Things about France that surprised me: the importance of bread

Even though I like to make my own bread, I don’t make it daily so I will often buy bread from the bakery. And, let’s be honest, there’s nothing quite like the smell of freshly baked bread, particulaly that French icon the baguette, still warm from the baker’s oven.

Now, if I happen to bump into one of my neighbours with this fragrant bounty, they’ll be sure to ask me where I bought it. They’ll nod knowingly, approvingly even, when I tell them from whence it came. This may well be followed by a lively discussion on the merits of our many wonderful local bread (boulangerie) and cake (patisserie) shops. The French love nothing more than chatting about food and its provenance.

Of course, in many people’s minds the baguette symbolises France. In his book “Anthropologie des mangeurs de pain” author Abdu Gnaba says of bread:

It is what defines and characterises the French.

So let’s take a closer look at this popular and humble food item. According to a September 1993 French decree, le Décret Pain, which basically re-visited laws from 1905, 1919, 1984 and 1989, ‘traditional French bread’ must be made only from good quality water, salt, a rising agent and wheat flour which contains no more than 2.8% (in total weight) of bean, soya or malted wheat flours. That means only four ingredients are allowed. There are no additives and only minimal wheat adulterants are permitted. In addition, the baguette must be entirely made on the bakery premises and not brought in from elsewhere. In order to be called “tradition” (traditional) it can’t be frozen nor contain preservatives and additives.

The quality of a French loaf is increased by some, though not all, reputable artisanal bakeries that employ extended fermentation times. When yeast ferments in order to make bread rise it produces alcohol, which provides flavours and aromas. More fermentation time generally improves the taste of bread.

Aside from fermentation, a great loaf depends on wheat, flour and the baker. The first two elements are controlled by the flour mill. I spoke to a couple of my local bakeries and they confirmed they use flour from 100% French wheat that is certified absent of insecticides and controlled for quality between the fields where it grows and the mill where it is ground. The mills abide by the French Ministry of Agriculture ‘red label’ standard that indicates superior quality – controlled for lacking additives and adulterants (such as the adding of soy or bean flours).

Just as local climate and soils form terroir that impacts the eventual taste of wine, characteristics of bread flour depends on local conditions from where wheat is produced. The range varies throughout France. Flours can be reduced to general types (high, medium, and low protein) but the individual taste often depends on non-quantifiable local conditions. To produce excellent bread, however, it helps to have high-quality fresh flour.

Bread is so much a part of French culture that even the word for “friend” copain comes from Latin cum pane (with bread) meaning the person with whom you break bread. Bread is so important it has a Patron Saint and every year on the feast day of St Honoré, on the 16th May, processions, tastings and other festivities take place throughout the country. But for me an example of how seriously bread is considered is that there is a Grand Prix de la Baguette. Once a year bakers compete in Paris for the title of best boulanger which comes with a financial reward and the prestigious contract to supply the President of the Republic with daily bread for a year. 

So is there a secret to producing a great baguette? Chatting to a couple of my favourite local bakeries, I discovered they all used red label flour without additives, unprocessed salt, a natural rising agent (yeast), a long kneading time at a slow speed (“to maintain beautiful colours and all the flavours”), long fermentation/resting time (18 hours), “delicate shaping,” and baking in a hot oven (260C, 500F, Gas mark 10) to produce a baguette with a thin and crispy crust with good aromas of wheat and hazelnuts.

The French are very loyal to their favourite boulangerie which may not necessarily be the closest, going well out of their way to buy what they consider the best bread. I buy mine from a variety of bakeries based on the type of loaf I’m buying. I have a couple of favourites which only sell sourdough bread, another which sells a spelt loaf which I adore, plus one, is both a boulangerie and patisserie, selling a wide range of baked goods, home-made ice cream, chocolates and divine cakes, as well as a wide-range of different breads.

How the French treat their bread

1. Dip it in their tea or coffee

Typically, they’ll slather a hunk of baguette (tartine) with butter and jam and then dip it directly into their coffee.

2. Never put it on a side plate

The French never set bread on a side plate, just on the table next to their plate.

3. Clean their plates with it

The bread is used to mop up those delicious sauces and clean the cutlery between courses.

4. Carry it under their armpits

The bakery will typically wrap a baguette in a piece of paper. You need to buy many more to get a large paper bag. Consequently, everyone carries it under their arm. So much easier for 5 below.

