I was awake early this morning so Rufus and I left Richard to have a lie in and headed off on our walk. I love to walk through the village in the quiet morning before everyone else is about other than one old lady who always goes to collect her croissants from the bakery in her dressing gown and slippers – well, why wouldn’t you? On the way I was pondering what to do when I got home and the thought of making crumpets randomly came to mind. To be fair crumpets are never that far from my mind, they’re such a lovely childhood teatime memory and if not eaten for breakfast should be eaten in front of the fire on a cold and wet Sunday afternoon. I was certain I’d seen them in the book but had no idea whether I had the ingredients. The idea grew and by the time I got home crumpets slathered in butter was absolutely what this particular Sunday morning needed to make it perfect.
Looking up the recipe I discovered that it is simplicity itself to make homemade crumpets and that all I was lacking was a set of crumpet rings – who knew such a thing existed? It certainly isn’t something I’ve ever come across or bought as a wedding present for friends. Undeterred I decided to make the batter and work something out along the way. This gung ho approach was helped by the recipe that said that if we didn’t have any crumpet rings we could thicken up the batter and make pikelets instead. Every one’s a winner then!
If you want to make crumpets then you will need to whisk together 450g plain white flour, 350ml warm milk, 350ml warm water and 5g powdered dried yeast. Cover the resulting batter with cling film and leave to one side for at least an hour until it’s really bubbly. If you’re me, you’ll then go on to make a good solid soda bread while you wait for your crumpet batter – it was a good effort although I didn’t have any white flour left and made it with wholemeal which probably made it a little heavier than it would have been otherwise.
Back to the crumpets, once your batter is bubbly and, in my case, trying to escape the bowl whisk 10g salt and 1 teaspoon of baking powder into it. Heat a heavy based frying pan over a medium heat, grease your crumpet rings and the pan with sunflower or vegetable oil and do a test run. Put a ring in the pan, fill to just below the top and watch lots of holes appear in the top within a minute or two. If the batter runs out from under the ring it is too thin so whisk in some more flour, if no holes appear your batter is too thick so whisk in some water. Once the top of your crumpet looks as though it has set about 5 minutes after you started cooking it, turn the ring and crumpet over and cook for another 2 or 3 minutes until golden.
Being rather lacking in the crumpet ring department I used a metal ring that I had bought years ago for making some kind of tall cheesecake or other towering pudding. Richard cut it in half for me but really it was still too tall and too small in diameter. I made two crumpets in rings and even though I say so myself, they were awesome! Soft and bubbly in the middle, crisp on the outside, with holes for butter to melt into and that unmistakeable crumpety smell when you bite into them. After that I decided that a set of crumpet rings must be purchased for the making of crumpets every Sunday morning. Without them I instead poured my batter by the ladel into a hot oily pan to make pikelets which we ate hot from the pan and then Richard fried two eggs and had them on top of two pikelets. When we had eaten our fill I fried up the rest of the batter and once the pikelets were cool wrapped them in greaseproof paper and put them in the freezer to go in the toaster another day.
On Saturday night we made spicy Moroccan beef patties with crisp carrot salad and a lovely, simple salad made with slithers of courgette, toasted pine nuts and a lemon and olive oil dressing. To go with it I thought I’d rustle up a little last minute roti but was distracted by the recipe for Socca, a thick battery pancake from Southern France made for tearing, sharing, dipping and wrapping. It’s made from equal quantities of gram flour and water – 100ml of each measured in a jug for one pancake the size of an omelette pan. Add salt and pepper, whisk until smooth then pour into a hot oily pan and cook until crisp and brown on one side before flipping and doing the same on the other side. Eh, voila.
Even I couldn’t go far wrong with such a simple recipe. Richard was not a fan of this one but I liked it and ate the whole thing. It reminded me of the sweet corn fritters my dad used to make.
Over the weekend I hired a rotovator from a local garden centre and set to with vigour in the new veggie patch. I quickly discovered that rotovators are about as keen as I am on taking turf off and then much later discovered that I needed to use it with it’s front wheel lifted up if I wanted it to cut deeper. So after a good many hours, the latter few of which were rather more satisfying the veggie patch went from looking like this:
and I had to have my first soak of the year in the hot tub to try and ease my poor aching bones. Now, all I have to do is rake up all the turf and chunks of grass roots, dig it over, lay some paths, plant some veggies and Bob’s your uncle! I think the ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ approach may be the best one – one hour’s digging every day until complete!
All that rotovating meant that i didn’t in any way feel guilty when Sunday turned into Pork Belly Day. In the morning we sliced and tried our 5 day cured bacon with some home-laid eggs.
It was very solid to slice through, looked more like cured ham and was ridiculously salty – what a disappointment. The recipe said that 5 days was a good length of time for bacon and anything over this would make it unpalatably salty so I wonder if perhaps our little Kune Kune bellies are so much smaller that they need a lot less time to cure. The antidote is to soak the bacon overnight before use next time so that’s what we shall try.
More successful was Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s recipe for Aromatic Pork Belly slow cooked until tender in a syrupy stock and served with noodles and raw onion like a ramen:
You can find it in his Meat book and I highly recommend it after a weekend of hard physical labour.
I was chatting to my mum on the phone the other day and she mentioned that they were having pork belly for dinner which got me thinking that I hadn’t done anything with our pork bellies from last year’s pigs. So this afternoon I have started two of them curing for bacon and lardons using a basic dry cure of coarse salt, brown sugar, black pepper and chopped bay leaves. It’s the first time we’ve made bacon so I’m excited to see how it turns out and I’m hoping that it’ll be cured enough for a few slices to go into a hot pan on Sunday morning along with the tiniest chicken eggs that are being laid each day by Omelette our black hen we bought the other week.
