Back from the edge!

My last article ended with a bit of a cliff-hanger for many of you. I’d not intended it to be thus, but I felt that continuing the article would have made it too long. For those of you who have not read the previous article, I am on a quest to recreate a recipe for nut braid – a delicious treat during my childhood days. In today’s article I’ll describe how I made my own croissant pastry and how I baked yet another nut braid with it.

Before I embarked on making my own croissant pastry, I checked several of my cookery books to compare the different recipes. Croissant pastry is similar to puff pastry – a basic dough which, to use the technical term, gets ‘laminated’ with fat (butter in this case) to create many separate layers. Croissant pastry differs from puff pastry in that the basic dough has yeast in it, giving it extra rise and a less brittle texture compared to puff pastry.

After reading through the various recipes, I decided to make the version found in Gaston Lenotre’s Desserts and Pastries, a book which I cherish for the precision of its recipes and its clear instructions, and for the fact that the results are always delicious! If you enjoy baking, it is a cookery book which I can highly recommend. It was published in 1981 and is long out of print, but you may be able to find a second-hand copy on the internet.

The ingredients for croissant pastry are very simple: flour, water, yeast, milk, sugar and butter. It’s the proportions of the ingredients and the technique which produce the magical results!

In the picture above you can see all the ingredients for the croissant dough:

18 g baker’s yeast dissolved in 1 1/2 tbsp of warm water, 50 g sugar, 15 g salt, 2 tbsp milk, 40 g butter, 125 ml water, 125 ml milk, 500 g flour, 260 g butter.

These quantities make enough dough for two nut braids or one nut braid and 15 croissants or some danish pastries. The dough is best made in a stand mixer, but you can also make it with a hand mixer or by hand.

Mix the sugar and salt with 2 tbsp of milk in a small bowl. Melt 40 g butter over low heat, add the 125 ml of milk and the water, and heat until lukewarm. Put the flour in your mixing bowl. On low speed add the sugar/milk mixture to the flour, then add the butter/milk/water mixture and beat for about a minute, then add the dissolved yeast and beat until a dough forms. It will be very light and lukewarm.

Cover the bowl (with a towel or lid) and let the dough rise for about an hour or until doubled in size. Can you see the difference in the picture below?

When the dough has “grown” sufficiently, remove it from the bowl and put it into a lightly floured shallow baking dish, patting it into an even thickness. Cover and refrigerate for two to three hours.

Half an hour before you continue to work on the dough, take half the butter (130 g) from the fridge and allow it to soften. When you are ready to start rolling, take the dough from the fridge and place it on a lightly floured work surface. Roll it into a rectangle

Cover two thirds of the dough with the softened butter.

Fold the unbuttered third over the butter…

… then fold the double layer over the buttered part so that you end up with a neat rectangle and no butter showing.

Turn this parcel of dough 90 degrees to the left or right and roll it out again into a rectangle, then repeat the folding into thirds. The dough now consists of 9 layers! Now it’s time to cover the dough and return it to the fridge to rest for 2 hours or overnight. Remember to remove the remaining 130 g of butter from the fridge half an hour before you want to continue to work with the dough. Put the dough on a lightly floured work surface and repeat the buttering, folding and turning again. Roll the dough into a rectangle of 20 x 25 cm, cover it and return it to the fridge for an hour.

And there you have it: the croissant dough is ready!! I’m not sure of the maths, but the dough should now have 81 layers! To begin with, I was daunted by the prospect of all that rolling and folding, but it wasn’t actually that difficult! It was more a question of getting organised and getting the timing right.

With the dough ready and resting, it was time to prepare the filling ingredients for the nut braid: 100 g almonds, 100 g hazelnuts, 3 egg whites, 3 tbsp sugar, 1/4 tsp cinnamon. The egg yolks in the picture below are NOT used in the filling, they are only there to brighten up the picture! 🙂

I used my trusted old mouli hand grater to grate the nuts – mine has three drums, one for fine, a second one for coarse grating, and a third for slicing. I ground the nuts coarsely as that gives a better texture to the filling. I also turned on the oven to pre-heat at 190 degrees Centigrade.

All the other ingredients were added to the grated nuts and mixed to a paste.