4. Put lumps of chocolate in it

For most foreigners chocolate and bread  – have they never heard of chocolate bread and butter pudding? – just don’t go together unless Nutella is involved, but the French take it to a new level. They stick squares of quality chocolate into their baguette, creating a makeshift baguette au chocolate.

5. Nibble the end of it on the street

The French are typically scandalised by the idea of eating while walking, but for their beloved baguette, they make an exception. It’s apparently impossible for them to resist breaking off one of the tips and gnawing on the end of that warm, fresh baguette on the way home.  You’ll often see Mums nibbling on one end while their children nibble on the other.

6. Eat it with absolutely everything

Would you like some bread with your bread? In France, the answer is always oui. Even if you order a bread-based dish like a croque monsieur, you’ll get a little basket of sliced baguette to accompany it.

7. Sell them in vending machines

For those emergency situations when you’ve lost your mind completely and forgotten to stop by the bakery before it closes. The baguettes are slightly undercooked before being put in the machine, then the machine finishes them off and pops them out them crisp and warm. Genius or sacrilege?

8. Eat it with cheese

Isn’t it common knowledge that cheese is meant to be eaten with crackers? Well okay, maybe the French can have this one. There really is nothing better than some creamy camembert paired with a perfect crunchy-on-the-outside, fluffy-on-the-inside baguette. Best keep your crackers to yourself if you don’t want to commit another almighty dough pas.

9. Make the world’s longest one

Leave it to the French to break the Guinness World Record for longest baguette, at a whopping 120 meters. Actually, they had some help from the Italians too. And, of course, the massive baguette was promptly slathered with Nutella. 

 

The Musette: vegan sticky caramel pear cake

French friends agree that a cooked to order British breakfast, the so called « full English » is magnificent.  To this they would add afternoon tea and puddings. Consequently, in the past my (non vegan) sticky toffee puddings have gone down a treat.

This dessert was my attempt to partly replicate that dish but as a vegan one, plus use up some pears that had gone a bit soft in the fruit bowl. I should have put them in the fridge. Pears have a rapid ripening process that turns them quickly from a hard, impenetrable fruit into a floury mush that browns and bruises easily. Over-ripe and even heavily bruised fruit are best cooked into a nutritious puree or cake such as this one.

That said, this works well with any pear no matter how hard or ripe and bruised it is: all will melt into the sticky cake dough, and will become a delicious companion to the rich and sticky, date-flavoured cake.

Ingredients (Serves 8-12)

  • 200g (2 cups) stoned dates, roughly chopped
  • 350ml (1 1/2 cups) plant-based milk
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 100ml (10 tbsp) fruity olive oil
  • 100g (1/2 cup) unrefined raw sugar
  • 220g (1 2/3 cups) wholemeal spelt flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 pinch freshly grated nutmeg
  • ½ tsp powdered ginger
  • ½ tsp cinnamon
  • 1-3 pears, cut in quarters and cored

Method

1. pre-heat the oven to 200C (190C fan)/410F/gas 6½. Put the dates in a saucepan with the plant-based milk, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for five minutes.

2. Off the heat, add the bicarbonate of soda and stir for 30 seconds, or until the dates begin to dissolve. Leave to cool, then mix in the olive oil, 50g sugar, flour, baking powder, nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon.

3. Grease and line a medium-sized cake tin. Sprinkle the rest of the sugar over the base of the tin. If you have only one pear, slice it and lay it out over the base of the tin; if you have two pears, cut them into large chunks; and if you have three or more pears, put the quarters cut-side down in the tin.

4. Cover with the cake mixture and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until just cooked and springy to the touch. Turn out and serve warm.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. All ingredients should be at room temperature.

2. When I’m baking I always use a timer as it’s so easy to lose track of time. Once you’ve put the cakes in the oven, put the timer on for 5-10 minutes less than they should take to cook and then check regularly.

3. If you think the cake is browning too much at the edges, cover it with an aluminium foil tent.

4. You can substitute the olive oil for another mild or unflavoured vegetable oil.

5. I suspect this would be just as delicious with apples.

The Musette: oat bars

Prior to heading out for a morning ride, what can we eat that’s quick, filling and packed with energy? The answer is my oat bars. They’re much softer and contain far less sugar and fat than, say, a typical flapjack and are therefore much easier to digest and are, dare I say it, better for you. I often whip up a batch on Friday evening to keep us going over the weekend. They’re also the right size to pop into the jersey pocket for some mid-ride refuelling.

