Monday, June 11, 2012



 If you've ever left your 8-year-old daughter behind in a pub after lunch one Sunday, perhaps you need to re-evaluate your life! Maybe shift a few priorities, or at least get used to sleeping on the sofa for the rest of your fecking life. At some point, probably around her 15th birthday your daughter will turn to you and say "Dad, you're a fecking bell-end" and you will have to swallow it, instead of ignoring it like you have done whenever anybody else has said it to you during your entire tenure as prime minister. Your wife, of course, should have at least thought (if not said) it roughly 2x108 times since you first made that sort of mistake.

Sorry, went off on one a bit there. What I meant to talk about today was digestive biscuits.

 Y'see, after a meal - like Sunday lunch in a pub with multiple familes, assistants and a protection detail - it's quite nice to end with cheese & biscuits. The juxtaposition of a zippy cheddar with sweet pickle on a digestive is just heaven, and if you have a runaway camembert don't waste it on claggy bread but ladle it onto a biccy to get as much flavour into your mouth as possible.

Digestives are so called because apparently bicarb is a great way of settling your stomach after a heavy meal. Digestives have bicarb in, so therefore they're good for you, especially if you have indigestion! Actually, this is total bobbins; the amount of bicarb in digestives is so tiny that really the only good thing about them is the fibre.

Anyway, I've gone off shop-bought digestives. Something about them has changed in the last year or so, something to do with the fats they're using in them, and I figured it was time to learn how to roll my own. They have to be some of the simplest biccies to make, surely?


 Biccies are a bit like pastry, in that they're easy to do wrong. Some biscuits can take it - like amaretti or cookies, or even home-made rich tea - but digestives really can't. You have to get the right fat/flour content, the right sugar, the right oatmeal (not rolled oats, though - that way lies hobnobs) and to get it to all come together in the right consistency. And if you overdo the bicarb they get an awful aftertaste. You can get away with no bicarb (I forgot it in one batch) but they don't have the right texture and won't crumble properly - and with digestives the crumble is everything.

So: after some experimentation I came up with this.

I: 175g wholemeal plain four (this was surprisingly nontrivial to find; wholemeal bread flour is commonplace, but absolutely no good for this), 75g pinhead oatmeal, 1/4tsp bicarb, 125g cold butter cut into cubes, 1/2tsp salt, 75g soft brown sugar, 10ml milk.

M: Oven to 160ishC. Mix the flour, oatmeal, bicarb & salt in a bowl. Rub in the butter to breadcrumb stage - don't overdo it or it'll start to clump too early. Stir in the sugar, add the milk then get your hands in and form it into a single ball of dough. Form it into a log, wrap in baking parchment and put in the fridge for at least 30 mins. Cover a baking sheet with more parchment, then unwrap the log, roll it in more wholemeal flour and make sure it's pretty cylindrical. Then slice disks off - no more than pound-coin thickness - and place on the sheet. Leave a bit of a gap for expansion (I do 16 to a sheet, but this mix only gets you 24-26 biccies) and bake for at least 30 mins. You can bake for longer if you like - turn the sheet around after 30 mins, though - because like pastry and bread it is always worth leaving them in for ten minutes longer than you think. I usually leave them for 45 or so, but they might get a bit scorched if you have a keen oven.

Take them out, leave for two minutes on the baking sheet before transferring to a cooling rack and the instant they are completely cold put them in an airtight box.

These make excellent dunkers but they really shine when slabs of vintage cheddar and some home-made chutney are on top.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

48 Hour Bread

48 Hour Bread

On Sunday I managed to watch last week's Hairy Bikers, where they were in Germany. In amongst all the schwartzwalderkirschetorte there was a segment where they popped into a slow food bakery called Fleury in Brauneberg. The chap there makes a whole load of different loaves, including one that takes 48 hours to make.

Hmm. Can you see cogs whirring?

