Thursday 29 December 2011

Christmas menu recap: Christmas Day desserts

As soon as I saw these Molasses Spice cookies on Andrea's blog, I knew I had to make them. It's a pity she can't remember where she found the recipe, because I would like to give them a round of applause. They are warmly spicy, not too sweet and just gorgeous. A very big hit with Paul. I used black treacle instead of molasses, and had leftover cinnamon sugar from the snickerdoodles so that is what they are rolled in.

They spread out loads, so I was only able to get 8 on a sheet. I made the 8, then put the rest of the cookie dough in a sealed tub in the fridge, for near-instant sweet gratification and fresh-baked cookies over the next week or so.

For our main Christmas dessert, I'd decided on Ecclefechan Tart, which is pretty closely related to a Canadian butter tart. It's a short, crisp pastry case filled with dried fruit and topped with a rich butter, sugar, egg and cream mixture. I used Jamie Oliver's recipe, which doesn't seem to be online, but it adds a dollop of black treacle before the fruit is put in and uses some whisky in the pastry.

Next time I make this (and it was lovely, there will be a next time!) I will mix the treacle into the custard mixture, because trickling it onto the base didn't work very well. I will also omit the whisky from the pastry, because I don't think it added anything to the flavour or texture.

To give my dried fruit a particularly festive note I used dried sour cherries and cranberries, and I flavoured the custard with some fresh, grated ginger and lemon zest. There was supposed to be orange zest as well, and crystallised ginger not fresh, but the oranges were omitted from my grocery delivery and the crystallised ginger I thought I had I apparently didn't. I thought the fresh ginger note was very successful, so I will do that bit again.

To serve with the tart, I made a whisky marmalade ice cream, thinking that the whisky and orange would go particularly well with the whisky and orange in the tart. Since you can't taste the whisky in the pastry and there was no orange zest in the tart my reasoning was flawed, HOWEVER the ice cream was glorious with the tart, so it doesn't matter.

Because of the amount of fat and alcohol in the ice cream, it doesn't need to be churned, so that is nice. It does contain raw egg, so usual cautions apply.

Whisky Marmalade Ice Cream

2 eggs, separated
100g icing sugar
250g mascarpone
3tbs whisky
50g fine shred orange marmalade
150ml double cream

Whisk the egg whites in one large bowl to stiff peaks. In another bowl, whisk the egg yolks and icing sugar until pale and frothy, then beat in the mascarpone, whisky and marmalade. Fold the egg whites into the mascarpone mixture. In the bowl that held the egg whites, beat the cream to soft peaks, then fold gently into the mascarpone mixture. You want it entirely combined, with no streaks of egg white, but without knocking the air out. Scrape the mixture into a freezer-proof lunch box or similar and freeze for 8 hours or so. Remove from the freezer 5 minutes before serving to allow to ripen a bit.

Wednesday 28 December 2011

Christmas menu recap: Christmas Day savouries

Here's Day 2 of revisiting our Christmas menu. Desserts tomorrow and then we are done!

We kicked off with Jamie Oliver's potato scones, with smoked salmon and an omelette. I make brilliant omelettes and pretty dire scrambled eggs - don't know why - so the omelette is pretty much my go-to egg preparation.

We didn't need all 4 potato scones, because we wanted to keep brunch quite light, so 2 balls of dough were wrapped in cling film for Boxing Day. We also shared the 3-egg omelette and found that it was just about the perfect amount of food. We had a glass of cava with it, of course.

As a main course, we'd decided on roast beef. I insist on trying to be a thoughtful carnivore, and this 1.6kg wing rib of carefully reared and aged Dexter beef from East London Steak Co was considerably cheaper than a free-range turkey crown. Plus roast beef leftovers are much nicer than turkey leftovers.

We roasted the beef with par-boiled Maris Piper potatoes, chunks of butternut squash, red onions and cloves of garlic.

We ate it, quite rare, with green beans and horseradish gravy. Very simple, but a really glorious way to celebrate a special meal.

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Christmas menu recap: Christmas Eve

Well, that's done for another year! I hope everyone got through Christmas with family relationships and bank balances intact!

My next couple of posts are going to be a recap of our Christmas food extravagance, so if you can't bear the sight of any more festive feasting, I suggest you check back next week, when normality will resume. I hope.

