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Jamaican Coco Bread

It’s been years since I ate a coco bread, that soft, sweet, usually warm, folded-over bread that is the perfect folder for the flaky, spicy and usually hot, patty.

Perhaps it might seem redundant to marry a patty, a meat pie, with a puffy, buttery coco bread (one inventive student at my high school called the combination a coco-pat) but it works, somehow.

It’s like biting through layers of dough and finding a sweet spot — the spicy meat filling — the coco bread absorbing the heat that builds in the patties as they bake and tempering its spiciness.

The coco bread and patty combo is a filling, inexpensive on-the-go meal that is popular with everyone, from students to working people.

And because of its price, ubiquitous in Jamaica. Every fast food outlet and food shop sells it. The same is true here in the New York area. In fact, it is even sold online at amazon.com. Despite its popularity, no one I asked could explain why it’s called a coco bread since it’s not made from coconut or cocoa.

But coco bread shouldn’t be confined only to a meat filling. It’s delicious with cheese and, I would add, stews, even soup. And with its buttery flavor, it can even be eaten as is.

Yesterday, the distinctive fresh-baked smell of the coco bread tickled my nose and brought back such delightful memories, I stopped and bought one on the way to work. With a cold blast of winter air here in New York yesterday, instead of a patty, it made me feel for soup. Biting into its warm deliciousness took me momentarily back to the sun.

Jamaican Coco Bread


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Ingredients
  1. 2 packages yeast
  2. 1 teaspoon sugar
  3. 1/4 cup warm water
  4. 3/4 cup warm milk
  5. 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  6. 1 egg, lightly beaten
  7. 3 cups flour
  8. 1/2 cup butter melted
Instructions
  1. Dissolve yeast and sugar in water then stir in milk, salt and egg.
  2. Add 1/2 of the flour and stir, continue to add flour until you have a dough that can be turned out of the bowl.
  3. Knead the dough for 10 minutes until smooth but firm.
  4. Oil a clean bowl and turn the dough in it until coated.
  5. Cover with a damp towel and let it rise for 1 hour
  6. Cut into 10 portions and roll each piece into a 6-inch diameter circle.
  7. Brush with melted butter then fold in half.
  8. Brush with more butter and fold in half again.
  9. Set breads on a oiled baking sheet and let them rise until they double in size.
  10. Preheat oven to 425 F set a pan of hot water on the lowest oven rack.
  11. Bake for about 12- 15 minutes or until golden brown (on upper rack, set to middle).
InsideJourneys https://www.insidejourneys.com/

 

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Searching for Authentic Poutine in Montreal

Last Thursday, as my friends and I chatted excitedly about our girls’ weekend in Montreal, our discussion turned to food, specifically what and where we were looking forward to dining. On Judy’s list was a recommendation from a work colleague that she should not miss poutine.

Poutine, pronounced put-in, a local favorite, was created in rural Quebec in the 1950s. Once only available in the province, it has made its way across Canada and to as far away as the UK.

I doubt I’d had poutine and when Judy explained that it was fries covered with cubed cheese curds and gravy, I knew for sure that I hadn’t – I would have remembered cheese curd. We had our first opportunity to try poutine at lunch on Friday.

As the waiter approached, Judy’s eyes locked on and followed the dish until he placed it on the table. Right away, her face changed from excited anticipation to disappointment. This poutine didn’t have the cheese curds her colleague had mentioned.

“This isn’t authentic,” she grumbled but she didn’t let that stop her. She dug in immediately and pronounced her first taste “good.”

“Have some,” she urged. I looked on skeptically. I would have preferred fries with gravy, which I used to love when I was at university, or even plain fries, but fries with cheese curd just didn’t appeal to me.

I searched the plate for a few fries that hadn’t been touched by either cheese or gravy. They were fine. But even though this poutine didn’t have cheese curds, I wondered whether I had let my dislike for them keep me from enjoying a good dish.