Bread is simple; flour & water will get you started; if you've not got a week to wait and 12 hours to prep then adding yeast helps, and salt is probably necessary but if you don't have any then it's not the end of the world. There's two hard bits.

1. Making sure the yeast is working. 2. Making sure the oven is hot enough.

Other than that, it's just waiting.

I liked the thought of 48 hour bread so much I thought I'd give it a go. There's no recipe given, so I reckoned I'd try basic recipe bread, then bung it in the fridge to rise & prove for a couple of days. If it doesn't work then I'll have wasted about 80p of ingredients.

The details: 500g strong white flour, 300ml water (tap is fine, don't bother with this "hand-hot" malarky) + another 50ml kicking around if you need it, 10g salt, 2 packets of easyblend yeast. Mix the dry ingredients - stir in the salt before adding the yeast - then pour in most of the water and mix, then add the rest and the extra 50ml if, after mixing, you've still got dry lumps in the bottom of the bowl. Tip it out onto a work surface - don't flour it, just have a dough scraper or pallette knife to hand - and knead it until you can see light through a stretched out bit of dough without it breaking. The books say 5-10 minutes, I reckon it can take a lot longer, depending on how vigorous you are. Roll it into a ball, then take a 2l (or bigger) airtight plastic lunchbox - the ones with clickable seals are perfect - and lightly oil the insides, drop in the ball, put on the lid and bung in the fridge.

Forget about it until the following morning; tip it out onto the work surface, pummel it a bit, then put it back in the box. The following morning, tip it out of the box, shape it into a baton, then at one end twist it over twice, so you get a spiral formed on the outside. Put onto some baking parchment, then onto something flat, then cover and put back in the fridge. That evening, turn the oven onto as high as it'll go, put a baking sheet on the middle shelf (and remove the top shelf), then when it's hot take the dough from the fridge and slide onto the hot baking sheet. Leave for 15 minutes, then turn the oven down to about 180C and forget about it for at least 35 minutes. At this point, the longer it bakes the thicker the crust.

The results: in all seriousness this is some of the best bread I've ever made.

48 Hour Bread

48 Hour Bread

The texture is incredible - soft, chewy, dense and airy all at the same time. It springs back, has a delicious crust and the middle tastes like bread smells. It's a bugger to slice, though - that crust is solid - but that just means you get the pleasure of ripping it apart. I cannot emphasise this enough: make this bread. It is simple, delicious and takes all of 20 minutes of actual effort. Your family will love you, your friends will love you, and your tummy will love you.

Monday, February 20, 2012

E-books, and why I'm apparently worse than Hitler.

I love reading. It is a huge part of my life, and it is my go-to when I don't know what to do with myself. Sometimes I schedule time in my day (when I'm really busy, which can be fairly often) to read. I read before going to sleep (in fact, I can't sleep unless I've read a couple of pages of whatever is sat next to the bed). I enjoy train journeys where there won't be loads of people crammed in like sardines so I can get stuck into something that I've been meaning to get a good run at, and if I weren't too distracted by trying to see what's on the ground I'd be reading on planes too.

Books have a hold on me; I once pledged to give 50 books to a charity shop. This was a total failure, because I gave away 17. Out of the thousands of books I own, I gave away 17 and I can remember what most of them were. Books make incredible furniture, ice breakers, friends, companions, comfort blankets. They're food for the mind and soul. They smell incredible. They last for years, even after you've dropped them in the bath, spilled tea on them, carried them in a backpack for months, taken them up mountains and down valleys. They whisper to you, tell you things that you'll dream about, educate and enhance your life. You'll probably only have time to read maybe 8000 books in your entire life (at current rates I've got another 4200 left in me, assuming I don't get hit by a bus). Many people won't read a tenth of that. A few will read more.