Last year, we'd snacked on canapés during the day and then had a big meal in the evening. Which worked well and was very delicious, but this year I decided to spread the feasting over two days. I didn't plan a theme for the food, but it ended up slightly Scottish, featuring mussels, smoked salmon, potato scones and quite a lot of whisky.

So we had the snacky nibbly things on Christmas Eve, then a light brunch followed by a major dinner on Christmas Day.
I may be the last person in the world to discover bacon jam. I mean, I'd heard of it, but always wrote it off as a cracked-out idea from the nation that brought you brunch burgers on Krispy Kremes. Then I started to follow Niamh Shields on twitter and realised that if a perfectly sensible Irish woman thought that bacon jam was a good thing, then it was worth a closer look.

I followed Niamh's recipe for Whisky Bacon Jam, using cheap-but-acceptable Grant's rather than gorgeously peaty but expensive Lagavulin. I'd also run out of chipotle in adobo, so I used a couple of my home-grown, home-smoked hot wax chillis.

This stuff is ambrosial. Anyone who likes strong, salty flavours like tapenade or Gentleman's Relish would like the complex sweet, sharp and earthy flavour of this bacon jam. We gave it a first run for a quick lunch on a sourdough sandwich of leftover roast chicken, with sliced tomatoes and roast garlic mayo. A really fabulous (and lettuceless) variation on a BLT. Definitely a sandwich worth sending to Deb for Souper (soup, salad and sammie) Sunday. SouperSundays

Later that day, I made some quail Scotch Eggs, mostly following James Ramsden's recipe. The only area of variation was that the dozen Clarence Court quail eggs I had ordered were out of stock at the supermarket, so I was given a dozen hard boiled and peeled quail eggs as a substitute . Much more convenient of course, but it did mean the yolks were a bit harder than really desirable.

Scotch Eggs are having a bit of a foody "moment" right now, so there is no shortage of hints and tips out there for making them. The most helpful thing I saw was on Lorraine Pascale's show, where she spread her sausage meat out onto cling film and used that to spread the meat evenly around the egg. It worked very well!

The Scotch Eggs (which have nothing to do with Scotland, so not part of my inadvertant Scottish theme) were joined on the platter by some (Scottish) mini oatcakes, topped with more of the bacon jam and lightly tea-smoked mussels. We drank a good Australian chardonnay and watched Love, Actually. My idea of the ideal Christmas Eve.

Sunday 25 December 2011

Merry Christmas!

With best wishes to all, Merry Christmas from Paul, Urchin and me.

Friday 23 December 2011

Snickerdoodles and Jam Thumbprints

I do love a bit of festive baking. Not so much as a practitioner as a consumer, though. I deeply admire all the bloggers who post dozens of cookies, cakes and candies throughout December, and talk about holiday cookie trays with ten varieties, and the victory when Granny Vera Myrtle finally passes on *the* recipe. Unfortunately, we don't do a lot of entertaining, so I don't usually have an opportunity for doing my own Christmas baking.

This year, however, my friend Helen is in the UK showing her new babies off to their English grandparents. On Monday she gathered her ex-pat schoolfriends at a pub in Oxford for lunch, so I seized the opportunity to do some baking and palm the results off on other people's thighs.

I made cranberry cream cheese snickerdoodles, using this recipe, and adding 100g dried cranberries to it. I also, for a little festive sparkle, dusted a little red edible glitter on top of the cinnamon sugar topping. Mine didn't spread out as much as the picture, or as much as the last time I made them, maintaining a sort of rock-cake shape. However, they were delicious, like a fruit-filled cinnamon doughnut.

I also made Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's jam thumbprint biscuits. These got their festive pizazz from the jam I used. I had a jar of cherry & kirsch conserve left over from July's Forging Fromage challenge. I'd found it too sweet to eat as jam, but as a boozy, mincemeaty filling for a cookie it was absolutely ideal. My other variation to the recipe was that as I was 25g short of butter (how does one run out of butter?!) I made up the quantity with cream cheese, left from the snickerdoodles.

I thought both these cookies were extremely successful, but Paul maintains that the jam thumbprints are superior. The little bit of lemon zest in the cookies really complements the mixed peel in the conserve. He thinks they are so successful, in fact, that I might have to make another batch just for us. So you know they are good.