Next, I divided the dough into two halves after it had rested in the fridge. One half was wrapped and put back in the fridge (to be used for a second nut braid). I rolled the other half into a rectangle on a lightly floured surface, until the dough was about as thick as a 1 Euro coin. I spread the nut mixture evenly over the dough, using my fingers – I found that to be easier than using a spatula. Yes, I did wash my hands beforehand, and yes it was a little messy, but I washed my hands again afterwards! 🙂

I rolled the dough from the short end, swiss-roll fashion, and pinched the seams together. My roll was a little long, so I cut some slices from each end, to make nut pinwheels. Then I cut the roll in half lengthwise…

… and twisted the two strands around one-another, with the cut sides facing upwards. Voila, the braid and the pinwheels ready on the baking sheet:

I baked the braid for approximately 40 minutes (the pinwheels were ready earlier). I left it to cool on a cake rack after it was baked, then iced it with a glaze made with 1 cup icing sugar, a little water and 1/4 tsp cinnamon powder. Here’s what it looked like:

It was really delicious – crispy edges, buttery pastry and a lovely nutty filling! The result was very close to what I remember from my youth!! Perhaps the next one will be perfection?? 🙂

Are you tempted to bake this?

Experimenting…

The recent cold spell combined with rain and the curfew has meant that I have been less inclined to work in my garden. I put the spare time to good use though – I started to sort through some of the recipes that I had printed out over the years! I’d accumulated quite a stack of pages and it was high time that I went through them. Many ended up in the recycling bin: dishes that had sounded so appealing when I came across them on the internet, but which were never prepared, copies of recipes which I had printed off several times because they were really good, and recipes which I had made once but found not to be great. I now have a pile of recipes which are ‘keepers’ and another pile of recipes which I want to prepare before deciding whether to keep or discard. And there are only so many meals in a week!! 🙂

Whilst searching for a certain recipe in my collection, I re-discovered another one which was given to my mother by Frau Sturm, a neighbour, 45+ years ago. It was for a nut braid, a sweet yeast dough with a nutty filling, something eaten in the afternoon with tea or coffee. The recipe was fairly rudimentary, a list of ingredients, the oven temperature, and an approximate baking time. I don’t remember if my mother ever made the nut braid, but I immediately remembered the nut braids we sometimes bought at one of the local bakeries when I was growing up – they were a rare treat and totally delicious!

I decided then and there that I would try to recreate those nut braids. I knew that I would never get them to match my memories, but it was worth a try!

For my first try I just went along with Frau Sturm’s recipe, making a yeast dough with 500 g flour, 250 ml milk, 20 g compressed (fresh) bakers’ yeast, 100 g sugar, 125 g butter, 3 egg yolks, a pinch of salt and a packet of vanilla sugar. The filling was made with 100 g almonds, 100 g hazelnuts, 3 tbsp sugar, 3 egg whites, 1 tbsp rum, 1/4 tsp cinnamon powder.

Once the dough had doubled in volume, I rolled it out into a large rectangle, about half a centimetre thick. For the filling, I ground the nuts and mixed all the ingredients together, then spread the filling on the rolled-out dough. Starting at the narrow end, I rolled the dough up jelly-roll fashion and pinched the dough to seal the roll. That done, I cut the roll in half lengthwise and twisted the two halves around one another. My largest baking sheet was barely large enough to accommodate the braid! Here is a picture of it before baking:

I baked it at 200 degrees centigrade for about 40 minutes. Once the braid had cooled, I iced it with a thick glaze made with icing sugar, cinnamon and water. Below is what it looked like when it was all done and ready to eat! 🙂

The braid was very delicious, but it wasn’t quite like the ones I remembered from the local bakery. Those had a crispiness to them which mine did not have, and somehow the layers were separate where mine had kind of blended together.

I talked to my mother about the experiment and about how to achieve a result which was more like the ones from the bakery. She suggested using croissant dough, which is made more or less like puff pastry, but with yeast in the basic dough before it gets laminated (the technical term) with butter. Our local supermarket stocks croissant pastry – it comes ready rolled in cans! I bought two, unrolled the strips of dough to get my large rectangle, spread the filling over it and did the rolling, cutting and twisting as before. Here’s what it looked like before baking:

And after baking:

I was getting somewhat closer to the bakery result, the pastry was crispy on the surface, and the ratio of pastry to filling was better than in my first attempt. But there was still room for improvement!

I decided to make my own croissant pastry, and I’ll share the process and results with you in a future post!!

The best laid plans…

Sometimes the best intentions get you nowhere and the best laid plans fall apart.  It’s been like that with this week’s blog post!  I planned to write a new article about the French custom of eating galette des rois during the month of January.  I’d found a great recipe for a galette au chocolat on the Valrhona website (in French), and I was going to make that and show you the process and the results on the blog.  And then life intervened in the shape of the music festival that I help organise, and the galette never got made.

But to keep with my plan to post an article every other week, here is a re-run of an article from 2014 about  regular galette des rois – I hope you’ll enjoy it just as much.

