Mussels, Wine, and Saffron; The Ongoing Love Affair

Mussels didn’t feature on my childhood dinner table. My adoptive mother didn’t like shellfish, and the only seafood consumed in our home was fish on Fridays during lent, cooked outside on the deck to prevent the smell from permeating our house. And the occasional shrimp cocktail for fancy dinners on Birthdays – the shrimps, tiny, from a small blue labelled tin – drenched in mayonnaise and tomato sauce and the whole scary business clumped into a lettuce leaf in a champagne saucer. (In her defense, it WAS the ’70’s)

It wasn’t until I moved to the Winterless North in my 21st year that I would experience the full spectrum of Kai Moana (food of the sea). Surrounded by ocean, this wildly beautiful narrow band of earth forming the top of the North Island of New Zealand, allows easy access to abundant and super fresh seafood. From gooey kina (sea urchins) plucked from deep rock-pools at Mimiwhangata; snapper stuffed with dill, lemon, and butter, wrapped in foil and BBQ’ed on balmy sun-dress nights; oily mullet caught in early morning nets on Bailey’s Beach and smoked in fragrant Manuka; to the plump sweetness of the green lipped mussels, I was in love.

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No surprise then, that my heart skipped a beat when L suggested a second trip out to Fish Quay during my UK Food-Porn visit, in order to show his nephew J the sights.

L and I had gone there the week prior, stopping for a beer at the Custom House Pub, where the iconic “Wooden Dolly” stands out front in her red frock. (She is actually the 6th Dolly to be placed there. The others became so defaced over time, by the sailors and fishermen who took splinters to bring them luck on their seafaring adventures, that she/they were wheeled off and replaced. Six Times. There’s a metaphor in that people.)

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That trip had furnished us with a kilo of delicate clams, and 4 giant tender prawns, which we paired with a dry Alsace Riesling – also used to splosh in with the clams as they steamed open, along with a little cream and generous amounts of fresh dill and flat leaf parsley. The prawns were simply placed in sizzling butter, along with garlic, chili, and fresh lime juice, until the shells turned their characteristic red hue, and served with lightly steamed semphire.

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prawns

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This trip, we were all determined to continue the food-porn theme of the vacation/staycation, and hunt out the most dazzling kai moana on offer at the wet-fish stores dotted along the Quay, to take home to cook for dinner. At least, we were, until hungry from our walk to the Quay from the Tynemouth Train Station, we stopped to eat lunch at The Staith House. Sharing a mixture of starters and mains that included pulled pork pie, fish cakes, chunky golden fries, and mushy peas, we decided we could squeeze more in. Maybe some battered fish? We were on Fish Quay after all. Battered fish ordered, hammered with gusto, final mouthfuls duly swallowed, we lumbered our way up the road, full, and slightly beer-headed. And here’s the thing. When your stomach is GROANING with food, and all you really want to do is lie down for a nap and DIGEST, nothing, not even the subtle whisper of sea infused, sparkling fresh black mussels can enchant you.

Plodding through the store, which was due to close shortly, we couldn’t fathom eating again. This is the reason they tell you to grocery shop on a full stomach.

We left empty-handed and began making our way back through the Quay.

L:”We could always go to the supermarket later, when we’ve figured out what we feel like eating for dinner.”

J: Hmmm.

Me: :::Suddenly hearing the siren’s call of the black shiny mussels in the store, bagged together in their rope netting, peeping out seductively through their shells::: “Wait! I’ve changed my mind. I want to go back for the black mussels. I’ve never had black mussels. Just green-lipped NZ mussels. I want to compare them!”

Cue us lumbering back, at a slightly quicker pace as the store was closing any minute, and purchasing 2 kilos of Black Mussels, and two large fillets of white sole.

We made our way back to the Tynesmouth village, where on passing the enormous Castle and Priory, built around the 7th Century AD, the two Giant Brains explored Capital Value and Depreciation in regards to Big Old Buildings, and I mused silently on the possible pay rates of the labourers who built them.

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The Shiny Black Mussels:

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Ingredients:

– 2 Kilo Mussels
– Generous Knob of Butter
– 6-7 spring onions, finely chopped on the diagonal (include white and green)
– Cup of dry white wine (I used some left over Sauvignon blanc)
– Generous pinch of Saffron
– Handful of finely chopped dill and parsley
– About 150 ml of cream (You could take this up a notch by using Marscapone)
– Generous couple of Tablespoons of sour cream (Creme Fraiche would work beautifully too)
– Squeeze of Fresh lemon, and lemon wedges for serving.
– Few turns of the pepper grinder.