Ingredients (makes 16 bars)

  • 200g (2 cups) rolled oats
  • 60g (⅔ cup)  ground almonds (almond meal)
  • 30g (⅓ cup) dried, unsweetened grated coconut
  • 120g (4¼oz) chocolate chips
  • 4 very ripe, medium-sized bananas, about 250g (9oz) when peeled
  • 160g (1 cup) unsweetened apple puree
  • ½ tsp vanilla extract
  • ½ tsp  fine sea salt
  • 50g (¼ cup) whole almond butter (you can substitute another nut butter or coconut oil)

Method

1. Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC/160ºC fan/gas mark 4 (350ºF/320ºF fan). Grease a medium-sized 20cm x 30cm (8-inch x 12-inch) shallow baking dish with vegetable oil and line it with foil strips – makes it easier to get the bars out.

2. Combine the oats, ground almonds, coconut, salt and chocolate chips in a medium-sized mixing bowl.

3. In another medium-sized mixing bowl, combine the bananas, vanilla, nut/coconut butter and apple puree and mash thoroughly using a  potato masher. Add the oat mixture to the wet mix and stir to combine. Leave the mixture to rest for 30 minutes so that the oats soak up the liquid.

4. Pour the mixture into the prepared baking dish, level the surface (the bars should be around 2cm (0.8 inch) thick) and put it in the oven.

5. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until the top is set and light golden-brown. Let it cool completely before removing it from the dish and slicing it into bars. If you’re not serving them all at once, just cut what you need, cover the rest with foil, put into an airtight tin and hide!

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. All ingredients should be at room temperature.

2. When I’m baking I always use a timer as it’s so easy to lose track of time. Once you’ve put the bars in the oven, put the timer on for 5-10 minutes less than they should take to cook and then check regularly.

3. The bars should still be quite soft to the touch when you take them out of the oven as they’ll continue to cook and firm up as they cool. Overcook them at your peril.

4. I’ve used dark chocolate chips here for a more sophisticated taste but many of my younger weekend guests prefer the tooth-cloying sweetness of milk or white chocolate. Specifically they like the version which uses peanut butter instead of almond, 400g (14 oz) of mashed bananas, no apple puree and white chocolate chips!

5. Feel free to reduce the amount of chocolate – or indeed remove it all together – and substitute other dried fruit such as apricots, cranberries or raisins. Once again, the rule of thumb is to pair ingredients which you like and know work well together.

A word about Epiphany

Today’s a special day in France, it’s the 12th day of Christmas, Epiphany and, more importantly, the day when the cake known as Galette des Rois is traditionally served. However, in practice, it’s served throughout the month of January.

This puff pastry delight is a piece of French gastronomic history from as far back as 14th century, though for a short while during the turmoil of the French Revolution it was called the “Gâteau de l’egalité” as any reference to royalty was frowned upon.

The cake is made of a seriously buttery puff pastry, filled with almond paste, the top of which is typically decorated like a pithiviers. Patisseries and boulangeries produce little else during January. Some are quite creative, making them from various types of frangipane such as pistachio or chocolate or even apple.

The Galette des Rois is a reminder of the Three Kings in the Bible  – Melchior, Balthasar and Caspar. To commemorate their journey to Bethlehem, a little figurine called a ‘fève’ is hidden in the galette des rois. In olden days it would traditionally be a baby Jesus but these days it could be anything!

galette des rois

Tradition says that whoever has a slice of the cake with the ‘fève’ in it becomes the King or Queen for a day and gets to wear the golden cardboard crown which comes with the cake when you buy it.

In the south of France, the galette is more traditionally made from brioche dough and decorated with glace or dried fruits. Sadly I’m forbidden both of these delights but my beloved has no such problem and has already been conducting some extensive taste tests. His favourites so far are from Patisserie Lac but that could change in the next few weeks as he tastes more and more!

Usually, in January the cycling club has a galettes des rois get together for all its members. In years past, I’ve been in charge of the catering but not since we changed clubs. It’s unlikely the cycle club willl have anything to rival Lac, but you never know!

The Musette: cassoulet

This recipe for lamb casserole with beans would have fed four hungry cyclists, but I only had two to feed. So, what to do with the leftovers? I made that French classic cassoulet. Now, there are a million and one recipes for this dish  – named after its cooking vessel – but my version leans towards the one from Toulouse which uses cold roast shoulder of lamb. In essence, the dish mixes cold roast meats and sausages with tomatoey cannellini or haricot beans and is topped with breadcrumbs.

