Eat positive: happy hormones and a fig focaccia recipe

Fig focaccia recipe by Ink SugarSpice

Two years ago (two years!! Blimey) I looked at analogue hobbies, that was all about putting down your device and doing something mindful and encompassing.

Lately, I’ve been reading extensively into the four ‘happy hormones’. These chemicals are neurotransmitters; chemicals that transmit messages from a neuron (typically but not always) across the brain to a target cell and directly affect our mood in a positive way. Conversely, a lull in the availability of these neurotransmitters can have detrimental effects on us. Although there are also some instances where an excess can be problematic too, in general it’s great for positive mental health to look to ‘activate’ or increase these four neurotransmitters.

These four are:

  • the “feel good” or “runner’s high” hormone: dopamine;
  • the “love” hormone: oxytocin;
  • the “happy” hormone: serotonin, and;
  • the “pain relief” hormone: endorphin

Of course I’m no expert whatsoever, but this is what I’ve gathered together on food/eating and “happy hormones”. At the end of this article I’ve included a recipe for a focaccia which includes many ingredients experts have identified as promoting or producing one or other of these hormones.

It is possible to identify activities, foods and more that encourage the production of these neurotransmitter chemicals. This can help us better understand what makes us happy, contented, relaxed and help us promote those positive feelings.

After each round of up the hormones, I’ve given links to more scholarly and in-depth articles so you can research more and read advice from experts.

Dopamine

Dopamine is produced in situations where we’ve rewarded ourselves, it makes us feel great and contented and is there in evolutionary terms to help us to repeat activities that are safe and enjoyable (and therefore stay away from things that would imply danger).

Dopamine triggers in circumstances such as being told we’ve been praised but interestingly also when we praise others. So, start spreading the joy and pass on a nice, genuine compliment (hopefully karma will ensure you receive similar in return). We feel dopamine’s effects when we indulge ourselves in some self care or ‘me time’ or treat ourselves with food. Listening to our favourite music or participating in a celebration of some sort also raises your dopamine levels. In short, it’s a chemical pat on the back.

No foods actually have dopamine, but foods do look for foods that are rich in an amino acid called l-tyrosine, which is crucial to the body’s functions that produce dopamine. Foods rich in l-tyrosine include:

  • Unprocessed meats and fish
  • Dairy foods
  • Nuts
  • Chocolate (specifically dark chocolate)
  • Eggs
  • Peas, beans and pulses of all kinds
  • Dark green vegetables (particularly the leafy ones)

Studies show that low dopamine may be associated with addiction, perhaps because the individual is always chasing that great feeling. Dopamine is also beginning to be linked with ADHD and Parkinson’s disease.

Links

https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/basics/dopamine

https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/what-dopamine-diet

https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/food-facts-food-and-mood.html

https://www.parkinsons.org.uk/information-and-support/what-causes-parkinsons

https://www.additudemag.com/adhd-neuroscience-101/

Fig focaccia bread recipe by InkSugarSpice

Oxytocin

Oxytocin is often described as the ‘love hormone’ as our bodies release it when we have those intimate, compassionate or empathetic moments. Although it is released during sex, it’s not all about that – think of the good feelings you get when spending time with your pet, bonding with your children (including apparently during childbirth to facilitate bonding and it also is brings on contractions), hugging a friend a walk in an oak forest on a sunny day. They’re all instances when oxytocin is released and you feel that rush of warmth and contentment.

There have been recent studies to research whether oxytocin can help those with anorexia and eating disorders/body dysmorphia and that it may help those with an autism spectrum disorder to overcome social anxiety.

No foods directly contribute to the production and release of oxytocin, however there is a food link: oxytocin can be produced when preparing food together, eating a family meal, going somewhere romantic to eat, sharing food and meals with children and enjoying a glass of something with your loved ones. All these situations help release oxytocin. So, if oxytocin be the food of love, play on!

Links

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5868755/

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-26543427

Current findings on the role of oxytocin in the regulation of food intake – University of Birmingham

Oxytocin, feeding, and satiety – University of Edinburgh

https://www.nct.org.uk/labour-birth/your-guide-labour/hormones-labour-oxytocin-and-others-how-they-work

Serotonin

The mood stabilising or ‘happy hormone’. The relationship we have with the production of serotonin is mood regulation (including lowering anxiety), keeping to balanced sleeping patterns and feeling that sense of happiness.

You can easily boost your own serotonin levels but spending some time (safely) in the sun, getting some exercise, being meditative or, similar to oxytocin, getting our into nature and really appreciating it.

You can’t actually eat foods that directly affect serotonin levels but do find foods that are rich in the amino acid tryptophan, which has a direct correlation to oxytocin production (similar to the dopamine-L-tyrosine relationship).

Foods rich in tryptophan include:

  • honey
  • chicken and turkey
  • dairy produce
  • mushrooms
  • brassicas and legumes
  • figs, bananas and avocados
  • eggs
  • olives/olive oil
  • leafy green vegetables
  • sunflower and pumpkin seeds
  • nuts

Links

Chichester Wellbeing Weight Loss

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2077351/

Nottingham Trent University student guidance

https://www.pcrm.org/good-nutrition/food-and-mood

Endorphin

This is the one that can have a euphoric effect, despite being only nicknamed the pain relief hormone.

Do you experience ASMR? Auto Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) is a very pleasing tingling effect starting on your scalp and moving down your neck, shoulders and into your back when one or more of your senses is triggered. Scientists are tentatively beginning to link the release of endorphins as a cause of these pleasant sensations in individuals (not everyone experiences ASMR).

Even if you don’t get ASMR, an increase in endorphin levels will make anyone feel great. It’s believed that they are the body’s response to help you manage pain and as a reward system when you do something good. Evolutionarily speaking, it soothes when times are difficult or stressful and encourages you to repeat positive experiences by linking them to a natural high.

Simple things can boost endorphin levels from having a good laugh, indulging in your favourites scents and smells, exercise and being kind to others (what a fabulous way! That’s a win:win situation) .

Foods that encourage the release of endorphins:

  • Chocolate – the darker the better
  • Wine, specifically red wine
  • Spicy foods

Links

https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-increase-endorphins

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320839

https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/the-athletes-way/201709/one-surefire-way-release-endorphins-your-brain

https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0196645

Recipe

Taking in to consideration as much of the above as possible, I’ve come up with a little recipe incorporating happy hormone encouraging ingredients. I hope you enjoy: on many levels!

Fig focaccia

Pleasingly alliterative as well as delicious!

Equipment

  • Large bowl
  • Scales
  • Sharp knife
  • Baking tray
  • Rolling pin
  • Clean tea towel/cling film/food safe bag for proofing time

Ingredients – dough

  • 300g strong white bread flour
  • 200ml water
  • 1 teaspoon of dried yeast
  • 15ml of a good extra virgin olive oil (plus extra for drizzling and preparation)
  • 8g fine salt
  • 20g of seeds (such as sesame, linseeds, pumpkin etc)

Ingredients – topping

  • 2 figs
  • 1 tablespoon of pine nuts
  • 6-8 walnut halves
  • 1- 2 tablespoons of fresh herbs, such as oregano, marjoram and rosemary (these are the three herbs I used)
  • 1-2 tablespoons honey
  • Semolina, chickpea or other coarse flour for dusting (if you don’t have any of these extra bread flour can be used)

Method

  • Mix the ingredients for the dough (flour, water, yeast, oil, salt and seeds) in the large bowl until it’s a rough mix. Leave for 10 minutes
  • Tip out on to a floured surface and knead for 8-10 minutes until the dough is glossy and smooth
  • Oil the bowl and place the dough back in. Cover the bowl and leave for about 50-60 minutes for its first proof
  • Dust the baking tray thoroughly and have close to hand
  • On a surface dusted with the semolina (or whatever you’ve got instead), tip out the dough and knock it back (that is press down with your fingers to burst the larger air bubbles)
  • Press out the dough with your hands or a dusted rolling pin into an oblong shape. The dough should be quite thin: no more than 1cm / less than 1/2 inch high
  • Carefully transfer to the baking tray
  • Slice the figs into four (at least) and place on the dough
  • Cover the dough and leave to proof a second time, for about 30 minutes
Fig focaccia bread recipe by InkSugarSpice
  • Warm your oven to 110C (fan) or 120C (conventional/non-fan)
  • Uncover the focaccia and place the walnuts on, sprinkle over the soft leave herbs (marjoram and oregano) and drizzle over the honey and then the olive oil

Fig focaccia bread recipe by Ink SugarSpice
  • Once the oven is up to temperature, place the focaccia in and bake for 20 minutes
  • After 20 minutes, retrieve the focaccia and sprinkle on the pine nuts and rosemary leaves
  • Place back in the oven for another 5 minutes (if your focaccia already looks done, turn off your oven when putting the focaccia back in for the last five minutes)

To maximise the happy hormones, serve with a leafy green salad

Fig focaccia bread recipe by Ink SugarSpice

Reducing salt and low salt loaf recipe

Low salt loaf – recipe can be found at the end of this article

We know, don’t we that we ought to be reducing certain elements in our food, those that the modern world has invented, corrupted or pushing at us in unhealthy quantities. Whilst I’m firmly in the ‘a little of what you fancy does you good’ camp, lessening consumption of certain things like ultra processed foods, sugar and salt is good to consider. Here I’m going to look at ways to lower our intake of salt in homemade bread.

Salt is necessary for body function, but we’re all eating way over our required amount (ref: Gov.uk). While it may not be a worry for you now, you may need to adjust your salt intake as you get older or (hopefully not) develop certain health problems. By reducing salt now before these circumstances arise you will get more accustomed to a lower level of salt in advance and work to reduce your reliance on it.

Many of these ideas here for bread can be worked in equally well to flavouring other cooking, so you’re not automatically reaching for teaspoons full of salt to flavour your food.

Over the past year or so I’ve started reducing the amount of salt I add to my bread. There are a number of ways I’ve done this so as not to compromise on flavour and there are some radical alternatives too!