Poutine


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Ingredients
  1. 4 lb. russet potatoes, skin-on, washed and dried
  2. 4 tbsp. unsalted butter
  3. ¼ cup flour
  4. 1 shallot, minced
  5. 1 clove garlic, minced
  6. 4 cups beef stock
  7. 2 tbsp. ketchup
  8. 1 tbsp. cider vinegar
  9. 1 tbsp. whole green peppercorns
  10. ½ tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  11. Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  12. Canola oil, for frying
  13. 2 cups cheddar cheese curds
Instructions
  1. Cut potatoes into lengths of about ¼" x ¼" x 4". Place in a large bowl, cover with cold water, and refrigerate for about 2 hours.
  2. Meanwhile, heat butter in a 2-qt. saucepan over medium-high heat. Add flour, and cook, stirring, until smooth, about 2 minutes. Add shallot and garlic, and cook, until soft, about 2 minutes. Add stock, ketchup, vinegar, peppercorns, Worcestershire, and salt and pepper, and bring to a boil; cook, stirring, until thickened, about 6 minutes. Remove from heat, and keep gravy warm.
  3. Pour oil to a depth of 3" in a 6-qt. Dutch oven, and heat over medium heat until a deep-fry thermometer reads 325°. Drain potatoes, and dry thoroughly with paper towels. Working in small batches, add potatoes and fry, tossing occasionally, until tender and slightly crisp, about 4 minutes.
  4. Drain on paper towels, and let cool for 20 minutes. Increase temperature to medium-high, and heat oil until it reads 375°. Working in small batches, return potatoes to oil, and fry, tossing occasionally, until crisp and golden brown, about 2 minutes. Transfer fries to paper towels to drain briefly, and then divide among serving bowls. Pour gravy over each serving of fries, and top with cheese curds; serve immediately.
InsideJourneys https://www.insidejourneys.com/

We spent the next day looking for poutine and each time we saw it on a menu, Judy would ask if it had cheese curds. She refused to have it without the curd. It’s not authentic, she’d say. She agreed finally, that poutine with melted cheese could probably be just as good as that with cheese curd but we had no basis for comparison. She also decided that next time someone recommended a local favorite, that she’d ask where to find it.

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A Return Visit to Harlem’s The Cecil

One of the best things about living in New York area is the variety of restaurants the city has. At any given time, if you’re so inclined, you could eat your way around the world with just your Metrocard as your passport. (Of course, you’d also need to take your credit card along.)

With so many restaurants, it’s sometimes difficult (for me, at least) to settle on a favorite. But I have. The restaurant I can’t get enough of is The Cecil. I go there every chance I get, recommend it to others and take visiting friends and family.

Located in Harlem, The Cecil is the creation of businessman Richard Parsons, formerly chairman and CEO of Time Warner, and chef, restauranteur, and author, Alexander Smalls.

The menu boats an eclectic fusion of African, Asian and American ingredients. Dishes are spiced with or accompanied by ingredients as varied as kimchi, piri piri sauce, tamarind, ginger, and coconut.

A Return Visit to Harlem's The Cecil
With Lorraine at The Cecil

When my cousin, Lorraine, told me she was coming to New York on business, I knew right away where I wanted to take her. She’d taken me to her favorite Thai restaurant when I was in Toronto on business earlier this year. Now it was my turn to reciprocate.

For days before her arrival, we exchanged text after text about the restaurant, the menu and finally which day we’d go. She was as excited to go as I was to take her and even though she twisted her ankle the day we planned to go, not even that stopped her.

Here’s what we had:

A Return Visit to Harlem's The Cecil
Portuguese Sausage Dumplings from The Cecil
A Return Visit to Harlem's The Cecil
Crispy Soft Shell Crab
A Return Visit to Harlem's The Cecil
Jollof Rice with Shrimp
A Return Visit to Harlem's The Cecil
Citrus Jerk Golden Snapper
A Return Visit to Harlem's The Cecil
Feijoada
A Return Visit to Harlem's The Cecil
Avocado Crema

 

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Seafood Dishes From the Road

Like a lot of people, I look forward to the foods of the cities I travel to as much as the sights and activities. I am passionate about food and because of that, there are places I’d return to just so I can satisfy my craving for the food.

