A pineapple ginger upside-down cake

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baking / cake / recipe

This is a great upside-down cake made with fresh pineapple.

unsalted butter
275g superfine (caster) sugar
3 eggs
300g all-purpose flour
1 tbsp ground ginger
1½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
60g almond meal
250ml buttermilk

Pineapple & syrup
1 small pineapple, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced
100g superfine (caster) sugar
375ml water

The first step is to prepare the pineapple, and syrup. Place the pineapple slices, sugar, and water in a saucepan, and bring to the boil over a medium heat. Cook for about 10 minutes, or until the pineapple is cooked. Remove the pineapple slices, and set aside. Return the syrup to there heat, and cook until it becomes thickened, about 7-10 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Line a 9-inch cake tin with parchment paper. Arrange the pineapple slices on the base of the tin, overlapping them slightly, and then pour over about half the syrup.

Cream the butter and sugar in a mixer for 8-10 minutes until it is pale and light. Add the eggs, one a t a time, making sure to mix thoroughly after each one. Add the flour, ginger, baking powder, baking soda, almond meal and buttermilk, and mix until just combined. Spoon the cake batter over the pineapple, and bake the cake for about 55 minutes.

The sticky glaze

Cover the top with aluminum foil, and back for another 15-20 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Heat the remaining syrup for about 5 minutes, until it thickens. Turn the cake over, using a plate, and then brush the warm syrup over the top of the cake.

The syrup absorbed into the top layer of the cake

Bread as a food staple

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baking / bread

There is nothing better to do in these dire times than to hunker down and think about bread. Why bread? Because bread provides an insight into a more sustainable life, and a link to the way our ancestors ate. Throughout the world there are thousands of types of of bread, made from different grains, and shaped into different forms. Bread is one of the oldest prepared foods, made simply by combining flour and water, and either cooking it over, or surrounding it with heat. It is simple food.


Recent archeological research has shown preparation of bread-like products by Natufian hunter-gatherers in northeastern Jordan, ca. 14,400 before present, thousands of years before the emergence of the Neolithic way of life [1]. The baking of bread would become much more commonplace once grains were domesticated – agriculture began in earnest in the Levantine Corridor, a narrow strip of land often called the “fertile crescent”. Grain crops were some of the first crops domesticated, with three grains forming the key Neolithic “founder crops”, basic foodstuffs for these early agricultural communities : einkorn, emmer and barley. Wild emmer evolved naturally from a cross between grass related to wild einkorn, and a goat grass, eventually becoming domesticated as emmer, and forming the basis of modern wheats.

The trick to bread making of course is flour. The first tools used to grind cereals into flour were likely querns, or hand-powered millstones, which also appearing during the Neolithic period. Flours were likely coarse, with different grades only possible through the the process of bolting, where whole-grain flour is passed through a sieve to remove bran. With progressively finer sieves, comes finer quality flour.

Flat breads were the first processed foods, partially due to the lack of ovens and leavening agents [2]. As wheat-barley agriculture spread to the surrounding regions, the diffusion of flat breads likely followed the same path as the cereals. By around 8500 BC, emmer had begun to spread beyond the fertile crescent, reaching Greece, Cyprus and India by 6500 BC, and Egypt shortly afterwards. By 5000 BC it had reached Germany and Spain, and by 3000 BC England and Scandinavia.

Bread is not only one of the oldest foods staples in ancient civilizations, but also a good indicator of the civilization itself. Growing grain required vast tracts of relatively flat land, able to be irrigated. It required a means of storing the grain to maintain the population in winter, and milling it into flour. It also required some type of knowledge surrounding how the flour could be crafted into bread, how to build ovens to bake the bread, and how to transition from simple flat breads to leavened breads. The techniques we use to bake bread now, really have not changed much since ancient times. Sure, the flour is a little easier to mill, the ovens hold exact temperatures, and yeast is readily available, but the core process is so simple that anyone can bake bread.

NOTE: For those interested, there is a *vast* body of publications that look at the domestication, and evolution of grains, with many differing perspectives of their origins.