This year’s piggie gang are currently enjoying some delicious long grass outside their paddock. It’s an area that we started to claim back from the nettles and brambles last year and it’s got fantatsically lush grass growing on it already so we’ve cordoned it off with electric fencing and the pigs are having a fantastic time stuffing their faces. The grass is so long that Little Pig gets lost amongst it.
The pigs were also very pleased to receive a beautiful handmade gift for their home last week from our friend Julie. She makes lovely things out of slate (you can find her website here) and very kindly made us this sign to hang on the gate:
In other news we came up with a plan for a duckpond on Sunday. The ground under the enormous oak tree near the house is always soggy and the water actually runs across one of our paths so seems to be coming from a spring of some kind. We kept ducks a few years ago and they are enormous fun to keep as well as being a welcome addition to the pantry but topping up a paddling pool for them every day in one of the driest Springs we’ve ever experienced was a right nuisance so I had decided not to keep them again until we get around to digging a lake (a project that has been talked about since day one but will have to wait until we have a spare £4000 or so…)
So, we chatted about creating a pond under the oak tree fed by the spring and creating a large fenced area where we can rear chickens and ducks together. Inspired by this idea, Richard disappeared off in the car and arrived back later having borrowed from a friend the most ancient of ancient machines I have ever seen, and trust me rural Normandy is full of ancient machinery! It’s a mini digger but it only has two wheels on the back and therefore uses the bucket and some overly complicated engineering to pull itself along like Arnold Schwarzenegger at the end of one of the Terminator films where he’s had both legs and one arm blown off or crushed in a machine, I can’t remember which. It seemed to take a very long time just to get to where it was needed and then a very long time to dig a bit out but it’s free to borrow and our time costs nothing so watch this space, there might be a duck pond by the Autumn…
The weather has been glorious for about 3 days now and between that and work commitments I hadn’t managed to start my project of learning to bake by baking all the recipes in the River Cottage Bread book. That’s 46 recipes and we’re already 16 weeks into the year which means that I have to average more than 1 a week if I am to achieve this, all whilst staying calm and Zen-like as bread doesn’t like to be hurried or stressed.
I had thought that I would probably start with a basic white loaf as that is the first recipe in the book but today I had friends coming over for coffee so I flicked to the section entitled Buns, Biscuits and Batter Breads. Deciding that doughnuts and croissants might be too much to deal with at this stage of my baking career and that oatcakes and crumpets weren’t right for the occasion I plumped for River Cottage Shortbread which as the author says ‘is quite different from a traditional thick Scottish shortbread’ in fact making thin, light, crumbly biscuits.
Baking Zen found, I creamed, folded, refridgerated, rolled and cut. There was a moment of tension at the rolling stage when the chilled dough broke apart into a number of pieces but I held my nerve and managed to cut out 18 perfect thin sortbread biscuits flavoured with cinnamon. 8 minutes in the oven and a good sprinkling of sugar and this is what they looked like.
The recipe describes them as ‘rich, delicate biscuits’. In this case Rich ate most of the delicate biscuits before our friends arrived for coffee so I class that as a success! There is now dough and general cookery stains on page 158 of ‘Bread’ and the project is underway.
Having spent the latter part of January, all of February and the beginning of March pootling about in Spain and Morocco in our campervan (if you missed it then visit ontheroadwithrufus.wordpress.com for the full story and photos of our adventures) it feels as though 2013 has started rather late at La Pichotiere. We thought we would have missed the worst weather and could get on with Spring activities on our return but three days after we got home it snowed very heavily and ever since it has been bitterly cold and very un-Springlike.
On the one warm day we’ve had I went to the garden centre and bought potting compost, seeds, fresh herbs to go into the kitchen herb bed and new asparagus crowns for the new veggie garden I’m planning but every day since we have had either snow or heavy frost and northerly winds making it bitter outside. I’ve planted up a load of seeds and am keeping them along with my herbs safe in the polytunnel but there’s no sign of even the smallest peak of greeness in any of the pots yet. I have big plans for the garden so this is a most disappointing start. At this rate I can’t see us being able to harvest any vegetables much before September!
Since it feels like New Year I’ve been thinking about plans and projects and baking is on my mind. Paul Hollywood is doing a great job of tempting me with bready treats on his BBC2 programme every Monday night but I do not have a good reputation with bread making. I love the idea of it, I love bread and all things baked, I love the smell of it baking but I am not a good baker. Invariably my loaves are squat, heavy things that would best be used for building a sturdy shed and probably should not be put anywhere near anyone’s digestive system. I don’t know why this is. It’s the same whether I use the bread machine or do it by hand, use ingredients from scratch or a packet mix, take all day or do it in a rush. I have become disheartened by failure.
So, I have decided to challenge myself and learn to bake properly this year. I am going to work my way through the River Cottage Bread book from start to finish and bake every single recipe in it from a basic loaf to sour dough to crumpets. I am going to take my time and enlist helpers and eaters along the way. I am going to analyse my mistakes and learn from them (then use them to edge the paths of the new veggie garden). That’s 46 recipes my friends. Not quite Julie Powell’s feat of cooking all of Julia Child’s recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking but a good challenge none the less. I shall let you know how I get on and do let me know if you want to be a tester at any point!