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Burgers with Dan Lepard's slider buns

These buns are intriguing. It's a good thing the introduction says "Don't be afraid of the custard powder" because without that I would have been very, very scared of the custard powder! It just sounds so bizarre, to make a pot of Bird's then mix in the flour and salt, but I know by now not to doubt Dan Lepard and these buns really are excellent.

We were just having burgers for dinner at home, so I made large buns, not dainty little slider buns. I also didn't have an egg so I glazed them with milk.

My burger patties were made from an equal quantity of bison mince and 12% fat beef mince, with a little chopped garlic and salt and pepper mixed in. I usually just do salt and pepper, but Paul particularly wanted garlic in them. They certainly don't need anything else added.

I split the buns, piled in some shredded lettuce and topped with a cooked burger, with some mature cheddar melted on, and a good spoonful of chilli relish.

These beautiful burgers are going over to Deb for the next Souper (Soup, Salad and Sandwich) Sunday. They were a delicious sandwich treat!

Sunday 18 December 2011

Chicken & ham pie/ butternut & chickpea pilaf

Paul is, as they say, on a roll with this pastry-making business. Since last month's beef, ale and mushroom pie, he's seldom had his hands out of a bowl of flour. Good for me, bad for my waistline. And speaking of which, did you know the Germans have a word for the fat gained through emotional over-eating? Kummerspeck.

Since at the moment neither of us are working, and we are both a bit unhappy about it, there is quite a lot of emotional over-eating at out house at the moment. This really is a Kummerspeck pie.

It's essentially the Hairy Bikers' Creamy Chicken, Ham & Leek Pie, but with a couple of pretty important variations.

Firstly, we used a whole chicken instead of chicken breasts. A fresh, free-range chicken is about £5/kg. Free-range breast fillets are about £17/kg. Stripping the meat off a whole chicken means you get lovely dark meat as well, for more flavour in the pie. Poaching a whole chicken also gives you loads of extra broth, to make another meal from plus leftover meat for a sandwich. Thrifty is good. So obviously we had to adjust the amount of liquid and the poaching time.

Also, instead of using 250ml of reserved chicken stock and 200ml of milk, we used 450ml of stock. With 150ml of double cream, the sauce really doesn't need extra creaminess! And we used a slightly higher ratio of flour to butter and didn't add the egg to the pastry.

Utterly delicious, but so rich! Definitely an occasional treat, even when comfort-eating.

With the leftover broth, I made a version of Nicky's butternut and chickpea pilaf, topped with halloumi. I used apricots instead of sultanas, and added a couple of chopped preserved lemons at the end. I didn't have the patience to let my halloumi slices take colour the way she did! Very simple, very delicious, and made 2 meals for each of us (as well as getting 6 portions out of the chicken pie). As I said, thrifty is good!

Thursday 15 December 2011

Upside-Down Toffee Apple Cheesecake

This is a good autumn/winter dessert. I'd had an image in my mind of what I wanted to achieve, and given some thought to how to go about it, and this is what eventuated. It actually wasn't what I had in mind: I think it is better.

I started thinking about this as a way to use up my crazy over-sweet maple cinder toffee. I thought introducing it to a tangy apple cheesecake would be a good way to dilute the sweetness, but I didn't want to lose the texture by crumbling it into a biscuit crumb base.

So if it wasn't going to be on the base, that pretty much meant that the toffee was going to be on top. And if the toffee was on top it really didn't need a base as well. Thus was born the upside-down toffee apple cheesecake.

Upside-Down Toffee Apple Cheesecake (serves 6-ish)

3 bramley apples (or other large cooking apple)
1 tsp sugar
450g cream cheese
4 eggs
1 tsp vanilla bean paste
cinder toffee (a couple of crunchies/ violet crumbles if you don't happen to have any homemade lying about)
4 gingernut biscuits (optional - don't buy them specially!)

Peel, core and slice the apples and put in a saucepan with the sugar and a splash of water. Cook until soft, then mash with a fork to a fluffy purée and allow to cool.

Beat the cream cheese with the vanilla until smooth, then add the apple purée and eggs and beat in well. Pour the mixture into a pie plate and bake at 150C for about 45 minutes or until just beginning to take colour but still slightly wobbly in the middle. Cool, then chill for a few hours in the fridge.

