Sourdough Surprises

So, it’s been a while. Bread has been baked, cakes have been consumed and all that jazz, but no blog has been blogged. My only excuse is that getting married proved more of a distraction and time-eater than I had anticipated.

Anyway, I have decided to give myself A Fresh Start. And I’m doing so by joining a monthly sourdough baking club called Sourdough Surprises. They have a new fun, atypical sourdough recipe each month, and folks like me get to bake along. That’s my idea of fun (nerd, or what?).

So this month they were making muffins and quickbreads. More here on that.

I decided to get in on the act with an old favourite – blueberry muffins. 

Blueberry sourdough muffins.

I combined a couple of recipes for this. Mostly, it’s the work of the wonderful Felicity Cloake in the Guardian’s how to cook the perfect… series. But I sourdoughed it up using this method from Cultures for Health.

So, how did it go? Well, firstly quickbread is not really the word for it (but then it never is with sourdough!). Once the starter was all active and bubbly (it’s in great shape a the moment and almost spills out of its kilner jar!), I made up a biga with 100g of 100% sourdough starter, and all the flour and buttermilk from the recipe minus 50g of each (so, 190g flour and 190ml buttermilk). I left this to rise for 12 hours during the day.

Buttermilk biga - pre-rise

Buttermilk biga.

Buttermilk biga after 12 hours

Buttermilk biga after 12 hours.

I wasn’t sure what the rise would be like – I’ve never mixed my sourdough with anything other than water before, and I wasn’t sure what the acidity of the buttermilk would do to it. As you can see from the pictures, it worked a treat and more than doubled in size, going soft and silky too (the original mix was suprisingly stiff).

Once the biga had had its growing time, I proceeded with the recipe almost as published. The result? Well, they tasted delicious. They were supermoist, with a lovely depth of flavour. I couldn’t specifically taste the sourdough, but I think it added a note to the taste, and also helped keep them fresh for days.

As you can see, however, they fell a little, er, flat. I don’t think this was the result of the sourdough. They definitely rose – it’s just it wasn’t very sustained! I think I took them out too early, as I was worried they were burning on top. Doing them again, I’d do them on a lower temperature for longer, and maybe spread the mix between 12 cases instead of 10.

Muffins in the tin

Blueberry sourdough muffin.

Blueberry sourdough muffin.


100g active sourdough starter, 100% hydration
150g blueberries
190g plain flour, plus a little extra
110g butter, softened
200g soft light brown sugar
1 egg
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
½tsp salt
190ml buttermilk


Combine buttermilk, flour and active starter to make a biga. Cover and leave for 12 hours.

Preheat the oven to 170C.

In a small bowl, mash the blueberries with a fork.

Beat the butter and sugar in a mixer for 5-7 minutes.

Add the egg and mix well, then add the salt and about three quarters of the blueberries.

In thirds, add the risen biga and make sure it is all well-combined without over-mixing. At the last minute, add the bicarb.

Spoon into 12 muffin cases. Add the remaining blueberries on top, and sprinkle on a tiny bit more brown sugar.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, and don’t open the oven too early for fear of flat muffin syndrome!


Back in the baking business



It’s literally been two months, but finally (finally!) the oven is fixed and we are back in business on the baking front.

I have been wasting horrible amounts of flour keeping the sourdough all fed, but even so it’s taken 3 batches of bread to get one willing to rise to its full potential.


We are still sans-oven


It’s becoming a pain now. I think it has been almost two months. Apparently our oven manufacturer went bust a few years ago, so new elements have to be ordered individually, and hand-crafted by artisans up an Italian mountain. Or something.

In any case, I’m heartily sick of it. And I’m tired of wet, sloppy, hob-cooked food. You can keep your risotto, mash and soup for a good few months. I want pizza, crusty, cheesy pasta al forno, and proper bread.

Fortunately, there is finally light at the end of the tunnel. Wednesday is apparently the day. I have mozzarella and bread dough ready and waiting!

