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Cookbooks | Bitter Honey by Letitia Clark

20 September 2021

For many years I bought cookbooks compulsively. Then, for a while, I stopped buying them almost entirely. Recently I have been tempted again and have a growing pile, still embarrassingly untouched, sitting, a bit reproachingly, on the bookshelf.

This book, though, was a birthday gift, and I recently managed to spend an afternoon in its company.

Over the summer, I spent a few weeks in Brittany. It was lovely of course, changing horizon and seeing family and friends again, but this time I did miss the heat. So, after the relentless spring downpours in London, and coming home now from a warm-ish, never-far-from-an-extra-layer August, I still yearned for sunshine. I decided it could best — or only (!) — be conjured through the plate. So I pulled out this book; I spent a couple of hours leafing through it, basking in the warmth, marking recipes.

Bitter Honey | Recipes and Stories from the Island of Sardinia is written by Letitia Clark, who has worked in such London restaurants as Spring, The Dock Kitchen, Morito, Moro (…) until she moved to Sardinia in 2017. The book at once captures Clark’s discovery and soon intimate acquaintance with the island, and of course her love of its food. Leafing through the recipes and thematic spreads — ‘foraging,’ ‘pasta,’ ‘the art of frying’ … — it instantly transposes to the arid heat of the Mediterranean, the intensifying song of cicadas.

I sometimes think that one very good recipe can be enough to justify buying a cookbook; this one has at the very least two: pork cooked in milk and bottarga pâté (recipe below).

Taking advantage of the more ephemeral summer crops, I’ve also tried the aubergine and ricotta salata antipasto and the figs, ricotta, thyme, and honey crostini, and have flagged quite a few more that promise to remain excellent company as the season shifts, notably the malloreddus (pasta) with sausage ragù.

This book is more than vicarious travel, it is dotted with recipes that are destined to become firmly ensconced in our kitchen.

Bottarga pâté from Bitter Honey by Letitia Clark

If (unlike me) you’re not that excited by this recipe, I can assure you it is incredible, and a unanimous hit. Preferably served with an apéro, perhaps some vin d’orange or Seville-orange—infused gin tonic!

80g bottarga, whole or grated
80g tinned tuna, drained
8 anchovy fillets
200g unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
Pinch of cayenne or chili powder
Squeeze of lemon juice
Toasted bread to serve

In a mixer, blend the bottarga, tuna, and achovies until completely smooth (this will take a few minutes). Add the butter and continue blending until achieving a smooth creamy pâté. Place in the refrigerator for at least an hour, and take out a little before serving so the pâté has had time to soften again slightly.

Serve alongside warm toasts with a pinch of cayenne pepper (or chili) and squeeze of lemon juice.

Far breton aux pruneaux (Breton far with prunes)

16 September 2021

For years, kouign amann was the obsession. We found a best one and wept a little when the bakery closed, looked farther afield, suffered disappointments, had a hand at making our own. Finally, it was time to move on. Not away completely but a balletic sidestep, to another one of the three most common Breton cakes: far. (The third is gâteau breton, a drier, crumbly, cookie-type-of-cake, which I am sure shall have its time with us one day, too. But for now — far.)

The term ‘far‘ comes from the latin word for grain, meal, or grits (far, farina, farro). In fact, breton far was initially a type of savory gruel or porridge served with meat. Over time it has sweetend and become more akin to a dense flan, preferably (but not necessarily) studded with sweet prunes, or caramelized apples.

I prefer far with prunes, but why prunes in Brittany, which is not a plum growing region? Theories trace their introduction to Brittany from its coasts and harbours, as prunes were a valued commodity among sailors during long sea voyages. So prunes seeped through Brittany from the sea, and ended up in the typically regional far aux pruneaux (far with prunes).

I’ve spent some time comparing and testing recipes before arriving at my ideal far, which has a silky, slightly lighter custard than some of the more traditional versions. It is very soft and yielding, just on the cusp of barely holding together when a slice is picked up by hand. I’ve also added a tinge of buckwheat, how could I resist?

Far breton aux pruneaux (Breton far with prunes)

130g white flour (either spelt or wheat)
20g (1 Tbsp) buckwheat flour
130g sugar
Large pinch of salt
5 eggs
20g butter, melted
750ml milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
400g pitted prunes
Optional: 1 Tbsp flavoursome alcohol (slivovitz, armagnac, calvados, …)

Preheat the oven to 175C (350F). Butter a deep, solid (not springform) pan (I use a casserole-type dish I use an oval casserole-type dish 33cm / 13 inches long).)