Cut/break the toffee and biscuits into chunky pieces and spread thickly over the top, pushing lightly into the surface.

The apple gives this a light, almost moussey texture, so it is more of a scooping cheesecake than a slicing one!

Monday 12 December 2011

Meat Free Monday: Carrot Pakoras

This was a bottom-of-the-veg-box special, that turned out to be absolutely divine. Light, crisp, crunchy outsides, tender, spicy middles and a tangy, tamarind dipping sauce. Even though they were piled high in the bowl, we finished the whole lot before they had a chance to get cold.

We had them as a meat-free dinner, but they would be equally good as a starter, or as a good base for drinking. They are spiced but not too hot, so I reckon they would probably appeal to veggie-dodging children too. With ketchup, if they must.

Carrot Pakoras with Tamarind Dipping Sauce

1 medium onion, peeled, halved and sliced finely
3 large carrots, peeled and coarsely grated
2 potatoes, peeled and coarsely grated
3 or 4 savoy cabbage leaves, finely sliced
1/2 cup cornflour
1/2 cup self-raising flour
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp garam masala
1 tsp salt
1 egg
oil for frying
1 tbs tamarind concentrate
1 tbs jaggery (palm sugar)
1/2 tsp garam masala, extra

Mix the flours, salt, cumin and garam masala into a bowl and add the vegetables (work fast with the potatoes because they oxidise fast and turn disgusting and grey). Add the egg and then just enough water to make a thick, paste-y batter. It should be more veg than batter, and should bind together quite easily. Add a little more flour if necessary.

Heat 1" of vegetable oil in a deep sauté pan to 180C. Fry spoonfuls of the batter in batches for 3 or 4 minutes on each side or until deep golden brown. Drain on kitchen paper.

For the dipping sauce, mix the tamarind concentrate, jaggery and extra garam masala in a small saucepan with about 3/4 cup of water, and cook over a low heat until it achieves the texture of motor oil. Taste and check for the balance of sweet and tangy. Serve warm.

Niamh Shields at Eat Like A Girl and Love the Garden Blog are running a Christmas Carrot Competition, to win either a copy of Niamh's book or a £200 restaurant voucher. I'm going to enter these pakoras. Entries close 21st December, so you still have a bit of time to consider your carrots!

Saturday 10 December 2011

Chard pasta

It's that time of year when food goes over the top. Would you like some brandy butter in your mince pie? Whipped cream on your boozy hot chocolate? A bit of home made shortbread? How about a bacon-wrapped chipolata with your roast turkey and some extra gravy with your mashed potatoes? It'd be rude not to. But somehow the onslaught of festive food seems to drag out through the whole month. It reaches a point where you don't really want another cranberry-topped anything and just want something simple and, well, clean-tasting.

This very straight-forward pasta is just the thing. It's one of those sauces that comes together in the time it takes to boil the pasta, so you can be ready to eat in less than 15 minutes. I added some anchovies to give a salty kick, but if you leave them out and add capers or some sliced olives, you've got yourself a good vegan meal.

Spaghetti with chard and anchovies (serves 2)

Olive oil
3 cloves of garlic
1 large, medium-heat red chilli
4 anchovy fillets (optional)
1 bunch chard
juice of a lemon
pasta, to serve

Warm a good slurp of olive oil in a large sauté pan, add the sliced garlic, chilli and anchovy fillets, and cook gently until the anchovy begins to melt.

Chop the stalks of the chard and add to the pan. When they have sweated down a bit, (which should be about the same time as the pasta is ready) add the shredded leaves of the chard, the juice of a lemon and the drained pasta. As you toss it together, the heat from the pasta will wilt the chard down. Serve in big bowls with lots of black pepper.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Zebra cake unveiled

You may remember I recently posted a sneak peak of this zebra cake. You see, friends had asked me to make a birthday cake for their little girl, and I'd agreed, despite not being entirely sure I had the baking chops to carry off such a project.

Then I had to make a plan. I like planning.

