(Wo)man against machine: caraway seed bagels (inspired by the Great British Bake Off, episode 2)

As regular readers will know, I like to have a good story behind why I bake something. This week’s offering is no exception; in fact there’s a few different strands to the story. So you might want to grab yourself a cuppa….

Oooooo so yummy

First, I was inspired by the Great British Bake Off (GBBO) again this week, and thought I’d have a go at making bagels, which were the third bake that the contestants had to do. I once made some using the recipe for bagels that came with my parents’ bread-maker, but that was a long time ago, whilst I was still living at home (when I think of how many years that must be, it’s quite scary – let’s just say at least 10). If I remember rightly, they came out fine – they were just plain, with some oatmeal on the bottom. I remember now that I had to scour many supermarkets and health food shops to finally find that oatmeal! This is an issue I still have today, though have finally found a lovely shop in Cambridge, The Daily Bread Cooperative, which sells oatmeal (and loads of other lovely things!) at very reasonable prices. Anyway, I digress.

When I was thinking about what flavour(s) I could put in my bagels, I’d not long ago been reading a book called The Breastfeeding Mother’s Guide to Making More Milk. When I first came across La Leche League when I was struggling to breastfeed Andrew, I borrowed this book from the LLL library, and found it a very useful resource. As I’ve been thinking about how I can increase my supply again this time, as I am likely to hit similar supply problems with this baby, I’ve bought my own copy of this book. There is a whole section on foods that are supposed to be galactagogues (i.e. substances that help produce more breast milk in the mum), including oats and various herbs. I took herbal supplements in the form of capsules when Andrew was a baby, and ate lots of oats – porridge most days, as well as copious amounts of flapjack and oaty goodies. As I was reading through the list of herbs, my eye was drawn to ‘caraway seeds’. This brought back fond memories of a cake that one of my Grandmas used to bake when I was younger – we called it ‘seed cake’, and it was basically a plain sponge loaf cake with caraway seeds in. I used to LOVE that cake, and would always get excited whenever Grandma told us that it was on offer for pudding. I knew that I had to try baking something with caraway seeds in, because, after all, I would have the excuse that whatever I baked would be helping with my milk production. The interesting thing about eating/taking herbs for breast milk increasing purposes is that it’s very hard to tell if they are actually working for a particular mum. As I’ve never been able to express much (some women just can’t as easily as others), I couldn’t say that the herbs were giving me a specific increase, like, say, 6oz more per day after taking them – it’s more a case of trusting that they are working, or resigning yourself to the fact that they might not be. But if what I’m eating tastes good, that’s a good enough excuse in itself.

So, as you might have guessed, I put these two ideas (bagels, caraway seeds) together and came up with (surprise, surprise!) caraway seed bagels. Handily I managed to buy a fairly large bag of caraway seeds from The Daily Bread Coop. I thought for quite a while as to whether I should add one more flavour to the mix, for example a dried fruit or another herb or spice, but in the end I decided that I wanted that pure, unadulterated taste of caraway, just how Grandma’s cake used to taste. Instead of just popping a sprinkling of seeds on top, like you often get with poppy seed or sesame seed bagels, I went for putting the seeds into the dough itself, because it annoys me when you lose half the seeds in the bag with those kinds of bagels, and I wanted a good taste of caraway in my mouth, not the storage container!

As I set to and got the ingredients out, I stopped for a minute to contemplate whether I would used the bread-maker (dough maker setting) or mix by hand. I knew which would be easier, but in the end I decided on my own fair hands, because that was more authentically like the GBBO. As I started to knead the dough, I realised that my energy level at the time was not really up for hardcore kneading. It’s been a tiring week, and my baking session was supposed to be some relaxing me-time whilst my boys were out in town. After about 10 minutes of (admittedly half-hearted) kneading, I decided to leave the dough to prove. The worst that could happen is that it would’t rise as much. And that’s exactly what happened! The dough did double in size in about an hour’s worth of proving, but as I came to shape the dough, I could tell that is wasn’t as elastic and springy with lots of air bubbles trapped inside like it should be, so it just lost the air as I shaped it and the rings I made didn’t puff up. So my hand-made batch of bagels look like they’ve been on some kind of crash diet! Incidentally, another memory from my childhood springs to mind here. The science behind bread used to fascinate me as a child, as my Dad would bake bread with my brother and me, and explain how it worked: as you knead the dough thoroughly, the gluten in the flour reacts with the water and the dough goes all elastic; the yeast feeds on the sugar and produces gas bubbles in the process, which get trapped in the elasticity of the dough, causing it to rise.

