Monday 31 October 2011

Pumpkin tart and cinder toffee for Halloween

I think my pumpkin carving skills are coming along nicely. There is a definite improvement from 2010 and I'm worlds away from 2009! Not only have I managed a bit of detail in Urchin's stripes, I have her surprise at mice escaping from her. At some stage I will post the video I based the pumpkin on - it's hilarious, the mouse bites her and runs away.

I'm so excited by pumpkins at the moment. As far as I am concerned they are the best thing about this time of year - little glowing beacons in the grey autumn weather. They don't really understand pumpkin in the UK, so you tend to only see watery orange carving pumpkins rather than the ones that are really good for eating. My favourite is the bluey green skinned kabocha, but I generally end up using butternut because it is much easier to come by!

Anyway, this delectable tart is from Joanne's blog. I used creme fraiche instead of almond milk for the custard, more gorgonzola (100g), brik pastry instead of phyllo (because that's what the supermarket sent me) and added a grating of nutmeg (because I am incapable of making anything cheesy without a grating of nutmeg). It was at its best hot from the oven; the following day the filling was better but the pastry had lost some of its crispness.

This cinder toffee left me as surprised as Urchin when confronted with a mouse. One of the girls at work is American and had been lamenting the lack of autumn-themed candy and so forth in the shops here, so I thought I would make something for the office that was all about the season. I found this recipe on Not Quite Nigella for a spiced maple brittle that I thought sounded just the ticket. My only change was to use pecans instead of almonds. But rather than forming the thin, crisp sheets of brittle like the picture showed, the bicarb frothed it up into an airy honeycomb and it set like that. It wasn't a problem, but it was a surprise!

Unfortunately it was so sweet that even the most hardened dessert eaters at work were a bit scared of it and were defeated by a single chunk, so I have quite a lot leftover. I have a strategy for those leftovers, which may be blogged about in the future, depending on how well it goes.

You may have noticed that I have buttons in the sidebar now for following me on twitter and facebook - I haven't quite got a handle on twitter yet, but I am sure my every utterance will be fascinating and worth following.

Friday 28 October 2011

Crème caramel and a visit from the Fairy Hobfather

The Fairy Hobfather is a delightful creature, who flits from blog to blog dispensing joy. I left a comment on Deb's blog after he visited her, and was lucky enough to be the next lucky recipient of an Amazon voucher. If you comment on this post, you may be the next person to receive a visit from the Appliances Online fairies. And I now have a nifty oak cookbook stand and a preserving funnel on their way to me. That's a lot more exciting than you may think.

Something else that is more exciting than you may think... (wow, was that a suave segue or what?) Recently, I had a breakthrough. I've always had a big fat mental block about crème caramel. This is because my mother, an excellent cook, buggered one up about 30 years ago. It's these little traumas that stay with a girl. My fear of crème caramel was compounded when my mother got married. Just before the dessert was to be served, a waiter popped out and apologised that the crème caramels had all split. I was convinced that if my mother and The Bather's Pavilion were unable to produce a crème caramel I had no hope at all.

Then Simon Hopkinson changed my mind. I've already blogged about the awesomeness of his Good Cook series, but one of the dishes he made was an orange caramel custard. Everything else he'd made on the series was so achievable that I thought "What the heck" and decided to have a go.

I read a whole bunch of recipes and then struck out on my own. I decided to make one big one to share, thinking that it would be easier on the nerves than trying to get 6 individual ones right. The big thing about crème caramel, really, is that it has very few ingredients, so it is pretty important to make sure that each of them is high quality.

Crème Caramel (serves 5 or 6)

100g caster sugar
splash of water
2 whole eggs
3 egg yolks
100g caster sugar, extra
500ml single cream
1tsp vanilla bean paste
2 - 3 strips lemon zest

Make a caramel from the sugar and a splash of water (mine really should have been a little bit darker, but I got anxious at a critical moment). Pour the hot caramel into the base of a 1lb loaf tin and rotate it, to get the caramel a bit up the sides.

Mix the cream, vanilla and lemon zest in a small pan, bring to a gentle simmer for a couple of minutes to let the flavours infuse.

Whisk the eggs and egg yolks with the extra sugar in a bowl, then pour the hot cream on, whisking well (but trying not to get it too frothy). Strain the custard into the loaf tin.

Place the loaf tin into a deep baking tin and stand it on the middle shelf of the oven. Pour boiling water around it (being careful not to splash) until the water comes about half way up the sides of the loaf tin. Cook at 170C for 50 minutes - it should still be a bit wobbly in the middle.

Cool, then chill in the fridge over night (this bit lets the caramel deliquesce). To serve, run a palette knife around the edge and turn gently onto a serving dish with a bit of a rim - it would be very sad to lose any of the caramel.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Sharing plates

One of the big sacrifices Paul had to make in marrying me was learning to share food. When we first met he soon discovered that I am a devotee of the mezze, the antipasto, the dim sum, the fondue, the "mixed starter for 2" and the "banquet for 4". I am also wont to ask for a taste of his meal. He really prefers having his own plate of food.

