Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Bagna cauda - a party pleaser for IHCC

 So, this week's theme for I Heart Cooking Clubs is Party Pleasers. As already mentioned, I'm not feeling enormously Christmassy yet, although I have made some progress on the Christmas dinner planning.

I gave some thought to what I like at parties, and narrowed it down to food and booze. Preferably food that can be eaten with one hand so that I don't lose track of my drink.

Bagna cauda is a classic, punchy Italian dip of garlic and anchovies in oil, served warm, with a selection of raw and lightly cooked vegetables. And as it happens, Diana Henry has recipes for it in a couple of her books. I used the one in Cook Simple, which is basic and classic, although I have subsequently read the recipe in A Change of Appetite, which uses milk and is thickened with breadcrumbs, and I actually think that one sounds even better.

We actually had it as a light dinner on a day when we needed a big hit of vegetables, and used raw baby fennel, red peppers, celery and radishes, and steamed carrots and cauliflower alongside some boiled eggs. Perfect.
The lens got a bit steamed up - I didn't deliberately go for soft-focus.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Christmas. I'm not feeling it.

Nothing says Christmas like cherry blossoms
 Here we are, ten days from Christmas and I am really lacking festive cheer. I think it shows in my decision to go for spring-themed decorations...

I thought about doing a Christmas gift guide, but instead I have collected (one might even say curated...) some guides that other people have done:

Gemma's collection of things for keeping warm is very appealing!

Kavey's guide has several things I would be very happy to receive (I don't use salt or pepper shakers, but those snowglobes are very cute).

Jassy has some really excellent ideas for interesting foody gifts.

Miss South has some very thoughtful and considered recommendations for books and gadgets, and I totally endorse her recommendation for Noodle! and A Change of Appetite. Of course, Miss South herself has a cook book out, which would be a great gift for anyone with a slow-cooker.

My general lack of enthusiasm for Christmas this year is also showing in the only Christmas baking I have been able to force myself into thus far. These are a not-very-sweet shortbread biscuit with a good flavour of Christmassy spices. Because of the fairly austere proportions of sugar and butter, and the lack of raising agent, they are ideal for stamping, if you happen to have acquired a customisable cookie stamp. They are beautifully short and crunchy, and just what you need with a cup of tea or hot chocolate. Or a hot toddy, if your Christmas spirit requires spirits.

Spiced Shortbread Cookies (makes 12)

130g plain flour
Pinch of salt
25g rice flour
25g caster sugar
25g dark muscovado sugar
1tsp ground ginger
1tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp ground cardamom (the seeds from about 10 pods, bashed in the mortar & pestle is what I used)
100g butter, chilled.

Sift together the dry ingredients. Rub in the butter and bring together into a ball. Wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for about half an hour.

Roll the dough out to about 3/4cm thick. Cut into shapes or stamp with the seasonal message of your choice (if you are using a cookie stamp, dunk it in a plate of icing sugar and use a toothpick to make sure the details of the letters are still clear before each stamping).

Lift the cookies onto a paper-lined baking sheet and chill for another half hour.

Preheat the oven to 170C. Bake the cookies for about 20 minutes until golden brown and crisp. Allow to cool on the tray for a minute before lifting onto a wire rack to cool completely. If you want them a little sweeter, a thin glacé icing would work well, adding a bit more sweetness but not obliterating the letters.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Quo Vadis


We've been eating out a lot recently: it's the first time in years that we've had the disposable income to do it, and we've been embracing the opportunity. During the time we've been restricted on eating out, we've compiled a pretty extensive list of places we want to try, and the food scene in London being what it is, we could eat somewhere new twice a week for years at a time.

But the meal we had in summer at Quo Vadis was so good that when we needed to find somewhere to go with friends as an end of year treat, it was the clear choice. We'd tried to send the same friends there earlier in the year, but that had fallen through, so this way we figured they had no option but to go along with our plans. We were pretty confident that once they got through the door they'd fall in love with it too.

We'd started with a drink at the House of St Barnabas, and had a little preliminary look at the menu then. It was so perfect for the tastes of the four of us that it could have been bespoke. I laid bets with myself on what each person would order and got it entirely correct. Without having to bully anybody about their choices.

I started with the QV Eduardini - vodka, Campari, lemon and soda. Really delicious - and even the non-Campari drinking person at the table agreed that it was nice. It's given me ideas, so I will be buying a bottle of Campari to play with.

One of the reasons for going to dinner was an early birthday celebration for Paul, so he decided that he deserved a grand gesture with the wine. A magnum (1.5l) of something. White seemed the most likely to go well with everything we ordered, so he chose a Soave Classico ‘Calvarino’. Possibly not the most perfect match for his main course, but brilliant with everything else.
   Crab soup, rouille and croutons was a gorgeous, intensely flavoured but almost consomme-textured broth. The perfect crabby essence with beautifully crunchy croutons (are they still croutons if they are that big? When does a crouton become a croute?) and perfect rouille.

