Meet Bertie

This week I gave birth to Bertie.

Now before you get all excited and start congratulating me, you should read on.

Verd has had a couple of dreams where I’m pregnant.  This is nothing either of us want; the dream is best interpreted as a nightmare.  I’m putting it down to his generalised anxiety, so rather than dreaming about his teeth falling out, like others do, he dreams I’m pregnant.

Anyway, it’s not something that will happen any more than a dog will be added to the household.  We occasionally dog-sit, it is enough to remind me of the trials and tribulations of ever needy babies, and my desire for two Irish wolfhounds (or more babies) diminishes.  Why two wolfhounds?  I have a secret yearning to be the triple-faced goddess Hecate, with her lamp and hounds, helping folks at the crossroads of their journeys.  But for now, I’ll settle for being grandma and feeling the pride of hearing a more recognisable ‘hiya’ from the other end of the phone.

I digress.  Let’s return to the tale of the birth of Bertie.

By birth I don’t mean the agony of labour and a squealing pink and wrinkly being.  We also give birth to great ideas, ingenuity, creativity and creation itself.  So this week, my self-imposed challenge was to create a living, breathing, in-need-of feeding, non-sentient(?) organism.

Meet Bertie:


Not quite what you were expecting?  Bertie is spelt sourdough bread starter.

But it was too much of a mouthful to say, “I need to go feed the spelt sourdough bread starter.”  In recognition that this is a thriving community of organisms you’ll probably not want to see any more than the gloopy frothing substance above, I was told I should give it a name.  It became Bertie.

Bertie underwent several embryonic stages. It started as a watery mix of spelt flour and pineapple juice.  It was then left to its own devices, and it picks up all the natural yeasts in the air and ferments.  You feed it a couple of days later to help the process.  It already smells quite yeasty.  It starts to bubble up a bit like this:


A day later, you replace the juice with water and bulk up the quantity.  It thickens, doubles in size and becomes, dare I say it, glutinous.  When you move it, it squelches and stretches with the released gases.


It doesn’t look that appetising does it?  But after 6 days, finally satisfied it was mature enough for use, Bertie contributed to a whole spelt sourdough bread.


Does this look a bit better?

Although not free-from gluten, spelt flour is low in gluten.  The fermentation process also aids the digestibility of gluten.

This is the first bread I’ve created that has the chewiness of bread, hasn’t crumbled when I’ve tried to butter it and tastes… wow!  I’m so proud of myself.  It has a sweet, nutty flavour, not unlike rye, but without its bitterness.    But the real verdict will come from Verd who ventured a slice.  He loved the taste and approved.  Now I’m keeping fingers crossed that he has no adverse symptoms.

I’m a sourdough convert and looking forward to me and Bertie trying out some more recipes.

If you’re interested, I recommend Breadtopia.  The instructions are really clear and he does it via video tutorial, so you can see how it should look as you go along.   It seemed like it would be difficult and time-consuming, but although you wait around for the organisms to do their thing, there’s surprisingly little effort.  I expended most in the eating!

I followed the instructions exactly, apart from  using only spelt flour from start to finish, and I used a normal loaf tin rather than a Romertopf and lowered the temperature of the oven to 200°C rather than 240.  I was sure my oven would burn it in no time at that temperature, and may have, but at this temperature the crust was more chewy than crusty.


Garden Pesto

I adore pesto!

Pasta and pesto,  pesto added to tomato and mediterranean dishes for flavour, baked chicken breasts stuffed with pesto… I love it.   So it has been my intention to try and create my own for sometime.  But oh dear, the basil finissimo stayed very finissimo, and most plants became the diet of slugs.  So how do you make pesto without basil?


Earlier in the year, I came across some foragers’ recipes and wild garlic pesto featured a lot.  However, there were some other suggestions making use of nettles and borage.  Having munched on nasturtium leaves, now free from the black aphid they suffered from earlier in the year (I cut the whole lot back, used it as mulch and it grew again, pest free), it occurred to me that their peppery flavour would make a good addition to pesto.  Rocket pesto has made the supermarket shelves and nasturtium is not unlike the flavour of rocket.

So, I got myself a container and set forth to the great wilderness that it is our garden with the intent of the second kitchen experiment of the week – Garden Pesto.

I don’t recommend most of my cooking experiments, for example, overcooking your oatcakes makes them very biscuity, but there is that smoked, burnt taste that smarts on the tongue.  Don’t do it, yesterday’s lunch plans had to be amended.  But garden pesto, I fully recommend.  In fact, it’s very more-ish and you’ll even want to eat it straight out of the jar, if it even makes it that far.