As a reward for his sacrifice, I have promised not to attempt to acquire a taste for oysters natural, so there is still one thing he can order without having to share it with me. I think his habit of always ordering soup as a starter in Chinese and French restaurants is also protective - it's quite difficult to pass a spoonful of soup over the table.

Sharing food "tapas style" is quite chic at the moment. From Wahaca's Mexican street food with its little plates of tacos and tostadas, to Polpo's chichetti, there are lots of places doing small plates of little tastes, designed to be ordered en masse and shared. I love it. For a greedy person who wants to taste everything on the menu it is ideal. Other people are less convinced.

Paul has also been very patient in accepting the sharing plate concept as it has drifted into our house. At home, it is much more likely to be due to my laziness, in only wanting to wash up one communal dish, but I also like the comfy, romantic part of sitting together over a single plate.

Beth's tomato, bacon and feta bake is a gorgeous dish for this style of eating. Of course you could make individual gratins, or dish it out into separate bowls, but plonking it, sizzling and bubbling from the oven, on a cork mat on the table between you is really nice. A good chunk of crusty bread each and some wine are all you need.

Pan bagnat is a delicious sandwich, pretty much impossible to make in individual portions. It's basically a salad nicoise stuffed into a slightly hollowed out crusty loaf, which is then pressed to make slicing into tranches possible. You can do it with just grilled vegetables (aubergine, courgette, peppers) or with tomatoes, tuna, radishes, anchovies, olives... pretty much anything with that sort of Provencal robust flavour. It makes a great picnic dish and a really substantial lunch. I'm sending it over to Deb's Souper (soup, salad and sammie) Sunday.


For something particularly special, this baked spider crab dish is really delicious. Lacking the patience for picking a crab myself (and lacking access to really fresh seafood) I used tubs of pasteurised brown and white crabmeat from the supermarket. The flavours are much gutsier than I would usually put with crab, but it holds up to the chilli, tomato and saffron really well. Again, wine and some crusty bread are all you need with it. And if you have to let your other half mark a line across the dish to show their portion, well, that's all part of the compromise.

Sunday 23 October 2011

Bacon Chops and A Festival of Cured Meat

I've been dabbling in preserved and cured meats for a while now - I've had a go at duck ham, parfait and rillettes, spiced beef, hot smoked trout, pastrami, droewors, bacon and tonno di coniglio. We both love the taste of cured meats, and we're interested in the old-fashioned techniques, so it works out well for us.
My most recent attempt were these stunningly easy, overnight-cured bacon chops from Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall. So simple, they are a very good way in to home curing. I think it is partly the time of year - something atavistic about colder weather making me want to preserve food for the winter to come - but I have definitely been thinking that it was time to make some more spiced beef or something.
I knew Paul would be absolutely delighted when I found out that there is going to be a Festival of Cured Meats next weekend (28th- 30th October), at Southbank. Lots of market stalls, tastings and workshops, including some by Lindy Wildsmith. Plus the Metropolitan line is actually running next weekend, so it is clearly fate that we attend.
I've got a pork belly in the fridge, but I haven't been able to decide whether it is going to become streaky bacon or petit sale. I have to say the lentils in that video may just make my mind up for me. Not to mention the more instant gratification - waiting 3 weeks to try the bacon isn't appealing!
This week I was sent a copy of Lindy's book, Cured, to have a look at, but I haven't been able to do it justice yet. I think after the Festival of Cured Meats I will aim for a jumbo post on all things salted flesh related. With apologies to my vegetarian readers.

Saturday 15 October 2011

Ask Foodycat: Are Cookbooks Dead?

I've been thinking about this post for months. My friend Ms Crankypants emailed me the link to this article asking whether cookbooks are obsolete, and asked for my thoughts.

My immediate reaction was Hell No! But I thought I should come up with a well-reasoned and scholarly argument for my position. The difficulty is, of course, that I fucking love cookbooks, which puts me in a compromised position for well-reasoned arguments. If you have a short attention span you can skip to the end, with the good bit about the cheesecake, safe in the knowledge that my final answer is still a resounding Hell No.

I do appreciate the notion of a paperless office (although a decade or so working in offices demonstrates that there is really no such thing). I do, however, genuinely grasp the idea that it might be pleasant to reduce the amount of clutter in one's life and have all the cookbooks scanned onto the computer. I would like to offload some of my cookbooks, although I confess it is just to make room for the ones that currently sit in piles on the floor.

I don't know what the average number of cookbooks is that the average family owns, but I am quite happy to go out on a limb and say we have several more than that. If I had a less-good memory for food and recipes, I might be more keen on an electronic filing system but as it is I know my library well enough to know where to find recipes I want pretty quickly without dependence on sometimes-obscure internet search terms.

There is a lot to be said for the internet as a source of recipes, obviously. I am a huge fan of having my grocery page open in one tab and my recipe open in the next, so I can make sure I have all the ingredients. I like googling a list of ingredients and seeing what combinations come up. I like happening upon recipes and ideas I had never even imagined. None of those things is a match for browsing through a good cookbook.

