Monday, 28 March 2016

Retro recipe: hot cross buns

By: Mrs Robot

I love hot cross buns. Even though I'm not religious, they're part of the food culture I've grown up with, so I try to eat them only around Easter time. Things can become boring if you have them whenever you want. That's not to say you shouldn't have something if you really want it, just that it's a shame if everything becomes commonplace and there's nothing to look forward to.

Despite loving hot cross buns, I'd never actually made them until this weekend. I started trying yeast cookery in 2015, and this year felt brave enough to tackle the buns. Also, I have been extraordinarily annoyed by shops bringing out nonsense variations like 'double chocolate hot cross buns.'* The recipe I used was from Julie Duff's book Cakes Regional and Traditional. Oddly, the recipe she gave didn't include the piped-on cross, but the buns in the photo in the book had clearly had a flour/water mixture piped on to make the cross shape. Luckily I'd seen enough other people making them to know that the decoration needed piping on. (Kavey's Hot Multicultural Buns being the most recent example.**)

However, I'm getting ahead of myself. I first attempted the buns on Good Friday and misread the instructions on the yeast, so added a teaspoonful instead of a tablespoonful. Oh dear. After several hours waiting for it to rise, I realised my error and the dough went in the bin. On Easter Sunday I tried again with the correct amount of yeast and, appropriately, this time they rose.

A plate of home made hot cross buns
The buns turned out denser than the sort you get in the shops, though that could be because our house lacks sufficiently warm places to get a really good rise. They were also sweeter than shop-bought ones, possibly because of the sugar in the recipe, possibly because I overdid the glazing. I didn't mind that; they tasted fab and I think I will try to make baking hot cross buns something I do every Easter from now on.

** This I do not class as messing around with tradition as it is taking something traditional and sharing it with everyone, as opposed to taking something traditional and throwing that tradition out of the window for the sake of chocolate.

Monday, 21 March 2016


By: Mrs Robot

I've had a real craving for noodles all of a sudden. I'm not sure why - maybe the coming of spring has put me in a mood for lighter foods than my winter pies and stews. It was a good excuse to revisit some favourite old cookbooks. Given what we had in the kitchen, Dan Dan Mian from Mi Mi Aye's book Noodle! seemed like a good plan.

We'd made Ching-He Huang's recipe for Dan Dan Noodles some time ago, but it wasn't quite our thing. However, her recipe uses tahini paste and Mi Mi's doesn't, plus Mi Mi's seems to use a lot more spicy ingredients, so I thought I'd give it a go and see if we liked her version any better.

As with so many recipes in Noodle!, while the list of ingredients seems long, a quick read of the recipe reveals that the process for making Dan Dan Mian is actually very simple. You can't just start and throw in ingredients as you go along, you need to get everything ready in advance, but as long as you do that, it's very easy to make the dish. Most of the ingredients are store cupboard staples: soy sauce, black vinegar, xiaoxing wine and so on. The only thing we didn't have was Szechuan preserved vegetables. I don't know what those taste like, so subbed in some of Mr Robot's homemade kimchi as that was preserved, vegetable, and tasty.

("Oh, we just substituted homemade kimchi." How poncy does that sound?)

We both very much enjoy Szechuan peppercorns. They have a fearsome reputation, which they really don't deserve. They're numbing, not burning. Chillies make me hiccup, but I can eat those peppercorns with no problems (I occasionally chew them raw, straight out of the jar). Mi Mi's recipe began with oil seasoned with a whole tablespoon of the things, and only got better from there. The resulting minced pork sauce was rich and dark with soy sauce, spicy with Szechuan peppercorns, then stirred by each diner through bland, delicious noodles.
We could quite easily have eaten twice as much, not because the portions are small but because it is delicious and we are greedy. Ziggy, one of our two feral kittens, came along and tried to help himself, but was shunted off pronto.

I will definitely be making this again.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Retro recipe: Tonight we're going to party like it's 1959...

By: Mrs Robot

It's no secret that I love vintage - or, as I generally call it, Old Tat. Back at the start of January my lovely friends Naomi and Zoe sent me a 1959 cookbook called Fun With Food: Planned Menus For All Occasions. It struck me as a book that might help out a housewife from a relatively humble background (or one who grew up on wartime rations), whose lifestyle has gone somewhat upmarket and is suddenly faced with hubby's boss coming for dinner. What to do?! Call on this little book by Nella Whitfield.

Tonight we tried one of the menus. It was supposed to be three courses, starting with strawberry cocktail, but I forgot to buy any strawberries. As it was essentially strawberries macerated in kirsch, served in glasses tarted up with either strawberry or lettuce leaves, I considered serving neat kirsch with a lettuce-leaf garnish, but thought better of it.

So, straight onto the chicken pie. The book called it chicken pie, but it also contained ham and, unusually, hard boiled eggs. You start by boiling the skin and bones with stock veg and a bay leaf for a couple of hours to make a stock, then put sliced egg in the bottom of a pie dish, pop chopped chicken and ham on top with some seasonings (including mace and a tiny bit of  grated lemon peel), top it up with stock, whack on a puff pastry lid and bake it.
Let's rewind there. 'Top it up with stock'. The recipe states three-quarters of a cup. I had my misgivings. It said nothing about flouring the chicken a little, so a nice gravy would be made during the cooking. However, I was sticking to the recipe for this, so in the stock went.
I baked the pie and it looked lovely, but when I dished up it was as I'd feared: the stock was still basically stock. Very tasty stock, but not the sort of thing I'd be prepared to include on the plate. I left it in the pie dish. The pie (served with cabbage and sweetcorn) tasted fine but not brilliant, and I couldn't help wondering how much of the flavour had leaked out into the stock. I'd make the pie again, but I'd flour the chicken slightly and use far less stock, just enough to keep it moist.
Pudding was 'Daisy Cream'. No daisies were harmed in the making of this dish. It was a jelly (jello) based dish. The recipe called for pineapple jelly but that wasn't available, so I settled for lemon. It was mixed with evaporated milk and finely-chopped pineapple and glace cherries. It's the sort of thing people laugh at nowadays, but it was actually pretty nice and, as Mr Robot pointed out, essentially a 1950s equivalent of pannacotta. I'll definitely leave the glace cherries out if I make it in future; they didn't introduce anything much flavour-wise, and my attempt at making cherry daisies for the top was lamentable.
So, it was an interesting meal. Which isn't to say it was bad; it didn't wow us but certain flavours, such as the seasoning in the pie, were much more sophisticated than I'd expected, less than a decade after the end of rationing. For its day, this was pretty posh fare to be eating at home. I'll definitely be trying more from the book as some of the puddings look quite good.