Method:

– Heat the butter in your largest stock pot until the frothing subsides. (L’s largest pot didn’t accommodate 2 kilos of mussels easily. I plunked them all in, and they didn’t all open well. J rescued the unopened ones from the dinner table and re-steamed them. Generally speaking, you would discard mussels that don’t open after steaming, but these were simply under-steamed.)
– Add the spring onion and cook until slightly softened, stirring often. Should take no more than a minute.
– Add the wine and saffron, and allow to cook 2-3 minutes.
– Add the mussels, cover with a pot lid, and steam the mussels until they are open. Shake the pot regularly as you steam them, so they open evenly.
– Remove the mussels from the pot, leaving the wine, saffron, spring onion, mussel juice in the pot. (alternatively, drain them over the sink, remembering to collect the juices in a bowl if you do.)
– Add the cream and sour cream. Turn up the heat, and reduce the liquid down a little, until it coats the back of a spoon. Around 5 minutes.
– Add the fresh chopped dill and parsley, and the lemon juice. Season with Black pepper to taste. The sauce shouldn’t need salt; the briny flavours of the mussels are usually more than enough.
– Throw the mussels back in the pot, and shake well to coat them with the juices/sauce.
– Serve immediately with crusty warmed bread to mop up the juices.

Gorgeous!

And the difference between New Zealand Green Lipped Mussels and the Black Northern English Mussels?

Green lipped are huge in comparison. Much meatier. When buying NZ Green Lipped Mussels, you always avoid those which are open – it indicates they are no longer alive, unlike the Black Mussels, which are generally open – and very much alive – when on ice in the store. The ligament keeping the Green Lipped Mussel shell closed is much tougher and can be less pleasant to eat. The Black English Mussels had a milder less briny flavour, and were overall more tender, somewhere between a clam and a NZ Mussel. Both are sweet. Both are succulent. Both recall the ocean, the gulls, the sound of waves. The love affair continues.

The Quest for the Perfect Old-Fashioned Doughnut – Round One.

I have a sweet-tooth. Actually, I have more than a sweet-tooth. I am, in fact, an unbridled collection of sweet-teeth.

L has a thing for old-fashioned doughnuts. The kind of doughnuts that are all crunchy goodness from deep-frying on the outside, and dense, cakey, and nutmeggy on the inside. And rolled around in a bed of cinnamon sugar to finish them off.

old fashioned donuts.

What better way for two hedonists to end a 2 week food-porn vacation/staycation, than with deep-fried sugary nutmeg infused Mmmmmmm-ness? After all, I would be travelling home to the cold of a Dunedin Mid-Winter, with snow forecast the week of my return. And L was off to India for an academic conference, where he might get all manner of gastric disturbances. Shoring up the calories in one last sprint of kitchen debauchery seemed very sensible under the circumstances.

One small problem remained. These were L’s memories of the old-fashioned doughnuts of his American past. The doughnuts of my NZ childhood were oblong, yeasted, cream and jam-filled things, dusted with icing sugar. I had no visual, olfactory, or taste memory to draw on. It fell to L to find a recipe that he thought would most resemble his taste-buds hankerings. He settled on this one:

http://www.mondaymorningdonut.com/2013/05/glazed-old-fashioned-rings-and-holes.html

I diligently followed the recipe, until realising I had no corn starch. A walk up the road to the local organic store ensued.

On returning home, I realised that despite having a few small packets of baking soda left, there was no baking powder, having used it up a few days earlier to make cinnamon roll scones, to eat with the vanilla bean-infused clotted cream we’d made. (WHY, in the land of a zillion sheep and cows, do we NOT have clotted cream in New Zealand?? It’s like cream, but MORE. Caramelised, thick, delicious mounds of amplified CREAMINESS personified) I went out again, this time to the local Sainsbury, and rectified the issue. Which, later, resulted in the oddest post-orgasm question I’ve yet to be asked – “Baby, what’s the difference between Baking Powder and Baking Soda?”

Finally, on reading the recipe once more, I realised we had no sour cream. I substituted this for milk. Possibly not the best move in retrospect.

The verdict:

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The flavour of the interior was gorgeous; the nutmeg subtle and beguiling.

The flavour of the crunchy outside wasn’t quite right; possibly a result of using a mix of sunflower seed oil, and a house-brand *vegetable oil* to deep-fry. For a repeat performance, I’m tempted to try kremelta, a flavourless vegetable shortening, arteries be damned.

The texture of the interior was disappointing. Somewhat dry. I’m inclined to think this was a result of substituting milk for the sour cream the recipe called for. Sour cream would have provided a richer dough with its higher fat content.