If you don’t have any leftovers from previous recipes, see my handy hints section at the end for alternatives.

Ingredients (serves eight cyclists)

  • 500g (approx 1lb) of cold cooked shoulder of lamb
  • 500g (approx 1lb) of tomatoey cannellini or haricot beans
  • 500g (approx 1lb) of Toulouse sausage, or any other coarse-cut pure pork sausage
  • Tin containing four confit duck legs (or see handy hints section on how to confit duck legs)
  • 225g (8oz) home-made fresh breadcrumbs reduced to rubble, rather than fine dust (Do NOT use ones from a packet)
  • A large handful of flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped

Method

1. Remove the confit duck legs from the tin scraping off as much as possible of the duck fat – save for roast potatoes. Brown the legs on a trivet in a roasting tray in a hot pre-heated oven at 220ºC/200ºC fan/gas mark 7 (425ºF/390ºF fan) for 20 minutes. Allow to cool before stripping meat from the bones. The skin is delicious but fatty, so I strip that off too but, to be honest, it does taste better if you leave it on the meat.

2. Meanwhile boil the sausages in some hot water to eliminate any excess fat for around 10 minutes and then place them in the oven with the duck legs, also for around 20 minutes. Leave to cool and cut into bite-sized chunks.

3. Shred the cold lamb and add with the cold duck meat and sausage to the cold bean mixture. Stir carefully to evenly distribute the meats throughout. If, horror of horrors, you find you don’t have enough bean mixture, don’t panic, just add an extra can of beans (drained and rinsed) and another tin of diced tomatoes. Pile the mixture either into one large or a number of casserole dishes.

4. Sprinkle the breadcrumb and chopped parsley mixture on top. You can add a little of the duck fat to the breadcrumbs if you dare, then put the casserole dish(es) into the slow oven at 150ºC/130ºC fan/gas mark 2 (300ºF/270ºF fan) for an hour or so to turn golden brown on top. Serve with a crisp green salad, baguette and, maybe, a glass of red wine.

5. I find this makes enough for eight servings. So I have two sets of three servings wrapped in cling-film in the freezer to feed any unexpected visitors.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. If you don’t have any cold lamb leftovers, you can substitute cold roast pork or even ham. Just remember to cut off any excess fat.

2. You can of course prepare the beans from scratch. I often do this in bulk as follows:

  • 900g (2lb) haricot or cannellini beans soaked overnight in plenty of cold water and then drained
  • 450g (1lb) salt pork (as pictured above in additional ingredients) or even pigs’ trotters!
  • 3 small onions peeled, each stuck with a clove
  • 1 large clove of garlic
  • 3 sticks of celery, roughly chopped
  • 2 carrots, roughly chopped
  • White of one fat leek, roughly chopped
  • 1 bouquet garni of fresh herbs (parsley, thyme, bay leaf and rosemary) or 1 dried bouquet, plus a handful of fresh parsley stalks

Put the pre-soaked beans into a large saucepan with just enough water to cover, bring to the boil, cover with a lid, remove from the heat and leave for 40 minutes or so. This helps make them much more digestible. Drain the beans, cover them again with the same amount of cold water. Meanwhile bring the salt pork or trotters to the boil in plenty of water and drain immediately. Add these to the beans along with the other ingredients. Bring to the boil, skim, then cover and cook for two hours.

When cool, remove and discard the vegetables and the bouquet garni. Take out the salt pork or the trotters, allow to cool, cut into bite-sized chunks and (see above) add to the other meats. Drain the beans and take out half of them. To the remainder add 2 x 400g (2 x 14oz) tins of chopped tomatoes and 1 tbsp of tomato paste, heat gently through for 30 minutes and allow to cool.

3. The beans in a true cassoulet are not too tomatoey, so feel free to reduce the quantity of tomatoes and eliminate the paste entirely if you prefer.

4. If you don’t have tinned confit duck you could substitute roast duck legs or again you can prepare them from scratch, as follows:

  • 4 duck legs
  • 500g (1lb) of sea salt
  • Pepper
  • 225g (8oz) duck or goose fat
  • 1 clove of garlic (optional)
  • 2 bay leaves (optional)
  • Sprig of fresh thyme (optional)
  • 250ml (1 cup) of white wine

Shake a layer of salt onto a plate, pepper the duck legs then place them on the layer of salt with the garlic and herbs. Cover with the rest of the salt, cover the plate with clingfilm (plastic wrap) and refrigerate for 36 hours. Remove the duck from the salt mixture, brush off any excess and place them in a casserole dish with the duck or goose fat, the glass of white wine and one of water. Cover with a layer of crumpled, damp greaseproof paper and a lid. Cook gently in a slow oven at 150ºC/130ºC fan/gas mark 2 (300ºF/250ºF fan) for three hours. Take out of the oven and leave to cool in the fat.

