Off to Cuba

There´s an exhibition of drawings from the book "A taste of Cuba" at the Biblioteca Nacional in Havana. If you care to browse a bit of the book, here´s a link. I´ll be back in a week, and report faithfully.


The bread post

So, here´s what I think is the problem with bread:

If you want to buy bread, you are lost between either industrial, cheap, pre-frozen or plastic stuff on the one hand, and artisanal, wonderful, insanely expensive things on the other.

If you want to make bread you find things that look easy but are only edible to earth-mother types who live mainly on sprouts and peanut butter. Or else you have to wade through weighty tomes written by people who all seem to have biochemistry degrees from the MIT.

I tried making Laurie Colwin´s bread, and Nigella Lawson´s simple white loaf. And they were fine, and they of course produce that magic buzz you always get when you take bread out of the oven. Sometimes they were better than others, and I didn´t know why. Now I think I do, and here´s what I´ve learnt: 

They will tell you about yeast being a living organism, and fragile, and precious, a being to be treated with all the respect due to your firstborn. Well, I take my darling one-year-old to the park in mismatched socks, and give her ice cream in public, and sometimes salt her food, and sure I get dirty looks, but she´s survived so far. So, accomodate the dough to your schedule. Leave it to rise overnight, or up the yeast a little to make it quicker. Don´t suffer. But if you don´t have time to let it rise, don´t go the yeast way, make biscuit dough instead.

Strong bread flour really makes a difference. I can´t always find an obliging baker to sell me some, but Guru stepped in to the rescue and told me to buy gluten from a health store. A spoonful of powder and voila, you have strong flour (I calculate around 10% of the four weight, a bit less, maybe, nothing to get hung up on).

The oven really really has to be hot. I mean HOT. So wait for it. But don´t bother with quarry tiles or trays of boiling water or anything that might put your life in peril. Do want a Bocuse d´Or or a loaf of bread?

That "will sound hollow when it´s done" is true, but it will also sound hollow when it´s slightly underdone, so watch out. And whatever you do, wait for the bread to be cold to slice it. I know it smells good, I know you want a piece. Believe me, I know. But wait.

Dough can stay around for a week in your fridge. This means you can pull out a ball and cook just what you need each day. And it´s where the flatbread thing really comes in handy. For feeding lots of people the oven is still best, but for one or two quick naans or pizzas, go the stovetop way.

My bread recipe

One day, maybe, I will try all those sponge methods that involve stirring a dough a hundred times in the same direction, and I will knead by hand, and I will locate caraway seeds. But for now, this is how I do it, in my trusty old Thermomix.

Put 500 grams of all-purpose flour, a teaspoonful of salt, a heaping tablespoonful of gluten and a teaspoonful of dry yeast in the bowl. Give it a whirr so they mix well. 

Now add 300 grams/ml of water. Mix on 6 until it clumps into a ball. See if you think it needs more water or more flour. Irritating sort of instruction, I know, but you just have to eyeball things sometimes.

Now put it on kneading position for two and a half minutes.

Turn it out into a bowl and either dust it with flour all around or give it a coating of oil. Leave it to rise, covered with a tea towel or plastic wrap. I usually make this around midday, when I remember, and leave it to rise over a few hours.

When it´s doubled in size, punch it down (that´s fun) and knead a little. Shape it and leave it to proof if you can. That just means you leave it to puff up a bit again, and then bake it as you will.

For pizza or focaccia I add a good glug of olive oil to the dough. For naans I substitute some of the water for yogurt (125 ml, since that´s the size of yogurt pots in Spain). Sometimes I make half wholewehat half white, and others I add wheat germ, and of course you can go the way of the seeds and nuts. It´s all fairly loose.

That amount makes four pizzas the size of a dinner plate, or eight naans. It can be kept in the fridge and pulled out as need be, so it´s as well to make the full amount, but the recipe can be halved easily.

The illustration if for Abe´s Penny.


Spanish mangoes

They´re in season! Whole boxes of them, fresh from Almuñécar, cheap and beautiful. I gloat.