Salt in bread for flavour

Many people are under the impression that salt is necessary in bread baking. It’s not, but it does do more than just add taste. Certainly, its primary function is to add flavour and stop a loaf being bland, as the process of milling grain takes a lot of the natural flavour away. Or, as Elizabeth David rather cannily put it, salt is added because it “corrects insipidity”.

As a flavour enhancer, a certain amount of salt will draw out the taste of other ingredients. Because of this property salt is often added to sweet recipes, where you may think its appearance would be incongruous, such as in cakes and biscuits. Salt should be added into sweet recipes at a level where it only enhances and does not overwhelm or provide an actual salty note. This is the reason why you should adhere to the specified amount of salt in a sweet recipe and not be ‘liberal’ with the amount (as well as health implications).

Salt’s other properties

Water content

Salt has a minimal effect on the moisture content in the loaf as sodium dissolves readily in water and will even attract moisture direct from the air. This hygroscopic nature will take some of the water in bread dough away from being absorbed by the flour and yeast. Therefore, if you remove the salt completely, the dough will be wetter and you may have to tweak the recipe to reduce the water. [Frankly though, in reality, I’ve found this effect minimal so if the dough turns out to be a bit sticky just add a flourish of extra flour while kneading or shaping to compensate.]

Rise

Yeast does not like salt. Salt inhibits the yeast and will eventually actually kill it off if you just leave them together. Have you read a recipe that says put the yeast on one side of the bowl and the salt on the other? That’s to keep the salt and yeast away from each other until the liquid is added, so protecting the yeast. If you don’t add salt then there will be a little more rise. Without salt, yeast can work to capacity (unless you’ve inhibited it in other ways – see my post on how yeast works).

Crust and texture

Salt dissolved in the dough contributes to a crusty crust as it helps tighten gluten structure. Also, salt will dehydrate in the oven and begin to return to its crystalline form. Want to test this crusty theory? Dilute salt in water and brush it over the top of your loaf before baking.

Preservation

Salt, I’m sure you know, is a preservative which humans have utilised for thousands of years. Your bread will last longer with salt than a no-salt bread.

How to reduce salt

Just. Don’t. Add. It.

There; simple huh? Well you could do that, such as with the famous pane Toscano (Tuscan bread) recipe. However, pane Toscano is often used to accompany ribboletto, the very rich and pretty salty soup – or some other food with a high salt content such as a highly seasoned salame. So, yes, you can entirely remove salt from a bread recipe but it really depends on how you’re going to consume it and what with. I suspect you would not notice a total lack of salt in pizza dough, bread rolls for BBQ meats or bacon butties for instance, as they incorporate all salty, highly flavourful ingredients in a meal. However, for the most part I’d recommend adding at least a little.

Reduce the salt amount and add pepper.

This is a great go-to method for everyday breads. Here, you get a little of the benefits of salt without eating too much in your bread. Using half pepper: half salt will give you a very flavourful bread. Make sure it’s freshly ground pepper to ensure a strong flavour (and not that grim, grey pre-ground stuff).

Reduce the amount (in part or entirely) and add seaweed flakes.

Seaweed has sodium in and is naturally salty but you also get a mix of flavours, added iodine and other vitamins. If you’re worried, I can tell you a loaf with seaweed in does not taste fishy! I love making bread with seaweed flakes and do it very regularly and my favourite is sea salad from the Cornish Seaweed Co. Add it into the dough instead of (some or all) the salt or sprinkle it on top, which looks beautiful. Seaweed goes particularly well in breads like grissini, focaccia, baguettes, rustic breads and marries well with ancients grains such as spelt and khorasan. My recipe given further below incorporates seaweed.

Add herbs or spices.

Go for a different bread taste and put in half the total amount of salt and add chopped fresh herbs. Use your favourite herbs or search out new ones for specific flavours. Everyone knows rosemary goes nicely in bread, but use parsley, thyme or basil for a mediterranean taste. Lovage and hyssop add a gently liquorice tang. Ramsons (wild garlic), chives or Good King Henry are great in savoury uses. Mint, lavender, thyme and nasturtium leaves are nice in sweetened brioche. Use spices as you would with a main recipe – add according to cuisine or pairing rules. Or break up the rules and just try your favourite spices.

Also, you might want to pre-prepare some salt infusions for this. See both my following recipe posts on salt mixes:

Fiery chilli salt mix recipe - Ink Sugar Spice

Add the seasoning in the liquid or other ingredients.

For instance, you can add miso or yeast extract to the water content. I often also add a spoonful of something ‘extra’ to my loaves, such as balsamic vinegar, malt extract, grape must, pomegranate or grape molasses, verjus or cider vinegar.

The other alternative is to use a low-salt alternative.

I cannot comment on this as I’ve not used it. It’s supposed to be about a third of the sodium, but I wonder what else is in it instead? I prefer to lower simple salt and add other flavourings – I know then what’s going into my bread.

Low salt loaf recipe

Low salt loaf - recipe by Ink Sugar Spice

Notes

This will also work in a bread machine. Add the seaweed flakes into your nut/seed dispenser and the yeast into the yeast dispenser, but everything else can go in the bowl. Choose a function that produces a medium sized ‘normal’ loaf.

Equipment

  • Large bowl
  • Dough whisk or stand mixer is helpful, but you can mix by hand
  • Small ovenproof tin
  • Baking tray
  • Tea towels or other covers for the bread, while proofing
  • Scales, measuring spoons, measuring jug
  • Wire cooling rack

Ingredients

  • 400g strong white bread flour
  • 3g fine salt
  • 1g freshly milled ground pepper
  • 1 – 2 tablespoons of Sea Salad from the Cornish Seaweed Co – but use any edible dried seaweed flakes (whether bought or foraged)
  • 1 tablespoon of grape must. If you can’t find this – I buy mine in a Polish store – then use a rich Balsamic vinegar (I’d recommend Filippo Berio’s Premier Cru) or pomegranate molasses (such as from Odyssea), which are both easier to find
  • 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil
  • 270ml water
  • 1 teaspoon of dried, fast acting yeast
  • A little extra oil and flour

Method

  • Mix together EVERYTHING in a large bowl, until it’s combined but a really rough mix. Use a Dutch whisk or a stand mixer if you have it as it’s a bit messy this mix
  • Leave to autolyse for 10 minutes
  • Knead (or turn on your stand mixer) for 10 minutes. It will eventually come together nicely without the need for extra flour (try not to add more, but use a little if you really think you can’t cope with it being that sticky!)
  • When the surface is smooth, oil a large bowl and place the dough in. Cover (tea towel, couch, shower cap or cling film) and leave to rise for 45-60 minutes
  • This loaf will almost double – probably about an extra 75% again of its original size
  • Tip out the dough on to a lightly floured surface and knock back gently
  • Shape and place into your preferred banneton, bowl, bread tin or it can be plaited
  • Cover again and leave for about 25-30 minutes until it appears fluffed up. While it is doing this final proof, turn your oven on to 220C fan / 240C non-fan and place a small tin at the bottom of the oven
  • When ready (and after the oven has reached temperature) lightly flour a baking tray. Invert the loaf from the banneton/bowl or place the plait or tin onto the baking tray
  • If you want and have inverted the loaf from a banneton, you can slash the top to aide the rise and make the loaf prettier (such as the wave pattern above)
  • Place in the oven and immediately put a cupful of water into the little tin you left in the bottom of the oven. This creates steam and helps the loaf rise
  • Time for 35 minutes, but after 10 minutes turn the oven down by 20 degrees (whether you have a fan or non-fan over).
  • After the 35 minutes the bread should be golden, risen and hollow-sounding when tapped on the bottom
  • Leave to cool over a wire rack

I’d love to know if you tried this loaf and found that you did not miss the normal level of salt. Please leave any comment below.

A week in the life of a loaf

You’ve handmade your beautiful, delicious loaf and although it may seem obvious what to do with it, I’ve written a week’s guide to what to do with your bread to get the most of it and to waste as little as possible (and hopefully nothing at all).

This post was started long before there was any thought of a pandemic that would keep us socially isolating and having to be very frugal with food. I’ve returned to this draft to finish it and ensure it is in keeping with the needs of lockdown cooking.

pane bianco - copyright image Lynn Clark - inksugarspice

Day one – eat a slice with a simple, extra quick curried soup – Veggie

This is a great store cupboard soup (although as I’ve chatted about in other recent posts, it sort of depends on how you stock your cupboards – not everyone keeps the same sort of things).

Finely chop a small red onion and fry off in some oil in a saucepan. Empty a tin of chopped (good quality) tomatoes in and add a tablespoon of curry paste (of your choice/preference such as balti, korma, tandoori etc). Stir until warmed through. Taste and add salt and pepper if required or a little more curry paste. Place in a bowl and add a dollop of Greek yogurt or creme fraiche and a handful of chopped coriander leaves (or parsley if you’re not a coriander fan). Eat with a slice of that bread, with or without butter

Day two – sandwiches or a Ploughman’s

My ideal* Ploughman’s platter: extra thick, ‘door stop’ slices of springy bread slathered in good butter, with: a chunk of mature Cheddar and a wedge of Double Gloucester cheeses; sliverskin pickled onions, a strong apple (something like a Russet or James Greave ideally, but a Granny Smith will do); slices of ham or Prosciutto/Bresaola; mouth-pukeringly-strong salt and vinegar crisps; a dollop of homemade tomato chutney; a few grapes; maybe some olives and some watercress. Oh and a pint of IPA, ideally.

*OK, so a Ploughman’s lunch originally would probably have been a chunk of plain bread, and just the cheese and apple. A Ploughman’s is a great frugal meal, not only is it a British/English poor man’s meal it lends itself to using up whatever you have in the fridge or cupboard. Use whatever cheese you have, what cured meats or hams, make your own chutneys to preserve your fruit and veg etc.