On the other hand, there are some places I doubt I’ll visit because I have no interest in the food.

During my recent trip to Costa Rica, I tasted foods similar to what I’d have in Jamaica – but with a twist. One morning, for example, I chose gallo pinto, the desayuno típico of Costa Rica. Gallo pinto is rice and beans, fried plantains and scrambled eggs. I swapped the scrambled eggs for sausages and left out the cheese. I was almost finished eating when I remembered that I hadn’t taken a photo.

In Jamaica, we usually leave rice and beans for dinner. About 10 years ago, it was reserved for Sundays and special occasions like Easter and Christmas.

Since we were staying near the coast, we had fish or seafood almost every day. One evening for dinner at a restaurant, I had grilled snapper accompanied by risotto.

Three Meals from the Road
Avocado & Shrimp Salad
Three Meals from the Road
Grilled Snapper with Risotto

Near the end of my week-long visit, I took a day trip to Granada, Nicaragua where lunch was sea bass with rice and salad. I can still remember the sharp taste of the lime on the fish.

Three Meals from the Road
Rice and Sea Bass

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Witch Finger Grapes, An Unusual Find

The best thing about travel is discovering something new, different or unusual. This past weekend in  a small fruit and vegetable shop in Toronto, I stumbled on something both new (to me) and different – witch finger grapes. 

I hadn’t planned on buying when my friend and I stopped into the shop but as soon as I walked in, I felt a powerful urge to buy grapes. I love grapes: they’re tasty and easy to eat.

The store had the usual green and red seedless grapes. Next to them were these purple chilli pepper-looking variety. I hesitated. One of the guys in the store likely saw the puzzled look on my face. Before I could ask, he volunteered, “Those are witch fingers.”

Witch fingers? Where are they from?

I expected him to say somewhere in Ontario but he didn’t. They’re from California, he added.

California? You mean I had to come to Canada to find these California grapes?

I wasn’t sure I wanted to buy them – not because of the name. I wondered if they’d be sweet.
Try them, he said.

I broke a few off, rubbed them on my pants and popped them into my mouth. The juice that exploded and found its way down the back of my throat was unexpectedly, deliciously sweet. There was no question which ones I’d take.

Witch Finger Grapes are a hybrid variety that, according to specialtyproduce.com, is a cross between an American cultivar and a Mediterranean variety. I’ve been unable to find out how it got its distinctive shape or why it’s called witch fingers.

These little bundle of sweetness didn’t last till Sunday. I should have bought more than a pound.

What unusual foods have you found during your travels?

 

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Coconut Drops

At the end of a birthday dinner a few weeks ago, the servers distributed small parcels containing coconut drops. Since we’d already had dessert, I decided to take mine home but having it in my hand, I couldn’t resist breaking off a piece and slipping it into my mouth. It was so delicious – just the right balance of spices and sugar – that pretty soon, the package was empty and I was feeling a bit guilty for finishing it.

Coconut drops or just plain drops are a traditional snack that’s very popular with young and old Jamaicans. The name comes from the way that drops are made – by dropping a hot mixture of diced coconut, ginger, spices and sugar onto a flat surface, traditionally banana leaf, to cool. Of course, if you don’t have a banana leaf, a greased cookie sheet will do just fine and because you spoon the mixture, you can control the size of each drops.

Since its such a simple recipe, coconut drops is one of the snacks almost everyone knows how to make, and did I say how tasty it is? In the days before packaged snacks, like banana or plantain chips, were what students reach for, it’d be one of the treats vendors always had for sale just outside the school gate.

A few years ago, one of my friends made coconut drops but she used only about half the sugar the recipe called for. Surprisingly, less sugar didn’t compromise the flavor.

Here’s a recipe for Coconut Drops from Enid Donaldson’s The Real Taste of Jamaica.