5. Feel free to play around with the proportions and mix of meats to beans to make the dish go further.

6. If the cassoulet looks as if it’s drying out, you can add a little water, add a second crust and return to the oven to brown. It won’t spoil – trust me.

The Musette: chocolate chip oat cookies

My Thursday evening English class served as my first official guinea pigs. Now I agree that a bunch of teenage cyclists probably weren’t the most discerning of taste-testers. But mine were reasonably forthright and, while capable of inhaling their own bodyweights in baked goods, if they didn’t like something, I was left with more than just crumbs. Unsurprisingly, anything with chocolate in it scored highly and they simply loved home-made biscuits and cookies.

The recipe is based on one for shortbread type biscuits to which I’ve added chocolate chips – everything’s better with chocolate  – and oats for sustained energy. I like having a few home-made baked goodies for anyone who drops in to see me on the run in to Xmas.

You don't need many ingredients to make delicious baked good! (image: Sheree)

Ingredients (makes 24 cookies/biscuits)

  • 225g (1 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 120g (1 cup)  caster sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp of fine sea salt
  • 275g (2⅓ cups) plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 30g (⅓ cup) oats (oatmeal)
  • 100g (6 tbsp) 70% min. chocolate chips

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°Cfan/ gas mark 6 (400°F/350°F).

2. Line two shallow baking sheets with greaseproof (parchment) paper.

3. Beat the softened butter until it lightens. Use really great butter as it does make a difference to the finished product.

4. Beat but don’t whip in the sugar and vanilla extract then gently fold in the sifted flour, salt, oats and chocolate chips. Don’t overwork the mixture, which should be of a similar consistency to that of pastry. Indeed you can roll the mixture into logs, wrap in greaseproof (parchment) paper and freeze for baking at a later date.

5. I use a small ice cream scoop – equally you could use a soup spoon – to portion the dough and ensure the cookies are a similar size. Place the balls on the baking sheets about 1cm (less than ½”) apart, as they’ll spread slightly while baking, and flatten the tops. I found the dough made 24 biscuits, each weighing around 30g (1 oz) uncooked.

6. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until they start to turn golden at the edges and they’re firm to the touch. Depending upon the size of your oven, you might need to rotate the sheets midway through the cooking process.

7. Remove from the oven and transfer to cool on a wire rack. Once cool, put them in an airtight container where they’ll keep for 3-4 days, providing you keep them out of reach of any cyclists, or enjoy with a cup of tea or coffee.

Gone in a flash! (image: Sheree)

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. All ingredients should be at room temperature.

2. When I’m baking I always use a timer as it’s so easy to lose track of time. Once you’ve put the biscuits in the oven, put the timer on for five minutes less than they should take to cook and then check regularly.

3. I’ve made the biscuits with milk chocolate chips but found them too sweet for my taste.

4. I’ve successfully substituted the chocolate chips for a similar weight of fat juicy raisins.

5. The biscuits work equally well with a mixture of 50g (1¾oz) tart chopped dried cranberries and 50g (1¾oz) white chocolate chips.

The Musette: chocolate cake

A bit like little black dresses, a girl can never have too many recipes for chocolate cake in her armoury. I recently read about an Italian chocolate cake made with a particular red wine and decided I just had to recreate it, albeit with a twist. Mine was made with Rioja so I suppose that would make it Spanish!

I often find chocolate cakes that use cocoa powder rather than melted chocolate can be a bit dry but this time I reckoned the wine would counter the issue – and I was correct in my assumption. This is a lovely moist cake that, at a pinch, could be served warm as a dessert with either ice cream, creme fraiche or whipped cream.