Finally, the recipe made so many doughnuts and doughnut holes, that the resulting mound made even this queer hedonist blush. L shared some of the abundance with a local store across the road. Next time I’ll cut the recipe by 2/3’s, until I have perfected the dangerously addictive beggars.

The quest for the perfect old-fashioned doughnut continues. Stay tuned for round two, taking place when my cholesterol levels are back to a semblance of their old selves…

Antipodean Bagels – or Bagels Down Under.

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I vaguely remember buying and eating my first New Zealand Bagel; it was in the very late 1980’s or thereabouts. I recall being singularly unimpressed. It was a dismal thing that bagel; a doughy, flaccid crusted pretender, claiming a name and a lineage it clearly – even to this kiwi’s uneducated bagel palate – did not deserve.

Two and a half decades later; three North American lovers hungry for bagels behind me; countless batches made, consumed, critiqued, and sometimes binned, my recipe evolved and settled into the below version, my favorite these past few years. I like their chewiness coupled with the satisfying ‘crackle’ of their crust. I especially love to eat them still warm from the oven, sometimes just tearing off pieces and smearing them with cream cheese before popping them in my mouth instead of cutting them in half. Or, like this week, swathing them in butter and freshly made blackcurrant jam.

A few notes: (Skip ahead to the recipe if you prefer to dive in.Below are some of the more common issues that have popped up for me)

Notes on ingredients: This recipe requires both whole malted barley and malt barley extract; readily available at home brewer’s stores. Here in Dunedin I go to The Dunedin Malthouse on Hillside Road. Make sure you buy whole pale malted barley, as the darker malted varieties provide flavor, but are non-diastatic. (Malted grains are simply grains sprouted before drying. The sprouting process activates an enzyme called diastase which helps convert the sugars from the flour effectively, which in turn, provides the nutrients for your yeast to multiply, and also results in a beautiful crisp crust. Dark malted barley is dried at a higher temperature than pale malted barley, destroying the diastase enzyme.)

Check to make sure the malt extract you are buying has not been flavored with hops if you are purchasing it from a brewery store. The malt extracts in a can often are. You want plain malt barley extract. (Though I’ve been tempted to try malt wheat extract. Wheat beers have a certain unique sweetness to them, and I’m curious to see how this would translate to a bagel or other yeasted wheat products)

Use high grade flour for the bagels as opposed to standard flour. The 12 hour ferment for the wet poolish used in this recipe can begin to breakdown the gluten strands in a flour with a lower protein percentage.

Notes on timing: If you take up the Bake Your Own Antipodean Bagel Challenge, you’ll be making a pre-ferment, in this case, a 12 hour Poolish. Much runnier than an Italian Biga, a French Pâte Fermentée, or an English Sponge, the poolish is a pre-ferment made up of equal parts flour and water by weight; yeast at .2% of the flour weight; and for the bagel recipe here, the addition of ground malted barley at 3%. Throwing the poolish together takes only minutes; it has the consistency of a thick pancake batter. Make it the evening before, and you can eat your bagels for brunch or lunch the following day.

Proofing your bagels after shaping is not a long drawn out affair. In fact, proofing them too long is counterproductive. You’ll end up with a holey and light ‘loose’ crumb instead of the chewy close crumb being aimed for here. A warm spot on a sunny day should see them ready for the oven around 15 minutes after shaping. A cooler day may require up to an hour. If you’re in a hurry and the temperature is cold, partially fill up your sink with hot water and place your baking tray over the top with your bagels covered to keep them cosy. (Make sure the tray is big enough not to fall in the sink if it were to be knocked slightly. Yes! This has happened to me.) On the other hand, if you need to slow the process down by a few hours, you can retard the proofing process by popping the tray in the fridge until 15 minutes or so before you are ready to boil them.

Notes on method: You will be both boiling and baking your bagels.

  • Make sure you have a decent sized pot and don’t over-crowd it; I generally do 2 bagels at a time.
  • You’ll be adding baking soda to the water to alkalanise it slightly at a rate of approximately ½ tsp to each litre of water. (No, I’ve not yet tried the lye method. The soap maker in me finds the idea a bit…Eeeeek. Having said that, I may give it a whirl in the near future to compare the results. Watch this space.)
  • The water should be at a gentle rolling boil rather than a fierce about to spill-over raging boil.
  • I like to boil the bagels for about 45 seconds to a minute each side. Less than that and the bagels seem less chewy to me and more ‘bready’ which I’m not so fond of. Your taste may vary – experiment!
  • Don’t worry if the bagels look Yoda wrinkled when you boil them; they smooth out in the oven.