Coconut Drops
Yields 12


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Ingredients
  1. 2 cups diced coconut
  2. 1 tbsp powered ginger or 1 tsp grated root
  3. 1 tsp vanilla
  4. 1 lb brown sugar
  5. 1 pinch salt
Instructions
  1. Combine all ingredients adding about ½ to ¾ cup water to cook coconut. Boil about 20-30 minutes. Stir well and drop by spoonfuls onto a greased tin sheet.
Adapted from The Real Taste of Jamaica
Adapted from The Real Taste of Jamaica
InsideJourneys https://www.insidejourneys.com/

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Curried Goat

I’ve been making curried goat about three to four times a month since January, more than I usually do, after my nutritionist suggested that I add some animal protein to my diet. I’m not complaining – I love curried goat. I could eat it every week.

Until maybe 10 years ago, you’d find curried goat on the menu only on special occasions and large gatherings where lots of food is needed like weddings, parties and funeral. Typically, the host would buy a goat and have it butchered.

He would then hire a chef or someone from the community, usually male, who’s skilled at making curried goat. There’s nothing more disappointing and potentially embarrassing than unpalatable curried goat.

The chef would clean the goat and cook it out in the open. Every part of the animal would be used: the intestines (sometimes with the head and feet) to make a soup (called goat head or mannish water).

The flesh slow cooked in curry, Scotch bonnet peppers, thyme, scallions, garlic, ginger, and pimento berries. Some chefs add lime juice and white rum. Chunks of carrots and potatoes would also be added to make it a hearty stew, which typically, is served with white rice, sometimes roti.

Following the abolition of slavery, the government looked abroad for workers. They went as far as India where potential workers were lured by the promise of making a fortune working on sugar plantations. The Indians brought with them their curry and curried goat, roti, and callaloo.

These days, you can find curried goat on the menu of almost every restaurant that sells local foods. It’s still the go-to meal for any occasion where large groups gather.

Curried Goat


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Ingredients
  1. 4 tablespoons Jamaican curry powder
  2. 2 fresh Scotch bonnet peppers, seeded and minced
  3. 3 garlic cloves, minced
  4. 1 large onion, diced
  5. 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
  6. 1 bunch scallions, chopped
  7. Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  8. 3 pounds bone-in goat meat (from leg) cut into 1-inch cubes
  9. 2 tablespoons butter
  10. 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  11. 1 bay leaf
  12. 4 boiling potatoes, cut into 1-inch chunks
  13. 2 medium carrots, cut into chunks
  14. Juice of one lime (optional)
  15. White rum (optional)
  16. Water to cover the meat
Instructions
  1. In large bowl, mix curry, peppers, garlic, onion, scallions, thyme, salt and pepper. Add to meat and mix to coat. Refrigerate and marinate at least 1 hour and up to 12.
  2. Heat oil in a large saucepan. Add remaining curry, stirring constantly, until it colors the oil. (To make it peppery, fry the pepper in the oil before adding the meat.)
  3. Add meat in batches, brown on all sides. When all the meat is browned, add water, remaining marinade, bay leaf, and optional limejuice and rum. Bring to a simmer, cover and slow cook 1 hour.
  4. Add potatoes and cook until sauce thickens, meat is fork tender and potatoes are cooked, 30 to 40 minutes. Taste for seasoning.
  5. Serve with white rice.
InsideJourneys https://www.insidejourneys.com/

 

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Ackee Under Renewed Scrutiny by the US

I was doing research online a few days ago when I saw something that had me almost jump out of my seat: ackee is banned in the US.

How could that be, I wondered. I saw several cans of ackee in the supermarket last weekend.

Ackee, Jamaica’s national fruit, was banned in the US for 27 years until 2000 because of the toxin, Hypoglycin A, which can cause symptoms as mild as vomiting to severe as coma and death.

When the US lifted the ban, only two of the island’s processing plants satisfied the FDA’s food safety requirements and could begin exporting the fruit to the lucrative US market.

Exports to the UK and Canada, estimated then at $10 million annually, were expected to double within two or three years making ackee Jamaica’s largest agricultural export.

According to the FDA’s newly released “guidance,” its district offices may detain, without physical examination, all ackee products offered for import.

