Winter has had Norfolk wrapped in its cold embrace this week. The village is quiet. The farmers in their pick ups have pulled wool hats low over their ears, the local tree cutter wears a tattered khaki fleece and the school kids are in their bright blue sweaters, like confetti as they run along the frozen sidewalks. The few dog walkers who are out wear hoods and scarves, any piece of skin exposed bitten by the easterly wind off the sea and echoing through the empty countryside.
It’s the empty fields and the windswept beaches that bring the place to life in the summer. It brings them here – the tourists. In cars packed to the roof with beach chairs and spades, pulling caravans and pitching tents, lighting barbecues and laughing, playing music till late. There’s traffic on every country lane, when we go shopping, we leave the house at 8am and don’t hope to be back before noon. It’s lively. The whole place buzzes with…happy chaos. New dogs to encounter on walks, the locals keep theirs on leads and wearily cross the road. Six months of long days, hope of heatwaves, beach days, the long sunshine hours giving so much. But the nights draw in, and the tourists leave. Maybe that’s why people say that winter is cruel, its grasp seems to take the life out of a place.
The squawking flocks of tourists are slowly replaced by hundreds of migratory birds. You hear the birds before you see them, in a field in the distance, circling like a low hanging dark cloud. Sometimes they fly so low overhead you can hear each wing beat, feel the warmth of their feathery bodies, admire their unity. The dogs too will turn their heads skywards, ears pricked, dew on each shiny nose from the frosty grass. They’ll listen to the other retrievers barking somewhere in the valley, busy on a hunt. The peace will be broken by stereotypically staccato rifle fire, the geese will lift off and fly, pheasants will fall. When we walk through the village, the limp bodies of the birds hang from the beams and rafters of garages and wood sheds, their rich red and green plumes still clinging onto their sheen. Ah, winter. There you go again, robbing life.
We only meet two other walkers. The usual tweed-jacketed and cheerful, Aigle-booted man, his stern wife and his wolfhounds, emerging eerily out of the frozen fog. We wait on the verge for the big, harmless dogs to pass and watch the chubby blackbirds skit about under bare hedgerows, picking at the red holly. Listen to the church bells ringing in the next village, no tractors ploughing the fallow fields, no caravans trundling through, no tourists asking for directions. After the walk and the girls are dry, curled up in two balls, I stand against the radiator and feel the burning heat on my back. Ran my fingers under the tap to get the life back into them. They’re dry and chapped from holding the dogs’ lead in the biting wind, my face is pale, my eyes used to a dim grey light and the sun setting by 4pm.
And still I’m a winter person. That cold embrace. Lots of people love the winter, perhaps up till Christmas. It’s a complicated, delicate personality that runs further than December. Further than pale skin and hunting season. It’s haunting and humbling. There’s quiet reflection. There’s life. The bird feeder on the cherry tree is in constant chaos, the robin and the little yellow birds darting in and out, swallows swooping low as the dogs chase a sheltering pheasant out of sight. The fields are empty enough to watch hares racing and deer jumping, the sky gray enough to match the doves cooing from the roof. It’s cold enough to throw a colourful quilt over my all-white bed, a shock to these weary eyes. The winter skies are clear enough to be lit by a thousand stars, it’s dark long enough to see them. When the dogs have been out first thing in the morning, they bring into the warm house a gust of bitter air, their fur is cold and their eyes smile from running on the frosty ground. You go outside and the cold burns your lungs when you laugh, it singes the wet tears off your cheeks. It reminds you that this is living, that you have lungs to burn and warm cheeks to singe.
The geese take off and fill the empty skies, going further south, perfect unison. From the wooded thicket, rifle shots fill the deafening silence. In the distance, the earliest of the year’s lambs bleats. Winter, hovering somewhere between taking and giving life.
So it’s been super cold here lately, but we don’t really get that much deep freeze in these parts so I don’t really mind. Especially when I have a box of these rolls in the house. They’re surprisingly simple to make, especially considering the compote can be made up to 2 weeks in advance! Because I like whole grains etc I usually go for spelt flour, since for being so grainy it still bakes up quite light, soft and mild, but I wanted something a bit bolder and slightly bitter, so I added a small amount of buckwheat flour. Not overpowering, but the taste is just enough to add another layer of flavour to the heady rosemary, tart fruits and floral honey. And in terms of rolls, don’t fear the yeast, this recipe is pretty much fool proof (no pun intended). In the recipe notes I link to my cardamom wreath recipe which has lots of details on proofing etc. You can of course also replace the home made compote with Store bought but just try to choose one without too many junky ingredients (I used to love Bonne Maman or St. Dalfour), but you might just want to add a little more rosemary and ginger to the dough for the fragrant, complex flavour that they give. As a side note, I have been having trouble with my domain and hosting services for the blog so I’m going to be switching providers and moving away from WordPress. This means the site may be down for a couple of days at the end of this week, but I’ll be back and hopefully things will be running smoother!
Stay warm, bake bread and have a good week xx
BUCKWHEAT SWEET ROLLS W/ BLACKBERRY, ROSEMARY & APPLE – HONEY COMPOTE
These rustic honey sweetened rolls are made with a combination of mild, supple spelt flour and earthy, slightly bitter buckwheat flour. The fragrant and complex flavour of rosemary and blackberries with Apple in the simple, spiced compote are a perfect, jammy filling. Try one straight out of the oven if you can, or heat leftovers and enjoy throughout the week.
