Sunday, 5 February 2012

It's all Greek to me

It isn't easy to bake when you've taken a Porsche to the right knee. Prolonged standing is a no-no for a start. And with limited mobility, fitness just seems to evaporate, so all of a sudden kneading a batch of dough is exhausting. It's been frustrating having my capabilities limited but huzzah for healing and being able to stand up and so on. To celebrate being able to do more, I tried something new.

During my enforced sitting-on-my-arse-on-the-sofa-for-several-weeks period, I got a bit trigger happy with the 'add to basket' button and took delivery of a bunch of books, mostly to do with cooking. The most substantial tome is one simply called 'Vefa's Kitchen' by Vefa Alexiadou ('the Greek Delia' according to my source in Athens) and not only does it require a minimum of two hands for lifting, it is unique amongst my cookery books as it is furnished with a full three place-marking ribbons.

Vefa's book does contain a substantial number of chapters devoted to cooking deceased creatures, but is far from being a dead loss as there is plenty to excite a veggie too. The first place I turned to was the bread section, where I was interested by a recipe which required a hit-and-miss process of leaven creation using chick peas.

The deal is that you mess around with some ground up dried chick peas, introduce them to some boiling water in a jar, wrap it in a blanket and leave it somewhere warm for a day or two then see what happens. You're not to mention to anyone that you're doing it else they might put the evil eye on proceedings and scupper your efforts. I had to tell the boys, though. They don't normally go into the airing cupboard as a rule, but you can bet your bottom dollar that if I hadn't said 'That fermenting jar wrapped in a blanket in the airing cupboard, you see, that one there, touch it and feel my fury' they would have been investigating and probing and rescuing it for me.

The bread is called εφτάζυμο (eftazimo) and this caused me a bit of head-scratching because according to some sources that means '7 times kneaded' and according to others it's a corruption of 'self-leavening'. I prefer the latter...

The first difficulty I had (if you don't count the fruitless search for the box containing my Kilner jars which I'd put away as I never use them) was how to coarsely grind half a lb of dried chick peas. They are hard as little bullets and would have taken chunks out of my food processor blade. They'd probably have demolished my feeble little pestle and mortar too, had I been crazy enough to use that. My only course seemed to be my little coffee grinder which has never seen a coffee bean in its life but which makes short work of linseeds and so on. I divvied up the chick peas into little batches and started to zap the first lot. I don't know if you've ever tried to coarsely grind dried chick peas in a coffee grinder, but if you have, you'll know what I quickly discovered - that instead of an even grind, I managed to produce an astonishing array of items on the continuum

whole unscathed chick peas --------------------- finely powdered chick peas

calling at every station in between. Not being entirely sure what a coarsely ground chick pea looks like, I decided to pretend that this was a desired outcome on the basis that they were all probably coarsely ground on average.

I sterilised my newly-purchased Kilner jar by sloshing boiling water at it, then added my averagely coarsely ground victims, a quarter of a teaspoon of salt and three cups of boiling water. A quick stir with my longest spoon and a momentary oh-lord-my-hand-is-stuck then it was on with the swaddling and tucking it away in the airing cupboard. The coldest weekend for a long time might seem to be a strange time to be undertaking something which needs to sit for a day or two in a very warm place, but we have had the heating on quite a lot...

I peeked after twenty four hours and it seemed to correspond with the description of a deep layer of foam on top. The dreaded 'if there's no foam and it all looks a bit orange just tip it away' scenario hadn't hit. Perhaps the silver coating on the inside of the airing cupboard door has anti-evil eye properties? I brought it downstairs to spoon off the froth but realised as I dunked the spoon that the froth contained a goodly proportion of tiny bits of overground chick pea. Ah. As I pierced the top layer, the fermenting pulses fired a plume of spume, good white bubbles with no bits of chick pea in it. Er, maybe this was how it was supposed to be? I spooned out all the froth, both white and full of chick peas. The steeping juice was also required, so I sieved this into my bowl too, then realised this was a more appropriate technology for the froth so after a bit of juggling back and forwards, I ended up with a froth/juice mixture with a negligible chick pea content.

A cup of strong white flour and a tablespoon of sugar turned it into a slack paste and phase two was go. A plastic bag hat then overnight in the airing cupboard as it bubbled away happily to itself.

In the morning I rescued it and peered worriedly at it, wondering if it was ok. The smell wasn't unpleasant, but was pretty strange and not at all like the sourdough starters I'm used to. A house guest who arrived just after I retrieved it enquired with a wrinkled nose what the hell was that smell.

I went ahead and followed the rest of the recipe, adding the starter to more strong flour, sugar, olive oil, a little salt and three quarters of a cup of water. The resulting dough was very tight, but not knowing how it was supposed to be, and following my usual procedure of sticking closely to a recipe the first time I use it, I didn't make any adjustment.

I left it to prove in two portions in my medium round bannetons, which in retrospect was rather over optimistic as there was little evidence after two hours of any increase in size. I think the leaven was ok, but the dough was just so tight it had no chance. Or maybe the evil eye struck after I took phase two out of the airing cupboard...

I went ahead and baked them anyway, and they produced two squat loaves of a density I don't think I've ever seen before. Sampling a slice with our house guest, we decided it was quite tasty but the texture was off putting. 'You could slice it and dry it out in the oven,' said the house guest. 'It would make fabulous biscuits.'

So I did. Now, instead of two dense loaves with their own gravitational fields, I have tooth-defying dry slices of former loaves, each with such density that they appear to be forming their own galaxy in the storage tin.

Over the next week I shall be grabbing every Greek person I can talk to so that I can enquire earnestly into the right texture for eftazimo. And I'm going to have another go with more water, because the taste was lovely (although quite sweet, with a total of 4 tbsp of sugar in the whole recipe, might cut that down a bit next time). Wish me luck avoiding the evil eye...

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