Ackee likely came to Jamaica with enslaved people from West Africa. It is here that Captain Bligh (yes, the infamous Bligh of the Bounty) was introduced to the fruit. He took the tree to Kew Gardens in 1793, where it was named Blighia sapida in his honor.

Ackee grows three fruits to a pod. The fruit is yellow (like the color of scrambled eggs), has a hard, glossy black seed and a bright pink membrane. Both the seed and membrane are removed prior to cooking. There are two types of ackee, one that is firm (called cheese) and holds its shape after cooking and another that is softer (called butter) and will break apart if overcooked.

Ackee Under Renewed Scrutiny by the US
Ackee Dip with Fried Plantain from Miss Lily’s Restaurant, NYC

Although ackee is found in other Caribbean islands, it is more popular in Jamaica than anywhere else. Ours is the only country that grows, eats and exports ackee. Usually, it is paired with saltfish, onions, peppers, thyme, and tomatoes but it can also be curried. I’ve even seen a recipe for ackee cheesecake in Rosemary Parkinson’s, Nyam Jamaica.

One local winemaker, who I met a couple years ago, is now producing ackee wine. It wasn’t bad either. And just last night, I had an appetizer of plantain chips and pureed ackee (dip). 

The trunk of the ackee tree is also useful. Hard and immune to termites, it is great for making furniture. The green fruits can produce soap, and the flowers can be used in cosmetics.

According to the FDA, the guidance describes the agency’s current thinking and should be used as recommendation only. But it has created a ‘green list’ of companies that can export fruits to the US.

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Use Annatto for Color and Flavor

Some months ago, I noticed a tree with weird-looking pods in the backyard. Curious, I asked my landlord. It’s annatto, she said. I’d heard about annatto – it’s the coloring agent that gives patties their distinctive yellowish-red color – but had never seen it.

Annatto is a native of Central and South America. I’m not sure how it came to Jamaica but as early as the 1700s, the British found it growing in abundance in one of the towns in the eastern parish of St. Mary and renamed the town Annotto Bay.

Annatto, called natto or natta locally, was grown commercially mainly in St. Mary and was popular with my grandmother’s and even my mother’s generation. They used it to add a rich and distinctive red color to foods from fish and fritters.

At some point, annatto lost favor to the more convenient artificial dyes that flooded the market. But with consumers becoming savvy and concerned about their foods, annatto seems to be getting a fresh look.

With no sodium, fat or starches you can probably see why annatto would be a better alternative to artificial dye. It is also good for stomachaches, heartburn, fever, diabetes, and burns. Some even use it as an insect repellant, and it’s been used in cosmetics.

Annatto trees produce a cluster of pointy pods that are covered with long spikes. Each pod contains about 12-15 small, red seeds, which are hard and difficult to break. According to my landlord, the best way to use annatto is to fry the seeds or soak them in water. Once you get the color you want, remove them and use the oil or water to color and flavor your dish.

Commercially prepared annatto powder is available in specialty stores or in supermarkets that sell ethnic foods. Look for annatto or achiote in either power, paste or oil.