Penny's main course, the warm salad of duck, apple and quince, was the best duck she'd ever had. It definitely demonstrated that taking the salad option doesn't necessarily mean meagre or ungenerous.

The only little bit of menu bullying we did was insisting that Norm have the smoked eel sandwich. After he tried it he accepted that we were right to do so. He thought he didn't like eel but I don't actually think he'd ever had it before. He's going to talk to his fish man about getting some smoked eel to have at home.

Norm's nearly always going to have the pork option for his main course, so the rare breed pork belly (can't remember if it was Middlewhite or Gloucester Old Spot) with burnt onions and garlic was a pretty easy guess. There was enough garlic that we all got to snaffle a clove, but the whole dish was deeply flavoured without being too garlicky.

Paul's interest in game meats was well catered for - rabbit terrine en croute followed by slow-cooked hare.

I had porchetta tonnata, a piggy take on the classic vitello tonnato. Meat with tuna mayonnaise sounds so unlikely but it is a delicious combination.

I knew that was going to be quite a rich starter, so I chose a lighter main course: hake with mussels, chickpeas and spinach. It was light, but again really intensely flavoured, with the tiniest chickpeas I have ever seen. Seriously. They were tiny. There was a little hit of spicy heat in the spinach broth which I wasn't expecting but worked beautifully.

We shared some perfect fat chips and excellent purple sprouting broccoli,  and finished our wine. Then had a pause to consider the dessert menu.

I really love when restaurants offer just a tiny bite of something sweet on the dessert menu. I don't usually want a whole dessert, and Paul often isn't interested in even a bite of a shared one, so a little sweet morsel is just what is called for. I had a single chocolate and almond prune (delicious, but not for the marzipan haters) while the others shared a very good cheese plate. A half bottle of sauternes rounded things out perfectly.


Thursday, 11 December 2014

Cherry, chocolate, cinnamon & brown sugar cake for IHCC



This month's I Heart Cooking Clubs Mystery Box challenge is to utilise any three of chocolate, cherries, cinnamon, rolled oats, couscous, pomegranate, curry, coconut milk, lentils and hot peppers/chiles in a dish from one of the IHCC cooks.

As my preserves cupboard is still groaning from August's harvest, I knew I had to incorporate cherries in some form. So that was one... and once you are settled on cherries chocolate is obvious.

I found this recipe from Diana Henry for a brown sugar, chocolate and sour cherry cake, and decided to add some cinnamon to it to meet the brief and deepen the flavours.

When I actually came to making it though, I was a bit freaked out. 400g sugar to 125g flour and 150g butter? That was so far off any cake ratio I have ever seen! It's usually much closer to equal amounts flour, sugar and fat. As I was intending to serve the cake to company, I decided that I didn't have the courage to follow the recipe and went with 150g dark muscovado sugar instead, knowing that it would be edible if not correct.

Instead of dried sour cherries and kirsch I used a combination of my homemade glace cherries and cherries preserved in rum, using the preserving liquid as my booze component. And I added 1/2tsp of cinnamon when I was creaming the butter and sugar. And I baked it in a 1lb loaf tin.

It was very nice, but not earth-shattering. Given how much I deviated from the recipe I can't possibly blame it for my disappointment (although I still can't see how the stated proportions could be correct). We only ate half, so the second half is in the freezer waiting to be turned into trifle or rum balls or something at some point when a sweet treat is called for.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Christmas leftovers - white stilton and apricot cheesecake

 

This post has been sitting in my drafts folder for almost a year. By the time I started it, back in January, I figured that everyone was heartily sick of leftovers and on diets, but I knew I still wanted to post it, because it's actually really good. And it answers the age-old middle class question of what the heck you do with that dreadful fruity Stilton.

I am genuinely not much of a cheese snob. I love that cream cheese with the apricots and ginger, and the nuts around the outside. I love that highly processed smoke-flavoured "Bavarian" cheese. I love sage Derby. I just happen to think that white Stilton or Wensleydale with fruit in it is a waste of good cheese. Yet somehow I always end up with some.

This cheesecake uses the fruity cheese, and also the stale pandoro or panettone that someone gave you. It's delicious - but I wouldn't buy the cheese specially.

White Stilton and apricot cheesecake (makes 1 dinky little 6" cheesecake which serves 4-6)

120g stale pandoro
2tbs Cointreau
100g caster sugar
2 eggs, separated
240g white stilton with apricots (although to be perfectly honest, mine was 150g white stilton with apricots and 90g wensleydale with cranberries)
200g full-fat cream cheese
80g double cream with Cointreau

Preheat the oven to 160C.

Cut the pandoro into thin slices and press into the base and sides of a 6" springform tin. Even stale it should stick to itself nicely and leave no gaps. Sprinkle with the Cointreau.

Beat together the sugar and egg yolks until pale and frothy, then crumble in the cheese, cream cheese and boozy cream. Beat until smooth-ish.

Whisk the egg whites to firm peaks, and fold into the cheese mixture in two batches.