See my posts on preserves: https://inksugarspice.wordpress.com/category/preserves-creams/

white sourdough with random slashing - Nine top tips for bread slashing art www.inksugarspice.wordpress.com #recipe #baking #breadart @inksugarspice
White sourdough, with a minimal prove

Day three – ‘more than’ cheese on toast

Toast thick slices of your bread under a grill (ideally a sourdough but work with what you have!). For each slice, weigh out about 45-50g of grated extra strong or mature cheddar and mash together with a cheese triangle or a tablespoon of cream cheese. Chop up two large slices of peppered salami and a teeny drop of English mustard, though you can omit the mustard if you’re not fond. Mix together and spread onto the toasted slice of bread and grill under just browning at the edges. Obviously scale this up for however many slices you’re making.

Day four – bruschetta – Vegan

Toast mid-thick slices of bread on both sides. Chop up a handful of baby plum tomatoes, sprinkle with a little salt. Place them in a sieve and let this drain over a bowl. Once drained, tip the tomatoes into that bowl. Season the tomatoes with pepper and a little balsamic vinegar and mix it all together. Taste to see if the salt level is OK and add a little more if needed. Drizzle some extra virgin olive oil on the toast and rub a peeled clove of garlic over the bread. Spoon the tomato mix onto the slices of toast and serve.

Image of bruschetta, in this case tomatoes on toasted sourdough

Day five – Melba toast – Vegan/Veggie (depending on what’s in the bread you’ve made)

Sounds very posh, but it isn’t and very easy to make… Cut off about 8mm thick slices of bread. Cut off the crusts (and you can square off the toasts if you prefer). Toast the slices on both sides to a mid brown colour: don’t toast them too dark or they will not be easy to cut further without them shattering. While still warm, I lay a chopping board over the slices and weight it down with a bag or two of rice/sugar to flatten the toasts. When cool, retrieve the toasts and lay them flat, with a sharp serrated knife cut down the toast to create two slices – each of these slices will have a toasted side and an ‘internal’ side. I leave my Melba toasts like this but you can then toast this side too if you prefer. Also, some people don’t flatten the bread, I just think it makes them easier to slice. You can then cut them down into triangles or little rectangles/soldiers.

A lovely alternative to crackers or biscuits with cheese or dips, or as a side to soups or tapas. You can use sourdough for this – it entirely depends whether you mind having honey Melba toasts or not. Frankly I like sourdough Melba toast.

Day six – croutons – Vegan

Slice up 3-4 slices of sourdough into 1 cm cubes. Heat some olive oil in a frying pan and test the oil temperature by chucking in a small piece of sourdough – it should start sizzling if it’s hot enough. Tip in all the sourdough pieces and keep them moving as they fry (use two wooden spoons to ‘flip’ the croutons). When the croutons are nicely browned and crisp, take them off the heat and tip them into a bowl lined with a sheet of kitchen paper to catch the excess oil. Remove the kitchen paper and grind a teaspoon each of salt and pepper over them. Now toss the croutons with a teaspoon each of onion granules, garlic granules and sprinkle on a little chopped parsley.

Day seven – breadcrumbs: for savoury dishes such as gratin, escalope, buttermilk coated chicken, making sausages etc – or for sweet treats like treacle tarts (as below)

Other ideas for bread

Romesco sauce – this Spanish sauce is just intense and goes great with tapas, over potatoes or meats

Panzanella – a classic northern Italian ‘salad’ dish

Cinnamon toast – such a breakfast staple – children in particular love it

Birdfood – when all else fails, don’t put it in the bin, at least the birds will eat it. And, despite some publicity saying people shouldn’t feed bread to birds there has been a backlash on this: some birds are in danger of starving where they’ve relied on being fed bread and now that food supply has stopped. Also, unless it’s a) very rubbish bread and b) the only thing they eat it’s better to feed them than not.

Note: if you’ve made your bread yourself, especially bread with inclusions (seeds, nuts cheese, fruit, veggies etc), enriched bread (such as brioche or sticky buns – these are a particularly good option) or a sourdough it’s going to be infinitely better for them than a packaged, sliced loaf with little to nutritional value – that’s one of the reasons why you make your own for yourself isn’t it!?

Break the bread into small pieces, especially when feed smaller birds and when there are chicks. Slightly larger pieces are OK for ducks, geese swans etc. If the bread is very dry, wet it a little. If it’s plain bread ideally add in some other foods too – suet, nuts, seeds, chopped dried fruit etc. even cold scrambled egg, chopped cooked bits of bacon fat, even grated cheese.

Here’s what the RSPB has to say:

All types of bread can be digested by birds, but ideally it should only be just one component in a varied diet. Bread does not contain the necessary protein and fat birds need from their diet, and so it can act as an empty filler. Although bread isn’t harmful to birds, try not to offer it in large quantities, since its nutritional value is relatively low. A bird that is on a diet of predominantly, or only bread, can suffer from serious vitamin deficiencies, or starve.

Food left on the ground overnight can attract rats. Soaked bread is more easily ingested than stale dry bread, and brown bread is better than white. Crumbled bread is suitable in small quantities, but moisten if it is very dry. During the breeding season, make sure bread is crumbled into tiny pieces so that it is safer to eat. Dry chunks of bread will choke baby birds, and a chick on a diet of bread may not develop into a healthy fledgling.

Do leave a comment or a question below 💚

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Chilli salt grissini

Grissini - inksugarspice

I have written a previous recipe for grissini (flavoured with olives, parmesan or seeds) which is a good, reliable recipe. It may seem odd to be writing a second grissini recipe but I believe it differs enough to warrant a write-up: these grissini are taper-thin and have an exceptional crunch to them. I’ve also rolled them in a chilli salt mix. They’re awesome on their own as a light snack but are wonderful with a melted cheese dip or something rich and tomato-y.

As I mentioned in the original grissini recipe, homemade breadsticks are simply miles ahead of the hideous pre-packed ones. I’ll repeat what I said in the original: once you’ve made your own grissini you can’t go back. The bonus is that they are one of the simplest yeasted bread recipes to make and are very impressive (especially when you know they’re pretty easy).

Notes

Makes about 30-40 breadsticks, dependent on the length you’ve rolled the dough out to.

Equipment

  • Large bowl
  • *Stand mixer with dough hook attachment (if not kneading by hand)
  • Pizza cutter or long sharp knife (non-serrated)
  • Two large baking trays, lined with parchment
  • Rolling pin
  • Pastry brush
  • Clean linen tea towel or cling film

Ingredients

  • Tipo 00 or plain white flour – 150g
  • Strong white bread flour – 150g (plus a little extra for dusting)
  • Fast acting yeast – 1 level teaspoon/5g
  • Salt – 1 teaspoon
  • Extra virgin olive oil – 1 and 1/4 tablespoons (I used Filippo Berio’s)
  • Water, just tepid – 200 ml
  • Added ingredients:
    • An egg, whisked lightly for brushing
    • either 3 tablespoons of my fiery chilli salt mix
    • or
    • 3 tablespoons rock salt + 1 tablespoon of chilli flakes

Method

  1. Mix all the ingredients for the bread dough together (tipo 00 flour, bread flour, yeast, salt olive oil and water) into a scruffy mess
  2. Leave for 10 minutes to autolyse (this period helps the gluten develop initially before kneading)
  3. Tip out and knead for 8 – 10 minutes until the dough is smooth and glossy (or mix in your stand mixer if you prefer not to knead by hand)
  4. Lightly oil the bowl you were using and pop the dough back in, and cover it with a tea towel or cling film until it has risen by about half as much again (it won’t ‘double in size’). This could be anything between 30 – 90 minutes depending on the ambient temperature
  5. When the dough is ready, lightly flour your working surface and tip out your dough onto it
  6. Flour your rolling pin and roll the dough out in as precise a rectangle as possible to about 0.5 cm / 1/4 inch thick (or as near as you can get it – don’t worry too much)
  7. Leave to rest covered with a tea towel for about 20 minutes
  8. Set the oven on to 200C fan / 220C conventional
  9. When rested (and risen a little) use a sharp knife or pizza cutter to cut as many 0.75cm / 1/3 inch strips as you can from your dough rectangle

    Grissini - inksugarspice
  10. Scatter the chilli salt mix in a spread out pile on your working surface
  11. Using a pastry brush, spread the beaten egg lightly over the dough strips, turning them over to coat both sides
  12. Taking a strip of dough at a time, roll it gently in the salt and chilli, trying not to press too hard as you only want to roll the dough into a more rounded shape rather than lengthen it – the salt and chilli should stick on
  13. Carefully transfer the dough strip to your lined baking tray
  14. Repeat with all the dough strips, so they are all covered in the chilli and salt

    Grissini - inksugarspice
  15. Make sure there is a little space between all the dough strips on the baking trays and aim to line them up straight
  16. Set the oven on to 200C fan / 220C conventional
  17. Bake for about 14-16 minutes until a nice golden colour
  18. Leave to cool in the trays
  19. They should be crisp with a nice ‘snap’ when fully cooled
Grissini - inksugarspice
Ink Sugar Spice blog https://inksugarspice.wordpress.com/

Flavoured salts – part two

salts2-7

[Updated]

In the first part of this series on flavoured salt mixes, I explained a little about the types of salts available, where they come from, how they’re harvested, what gives tinted salts their colours and how to select salts for different uses. So, if you missed that post I do encourage you to read it first before continuing here as it gives the full background and a much better understanding. You can access flavoured salt mixes part one here.

In this second part I’ve included a couple of absolute classics – Italian and French herbs. However, the Italian mix does include the optional addition of adding dried tomato paste. This kicks the mix up a couple of notches if you can be bothered to try drying tomato paste – I recommend you do try. It’s also a great way of elongating the shelf life of an opened can, tube or jar of tomato paste as it can just be sprinkled into foods while cooking.

On a slightly madder theme I’ve included a “recipe” that involved DRIED MARMITE! Yes, I actually spent one afternoon inventing the perfect dried Marmite. I wanted to include that ultimate umami taste in a salt mix, but of course I couldn’t include it in its normal gooey state. This is an AWESOME mix – I use on tons of things. You’d never know that it is entirely vegetarian! It’s particularly great to give an intense BBQ flavour to vegetarian foods and it brings out an incredible flavour on chicken and steak in particular. There is a BBQ mix on the part one post, which is entirely lovely, but this one knocks your socks off.