Bagels from hand-made dough - a little bit on the thin side 🙂

Even though my bagels are skinny, I think, as always with baking, that the taste and texture of the finished bake is more important than the look of it. I actually like the texture of my less-risen bagels – they’re a kind of cross between a soft pretzel and a bagel, both of which I love. The flavour is amazing, very strong caraway, which is just what I wanted. So it’s by no means a waste – I’ve put these in the freezer, to save for when baby is born (if I don’t get to them before). I should say that I put no salt in, because I don’t add salt to anything, not even our homemade bread, as I don’t particularly like the taste of salt and it’s not good for Andrew (or us) to have lots. I’d probably get marked down for seasoning if this was a competition, but that’s just the way my tastes are.

They may be skinny, but they have a nice texture and taste good

The scientist within me was curious to test whether it really was my pathetic attempt at kneading, and therefore not making the dough elastic enough to hold the air bubbles produced by the yeast, that caused the skinny bagel look. So my experiment for the afternoon (whilst Andrew was napping) was to use exactly the same ingredients in the bread-maker, and compare the results with my hand-made batch of bagels. This was a test of (wo)man against machine. As I got the dough out of the bread-maker, it was immediately clear that it was much more elastic than my hand-kneaded dough, and it was much easier to shape into rings as it just stretched into shape rather than being prone to breaking like my first attempt did. In the end, though, the finished bagels weren’t as different as I thought they might turn out to be: they rose more than my first batch, but they’re still not as big as I thought they might be. I deliberately made the hole in the centre quite large, so that it didn’t close up and end up like a bread roll for each bagel. I knew I wanted to make smaller bagels than those you buy in the shops, because they would be a handy size for Andrew to have as a snack, so I guess the small quantity of dough for each one was never going to rise to be massive! I was erring on the cautious side. Again, they taste great, and more like a shop bought bagel in texture than my first batch, even if smaller in size.

Not-so-skinny, but still quite mini!

Well done if you’ve managed to stay with me throughout this intro: your reward is the recipe itself. If you don’t have a bread maker or some other electronic gadget for making dough, I’d suggest baking these when you’re feeling particularly strong and energetic. Maybe eat some spinach (Popeye style)? Or down a bottle of Lucozade? (Actually, I wouldn’t recommend the latter, it’s disgusting – but depends how much you want the bagels!) Ironically, I felt more energetic after going for a swim directly after I’d baked the hand-mixed bagels, but nevermind…. here’s the recipe.

Ingredients

  • 450g strong white bread flour
  • 30g carraway seeds
  • 250ml water
  • 1 tbsp fast-action yeast (the kind you don’t need to dissolve in water first, often marketed as ‘for breadmakers’)
  • 2 tbsp white sugar
  • 2 tbsp brown sugar

Method

  1. Line a few baking sheets with greaseproof paper, and preheat the oven to 200ºC (fan).
  2. Mix the flour, caraway seeds, sugars and yeast into a large bowl until evenly distributed.
  3. Slowly add the water, little by little, stirring first with a spoon and then with your hands as the mixture gets more and more dough-like.
  4. When the water is well mixed in and you have a ball of dough, transfer it to a surface lightly dusted with flour.
  5. Knead the dough for as long as it takes to have a nice and elastic texture – so you can stretch it and it doesn’t break up (this is where I didn’t stick it out for long enough). The elasticity helps the gas bubbles that the yeast produces to get trapped in the dough.

