The Rye

Seinfeld - The Rye

When our youngest was a newborn, I spent many hours cradling her refluxy little form and half-watching Seinfeld DVD boxsets. I’m positive that many new parents can relate to the lost hours slumped in front of the TV during those first few shattering, exhaustion addled weeks – comforting, undemanding and, crucially, familiar programmes have become fondly entwined with the memories of each of our children during this stage. For us, Seinfeld fitted the bill perfectly and the frequent food references served as reminders to feed ourselves as well as our tiny new creation: the big salad, thirst-inducing pretzels, chocolate babka and, of course, the infamous rye loaf that almost pushed a desperate George Costanza over the edge, nudged us blearily towards the kitchen in search of sustenance.

Okay this isn’t a marble rye, the bread so beloved by the Costanza family, but it is pretty delicious all the same. Chewy, robust and filling – this is one versatile loaf. My recipe mixes rye, spelt and a touch of white flour to produce an open textured crumb that’s very different to the dark, dense, albeit delicious, ‘corky’ breads you may be accustomed to.

The flavours in this particular loaf – fennel and black treacle – marry beautifully with a summery slather of cool, creamy cheese, a crisp apple and maybe a little smoked ham, but also perfectly partner a hearty bowl of soup during chilly weather. Alternatively, how about some sharp, crystalline cheddar with a spoonful of tamarind chutney? Or – as part of a smörgåsbord – thinly sliced alongside boiled eggs, pickled beetroot and dill-infused gravlax? You can also ring the changes and add caraway seeds, orange zest – or herbs if you’re wandering down a savoury path. However, this makes incredible buttered toast and is phenomenal with a tart jam for breakfast, in which case omit the herbs for a more neutral taste.

As well as lending a distinct flavour, the syrupy, burnt toffee scent of the treacle pervades the entire house as this bakes: imagine the IMG_7078heavenly aroma of freshly baked bread enhanced by a deeply intense caramel note. Truly one of the great pleasures of baking. This amenable dough can be popped into a loaf tin, but I prefer a more freeform approach – this produces a pretty artisanal oval from which you can cut long, elegant slices. On the other hand, you could make excellent rolls; very good for picnics – sufficiently robust to withstand travel, yet light enough to leave ample stomach space for further alfresco fare.

I may balk at mugging little old ladies à la Jerry Seinfeld, but, in the words of the inimitable Estelle Costanza, I would certainly takes buses to get that rye…

Ingredients

200g rye flour

200g spelt flour

100g strong white (bread) flour

1 sachet fast acting dried yeast

1 tablespoon black treacle

1 teaspoon salt

390ml warm water

Method

Combine the flours, salt and yeast. Add the treacle and gradually pour in the warm water as you may not need all of it. Knead for 5-10 minutes – or use a freestanding mixer and a dough hook. This will be rough and shaggy, rather than the smoothly elastic doughs you may be more accustomed to. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave in a warm spot, such as an airing cupboard of sunny windowsill, for around an hour or until doubled in size.

Knock back (punch the centre of the dough – it will collapse), knead briefly and shape. Leave to prove for a second time for approximately 30-40 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 220C/425F/Gas Mark 7

Bake the loaf for 10 minutes and then reduce the oven temperature to 190C/375/Gas Mark 5. Bake for a further 30 minutes or until it sounds hollow when you tap the underside.

Remove from oven and leave to cool. As with all breads, if you try and slice the loaf whilst it is still hot, the crumb will compact and the texture will be doughy.

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As you like it…Okonomiyaki

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So… we almost moved to Tokyo. Startling news, right? Actually we still could go, and someday we may, but for now it’s tricky – even though it would be a remarkable experience. Why ever have we passed up such an extraordinary opportunity, you ask? Are we crazy? Well, quite possibly, but although it would have been a wonderful adventure, there are some significant practical hurdles to consider.

One major issue is The Hatchlings’ education; many expats are employed in the financial sector and relocate on absolutely phenomenal packages – often including housing, but most certainly the eye-watering cost of International school fees. With Mr Jolly Good Egg being an arty, media type we’d have to manage without such perks and live a more local lifestyle. Great, the authentic Japanese experience? Well, yes, immersing ourselves in the culture would be fantastic and a brilliant learning opportunity for all of us. However, we’ve been advised of the impossibility of sending non-Japanese speaking children to exclusively Japanese speaking schools. Understandably, with most expat kids being educated privately, the state schools just aren’t geared up to accommodate foreign pupils. Moreover, Japanese living costs are sky high (did I mention that Tokyo is the most expensive expat city in the world?), so finding the extra yen for multiple tuition fees would – even though the company is lovely and generous – be a real stretch. A frustrating situation for all concerned.

Anyway, enough waffle; let’s get back to the food. Swept up in an impulsive whirlwind of fervour, we, culinary speaking, began a whistle-stop tour of Japan. Replicating some mouth-watering recipes to accompany our zealous viewing of Studio Ghibli and other, more obscure, Japanese movies, a firm family favourite was okonomiyaki  (‘whatever you like – grilled’): a super tasty omelette/ pancake/pizza hybrid, incorporating veggies, meat, sometimes noodles, and, curiously, a ‘flavour grid’ of a Worcester-alike sauce – plus mayonnaise. Healthy Japanese junk food, what’s not to like?

It transpires that there are two main versions: Osaka or Hiroshima style. The Hiroshima variation is layered: a pancakey disc topped with  shredded cabbage, bacon and noodle layers is then adorned with a fried egg – delicious. Osaka cooks take a simpler, no-nonsense approach and mix the additional ingredients directly into the batter and omit the noodles – so it’s lighter too. Being equally tasty, but less fiddly, I favour the latter type. Both kinds of okonomiyaki are smothered with the aforementioned flavourful sauce, decorated with a lattice of Japanese ‘Kewpie’ mayo and strewn with spring onion confetti for a fresh, allium bite.

