It’s the winter solstice and – briefly – the sun has come out. It’s a welcome respite from the seemingly never-ending grey and rain. Yesterday morning we took a stroll around Edgbaston Reservoir, which at this time of year is noisy with overwintering geese. Amongst them is their silent friend, the heron.
Spot the heron
The reservoir is a green lung only five minutes from our flat. The regular flow of joggers, dog-walkers, sailors and rowers have plenty of views to keep them occupied: there’s Tolkein’s two towers (or at least, the towers that inspired the book); the city-centre with its sky-scrapers and new library; the post-industrial land surrounding the Birmingham canal and, my favourite, a gold-topped Buddhist temple. Chuck in the Tower Ballroom and a car park full of teenagers smoking illicit substances, and you have a microcosm of Birmingham as a 21st century city.
View across the water to St Augustine’s church
Plenty of Canada geese at this time of year
Winter fungi on an old tree stump
The winter solstice happens to coincide with our first-date-aversary, which we mark by eating some kind of meat, covered or topped with some kind of pastry. (This is because on said first date we had a memorable steak and oyster pie).
This year I made sausage rolls, the kind I usually make at Christmas anyway so it was just a question of bringing the baking day forward a little. Cheap, claggy sausage rolls are an insult to the pig that died to create them. But a proper, home-made sausage roll, fresh from the oven: this is the stuff of the Gods.
I actually got the recipe for these from Delia Smith years and years ago, and have just adapated them a little to my taste. The most important thing is to make a flaky pastry with a lot of butter, and to flavour the sausage meat with fresh lemon and herbs.
For the pastry, you need to grate the butter and then get it super-super cold before mixing it into the flour; I usually stick it in the freezer for fifteen minutes or so. The idea is that it stays in larger lumps than normal, so that when the lumps melt the steam gives the pastry that lovely, flaky texture.
Grate your butter then freeze it for ten minutes to firm back up
If you’re feeling indulgent, you can go BIG on the butter: the best rolls I’ve made had a 75% butter to flour ratio. If that sends you over the edge, just use 50% butter to flour – this is the same ratio as in regular shortcrust pastry. So take your butter, add it to plain flour and gently combine, before making into a pastry with cold water. Voila.
Work the butter into the flour, keeping large lumps of fat
Add cold water to work into a dough, then pop it in the fridge for an hour or more
The pastry needs for chill for an hour or so, so make the filling next. I use good quality sausagemeat from a local farm shop, and turn up the flavour with fresh herbs and lemon zest. Thyme, sage and rosemary all work well.
The farm shop is your friend: sausagemeat from Packington Moor
Flavour the sausage with lemon and herbs
Next we need a small onion, finely diced and softened in a touch of olive oil.
Add a chopped, softened onion
Add the chopped herbs, lemon zest and onion to the sausagemeat, season with a touch of salt (not a lot) and black pepper, then chill the mixture in the fridge until you’re ready to make the rolls.
Then just mix it all together
Assembly is a question of rolling and splodging. Roll the pastry out to about the thickness of a pound coin, then slice into straight-ish rectangles. Place a line of sausage down the centre, leaving a good gap either side. I never measure anything so can’t offer any guidance here, but you want them to look like this:
Roll the pastry, cut into strips, then put a line of sausage meat down the middle
Then we just roll them up, using a touch of egg wash to seal the seams, and chill again for ten minutes. The chilling is important as if the butter gets too warm the pastry will be oily rather than flaky when baked.
Roll up, using a slick of egg wash to seal the seam, then chill before slicing and baking
Last step is to brush the rolls with egg-wash and slice to the desired size. Go small for cocktail hour, or large for lunch. Bake at 190c until golden and oozing with glorious butter.
Cocktail-size, fresh from the oven
If you really love him, go super-size
Matt’s favourite sausage rolls
Makes about 40 cocktail-sized rolls
For the pastry:
200g butter (or 300g if you’re feeling indulgent. I use salted butter)
400g plain flour
Cold water – about 100ml
For the filling:
1 pack sausagemeat, about 400g
Zest of 1 lemon
handful of herbs – try thyme, sage and/or rosemary
1 small onion, finely diced
Salt and pepper
1 egg, beaten, to glaze
First make your pastry. Use a box grater to grate your butter onto a plate, then freeze it for ten minutes or so until very firm. Put the flour in a bowl, add the butter and use a scraper or table knife to work the butter into the flour. We’re looking to distribute the fat into the flour without breaking it up too much. Add a splash of cold water and bring the pastry into a ball – use more water as required. When it’s a pliable pastry, wrap in film and put in the fridge for an hour minimum.
To make the filling, empty the sausagemeat into a bowl, finely chop the herbs and add them to the sausage along with the lemon zest. Fry the onion in a splash of olive oil until soft but not brown, about 15 minutes. Add to the meat, season to taste, then mix together. Refrigerate until needed (this is important, else the warm onion could melt your pastry.)
To make the rolls, lightly flour a work surface then roll the pastry into long rectangles, about three times as long as wide. Trim the edges to neaten them up (see picture above).
Place a line of sausage down the middle of each rectangle. Paint a little egg wash along one edge, then roll the pastry over and seal the seam. Repeat with each rectangle, place on a baking tray and refrigerate again for 10 minutes.
Preheat oven to 190c. Brush egg wash over your rolls then cut to the desired size and bake. Cocktail sausage rolls take about 25 minutes – larger ones will take a little longer. Cool slightly then EAT.