Almost equally mad, but not because of an individual ingredient, rather the whole mix is the English Summer Sweet mix. Sweet and salt is not a new flavour combination, but it’s still rather unusual in this form and takes some getting used to. This is a beautiful looking mix, full of pinks, blues and yellows. The trick is to use it for taste but not waste it’s good looks buried inside a dish. It is lovely in a short pastry tart, sprinkled over the top of a pavlova or meringue kisses before they go in the oven or in an ice cream. It also goes nicely sprinkled on the top of a pasta ripiena/pasta in brodo dish or on tapas or similar.

Do you have any salt mixes that you have created yourself, or is there any that you think you’d like to see? Perhaps you use sme pre-made ones, such as those from the Cornish Salt Co, but are itching to have a go at creating your own. Please let me know in the comments below 💙

Notes

  • Anything you add to a salt needs to be dry – very dry! Although that comes with a caveat – in my English Summer Sweet mix below I’ve found that both calendula petals and lavender flowers are perfectly fine putting into a salt mix fresh – the only other thing I’ve found so far that will work fresh is chopped up rosemary leaves. Everything else needs to be dried. Either start with pre-dried herbs or dry out your own ingredients in your oven or de-humidifier. I’ve given the timings and temps for ingredients I use where I can
  • Buy a high quality base salt for these, as cheaper salts do tend to have added extra ingredients (mostly to enable the salt to stay free flowing) and are more processed, thus taking out or negating any beneficial additional minerals
  • I’ve given ingredients and ratios for a typical flavoured salt, but if you’re aiming to use a lot less salt in your cooking then don’t add quite so much as I’ve given
  • Think what you’ll use the flavoured salt for – most typically these will be as a last garnish to a dish. For most of these it will be best to buy a rock or crystal salt, but if you’re using the flavouring within the early stages of a recipe there’s less need for an expensive crystal salt as it will dissolve
  • You can store these in anything that will keep moisture out, such as a click lock plastic tub but they do look really gorgeous in tiny Kilner jars. However, if you’re leaving a salt out on the dining table as a pinch pot, then it really doesn’t matter what you store it in (an old cleaned out jam jar for instance), just present it in a nice little bowl on your table

Equipment

For each ‘recipe’ you’ll need measuring spoons or a digital scale, a small bowl and a sterilised jam jar or Kilner jar. Most will need a pestle and mortar and some other ‘recipes’ need an extra item which will be explained in each method.

Sterilising glass jars

Put pre-washed clean glass jars in the oven at about 130˚C for 20 minutes or put them through a dishwasher cycle on your hottest setting

Be careful handling the hot jars out when done

NB:  don’t put any rubber seal in the oven; it’ll just melt. Wash these in hand-hot water and leave to dry on a kitchen towel or clean tea towel

Drying the herbs

Dried herbs are easy to get hold of and it’s likely that a keen cook will have most of these in their cupboard already. For the unusual herbs that you’ve grown yourself, it’s best to let herbs dry naturally in a sunny, dry spot (I hang mine in my little green house or my kitchen window). However, you can dry them out in your oven enough for these salt mixes. Place a single layer of the herbs you need on a baking tray: that is, don’t overlap them and it doesn’t matter if there are different types of herbs in one go. Bake on the lowest setting for an hour and test to see how dry the herbs are – herbs will dry out at different rates. Leave any in for another hour that have not dried yet. Crush in a pestle and mortar or a quick whizz in a blender (both before adding to the salt).

Tip: if any herbs are proving difficult to crush, add a little of the rock salt or salt crystals to the pestle and mortar. The salt acts as an additional surface to tear the herbs more effectively. Don’t tip all the salt in though, or you will pound this to a fine dust along with the herbs, and you want to keep the integrity of the salt (otherwise you may as well use fine table salt).

“Recipes” – all are vegetarian

salts2-6

Italian herbs

Ingredients are:

  • Rock salt or crystal sea salt – 2 tablespoons
  • oregano – 1 teaspoon
  • rosemary – 1 teaspoon
  • fennel or fennel seeds – 1/4 teaspoon
  • basil – 1 teaspoon
  • thyme – 1 teaspoon
  • lemon balm – 1/2 teaspoon
  • black pepper (freshly ground) – several turns of the grinder to taste
  • dried tomato puree – 1 teaspoon (optional but well worth the effort)

Method: Smooth two tablespoons of tomato puree as thinly as possible on a sheet of greaseproof paper and place on a baking tray. Bake in the oven at 70C for 1 hour. If after this time there are still some ‘rubbery’ bits of tomato puree then put it back in the oven for another 30 minutes and try again. The tomato puree with crisp up and go almost black. When fully baked, leave to cool and then crush or chop finely.

When the herbs and the tomato puree are dried, mix them with the salt and place in your container.

Some uses: in bread baking, for savoury pastry, pasta dishes, risotto and its also a nice addition to most meats and casserole-style meals.

salts2-9

Umami / intense BBQ

Notes: There is a BBQ salt recipe on the part one post, but though that is good, this one is awesome, highly unusual and includes my unique mad-kitchen-scientist dried Marmite powder. It tastes very meaty and rich, but it’s entirely vegetarian (and as such I throw it copiously on any appropriate veggie meals I make).

Ingredients are:

  • smoked sea salt – 2 tablespoons
  • vegetable bouillon – 1 teaspoon
  • garlic granules – 1 teaspoon
  • onion granules – 1 teaspoon
  • smoked paprika – 1 teaspoon
  • soft brown sugar – 1 teaspoon
  • parsley – 1 teaspoon
  • dried Marmite – 1 teaspoon
  • smokey chipotle powder (optional) – 1 teaspoon

Method: spread two tablespoons of Marmite on to a sheet of baking paper and then place on a tray in the oven. Bake at 70ºC fan / 90ºC conventional for about 25 minutes. It will puff up and it’ll really smell (fine if you love Marmite!) – don’t panic: it’s fine! Leave to cool then crumble (with dry fingers) before mixing with the other herbs and spices and the stock cube in a pestle and mortar.

NB: With this salt mix it is better to have finer salt particles that match the other particles of the mix ingredients. I ground the smoked salt with a pestle and mortar. If you don’t have smoked salt, you may as well use normal table salt here, then you don’t have to grind or crush anyway.

Some uses: great as a dry rub, or with a little oil as a wet rub. Also lovely in a chilli, in jambalaya etc, for other Cajun dishes (especially those with prawns) or to brush over meats (mixed into oil) for the barbecue. Just on almost anything savoury and great for livening up vegetarian dishes… this is my total favourite salt mix.

Also – this one is fabulous when mixed in with cornmeal or polenta (ration about 10:1) and used as a crispy coating on chicken or for wedges!

salts2-8

French herbs

Ingredients are:

  • Sea salt flakes/crystals or sel gris – 1 tablespoon
  • tarragon – 1/2 teaspoon
  • rosemary – 1 teaspoon
  • parsley – 1 teaspoon
  • thyme – 1 teaspoon
  • bay – 1/2 teaspoon
  • chives – 1 teaspoon

Method: Chop a dried bay leaf into tiny pieces (it won’t crush with a pestle and mortar well). The other dried herbs need crushing together (take the leaves off the woody stalks of the rosemary and thyme first) before adding to the salt. If you need to dry your herbs quickly see the note above.

Some uses: use in place of bouquet garni or Herbes de Provence. Also useful for fish, lamb and beef (especially steak) dishes.

English summer salt mix recipe e- Lynn Clark / Inksugarspice

English Summer Sweet

Notes: I’ve purposely kept the salt low in ratio as compared to the other ingredients, because of the uses of this mix. Dried borage flowers and rose petals are easily obtained from a Turkish or Middle-Eastern supermarket or online, if you don’t grow them yourself (they are also more tricky to dry successfully in an oven than other herbal ingredients – if you have a dehydrator this would not be an issue. If you don’t have much luck drying these yourself as they’re so tricky, do buy pre-dried).

Ingredients are:

  • Himalayan pink salt, fine sea salt flakes or a good quality table salt – 1 teaspoon
  • calendula petals (edible marigolds) (need not be dried first – see method) – 1 teaspoon
  • dried rose petals – 1 teaspoon
  • dried borage flowers – 1 teaspoon
  • lemon zest (need not be dried fully first – see method) – 1 teaspoon
  • lavender flowers (need not be dried first – see method) – 1/2 teaspoon

Method: the calendula petals and lavender flowers do not need to be dried in an oven, as they are dried by the salt in the pot. The lemon zest can be dried in a 50C oven for 30 minutes at least or just leave it overnight between two sheets of kitchen paper which you have weighed down with a book or other weight. The rose petals and borage flowers need to be oven dried as per the lemon zest (or bought pre-dried) as they are more delicate and are prone to either making the other ingredients wet or looking very dishevelled if you don’t dry them first. Mix all lightly together so as not to crush the delicate ingredients before potting up.

NB:  This is another salt where it is better to have finer salt particles (the hit of crunching into a large piece of salt would be too overpowering in a sweet mix). I actually have a salt grinder with Himalayan salt in, so I just ground the right amount. Also you can use a pestle and mortar. Alternatively, use normal free-running table salt here.

Some uses: sparingly in things like ice cream or meringue. Sprinkle a little on fruit or desserts or use in sweet pastry baking, such as tart cases or shortbreads. Gives a twist to savoury dishes nd particularly good with pasta and fish or sprinkled over salads or tapas for a pretty finish.


You are welcome to use these recipes for your home cooking (that’s why I write these things up online so others can try!)


However, please do not recreate them as a recipe anywhere or pass them off as your own (specially relevant for commercial use eg chefs, cooks, Home Eds, food stylists, restaurants etc). If you show them anywhere on social media you must credit me @inksugarspice.


salts2-5

Flavoured salts – part one

salts2-2[updated]

It’s all the food fashion at the moment it seems to have a pot of two of flavoured sea salt, with salt companies clambering over each other to bring them out. Take a look past the hype and you’ll see that salt mixes are exceptionally useful in the kitchen and can even be used to bring down your salt intake a little.

