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baking bad Sure, you made your own sourdough. But did you try making miso, bagels, or cherry blossom vinegar? 

With extra time on our hands in lockdown, many of us are experimenting in the kitchen. But some of us have gone (a lot) further than others. Meet the home cooks pushing the limits of culinary creativity

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Inventive: Cúan Greene gathering cherry blossom to use in his cooking. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Inventive: Cúan Greene gathering cherry blossom to use in his cooking. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Inventive: Cúan Greene gathering cherry blossom petals to use in his cooking. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Inventive: Cúan Greene gathering cherry blossom petals to use in his cooking. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Culinary challenges: Maeve Scully in her kitchen

Culinary challenges: Maeve Scully in her kitchen

Developing skills: Indi Pratt Kelly

Developing skills: Indi Pratt Kelly

Tempting: Andy's smoked salmon

Tempting: Andy's smoked salmon

Home-smoking: Andy Roberts

Home-smoking: Andy Roberts

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Inventive: Cúan Greene gathering cherry blossom to use in his cooking. Photo: Gerry Mooney

This time last year, there was a nationwide shortage of flour and you couldn’t get a banneton for love nor money as Irish home bakers united in their quest to crack the mysterious alchemy of sourdough.

While some gave up either exasperated by the unpredictability of their starter or alarmed at the amount of delicious bread they were eating others persevered until they had mastered the fickle process. And then it was a question of what would be next.

For Indi Pratt Kelly, a project manager in Dublin, early attempts at sourdough during the first lockdown proved a gateway to an obsession with baking. And we’re not talking about anything as basic as banana bread.

“I did not cook or bake at all before lockdown,” says Indi. “I think I had made brownies once. But with time on my hands I started with bread and moved on from there.”

Before long, Indi was spending her weekends making everything from lemon tarts to cult baker Claire Saffitz’s walnut buns to baguettes, the latter the only one of her weekly projects that didn’t work out as she had hoped.

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Developing skills: Indi Pratt Kelly

Developing skills: Indi Pratt Kelly

Developing skills: Indi Pratt Kelly

“The baguettes tasted good but they didn’t rise well and were absolutely tiny,” she says. “I might have to revisit those.”

Most recently she has challenged herself with cannelés, pronounced “can-eh-lay”. Originating in Bordeaux, the pastries are made with simple ingredients milk, flour, eggs, butter, sugar and vanilla. Baking them at high heat in fluted moulds results in a crunchy outer shell encasing a rich custard interior.

“I had them once and thought they were so delicious,” she says. “I started out with silicone moulds and they popped out really well but then I ordered metal tins so the outside would be more crisp and they are even better.”

It’s safe to assume that Cuan Greene’s sourdough game was already strong going into lockdown he worked at Noma in Copenhagen before a stint as head chef at Bastible in Dublin but he has spent the past year getting ever closer to the source of food, learning about everything from regenerative farming to charcuterie-making, all of which he documents in his Ómós newsletter (www.omos.co).

Along the way he’s produced a new non-alcoholic kombucha drink, The Vintner’s Companion, in collaboration with the tea experts at Clement & Pekoe, and foraged for Irish sumac (one of Yotam Ottolenghi’s favourite spices, and most often associated with Middle Eastern food) to make a cocktail salt to drink with mezcal margaritas.

The salt doubles up, says Greene, as “an amazing seasoning for just about anything”.

Right now, though, he’s turning his attention to cherry blossom vinegar, popular in Japan.

“It’s been great to see so many people foraging for wild garlic this year and soon they will be out collecting elderflower blossoms for cordial,” he says, “but in between is cherry blossom, which is out already in Dublin and other cities and will be coming in the next couple of weeks in rural locations where it is cooler.”

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Greene says making your own cherry blossom vinegar at home is a cinch.

“You just pick the blossoms, wash them and infuse them in apple cider vinegar ‘with the mother’, which you can get in any health food shop and many supermarkets. After two days you strain it into a sterilised container.

"You can start using it immediately but it ages so well. I made 10 litres of it last year and gave a lot away as gifts, but I still have a little left.”

Maeve Scully works in distribution and e-commerce with White Mausu (known for its addictive peanut rayu). Lockdown ignited her love of food and cooking to such an extent that she now works one day a week with Scéal bakery, to hone her bread skills.

