Monday, 30 March 2015

'Dead Bread' AKA Pan de Muerto

I first came across Pan de Muerto whilst browsing through some of the bread books which form part of my ever-growing and already quite large cookery book collection. I was fascinated by the folklore surrounding it and totally intrigued by the appearance of the bread.
As my regular readers will know, after doing an evening course on bread making in the Firehouse Bakery, I have recently discovered how much I genuinely enjoy baking my own bread at home. Although I had baked yeasted breads before, I’d had varying success and was never completely happy with the results. It’s hard to describe, but I just didn’t have a ‘feel’ for baking bread.
I am a confident cook and baker and if I say so myself, would be more than competent, easily able to learn and put into practice processes that are quite technically challenging. I have mastered macarons and can make my own puff pastry amongst many other things, but when it came to baking my own bread, I just was not achieving the results that I wanted. I found it quite frustrating and in many ways couldn’t understand how people could be so enthused by baking their own bread! However, in one evening, over a period of four hours, that all changed. I learnt so much in those few hours with Patrick Ryan at the Firehouse Bakery and truly came away from it with a better understanding of what baking bread was all about (see my original post written immediately after doing the course here).
One of the most remarkable things that I learnt was to avoid adding extra flour to the work surface on which you knead the bread. At first, this is almost counterintuitive because the natural response when faced with a wet or sticky dough is to add more flour to stop it sticking. However, adding extra flour upsets the balance of ingredients in the dough and results in bread which is heavy to eat.  Patrick urged us to keep working the dough (using a bread/dough scraper from time-to-time to prevent it sticking to the table) until it became less sticky and easier to work as the glutens in the bread were developed by the kneading. We also learnt many other tips and tricks of the trade and since then I have been producing loaf after loaf of consistent quality in my own domestic oven.
With this new found confidence in baking my own bread has come a desire to experiment and try out different types of bread. I had never heard of Pan de Muerto before, but was enticed by its unusual shape and the description given of it in the book. I knew that I had to try it.

In essence, Pan de Muerto or Bread of the Dead (although my daughter likes to call it ‘Dead Bread’) is a variety of sweetened soft bread, usually enriched with butter and eggs which is traditionally made in Mexico around Dia de Muertos on 31st October and 1st and 2nd November each year to be eaten by the graves/in honour of the deceased.  The bread can be made into one large loaf or, as I have done, into individual smaller bun-shaped ‘loaves’. Before being baked, the bread is usually decorated with extra bits of dough fashioned into bone shapes which are arranged in a cross or circle to represent the circle of life. Freshly baked and still warm from the oven, the bread is brushed with a glaze and also sometimes sprinkled with fine sugar.
In many ways this bread is a little like a gently spiced brioche and is addictive to eat. The crumb is soft and yielding and although not mandatory or even, I suspect, traditional, I strongly recommend serving it liberally spread with butter.
NOTE: This is a sticky dough and whilst I did knead it by hand you can do so by using a stand mixer fitted with dough hooks. 


300g plain flour
270g strong flour
1tsp ground cinnamon
10g fine sea salt
50g caster sugar
25g fresh yeast
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
250ml milk
50g butter, melted and allowed to cool slightly
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
75g caster sugar
Juice of 1 orange