I’ve been concocting my own for a while now, mostly fuelled by the vast number of different herbs I grow in my garden. (I have to explain that I’ve not got a big garden: most herbs are in single, small pots as they don’t need much space and I’ve done this cheaply by saving seeds, taking cuttings, swapping herbs with friends and buying the occasional herb plant or seed packet. Herbs are for my money the easiest group of plants to grow and you need next to no space to grow four or five of your favourites).

Salt mixes can be costly when bought pre-made but it’s exceptionally easy and much cheaper to make your own. You can use the herbs in your garden, herbs bought from the greengrocer or the dried herbs and spices you already have in your kitchen.

I have a second post planned with some of my more ‘mad’ mixes, seasonal flavours and a couple of absolute classic combinations but you can easily go on to experiment with your own.

Notes

  • Anything you add to a salt needs to be dry – very dry! Either start with pre-dried herbs or dry out your own ingredients in your oven or de-humidifier. I’ve given the timings and temps for ingredients I use where I can
  • Use your own fresh herbs and dry them (timings in the ‘recipes’) or substitute for pre-dried herbs: it doesn’t matter
  • Buy a high quality base salt for these, as cheaper salts do tend to have added extra ingredients (mostly to enable the salt to stay free flowing) and are more processed, thus taking out or negating any beneficial additional minerals
  • I’ve given ingredients and ratios for a typical flavoured salt, but if you’re aiming to use a lot less salt in your cooking then don’t add quite so much as I’ve given
  • Think what you’ll use the flavoured salt for – most typically these will be as a last garnish to a dish. For most of these it will be best to buy a rock or crystal salt, but if you’re using the flavouring within the early stages of a recipe there’s less need for an expensive crystal salt as it will dissolve
  • You can store these in anything that will keep moisture out, such as a click lock plastic tub but they do look really gorgeous in tiny Kilner jars. However, if you’re leaving a salt out on the dining table as a pinch pot, then it really doesn’t matter what you store it in (an old cleaned out jam jar for instance), just present it in a nice little bowl on your table
  • These are the ratios I’ve come to like in my salt mixes, but if you really love a particular ingredient I’ve included (or hate it) adjust to your preference

Salt – a sprinkling

There are 20-30 types of salt in the world, but it’s difficult (or impossible) to get hold of most of these, depending where you live some will be easier than others. Also, realistically, you can live with using just table salt, however if you have a couple of extra types of salt it will provide a few more options. If you want to make your own flavoured salts or use them for different purposes then four to five salts are a good arsenal to have in your kitchen.

All salt is sodium chloride (NaCl). Salt in anything other than small quantities is known to be bad for health. But use it sensibly and it can be included in a healthy person’s diet (anyone with high blood pressure or similar conditions will have been given advice on salt intake by their GP). Food can be entirely bland and disagreeable without it and it serves as a natural preserving agent. By making flavoured salts myself I believe I use a little less overall in my food as I am effectively making a dry stock – adding flavour that’s not all just salt. I don’t think it’s much of a saving, but even a little helps.

Cutting down on salt?

All salts are salty… you’ll be thinking I’m mad writing that here but there’s a preconception that some are much better for us than others as they’re more about the minerals than the salt. Don’t be fooled. Some do have added minerals but that doesn’t change the salt itself: the minerals are ‘extra’ not ‘instead of’. If you want to watch your salt intake further, then do look out for lo salt. It’s a medium-grain table salt but can easily be swapped into all the recipes below if you’re concerned (though of course you’ll lose the texture and some flavourings like the smoked salt). I believe it’s about 1/3 the sodium level of normal salts as it replaces some sodium chloride with potassium chloride and anti-caking agent. Personally I just try to use a little less salt and use other flavourings instead (hence the birth of all my salt mixes).

There are basically only two types of salt – sea and rock. All the myriad variants of salt from the stuff in the plastic salt cellar in the chip shop to Fleur-de-sel to Hawaiian red salt come from either of these two sources. I have added table salt as it’s such a difference kettle of fish because of its addition of other ingredients and its use.

Sea salt

Sea salt comes in various crystalline forms (from small flakes to fascinating pyramidal structures), but it’s all salt harvested from sea water. However all sea salt is not created equally (though in my opinion I don’t think there’s much taste or use differentiation, but I have not yet tried Fleur-de-sel). Most sea salts will be refined to get rid of impurities and ‘nasties’ from the sea water, with companies usually now harvesting direct from the sea and processing in a shore-line plant or an underground plant (see this from the US Salt Assoc.).

See this clip from the Cornish Sea Salt Company on YouTube:

However, the eye-wateringly expensive Fleur-de-sel is a little different. Sea water is driven off into a basin-shaped area and allowed to evaporate. The fluffy crust (the ‘flower of salt’) that forms is scraped off by hand and packaged without refinement. This only produces a small amount at each salt gather (so hand gathering + small amounts = the high price). Fleur-de-sel is not just collected in France, but in other countries too such as Portugal and Southern Russia. Due to its natural state it’s unlikely to be pure white.

After the Fleur-de-sel is taken away, the rest of the water is allowed to evaporate and larger sea salt crystals are formed, this is gros sel, which again is not refined but is more easily harvested and in larger quantities so is about 1/10th the price of Fleur-de-sel. Salt of this kind which has a lot of additional minerals to make it darker in colour is sel gris – grey salt.

Other sea salts have minerals or colours added, such as the red Hawaiian Alaea salt, which is sea salt plus red volcanic (edible) iron oxide-rich clay.

I have (or have used) sea salts from Maldon, the Cornish Sea Salt Company, Halen Môn from Anglesey (I like to keep it British, as you can tell, as far as possible), and interlopers: Falk (Swedish) and the cheaper Tidman’s (which actually is now owned by Maldon but is less expensive for pretty much the same thing – go figure?!) and the budget brand Saxa.

Rock salt

Rock salt is mined halite, a form of sodium chloride – it’s a very different salt to sea salt. Salt deposits that have naturally occurred (mostly but not always from ancient dried up seabeds and salt water lakes) are mined like other aggregates and broken up into usable granules or ground, then purified and recrystallised when necessary. Depending on where the salt is found geographically it will have taken on some minerals and ‘impurities’ from the surrounding area, although the term impurities could actually mean beneficial minerals. Rock salt is refined to remove harmful impurities to make it fit for human consumption, although there are some very pure sources. See this short article from erocksalt.com explaining the extraction and purification: http://www.erocksalt.com/where-rock-salt-come-from/

This is a You Tube video by Colin Morris on the Winsford Salt Mine (Cheshire, North West England):

Rock salt includes unusual salts with differing colours such as pink Himalayan salt, tinted pink from the microorganisms that once lived in the sea water in what is now known as the Punjab (note: not actually the Himalayas! That’s just a marketing ploy, apparently) it also includes chromium, iron, zinc, lead, and copper before refinement.

Kala Namek (often labelled as Indian Black Salt) is the ‘proper’ Himalayan salt as it actually does come from that region in India and Nepal. It is a dark purple to a black colour, and goes purplish-pink when ground. It’s supposed to be a bit smelly as the colour is due to sulfates. I have not tried this salt, but I’ve read that it is used not only in cooking but also Ayurvedic medicine and is considered more akin to a medicinal herb than a spice or condiment. (I’m including kala namek to show the range of colours and properties that can be seen in different rock salt due to the chemicals found in the salt, not because I have used it).

Coloured and single flavour salts

Black sea salt crystals - Ink Sugar Spice

Black (carbon) salt is sea salt which is processed with additional carbon (all edible). It’s no different to other salts but is really for show. I have some myself and I love using it though you do get black fingers after sprinkling it (it does just rinse off). My salt is from Falk, a Swedish company, and I use it on deserts to give a bit of an impact and to top finished foods, like the top of breads, quiches, in salads etc. It’s wasted ‘in’ foods – it just dissolves and the colour dissipates. Relatively expensive, but I only use a minimal amount and of course salt doesn’t degrade (when kept dry) so you can have a pot that lasts for years. It’s basically following the trend for carbonised, black foods but it is a little fun – I like to sprinkle it on as the final flourish on a bright dish for some contrast: it’s basically all about the visual impact rather than any taste difference.

Smoked Sea Salt - Ink Sugar Spice

Smoked salts: it doesn’t sound like smoking salt should be a ‘thing’ but it’s dry smoked so it honestly does work. My smoked salt is from Maldon, the Essex-based company, and it’s got a distinctive, lovely smell and flavour which does carry over in to the food. Great for the smokier salt mixes and I always use this in chilli con carne etc and when barbecuing. It’s lasts a while, though I do go through it more quickly than the black salt (it has more applications) and is a little most costly than normal sea salt flakes, but I think it’s worth keeping on hand.

Table salt

A free-running salt with very small granules. Usually exceptionally cheap and made from sea salt. Table salt comes with an anti-caking agent and sometimes even iodine added to ensure it stays free running, so check the pack and buy a reputable brand – even with a brand name it shouldn’t cost much more. Useful for adding to bread dough (as it’s so fine), adding to simmering water for pasta and veg etc (because of its cheapness) – and for putting round the garden to discourage slugs!! I keep a large packet of Italian table salt, from Amato, as I mostly use this in my bread making and baking, and I’m sure you know I do a lot of that…

Equipment

For each ‘recipe’ you’ll need measuring spoons or a digital scale, a small bowl and a sterilised jam jar or Kilner jar. Most will need a pestle and mortar and some other ‘recipes’ need an extra item which will be explained in each method.

Sterilising glass jars

Put pre-washed clean glass jars in the oven at about 130˚C for 20 minutes or put them through a dishwasher cycle on your hottest setting

Be careful handling the hot jars out when done

NB:  don’t put any rubber seal in the oven; it’ll just melt. Wash these in hand-hot water and leave to dry on a kitchen towel or clean tea towel

Drying fresh herbs method

My method is to bake the herbs on a layer of greaseproof paper in a 50°C oven (or your lowest setting) for 40 minutes, then crush.

