Vegan afternoon tea

Friends of mine were looking for an excuse to meet, and were thinking about visiting one of my awesome neighbourhood cafés The Crimson Tree. But I have tea set, I have cooking skillz *uh* vegan afternoon tea.

Of my friends, I had a veggie, a vegan-who-eats-tuna, and someone who is with child, which presented slight fun on the catering front, and I though I would try where poss to make everything as vegan as possible, then everyone could eat it.

With a bit of warning, I was able to cook some things in advance. The vegan shortbread had gone into school for a taster earlier in the week, and I managed to make a vegan cake early on Saturday morning.

To add to the complication my weekend was quite busy: I spent almost all of Saturday behind all three of the cider bars at the Robin Hood Beer Festival. By the end of the day I had excellent product knowledge of the full range of ciders and perries on offer and Sunday morning, I was not quite ready to leap out of bed at 8AM to start hoovering.

I got out all the food I had planned, but my dining chairs were slightly cat-hairier than desirable. (The cats rather like sleeping on the dining chairs under the table, and to be honest, months pass when only the cats use the dining furniture. To mitigate this I keep bags-for-life on some of the chairs to dissuade feline encroachment and on the others I flip the seat pads so they are not sitting where people sit.)

A day on Saturday out of the house, and catering for a 2pm kick off made timing a sourdough loaf a little interesting. In the end I made the leaven at 11am on Saturday, went to the festival, made a dough at midnight and allowed it to prove all night. I knocked it back and put it in the banneton at 10am Sunday and sat it on the hob with the oven on beneath it at 50deg to take some of the chill of my unheated kitchen off. It went in the oven at 1315 and came out shortly before 1400 ever so slightly raw on the bottom.

What do vegans eat in sandwiches? Last time I did an afternoon tea, over five years ago, I did ham and cheese, and tuna. Last time I fed sandwiches to this group of people we were still only veggie so I made egg mayo. This time a little more challenging.

Vegan afternoon tea

Cucumber sandwiches with sunflower spread. Peeled and sliced cucumbers with salt and pepper. Unfortunately the Aldi shop done barely minutes before the guests arrived had not found a fully vegan spread, and the sunflower stuff had traces of whey in it.  Should have just stuck to actual butter!

Caramelised onion hummus and grated carrot. I’m a huge fan of caramelised onion hummus and was delighted to find it in Aldi too. The grated carrot hides extra veg in your sarnie and adds some texture. I think the idea came from the Archers originally – it was an organic lunch that Pat Archer made.

Antipasto pâté Smørbrød. Another use for the nutribullet. Blitz a handful of sundried tomatoes, chargrilled peppers and green olives, all from jars, in just enough of the oil to make the thing work.  This was absolutely delicious and I shall be doing it again, vegans or no vegans.  Served as open sandwiches.

Vegan afternoon tea

Vegan shortbread. This recipe, but a great deal simpler. I bought a bottle of coconut oil a few years ago after having read about butter coffee and some other alternatives. I have never quite managed to blitz coconut oil into coffee before heading to school, mainly because it’s solid at room temperature, and I bought it in a bottle. So this was finally a use for it. The entire recipe was 250ml coconut oil, 3 cups plain flour, 3 cups dark brown sugar, mix, chill, bake at 150 deg for 50 minutes.

Vegan choc fruit loaf. One of the many iterations of my now almost weekly nutribullet fruit cake. Blitz two bananas, two pears topped and tailed but otherwise not peeled or deseeded, two heaped tablespoons of cocoa powder, half a bag of dark brown sugar, a good dollop of desiccated coconut, and since, I wasn’t using eggs, a dollop of golden syrup. This was too stodgy for the nutribullet to turn properly so needed some water as well.  Pour out into a bowl and add a teaspoon of baking powder and enough desiccated and SR flour to get to a stiff dropping consistency, along with a handful of cocoa nibs for texture, then bake in a 2lb loaf tin at 170 deg for over an hour, until a skewer comes out clean, covering with a foil couche halfway through to stop the top burning.  Sorry for the vague recipe, but my scales have been broken for weeks and my baking is increasingly approximate.

Vegan afternoon tea

Also all the table: Aldi iced finger buns (traces of whey). Ikea gingerbread Christmas biscuits (traces of milk), Italian nougat brought by a guest, fruitbowl (untouched) elderflower gin, crab apple vodka, bottle of champagne, coffee, tea. A roundly admired beautiful spotty teapot made by my friend The Purple Potter.


Sourdough continues

So, this year, apart from odd days away at Conference or in Scotland, I’ve made almost all of our bread, keeping alive a sourdough starter made following S John Ross’s starter page and from various other sources since. My first steps are here.