“I get a lot of inspiration from Instagram,” she says. “I try things I see there. Kombucha was quite a saga because I grew the scoby from scratch. I bought a gigantic vessel from The Hopsack in Rathmines and it smashed while I was sterilising it, so I had to go and get another.

"The scoby took six weeks to form, and I’d recommend anyone just to buy a scoby because you just want to get going and it’s frustrating.”

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Culinary challenges: Maeve Scully in her kitchen

Culinary challenges: Maeve Scully in her kitchen

Culinary challenges: Maeve Scully in her kitchen

Maeve also had a go at bagels.

“I think like a lot of people I was put off seeing a recipe listing yeast and malt extract among the ingredients,” she says, “but as I got more confident I looked at the recipe again and decided to give it a go. They weren’t too difficult at all.”

Maeve’s biggest challenge to date has been making her own miso.

“I use a lot of miso in my cooking so I bought a kit from Yoshimi Hayakawa of Wa Sushi in Galway. There are quite a lot of steps in the process you have to soak the beans, mash them, roll them into balls and press it down and I feel that I didn’t do it properly as I was in a bit of a rush but so far it looks fine. I made it in November and I will try it in May.”

Maeve has been documenting her efforts on her Instagram account @homemaevede. Other projects on her culinary horizon include Fuchsia Dunlop’s Sichuan smoked bacon and shio ramen from Ivan Orkin’s book Love, Obsession and Other Recipes from Tokyo’s Most Unlikely Noodle Bar, with everything including the ramen noodles made from scratch.

“I think it will take days,” she says, with glee in her voice.

Andy Roberts’s interest in home-smoking was sparked watching River Cottage programmes on television and by a one-day course at Ballymaloe a decade ago.

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Home-smoking: Andy Roberts

Home-smoking: Andy Roberts

Home-smoking: Andy Roberts

But living in an apartment wasn’t conducive to taking things further, and it was the combination of working from home in lockdown (his day job is in IT sales) and moving to a house with outside space that finally gave him scope.

“With Christmas coming up I bought a ProQ home smoking cabinet for about €80 and decided to make my own smoked salmon using Clare Island organic salmon,” he says.

“It’s pretty straightforward. You cure the salmon in sugar and salt, let it dry, and then hang it in the cabinet. You set up the smoke generator, light the sawdust and then smoke it for a few days.

"The salmon was really delicious: it had a fresh smoked taste as opposed to the manufactured smoke flavour you get with some.”

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Tempting: Andy's smoked salmon

Tempting: Andy's smoked salmon

Tempting: Andy's smoked salmon

Last year Andy also made elderflower cordial, nasturtium capers to serve with fish and cheese, and a fermented hot sauce from a glut of windowsill chillies, using a recipe he found on YouTube.

“It seemed like a lot of chillies but I only got two bottles out of it,” he says. “It was pretty hot! And a lot of fun.”

In North America, backyard maple syrup has taken off in a big way during the pandemic, but here the ancient practice of birch-tapping, while not exactly common, is more prevalent.

“Brian Gannon, our forager, does birch-tapping for the restaurant every April,” says JP McMahon of the Michelin-starred Aniar in Galway. “It’s very labour-intensive for not much result as you need 100 litres of sap for a litre of syrup. It’s not difficult: you put a hole in the tree, insert a hosepipe, hang a bucket and come back the next day to collect it. And then you boil it down.

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Creative: Restaurateur JP McMahon Photo: xposure

Creative: Restaurateur JP McMahon Photo: xposure

Creative: Restaurateur JP McMahon Photo: xposure

“For us in the restaurant there’s a story value: I found a recipe for it in the National Library dating from 1780. In the restaurant we use the syrup to glaze tuna.”

While the gradual easing of restrictions may mean less time for kitchen challenges, enhanced culinary skills are here to stay. Not content with having mastered the tricky cannelés, Indi Pratt Kelly’s next project is croissants. Laminated pastries have broken the hearts of many a home baker, but she is determined.

“I think I will continue even after lockdown ends,” says Indi. “Baking feels more frivolous than cooking, which is functional and less enjoyable. I’ve found a hobby that is relaxing and appeals to the people-pleasing side of my personality.

“That sounds lame but everyone is happy to see you when you give them something you have baked yourself.”

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