1. Place the plain and strong flours along with the ground cinnamon into a large mixing bowl and add the salt and sugar mixing with your hands to distribute. Crumble the fresh yeast directly into the flour and add the orange zest. Mix the yeast through the flour. Make a well in the centre of the flour and add the milk, melted butter and eggs.
2. Mix everything together with your hands to form a dough, albeit a slightly sticky one! Turn out onto a clean work surface and aided by a dough scraper, work the dough, by stretching and kneading it for about 12-15 minutes, until it becomes more velvety to the touch and stops sticking quite as much to your work surface.
3. Place in a lightly oiled bowl, cover, with cling-film and allow to prove for approximately 2 hours until doubled in size.
Shaping the dough:
4. Turn the dough out onto a clean work surface and knock back. Divide the dough into four. Put one portion aside for forming the ‘bones’ and working on each of the portions, one at a time shape into a round ‘bun’ shaped roll and place on a parchment lined baking tray.
5. Remove of one third of the reserved dough and use to form into three mini-balls. Set aside. Divide the remaining dough into 6 and roll into thin strips with your hands. Make them a little ‘knobble’ to resemble bones. Drape two of these in a criss-cross fashion over each of the large buns, placing the smaller ball in the centre at the top of each bun. Cover loosely and allow to rise for a second time for approximately 60 minutes until almost doubled in size.
To bake:
6. Preheat oven to 180C/Fan Oven 160C/Gas Mark 4.
7. Place the baking tray containing the three breads into the preheated oven and bake for approximately 20 minutes until golden brown and cooked through. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly while you make the glaze.
8. Put all the ingredients into a small saucepan and bring up to the boil over a moderate heat. Reduce the heat and allow to simmer for 2-3 minutes until slightly reduced. Brush each of the breads with the glaze using a pastry brush and set aside to cool completely.
Makes 3 smallish loaves.


Sunday, 29 March 2015

Blueberry Frangipane Tarts

I love recipes that produce dishes that are so much more than the sum of their parts. Dishes that look like they required so much more effort than they, in reality, did. These Blueberry Frangipane Tarts are a perfect example of this, and if you just take a little care when lining the tart tins with the pastry, you will be rewarded with finished tarts that taste wonderful and look like you have slaved away in the kitchen in order to create them. 

Although I love cooking and baking there are certain tasks which I find incredibly tedious. For example, I hate lining cake tins and dread the beginning of November each year when I have to bake numerous Christmas Cakes for friends and family so that they have enough time to mature before the festive season. Another task that I dislike is having to blind-bake pastry shells. The thing about both these jobs is that they have to be done correctly and with due diligence and care in order to achieve success. What I love about this recipe is that the pastry does not have to be blind baked in advance so happy days!

Frangipane tarts are infinitely adaptable and although I have used blueberries here, you can use whatever fruits are in season. Soft fruits work wonderfully, but you can also use stone fruits, , just half them and remove the stone and arrange on top of the frangipane. Apples and pears can also be used, but slice them relatively thinly if the fruit is a little hard or if you are not pre-poaching them. Otherwise the fruit could be a little too hard and unyielding when the tarts are baked. I particularly love using halved pears and here it is advisable to poach the pears beforehand until slightly softened and allow them to cool before using. As with most of my recipes, I advise you to experiment and use whatever takes your fancy.
I have made an almond frangipane here, but you could use different ground nuts when making it. Hazelnut frangipane goes particularly well with pear and a stunning looking tart can be made using a pistachio frangipane and fresh raspberries when in season (see my recipe for Raspberry & Pistachio Bakewell Tart here).
I have made individual tarts but you could bake a single larger tart, if preferred. Roll the pastry out to line a 23cm tart tin with removable base and increase the cooking time by approximately 10 minutes.


175g plain flour
50g icing sugar
100g butter, cubed
1 large egg yolk
1tblsp cold water
125g butter, softened
125g caster sugar
125g ground almonds
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2tblsp plain flour
1tblsp Amaretto (optional)
To finish:
125g blueberries (fresh or frozen)
50g flaked almonds
To glaze the tarts:
50g apricot jam
1tblsp of Amaretto (or water)


1. Sieve the flour and icing sugar together into a large mixing bowl. Add the cubed butter and using your fingertips, rub into the flour and icing sugar until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.
2. Make a well in the centre and add the egg yolk and water and mix using a fork until the mixture comes together to form a dough. Turn out on to a lightly floured work surface and knead briefly. Form into a ball. Wrap in cling-film and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes in order to give the pastry a chance to relax.
3. Place the butter and caster sugar into a mixing bowl and using a hand-held electric mixer, cream together until light and fluffy. Add the ground almond and mix through until fully incorporated. Mix in the eggs and then add the flour and Amaretto, if using. Set aside until ready to use.
To finish:
4. Preheat the oven to 190C/Fan Oven 170C/Gas Mark 5. Roll the pastry out thinly on a clean, lightly floured work surface and use to carefully line 6 x 10cm individual tart tins. Place on a baking tray.
5. Divide the frangipane mixture between the pastry-lined tat tins and spread out using the back of a spoon or spatula so that the surface is level. Sprinkle the blueberries on top of the frangipane, pressing them down very slightly, Scatter over the flaked almonds.
6. Bake in the preheated oven for 25-30 minutes until golden brown and the frangipane has risen slightly. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly while you make the glaze.
7. Put the apricot jam and Amaretto (or water) in a small saucepan and place over a moderate heat. Stirring all the time, bring up to simmering point and allow to bubble for about 2 minutes.
8. Strain the mixture through a sieve into a clean bowl, discarding any lumps that collect in the sieve. Use a pastry brush to glaze each of the baked tarts with a little of the sieved glaze. Serve the tarts at room temperature with some whipped cream or a little crème fraîche.
Makes 6.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Smoky Fish Pie