In a large mixing bowl, stir together the flours, sugar, and salt.

Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well to incorporate each until the batter is silky smooth.

Mix in the melted butter, milk, and vanilla extract (and alcohol if using). The batter will be very liquid.

** The batter can be refrigerated at this point, anywhere from a couple of hours to overnight.**

Pour the batter into the buttered dish and scatter the prunes evenly. Carefully (as the batter is liquid) slide into the oven. Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, until the far is set all the way (the centre shouldn’t be wobbly).

Let cool completely before eating.

Far can be kept (in the regfrigerator) for 2 to 3 days.

Simplest (four-ingredient) almond cake

6 September 2021

I wish I could wax poetic for hours about this cake, but that isn’t really my style, and the cake fulfills such a basic role in my life that basic is probably how best to write about it.

It features just four ingredients (lemon zest optional), comes together practically instantly, and not only does it keep for days but even improves with time. So it can be made ahead, and, as Imen McDonell suggests, always be on hand.

The recipe is from Imen’s The Farmette Cookbook. She calls it Claire’s Frangipane and has a lovely story to accompany the recipe, which like most others in the book is alluringly personal, one that transports straight into a chair pulled up to the kitchen table of her fabulous friend Claire. But, as I don’t know Claire, to me the cake has just become the simplest almond cake.

I’ve made this cake more than any other in the past few years and always serve it with either a rhubarb compote or stewed gooseberries, because, though delicious on its own, the cake truly transforms when accompanied by something luscious and puckeringly tart. At this time of year I might stew some early apples (unsweetened), or perhaps plums with cardamom?

Simplest almond cake recipe from Imen McDonnell’s Farmette Cookbook
The recipe given here is double the original — I often double recipes for cakes, especially ones that keep so well and improve with time.

275g sugar (slightly reduced from the original)
300g butter (softened at room temperature)
4 eggs
300g almond flour or freshly ground almonds (I like both blanched or whole)
Zest from one lemon (optional)

Preheat the oven to 175C (350F). Line a 23cm (9-inch) cake tin with parchment paper and butter the bottom and sides.

In a large mixing bowl (or stand mixer), beat the sugar and butter vigorously, for a long while, about 5 minutes.

Add the eggs one at a time, so each is assimilated before adding the next. Add the lemon zest if using.

Blend in the ground almonds until completely combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake tin and bake for 45 to 50 minutes (it could take a bit longer), until a knife or skewer comes out clean, and the cake feels firm to a light touch.

Dust with sugar and let cool completely before serving.

Serve with rhubarb, gooseberry, or another tart fruit compote, and optionally and quite decadently with a spoonful of crème fraîche too.

Can be stored at room temperature for a day and in the refrigerator after that.

Gooseberry sauce

25 July 2021

The secret, not so surprisingly, is butter.

This gooseberry sauce is closely linked to one of my favourite cakes, which I have yet to record here. It is a simple five-ingredient-recipe almond cake, from Imen McDonnell’s excellent book Farmette. I have made this cake more times than I can recall, I love it, and I think it truly soars served alongside very tart fruit. Often I have accompanied it with rhubarb compote, which pairs very well, but a couple of years ago in June, during their blink-of-an-eye season, I decided gooseberries.

Which is how the almond cake led me to the luscious secret of gooseberry sauce — butter.

The idea comes from the Riverford Farm Cookbook that I picked up by happenstance nearly ten years ago as a memory from a trip to Devon. It is still a book I turn to for easy inspiration with fruit and vegetables. I leant on the recipe for ‘Gooseberry Sauce for Oily Fish or Pork’ which is barely sweetened and delectably tart. It goes so well with the sweet almond cake.

Gooseberry sauce idea from the Riverford Farm Cookbook

400g gooseberries
2 Tbsps butter
2 Tbsps sugar

Wash and top and tail the gooseberries.

Place the gooseberries, knob of butter, and sugar in a smallish saucepan and cook over medium to low heat until the gooseberries have burst, to be somewhere between a sauce and a compote.

Let cool before serving, ideally with almond cake.

