Hot cross buns

Freshly baked buns

An unexpected pleasure this year has been participating in the panel that’s judging the Guild of Food Writers “Cookery Writer of the Year” award. This particular award is not for cookbooks (my own book is entered for the cookbook award so I couldn’t really be on that panel!) but for articles published in newspapers and magazines during 2017. The five of us judges have each been given 5 recipe articles from 20 different writers, with a view to creating initially a shortlist and then a winner. It was a marathon of reading and thinking about 100 articles (perhaps 400 recipes in total) and their introductions. The breadth of people’s food imagination is remarkable, and I’m excited to have discovered several writers that I wasn’t familiar with – although probably should have been.

Since I’ve only just submitted my shortlist, and the awards ceremony is not until June, I can’t say anything about individual entrants. But the whole process has set off a wave of new recipe cooking at home – including delving again into some books that have been resting on our shelves. On Monday Sarah made a delicious Nigel Slater combination from his Kitchen Diaries vol 3– duck legs slow cooked with port and prunes, plus red cabbage with bacon. I was doubtful about the red cabbage and bacon but wrongly so. The salty cabbaginess made a memorably delicious plateful when eaten alongside the duck and prunes.

Meanwhile, with Easter (and therefore Good Friday) fast approaching, my eye had been caught by a hot cross bun recipe in one of the articles submitted for the GFW awards. I made a first version last week and have tinkered with it in a minor way this week to create the buns pictured here. I think they’re lovely – the diced apple and the spiced glaze giving the deliciously soft dough an extra lift. Taking these buns out of the oven I had to suppress once again my dream of having a little bakery. ’Remember the ridiculously early mornings, Bill, as well as the tricky economics’ I tell myself for the umpteenth time.

‘Mixed spice’ is classic British pudding spice mix which will vary from brand to brand but which generally features cinnamon, cloves, allspice, ginger and nutmeg. I find the combination strangely alluring.

makes 16 buns

This dough is more easily kneaded in a mixer than by hand as it’s rather slack and sticky. As it’s an enriched dough it takes a lot longer to rise than normal bread dough.

340ml milk
50g butter

500g strong white flour
75g caster sugar
7g pckt yeast
5g salt

1 egg, lightly beaten

75g sultanas/raisins
50g mixed peel
1 eating apple, diced 0.5cm
1 tsp mixed spice

For the cross:

75g plain flour and enough water to make a paste like toothpaste

For the glaze

50g sugar
50g water
½ tsp mixed spice

  1. Heat milk to steaming. Add butter and allow to melt. Allow mixture to cool.
  2. In a large mixing bowl (ideally of a Kenwood Chef type mixer) add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients. Mix together roughly, then mix in the egg and knead for a couple of minutes (or 5 minutes if kneading by hand).
  3. Mix in the raisins, peel, apple and mixed spice and knead again until everything is evenly distributed. Cover with clingfilm and leave for 1½ to 3 hours (depending on the room and dough temperatures) until at least doubled in size.
  4. Line 2 baking sheets each measuring about 26cm x 32cm (or 1 larger one if you’ve got a big oven) with baking parchment. Divide the dough into 16 and arrange evenly on the baking sheets. Don’t attempt to shape the buns as they’re too sticky for this and, in any event, they settle to a nice shape as they rise.
  5. Allow to rise in a warm place until really puffy (1-3 hours depending on room temperature). Pipe on the crosses with the flour paste using a piping bag. If you make a mess (as I usually do) that goes to show that these are home-made buns and none of that shop-bought nonsense.
  6. Bake at 180C (fan) for 20-25 minutes until slightly browned and hollow-sounding when tapped underneath. Remove from the oven.
  7. Put the glaze ingredients in a small pan and heat to boiling point, stirring sufficiently to mix the sugar in to the water. Brush the glaze generously on to the buns whilst they’re still warm.

The film of the book

The café Christmas madness is over and I’m now back working at my new cookbook – ‘Bill’s Kitchen’. One of the things that’s continuing to surprise me is that there’s so much to do which isn’t directly writing the book – all the more so because I’m going to crowdfund the book and publish it myself. It’s both a delight and a challenge that I and my team have to do or organize everything: the writing, the editing, the index, the pictures, the layout, the printing, the marketing, the distribution, the e-book – the list goes on.

Last week I was re-testing soups and salads for the book and writing up the recipes – and Tom was of course taking more beautiful pictures of them. So we’ve had a few days at home of feasting on Lebanese herb salads, roast aubergine with pine nuts and sweet and sour dressing and rich and aromatic winter broths.