Red wine and chocolate - what's not to like? (image: Sheree)

Ingredients (makes 96 fingers)

  • 300g (2 cups) sugar (use any type)
  • 200g (1⅔ cups) plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 75g (¾ cup) cocoa (unsweetened)
  • 2 tsp bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp fine sea salt
  • 1 tsp instant espresso powder
  • 1 tsp of vanilla extract
  • 2 large organic eggs beaten, approx 45g each (1⅔oz) without their shells
  • 250ml (1 cup) buttermilk  or milk with a tsp of vinegar or lemon juice
  • 250ml (1 cup) dry red wine
  • 125ml (½ cup) light-flavoured olive (vegetable) oil

Method

1. Preheat oven to 180ºC/160ºC fan/gas mark 4 (350ºF/320ºF fan).

2. Grease a baking tin. I typically use a disposable tin-foil loaf tin 13cm x 23cm x 7cm (5” x 9” x 3”). They’re easier for storing the cakes in the freezer, which I line with a couple of strips of greaseproof paper to make it easier to remove the cake. This amount fills three cake tins.

3. Sift and combine flour, cocoa, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda (baking soda), coffee and salt into a bowl, add the sugar and stir with a fork to combine well.

4. In another bowl, mix the beaten egg with olive oil, wine, buttermilk and vanilla extract.

5. Add wet ingredients to dry, fold gently with a spatula to combine, ensuring there are no remaining pockets of flour. The mixture will be quite runny.

6. Pour the mixture into the three baking pans, put them into the middle of the oven on a baking tray and cook for 30-35 minutes. Baking times will vary depending on the dimensions of your baking tins and your oven, so check regularly. The cakes are ready when a toothpick inserted into their centre comes out clean.

7. Allow to cool for 15 minutes in the tin before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely before slicing and eating, or freezing for no longer than two months. The cakes will keep for a week in an airtight container providing I hide them from my husband.

A deliciously moist cake (image: Sheree)

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. All ingredients should be at room temperature.

2. When I’m baking I always use a timer as it’s so easy to lose track of time. Once you’ve put the cakes in the oven, put the timer on for 5-10 minutes less than they should take to cook and then check regularly.

3. If you think the cakes are browning at the edges, cover them with an aluminium foil tent.

4. You can substitute the olive oil for another mild or unflavoured vegetable oil.

5. I don’t think the type of wine matters too much, just so long as it’s both red and dry.

6. I cut each cake into 32 fingers – in total 96 finger sized portions to feed a lot of cyclists!

The Musette: muffins

This is my trusty go-to recipe whenever I need to whip up a few (or more) muffins. It’s an incredibly forgiving recipe as the batter will last for 30 days in the fridge. Trust me, I’ve tried it and the last muffin is just as good as the first which is great if you only want to bake a few each time. It’s based on a recipe from Rachel Allen.These make both a great breakfast or a mid-ride refuel.

Ingredients (makes 18 muffins)

  • 3 large organic eggs (approx 45g [1⅔oz], without shells)
  • 225g (2½ cups) soft brown, raw or coconut sugar
  • 500ml (2 cups) buttermilk or plantmilk with a dash of cider vinegar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 125ml (½ cup) vegetable oil
  • 485g (5 cups) wholemeal spelt flour
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 2½ tsp bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)

Your starter for delicious muffins

Your starter for delicious muffins

Method

1. Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC/160ºC fan/gas mark 4 (350ºF/320ºF fan).

2. Take a pastry brush, dip it in vegetable oil and gently paint it all over the muffin tin. This will stop the muffins sticking to the tin if you’re not using muffin cases. If you are, place the cases in the tin(s). I make my own muffin cases from squares of greaseproof paper. (I explain how in my ‘handy hints’ section.)

3. Put the sugar and eggs into a large bowl and whisk to combine until air bubbles appear on the surface of the mixture.

4. Add the buttermilk, oil and vanilla and whisk again.

5. Sift and mix together the flour, salt and bicarbonate of soda adding back the bran from the flour which will collect in the sieve.

6. Add the dry ingredients to the wet and lightly combine. I find using a rubber spatula in a figure-of-eight movement works best. Ensure that no pockets of flour remain but don’t worry if the batter’s a bit lumpy. Lumpy batter makes light muffins. You now have your basic batter mix to which all manner of yummy ingredients can be added. See Sheree’s Handy Hints below.

7. Pour the mixture into a jug and fill the muffin cases ⅔ full, ensuring that you have equal amounts of batter in each case. Bake in the oven for 15-25 minutes (depending on the size of your muffin tin) or until soft and springy to the touch. Cool on a wire rack and then enjoy!

8. The muffins will keep in an air-tight container for 3-4 days, but they never seem to hang around that long.

9. Leave any unused batter in a jug in the fridge. Place clingfilm (plastic wrap) directly onto the surface of the batter to prevent a skin from forming.

A selection of muffins: here one minute, gone the next!