“Recipes” – all are vegetarian

Mermaid salt mix recipe on Ink Sugar Spice

Mermaid mix

Ingredients are:

  • Himalayan pink salt or Cornish sea salt – 1 tablespoon
  • Seaweed mix‡ – 1 tablespoon
  • Black or multi colour pepper – ½ teaspoon
  • Dried borage flowers – 1 teaspoon (don’t pack tightly and pick the bluest ones)
  • Dried rose petals – 1 teaspoon (don’t pack tightly)

‡ either a pre-packed seaweed mix or use a mix of dulse, nori, wakame, kelp and/or sea spaghetti (whatever you can find).
I have the Sea Salad mix from the Cornish Seaweed company

Method: the dried seaweed does need to be in small particles to match the salt. If you’ve bought each seaweed separately or the packet mix is large pieces, break up the seaweed in a pestle and mortar, or put it in a plastic food bag and roll a rolling pin over it to break it up. The dried borage and rose petals may need chopping up slightly.

Some uses: in Chinese and Japanese inspired recipes, fish dishes, shellfish dishes, fish pie, great on homemade crisps.

Fiery chilli salt mix recipe - Ink Sugar Spice

Fiery chilli (hot, hot, hot!!)

Ingredients are:

  • Himalayan (keeps the pink/red colour of the mix) or normal white rock salt – 1 tablespoon
  • dried birds eye chilli – 2 chillies
  • paprika – ¼ teaspoon
  • chilli flakes – ½ teaspoon
  • chilli powder – ¼ teaspoon
  • cayenne – ¼ teaspoon
  • black pepper (freshly ground) – ¼ teaspoon
  • onion granules – ¼ teaspoon
  • garlic granules – ¼ teaspoon

Method: pound the dried birds eye chillies in a pestle and mortar before combining with the rest of the ingredients.

Some uses: curries, chilli con carne and other Mexican dishes, paella, mixed with some oil it makes a great rub for barbecue or roast meats and is excellent on wedges or chips.

Mushroom salt mix on Ink Sugar Spice

Mushroom

Ingredients are:

  • Rock salt – 1 tablespoon
  • dried porcini mushrooms – 4g
  • onion granules – 1 teaspoon

Method: the dried porcini mushrooms need to be either whizzed in a blender or crushed in a pestle and mortar. If using a pestle and mortar, put the rock salt in with the mushrooms as it gives extra grip and makes it easier. Do not rehydrate them (keep them dry). Once the porcini are crushed into a powder/small pieces you can mix them in with the salt and the garlic and onion granules.

Some uses: for risotto, for added oomph to vegetarian dishes or meat casseroles, good with chicken and pork.

Asian style salt mix on Ink Sugar Spice

Asian-style mix

Ingredients are:

  • Black sea salt – 1 dessert spoon (10ml)
  • black onion seeds – ½ teaspoon
  • seaweed mix – 1 ½ teaspoons
  • Szechuan peppercorns – ¼ teaspoon
  • Chinese five spice – ¼ teaspoon

Method: crush the Szechuan peppercorns in a pestle and mortar, including the seaweed at the end if it needs crushing smaller. Mix altogether.

Some uses: Thai, Chinese and Japanese style recipes where you want a little kick (Szechuan peppercorns are quite something!!) or add to a dark soy sauce as an Asian-style marinade for tofu, fish, chicken or pork.

Lynn's Season All herb and salt mix recipe on Ink Sugar Spice

Lynn’s Season-all

Ingredients are:

  • Fine sea salt flakes – 1 tablespoon
  • garlic granules – 1 teaspoon
  • onion granules – 1 teaspoon
  • fresh ground black pepper – ½ teaspoon
  • vegetable bouillon powder – 1 teaspoon (or use a low sodium a vegetable stock cube)
  • dried orange zest  – ½ teaspoon
  • dried parsley (see note above about drying fresh herbs – ½ teaspoon

Method: Zest an orange (or more) and follow the drying method for herbs above. Combine with the rest of the ingredients once the zest is cooled.

Some uses: basically this is a pumped-up vegetable stock cube! Use wherever you would normally use a stock cube but don’t want to add two. Also this is great when mixed with flour or breadcrumbs as a batter or breadcrumb coating for vegetables and meats.

herbsAndSpices

Homemade ricotta – and ways to enrich, flavour or infuse it

ricottaGreenPlateOk, don’t be alarmed: it’s not full-scale, time-consuming cheesemaking.

However, you can easily, quickly and conveniently make your own ricotta and add flavourings yourself.

More often than not I just buy ricotta, but sometimes I make it myself if I’ve run out, I’ve got some full fat milk to use up or I just want my ricotta to be as nice as possible or flavoured a certain way for a particular recipe. (I’m not sure if I’m not just biased, but I think homemade is at least a little nicer than shop bought).

I’ve been using this method of half lemon juice and half vinegar to start the curdling process off for some years. I’ve only ever seen ricotta recipes that use either all rennet (not many normal kitchens have this to hand), all vinegar or all lemon juice only – this came about when I once ran out of lemon juice and had to improvise.  I liked the result and I’ve stuck to it ever since. Perhaps I should do a comparable, side-by-side taste test to see if what you use really makes a difference.

What is also different about my recipe is that I worked it out to be highly convenient for that pint or two-pint carton of full fat milk I might have in the fridge. It’s then much, much easier just to open a bottle or carton and tip it in your saucepan rather than other recipes which have a specific end amount in mind.

I’ve found that using 1 pint (568ml) of milk makes enough for two people for either a pasta filling, such as spinach and ricotta ravioli, or a light salad etc. A two pint recipe therefore is enough to serve four within a main dish or great for pastries or cakes calling for ricotta. Recipes on my blog which include ricotta are:

mangoCheesecakeNamed_2
Mango Cheesecake recipe – uses ricotta

Flavouring and enriching

See underneath the recipe for my ideas on how to flavour the ricotta or to make a richer, creamier version.

Notes

This takes time – but it’s pretty much all left to work on its own devices. There is only about 15 minutes tops of hands-on effort involved.

Equipment
  • Medium saucepan
  • Large bowl for draining
  • Colander or large sieve (choose a sieve/bowl combination that leaves a big gap between the bottom of the bowl and the bottom of the colander, so that the ricotta doesn’t sit in its own liquid and drains properly)
  • Muslin square (this is one place where it really has to be muslin – other cloths will have weaves that are too large or too tight for it to drain correctly)
  • Spatula
  • Tea towel (a very clean one)
Ingredients – based on 568ml / 1 pint of milk
  • Full fat milk – 568ml / 1 pint
  • Lemon juice – 1 1/2 teaspoons
  • Clear distilled vinegar – 1 1/2 teaspoons
  • Salt – 1/2 teaspoon
Ingredients – based on 1.36 l / 2 pints of milk
  • Full fat milk – 1.36 litres / 2 pints
  • Lemon juice – 3 teaspoons
  • Clear distilled vinegar – 3 teaspoons
  • Salt – 1 teaspoon
Method
  1. Pour the milk into the saucepan and add the salt
  2. Have the lemon juice and vinegar measured out
  3. Bring up to just under boiling – you must watch the milk as you need to catch it when bubbles start to come to the surface and the milk begins to let off steam, but has NOT yet started boiling properly (if you want to use a thermometer this will be 82C-84C). This takes around 5 minutes and remember to stir occasionally so the milk doesn’t catch on the pan

    WarmingMilk
    This is the point when you need to take this milk off the heat and add the acid
  4. Take the saucepan off the heat and immediately add the vinegar and lemon juice
  5. Stir the milk and continue to keep stirring while the curds and the whey begin to separate – about a minute or so of constant, gentle stirring

    curdsAndWhey
    What the milk looks like, just after the acid is added and the whey and curds are separating
  6. Place the muslin cloth inside the colander, then the colander over the bowl
  7. Tip the curds and whey over the muslin-strewn colander, so that the curds get caught in the muslin and the whey drains into the bowl

    draining
    The ricotta draining, through the muslin over the colander, into a bowl. Almost fully drained and just waiting to be given a squeeze and then it will be ready
  8. Cover it all with the clean tea towel (this keeps it clean and dirt-free. If you used a lid or hard surface you’d get unwanted condensation)
  9. Leave this to drain for a couple of hours at least (depending how your colander fits in your bowl you may occasionally need to tip out the whey if the bottom of the colander is sitting in the liquid)
  10. Squeeze the last of the whey out of the curds by twisting the muslin cloth together around the curds
  11. Dispose of the whey as you don’t need it (I’m told if you have pigs they love the stuff – I don’t think my cat would be interested…)
  12. Keep the ricotta in an air tight container in the fridge for up to three days or use immediately in a recipe

Flavourings

Once you’ve attempted ricotta, you may want to start adding to it.  There are two ways to do this: either add the ingredients after the ricotta has been prepared (basically just stirring them in) or by infusing the flavours at the early stage. As ricotta is quite bland but can be used in both savoury and sweet dishes it nicely lends itself to being flavoured.

Flavourings – adding to the finished ricotta

After it’s drained, you can add some additional flavourings. These are some of my suggestions or create your own:

  • Peppercorn
  • Chilli
  • Ham and pineapple (in place of ham and pineapple cottage cheese)
  • Nutmeg or ground cinnamon
  • Lemon and basil
  • Any fresh leafy herbs – thyme, hyssop, sorrel, tarragon, marjoram, lemon balm or verbena, fennel fronds 🌱
  • For sweet recipes:
  • Hazelnuts chopped in,
  • Crushed soft fruits like strawberries or raspberries,
  • A swirl of your favourite soft set jam
  • Honey and crushed figs
Flavourings – infusing the milk

Alternatively, you can add some ingredients (including some off the list above) into the milk as it warms as an infusion. In this instance you MUST sieve the milk into a separate bowl to fully remove the flavouring ingredient before you add the lemon juice and vinegar. Some suggestions are:

  • Peppercorn (less intense with no crunchy bits if you infuse!)
  • Garlic
  • Rosemary
  • Cinnamon or cassia bark
  • Any of the leafy herbs mentioned above
  • Star anise, cardamom pods or fennel seeds
Enriching the ricotta

To make an even creamier ricotta I substitute up to 50% of the milk for double or clotted cream.

limoncelloLemonCurdCheesecakeWP
My Limoncello Baked Cheesecake – the recipe uses ricotta and is on my blog

Chemical leaveners / raising agents

bakingpowder

There are several ways in which to get breads, cakes and other baked goods to rise. Some of these methods have been used for hundreds of years, such as yeast or whipped eggs, and some are a very modern introduction (chemical raising agents).