[1] Arranz-Otaequi, A., Gonzalez Carvetero, L., et al., “Archeological evidence reveals the origins of bread 14,000 years ago in northeastern Jordan“, PNAS 115(31), pp.7925-7930 (2018).
[2] Pasqualone, A., “Traditional flat breads spread from the Fertile Crescent: Production process and history of baking systems“, Journal of Ethnic Foods, 5(1), pp.10-19 (2018).

White sesame loaf

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baking / bread

Sometimes you want a nice, simple white-style bread, perfect for making jam on toast or grilled cheese. This loaf is easy to make, and needs minimal kneading, over a period of time. The greatest time spent will be waiting for the various proofing steps, but the ends justify the means.

The end

25g fresh yeast
300ml lukewarm whole milk
25g butter, melted and cooled
425g bread flour
1½ tsp superfine sugar
5g salt
1 egg, beaten
sesame seeds

① Crumble the yeast into the warm milk, and leave for 5 minutes, then stir in the melted butter. In a large bowl mix the flour, sugar, and salt. Mix the milk mixture into the dry ingredients until a soft dough forms.

② Knead the dough on a floured surface for 3-4 minutes. You shouldn’t need much extra flour, as the dough should be very cohesive.

③ Place the dough in a bowl and cover with a damp tea towel. Allow to proof at room temperature for 60 minutes. Lightly knead the dough (3-4 min) on a floured surface, then return to the bowl to proof for a further 60 minutes.

④ Knead lightly again, and place in a buttered loaf pan. Cover with a damp tea towel, or place inside a clear plastic bag, and allow to rise for further 30 minutes. See, most of the time this dough is rising!

The baked loaf!

⑤ Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C), and place a steam tray on a lower rack. Brush the loaf with the beaten egg, and sprinkle over sesame seeds. Put a cup of water in the steam tray, and place the bread in the oven, baking for 35-40 minutes. Leave to cool completely on a wire rack.

Sourdough starter pancakes

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cooking / recipe / sourdough

So, what to do with the starter that is removed prior to the daily refreshing of a sourdough starter? It seems a pity to just dump it in the food waste. There are a number of things to do with it, and top of the list is sourdough pancakes. Just save the “discard” in a glass jar in the fridge over the course of a week, then use it to make this recipe. We tried it on the weekend, and the pancakes were awesome.

Crispy, golden, light and airy.

250ml milk
250g sourdough starter
1 tsp vanilla
180g all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
50g sugar
1 tsp sea salt
50g butter, melted

Beat the eggs in a bowl, and mix in the milk, sourdough starter, and vanilla. In another bowl, sift in the flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar and salt. Add the egg mixture to the dry ingredients and mix together with a whisk. Mix in the melted butter, and allow the mixture to sit for 10 minutes. The consistency of the batter is to personal taste, so you can add more milk if it appears too stiff.

The batter after 5 minutes.

For an active sourdough starter, you will see it start to bubble almost immediately. Heat up a cast-iron griddle pan (or frying pan), add some butter to grease, and then drop ⅓ cup portions of batter onto the pan. Cook until bubbles start to appear on the top of the pancake, and they are golden on the bottom. Flip to cook the other side.

These pancakes are amongst the lightest I have every made. They are just full of pockets of air – sometimes leftover pancakes sit around on a plate until somebody (usually me) eats them cold. Even after 6-8 hours these pancakes still tasted good.

A cross-section through a pancake – light and airy

A simple sourdough leavener

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bread / leavener

Flatbreads were likely the first type of breads eaten by ancient civilizations because they could be cooked on a flat surface, and didn’t really require a leavener. Nobody really knows how leaveners came to be used in bread making. At some point, maybe in the 4th millennium B.C., people started to use fermentation to alter the nature of the food they ate. The discovery was likely an accident. Maybe it was some water and flour left in a bowl and forgotten for a few days, or perhaps some fermented porridge.

The sourdough starter bubbling away.

The thing with yeast is that it is all around us, floating in the air, and coating things, including the surface of cereal grains. When moisture is added to cereal, and it is left to stand around, fermentation occurs. The yeast eats the sugar in the grain, and excretes CO2 (and a little alcohol), making the mixture all bubbly. Seems simple right?