I must confess, I made an anglicised version; somewhat unsurprisingly, I had no dashi to hand, nor any katsuobushi (bonito flakes), aonori (dried green seaweed flakes) or nagaimo root. Hmmm, you may be wondering how on earth, having omitted several seemingly key ingredients, can this still be okonomiyaki? Yet, as there are countless variations and the dish isn’t at all similar to any other concoction I have ever made, I feel quite at ease calling it okonomiyaki. After all, the very name means ‘as you like it’, so there must be some margin for experimentation…

Ingredients

250g (2 cups) plain/all-purpose flour

270ml (2 cups) water (with dashi if you have some)

4 eggs

Pinch of salt

Pinch of sugar

½ a cabbage very finely shredded – a food processor or mandoline is invaluable here

6 -8 slices of bacon/thinly sliced pork

Oil

As there isn’t a definitive recipe, there’s a lot of leeway in terms of the vegetable and meat add-ins, so feel free to include whatever you fancy. It’s a great recipe for using up leftovers lurking at the back of the fridge. A slightly bendy carrot? Terrific. A few lonely shrimp? Bung them in! A forlorn and unloved chicken leg? Yep, you’ve got the makings of the kashimin-yaki variant. Half a bowl of Coco-Pops? Okay, maybe not, but you get the picture – quick, frugal and reduces wasted food.

Spring onions for garnish

Okonomiyaki sauce (or make an ersatz version from 4 tablespoons tomato ketchup, 1-2 tablespoons Worcester sauce, 3 teaspoons honey, 1 teaspoon rice vinegar and ½ teaspoon soy sauce – heated until bubbling). A honey BBQ sauce can be used in a pinch.

Mayonnaise.

Method

Whisk together the flour, water, eggs and seasonings. Stir in cabbage and optional vegetable, meat or seafood add-ins. Heat oil in a frying pan and ladle in spoonfuls of batter. Traditionally, okonomiyaki are around 20cm in diameter, however, I quite like to make mini (think American or Scotch pancake size) ones – around 3 per person. Once the underside is cooked, lay strips of bacon on top of each pancake and flip. Allow the bacon to cook through thoroughly. You could add a fried egg if you wish.

Slide on to a plate, bacon side up, and daub liberally with the okonomiyaki sauce. Add a mayonnaise lattice (a squirty bottle is handy) and sliced spring onions. Serve immediately.

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Olive Oil Yoghurt Cake

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Gâteau au yaourt, or rather more prosaically, yoghurt cake, is a beloved French classic and it’s not hard to see why. With its pillowy softness and barely-there sweetness, it makes the perfect goûter – after school snack – and provides the ideal foil for all manner of glazes, compotes or sauces should your fancy be tickled by such embellishments. Indeed, the recipe is so effortless that it’s apparently the first cake that les enfants Français learn to bake – under the watchful eye of a benevolent grandmother, of course – no wonder that it is affectionately termed le gâteau de mamie.

On Sunday, we were running late so plans to visit the seaside were shelved (we live a long, long way from the beach) and, instead, we plumped for an afternoon spent walking with our two dogs. Following several hours of tramping through mossy woods and haring around the labyrinth (an eerie little warren of twisted bowers, thickly carpeted with violet blooms and withered leaves – an unanticipated delight), we returned home tired and hungry. Providentially, I had half a (large) pot of yoghurt leftover from the previous evening’s marinade so put it to good use here. I don’t know if you’ve ever tasted a Japanese Cotton Soft Cheesecake, but the level of sweetness is not dissimilar – although this yoghurt cake has a much drier, firmer crumb and a definite crust. Labouring under the notion that I’d baked a homemade equivalent of a pre-packaged British angel cake, the Biggest Boy queried the absence of pink, yellow and white layers. I can see why he wondered; the flavour is somewhat comparable, although it is less sugary and doesn’t include that cloying, synthetic buttercream that the striped slabs of shop bought angel cake always seem to have.

Not being French and, as such, sadly lacking a Grand-Mère, I’ve cobbled together a nice, albeit inauthentic, version of this charming cake. If any of my French readers would like to share their own (recipe – not grandmother!), I would certainly like to try it. Not being terribly fond of vegetable oil, I opted for olive, though you could use either. I’ve also stumbled across a recipe that utilises melted butter, so there’s another option. However, from what I can gather, butter is not traditional at all and would alter the cake’s pale interior as well as the taste, I imagine. You can play around with the flavours: chocolate, lemon or orange would all work beautifully. Nevertheless, there’s something especially lovely about the snowy-white purity of the plain version.

Ingredients

230g caster sugar

2 eggs

125ml olive oil

125ml natural yoghurt

300g self-raising flour

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Splash of milk

Method

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4

Oil a 20cm cake tin (I use a silicon mould for easy removal) and very lightly dust with flour.

Whist together the sugar and eggs until thick and creamy. Still whisking, carefully add the olive oil. Add the yoghurt and vanilla and stir the flour in gently. If the mixture looks a little thick you can add a drop of milk to thin slightly.

Pour the batter into the prepared tin and bake for around 50 minutes. It tends to brown quite quickly so you may need to cover with foil part way through the cooking time. This cake is deceptive and will probably appear cooked long before the centre is no longer liquid. To test, poke a skewer into the middle – if it hisses and comes out wet, pop the cake back into the oven for another 10-15 minutes at least.

Once baked, cool for 5-10 minutes in the tin before unmoulding.

Perfect with a cold glass of milk for the children and a pot of jasmine tea for grownups.

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