The lack of an oven has, however, forced me to get to grips with sourdough flatbread. From eggy naan dotted with nigella seeds, to tortillas, to my latest creation – cheese and ham stuffed flatbread things.

I made these for our trip to France to stock up on wine for the wedding. For Oli’s entire childhood, his mother apparently baked dozens of ‘cheese baps’ (for a family of 6!) every time they crossed the channel. Ferries, I am told, are not the same without them.

Sans-oven, I have been forced to improvise. And mmmmmmmm I shall definitely be doing these again. Blackened, crusty layers of bread, stuffed with salty ham and slightly smoky-tasting cheddar.

Who needs an oven anyway?

Cheese and ham flatbreads

Take a load of bread dough (I used sourdough) and let it rise once.

Divide into balls of about 100g, and then cut these in two.

On floured greaseproof paper, roll each 50g dollop out into a big circle – about 7″ across.

Leaving a 1″ gap around the edge, lay down a thin layer of ham on one dough circle. Cover the ham with a decent sprinkle of grated cheddar.

Run round the outside of the lower round with a damp pastry brush, then lay the other round on top. Use a rolling pin to gently roll over the rounds and seal the edges.

Heat a ridged griddle pan on high for 5 minutes, then turn the heat down slightly. Pick up the flatbread and lay it down. After about two minutes, turn it 90 degrees with some tongs. Flip it over after another minute or so to cook the other side.

I’m sure these would taste amazing hot from the griddle, but they’re lovely cold and doubled over to make them easier to munch.

Invention Test Tea

Our oven is broken.

I put it on to roast some spuds, and the power in the flat tripped out. Once the power was restored, the oven would not heat. Nada.

The hobs are fine, but for the time being anything baked is off the menu.

I would give (almost) anything for bread, pizza, or anything crusty with cheese right now.

But nothing is doing for the next three weeks. An engineer has visited, parts have been ordered, and a horrendously expensive, unexpected bill has been paid. But until parts have arrived there will be no pizza, no crusty cheese, and bread will cost us £4 a pop.

So, not only are we ovenless, we are also on a budget. Proper, like.

That’s why, on Friday, we found ourselves doing an inventory of the fridge, freezer and cupboard to try to eek out three extra meals before we next head to the shops.

We seem to have got lucky on the store front. Sausages and lardons on the freezer, celery and carrot in the fridge, butter beans in the cupboard. So tonight was Invention Test Tea #1 – soup!

I think it’s basically some class of a minestrone. Nothing fancy – just bacon and vegetable sofrito, thickened with pulses. But filling, and tasty as anything. And we’re having it again in a couple of nights!


Soup- farro, butter bean and bacon

Bacon, vegetable, farro and bean minestrone.

Serves 4.

120g diced pancetta or bacon
4 carrots, 4 sticks of celery and 2 white onions, all diced
2 tomatoes, diced
100g dried butter beans, or other white beans (soaked in cold water overnight)
100g farro or pearl barley
2 litres chicken or vegetable stock
Old parmesan rinds
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper
Chopped parsley
Grated parmesan

1. Drain the soaked beans, put in a pan with bay leaves, cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Simmer for 30 minutes, spooning off any scum that floats to the surface.

2. Gently fry the bacon in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil until crispy and the fat is mostly melted out.

3. Add the celery, onion and carrot to the pan, with a sprinkling of salt, and stir to coat it in the bacon fat. Cook gently for at least 10 minutes until all the vegetables are soft and glossy.

4. Add the diced tomatoes and old parmesan rind, and a good grinding of salt and pepper, and cook for another 5 minutes.

5. Drain the beans. Add them, together with the bay leaves and the farro, to the bacon and vegetables and stir to mix.

6. Add the stock and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down and simmer gently for an hour until the pulses and grains are cooked and have thickened the soup. Top up with a little hot water if over-reducing.

7. Serve with a sprinkling of grated parmesan and chopped parsley. More black pepper essential.

Lamb + cheese + potatoes = Easter delight


This Easter, we stayed at home. Well, once the many & varied Church services were over, that is.