Then why does so much of the literature make it seems hard? I mean there is a *lot* of information on sourdough starters in the ether. That may be why I avoided it for so long. There are bread baking books that dedicate a quarter of the book to developing starters. I mean could it have been this hard for our ancient fore-bearers? Did they have to feed their starter meticulously every day? One of the problems I had is that so many of the techniques was that it requires so much flour to feed the starter, because every time it gets refreshed you basically have to throw away 50% of the starter (more on that later).

A starter is a piece of “dough” that contains wild yeast, and bacteria. Why are starter leaveners of this sort usually called sourdough starters? Well, while the yeast makes CO2, it is the bacteria that gives the bread its sour taste, transforming the starch of the flour into lactic acid, acetic acid and alcohol. It makes a sour dough.

So I set about making my first starter. This starter is actually quite easy to make, and let’s face it, if it doesn’t work, you can start over. I used light rye flour and natural bottled water. A starter made with 100% rye flour is easy to make largely because it is easy to maintain, and smells nice (kind of fruity). It is not as temperamental as other flours with respect to the amount it is fed, and will bounce back if you miss a day of feeding. It also seems to keep quite well in the refrigerator. Whole-grain (and possible organic) rye works really well because there is ample yeast and bacteria on the outside bran of the rye grain. Bottled water is better to use, because tap water can contain chlorine which can kill yeast (or you can leave tap water out overnight to let the chlorine dissipate). I use simple 0.5l mason jars, they are easy to clean, and I have enough of them that I can split starters if I want. I weight each jar, and mark the weight on the jar with a permanent marker. Be sure to use clean utensils.

Day ① : Add 40g of rye flour and 40g of water to a jar (note that 1g=1ml water, and it’s easier to measure weigh that volume in small quantities). Stir, and mark the level of the mixture on the jar. Loosely cover (I use the top of the mason jar lid, upside down), and leave at room temperature for 24 hours (I left it on the kitchen counter).

Day ② : The starter may have a couple of bubbles, or maybe not. Don’t despair if it doesn’t. Add another 30g of rye flour, and 30g of water. Stir, and leave for another 24 hours. You can choose to give it a stir 1-2 times a day, but you can also just leave it.

Day ③ : The starter should be more active now, with quite a few bubbles, and a fresh-type fruity smell. If not, then measure and discard 50% of the mixture, and repeat the steps of Day . If it is active, throw away ⅔ of the mixture, and refresh with 40g of rye, and 40g of water. Stir, and leave for 24 hours.

The active starter.

Day ④ : The starter should be very active, and at least double is size now (it will rise, and fall, and you will see the line where it has risen to. Throw away ⅔ of the mixture, and refresh with 40g of rye, and 40g of water. Stir, and leave for 24 hours.

Day ⑤-⑦ : The starter should now consistently rise and fall after it is fed. Repeat the steps of Day . It should be ready to use after Day 5, but you can extend the feeding for a couple of days, or until you are ready to bake.

To use the starter, I take what I need and then refresh it. I maintain about 140-160g of starter, of which I use 100-120g when baking. Keep on the counter for 12 hours after the feeding, to allow it to double in size, and then store in the refrigerator. This is especially good if you only bake once a week. Refrigerated starter should be fed at least every 2 weeks.

If the starter doesn’t seem active, follow steps ② and ③ until it regains its strength. How well this works depends on the many things – the flour, the water, the amount of heat in the room. Now if the starter smells bad, or goes mouldy, just ditch it and start again.

The one thing you will notice with this starter is that it works much slower than commercial yeasts. A recipe for sourdough often requires the creation of a large poolish, or biga, the night before, and then a resting period of 6+ hours for the dough before it is shaped. But that is another story.

A simple sourdough bread

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baking / bread / recipe / sourdough

Making sourdough starters is one thing, actually masking bread is a completely different ballgame. You’ll find a cornucopia of recipes on the web and in a bunch of books. What’s best is what works for you. Some books, are super-intricate, to the point where they are confusing. Making bread does not have to be hard. So here’s a recipe for a simple sourdough bread, with minimal kneading, proofing overnight, a great crust, and a good amount of holes (in the bread). To put this into context, I have been baking sourdoughs for about six weeks, so this bread is a triumph.

