It should be autumn, but the first week of March has been really hot in Melbourne. The tomato season is here in earnest. We had to fence off the vegetable plots to keep the possums away from the tomatoes (yes, they do like cherry tomatoes) and the spinach. To date, the zucchini have been safe. The basil, behind the fence, is thick and lush. The sorrel, planted elsewhere and unfenced, has just been eaten. The lot of it, only a few stalks left. And all the apples have gone. I don’t know whether to blame possums or bats.
If there’s basil, there must be pesto. I’ve decided, over years of making it, that it’s best made in a mortar and pestle, with little garlic. I’ve also measured a handful – 30g of leaves. That provides enough for two or three for a generous serving with potato gnocchi, and might serve four on spaghettini.
This is how I do it: crush a small clove of garlic with some salt in a mortar, then add half a handful of basil leaves. Pound until they start to break down, then add the rest of the leaves. Keep pounding until they form a paste. Add a tablespoon of pine nuts (barely toasted, if you like), and pound until they are part of the paste. Work in a few tablespoons of freshly grated parmesan, and then some extra virgin olive oil. Serve as soon as possible.
I like pesto with gnocchi, and at the moment serve a mixed tomato salad from the garden. No basil, of course, with the salad – sometimes chives, or parsley, sometimes baby cos lettuce leaves.
If the pesto is for six or more people, then I use a food processor. It’s just easier.
Our daily bread
I read somewhere that everyone should make bread at least once. Forget about that. If you want to make good bread, you have to do it often. The more you make bread, the better you become at it because the more you understand about how flour and yeast and water work together, and the way kneading changes the texture. The magic ingredient, I have decided, is time. The longer it takes, the better.
This is our everyday bread, the loaf I make most often. It developed from a recipe in a book called Secrets of a Jewish Baker, by George Greenstein, published by The Crossing Press, and it was his version of an Italian loaf. It makes one large loaf, about 1200 grams, and it takes the better part of an afternoon or evening. You don't have to be around all the time - a bit of quality interaction at crucial points.
Take two generous cups of bread flour and a scant cup of wholemeal flour. Mix together in a large bowl. Put a dessertspoon of dried yeast (I use Lowan) into two cups of lukewarm water, stir, wait until the yeast dissolves, then add to the flour. Stir well. It will be a thick paste. Cover it with plastic film and leave it alone for at least 40 minutes. It should have doubled in size (at least) and be spongy.
Remove the cover. Add a dessertspoon of salt, a tablespoon of sugar, a tablespoon of oil, and two cups of bread flour. Mix a bit with a wooden spoon, then use the dough hook attachment of a mixer, or a hand-held mixer. I have discovered recently that it works much better than hand-kneading, because it gives a bread with a lighter texture. Machine kneading needs less flour, I think that's the reason. Otherwise, turn the dough out onto a large board and knead it. It will become very sticky, and you will probably need more bread flour. Use a scraper to detach the sticky bits from the board. Work on it for about five minutes, turn your back for a few minutes, then resume. When you have a nice smooth dough, no lumps, and the texture of a child's skin, you've got it.
Wash out the bowl and dry it. Put a small spoonful of oil in it, then place the kneaded dough in the bowl, turning it once or twice so the surface is lightly filmed with oil. Cover it again, and leave it. It doesn't need to be anywhere warm, but it doesn't like draughts. Let it rise again. It should more than double in bulk, which can take an hour or two.
Turn it out on to a floured board, knead it a bit more, then form it into a rectangular shape. I bake it in a bread tin that is 27x12 cms, and about 11 cm tall. Gently sprinkle the top with water, cover, and wait until it rises to the top of the bread tin. Brush the surface with a little milk, sprinkle with sesame seeds. You can make some shallow diagonal slashes on the top of the loaf, if you like.
I'm experimenting with baking. Sometimes I just put the bread into a 180 C oven. Sometimes, if I don't think the bread has risen quite enough, I put it into a 50 C oven, then turn the heat up to 75 C after 15 minutes, and up to 180 C 15 minutes after that. Bake unti golden brown, about 45 minutes. If you're not sure, remove it from the oven, let it cool for a few minutes, and turn it out of the baking tin. If it sounds hollow when you tap it, it's right. If it sounds heavy and it's looking pale, just put it back in the oven - no need for the tin - for five minutes.