Since the diet began, I’ve had to cut back on bread quite significantly. You know, it’s been one of my biggest learning points, just how many calories are in bread, pasta and rice. I’ve been pooh-poohing for years any dieters who talk about cutting back on carbs, assuming them to have been misunderstanding how Atkins and other high protein diets work. In fact, it seems you barely have to blink at a packet of rice to have 300 calories on your plate before you even start adding the nice stuff.

But I am still eating some bread, and so I am still making bread.

My parents, who have made all their own bread since time immemorial, use a Kenwood Chef to batch make 48 rolls, which are then baked and frozen and defrosted as necessary. I haven’t been doing this because a) my tiny freezer is full b) no Kenwood chef, and without it, that’s an awful lot of dough and c) I’d get bored of rolls!

What I have been doing is making a huge variety of loaves. With just a few bags of different flour, and a few store cupboard ingredients and a few interesting baking tins, you can have an almost infinite variety of different loaves and rolls.

The early version of the recipe made an awful lot of washing up, so I’ve made some simple changes, and changed my tools a bit.

I no longer wake the starter up by pouring it into a bowl. It’s plenty enough just to bring it back to room temperature in the jar it lives in, and top up the same jar.

When I’m ready, I pour 2 cups of starter/sponge, 3 cups of flour, some sugar, salt and EVOO into the breadmaker I pretty much forgot about when starting down the sourdough route. The breadmaker makes a dough and lets it rise for an hour, then beeps. Halfway through the initial knead you have to check the dough – if it looks like crumbs, it wasn’t wet enough, so you stop the machine, add more water, and start it again. When it’s ready, I give the dough another knead and shape it for the final loaf – in the banneton for a round loaf, knocked square and rolled for a ciabatta type loaf, or divided into two, stretched and rolled for baguettes, or divided into 12 for rolls. Allow to rise for as long as necessary – and this time has shortened as the sourdough mix has got stronger. Now it can fully raise a loaf overnight – even if you leave it in the fridge for a cool, retarded rise.

Bake for 30-40 minutes at 200 degrees. I think I get a better rise out of the mix when the fan in the fan oven is off, and when the oven has definitely properly preheated. I almost think a cooler oven is better.

In terms of variety – there are all the exciting different sorts of shapes, from challa to fougasse. Most supermarkets have a variety of flours, and we’ve had wholemeal, granary, malthouse flours, always mixed with strong white flour. Then there are different grains, like spelt and rye. Then there’s additives: spices, herbs, sundried tomatoes, other fruit and veg, yoghurt, tomato purée, butter and egg yolks for brioche, whole eggs and spices for hot cross buns. Then there’s coatings – eggwash, large grain salt, flour, oats, more herbs and spices.

Slightly misshapen sourdough batons that kinda rose sitting on the boiler. Today's bread is wholemeal sourdough rolls and the soup is hearty italian vegetable. Tomorrow's bread will be sourdough granary baguettes

As I said before, it is possible to make bread without shopping, but I have bought the following things to make breadmaking easier and more fun:

Some books

And some things I might be buying soon

First wholly sourdough loaf

I’ve had my sourdough starter sitting on the side in the kitchen for over a week, feeding it regularly, and using some of the discards to make half sourdough, half yeast risen bread.

It still looks like this:

Sourdough starter day 3 or 4 - definite signs of bubbles through the mix.

Looking closely enough, you can see bubbles in the mix from the inside of the jar – but it’s nowhere near as lively as this starter picture.

So I was a little uneasy that it wasn’t ready to make a wholly sourdough risen loaf. It’s still pretty cold in the kitchen, and that might account for the low activity in the starter. Still I tried anyway – and left the rising dough sitting on the boiler overnight.

And the dough went from this:

First dough to be wholly leavened by sourdough starter. Room temp overnight proving planned.

To this:

Sourdough first rising

Which seems to have more or less risen to double the size of the original dough, which was the criteria for continuing. But leaving it on the boiler also ever so slightly cooked it. The dough was crusty on top.

I had been watching these series of videos from FoodWishes – in particular the last one. I was very impressed that the guy there seems to be using the same ingredients as me, but with vastly better technique and better proving got the most enormous loaf out of the same mix.

I used some aspects of his technique before realising I don’t actually have a baking tray that big, so ended up with two smaller batons instead of one giant one. I don’t have a water spray, so did the best I could by chucking a cup of water into the oven before setting off cooking. (I have to say that still sounds like a really bad idea: throwing a cup of water into an electric oven whilst it’s hot?!)