Notes on things sticking: Cover your bagels loosely with oiled plastic wrap when you are proofing them longer than 15 minutes. Otherwise the surface will dry out too much, and without the oil on the wrap, the dough can pull away with the plastic when you remove it. Because the bagels are placed wet from boiling on to the baking tray, unless you have heavy old-school black baking trays with a proven no stick track record, or have either oiled your tray well or are using a heavy grade non-stick foil on the tray, the bagels will very likely stick, no matter how good a ‘non-stick baking tray’ you use. Given that they used to use flour and water to stick wallpaper to walls, this probably isn’t surprising. You have been warned. 🙂

Antipodean Style Bagels. The Poolish Ingredients:

  • 400 grams High Grade flour
  • 400 grams warm water (100% hydration)
  • 12 grams Malt Barley (3% – A skimpy NZ Tablespoon’s worth)
  • 8 grams active dried yeast. (0.2% – a small 1/4 teaspoons worth)
  • Pinch of sugar

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Method:

  • Add the pinch of sugar and the yeast to the warm (15 degrees C ish) water and set it aside to ‘bloom’. About 5 minutes.
  • Finely grind the malt barley. I use a small coffee grinder for this – just make sure you’ve thoroughly cleaned it of ground coffee first.

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  • Whisk the flour and malt barley together in a large bowl.
  • Add the water/yeast mixture.
  • Mix the ingredients together until you have a smooth batter-like consistency
  • Cover and set aside for 12 hours.

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Remaining Ingredients:

  • 400 grams high grade flour
  • 32 grams warm water if you’re being pedantic, otherwise a couple of Tablespoons will do nicely.*
  • 12 grams of malt extract (3% – skimpy Tablespoon)
  • 12 grams of honey (3% – skimpy Tablespoon again)
  • 16 grams salt* (2% – generous Tablespoon)
  • Poppy seeds, sesame seeds, rock salt, or finely chopped and sweated onion for topping.
  • Baking soda for your boiling water.

*Total hydration for the bagel dough is 54% using ‘baker’s percentages’. Because the total flour weight is 800 grams, for both poolish and final dough together, the total amount of water used will be 432 grams.

**The salt percentage of 2% is for the 800 grams of total flour used, as no salt is added to the initial poolish.

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Method:

  • Add the malt extract and honey to the warm water and stir to dissolve.
  • Whisk the flour and salt together in a bowl.
  • Whisk the poolish to deflate it.
  • Pour the water/malt/honey mixture into the poolish and mix/smoosh it through with a rubber spatula.

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  • Add the flour/salt to the poolish. I just dump the lot in and start folding it all together with the spatula. Continue mixing/folding until it forms a shaggy mass.

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  • Leave the dough in its bowl for 20 minutes to allow the dough to autolyse – hydrate and begin gluten development – it makes the kneading of this stiff dough a lot easier.
  • Knead the dough on a well floured surface for about 10 minutes until it sticks to itself and not your hands or the work surface. It should feel somewhat velvety and smooth. This is a pretty stiff dough to handle – great if you enjoy the tactile quality of breadmaking.

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  • Place the dough in a clean bowl, cover and set aside in a warm place for an hour, or cooler place for 2-3.
  • Remove the dough, place it back on a lightly floured work surface, and gently knead it 2-3 times to deflate it.
  • Use a sharp knife to cut the dough into evenly sized pieces. I like to weigh my pieces to ensure they’re close enough in size to bake evenly. I get 10 bagels from this recipe, each one weighing around 115-120 grams each prior to baking.

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  • Roll each piece into a neat ball. I like to do this between the palms of my hands, then finish them off with a few twirls between palm and bench.

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  • Slightly flatten out the ball, then press a finger or thumb through the center all the way through.

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  • Gently ‘stretch’ the bagel hole out to enlarge it. The holes close up somewhat during their final proofing/ boiling/baking, so make them bigger than you want the final hole to be.

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  • Set the bagels aside for their final proof. 15 minutes in a warm spot, up to an hour in a cool spot (possibly longer if your kitchen is very cold). You don’t want these super puffed up before boiling them – a slight puff is fine.
  • Put a large pot of water to boil on the stove top and add ½ a tsp of baking soda per litre used. Aim for a gentle but constant rolling boil.

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  • Gather your toppings for sprinkling and place them in a handy position.
  • Carefully lower the bagels into the boiling water – I use my fingertips for this as I’ve distorted the shape of bagels too often when using anything else. Try for two bagels at a time rather than crowding the pot. The bagels usually sink first, then rise up to the surface after 10-20 seconds. If they don’t rise up and bob around after 30 seconds, allow the remaining bagels to proof for longer.

