its performance.

It managed to mix five doughs consecutively (1 white pizza dough and 4 enriched doughs), using the mix and rest method, without any difficulty. The mix and rest method replicates the stretch and fold in the bowl by hand method that I use during the bread classes.  Both take advantage of allowing the gluten proteins time to develop (as soon as you add liquid to flour the two proteins that make up gluten, (glutenin and gliadin), start to form chains) and then giving them a helping hand by mixing (machine) or folding (hand), allowing to rest and then another mix or fold.  Both methods prove equally effective to a long knead by hand or running the mixer for 5-10 minutes.   The instructions for the VonShef mixer advises that you don’t run the mixer for longer than 5 minutes to avoid overheating the motor and the mix and rest method avoids this. Although, I think a five-minute knead at speed 2 is more than sufficient to develop the gluten of most doughs.

The VonShef has a few features that really stand out.  The splash guard fits well and makes adding ingredients mid-mix easy.  The pulse action is very quick and is great when you have added eggs to a cake mixture. They are mixed evenly and efficiently.  When I was making the cake, I found that I had to scrape down the bowl after each addition of a new ingredient, but I have to scrape down my KitchenAid too. The mixer worked perfectly well at mixing a light airy sponge.

It wasn’t just any cake either, but my eldest’s thirteenth birthday cake. A very important cake indeed.

Unicorn cake

So how do I rate the VonShef stand mixer? Well, it is noisier than my KitchenAid and nowhere near as sturdy or, let’s admit it, as beautiful, but for a mixer in the price range that it is in it is a great piece of equipment that makes great cakes and works perfectly well for mixing bread doughs. If you are looking for a budget mixer rather than a once-in-a-lifetime purchase then I can recommend the VonShef.

Disclaimer: I was sent a VonShef mixer free for the purposes of this review.  The opinions expressed are my own and honest after thoroughly testing the mixer. 

 

 

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Marinated peppers

marinated peppers

I am sharing these here as they are a staple of the lunch that I provide at my bread making courses. They are always a hit and I have been asked for the recipe more times than I can count. So here it is.  This is a simplified version (and in my opinion tastier) of one I have posted before. It’s very simple and can be jazzed up with a sprinkling of herbs, or capers, or sun dried tomatoes, depending on your mood. Try the peppers in the simple version first though and play around later.

I make them the day before I need them to give them time for the flavours to mingle, (but you could just eat them straight away if necessary), and they are good to eat for a few days, so they are handy to have in the fridge. I like the colours of the different peppers but if you prefer red peppers to green peppers feel free to make them with the colour that you prefer.

1 red pepper
1 yellow pepper
1 green pepper
salt & pepper
half a lemon
Extra virgin olive oil

Method
Preheat your oven to 220°c, gas mark 7, or use the floor of the roasting oven of the Aga. Line a baking tray with foil (not absolutely necessary but makes cleaning easier). Place the peppers on the tray (or if using an Aga just spread the foil directly on the floor of the roasting oven) and roast them, turning every ten minutes until they get nicely charred on all sides. This can take 30-40 minutes.  Once charred place them into a bowl large enough to hold them all and cover immediately with cling film.  Leave them to steam and get cool enough to handle. The steam helps the skin be easily peeled off.  Once cool enough to handle, peel away the skins, whilst holding the peppers over a bowl to catch the juices.  Remove the core and the seeds and rip the pepper flesh into strips. Place into a serving dish and pour over all the juices.  Season with salt and pepper.  Squeeze half a lemon over the top and be generous with the olive oil.

 

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Elderflowers and feeling glad to be alive

This is more of a philosophical post than my normal recipe posts but I did just want to share with you my walk the other morning.  I have started to do a pilates class on a Thursday morning. For several years now, each time I get up from a chair I make an audible groan.  My back aches, my hips ache, I generally ache. I decided in March that I should finally tackle it head on, so I joined a pilates class. I drop my daughters off at their respective schools and then head up the road to pilates. If I park near my youngest’s school it’s a ten minute walk up the hill. I have started to really enjoy this walk. I take it at quite a pace, like I do most of my walking. I am not a stroller, I am more of a power walker. Slow walking frustrates me. But because I drop my daughter off at school at 8.45 and the class doesn’t start till 9.30 I normally have an extra half hour to kill. I love where we live, it is surrounded by woodlands and these all have public footpaths weaving through them maintained by a wonderful local charity. So I take a diversion. I can usually find somewhere or something new even though it is only a stone’s throw away from where I have lived for over twenty years.

So, this Thursday… The girls are on half term and so were at home with Dad. I left the car in the normal car park and walked up the hill. It’s a back road so only has a few cars passing me and this week not even that as there was no school run. I could wander at ease and even at my usual faster than normal pace I could properly appreciate my surroundings. What hit me was the fizz of elderflower. The smell of the elderflower was intoxicating. There had been a storm the previous evening and the air still had that post-storm humidity and atmosphere that was holding the scent close.  It was like wandering through a jar of lemon sherbet.  Then, a little further up the hill, the atmosphere changed and this time it was the dying wild garlic that filled my nostrils. This smell is powerful, it fills your nose and you begin to wonder if your clothes have taken on the smell. I don’t dislike this powerful stench though, it still smells good and seems to hold a promise of good things that will come again next year when it pushes up its new sweet smelling (and tasting) new growth.

The walk to pilates always manages to invigorate me and it warms me up ready for the powerful stretches the pilates teacher puts us through. I am pleased to report, as an aside, that I have stopped groaning at every move and feel much better, taller and stronger as a result of the last three months of the weekly pilates class. I can recommend it.

I left pilates refreshed and ready for the day ahead and I knew that as soon as I got home I would have to don my wellies and go foraging for enough lacy flower heads to make elderflower cordial. So that’s what me and the youngest did.  We now have 1.5 litres of cordial sitting in the fridge and we are enjoying its refreshing zing. Every time I pour some out I am taken back to my walk through the woods.  Mr OC says that the smell of it makes his nose tingle, I said that it was because it is like drinking pollen.

I urge you to find a quiet road with an elder hedgerow or take yourself off into the woods and breathe in the lemony fizz deeply and feel glad that you are alive.

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Coffee and walnut biscuits

Coffee and walnut biscuits

These are a tasty treat to have with a cup of tea or coffee. They are deliciously short with the winning combination of coffee and walnut.  I have made some for us today and the remaining dough has been put in the fridge to be baked fresh on the morning for tomorrow’s bread course.

Makes about 25 biscuits

250g softened unsalted butter
55g muscovado sugar
55g caster sugar
2 tsp instant espresso powder
50g walnuts, finely chopped
100g wholemeal spelt or wholemeal flour
150g plain flour

Method
Grease two baking trays with butter, preheat your oven to 180°c, gas mark 4 or use the baking oven of your Aga.
Cream the butter, until soft. Add the two sugars and beat until fluffy. Add the espresso powder, walnuts and the flours and continue to beat until all is combined. Take a piece of dough about the size of a walnut and shape into a ball, flatten slightly, place on the greased tray. Use the prongs of a fork to press each biscuit down a little.

Bake the biscuits for 10-12 minutes until golden and firm. Leave to rest on the tray for a few minutes, then place on a wire rack to cool.

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Merry Christmas and a very happy 2017

Just a very quick message between present unwrapping at Ordinary Cook Towers to wish all of my readers and friends a very merry Christmas and all the very best for a happy and healthy 2017. I appreciate all of your support and kind comments that you make here and I am always pleased to hear that someone has made and enjoyed one of my recipes.

I will shortly be raising a glass of cheer to all of you,

With love, Kath xx

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