The simple sourdough

This is a white sourdough, but I actually use a light-rye starter, which seems to be the best of both worlds. The light rye has enough good nutrition to feed the starter, and so seems to work well for both heavier grain breads and light breads alike. This bread can be started in the evening, and baked the next morning.

active sourdough starter
350g warm water
500g hard bread flour
10g fine sea salt

① In the evening, mix the starter together with the water in a large bowl (I use a large ceramic mixing bowl). Leave for 5 minutes, then add the flour and salt. Mix this together with a wooden spoon. The dough will be somewhat sticky, and rough. Cover the bowl with a damp towel, and leave this for 30 minutes.

② After the rest period, work the dough into a smooth ball. This can be done a number of ways. One way is to grab a portion of the dough and fold it over, pressing it into the centre. Repeat, working around the dough, until a ball is formed. This should only take 15-20 seconds.

③ Cover the bowl with a damp towel, and cover loosely with a clear plastic bag. The dough can then rise overnight at room temperature, ca. 10-12 hours. The dough will have roughly doubled in size.

④ Dust a 20cm bowl lined with a towel with flour, or prepare a proofing basket. Tip the dough onto a lightly floured surface, and shape it into a round, using a technique similar to that outlined in ②. Using a scraper, place the dough into the bowl/proofing basket, with the seam side up.

⑤ Cover the bowl, and allow to rise for 30-60 minutes. The dough should puff up slightly, but should not double in size. Preheat the oven to 450°F, placing a jelly-roll tray on a lower rack for steaming. Dust a baking sheet with flour, and invert the bowl onto the baking sheet to release. Dust the top of the dough with flour, and score the top with a cross-cut pattern.

⑥ Place a cup of water in the steaming tray in the oven, and put the bread in the oven. Bake for 40-45 minutes. The bread is done, when tapping the bottom of the bread produces a hollow sound.

The crisp crust and well formed holes

Making clarified butter

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cooking / fat, butter, ghee, clarified butter / fats

When sautéing, one of the healthiest fats to use is olive oil, buts lets face it, it just doesn’t impart the same type of flavour as butter. Sauté potatoes in butter and they should turn out nice and crisp, and buttery. Sautéed in olive oil, they end up with undertones of olives. You know what they say, butter makes everything taste better (or is that bacon?). Butter is a magical emulsion of fat, water, sugar, and proteins. But just because it tastes fantastic, doesn’t mean it is the ideal fat for frying. Use butter to cook a fairly lean piece of meat, and very quickly instead of producing a nice crust on the meat it will steam it instead. Leave a dab of butter in a hot frying pan for just that moment too long, and it turns into a dark liquid, and things start to burn. But why does this happen?

The clarified butter in the jar

Butter is made of three things: butterfat, water, and milk solids, typically in the ratio of 80%, 16%, and 4% respectively. The butterfat is fine, it is the other two that cause cooking issues. Ever noticed that when you use butter to cook in a frying pan it splutters? Butter melts at 45°C, and splutters at 100°C when the water released from the butter evaporates. It is at that point when it starts to steam food. At 120°C the liquid butter starts to decompose… leave it too long, and it will turn black! That is attributable to the milk solids, i.e. dissolved minerals, water-soluble proteins, and tiny particles of solid casein. The milk solids actually help give butter its rich flavour, but when they get too hot, they start to burn, and smoke. This is largely because butter has a very low smoking point, i.e. the temperature that a fat can be heated to before it starts to smoke. For butter this is approximately 150°C.

A good organic unsalted butter

So how do we get the benefits of butter with a higher smoking point? The answer is to process the butter to turn it into a pure fat, essentially breaking the emulsion, and resulting in a product called clarified butter. It removes both the water and milk solids, leaving a pure butterfat, with a smoking point of 250°C. Clarified butter likely traces its roots back millennia, and is a good way of preserving butter, by removing the most perishable parts. It is useful mostly for the task of pan-frying, for example it is optimal for making schnitzel because the time it takes to cook might burn normal butter. That is likely the Swiss use bratbutter to make Rösti. It has no real place in things like baking, where the taste of real butter matters more.