So here’s how the experiment went, let’s call it a recipe:


One large sandwich box of mixed edible leaves

Be as creative as you want, but I used nasturtiums, borage (don’t be put off by the furry prickles), young lemon balm leaves (I also recently cut this back as it was drowning out its companions), young dandelion, young perpetual spinach and basil (one little sprig made it).

Be careful when picking not to accidentally include non-edibles.  It’s quite easily done.

Admire the pea-like seeds of the nasturtiums.  You’ll harvest these later for pickling – a good caper substitute.

Admire the beautiful star-shaped flower of borage too.  If you like, you could pick a couple of these for decoration later, but today I didn’t.

Gather and prepare additional ingredients:

One large clove of garlic – roughly chopped

About 25 g of pine seeds

About 4 tablespoons of grated parmesan

Throw the garlic, pine seeds, parmesan and leaves together in a food processor and pulse until roughly chopped.


Salt and pepper

Juice of half a lemon

About 4 tablespoons of oil.  I used extra virgin olive oil, but many recipes suggest rapeseed oil

Process again, using a pulse setting (you don’t want a smoothie, a little bit of texture is good)

You should experiment with quantities, as tastes differ.  This variant was quite subtle in flavour, but distinctly lemony.

Scoop into a jar and place in the fridge until needed.  (I have no idea how long it would last – that’ll be another experiment for the future).

Go for a run

On returning, add the chilled pesto to your favourite dish.


This dish comprises gluten-free pasta and fresh garden pesto with breast of free-range chicken. The broccoli spears were steamed directly on top of the chicken and pesto mix; I’m all for one pan cooking.

There was enough for three, but it served two – we had second helpings.  It’s ok, we had burned calories to replace.

Let me know if you try this, or any variant of it.  Keen to know if you enjoy it as much as we did.

Free-from Bread

This weekend, I set myself a challenge.  The challenge was “Gluten, dairy, egg and yeast free bread”.

Impressed yet?

If you knew how allergic I was to the kitchen or anything domestic, you’d be impressed.  I’ll give you an example:

When I got a ‘B’ in Home Economics at school my dad scoffed and said – “What, a B!  I wouldn’t let you iron my shirt!”  I know it was his way of expressing being proud, but I never did iron any of shirts.

Anyway, back to the self-imposed challenge.  It began tentatively.  The first task entailed the investigation of gluten-free flours.  

There are some brand-name substitutes, and these do work a lot like flour, but anything with the label “Free-From” increases in expense.  I wanted to avoid these, with the plan of keeping buy-in-bulk items like different flours in sealed bins, like I do the rice.

As I live close to many Pakistani and Indian shops, I researched the flours they sell and the extent to which they would be gluten-free.  This was my short-list:

Gluten-Free Flours

Gram           Ground chickpeas

Raggi           Red millet

Ondhwa       Mix of lentils and rice (not suitable for daughter when kind of lentil is not specified)

Bajra            Black Millet

Jowar          Sorghum

Rajagro        Amarinth

Singoda       Chestnut

and of course:

Rice Flour



Egg Substitute

In egg-free recipes, there are two items in my cupboard that would serve as an egg-substitute:

Chia seeds

Ground Flax seeds.

With both, an “egg” = 1:3 ratio of seed to warm water.

Dairy Substitute

Soya milk

Rice milk

Almond Milk

Coconut milk

and to substitute butter

Vegetable Oil  (I keep coconut, olive and rape seed oils in stock)

There are some individuals whose intolerances might include soy and almonds.  The other options might be more suitable.

Yeast Substitute

Baking Powder

Baking Soda + Apple Cider Vinegar mixed with milk of choice

So armed with possible ingredients, I searched the net and found this recipe:

Gluten, dairy, egg and yeast free bread from the Gluten Free Spouse

I didn’t have all the ingredients required, but felt that as I was substituting most of what comprises bread, hey, why not more?

So here was my experiment.  I call it that, not a recipe, as I made it up as I went along.  Our cupboards are very high, so it meant a lot of calorie burning climbing up and down a chair as I didn’t really have a plan.  You have to remember, I had a kitchen phobia.  If you know the scientific term for irrational fear of domestic chores, let me know.  I’m a psychologist after all.  I should know such things.

So, here’s how it went.

Preheat the oven to 190°C.