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In France, Twelfth Night is celebrated with the galette des rois – a wonderful confection of buttery puff pastry, which is filled with almond frangipane.  The galette is usually eaten with friends and/or family, and can be found for sale in French bakeries throughout the month of January.  A small feve (bean or charm) is usually hidden in the filling, and the person who finds the feve in his or her slice is crowned king or queen for the day.  The feve can take all sorts of forms, from a simple dried bean to a porcelain figure such as this:

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If you don’t live anywhere near a bakery where you can buy a ready-made galette des rois, here is how to make your own.  The basic ingredients are very simple, especially if you buy the puff pastry ready-rolled: butter, almonds, sugar, cornflour, eggs.  I’ll be listing quantities at the end of this post as a printable recipe.  I had planned to add some dried yuzu (Japanese citrus) peel to the filling, which is in the yellow packet.  In the end I decided against it.

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To make the frangipane filling, beat the soft butter with the sugar until white and fluffy.

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Add the eggs and beat until incorporated.

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Add the ground almonds, cornflour and amaretto or brandy, and stir until well mixed.

Unroll one sheet of puff pastry and put on a lined baking sheet.  I used the bottom of a cake pan (25cm diam) to cut a neat circle, as the rolled sheets are always slightly oval.  Spread the apricot jam on the base to within 2 cm from the edges…

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…and top with the frangipane mixture.  Don’t forget to put the feve into the frangipane filling!

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Unroll the second sheet of puff pastry, and trim again.  Moisten the edges of the base with water and place the second sheet on top.  Press the edges to seal in the filling.

Mark the top of the pastry with a pattern of your choice:  spirals, zigzags or diamonds – whatever you like.  Glaze the top with beaten egg, which will give the finished galette a wonderful shiny finish.

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Bake the galette in a pre-heated oven (200C, 185C fan, gas 6) for 25 to 30 minutes.  When it comes out of the oven it should look somewhat like this:

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Leave the galette to cool to lukewarm, before you cut it!

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A few notes on the recipe:  I’m not sure whether I’ll be using the apricot jam the next time I make this.  I thought the tartness would complement the rich filling, but having tasted it, I’m not sure that it does.  You could roast the almonds before grinding them.  If you prefer a more pronounced almond flavour, you could add almond essence to the frangipane.  I brushed on too much of the beaten egg so that it went over the edges of the pastry, which stopped it from rising correctly.

Galette des Rois

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Ingredients:
2 rounds of ready rolled puff pastry
2 tbsp apricot jam
100g butter at room temperature
75g caster sugar
1 egg
1 egg yolk
125g ground almonds
1 1/2 tbsp cornflour
2 tbsp amaretto or brandy
1 beaten egg for glazing

Pre-heat the oven to 200C – fan 185C – gas mark 6

To make the frangipane filling, beat the softened butter with the sugar until white and fluffy.  Add the egg and egg yolk and beat until incorporated.  Add the ground almonds, cornflour and amaretto or brandy, and stir until well mixed.

Unroll one sheet of puff pastry and put on a lined baking sheet.  I used the bottom of a cake pan to cut a neat round (the rolled sheets are always slightly oval).  Spread the apricot jam on the base, to within 2 cm of the edges, and top with the frangipane mixture.

Unroll the second sheet of puff pastry, and trim again.  Moisten the edges of the base with water and place the second sheet on top.  Press the edges to seal in the filling.

Mark the top of the pastry with a pattern of your choice:  spirals, zig-zags or diamonds – whatever you like.  Glaze the top with beaten egg, which will give the finished galette a wonderful shiny finish.

Bake the galette in a pre-heated oven for 25 to 30 minutes.  Leave to cool to lukewarm before cutting.

Bonne année !

Bonne annee - vineyard sculpture

Found in a vineyard of Domaine de Païssels, near Saint-Chinian

Bonne année, meilleurs vœux, et surtout la santé !  This year, our traditional exchanges of new year’s wishes won’t be accompanied by the obligatory kisses, but the wishes won’t be any less cordial.  As much as Christmas is a family affair, new year’s wishes are exchanged with practically everyone, family, neighbours, shopkeepers, you name it.  People in France send their cards in the new year, rather than at Christmas and it is deemed to be a no-no to wish anyone a happy new year before January 1st!  At the end of January, it’s all over – the new year is no longer new, and everyone is glad to be done with the wishes!  🙂

The current pandemic has caused a lot of hardship and heartache all over the world, but with the availability of the vaccines there is hope that our lives will become easier once more.  I’m looking forward to meeting up with friends and family, hugs, handshakes, kisses, concerts, theatre visits, restaurant meals and some travelling – but only if it’s safe to do so!!

At the start of 2021 we have 365 days ahead of us! 365 days to fill with love and hope, 365 days to make our dreams become reality, 365 days to make a difference, 365 days for re-connecting with friends and family,  365 days to make the world a kinder place!  

What will you do with your 365 days?

 

Celebrate the season!