People forgot how easy it is to make clarified butter, maybe until gourmet “ghee” started to appear on the market (clarified butter and ghee are not exactly the same, see end note). Not exactly cheap stuff, considering how easy it is to make. Easy you say? How can we make clarified butter? First buy a good block of butter, maybe organic, certainly unsalted – a pound or half a pound is optimal. Cut the butter into chunks, place in a heavy bottom saucepan, and gently heat on the lowest setting. Allow to “cook” for about 20 minutes, without stirring. A foamy white film will form on the surface of the butter, (water-soluble whey proteins) the water will evaporate, and the protein solids will precipitate on the bottom of the pan. After 20 minutes, you can check the progress. Use a spoon to gently move aside a small segment of the surface film aside. When ready you will be able to clearly see the milk solids on the base of the pan, and the bubbles forming will be clear. If necessary, cook for a further 5-10 minutes.

At the end of the cooking time, set the pan aside, and allow to cool for 10-15 minutes. Gently remove the surface film with a spoon or spatula, and discard. Pour the clear liquid into a mason jar through a metal sieve (lined with filter paper if you like), trying to leave the milk solids behind. The liquid clarified butter will solidify into a golden solid, and will keep for 1-2 months in the cupboard, or 2-3 months in the refrigerator. Honestly, it’s easy to make, and cheaper than gourmet jars. It’s probably quite easy to infuse things into it as well, for example branches of fresh rosemary, or turmeric.

The end of cooking, showing the clarified butter, the surface film, and the cloudy protein solids on the bottom of the pan.

The clarified butter will lose about 25% in weight. The 454g of butter I put into the pan produced 300g of clarified butter 55g of milk solids, and the remainder as surface film residue, and water. In reality, likely I didn’t separate enough butterfat from the milk solids. The buttermilk residue left can be frozen and used as to season vegetables, or to enhance the flavour of sauces.

Clarified butter is slightly different to the other cooking butter ghee. Ghee is associated more with Indian cooking, and is clarified butter taken to the next level. Clarified butter is cooked to the point where the water evaporates and the milk solids separate, whereas ghee is cooked just until the milk solids begin to caramelize. This imparts a fragrant, nutty task to the ghee, and since the butter has cooked for longer, also a darker golden colour.

The indispensable Bamix

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kitchen tool / Switzerland

Growing up, there was always one thing my mother missed from Switzerland, and that was a Bamix, the quintessential Swiss immersion blender. I never really thought much about it, until I finally decided to buy one maybe 6-7 years ago. Now I don’t know why anyone could live without it. I mean we have a fancy blender, which does heavy duty blending and can even turn grains into flour, but it just isn’t that convenient. The Bamix however seems to be used on a weekly basis, but then immersion blenders are just more useful. Why pour a soup into a blender jug when you can just blend the soup right in the pan?

Making a Dalgona coffee

I bought the simple 2-speed model, which can with three attachments: a whisk blade, a beater blade, and a multi-purpose blade. I use the beater blade for egg whites, whipping cream, crepe batter, and whipped coffee’s. The whisk blade is great for batters, and making mayonnaise, and the multi-purpose (chopping) blade for pureeing soups, and onion bases for curries. Then later I bought the “Processor” attachment, which works like a mini food processor. This is perfect for grinding spices, or nuts, and turning day-old bread into breadcrumbs – things you would not want to spend time cleaning a large food processor.

Whisking crepe batter, clearly showing the vortex created by the Bamix

There are of course a bunch of imitations on the market, so why spend extra on a Bamix? Well for starters it is still made in Switzerland, has a 10-year warranty, and is simple. Bamix only makes immersion blenders, since it was founded in the 1950s by Roger Perrinjaquet, who invented and patented the first-ever immersion blender. There are only two speeds, and not that many attachments. It is both compact, and easy to use. There is also another subtle difference, the base of the blender. Many immersion blenders enclose the blade, which means that they won’t blend without moving the blender up-and-down. The Bamix blade is exposed except for the 4 legs that “enclose” it, allowing it to create a good vortex to move food in and out of the blade, without necessarily moving the blender. The shaft is not removable, but it is one of the few with interchangeable blades.