Pour the mixture into the pandoro case. Bake for 45 minutes or until nicely set in the middle and golden brown at the edges. Allow to cool completely before loosening the springform.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

A pair of pubs

We're pretty familiar with, and not very impressed by, most of the pubs in our immediate area. Some that were really good have gone downhill and some were so disappointing that they don't get a second chance. So we're exploring a bit further afield, partly as a lure to get Paul's mum (who loves a pub) over for a visit.

Paul spent a while working in Marlow last year and assured me that it was a good place to find a pub. Marlow is, of course, the home of the Michelin-starred Hand and Flowers, but I figured they'd probably laugh at me if I phoned on a Saturday morning and asked for a table in two hours time. It is still on the wishlist. But Paul spotted The Queens Head so we headed for that.

We were very happy to see an open fire and even happier to get a table during a very busy service. The menu was very promising: things like oxtail ravioli, rabbit and partridge suggested that it wasn't your average pub. The prices pretty much confirmed that they weren't aiming for the jacket-potato-with-fillings, 2-4-1 meals pub clientèle.

Paul had a whole roast local partridge with bread sauce, root crumble and cranberry jus. The root crumble was served in one of those adorable little cast iron Staub cocottes and the cranberry jus was in a little jug, allowing the meat with fruit avoider to avoid it completely. He loved it and was fantasising about getting a couple of the cocottes until I brutally burst his bubble with the information that they cost upwards of £50 each for regular retail punters.

I had a ploughmans. The two little triangles of cheese and half boiled egg were a bit unprepossessing, but fortunately a second dish containing a generous pile of thickly sliced ham arrived. The ham was excellent but everything else was a bit underpowered - bland chutney, tomatoes that tasted of November and mild cheddar. I was pleased that the salad leaves were dressed though!

We also shared some sweet potato wedges with blue cheese dip. The wedges were cut very unevenly and a couple of the largest ones weren't cooked through, but the flavours were excellent. Infinitely nicer than the usual bought-in wedges with the weird spiced coating.

I definitely want to go back: at first glance I think their strength lies in the more seasonal, unusual dishes rather than the pub staples and there is a lot more I would like to try.

We were pretty pleased about the success with the Queens Head but didn't really trust our luck to finding another pub of that quality off our own bats. So we bought a copy of the Michelin pub guide -  and actually delayed setting off on a pub-seeking venture until it had arrived.
I know nothing about ecclesiastical architecture - why would they need three crosses on the roof? Holy Trinity Seer Green
I haven't quite got to grips with how the pub guide is laid out: it's not immediately clear what areas each bit covers. But as far as I could make out, the closest recommended pub to us is the Jolly Cricketers, at Seer Green.

I was pretty optimistic. Not only because of the Michelin recommendation or the tasty-sounding menu, but because while we waited to be seated I noticed that the cups on top of the espresso machine were mismatched floral china, which I thought was absolutely charming.

We pretty quickly decided to go for two courses and to hell with dinner.

Paul had  smoked mackerel pate, followed by venison with kale and barley. The little taste I got of the venison was lovely! Even though all the pieces look pretty much the same, apparently there were two distinct textures from different cooking methods. I thought the barley looked a little unplump and thought it might have been undercooked, but Paul said not.

I had squid followed by fish and chips. The squid was crisp and light, not at all rubbery and despite the huge amount of chilli sprinkled on it, it wasn't overwhelmingly spicy. The dipping sauce wasn't particularly pleasant, seemingly a sludge of soy sauce and grated ginger. I think a nicely balanced nuoc cham-style sauce would have worked better.

The fish and chips at the Jolly Cricketers is very grand, and I suspect a trap for conservative eaters who don't read the menu. It's grilled cod with battered cod cheeks, sauce gribiche and crushed peas. I thought it was excellent. I tend to get a bit tired of batter about half way through a normal portion of fish and chips so this was just enough batter to suit me. And the cod cheeks were lovely little morsels. The chips arrived in a separate bucket and were HUGE, more a quartered potato than a proper chip. I loved the grilled lemon. I loved the perfectly seasoned sauce gribiche.

With the bill we got little squares of cherry cake and strawberry jelly, which was another charming touch. We also got significant entertainment from eavesdropping on the table next to us, who were planning their family Christmas. Obviously we can't guarantee the floor show for next time, but the food is definitely worth a visit.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Salt butter caramels: A gift from the heart for IHCC

This week's I Heart Cooking Clubs theme is "Gifts from the Heart". Now, the gifts I like to receive are either quite practical - money towards new linens, socks - or very beautiful, ephemeral and indulgent things I would never buy for myself.

These caramels fall firmly into the latter category.

I used a 10 x 7" pan instead of the loaf tin specified in Diana Henry's recipe, so they were a bit thinner, but because they are a soft (chewy but not filling-ripping) caramel, it's possible to gently press them into a fatter shape when you cut them, if you prefer. I didn't mind the thinner ones but I did need to do a little squashing to get them back into a nice square shape.

These were absolutely gorgeous. Sweet, but with some richer dark caramel notes and the hint of salt, creamy and utterly delectable. A gift from the heart that any caramel lover would be delighted to receive.

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