//makes 9-12 rolls & about 2 1/2 cups (400ml) compote
//For the compote
1 large apple, whatever you can find where you are (about 150g)
Juice and zest of 2 lemons
8 cups (volume-wise, 2L) blackberries, fresh or frozen
2-4 sprigs fresh rosemary, to taste
2/3 cup (200g) honey
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, finely grated
//for the buckwheat sweet rolls
To proof the yeast
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 tablespoon honey
1/4 cup (60ml) warm* water
2 1/4 cup (260g) spelt flour
3/4 cup (95g) buckwheat flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves, chopped finely
2/3 cup (160ml) lukewarm milk (dairy or almond milk would both be good)
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon (15ml) melted and lukewarm coconut oil (or butter, I should think)
// for the compote
Into a large, heavy bottomed pot, add the lemon juice and zest.
Core the apple and chop finely, leaving the peal which helps with setting. Add the Apple to the pot with the spices and the berries. Mix so the fruit is covered with the lemon and spices, then pour over the honey and stir to coat.
Place the pot on high heat and let the mix boil enthusiastically for about 10 minutes. The fruits should be looking pretty wet and bubbly, especially if you’re using frozen berries. Reduce the heat to a simmer and leave the compote to reduce, stirring occasionally so nothing sticks to the bottom.
There will be a layer of foam as it bubbles quickly, but no need to skim since the dark color it creates works here well.
After about 20 minutes of bubbly simmering, start keeping an eye for consistency. This is less precise than jam so don’t worry about freezing plates or thermometers etc. You want it to be fairly thick and not too liquid – there may be some juicy liquid pooling at the sides, but when you take some of the compote out on a spoon it should largely hold shape. It will also thicken up as it cools and goes into a cool container. Give it 5 minutes more, simmering, if it looks like it needs to be thicker, especially for frozen berries.
As soon as the compote is done, pour it into a heat safe container like a glass measuring jug. Allow to cool, then pour into a clean glass jar and refrigerate; it will set further. The lemon helps preserving so it will keep about 2 weeks in the fridge. Reserve a bit for the buns.
// for the rolls
Start by proofing the yeast. Take a small bowl and 1/4 cup/ 60ml body warm water- if you have a kitchen thermometer it should register 42-45’C (110-115’F), if you don’t, just add 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon boiling hot water to 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons cold water. Stir in the honey, a pinch of salt and gently stir in the yeast. Set aside for 10-15 minutes, it varies from brand to brand.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk together the buckwheat and spelt flours with the salt and spices. You can also very gently heat your coconut oil and milk together (too hot or too cold and it’ll
kill the poor yeast) then stir through the honey. Set aside. Grease a large bowl with oil and set aside.
After 10-15 minutes, if the yeast has bloomed and covered the surface of the water, you’re all set (see this page for troubleshooting). Add the yeast mix and the milk mix to the dry ingredients and gently stir together with a wooden spoon to combine. It will take some time but should come together, in a soft but firm dough. If it is too dry, add a tiny teaspoon of lukewarm milk at a time, likewise with the flour if it’s too wet.
Once it’s a handleable but sticky dough, lightly flour your work surface and dump out the bowl. Knead the dough for five minutes, till it’s supple.
Fold the dough into a rough ball and place into the oiled bowl. Cover loosely with a cloth and leave somewhere warm to proof (in an oven on the lowest setting, just outside a warm oven, in a cozy laundry room or something) for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. The dough should be double in bulk, the time will vary depending on the temperature of your house so keep an eye on it (see notes here for some help)
While you wait, you can grease a pan for baking – an 8x8inch square or 9×9 inch square will work for 9 larger rolls, a 9×13 inch pan for 12 minis. Your call. Line it with parchment paper for easily removal and find your compote (or make it now!!)
After the first rise, punch down the dough (literally punch it, to knock out the air a bit) and lightly flour a work surface once more. Knead the dough till just flexible, 2 minutes. Roll the dough into an oval/rectangle about 40cm long and 30cm wide. Keep an eye it’s not sticking.
Dollop the compote into the middle of the rectangle and spread evenly towards the corners, leaving about 2cm / short of an inch at the edges. Roll the dough from the long side, so you have a long log.
You can trim the edges of your dough where there isn’t enough jam (discard or
Keep for snacking). Use a pair of kitchen scissors to cut the dough into 9 even pieces (or 12 if using a bigger pan) and place them into prepared pan, with a little gap between. Cover with the towel and leave for a shorter second rise, 30 minutes or so till they’re puffy and likely touching each other.
Bake for about 30-35 minutes. They don’t turn particularly dark or golden so just give them a squeeze; the outside should be crisp but the inside still a bit soft.
They’ll keep for about 3 days in the fridge buuut just eat one or two out of the oven because the jam is warm and the bread is soft and yum. You might like to warm them before eating if you’re keeping them for a bit.
I made a bit of a hash of the sizes of my rolls, I was planning on doing 9 in an 8×8 square pan but accidently cut 12. My dogs were lying in front of the cupboard with my baking tins so I just did the 9 in the 8 inch pan then baked a couple more in a ramekin, so feel free to do whatever you like. Jumbo rolls maaay need a few minutes more in the oven
more winter recipes