A selection of muffins: here one minute, gone the next!

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. All ingredients should be at room temperature.

2. When I’m baking I always use a timer as it’s so easy to lose track of time. Once you’ve put the muffins in the oven, put the timer on for five minutes less than they should take to cook and then check regularly.

3. You can slightly under-bake small cakes as they’ll continue cooking for a few minutes after they come out of the oven.

4. Variations: Take 400ml (14fl oz), approx ⅓ of the basic batter – enough for six muffins – and add the following ingredients:

Fruit and nut

  • 100g (3½oz) raisins
  • 75g (3oz) apple puree
  • 75g (3oz) finely chopped, cored and peeled eating apple
  • 50g (2oz) chopped toasted walnuts
  • 1 tsp cinnamon or mixed spice (optional)
  • 1 tsp grated lemon zest (optional)

Blueberry

  • 100g (3½oz) fresh blueberries
  • 1 tsp grated lemon zest

Carrot, apple and ginger

  • 75g (3oz) apple puree
  • 75g (3oz) finely chopped, cored and peeled eating apple
  • 100g (3½oz/1 cup) grated carrot
  • 1 tsp of ginger juice squeezed from a piece of fresh ginger

Banana and chocolate

  • 100g (3½oz) peeled and mashed very ripe banana
  • 100g white chocolate pellets, but you could also use either dark or milk chocolate
  • 75ml (2½fl oz) maple syrup

Strawberry and white chocolate

  • 100g (3½oz) firm strawberries, hulled and chopped into small pieces
  • 100g white chocolate pellets
  • 1 tsp of grated orange zest

Let your imagination run riot! Combine tastes and textures which you know go well together and, if necessary, add additional liquid in the form of dairy, fruit juice or maple syrup to maintain a soft pouring consistency.

5. Make your own muffin cases by cutting 15cm (6 inches) square pieces of greaseproof paper and put four into each muffin moulds. Push well down, pleating the sides and leave overnight to set.

The Musette: easy, peasy, chocolate pudding

I think I may have mentioned that my beloved doesn’t believe a meal is complete without dessert! If I do make one it will generally just be for him, or for guests. Furthermore, he’s none too keen on eating the same dessert several days running. This means I either have to make a small amount or something that’ll easily freeze in portions.

This chocolate dessert falls into the former category and, what’s more, tastes quite different depending on whether it’s hot or cold – a result! It’s also rather indulgent and you can easily serve a smaller portion after several courses, either cooking it before dinner or while guests enjoy the cheese course. Furthermore, it’s made with ingredients that most cooks will have in their fridge and cupboards.

Ingredients (serves 4 large or 8 small portions)

  • 100g (31/2oz) dark (semi-sweet) chocolate
  • 2 tbsp dulce de leche
  • 2 medium organic eggs (approx. 55-60g shell on)
  • 100g (1/2 cup) caster sugar
  • 1/2 tsp espresso coffee powder
  • 1/4 tsp fine sea salt

Method

1. Pre-heat the oven to 160ºC/140ºC fan/gas mark 3 (320ºF/275ºF fan).

2. Chop or break the chocolate into small pieces and leave to melt, without stirring, in a heatproof bowl suspended over a pan of simmering water (or on a low heat in the microwave). As the chocolate melts, gently stir in the dulce de leche and turn off the heat.

3. Break the eggs into a large bowl, add the sugar, salt and coffee powder and beat until thick and fluffy.

4. Stir the chocolate and dulce de leche into the mixture. You need only two three or three stirs to incorporate it. Do not over-mix it.

5. Transfer to containers using a rubber spatula.

6. Put the containers into a roasting tin or baking dish. Pour enough boiling water to come halfway up the sides of them, then bake for 20 minutes until the surface is lightly crisp  – like a macaron – and the inside rich, thick and creamy.

7. Serve with a teaspoon and, if you wish, some cantucci or brutti ma buoni (hazelnut) biscuits.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. As they bake, a soft crust appears on these puddings, while the inside stays rich and fondant-like. They will stay like that for an hour or two, should you wish to make them a little ahead of time.

2. Heatproof china ramekins are ideal for these, but you can also bake them in ovenproof cups. I’ll use espresso cups if I’m making them as a dessert at a dinner party.

3. The recipe is scaleable should you wish to make more (or less).

4. I have baked these chocolate puddings hot for dessert at lunchtime and then my beloved has enjoyed another one cold in the evening, when it is like a thick, fudgy chocolate mousse.