Anyhoo, these are the loaves that resulted.

Slightly misshapen sourdough batons that kinda rose sitting on the boiler.


So, one of the things I’ve been doing instead of cleaning during the dark winter days is experimenting with sourdough. This is a way of leavening bread without using baker’s yeast, and involves quite a lot of mucking around and takes an extraordinary amount of time to make each loaf.

On the plus side, although you can buy all sorts of expensive equipment to help you with sourdough baking, there’s no need to do so. You can make everything you need with just flour and water, and a baking tray.

Instead of packet yeast, you make an icky mix of flour and water that takes natural yeasts and bacteria (the good kind) out of the air and flour. The flour and water mix needs feeding every day with more flour and water until it gets going, and then can be put in the fridge and fed only weekly.

When you’re ready to use it, you pour the whole starter out into a bowl in the warm and feed it again. Leave it in a bowl until it froths, while you try and clean the manky jar it lives in most of the time. Use most of the bowlful (called a “sponge”) to make the actual bread and reserve some of it to back in the jar in the fridge for the next loaf. The natural yeasts are not as quick as commercial bakers yeast, so it can take the best part of two days to prepare the sponge and prove the dough before cooking.

All this I have learned, mostly from S John Ross’s very down to earth, nice and simple page. I’ve also been dipping my feet into the Sourdough Companion but they are serious bread nerds and even their beginner’s guide is pretty heavy going.

My starter is still quite young, and so I’ve not yet been able to make a full sourdough loaf.

Sourdough starter day 3 or 4 - definite signs of bubbles through the mix.

When you feed the starter you’re supposed to discard half of it, but yesterday, I used the discarded bit to make a half-n-half sourdough / baker’s yeast loaf.

(I wouldn’t normally use American cups as quantities for any recipe, but I have just discovered that those plastic Ikea beakers are the right size to be a measuring cup, and suddenly that’s the easiest way to measure.)

This is a hybrid of S John Ross’s basic recipe and some of the dough training recipes from Sourdough Companion.

The sponge
In a bigger bowl than you think you need, put
1 cup immature starter
1 cup warm water
sachet quick yeast

The dough
After the sponge has sat for a few minutes and started to foam, add

3 cups bread flour
2 tsp salt
4 tsp sugar
splash olive oil

Bring the mix together to a soft dough with a wooden spoon and then do a few initial stretches by hand to help form it. Stretch and fold a third over from the back and third over from the front before turning 90 degrees and flipping over to repeat. Although you’re supposed to stretch and knead bread on an oiled flat surface, I’ve always down this in one large plastic bowl, which helps prevent the flour from getting everywhere. Let the dough have its first proof in the same bowl, for an hour or so in a cool room, until the dough has grown.

At this point, I intended to knock the dough back and leave it in the fridge-cold conservatory until the following morning. I though the conservatory would be cold enough to retard the rising (the longer you can leave a dough before it finishes rising, the better the flavour, apparently)

Unfortunately the superhuman packet yeast just kept going through the cold, and by morning it had risen to fill the banneton.

Oh, yeah, bannetons. You don’t have to buy anything to do sourdough, but a banneton is the one thing I did buy. It’s a pretty patterned shaped container you put the bread in for its final proving. It supports the dough, and the pretty shapes imprint the top of the loaf so that the final loaf looks nice. I bought mine here after Christmas, and it was in the post within a day. You flour the banneton so the dough doesn’t stick to it. Make sure you turn it out and don’t try and cook in the banneton!

First (half) sourdough loaf

So this morning, all I had to do was bake the loaf. Time and temperature was the key difference between John Ross and Sourdough Companion. Ross says 170 deg c for 35 mins, without pre-heating the oven. SC says preheat the oven to 210 deg c for at least an hour and then cook for 45 mins. So I fudged it. I set the oven the 200 deg and let it start warming. After about 5 mins, but before it got to temperature, I put the bread in on a baking tray lined with parchment. And the loaf was ready long before the timer sounded – something 25 mins. You can tell when it’s ready because you get a hollow sound when you bang the bottom with a wooden spoon.

Allow to cool before cutting and you can check to see the state of the “crumb” (the bit that isn’t the crust). Are there good size uniform air pockets? Does it look right? How far through does the crust go? Is it all cooked?

Pretty respectable first sourdough loaf (half ordinary yeast)

This looks OK and tastes OK, was easy to cut and not too heavy. I’ll try something similar for Monday morning, and hopefully soon, the starter will be ready to make bread on its own without the addition of the packet yeast.

Oh – one final thing – I want to try and use this crust topping to make tiger bread that’s suddenly all over the supermarkets.