As I have mentioned previously one of the greatest influences in terms of the love I now have for cooking was my grandmother. She was an amazing home cook who would serve up the most wonderful meals to us. For the times in which she lived, she was also an adventurous cook, always keen to try out new recipes and she regularly included what were then considered unusual ingredients in the meals she cooked for us. You have to remember that when she was rearing her young family there wasn’t the choice of exotic ingredients that there is today. Back in the late 60s you were considered avant garde if you cooked with green peppers, which were rarely for sale in the grocery store.
Times have changed since then and I now cook with ingredients that she would have never heard of let alone eaten, but despite this, I still find myself returning to the foods she cooked for us. The meals we ate were all home cooked, used the best ingredients that she could afford to buy, were nutritious, but most of all tasted absolutely delicious. I particularly remember the fish pie that she sometimes made. Fresh cod and smoked haddock were smothered in a cheesy sauce and piled into a casserole dish. The fish mixture was topped with creamy mashed potato and everything was baked in the oven until it was golden brown. I loved how the sauce bubbled up around the edges of the mashed potato to create the most wonderful tasting crust. This was comfort food of the highest order.
Given my love for this dish and the fond place it has in my memories, I find it amazing that I don’t make fish pie more often. For me, a fish pie has to contain some smoked fish and here, smoked haddock does the job perfectly. Some people like to include salmon, cod and sometimes prawns, but I like to keep it quite simple merely using cod and the smoked haddock. By all means, make your own additions. I also like to include cheese in my fish pie; both in the sauce and sprinkled on top of the mashed potato topping before the pie is baked. I use a strong red cheddar, which I find holds up perfectly against the smokiness of the haddock.
This is a truly wonderful dish and one that has a very special place in my heart.


Mashed potatoes:
1kg potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks
35g butter
Sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
500g cod, skinned, boned and cut into bite-sized chunks
350g-400g smoked haddock, skinned, boned and cut into bite-sized chunks
Juice of ½ lemon
65g butter
65g plain flour
1tsp English mustard
450ml warmed milk
75g cheddar cheese, grated plus extra for sprinkling on top of the pie
1-2 tblsp of finely chopped chives (or parsley)
Sea salt & freshly ground black pepper


Mashed potatoes:
1. Place the potatoes into a large saucepan and cover with cold water to which you have added a generous pinch of salt. Bring up to the boil over a high heat and then reduce so that the potatoes are just simmering. Cook for 10-15 minutes until the potatoes are cooked and tender when pierced with the tip of a knife.
2. Remove from the heat and drain into a colander. Return the potatoes to the empty saucepan and mash or as I prefer, pass through a potato ricer back into the saucepan. Add the butter, mixing through with a fork so that it melts in the residual heat of the potatoes to create a firm mashed potato. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. Cover and set aside whilst you make the sauce for the pie.
3. Place the fish chunks into a deep pie dish, add the lemon juice and place on a baking tray. Set aside for the moment.
4. Preheat the oven to 200C/Fan Oven 180C/Gas Mark 6.
5. Heat the butter in a medium sized saucepan over a moderate heat. Stir in the flour to form a paste, making sure that you keep stirring. Add the mustard and then gradually add the warm milk, still stirring continuously. Once the sauce starts bubbling, reduce the heat and allow to simmer for 3-4 minutes. Remove from the heat.
6. Gradually stir in the grated cheese until it is fully combined and add the chopped chives or parsley. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary.
7. Pour the sauce over the fish in the pie dish making sure that everything is well coated.
To finish:
8. Pipe the prepared mashed potato over the saucy fish using a disposable piping bag fitted with a plain nozzle. Alternatively spoon onto the fish and spread out with a fork. Sprinkle over a little more grated cheddar and bake in the preheated oven for 35-40 minutes until well browned.
9. Remove from the oven and allow to sit for 10 minutes before serving.