5. I think you could also play around with the flavour by adding a tbsp organic orange zest (chocolate-orange) rather than the 1/2tsp coffee powder which just enhances the chocolate flavour.

6. You might be wondering what to do with the rest of the jar of dulce de leche? Never fear, I have some ideas

  1. A dollop of dulce de leche in your coffee will add sweetness and creaminess. Try it in your morning cup of joe and you will never want to start your day any other way. This also works nicely in iced coffee or hot chocolate, especially when topped with whipped cream.
  2. Next time you make porridge, pancakes, french toast or waffles trade maple syrup for dulce de leche. Warm it in the microwave or on the stove and drizzle over breakfast for a morning delight.
  3. Instead of using buttercream to ice cupcakes try using dulce de leche as a topping. I’ve also used it in Caramel Banana Cake.
  4. Dulce de leche makes a fun dip or sauce for fruit and it’s delicious drizzled over ice cream
  5. If you adore sweet and savory combinations try pairing dulce de leche with cheese (after all, they are both made from milk). Sounds yummy?

This recipe recently featured as a guest post over at A Jeanne in the Kitchen

The Musette: lemon and poppy seed cake

This is an extremely moreish cake. You have been warned. I make this, cut it into squares and freeze it, otherwise it’s all too easy to keep dipping one’s hand into the cake tin for yet another piece. A moment on the lips and a lifetime on the hips unless you’re in calorie deficit after a nice long bike ride!

It’s a cross between a lemon drizzle cake and a lemon and poppy seed muffin. I imagine it’s the sort of cake my late grandmother might have baked to sell in her corner shop, just the thing to have with a morning coffee or afternoon cup of tea. It’s slightly tweaked from Dan Lepard’s excellent book Short and Sweet: The Best of Home Baking.

The cake is also very popular at our cycling club events, which is where this one ended up. Having dropped off a number of cakes for our last club event, the volunteers were seen hovering over them like buzzards. I’m assuming some of the participants got back quickly enough to have a few slices, but the tail-end Charlies were probably all too late.

This cake is too delicious for mere words

Ingredients (cuts into 32-36 small squares)

  • 400g (2 2/3 cups) caster sugar
  • 125g (9 tbsp) unsalted butter
  • 100ml (6 tbsp) buttermilk
  • 50ml (3 tbsp) hot water
  • 2 tbsp finely grated organic lemon zest
  • 100ml (6 tbsp) freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 3 large organic eggs, approx 45g (1⅔oz) each without the shell
  • 250g (1 2/3 cups) plain (all purpose) flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp of bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
  • 75g (¾ cup) fine oatmeal (or oats, finely ground in food processor)
  • 30g (4 tbsp) poppy seeds

Method

1. Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC/160ºC fan/gas mark 4 (350ºF/320ºF fan).

2. Grease the base and sides of a baking tin. I typically use a disposable tin-foil one measuring 18cm x 23cm x  5cm (6” x 9” x 2″) – they’re great for storing the cakes in the freezer – which I line with a couple of strips of greaseproof paper to make it easier to remove the cake. In addition, I find it’s an easy size and shape to slice into squares for serving.

3. Beat 250g of the sugar with the butter, buttermilk and lemon zest until pale and fluffy, add in the eggs one at a time and beat well to incorporate. Then beat in the hot water.

4. Sift the flour, bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) and baking powder into a medium mixing bowl, add the oats and poppy seeds, stir to combine. Spoon the dry ingredients into the egg mixture and mix gently until just combined. Do not overmix.

5. Pour the soft-dropping consistency batter into the tin and bake in the centre of the oven for 45-50 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean.

6. While the cake is cooling in its tin, gently heat the remaining sugar with the lemon juice until it dissolves. Poke holes all over the cake with a skewer and brush the lemon syrup all over the top. Leave to cool, still in the tin, on a wire rack and then dredge with more caster sugar before serving.

This cake is dangerously moreish!

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. All ingredients should be at room temperature.

2. When I’m baking I always use a timer as it’s so easy to lose track of time. Once you’ve put the cake in the oven, put the timer on for 5-10 minutes less than the cake should take to cook and then check regularly.

3. If you think the cake is browning too quickly, particularly at the edges, cover it with an aluminium-foil tent.

4. I have successfully made the cake substituting coconut cream or vegetable oil for the buttermilk with no noticeable change in either texture or taste.

5. If you don’t like poppy seeds, just leave them out.