One of the many things I miss during this coronavirus lockdown – and to be honest, it’s really not the most important – are my daily trips out to a cafe in the morning to enjoy a coffee, pastry and to read my newspaper. I like to still buy the ‘real’ paper kind – although am now making do with my iPad kind.
Going out for a coffee isn’t just about having a morning treat but getting out of the house and having a little social contact early in the day. As someone who lives alone and works from home, despite a (usually) busy social life, there’s no one other than the cat to try out my voice with first thing. Most often (pre lockdown) I go to Paul Bakery in Richmond where the staff know me well enough to get things started without my placing an order; they’ll ask how I am; ask about my family, who sometimes go there with me. These are the kind of everyday social interactions we are so short of now. We must remember how important they are once we can go out again!
I do have some bread in the freezer, but I’m not really a toast person (just as despite being English I’m not a Full English Breakfast person!). I crave a little sweetness with my coffee, though. Coffee is always later. How much later depends on how long I can wait for my caffeine kick. I get up quite early and have cereal, yoghurt, fresh fruit to start. But a sit down and coffee with a little sweet treat comes later. In Paul I almost always choose a mini pastry – one of those tiny ones that’s just two or three bites. There’s something rather Continental Europe about it for often in places like Italy and France a coffee will come with a little biscuit or chocolate.
I often buy a Cramique Brioche in Paul that has raisins in it, with little bits of sugar on top, to take home. My 5-year-old grandson Freddie loves it. I slice it thickly and freeze some to keep for him; a slice is soon thawed and warmed through in the toaster. When I take him to school – in normal times, three times a week – once I’ve picked him up and we’re back at my house for a while before walking to school, he’ll have a slice of brioche and glass of juice before we set off. One of the last times I took him before school closures, as I parked the car in front of my house, Freddie’s voice from behind me said, ‘I can smell brioche in your house, Nonna.’
There’s been an extraordinary surge of home baking since the virus lockdown began and supermarket shelves started emptying fast. Now it’s almost impossible to buy bread flour and yeast. However, as I wrote about a week or so ago, I’m able to get flour for pasta and focaccia from my local Italian deli and fresh yeast. I’ve been making focaccia at the weekend, cutting it into 6-8 pieces and freezing it. I take a slice out in the morning and come lunchtime it’s thawed and I just pop it into the toaster to warm it through and freshen it and I have fresh bread!
This now regular baking got me thinking. Maybe I could make a sweet version of focaccia for my morning coffee. I wanted something that was still easy and quick to make; nothing too sweet. I looked at a few recipes; I remembered making panettone but wanted something quicker and easier. I couldn’t find what I was looking for … so I decided to adapt my usual focaccia recipe (an Antonio Carluccio one I’ve made for years). I took the idea of adding sultanas and candied peel from Italian sweet breads; I thought an egg yolk would make the dough richer; I kept olive oil rather than butter; and I put in only a little sugar to satisfy my not-too-sweet tooth. I used the semola (flour) that I’ve been getting from Corto Deli, which is a semolina flour made from durum wheat. Romina told me it’s what Italians normally use for pasta and bread. I – almost literally – threw it all together and hoped for the best. ‘Fingers crossed’ I texted my daughter as I told her my plan. Well, the fingers or something worked for it was very delicious; just what I was looking for. And here it is!
- 450g semola (or strong white plain flour)
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 2 tablespoons caster sugar
- 50g sultanas or raisins (soaked briefly in hot water and drained)
- 25g candied mixed peel
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus a little more
- 1 egg yolk
- 300ml warm water
- 15g fresh yeast (or 7g pack dried – but check instructions for us)
- 1 tablespoon Demerara sugar
In a large bowl, put in the first seven ingredients. Measure the water – it should be warm but cool enough to put your finger in comfortably. Add the yeast and mix well. Pour this into the bowl.
Mix well together. I used a spatula for this. When it all comes together, gather into a ball with your hands and knead on a lightly floured surface for about 5-10 minutes. Once it’s ‘elastic’ and less sticky, test its springiness by gently putting a finger a little way into the top. The indentation should spring back out.
Put the dough back in the bowl and cover the bowl with cling film or a tea towel. Leave for about an hour, until double in size. Meanwhile prepare a tin. I don’t use a tin for my usual savoury focaccia but thought it would be nice to do it for the sweet kind. I chose a heart shape because we could all do with some extra loving right now! It’s about the same as a 23cm diameter tin. Lightly grease the sides and bottom with some olive oil.
Once the dough has doubled in size, knock back briefly and flatten into the tin.
Cover lightly and leave to rise again for 30 minutes. Turn the oven on to start heating to 220C/Fan 200/Gas 7.
Drizzle over a little extra virgin olive oil and brush across the surface. Scatter over a little – about a tablespoon – of Demerara sugar.
Put into the pre-heated oven for 15 minutes. Remove once nicely golden brown. I tested ‘doneness’ by slipping a small sharp knife in; I’d thought it might take longer to cook but it didn’t.
Remove from the tin and allow to cool on a baking rack.
I was so delighted with how it looked – but how would it taste? I managed to wait until after lunch and had a slice with an espresso, sitting in the garden in the warm sun and enjoying a peaceful moment.
It was really good! Almost brioche-like in texture – probably due to the egg. It had a light sweetness to it but definitely wasn’t ‘sweet’. It was perfect with an espresso.
Now to freeze some slices; I don’t think it would keep fresh for long so you need to either eat it (which means sharing it!), or freeze it. I’ve found the plain focaccia freezes very well, so I’m sure this will too.
Not quite an Italian Easter bread but close enough. So Buona Pasqua! to you all.