Normally, Easter means lunch with one set of family or another, but this year – with the boy jetting off for work on the Tuesday – we decided to stay put for once.

So this, then, was the first opportunity I have had to cook an Easter lamb recipe I have been saving up for years… It’s in Rick Stein’s Mediterranean Escape, and it’s a layered dish of (wait for it) potatoes, lamb, garlic, tomatoes, pecorino, parmesan, and lashings of olive oil. Yes, all those things IN THE SAME POT. Glory be. (And it’s only one pot, so it’s virtually washing up free!)

I faffed with the recipe a bit, to make it for two, not six. Though I think I kept the potato quantities more or less the same – seriously, 800g spuds for six people?!


I won’t go into the method in any great detail, as it’s basically a layering job.

Glug of olive oil, third of potatoes (peeled, thickly sliced), half the lamb (lean leg, cubed), handful of cherry tomatoes (halved, seeds squeezed out), thyme, loads of garlic, handful of pecorino and parmesan. Repeat. Finally, top with remaining spuds and a handful more cheese. Season and glug oil liberally as you go.

I also poured a cup of water down the side to help it all steam – I would definitely recommend this


Cover, and bake on about 150 for an hour or so. Uncover, and bake for another half hour (to an hour) until golden and oozing on the top. The spuds should be soft all the way through, but crispy on top.

Oh my, it was a revelation. All my favourite flavours, soft and crunchy, rich with cheese and olive oil….. Apparently the recipe’s originally from Puglia – where we’re heading for our honeymoon this Summer. SO EXCITED NOW!

We didn’t make pudding. Instead, I ate a very lot of these beauties:



Figolli time!

Lamb figollaEvery Easter, for as long as I can remember, there has been a selection of enormous biscuits, stuffed with marzipan, iced and topped with a creme egg, that do the rounds in our family. As far as I know, my Grandma made one for everyone in the family every single year from when they moved here in the 1950s, until she became ill a couple of years ago.

These giant biccies are figolli (one figolla, two figolli), and they are basically the Maltese version of an Easter Egg – ie, everyone has at least one each! They are a soft biscuit, cut into a range of shapes (figolla has the same roots as the word ‘figure’) with some religious, Easter-y significance. The most traditional is the lamb-shape, but you can buy cutters in lots  of shapes – I have a butterfly, a duck, a heart, a basket and a fish, which I guess have vague overtones of new life and re-birth.

About 7 or 8 years ago, I was in Malta for Easter, and we went to Birgu on Easter morning to watch the statue of the risen Christ being run up the hill (this is more crazy that it sounds – the statue is MASSIVE, heavy and on a huge wooden stand that has to be carried by a lot of men). There were loads of children waiting to hold their Figolli up to be blessed by the Priests following the statue.

The same year, a few days before, we had visited my Auntie Ginny (Grandma’s little sister). She looks the spitting image of Grandma, and their mannerisms and little ways are so similar – down to the blue plastic bowls that are plonked in the middle of the table after a meal, filled with water so you can wash your fruit before peeling it (I have even seen grapes being peeled!). Auntie Ginny must have been over 80 at this point, but she was making a dozen or so figolli for her children and grandchildren, just as Grandma was doing the same back in the UK.

I managed to coax the recipe off Auntie Ginny – Grandma Lola had always been very reluctant to hand over her family recipes (no idea why not – a determination never to give up the roll of chief family cook?), though she has since relented, and given me an envelope full of hand-written notes.

Naturally, I then hit the shops on Merchant Street in Valletta, and stocked up on the cutters, and went home and set-to making my first batch. There were a few years when Grandma and I both made them – I mostly found friends to palm them off on, rather than inflicting two giant biscuits on everyone in my family! Since she’s been ill, it’s just been me baking them – a tradition I hope to keep up as long as she did.

I think my figolli cutters are actually ‘medium-shaped’, but I think the finished biscuits are probably a good 18cm across. The large ones must be huge! I think Grandma must have had larger ones (or maybe she actually had a cardboard shape she cut around?) – I remember thinking they were the biggest sweet things I had ever seen when I was little. “Do you want a duck, a fish or a basket?” she would always ask (the options were a bit more limited then!).