You can develop a relationship with a cookbook author, or even publishing house that you will rarely find when you google. You can know absolutely that if this book has these quantities you will need to reduce the amount of water, or spice, or that you can follow the baking time to the minute. One of the reasons you can know this is because the page is covered in splashes and scribbles, notes that you have made over the years. Your cookbooks are a personal history. I cannot believe I made a tamarillo and kiwifruit tart at one point in my life, but I see the picture on the page and know it was the 80s. I know also that I had an icecream maker at that point, because the same book contains the utterly divine rum and berry icecream I used to make. Cookbooks track fashions more clearly than your wardrobe does - you won't often see a recipe telling you to substitute sherry for rice wine now, because most of us hip foody types are much less likely to have the first now. Oh wait, tapas are in now, so sherry is back on the menu.

The book publishing industry (in the US) saw a 4.5% drop in printed book sales from 2009-2010, but cookbook sales rose 4%. This increase is attributed to the recession (people eating at home more), the power of the blogosphere and foody personalities. Apparently at this stage densely illustrated cookbooks don't translate so well to e-books, which partly protects the sales from the hit that novels and some other books are taking. Publishing houses expect a cookbook title to sell a minimum of 20,000 copies, so they are talking about quite large volumes as well. Clearly it isn't just me who thinks that cookbooks are far from obsolete.

Plus, of course, when Virgin has a recorded message saying that North London is experiencing internet service outages, and the 6 cheesecake recipes I have bookmarked are out of my grasp, with a cookbook a cheesecake is still possible.

This is a smoked salt caramel cheesecake. I used the Australian Women's Weekly 100 Fabulous Cheesecakes book (first published 1971 - a very good example of changing fashion in food!), basing my recipe on their Luscious Gourmet Cheesecake recipe. I substituted dulce de leche and black treacle for the sugar and lemon juice, and added a scant half teaspoon of oak-smoked salt. I made a topping based on the one for the Caramel Topped Cheesecake, although I used dulce de leche and cream instead of butter, brown sugar and water.

It was divine. So divine that it is an appropriate way to celebrate Louise's blogoversary, and America's National Caramel Month. Louise is having a cookbook party to celebrate 4 years of blogging and I am sure a smoked salt caramel cheesecake will be welcome!

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Fritto misto - fried chicken and courgette

I had chicken thigh fillets and a couple of fat zucchini and not a lot of anything else in the house. I cut them into chunks, marinated them in a little olive oil, lemon juice and paprika, then dunked them a few at a time in a very light batter. I deep fried them in batches in hot oil, drained them well and then sprinkled them with a little salt and a gremolata to finish.

We sat with the big, shared bowl in front of us, individual pots of sweet chilli sauce to dip the pieces in, bite by bite. The chicken and zucchini were both juicy and tender inside, crisp and crunchy outside. We watched The Big Lebowski. It was a very good match.

Thursday 6 October 2011

A tale of two curries

I have made a couple of really stonkingly good curry meals recently. I mean really, seriously good curries. I have been astonished at my own cleverness.
The big thing about these curries - which slightly takes the wind out of my sails - is that the side dishes, made from other people's recipes, were what totally made the meals.

My pork vindaloo, adapted from Camellia Panjabi's recipe, is always good. The saag aloo was made particularly memorable by
fragrant, fresh turmeric. The dish of the meal, however, were the bhindi bhaji from Mamta's kitchen. They were crisp, flavourful and absolutely delicious. Which is not something you can always say about okra!

A couple of weeks later I made a chicken curry, again from an adapted Camellia Panjabi recipe (I used coconut water instead of coconut milk for the gravy). It was excellent, but again the star dish was one of the sides - Nigel Slater's baked, spiced tomatoes. The unusual thing about these tomatoes was that I used a touch of mustard oil instead of mustard seeds, and it ended up with a very intense dairy flavour - like they'd been stuffed with roquefort almost. Very interesting and extremely delicious.

Monday 3 October 2011

Spiced pear and apple tart

I wish I could give you a proper recipe for this, because it was really very good, but I can't. You see, I went into the kitchen with an idea in my head and just sort of riffed until it came together.

This is not my usual approach. Normally I would google, find 6 approximate recipes for what I wanted to achieve, consult another 3 cookbooks and see what they had to say on the matter, then put together all the bits I liked. I found it remarkably freeing not to go through that process!

I made a sweet shortcrust pastry, from a bit more flour than butter, with some sugar and an egg.

While the pastry rested, I made a spiced apple puree from 5 very small apples, a slosh of hard cider, a spoonful of sugar and a goodly pinch of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. When the apples were soft I squashed them with a fork to a rough puree.

I blind-baked the pastry case while the apple puree cooled. I felt that this was the best approach to getting crisp pastry.

Then I spread the puree in the case and topped it with halved pears, raw and pretty hard, cut into slices for prettiness and ease of serving later. I brushed the pear halves with a little calamondin marmalade.

I baked it for about 40 minutes until the pears were burnished and the pastry was an appetising golden brown and the kitchen smelled like autumn.


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