Friday, July 16, 2021

Apricot, Cherry, and Fennel Bread - Cooking in a time of Covid and Brexit

I spent a lot of yesterday in the kitchen (thankfully a reasonably cool day compared to the forecast for the rest of the week) working through some of the recipes in Sicilia which had really appealed to me, really over-cooking for the one other person who was coming round and generally having a lovely time of it. I found quite a quantity of significantly out of date things at the back of the cupboard (gone now), didn't find a whole lot of things I thought I had on hand, and rediscovered a stash of dried cherries I had put somewhere safe to use last Christmas (they were fine).

It's been a while since I've tried to shop for specific ingredients rather than just buying what looked good, or is available, and then deciding what to do with it. Trying to find specific things was an eye-opener. I don't know if the reason is Covid, Brexit, or a combination of the two but there's nothing like looking for something to show up how many gaps there are on the shelves. I couldn't get the pasta shape I wanted, shelled pistachios weren't to be had, or dried figs. I wanted fresh figs too, which could be had for a price I decided to pass on in M&S, but to be fair they're not really in season yet. Everywhere I looked ranges had shrunk, there were gaps, and prices have gone up. 

Not being able to get shelled pistachios, dried figs, or even a particular pasta is a small thing, very much a first-world problem, but it's a much more real signifier of lost liberties and changed times to me than wearing a mask will ever be. Not being able to physically travel isn't much of a hardship whilst I can't afford to do it anyway, and it was always a luxury, but not being able to travel in my own kitchen is hard.

Regardless, I still managed to make a really good bread based on the fig and fennel loaf in Sicilia, and despite all the gaps I hadn't anticipated in my own store cupboard. It's the kind of loaf that seems just a little bit too expensive to buy when I see them out and about (it's not so much the bread, but the desire for a bit of goats cheese to put on it, and maybe a really good honey, and perhaps some properly ripe fruit to have with it, and then should it be the fancy butter... and then I've spent £20+ on what was meant to be a simple lunch for 1).

Making a couple of loaves at home removes the temptation to buy everything else in the deli to go with them, and is deeply satisfying. This is a recipe that can be played around with a lot, the dough can be made the night before you want it and left to prove in the fridge so if someone is prepared to get up early to knock it back and stick it in tins it'll be ready for a later breakfast or brunch. It's also a very good reason to buy Sicilia, which has plenty more where this comes from. This isn't exactly the version from the book, but rather the one that I cobbled together. 

Take a tablespoon of golden sugar, a 7g sachet of instant yeast, and 300ml of lukewarm water. Mix them together and set aside for 10 minutes or until it's bubbling away happily. Meanwhile put 200g of dried fruit chopped into smallish bits (I used cherries - no need to chop - because I had them, I had planned on it being apricots, the original recipe uses figs) 150g of fresh fruit, in this case, it was apricots, 50g of dried cherries (I thought about opening a bag of cranberries to mix it up, but the cherries needed using) 375g of strong white flour, 60g of rye flour, 60g of wholemeal flour, 1 1/2 tablespoons of fennel seeds, 1 tablespoon of pumpkin seeds, and 2 teaspoons of fine sea salt, in a bowl and toss together.

Add the yeast mix, stir well, and knead for about 5 mins - this is a wet and sticky dough. transfer the dough to a clean bowl, drizzle well with olive oil and turn it to cover thoroughly, cover with a damp tea towel and leave to double in size.

Turn the dough out and knead gently for another couple of minutes, set aside whilst you butter and flour a couple of 450g/1lb tins. Half the dough, form it into 2 balls, roll well in polenta or semolina, and place in the tins to prove for around another 40 mins under their cool tea towel. 

Heat oven to 200C, 180C fan, gas mark 6. Sprinkle the tops of the loaves with water and put them in the oven. Reduce the heat to 190C, 170C fan, Gas mark 5. Bake for 40 -45 mins until the tops are golden and the bottom sounds hollow when it's tapped. Cool on a rack for 10 mins before removing from the tins, allow to cool completely, and enjoy. 

I also made a strawberry almond and rosewater cake (with Vanilla because no rosewater) with a strawberry compote - again very good, and an amazing pistachio pesto which is by far the best pesto I've ever eaten. I'm loving this book. 

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