Our weekly bread | Truly easy seeded sourdough loaf

5 July 2021

I’ve been avoiding and postponing writing about sourdough for a long time, because it seemed so tricky and mined by details and intricacies and the space already inhabited by so many others. But I have shared this recipe privately so many times now that it makes sense to write it down here, once and for all, for those friends — and any others who might be interested — to have.

The first time I created a sourdough mother (starter) was in May 2014. It was easy and worked immediately but my dedication to bread making was patchy at best, in the end I spent more time making pancakes to use up the starter discard than actually baking loaves. After some months the experiment was waylaid.

In early March of last year, in a scramble to devise self-sustaining food sources in light of the impending lockdowns, again I created a starter (closely followed by salt beef, duck confit, pickles, etc etc). Of course, the irony became that everyone had the same idea at the same time and, while freshly baked bread remained readily available throughout, getting flour in London required constant adaptive creativity including ordering directly from mills, which — even they — soon rationed availability to one kilo of flour per order.

In any case, I created a mother, again, and started baking, this time at an all-consuming rhythm. Within weeks I experimented with different methods of sourdough breads (knead and no-knead), made bagels and baguettes, pizzas and enriched doughs. It was great fun and a steep learning curve. I traveled with the mother, continued baking in Brittany with different flours, different ovens, a not-so-different climate…

When we came home, life returned (briefly) to its more normal, hectic rhythm — bread making needed to be slotted in. And I had a number of stray bags of flour to use up (in particular einkorn, which is a low gluten flour that requires some creativity in bread baking). So I started experimenting with tin loaves, using a basic recipe from the E5 Bakehouse‘s Breadmaking Manual (they have since published a book).

In the Manual, the Seeded Rye is the first recipe, the easiest introduction to baking with sourdough. Taking it as a baseline, I used different flours, different seeds and nuts, adapting the water quantity slightly. It became not only the easiest bread to make, but also the most popular in the house. When, occasionally, I summoned up the effort to make a boule, folded meticulously over many hours, it ended up neglected, languishing in the bread box. Because the other top quality of the seeded loaf, in addition to its simplicity, is that it stays moist and delicious for at least 5 days, and probably up to week.

I usually make two loaves weekly, hand in hand with the rhythm of the starter, about which I will write in more detail soon (including how to revive one neglected in the fridge for a month!). The method today presumes the use of an active, recently ‘fed’ sourdough mother, often called ‘levain.’

Truly easy seeded sourdough loaf

Makes one 25cm x 12.5cm (10in x 5in) loaf

200g ‘levain’ or active, fed sourdough mother/starter
400g warm water (warm, not hot, to the touch, about body temperature)
100g dark rye flour
100g white rye flour
270g white spelt flour
160g of a mix of seeds and nuts: pumpkin, sunflower, flax, sesame seeds, walnuts, hazelnuts, …
12g salt
Olive oil for the tin

In a medium to large bowl, mix together the starter with the warm water.

Add all the other ingredients (the flours, seeds and nuts, and the salt) and mix well to obtain a homogenous, wet dough, with no more traces of flour. Let sit for 10 to 15 minutes to firm up slightly.

Meanwhile, oil the bread tin with a little olive oil (if using a cake tin that is not non-stick, line it with parchment paper and oil the parchment).

To transfer the dough into the tin: scrape the dough off the sides of the bowl, wet your hands with lukewarm water and, with wet hands, roughly shape/spin the dough into a long-ish oval (somewhat resembling a giant slug), and place it into the tin. Leave at room temperature, covered with a tea towel, for one hour.

Sprinkle the loaf with seeds, and slide the tin, ideally, in a ziplock bag large enough so it can close with the tin inside (otherwise cover with clingfilm or a barely damp tea towel) and place in the fridge overnight (anywhere from about 8 to 15 hours, as convenient).

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 230C (450F) and place a small dish with 2cm water on the lower shelf rack (the steam helps improves the consistency of the crust).

When the oven has reached its temperature, take the bread tin out of the refrigerator, score the top with a sharp knife, and place it in the oven. Bake at this high temperature for 25 minutes.

After 25 minutes, remove the tray with water, lower the temperature to 200C (400F), and bake for a further 15 minutes.

Once out of the oven, remove the bread from the tin immediately. The bread should sound hollow when tapped. If it doesn’t seem completely ready, return to oven (out of the tin) for a little while longer.

Let the bread cool completely on a wire rack. If possible, wait for a few hours before cutting!

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