1 Cup (250mi) soya milk

1 Tablespoon cider vinegar

Make the milk sour by adding cider vinegar and leave to one side in warm room.

2 Tablespoons chia seeds

6 tablespoons of warm water

Meanwhile, make two “eggs” by mixing the chia seeds with the warm water.  Leave to one side – this takes about 5-10 mins. I think, I didn’t really watch the clock.

3 cups of mixed flours 

My personal mix was 3/4 cup of a brand name gluten free flour (it’s in the cupboard – waste not, want not) 1/4 cup oatmeal, 1/2 cup rice flour, 1/2 cup cornmeal and 1 cup gram flour.  There was no real logic to this, except I happened to have 1/4 cup of pre-ground oat-flakes to use up.  The remaining additions were a matter of keeping the maths simple.  In future batches, I’ll experiment with different relative quantities.

Sift these into a large bowl

1 tablespoon of baking powder

1 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda

1 teaspoon of salt (I use a mill, so this was guess work)

Add these to the sifted flours and thoroughly mixed in.  (Actually, I didn’t sift, nor thoroughly mix.  Experience tells me its necessary, you should do it, even if I get lazy.)

1/4 cup oil

1/4 cup warm water

To the milk, add the “eggs”, oil and water, and mix.  I don’t think this was the order recommended in the original recipe, but I’m all for economical pot usage.  Saves washing up time later.

Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients and pour in the liquids.

Stir until all the flour had become folded into the liquid.  I liked the visual impact of this stage of the process.  As you stir, the flour steadily falls into the liquid.  The dough bulks up with the addition of flour, and the rest continues to steadily fall in.  You see a creamy dough developing with very little arm ache.  But then you need to beat.  Probably for at least as twice as long as I did.

As this recipe is based on Irish soda bread, normally it would be moulded by hand into a round and then a cross cut into it, placed on a greased baking tray and then put into the oven.

BUT, my dough was not firm enough.  I had two choices: add more flour, or pour it into a bread tin.  Being Libran, making a choice about which flour to add to firm it up was too difficult.  Not only that, I did make an effort to keep the place tidy as i went along and I had climbed those chairs several times to put the flour back.  I didn’t want to go again.  I had run 6 k already that day. So, I greased a bread tin and poured the dough into it.

I have to tell you, that at this stage, what was glooping into that tin didn’t look like anything I’d want to eat.  But I was on mission and I have difficulty in stopping when I’m so enthused.

At this point, Verd got excited.  It would be the first properly gluten, dairy, egg and yeast free bread he’d ever eaten.  I failed to mention he might wish that he hadn’t.

Even though poured into a tin, it still needs a cut placed lengthwise across it, or even a cross, otherwise, the gases will find their own way during the rising process.  If you look at the picture below, you’ll see that the ‘top’ has broken from the bread, this was due to forgetting the cross.  Again, I’m helping you to learn from my messes.

Pop it in the oven for about 1 hour.  Leave to rest for about 10 mins, then turn out, cool on wire rack, and photograph BEFORE it gets eaten.  This is the the heel that remained after others tucked in.  I believe it was a success!

What was left of the gluten, dairy, egg and yeast free bread before the photoshoot.

It had good texture, colour and TASTE.  However, like many gluten-free breads, even the manufactured ones, it was crumbly, hence difficult to toast or make sandwiches with.  Good for an open sandwich though.

Gluten gives bread that doughy, chewiness, so is difficult to substitute.  But, due to the puzzle and my desire to make a less crumbly bread, I investigated further.

Xantham and Guar Gums

These are included in several gluten-free recipes.  But they are food additives, not foods.  Xantham may be made from wheat, so is often not as gluten-free as claimed.


Not kosher, nor halal and not suitable for community members who are vegan.

I’m not doing very well so far in my search.  But I persist!

Agar Agar

Made from seaweed, this is actually a gelatin substitute favoured by people who are vegan.  It reputedly makes gluten-free bread more chewy, but it has a high price tag if planning to feed a community.  I’m not a rich woman.

Psyllium husks

Known most for their fibre content, a study accidentally found that psyllium improves the structure of gluten-free breads.  One for the list!

Flax meal and chia seeds.

These are suggested Xantham gum substitutes, although they seem to appear as egg-substitutes in recipes.

As I always keep a store of flax seed for their omega 3 content, I’ll try a mix of both chia and flax next bread.

I’ll  be reporting back on how that goes!

Let me know if you try this out, vary it, or otherwise.  It all contributes to the knowledge cooperative!