Lobster San Souci
Serves 8


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Ingredients
  1. 1 large carrot, chopped
  2. 1 medium onion, chopped
  3. 1 bay leaf
  4. 10 whole black peppercorns
  5. 4 cups water
  6. 1 ½ cups clarified butter
  7. 1 scallion, minced
  8. 2 tsps. finely chopped lemongrass
  9. ½ tsp. annatto seeds
  10. ½ tsp. minced garlic
  11. 1 eggplant, thinly sliced into rounds
  12. Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  13. 8 Caribbean rock lobster tails
  14. 1 cup whole kernel corn
  15. 1 Scotch bonnet or jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced
  16. ¼ cup grated coconut
  17. 1 cup heavy cream
Instructions
  1. Place the carrot, onion, bay leaf, peppercorn and water in a large pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the carrots are tender, about 10 minutes. Strain the stock, discard the vegetables and bay leaf, and reserve the stock in the same pot.
  2. In a medium skillet, add the clarified butter along with the scallion, lemongrass, annatto, thyme and garlic. Heat until hot. Remove from the heat.
  3. Preheat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Coat the eggplant rounds with a half cup of the clarified butter mixture. Add the eggplant to the skillet in batches, and cook until tender. Remove from the skillet, season with salt and pepper to taste, and cover to keep warm.
  4. Bring the reserved stock to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the lobster tails, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer until the meat is tender, 12-13 minutes. Remove the lobster from the stock and set aside.
  5. Heat 1 tablespoon of the remaining butter, and quickly sauté the corn and the hot pepper for about 1 minute. Add the grated coconut and the cream, and cook until the liquid has become quite thick, 4-5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  6. Serve the lobster tails with the remaining cup of butter on the side, along with the eggplant chips and the creamed corn.
Adapted from Food of Jamaica: Authentic Recipes from the Jewel of the Caribbean
Adapted from Food of Jamaica: Authentic Recipes from the Jewel of the Caribbean
InsideJourneys https://www.insidejourneys.com/

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The Versatile and Tasty Plantain

The plantain is the tenth most important staple in the world and a very popular ingredient in the Jamaican diet. We fry it, boil it, bake it and make it into porridge, tarts and potato chips.

From the same family as the banana, the plantain looks very much like a large banana. Like the banana, both the green and yellow plantain are eaten. The yellow plantain is sweeter and softer than the green. Unlike the banana, though, we don’t usually eat them uncooked. A plantain has about 200 calories and is a very good source of vitamins and minerals.

I’d always preferred the ripe, slightly sweet plantains to the green ones until several years ago at a family gathering when one of my aunts made fried green plantains.

She cut three or four plantains diagonally about a quarter of an inch thick and fried them for a minute or two on each side. Once they turned reddish-brown, she lifted them from the pan, mashed them flat then returned them and fried them for another two minutes until they were crisp. When she finished, she served them with bully beef.

I couldn’t believe the taste – the mild saltiness of the bully beef was a delightful balance to the crispy, semi-sweet plantain – or that I’d previously ignored this delicious food. I couldn’t wait to return home to try it out and made plantains and bully beef every chance I got.

When I’m too tired or don’t feel like frying plantains – the yellow one is preferable – I bake them in the microwave, or oven (wrapped in foil) like I would a potato. I usually cut the tips off and score the skin lengthwise to allow it to expand as it cooks. For variety, you can also stuff the plantain with ground beef, for example, and bake it.

As you can see, plantains are quite versatile. Hope you pick some up the next time you’re in the supermarket.

Plantain Tart
Serves 6


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Ingredients
  1. 2 cups sifted flour
  2. 1/2 tsp salt
  3. 1 cup vegetable shortening
  4. 2-4 tbsp iced water
Filling
  1. 1 cup ripe plantain, peeled and cut up
  2. 1/4 cup sugar
  3. 1/4 cup water
  4. 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  5. 1 tbsp raisins (optional)
  6. 1 tbsp butter
  7. 1 tbsp vanilla
  8. Red food colouring (optional)
  9. To make filling
  10. Pre-heat oven to 450ºF
  11. In saucepan combine plantain, sugar, and water
  12. Cook over low heat until plantain is cooked
  13. Remove from heat and add nutmeg, vanilla, raisins and butter; you may add a little red food colouring if desired
  14. Allow filling to cool before filling tart
  15. To make pastry
  16. Combine flour and salt with shortening and cut with pastry blender until flaky.
  17. Add ice water to bond together; form in a ball, wrap and refrigerate.
  18. Roll out dough about 1/8 inch thick, on lightly floured board.
  19. Cut into 4 inch rounds or larger.
  20. Spoon cooled filling in the centre of each 4 inch round, fold over and seal with crimper or the prongs of fork.
  21. Place on a baking sheet.
  22. Brush tops with a little milk and prick top with the fork.
  23. Bake at 450ºF for 10 minutes and reduce heat to 350ºF and bake for a further 25 to 30 minutes. Pastry should be a delicate brown.
InsideJourneys https://www.insidejourneys.com/

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