Then this week I’ve spent the last 2 days with the splendid Dave Jones of Windup films who has been making the film which will go at the top of the Kickstarter page – all the pictures on this page are images extracted from the film he is making.

Kickstarter is the crowd-funding platform which I’m going to use to fund the printing of the book. Kickstarter specializes in creative projects and at the top of each page the creator (that’s me in this case) does a short video to explain why his or her project is worth backing and what the backers will get in return.

So this 2 minute film is the key opportunity to explain why I think it’s a great book and to talk about the rewards that backers will get. Dave spent the first day filming in the café to give a picture of the environment that many of the recipes have come from and then the second day I did a piece to camera explaining why I think it’s a great book and why I hope people will want to back it. It was all a new experience for me. Sarah used her barristerial background to hone my script in advance and luckily, with clever film editing techniques, I only had to remember about one sentence at a time. There’s nothing like staring at a camera to make me forget what I was trying to say.

In a few days time I’ll get the finished film and I’ll post a link to it next time I do a blog – and don’t forget to put 1st May in your diaries which is the day the Kickstarter campaign goes live.

And now I need to get back to actually writing this book….



Bringing holiday food home

Tomatoes on toast for breakfast

Tomatoes on toast for breakfast

It feels like summer has finished a bit early in England this year, so I want to keep warm with the memories of two delicious weeks of eating 3000 ft up in the Alpe della Luna in eastern Tuscany this August. Around 16 of us, enthusiastic cooks and eaters all, aged 11 to 54; mostly cooking for ourselves with just a couple of memorable meals out. The 20-stage antipasto starring a tiny omelette with summer truffles was the highlight of our eating out experiences, but the biggest food pleasures of the holiday came from sitting and eating together on our terrace.

Our daily breakfast of toast and tomatoes with coffee may not sound like much, but maybe it was the most delicious thing of the whole two weeks. Tuscan bread is (to my mind) horribly unsalty, so we made our own bread most days and toasted it the next morning for breakfast. We bought lumpy misshapen and ripe tomatoes. We cooked the toast on the stove, drizzled a bit of olive oil on it, sliced the tomatoes onto it, poured on a bit more oil, salt and pepper and then tore some basil over it. Heavenly, and sadly unachievable in England – unless our Marmandes ever ripen this cool year.

Our dining room

Our dining room

Meal 1: Chicken pieces coated with garlic/parmesan/butter/breadcrumbs (‘Carla’s chicken’ in our family) then cooked on top of sliced potatoes in the oven. As you can imagine you get crispy chicken on top and garlicky, buttery, chicken soft potatoes underneath.

Meal 2: From the local market we bought delicious sliced porchetta – whole roast suckling pig cooked with a salty stuffing of fennel, garlic and rosemary and ate it at home in dripping fatty sandwiches with a tart green salad

Meal 3: Stock from the previous chicken was the basis for fennel risotto with green beans tossed in pork fat (leftover from the porchetta) and lemon.

Meal 4: The assembled kids (how long can we keep calling them that now that the oldest are 17?) made a stunningly good pasta bake with meaty sausage, roast peppers, tomatoes, all our various leftover pecorinos (at least 3 different varieties) and caprine (goat equivalent of pecorino) – this was the girls’ offering. Followed by a riposte of an excellent Nutella cake with Nutella icing from the boys. Can we retire?

Meal 5: My turn at the stove: rabbit, sausage (leftover from the pasta bake) and chickpea stew made with plenty of white wine (bought from a petrol pump) and thickened with pureed chickpeas.

Meal 6: A really delicious spaghetti Bolognese from Matt. I’m not a regular Bolognese maker and I was impressed by the rich combo with plenty of chicken livers, bacon and red wine included in the long-cooked mix of tomatoes, garlic, onions and minced beef.

Meal 7: Chicken with white wine and fennel – I failed to write down whether we cooked this on top of rice (my favourite way of combining rice and chicken) or had it with potatoes and my normally reliable food memory is drawing a blank. Surely not food senility creeping in?

Our bread waiting to go into the oven

Our bread waiting to go into the oven

Lunches: A couple of delicious Nicoise salads (but can I really go on holiday with people some of whom don’t like capers on their Nicoise?) and piles of prosciutto crudo with ripe melons, nectarines and figs. More tomatoes with basil and sometimes mozzarella. Local salamis. Stuart’s focaccia and rolls and the aforementioned pecorino selection. And then our fine landlady (opera singer turned writer Lizzie) introduced us to an excellent pasticceria just in case we were still hungry. And sometimes we were.

cakies from the pasticceria

cakies from the pasticceria

I love England and I’m glad to be back with the energizing chill of September – but I’m also looking forward to our next Italian summer, whenever that may be.