    Just look at that elastic dough in the bread-maker pan, and all those air bubbles trapped in the dough
  6. Place the elastic dough back in the bowl and cover with cling film. Leave to prove in a warm (not hot) place for about an hour, or however long it takes to double (at least) in size. I learnt from the GBBO (don’t let anyone tell you TV can’t be educational!) that ‘proving’ in this sense is so called because it proves the yeast is working – fascinating fact of the day.
  7. Split the dough into small blobs, roll into balls, flatten them, and then make a hole in the middle with your index finger.
  8. Gradually make the hole bigger by working the dough around your finger, using the rest of your hand (this technique is pretty hard to explain without video – watch the GBBO on iPlayer if this isn’t clear).
  9. In a large pan of boiling water, place 3 or 4 bagels (or however many will fit without touching each other). They should rise to the surface. Boil them for about 2 minutes, until a skin if formed and they puff up a little.

    Boiling bagels, not too many in the pan so they have room to expand
  10. Take out of the water with a slotted spoon to drain the excess water.
  11. Place on a baking sheet, spread quite far apart (I got between 4 and 6 on a sheet, depending on the size of the sheet).

    Skinny bagels ready to go into the oven, spread out on the baking tray
  12. Bake in the oven for about 15-20 minutes, until lightly golden. They will probably brown quite quickly towards the end of that time, so keep an eye on them.
  13. Remove from the oven, let cool on the tray, and then eat (or freeze).

The tasters’ verdict: My boys were keen to try a freshly baked bagel, and both of them approved, especially Andrew who kept asking for more! Tom had never had caraway before, and wasn’t sure at first what he thought of the slightly unusual taste, but decided that he quite liked them. I have to say, both batches were lovely fresh out of the oven, and I’m glad I liked the smell because baking smells had been a problem in pregnancy until recently. It seems I can handle the smell of baked products (bread, cakes) but as soon as I smell frying or roasting of any food, especially meat, it makes me nauseous.

Taster number one certainly approved. This was one from the 2nd batch which cheered him up after a thunderstorm woke him up from his nap

Plum and almond upside-down cake (inspired by the Great British Bake Off, episode 1)

A slice of freshly baked plum and almond upside-down cake 🙂 Tom asked me if he needed to eat it whilst standing upside down.... I guess if you like cream with your cake, this would be a good choice, especially whilst still warm (I'm not a big fan of cream with cakes).

Our decision to no longer have a TV originated in the fact that after Andrew was born, we found that we were never watching live TV. We were never able to sit down at exactly the time when programmes were on, so would download them on iPlayer and watch them when we had chance. This also meant we could stop them mid-way through and carry on watching at a later time if we didn’t have a whole hour to watch a programme of that length. What has this got to do with cake though? Well, the Great British Bake Off (GBBO) is one of the few programmes that I’ve ever set to series download on iPlayer (the only other ones I can think of have been Outnumbered and Have I Got News For You). I did it last year, and would sit and watch the episodes whilst feeding Andrew, as he would generally feed and sleep on and off pretty much most of the afternoon back then. This year, series 3 of GBBO has just started with episode 1 broadcast in the week just gone. We watched half of it it a day later, and the other half 2 days later, on iPlayer. I’m thinking that each week I may need to avoid twitter until I’ve watched the episode from that week, because there are bound to be spoilers with the number of people hash-tagging #GBBO!

Anyway, this first episode was all about cake. Contestants had to follow Paul Hollywood’s recipe for Rum Baba (which always makes me think of a family joke: ‘Rum Baba what ain’t got no rum’ …. a select few readers will know what on earth I’m going on about there. If you’re not one of them, don’t worry, it’s not really worth the effort of explaining – you had to be there apparently), and they also had to bake a cake with a hidden design when it was cut into. This last bake was amazing – they all came up with some ingenious ideas. If I had more time and energy, I’d have a go at something like that myself, but for now I thought I’d take some inspiration from the first thing they had to bake, which was an upside-down cake. The concept is as follows: you place fruit at the bottom of a cake tin, pour over a sponge mixture, bake, and when it’s cool, turn it over so that the fruit comes out on the top.