The business end of the Bamix with the beater blade

The Bamix is exceptional at whipping the coffee mixture for making Dalgona coffee, or whipped coffee. It actually excels at whipping up mixtures with very little volume. The Bamix may be the most used device in my kitchen.

An oddity – the Pawpaw

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Canada / fruit

When you think of fruit, you typically gravitate towards traditional “old-world” fruit like apples, and pears, or more tropical fruit like bananas and pineapples. There is however one oddity in North America – the pawpaw. It is the largest edible tree fruit indigenous to North America. Found throughout the forests of eastern US, it reaches as far north as southern Ontario, the only place it can be found in Canada. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that it tastes tropical, which is not surprising considering its relations – cherimoya, soursop, and custard apple.

The pawpaw

Of all the unique and wonderful fruits in the world, the pawpaw is somewhat of an unknown quantity in Canada. South of the border it has a higher profile, and has numerous monikers, Appalachian Banana, Hoosier Banana, and American Custard Apple. It’s not a fruit you can just walk into a green grocer and buy, health food shops don’t even carry them. In Toronto you have to put your name on a waiting list at Forbes Wild Foods, or be lucky enough to get some at a farmer’s market in September or October. The pawpaws were still not ripe when I bought them, so I left them for a week. The skin was green, but darkens as the fruit ripens.

The halved pawpaw.

The flesh is pale to bright yellow and contains a network of glossy, dark brown seeds. When they are ripe, they become soft. I cut them in half by scoring them lengthwise. The seeds are very large, so it is impossible to cut them cleanly. Once halved, the seeds can be removed and the flesh scooped out with a small spoon. The flesh is creamy and has a semi-firm consistency, almost like a thick custard. The flesh closest to the skin was somewhat stringy.

Pawapaw flesh.

Some people say pawpaws taste like a mixture of banana and mango, others pineapple. To be honest, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the taste this time around. The initial taste was sweet and tangy, like a tropical fruit, but it left a somewhat bitter aftertaste. Pawpaws are aren’t commercially grown because they ripen fairly quickly, so distributing them is a challenge. Many people say pawpaws are best simply eaten from the tree. For those interested, here is a great article.

A cold-rise spelt-wheat bread

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baking / bread / recipe

Everything in baking bread is a learning experience. You can’t just find one recipe and never deviate to try new things. This next recipe combines the use of both sourdough starter, and fresh yeast, spelt and bread flour. But more interestingly, it is a cold-rise bread, meaning that once the ingredients are mixed together, the dough is put into a bowl, covered, and left to rise in the refrigerator. This can literally be left for days. The dough has hints of sourness, but isn’t as overpowering as some sourdough breads.

sourdough starter, or biga
300ml cold water
10g fresh yeast
250g hard bread flour
150g stoneground spelt flour
10g salt

Mix the sourdough starter and water in a large bowl. Add the yeast, and mix, then add the flours and the salt. Mix together well, this is easily done by hand (you can use a mixer, but it really does not have to be worked that hard). The dough will be quite sticky. Cover the bowl with plastic film, and leave to rest in the refrigerator overnight. I left mine for 24 hours. The pictures below show the dough before and after the 24 hours.

When you are ready to bake the bread, remove the dough from the refrigerator, and tip onto a well floured surface. Leave to rest at room temperature for 30 odd minutes. Preheat the oven to 425°F (220°C). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place a smaller aluminum baking tray on a lower rack – water will be added to this to provide steam for the bake.

The loaf prior to baking.

I use two plastic pastry scrapers to form a long loaf. They are useful in folding the dough onto itself without handling it too much (this bread does not need much kneading). Place onto the baking sheet, and slash the top of the loaf with diagonal cuts. When the oven is ready, add 250ml of cold water to the steam tray below. Add the bread, and bake for 10 minutes. Reduce the oven to 400°F (200°C), and bake for a further 25-30 minutes.

A nice crisp crust

Remove, and cool on a wire rack.

A good structure to the bread.