So, why is it that as soon as people buy an e-book reader they go nuts on the Amazon store, buying ebooks because they only cost a quid, of things that they will never, ever read? I know people who have bought kindles and then downloaded the entirety of Project Gutenberg. There are 32,000 works on Gutenberg and nobody - and I truly mean nobody - will read all of them. This is the equivalent of buying a 160Gb iPod and then filling it with a third of a years worth of continuous music. You'll buy all this stuff from iTunes and listen to it precisely once, and skip it if the shuffle ever brings it up. It's the same for downloading movies, or vast swathes of text from Wikileaks. Why do people do this? Are they collectors of media they will never, ever see/read/hear? Finish something, for goodness' sakes!

I actually have several problems with ebook readers; that they encourage you to download and collect far more than you'll ever need, which leads to option paralysis and thousands of things started but not finished is probably my biggest bugbear. But: they're not allowed to be read when planes are landing. Not even Lady Chatterley's Lover is banned on planes (any more), but you could be trying to read The Very Hungry Caterpillar to your offspring and be told off by the crew for endangering the lives of you and everybody around you for using an electronic device during landing.

Hypothetically, you could read your ebooks in the bath, although if you drop it in then... well. It'll cost you a couple of quid to replace that copy of Sense & Sensibility if it were a paperpack. Ditto reading a battered Chris Brookmyre in the rain on a Welsh promenade, or on the beach with a sudden sandstorm. If you spill your tea on Lord of the Rings it probably won't even get past Rivendell, but on your Kindle? You could lose everything. And I've been able to read Eric Newby on the top of mountains; would the battery on your shiny electronics hold out in subzero temperatures? Speaking of which; I've never yet had to recharge an Agatha Christie just when Poirot declares his denoument. Did the butler do it? Probably not, but all I have to do is turn the page, not find a computer with a USB cable.

Sure, I could carry around every book I've ever wanted to read in my satchel. Except until the next model comes out, at which point format incompatability kicks in. So like the White Album I'd have to re-purchase something I already own (or rent; if you read the T&Cs on most ebook suppliers you don't actually own what you buy) just so I can continue to read it. And I lend books to people, too. Can't do that with that electronic version of Nights at the Circus - it's a T&C violation, even if you could be bothered to hack the DRM out of it. And you can't sell on ebooks, or even donate them to Oxfam.

Point any of this out to someone who has drunk the Kindle Kool-aid and sold all their books, or freecycled, or - heaven defend us from these people - thrown them away, and you'll get a strange look, like I'm some kind of wierd luddite. Press the point and you get all kinds of arguments thrown at you, about how the future is here now and I'm stifling progress. How I'm destroying the planet with my dead-tree-loving ways (as if paeleolithic trees were being used to make the paper, and the ink to print was hand-squeezed from Kraken), and how gazillions of gallons of water is used to make my planet-killing books. If I mention the Congo or other African conflict regions where rare minerals are mined to make electronics then conversation rapidly decends into Godwin. So now I don't push the issue.

However... I could find a use for an ebook reader. I read a lot of PDFs for my day job and reading on a monitor is unpleasant for any length of time. I end up printing them off, which is a bit pointless when there are devices that could, in theory, read them. The problem here is that ebook readers can't natively render PDFs. They have to be converted, which defeats the point of a PDF in the first place - you lose formatting, pictures, graphs, page breaks. Don't mention the iPad, please - that's £400 of something accident-prone people really shouldn't be allowed in charge of.

Show me something that could natively render PDFs properly and I might be able to find a use for an ebook reader. But otherwise? You can keep them.


It occurs to me that I've not actually started redirecting people over to Beyond Guardian Leeds yet. Which is bad, because it's been going for eight months. That's at least one post every weekday (apart from 2 weeks over christmas) since the end of May last year.

So, go to Beyond Guardian Leeds for daily news aggregation posts about what might be going on in Leeds and West Yorkshire. You can also follow us on twitter as @BeyondGdnLeeds. A couple of us use that account, so don't try to contact just me personally on it.

FWIW, my personal account is @nalsa on twitter. Not sure I should have said that out loud.