Upside-down cakes always make me think back to Home Economics (isn’t it called Food Tech these days?!) lessons, because one of the earliest memories of them that I have is baking a pineapple upside-down cake. It was pretty easy really – I’d already had quite a lot of baking experience by the time I was 11. Since then I don’t think it’s ever crossed my mind to bake one again, I guess because I thought they were a bit old-fashioned, not particularly the ‘in’ thing these days to bake. But seeing what the contestants came up with, I realised that it didn’t have to be the classic pineapple rings from a tin, with glace cherries in the middle of the rings, and a simple plain sponge. The contestants baked all sorts of variations on this theme, with various fruits, flavours of sponge and finishing touches. This inspired me to think beyond the Home Ec. memory, and use a flavour combination that I love.

And that’s how we get to ‘plum and almond upside-down cake’. I think this fruit and flavour of sponge work really well together, and I love them both on their own too. Plums are just coming into season now as well, so they have great flavour and are nicely priced in the shops. The sponge is a basic three-egg plain sponge, with half the flour (self-raising) replaced by ground almonds and 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder, plus almond essence instead of vanilla essence. The almonds make it denser than an ordinary light and airy sponge, but I really like this texture, more like a Bakewell tart than a Victoria sponge. I’m not sure whether Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry would approve of the denser texture, but the main thing is I like it and my other tasters (aka Tom and Andrew) do too! That’s the thing I don’t get about baking or general food competitions like GBBO – flavours and textures are very subjective things, so how can they be judged by just 2 people?

As well as the fruit and sponge, an upside-down cake traditionally has a caramel topping that you line the tin with before putting the fruit in. I distinctly remember from my Home Ec. lesson that the recipe we had to follow had golden syrup instead – I remember because I’m sure that was the first time I learnt that heating your spoon in a cup of boiling water before putting it the syrup tin meant that it ran off the spoon better. For the plum and almond take on the theme, I decided to use honey instead, because it’s as easy as golden syrup (i.e. I didn’t have to make a separate caramel sauce) but I love the taste and think it goes well with the other flavours in the cake, plus I’m not a massive fan of golden syrup and often tend to replace it with honey in recipes.

If you’d like to have a go, here’s the recipe. It’s a pretty easy one, and is a bit more unusual than a classic sponge cake. Have you ever made an upside-down cake? I’d love to hear of other flavour combinations and variations on this theme.

Close up - nice golden, crispy edge, squidgy plums just inside, then smooth and moist sponge in the middle - great combination.

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp clear honey
  • about 5 medium plums, halved and stones removed
  • 170g margarine
  • 170g sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 85g ground almonds
  • 85g self-raising flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 180ºC (fan) and prepare the tin: line a medium-sized springform cake tin with greaseproof paper, and place on a baking sheet (this will catch any honey that leaks out).

    Tin lined with greaseproof paper, ready to be filled! Just need to put it on a baking tray (forgot to take a picture of that!)
  2. Spread the honey over the base of the tin.
  3. Place the half plums flat side down around the edge of the tin.

    Honey and plums - when I turned the baked cake over and took the greaseproof paper off, I was glad that I'd put the plums around the outside only, because they became very squidgy with the baking and lost their structure, but it worked out well around the edge as opposed to if I'd have put them in the middle, which I suspect would have caused the cake to collapse a bit!
  4. Cream the margarine and sugar together in a bowl until smooth and fluffy.
  5. Beat in the eggs until smooth.
  6. Mix in the ground almonds, flour, almond essence and baking powder until well combined.
  7. Pour the mixture into the tin, spreading it over the plums until they are all covered and the surface of the mixture is flat and even.
  8. Bake in the oven for about 40 minutes or until the top is golden and springy to touch. Insert a skewer into the centre of the cake to check it’s baked through: if it comes out clean, it’s ready, if not, put it back in for a few minutes at a time until it passes this skewer test!

    Just out of the oven, cooling, before I turned it over
  9. Leave to cool fully.
  10. Release the spring on the tin and carefully pull the paper away from the sides of the tin. Place a plate over the top of the tin, and quickly turn it over, making sure you hold onto the tin and plate at the same time, until the cake comes away from the tin and ends up on the plate – the plums now facing upwards on the top.
  11. Store in an airtight container, or it would freeze well too, if it’s not eaten too soon 😉

    Upside down (but actually this is how it's supposed to be)