I’m taking Grandma’s figolla over to her on Easter Monday. It’s a bright red heart, runnily iced to say Grandma – I think she’ll like the fact that the tradition’s been passed on, and no-one in our family will be wanting for a giant, almond-stuffed biscuit any Easter soon!

Maltese Figolli – Easter biscuits – makes 11/12

Ingredients for pasta frolla:

800g plain flour
400g caster sugar
400g butter, fridge cold and chopped or grated
4 or 5 egg yolks

Ingredients for filling:

200g ground almonds
200g chopped almonds (toasted)
400g caster sugar
1 tablespoon mixed spice
zest of two oranges
2 teaspoons almond extract
3 tablespoons orange juice, or orange blossom water
3 medium eggs

To decorate:

2 packets royal icing sugar, made up according to instructions
Food colouring
Creme eggs (essential – one year my mother gave me my figolla without a creme egg, and claimed that was how it had come from Grandma – needless to say I quickly identified the creme egg culprit!!)

Figolla dough ingredients1. Make the dough by rubbing the fat into the flour, until it has the appearance of fine breadcrumbs. I cheated this year, by grating the butter in, then giving it a 1-minute whallop on full blast in the kitchen aid with the dough hook. It seemed to work, and (other than a lot of flour on the work surface) was a lot quicker than doing it by hand. Lazy me!

Figolla dough - made in the stand mixer - look, it's breadcrumby!2. Add the sugar to the floury breadcrumbs, and mix it through. Now add the egg yolks, one at a time, until it holds together. I find that the kind of flour, and size of eggs, can make quite a difference here – sometimes only 3 yolks are needed, sometimes 5, so see how it feels. Once it’s binding, use your hands to shape it into a huge disc, wrap in clingfilm, and refrigerate for at least an hour.

Pasta frolla3. While the dough’s resting in the fridge, make the filling. This bit’s nice and easy.Put dry ingredients in a bowl. Add the wet ones. Mix. Actually, if the eggs are a bit big, it can get a bit wet, so I would advise adding the eggs bit by bit, and stopping when it’s a thick paste that will drop off a spoon. If it’s a bit wet, it doesn’t matter too much, as it will thicken a bit if you leave it out, uncovered, while the dough finishes resting, but if it’s very wet it risks leaking out of the figolli in the oven.

Figolla filling

4. Pre-heat the oven to about 170 Celsius, and grease a big, flat (no raised edges if possible) cookie tray. The bigger the better, so you can bake 3 at a time, or the baking could take a while….

5. After dusting the work surface with a little flour, cut off about a quarter of the pasta frolla, and roll it out to about 7mm thickness. Cut out the shapes with your cutters (or cut round shapes if you are using a template. Obviously, you will need at least two of each shape! Lay the bottom layer of each on your baking sheet.

Figolla bottom layer6. Using a teaspoon (and no doubt your fingers) pop little blobs of your filling on the base, leaving about 1.5cm around the edges. I usually pile the blobs of filling quite deep, as they do spread and even out a bit thinner in the oven.

Figolla base and filling7. Dab a little water around the edges of the bottom layer. Take your top layer, and (after it’s been cut) roll it out a tiny bit more, so it’s slightly bigger than the bottom layer (to fit over the filling). Drape it over the bottom shape, and press down firmly at the edges to seal it. The world won’t end if it leaks a tiny bit in the oven, as you can tidy it up with a knife, but try to seal it as much as possible.

20130327_111856_Hagrid_Vignette_Ground8. Leave a decent space between the figolli, as they spread a lot in the oven. Bake for 15-20 minutes – the edges should be starting to go brown, and the centre should look cooked, and not damp and doughy. Remove from the oven, and leave on the tray to cool for 10 minutes or so, while you roll out the next batch. They are very fragile when warm, and really need this time to cool and set a bit – otherwise they can just break up. Once cooled sufficiently, move to a wire rack, while you finish baking the rest.