Types of chemical leaveners/raising agents

Leaveners can be classed as natural, chemical or mechanical. Natural includes eggs and yeast, chemical is bicarbonate of soda, cream of tartar etc and mechanical includes the incorporation of air by physical methods (eg whipping cream or eggs) or rise created by steam or dry heat [steam/heat could also be classed as natural].

What exactly am I rambling on about

I’m only covering chemical leaveners/raising agents in this piece. I’ve actually been researching and reading up on this on and off (not continually!) for over a year now. I never imaged there was so much to it.

I set out to discover why and how chemical raising agents work in my baking. I’ve read through chemical formulas, explanations of the chemical process involved and undergraduate-level books detailing experiments all to get to here. Some of it I didn’t grasp at all, some made sense at the time but now I’m a bit fuzzy on it and plenty did made sense. I’m no scientist, so I think there’s little point in me simply regurgitating the really complex areas I’ve researched or even drawing out the chemical formulas and reactions that are involved. I might get such specific details wrong. I may not have understood it all fully. There’s a chance I could misinterpret it. So, all I’m aiming to do here is pass on what I’ve come to understand through this research about what is going on inside my cake (or other bake)  to make it rise, and if there is anything I can do to get the best results in my kitchen using raising agents.

Which raising agents

In the UK we tend to only use bicarbonate of soda as a chemical raising agent (though others are available – see later).

In a commercial baking setting (in the UK to some extent but more commonly elsewhere) sometimes baking ammonia is used instead as it produces a drier food product but it does produce a little ammonia as a by-product of the chemical reaction. You may have come across its common/historical name of ‘hartshorn’. Baking ammonia’s use in cooking predates that of bicarbonate of soda.

You’re going to say, “What about Baking Powder?”

Well, baking powder isn’t one thing. It’s a pre-mixed product of bicarbonate and a powdered acid (in its most basic, truest sense). All the information I’ve written below on the basics of how bicarbonate works also relates to baking powder, apart from two important caveats:

  • you don’t have to manually add an acid (such as lemon juice) separately as it’s already included. This also means the ratio of acid to bicarbonate is already measured precisely for you
  • the addition of a third ingredient in some commercial baking powders is there to add a second reaction which occurs in the presence of heat. It has the effect in that the leavening process occurs ‘twice’ as it were – chemical reaction one will start to produce gases in your bake in a cold environment (ie as soon as you start mixing) and the second chemical reaction will be produced in the presence of heat (as it bakes).[In the USA most baking soda’s are “double acting baking sodas” and follow this recipe. The name “double acting” implies the two chemical processes. It’s difficult to give you a definition of what to expect with American double acting baking soda as there does not seem to be an industry standard and several chemicals appear interchangeable, dependant on the manufacturer’s “recipe” and whether the product is deemed kosher or not. You may find various combinations of acid and bicarbonate in commercial double acting baking soda, the ingredients of which can be pulled from a long list: sodium bicarbonate, sodium aluminium sulphate, acid sodium pyrophosphate, calcium acid sulphate, ammonium bicarbonate, tartaric acid to name just a few. Don’t worry about conversions of American recipes – just substitute any UK/European baking powder. The American double action isn’t twice as strong as baking powder, just it definitely uses this dual process. Its strength/potency is equivalent whether the baking powder you swap it for is single or double acting itself.]

Bicarbonate of soda is most commonly mixed with cream of tartar (this could be listed as potassium bitartrate or tartaric acid) to produce baking powder. This is a single acting baking powder. Some commercially produced baking powders will include a third chemical – as mentioned above – such as acid sodium pyrophosphate, to provide this additional, second action. Also, some commercially produced tubs of baking powder may have an added stabiliser or two to prolong shelf life and minimise reaction (and therefore spoiling) prior to use.

The basics of how bicarbonates work as a food leavener

Bicarbonate of soda/sodium bicarbonate is extremely alkaline and a chemical reaction occurs in the presence of an acid – for example, lemon juice or vinegar and some moisture. You can start the reaction with a dried acid (for example vitamin C powder or cream of tartar) but you will need to add some form of moisture.

Bicarbonate does not need heat for any chemical reaction with acid to take place.

As soon as you introduce the acid to bicarbonate (in the presence of a little moisture – there may even be enough in the air) the reaction will start. What this means for your bake is that the rise starts happening as soon as you start mixing. When using a chemical leavener get your bake in the oven as soon as you can – don’t leave your mix hanging about in the bowl before you use it as you’ll have ‘wasted’ some of the chemical reaction.

We know it as baking powder in the UK, but it’s also called baking soda (typically in the US and Canada), bread soda and cooking soda. Can be listed as sodium bicarbonate or sodium hydrogen carbonate and you can spot it on a list of ingredients as E500.

The trick to using bicarbonate of soda (and baking powder for that matter, but to a lesser extent) within baking and cooking is to perfectly balance the amount of bicarbonate to the amount of acid.

In the presence of an acid, bicarbonate starts to react and one of the products produced by this reaction is carbon dioxide; a gas. It’s this release of gas bubbles that causes the rise within your baking.

For example, if you used a vinegar (which is acetic acid) with your bicarbonate, the reaction would produce some water, carbon dioxide and a small amount of sodium acetate.

Note on bakers ammonia/ammonium carbonate: for ammonium carbonate the comparable reaction produces (a little less) water, carbon dioxide and ammonia. It does not need an acid to react but does need heat and moisture. As it produces ammonia as a by-product, its use at home should not be in large quantities. When included in a mass-produced product by a commercial food company the large amounts involved (and therefore larger amounts of released ammonia) can be controlled safely in a factory environment.

The reason it is still used rather than baking powder is all because of that drier baked result – so it’s typical to find baking ammonia in things like crackers and harder biscuits. If you’re looking out for it (to be nosey) on a product’s ingredients list it may well be included as E503 rather than named. Italian, German and Scandinavian recipes in particular are most likely to include baking ammonia. I have had success in directly substituting the same amount of bicarbonate of soda for ammonium bicarbonate within a recipe, reducing any liquid in the recipe by a small amount and replacing it with an acid (for example this could be as simple as using a teaspoon less of water and adding a teaspoon of lemon juice in its place) to recreate that drier texture and effect the chemical process.

However, as a caveat, if you are similarly trying to convert one of these recipes you may need some trial and error to get this balance right yourself. I have not yet attempted to bake with baking ammonia – I’m a little nervy of the ammonia if I’m honest! I may try to get some as it is available to buy online and, if so, I will update this post with how I got on.

It’s crucial that the amount of acid used balances out the amount of bicarbonate. Too little acid or a heavy hand with the bicarbonate and not all of the bicarbonate will be able to react. This will leave some bicarbonate behind, and you’ll notice that tell-tale alkaline-salty tang which can ruin a bake. Additionally, your bake may not be fully risen either if not enough carbon dioxide was produced.

If there is too much acid the reaction can happen at a facilitated rate and also you’ll be left with a very sharp tasting bake.

Even if there is too much acid the chemical reaction will still take place but it will start more vigorously and be over quicker. This sounds OK doesn’t it? Well, actually it’s not great news for the baker, as the reaction is quick and the gas is produced faster it will start to dissipate early and the rise it produced can go to waste.

For instance, when making a cake you need the bubbles from the gas to be captured as tiny cavities in the sponge mix as it cooks. Bubbles of gas will reach their maximum size within the sponge before dispersing as the cake heats up in the oven. In a perfect bake, as the cake mix hardens around the bubbles so the cake stays light and airy once fully baked.img_1933

If your cake mix is still too soggy as the gas escapes (because the gas is escaping early) the sponge around the bubbles cannot support itself and the cake structure will collapse causing a denser, flatter bake. This will also happen if you’ve included the perfect amount of acid but have left your baking around for a while before you get it in the oven – the process will be over before you need it to be.

[Incidentally, the carbon dioxide is not the only thing that contributes to the creation of bubbles in the cake batter. Water from both the ingredients and the bicarbonate chemical reaction will be heated in the oven and start to steam, the steam expands also creating holes in the batter before evaporating.]

If we can understand the basics of how bicarbonate works, the principle will be roughly the same for baking powder

There are several reasons that baking powder is more prevalent in kitchens and more common in recipes:

  • Firstly, on its own, bicarbonate can leave that salty tang behind. It’s difficult to get the exactly perfect ratio of acid to bicarbonate as there are so many contributing factors. These are just a few examples – there could be many more reasons:
    your flour may be slightly damper than the one in the original recipe, causing the reaction to behave differently
  • You may be using a lemon juice or other acid which is more acidic than the original. This may sound odd, but for example any vinegar isn’t just acid – that’d be incredibly toxic and more dangerous than the bleach you put down your sink. Most vinegars are around just 5% acetic acid.
  • Your bicarbonate could be fairly old, have had some exposure to moisture and therefore not be as vigorous
  • All the other ingredients ‘muddy the waters’ as they cannot be relied on to have certain PH values or moisture content and therefore will impact the reaction
  • All these things (plus lost of other factors such as the humidity in your kitchen, how accurate your oven etc) mean that if the original recipe by the chef or cook worked perfectly, yours still may taste of bicarbonate, just because some teensy tiny change, even one out of your control, altered the chemical reaction

For large quantities the risk of that bicarbonate of soda taste appearing becomes greater.
It can actually discolour your baking too: bicarbonate does have a tendency to turn things yellow/green (have you ever put a spoonful of bicarbonate of soda in a glass of red fruit squash? It’ll go a dark purple).