What a year 2020 has been – a roller coaster of lockdowns, quarantines, travel restrictions and more!! It’s kept us all on our toes and watching the development was never dull, there was always something new. It’s been a tough year for many of us on so many levels, work-wise, financially, personally, and we’re not out of the woods yet!

For me 2020 has been a year of learning:

  • I learnt how to get by without handshakes, hugs or kisses
  • I learnt to take nothing and no one for granted
  • I learnt how to smile with my eyes when wearing a face mask
  • I learnt that Zoom-ing, Skype-ing, Facetime-ing and WhatsApp-ing are great ways to keep in touch with friends and family
  • I learnt to do more with less
  • I learnt a few new skills, such as sewing face masks
  • I learnt that vegan food can be totally delicious and satisfying

What I didn’t learn was a musical instrument or another foreign language. I’ve not yet joined a gym or taken up running, but perhaps that’s for next year?? 😉

I have a few New Year’s resolutions in mind: one of them is that I want to start writing blog posts on a regular basis again, probably not every week but perhaps every other weeek? So, watch this space!!

In the meantime, I’d like to wish you an enjoyable festive season – take care of yourselves and above all, stay healthy!!

Look forward to catching up with you next year!!

Let the music play

Under normal circumstances, the Fete de la Musique would be taking place all over France this weekend.  With the current Covid-19 crisis, the events have been cancelled pretty much everywhere.  So here is a virtual Fete de la Musique, by means of an article I wrote in 2014 – I hope you’ll enjoy it!


On June 21st, the whole of France celebrates the Fete de la Musique, with parties and concerts everywhere – and who am I to miss out on a party!!?? 😀

So I rounded up a  few friends and together we went to Beziers to see what we could listen to!  We left fairly early, and as we walked from the underground car park up the Allees Paul Riquet, it became clear that we had arrived a little too early.  But still, it was good to be able to have a look around without missing anything!  The food stalls looked colourful and the smells were tantalising!!

We headed for Place de la Revolution, where the Sardanistes would be dancing later in the evening.  The plan was to have dinner at Brasserie du Palais, and be able to listen to the music and watch the dancers from the comfort of our table.  On the way to Place de la Revolution I came across some interesting details.

The atmosphere in Beziers was very summery and festive – lots of people out in the streets, all getting ready to party in one way or another!

Our meal at Brasserie du Palais was delicious!  A large plate of tapas to share, followed by great main courses, and nice desserts.

The restaurant takes its name from the former archbishop’s palace, which is just across the square, and today houses the local courts of justice.  Next to it is the cathedral, and we had a fine view of that from our table.

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We were just about finishing our desserts, when the musicians started to gather on the stage, and it wasn’t long before they struck up their first tune.

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And as soon as they started to play, the dancers appeared – at first only a few of them joined hands to form a small circle.

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Now a word about the music and dancing – the Sardana is a Catalan tradition, played on instruments of which a few are not found elsewhere in France or Europe.  The band is called “Cobla” and the dancers are called “Sardanistes”.  For the full explanation please have a look at the Wikipedia entry, which I think explains it all very well.

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I was watching in blissful ignorance, enjoying the uplifting sound of the music and watching the dancers with fascination.  It seemed as though anyone could join in, and the circle grew larger and larger, until it was all around the fountain and the square.  The steps seemed to be very simple – it was only later, when talking to a couple of the dancers, that I found out that there was a lot more to it! 🙂 .

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The band, as well as the dancers I spoke with, had come from Perpignan, where they had already performed earlier that day.  They explained that the Sardana is a traditional dance, as opposed to a folkloric dance, so nobody wears any special costumes.  Both the dancers were wearing the traditional espardenya shoes though – you’ll be able to see these shoes in the video below (e-mail subscribers, please visit the webpage to view the video).

 

Did you notice how the flute player also plays the tiny drum, which is strapped to his arm?  The double bass has only three strings, and its player is really going for it!  We sat and listened and watched, and enjoyed every minute of it!!

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It was getting dark and the lights came on, and with the whole square alive with music and dance, it was just magical.

When we had had our fill of the Sardana, we wandered over to the cathedral, where another concert was just coming to the end:  Nicolas Celero at the piano, playing music by Franz Liszt, and Michael Lonsdale reading in between the musical performances.

On our way back we walked down Rue Viennet and passed Place du Forum, across the road from the town hall, which had all been transformed with strings of lights into the most magical of places.

The Eglise de la Madeleine looked very majestic, lit up against the black sky.

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And then we reached the Allees Paul Riquet once more, and wandered amongst the many people who were either watching the act on the main stage in front of the theatre, or just enjoying the start of summer.

Mark your calendar for next year, and plan to be in Herault around June 21st – I promise you’ll enjoy the festivities!