Duck figolla9. Once completely cool, ice thickly in bright colours, and top with a creme egg. THIS IS COMPULSORY. Ideally, bake the figolli on Maundy Thursday, as I find they improve in texture after a few days.

Happy Easter all.

A year in bread #23: shawarma and pita!

There’s been a fair bit of middle eastern food this week. On Wednesday, we went to eat at Honey & Co, a new-ish middle eastern cafe/restaurant on Warren Street. We could only get a table at 6.30pm, which actually turned out to be a blessing as I think we’re both just shattered at the moment.

Inside, it’s cosy, with the most beautiful blue and white tiles on the floor (I have tile envy). The whole meal was beautiful: crispy falafal, aubergine with a runny-lovely poached egg, and chicken cooked in pomegranate molasses, on a bed of wheat, pistachios, barberries and other yummy things. But the reason we (well, I) really wanted to go in the first place was the description of the cheesecake in the Guardian review we had read. I was quite worried when they brought the dessert menu that it wouldn’t be on there – I would have been at risk of a teenage-style strop…. But there was no need to panic.

The crunchiest pastry (something like that little vermicelli stuff), topped with a huge dollop of not-to-sweet tangy cheese, drizzled with honey. Mmmmmmmmmm – heaven for a cheesecake lover. The boy ordered the white chocolate and olive oil pud – I think it might be some kind of emulsion / mousse thing? – not sure, but it just tasted like pure white chocolate, which was probably heaven for the boy too. Though I do regret going half-and-half on the puds, I wish I could have scoffed the rest of the cheesecake myself.

We’ve also been trying out some more Lebanese recipes from the AMAZING Lebanese Kitchen. We’ve cooked more from it than we do from most books…. koftas, vegetarian moussaka, chocolate mousse…. and now chicken shawarma and pita bread. The recipes are simple to follow, and the flavours seem authentic (but also deliverable in my kitchen!).

I’ve tried a few recipes for pita / flatbreads before, and I’ve never successfully got them to bubble up in the oven to give that pocket effect, that you can either fill, or that just gives lovely layers of bread when wrapped around tasty stuff. These ones worked like a dream. I just flung them in a hot oven on a pizza stone, and after 2-3 minutes they were mottled brown, had puffed right up, but were still soft enough to wrap.

Pita (makes 6) – recipe adapted slightly from the Lebanese Kitchen

450g strong bread flour, plus more for rolling
7g fast action yeast
200ml tepid water, with 1 tablespoon of honey dissolved in it
100ml milk
1 teaspoon of salt

Mix the yeast into the tepid water, and stir well. Leave to bubble for 5 minutes or so, then add the milk.

Mix the flour and salt in a bowl, then pour in the yeasty liquid. Combine, then knead by hand until pliable and stretchy (I cheated, as always, in the stand mixer with the dough hook attachment). You might need to add a touch extra water if it’s not coming together.

Cover the bowl with clingfilm, and leave somewhere warm to rise for an hour or so. (Mine rose very little, which surprised me and worried me a bit, but it didn’t seem to matter!).

Pre-heat the oven to its highest setting, leaving a pizza stone in while it heats.

Divide the dough into 6 balls – about the size of a tennis ball. Roll the first one out on a lightly floured surface, to about a 30cm round.

Sprinkle the first rolled-out dough round with water, then fling it on the pizza stone as quickly as possible. Close the oven door quickly, and get on with rolling out the next ball.

Check the oven after 2-3 minutes. The Pita should be puffed up, with the top about 4-6 inches higher than the bottom layer. Take it out before it cooks hard – you want it to be soft and pliable. Wrap the cooked pita in a clean, damp teatowel while you cook the next one.

We stuffed the flatbreads with hummus, salad and chicken shawarma (also from the Lebanese Kitchen).


Chicken breast strips are marinaded with olive oil. the juice of a lemon, Lebanese seven spice mix, chilli flakes and salt, then fried off till crispy and caramelised on the outside, and still moist in the middle.

Ace. And dead easy.