Serves 6-8.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Almond Croissants

I have always had a real soft spot for anything that is almond flavoured or contains almonds; I particularly love frangipane and bakewell tarts, both of which include almonds. I also love cakes containing/covered with marzipan such as Battenberg Cake, traditional Christmas Cake, Simnel Cake and the like. In fact, where a cake is covered in or includes a layer of marzipan, I love dislodging it from the rest of the cake and savouring it on its own.
As a child, I was fascinated with the boxes or marzipan fruits that tended only to be available to buy around Christmas time. These were little sweets made out of marzipan and fashioned to look like miniature fruit – I absolutely adored them and regularly pestered my mother and grandmother to buy them for me.
I discovered almond croissants at a relatively late stage when I was in my twenties, but when I did I was hooked. My friends and family know that I am like a woman obsessed at the moment, trying to make my own homemade croissants. I have been folding butter and dough by the kilo and have yet to produce a croissant that I am perfectly happy with; one that is flaky and airy with a buttery flavour. My attempts have been more than passable but the croissants have not been quite at the standard that I wish. However, I will not be thwarted! I am determined to master them.
The great thing about these almond croissants is that you do not have to bake your own croissants in order to make them but can instead use store-bought ones. Do try to get all-butter croissants as the finished results will be far superior and will have that lovely flavour and texture that you can only get from butter. The key thing when making the almond croissants is to use stale croissants, that normally would be too dry and a little on the hard side… I promise you that the finished product will be worth it! If you use croissants that are too fresh, everything just collapses into an almond flavoured mush, albeit a very tasty almond flavoured mush!
If, like me, you are a fan of almonds, you will love the taste of these croissants. They are incredibly easy to make and the perfect sweet treat to have for an indulgent breakfast or lazy brunch!
There are a number of recipes on the old interweb thingy for similar almond croissants, but after a few trials, this is the version that I came up with. You will note that I have soaked the stale croissants in a syrup made from Amaretto prior to then filling them with the almond cream/frangipane, which believe me, makes these croissants really special, bursting with a lovely almond flavour.


Amaretto syrup:
200ml water
25ml Amaretto
25g caster sugar
Almond cream:
115g butter, softened
115g caster sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
115g ground almonds
To finish:
6 x 3-day-old plain croissants
150g flaked almonds
Icing sugar for dusting


Amaretto syrup:
1. Put all the ingredients into a small saucepan and place over a moderate heat. Heat the mixture until the sugar has dissolved and then increase the heat and allow to bubble for 1 minute before removing from the heat. Allow to cool completely.
Almond cream:
2. Place the butter and caster sugar into a medium-sized mixing bowl and using a hand-held electric mixer, cream together until light and fluffy. Gradually mix in the eggs until they are fully incorporated and finally add the ground almonds, making sure that they are thoroughly mixed in. Set aside.
To make the almond croissants:
3. Preheat oven to 180C/Fan Oven 160C/Gas Mark 4. Line a large baking tray with non-stick baking parchment and set aside.
4. Pour the cooled Amaretto syrup into a shallow dish and soak each of the croissants for 4-5 minutes, before removing and slicing horizontally through the middle.
5. Divide half of the almond cream equally between the bases of the 6 croissants and replace their tops. Spread the remaining almond cream over the tops of the 6 croissants, dividing it equally and sprinkle over the flaked almonds.
6. Bake in the preheated oven for 15-17 minutes until the almond cream on top of the croissants has turned a light golden brown.  Remove from the oven and allow to cool before serving dusted with a small amount of icing sugar.

Makes 6.