Festival foods

Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent. During the Middle Ages, that day meant the start to 40 days of strict religious fasting. Dairy products along with meat and eggs were forbidden foods until 1491, when Pope Julius III allowed Catholics to eat butter/oil, eggs, cheese, and milk during Lent. Until 1491, people had to find ways to use up the ‘forbidden ingredients’ before Ash Wednesday, and thus were born some of the foods which today are still associated with this time of year. In Britain, Shrove Tuesday is synonymous with pancakes, a dish with simple ingredients – flour, eggs, milk, butter. Making pancakes the day before the fasting started was a way to use up all those ingredients rather than throw them out or, perish the thought, risk sinning!!

In Germany, doughnuts or Krapfen are traditionally eaten during the Carnival celebrations which precede Ash Wednesday. The ingredients are pretty much the same as for pancakes, so this is another recipe which uses up ‘forbidden foods’! Following a recent phone call with my parents where we chatted about Carnival and food, I developed a serious craving for doughnuts!! I knew that none of the shop-bought doughnuts would satisfy that craving – they are nice enough, but they just don’t measure up to a freshly-made yeast-raised doughnut!! Bakeries in France don’t tend to make deep fried pastries, so doughnuts are usually bought-in. And more often than not they are made with baking powder rather than yeast.

So, the only way I could satisfy my craving was to make the doughnuts myself – and that’s exactly what I did!! I started my search for a recipe in my grandmother’s old Regensburger Kochbuch – a book which has seen much use over the decades! It is one of those old-fashioned encyclopaedic cookery books where there are no pictures (yes, none whatsoever!! :)) and where the instructions for each recipe are kept to a minimum. In the picture below you have all the ingredients I used, apart from the oil I used for frying. Just so that there is no confusion – I was going to make jam (or jelly) filled doughnuts!

I used 500 g flour, 25 g fresh baker’s yeast, 1/2 tsp fine salt, 250 ml milk, 4 egg yolks, 80 g butter, 50 g icing sugar (you can use regular sugar too), 1 tbsp rum, and the finely grated zest from one lemon. I also used one jar of apricot jam for filling the doughnuts and icing sugar to dust the cooked doughnuts. I compared various other recipes and they all seemed to agree on the flour and egg ratio. The rum was not in the recipe in my grandmother’s book, but I had a little left in the bottle, and I thought it would do no harm. In case you are wondering, it didn’t, quite the opposite in fact!

I warmed the milk to lukewarm and dissolved the yeast in four tablespoons of the warm milk. To the remaining milk I added the butter, sugar, salt, and the egg yolks, and mixed it until blended. I put the flour into the bowl of my stand mixer, made a well in the centre and put in the dissolved yeast. With the mixer running on low speed, I added the milk/egg/etc. mixture, the lemon zest, and the rum, and left the machine to do the work until a soft dough formed. Once that was done, I increased the speed of the mixer a little and let it knead the dough for 10 minutes while I had a cup of tea. 🙂

Here’s what the finished dough looked like:

I covered the bowl and let the dough rise – the kitchen was not very warm that day, so I heated the oven to 50 degrees centigrade, turned it off and put the covered dough in the oven. It was lovely and cosy in there and in next to no time the dough looked like this:

Looks fabulous, doesn’t it?? I turned the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and deflated it by kneading it a little. I then used a rolling pin to flatten the dough to a thickness of about 2 cm. Using a round cookie cutter (mine was about 8 cm in diameter) I cut out rounds which weighed about 50 g each. I put the rounds on a lightly floured cloth and covered them to rise once more. I formed the dough scraps into balls which also weighed 50 g each.

While the doughnuts were rising, I prepared the oil bath. I used grape-seed oil because of its neutral flavour and also because of it’s fairly high smoke point (420 F / 215 C). I also like using grape-seed oil because it is a byproduct from winemaking! ;). I prepared my cooling racks by lining them with paper towels, and I sieved the apricot jam to remove any bits and skins which might block the nozzle of the filling tube.

And then it was time to start the frying – the doughnuts were beautifully puffed up, and the oil was at the right temperature, 320 F / 160 C.

After three minutes I flipped them over and cooked them for a further 2 minutes.

The oil always bubbled a little more once doughnuts were flipped over, but it was easy cooking without any splattering. I cooked the doughnuts in four batches and left them to cool before I filled them with the apricot jam. Just before serving, I dusted them with icing sugar.

They were beautifully fluffy and the outside had a slight crunch – heavenly! The flavour was fabulous with a hint of lemon and rum. They definitely hit the spot and fulfilled my craving!!

Have you ever made your own doughnuts? How do you like your doughnuts filled? Or do you prefer your doughnuts with a hole in the middle??

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?