Well we’re a week into the New Year and, armed with a whole two-sides-of-A4 Word document entitled New Year’s Determinations 2014 (font size 12, single spaced), it’s time to get started.
I have to begin by apologising for my recent absence from the blogosphere. There are good reasons, some of which I will explain later, but I do recognise that it isn’t good form to still have pictures from Halloween on your front page in January. I am sorry.
Some years ago, when I first dabbled in blogging, I made a New Year’s resolution not to say negative things online about celebrity chefs. This remains part of a wider desire to keep my writing generally positive in tone – it is easy to slip into criticism and complaint, especially when trying to navigate a plant-based dinghy across a meat and dairy-based ocean. The important thing is to show what is great about eating a plant-based diet and why and how it can be both healthy and delicious, rather than to try and highlight what other people are doing wrong.
With that in mind, this Christmas I bought my partner James Morton’s book, Brilliant Bread – and then read it myself (okay okay, guilty as charged, but lots of good baking tips and tricks in there). We are both fans of the Great British Bake-Off, an irony not lost on me, or the lovely folk that hang out on Twitter’s Vegan Hour (Tuesdays, 7-8pm, #veganhour) – apparently I am not alone, as evidenced by PETA’s recent online Great Vegan Bake-Off. Of course the Bake-Off is not really about the ingredients (very few of which I would advise that you actually put into your body) or even the participants’ creations (visually stunning, but not food according to my definition: nourishing to the human body, providing of energy and other necessary substrates, not disease-causing) so much as it is about the entertaining characters, the beautiful setting and a good old dose of British cultural flag-waving (tea on the lawn with scones and jam, anyone?).
The exception of course is bread, which need not contain any harmful ingredients, and can certainly form a staple part of a healthy plant-based diet.
I say can, because I had been plant-based for some time before I discovered that some people think it quite normal to put lard in bread. Particularly artisan breads that are sold without an ingredients list, or served in bread-baskets in restaurants. I had thought this was a safe option, but I was wrong. Eggs, butter, milk, and yoghurt are all to be found in bread. In fact, watching the Bake-Off has been an experience full of eye-opening revelations for me. I found the episode on croissants, which I used to eat on a very regular basis, quite shocking. I simply had no idea just how much butter they contained (81% fat, 51% saturated).
Before I started trying to cook/bake some of these things for myself, when I just bought things in packets from supermarkets, baked goods were whole objects to me, much like apples or bananas. Like most people I suspect, I didn’t read the ingredients or think about what these things contained or how they were made. I would think, shall I have a biscuit or an apple, and the biscuit usually won. If I told my kids that biscuits grew on trees of course they would believe me. Why shouldn’t they? So we have to educate our children about these things.
When I became a mother I thought I should learn some maternal culinary skills such as how to bake biscuits. Of course I tried to make healthy biscuits, and I remember trying to puzzle out in my head the difference between biscuits and cakes, cakes and bread. What makes a biscuit a biscuit? After a few failed attempts I finally conceded that what makes a biscuit a biscuit (as with scones, sadly) is HARD FAT. You cannot make a decent fat-free biscuit. You can make very decent vegan biscuits using dairy-free margarine, coconut oil or (dare-I-say-it) palm oil, and you can make crumbly biscuity things with vegetable oil of some sort, but if you want to avoid clogging up your own or your loved-ones’ arteries, I’m afraid biscuits have to be off the menu.
Am I a bad mother if I don’t bake biscuits with my daughters? Baking in our culture is so entwined with an idealised image of motherly love. How has this happened? Why is our notion of homeliness and nurture so bound to foods that do us harm (white flour, white sugar, salt, saturated fat and cholesterol)? I don’t have the answer to this, and even less do I have an answer to the question of how we go about changing it in our society. But change it we must, if we are going to even begin to stem the tide of chronic diseases that threatens to overwhelm our health service (see Denis Campbell in the Guardian, 3rd January 2014 - no mention of prevention here though).
This should all be of interest to James Morton, who is a medical student/doctor to be, and is also on the cusp of becoming a celebrity chef. Whichever way he chooses to go, he will likely find himself in a position of responsibility for the health of British people, and it would do him no harm to gain a good understanding of the complex relationships between nutrition and disease. He already has influence, and there are increasing numbers of nutritionally aware doctors who are trying to use theirs for the general good (see Links). I hope he joins the rallying of the troops one day soon (and James, if you happen to be reading, do get in touch – I’d love to hear from you).
On a more mundane note, my partner tried to make his 50:50 wholemeal loaf, and produced two bricks you could have broken windows with. I’m making no judgements about who was at fault here – only offering my own recipe for 100% wholemeal, salt-free poppy seed and rye bread for busy people with families to feed. My family eats about one loaf of bread per day, so I can’t afford complicated time-consuming recipes, and I don’t mind if they have to learn to chew. For myself, I think this bread is delicious. The wholemeal and rye flours give it a flavour that you simply never get with white bread, and I don’t add salt to any of my cooking, so I don’t add it to bread either and I don’t miss it. Of course, this bread contains no preservatives (that’s part of the point), so it’s best eaten straight from the oven. It will be good for toast the following day.
Salt-free Rye and Poppy-seed Bread
Makes: 1 loaf
Contains: wheat, gluten, yeast
1 sachet (7g) fast-acting dried yeast
1 teaspoon dark brown (unrefined) muscovado sugar
400g strong wholemeal flour
100g rye flour
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
400ml luke-warm water (this should feel neither too hot nor too cold when you dip your finger in it – it should be about body temperature)
1 teaspoon egg replacer (e.g. Orgran) mixed to a paste with water
In a mixing bowl combine the yeast and sugar with a small amount of water. Immediately add the flour and poppy seeds and mix to distribute the yeast evenly throughout. Add the water gradually, folding it in with a spatula as you go. Use your clean hands to form a dough and turn out onto a floured board. Knead for a few minutes, adding more flour if too wet to knead (although avoid going too far and making it too dry), until a smooth, stretchy dough is formed. Shape into a loaf and using a sharp chef’s knife make a few shallow cuts in the top (pattern up to you). Place on a greased baking tray in a warm place for about 1 hour to rise. Once sufficiently risen, brush the surface with egg replacer and sprinkle with poppy seeds, then transfer directly to a pre-heated oven and bake at 200°C for 30 minutes.