Free from flatbread fear

One of the few cookbooks that has survived my cull is Flatbreads and Flavors. I´ve had it for a year, and I´ve picked it up and put it down many times, but I´ve never cooked from it. For one thing, it is almost off-puttingly cool. I´m not always in the mood for the off the cuff "we got this recipefrom a Tajik woman milking a goat outside her yurt when we were cycling in the Chinese Pamirs". If it catches you on one of those "Am I measuring my life out in coffee spoons?" days, it might tip you over to the suicidal.
On more settled, serene days, however, you can acknowledge with grace the fact that if you´ve never cycled in Guadarrama you´re unlikely to do it in the Chinese, or any other, Pamirs, and that that´s ok. But when you think of making the flatbread you quail. It looks complicated, there are quarry tiles invovled, and a process where you have to open and shut the oven door seventeen times, not to mention tackling something called a sponge. With a weary sigh you think that there´s as much chance of making injera as of climbing some Hymalayan gorge, and open a bag of flour tortillas instead.

The book is chock full of other things besides bread, though, so you can have a field day with curries and condiments. So all is not lost.

Unless, that is, you suddenly perfect a great method for making flatbreads. One that will win no smiles from Neapolitan grandmothers, and would make a Pakistani mother in law faint. But do you care? You can have a beautiful, golden hot slab of holy glory on the table in a few minutes, and who cares if it´s called pita or naan or fougasse or what? It´s there and it´s delicious, that´s all that matters.

It´s from The Kitchn, and it´s brilliant. Once you have your dough (and you can buy it, you know, so don´t complain) all you do is heat a covered skillet and cook a pizza or a naan or whatever inside. It works just as they say, except that you should definitely turn down the gas once you turn the thing. Brown spots are lovely, charred, blackened crust, no.

Also, I find that best results come from a heavy non-stick skillet, topped with a cast iron lid. This heats up in no time, and you don´t have to waste a lot of time and energy, and make your kitchen a living hell in summer. I think of this as the easy-bake tandoor, and it´s brilliant.

As for doughs, I have found out a heap of things in my experiments this week, and will Tell All in the next post.


Quinoa in a rice cooker

In the two years since I discovered the gizmo, I´ve become a recognized rice cooker bore. I love my rice cooker so much, you see, I just can´t shut up about it. And since it´s so cheap, I´ve embarked on a near-reaching campaign to spread the gospel, and have given away several to deserving friends and relatives.
Not everyone is with me on this, and on receiving a largish box, they say, oh, but it´s so big, and where will I put it? It only makes rice...

Now, this is plain silly. I´ve never heard anyone complain that their favourite brain surgeon can´t play the violin or score winning goals. And I´ve met plenty of coffe makers that take up lots of counter space and only make indifferent coffee.

But anyway, that don´t matter, because when I read this piece in Gourmet, I found out something I´d long suspected but never tried: you can make quinoa in a rice cooker. Isn´t that great? Those little seeds can be a right bore to get just right, just like rice. And as the mother of an enterprising toddler who is apt to climb tables to get to the (thank God) butter knife, I appreciate hands off cooking.

So anyway, quinoa, andean gold, the perfect side dish, and so distressingly healthful, too, is there for you at the push of a button. Now go and get a rice cooker, will you?


Brick-fried chicken

Roast chicken is great in almost every way, but it has two drawbacks. One, that the oven must be turned on, which in Madrid in the second hottest summer ever is a no-go. The other is that if you´re on your own, it makes for a lot of leftovers: J is away, and baby P can pack away a less than impressive amount.

However, there is a way to crisp skin and tender meat. This recipe, Sally Schneider´s brick-fried chicken, but made with chicken parts rather than a whole chicken. Drumsticks, or thighs, or whatever. You need only buy as much chicken as you can bear to live with , fit it snugly in your skillet, and then enjoy the fun DIY aspect of playing around with weights, since I doubt you keep bricks in the kitchen.

Just one note: turn off the smoke detector at first, and watch the time. Single bits will take less than the whole chicken in the original recipe.


One must assume that the man was talking about literature and not food, because for all the love you may choose to throw at cake, it won´t come out unless you stick to your recipe. Still, I like the sentiment.