All these things make ‘pre-loading’ bicarbonate of soda with an acid, in a controlled ratio a much more sensible option – hence the development of baking powder.

Baking powder (as mentioned previously) is a mix of sodium bicarbonate and tartaric acid. This means the ratio of bicarbonate to acid is better controlled. By using baking powder, your bake will then be less affected by other ingredients and whether you’re heavy handed with the lemon juice.

In commercial baking powder: this stuff you buy from the supermarket or grocer you’ll often find a stabilising agent in there too such as cornflour (cornstarch) or flour and there may be some other phosphates added (these are harmless).

The cornflour is in there to keep the bicarbonate dry (to avoid any chemical reaction starting), stop it from caking and to help aid the shelf life of the product.

As an alternative, make your own baking powder! You can make it as you need it and it’ll be fresh and ready to start its chemical reaction in your bake.

The ratio is 2 parts bicarbonate of soda to 1 part cream of tartar.

If your recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of baking powder:

2/3 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda and 1/3 teaspoon cream of tartar

If your recipes calls for 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda and 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

You can double up on those if your recipe needs more….

So… why do some recipes need both baking powder and bicarbonate of soda?

This is because they include a very acidic ingredient (or more than one), such as lemon juice or buttermilk, which is needed for taste or consistency. If a recipe has a lot of acidic ingredients it would not be very pleasant to eat if the acidity level wasn’t countered with just baking powder, so the additional bicarbonate of soda is added for that purpose. Of course, this means that the chemical reactions are magnified and give more rise to the recipe, so although a recipe may have both raising agents they probably are not in much higher quantities than a typical bake. Recipes with both in will have been tested and worked out so that there is a balance between ingredient acidity levels, the perfect amount of rise required and the amount of leaveners used all at the recipe development stage.

Conclusions – what does this all mean to the home baker?

If you follow anything exactly in a recipe make sure you stick to the exact amount of baking powder (or bicarbonate) that the recipe states. The recipe developer has worked it all out and tested the bake to ensure it’s correct. Even a little deviation could leave you with an alkaline or acid-tasting bake or one that hasn’t risen sufficiently or, indeed, that’s risen too fast and then collapsed.

Keep some shop-bought baking powder in your cupboard – you don’t always need to make it yourself. Do check the label next time you buy to make sure that anything other than an acid and bicarbonate on the ingredient list is only cornstarch or something you yourself believe to be safe. If in doubt go for a reliable, ethical brand like Dove Farm.

Keep a pot of both bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar in your kitchen as well. You can then make your own baking powder for a change, to ensure it’s as fresh as possible (to get the best leavening result) or at least now you know how to make it if you run out.

Made a bake and you can taste the soda? Next time you make it reduce the bicarbonate of soda by 1/2 a teaspoon or add in 1/2 teaspoon of lemon juice  (or yoghurt or vinegar etc, dependant on the type of savoury or sweet bake). If the recipe only has baking powder listed just add the extra acid or a 1/4 teaspoon of cream of tartar.

Make sure you keep your tubs of baking powder, bicarbonate and cream of tartar well sealed and away from moisture.

If you’re using chemical leaveners/raising agents get your bake in the oven as soon as it is mixed. While you are mixing the chemical processes are already starting. In order to get the back in as soon as it is ready you should ensure that your oven is up to temperature you require before you start to mix.

Making your own self-raising flour

Self-raising flour isn’t made any differently than plain flour of the same grade: it’s just got the leavening agents already added in. Of course you can get ‘supreme sponge flour’ which is ready sieved  – this just means it’s been fluffed up through a sieve to ensure there are no clumps. If you buy a finer milled plain flour it’s just the same thing as this ‘supreme sponge flour’ just without the raising agents added. Self raising flour is NOT produced differently to plain apart from the extra sieving for the ‘supreme’ flours, but that’s post production and not part of the actual milling. It is only the addition of raising agents (and other extra ingredients as the manufacturers see fit) that makes the difference.

Many well known brands put additional ingredients into their flours other than the raising agents. These are not sinister or harmful but are there to increase shelf life, stop moisture retention, reduce clumping or are just added vitamins and minerals. However, if you make your own self raising flour you won’t need all these – just the bare minimum of ingredients.

None of these additives are harmful or unsuitable for vegans/those careful with ingredients for religious reasons. If you’re not too fussed, then that’s all fine, but personally even though these ingredients are not harmful I do not really want anything that’s not needed. All I need in my self-raising flour is flour, sodium bicarbonate and tartaric acid.

Some of the added ingredients are actually vitamins and minerals, which also seems good but to me I wonder why we need them added to flour of all things. I don’t really expect to get vitamin C from baked goods and I’d prefer it to come fresh from any fruit or veg (I can even ensure I add them into my bakes – that’s a better way to add it!).

Other things you may find on the ingredients label on your flour packet include ‘sodium hydrogen carbonate’. This is just another name for bicarbonate of soda, so of course you’d expect to see that listed.

It is also not unusual to find calcium phosphate, monocalcium phosphate and disodium diphosphate in UK self-raising flour. Calcium phosphate and monocalcium phosphate are the same thing and may appear as E341. Disodium diphosphate is E450. All these phosphates are made commercially from vegan sources and are harmless.

Even though none of these ingredients is a worry, maybe you still fancy making your own self-raising flour? You’ll know what you’ve put into it and it gets you used to making it rather than having to buy two separate types of flour.

Ingredients – self-raising flour

The ratio for self-raising flour is to use 20 parts of plain flour to 1 part baking powder

Therefore, for each 100g of plain flour add 1 level teaspoon of baking powder

(See above for the make-it-yourself baking powder recipe)

Nasturtium pickles

nasturtiums3.jpgThis is a very old-school type of recipe but it feels like it ought to be ultra-modern, something that an experimental chef would devise.

It’s so easy, so cheap and provides such a great addition to your store cupboard, so it’s worth spending the time to make a jar or two. It only actually takes a few minutes of actual hands-on time, but there is a 24 hour pre-soak and the finished jars need to be laid down for a while for the pickling and flavours to take effect.

IMG_1218I confess, though I’ve known about making nasturtium capers since I was a little girl, I assumed it was a very ancient recipe – and much older than it actually is. This is because I also incorrectly believed nasturtiums were native Northern European (they look the part don’t they?) so I expected it to be a recipe from the middle ages. You know, making use of the scarce decent natural resources, a make-do-and-mend kind of attitude. But, no; the plants were brought over (like so many things) from South America in the late 1600s and then cultivars were developed in the Netherlands within just a few years. The earliest historical records of nasturtium pickles being used are from the late 17th century, so not long after they were introduced as a plant to Europe. The Oxford Companion to Food states that in the 17th century nasturtium capers were the ‘excepted accompaniment to leg of mutton’. Not sure why, but I find that amusing – I think it’s because of the grand term of ‘accepted accompaniment’. I can imagine you’d be ostracised for serving anything else once it was in vogue. Weird times.

I do like these little pickled seeds – and they’re practically free (give or take a few pence for the vinegar and herbs and spices). They add a peppery bite to salads – and ideal with a salad that also features the beautiful leaves and petals from the nasturtiums. They can be used in any dish where you’d reach for ‘normal’ capers (for example, tartar and other sauces for fish) and are great added to burger meat etc or a few added to a curry. I also just love the flowers as hot colours are my most favourite and I grow a huge amount of nasturtiums every summer.

Don’t be put off by the fact that you can forage these from your own (or a willing neighbour’s) garden. Traditional capers are just the seeds off the mediterranean caper bush, and those are typically prepared in a very similar way. Not sure why these have earnt the moniker ‘poor man’s capers’ because presumably normal capers get foraged in just the same way (when not being mass farmed) and were probably ‘poor man’s’ foraged food in their own right.

Equipment

  • Jug
  • Sieve
  • Clean jam jar (doesn’t need to be sterilised, but it won’t matter if it is)

Ingredients

  • Fresh picked nasturtium seeds – about 75g-90g (this is about as much as you can hold if you cup both of your hands together)nasturtiums
  • Cider vinegar or white wine vinegar (I’ve not given an amount as it depends on how big your jam jar is)
  • Salt – about two tablespoons
  • Black peppercorns – about half a teaspoon
  • Mustard seeds – about half a teaspoon
  • Bay leaf – 1 large or 2 small (preferably fresh, but dried will ‘do’)
  • Your choice of 1 or 2 woody herbs – pick the ones you like the taste of – or try to think what you’ll use the capers for. Will it be mostly fish? Then which herbs do you like to enhance fish dishes – dill? Tarragon?
  • Do not use ‘soft’ herbs that will go mushy over time like parsley or basil
  • My suggestions to choose from are: rosemary, lavender (one flower head – don’t use if they are already going to seed), tarragon, hyssop, chives, sage, thyme, marjoram or add a couple of dried chillies or a small cinnamon stick or a star anise

Method

  1. When you pick the nasturtium seeds select only the fully grown ones and discard any that aren’t a nice green colour (you don’t want old-looking ones, the little unsuccessfully grown ones or those with a yellow or red blush on them)
  2. Pick off any stems or dried bits of the petals and give them a good wash
  3. Fill a jug with water, add the salt and stir to dissolve
  4. Add the seeds
  5. Leave for 24 hours
  6. Drain the seeds and try them with a piece of kitchen towel or a tea towel
  7. Put the seeds in the jam jar and fill up with the vinegar – I always use cider vinegar for nasturtium capers, but white wine vinegar is fine too
  8. Add in the peppercorns, the mustard seeds, the bay leaf/leaves and a max of one or two more herbs. In the images I’ve just added tarragon to give a citrussy hit for fish dishes. I have another pot of nasturtiums capers made in the last few days in which I’ve added dried chillies and a star anise
  9. Leave for at least a month and ideally about three (I’m laying mine down now for opening around Christmas). I’d suggest using within a year and as long as you used a clean spoon to fish the little gems out each time they should keep that long in the fridge after the first opening

nasturtiums2