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  • Allow the bagels to simmer 45 to 60 seconds per side, flipping them with a spoon or chopstick.
  • Remove bagels with a slotted spatula or spoon, placing them on a baking tray.
  • Sprinkle each bagel with your preferred topping as soon as it hits the baking tray after boiling. Don’t wait until you have boiled them all before sprinkling. The toppings won’t stick at that point, and you’ll need to egg wash them in order for them to do so.

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  • Bake for 13-15 minutes at 200 degrees Celcius. (Leave the fan-bake knob alone. You don’t need it.)

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  • Eat as many as you can while still warm from the oven; they will need to be toasted after they’ve been out of the oven more than 8 hours, so make the most of their super oven freshness and give a few away to neighbors. There’s always more to make tomorrow…

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An Easy “no knead” Focaccia.

I love this bread, a focaccia recipe I’ve been playing with, developing, and tweaking a while now. The 8-10 hour slow proofing develops the flavor of the bread nicely, and gives the crumb of the bread a wonderful texture; light with a good spring. The generous amounts of olive oil add another layer of flavor while increasing the keeping quality of the bread. Play with your own favorite flavors to top the bread with, or leave it plain – I personally have a soft spot for the rosemary, thyme, rock salt combo I’ve used below.

A couple of things about this dough:

  • Yes, it really is just a scant half teaspoon of active dried yeast. The long slow proofing allows the yeast to multiply naturally. If you start with a larger amount, your dough will crawl out of its bowl and self implode after 8-10 hours, the yeasts having eaten all the available sugars in the flour. It’s a messy business.
  • This dough is a very wet dough; you cannot handle it like regular bread dough, hence the “no knead”. Keep your bench surface and hands wet when working with it directly – yes, wet not floured – just trust me on this one ok?
  • I’ve used 75% water to flour, and  2% salt to flour (By weight)

Ingredients:

  • 700 grams of standard wheat flour
  • 525 grams warm water
  • 2.5 grams active dried yeast (1/2 tsp)
  • 14 grams salt (just shy 3 tsp)
  • 1 tsp of sugar or honey dissolved into the 525 grams of water above.
  • Decent glug of a good olive oil. (Not your best organic cold pressed virgin -save that for when you won’t be heating it to 200 degrees Celsius.)

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 Method:

  • Sprinkle yeast into the warm water and dissolved sugar/honey and set aside for 5 minutes, allowing it to bloom and froth a little.
  • Place flour and salt into a large bowl and whisk together with a fork to blend.
  • Make a well in the center of the flour, and pour in the water/sugar/yeast.
  • Add a decent glug of good olive oil.
  • Using a rubber spatula, fold ingredients together until a rough scraggy dough has formed. Do not be pedantic! This scraggy looking ball will transform itself in its own sweet time into a smooth fragrant mass of goodness.

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  • Cover bowl with a tea towel and set aside for 8-10 hours. The dough pictured in this recipe was put together at 6.00am (ish) on Christmas Eve before getting ready for work, and left to do its thing until I got back to it around 4.00pm.

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10 hours later…

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  • Wet your bench and hands, and *pour* the dough out on to the wet surface.Try not to let it double over on itself as it comes out, but rather, coax it out into one length. You’ll see the fine strands of gluten development in the dough as you do.

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  • Fun time! If you’re tactile like me you’ll enjoy this next bit. Make sure to keep your hands wet throughout.
  • Gently begin to lift the dough from underneath with your hands, and stretching it out, working your way around the mass of dough until you have a large rectangle(ish) shape.

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  • Fold the dough into thirds lengthwise onto itself.

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  • Fold the dough right end to center and left end to center.

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  • Fold dough one final time, in half this time.

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  • Allow dough to rest for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, generously oil a baking tray. (using olive oil)
  • Place dough on tray. Gently stretch the dough into a rough oval shape.

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  • Using your finger tips, *dimple* the bread dough all over. I make mine deep – all the way through the dough – the dimples will close up to mere suggestions of their former selves otherwise.
  • Pop fresh rosemary needles into the dimples, rub fresh thyme over the top, add a generous dash of olive oil over the surface, and sprinkle with rock salt.
  • Leave to rest again, while the oven heats to 200 degrees Celsius.

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  • Bake for 25 – 30 minutes.

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  • Allow to cool slightly on a baking rack before delivering to friends still warm.

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Break bread with friends…