I've had Grace's zorse cake bookmarked for months, because I loved the delicate stripes, but I knew that a cinnamon-flavoured cake was really not going to cut it for a bowling party of seven year olds. It had to be chocolate. Not too chocolatey of course - these may be modern middle-class kiddies but in my (limited) experience of children they are mostly about the icing and a dark, sophisticated chocolate cake would be wasted.

I turned to a brains trust of experienced bakers, and was recommended the Be-Ro Milk Chocolate Cake recipe. Now, Be-Ro produced the world's first self-raising flour. As far as I can tell, saying you are using a Be-Ro recipe gives the same sort of this-is-my-grannie's-recipe reassurance that the Edmond's cookbook gives kiwis or the Commonsense Cookery Book gives Australians. So despite the unusual technique (rubbing the fat into the flour, then adding the liquids) I knew I was in safe hands if I followed the recipe. Of course, I wanted to make it a zebra cake, so I wasn't going to follow the recipe, hence the need for the trial run, to see how my batter worked when divided.

As I'd decided to make a 10" cake, I also had to scale up the recipe - I made 1 1/2 times the batter. If I'd wanted to cut it in half to layer it, I would have doubled the recipe.

So I followed the recipe, using butter instead of margarine and omitting the cocoa until after I had divided the batter in half, then I thoroughly beat the sifted cocoa into one half. And I ignored the bit about not using a loose-bottomed cake tin. It's really a very thick batter, I don't know why they were worried about it running out!

I alternated portions of the batters, allowing each one to spread out naturally from the centre, and pouring the next carefully onto the middle of the preceding circle. Then I baked it at a slightly lower temperature, for slightly longer, testing a couple of times with a toothpick until it came out clean.

During my planning phase I'd done a LOT of reading about cake decorating. Most of which I confess made me want to run away screaming because it was so much more complicated than I wanted to attempt. There were a couple of cracking tips though:

a) put strips of baking parchment on your cake board just under the cake, so you keep it clean while decorating and don't have to try to move a decorated cake onto the board.

b) apply a "crumb coat" - this is a thin layer of jam or syrup (or booze if you aren't cooking for seven year olds) that you brush onto the cake. It adds flavour, moisture, and seals any loose crumbs to the surface of the cake so you get a clean surface to ice.

I used warmed, sieved strawberry jam, because some of the decorations I used were strawberry flavoured.

As well as knowing that the cake had to be chocolate, I knew it had to involve the colour pink. I am not a fan of the pink-for-girls thing and left to myself I would probably have taken a stand and decorated in pale blue or bright green to show what I think of gendered colours, but she's seven, she loves pink and she is not a puppet of my politics.

I thought about doing a white chocolate ganache, but white chocolate can be a bit temperamental and also tends to look quite yellow. I came upon this recipe, for a white chocolate buttercream, and thought that would be exactly the thing. I wanted an icing thick enough to completely conceal the stripy insides, so it would be a surprise when it was cut. I just did a straight swap of American to Australian cups, because I couldn't be bothered with the conversion, and used 200g white chocolate because that is how big the block was. I also didn't add any extra vanilla; I only had vanilla bean paste and the last thing a little girl needs is black-speckled frosting.

I urge you to try this frosting. It is absolutely delicious and extremely well-behaved. I think it will be my go-to icing forever more - I was thinking about how good it would be with coffee or some lemon zest added.

After that, it was pretty straight-forward. I smeared the frosting on liberally with a palette knife, then put some in a freezer bag and snipped off the corner, piping a rampart around the top edge of the cake, then adding little rosettes. Strawberry and white chocolate curls, pink sugar pearls, pink and white sugar flowers and a liberal dusting of edible glitter finished it off.

You know what? I was thrilled with how it turned out. It looks home made, not mass-produced, and very importantly, it tasted really good. The cake had a good, moist texture and lovely chocolate flavour (I used good quality cocoa). I don't see myself doing this sort of thing often, but I did enjoy the challenge!

Saturday 3 December 2011

Lindy Wildsmith's Cured - all things salty meat

A couple of months ago I was sent a press release about the inaugural Festival of Cured Meats. It was billed as the first ever UK celebration and exploration of the world of charcuterie, which was pretty damn appealing to me.

Lindy Wildsmith was billed as one of the main attractions, demonstrating some techniques from her book Cured: salted, spiced, dried, smoked, potted, pickled and raw, so her publisher, who'd sent me the press release, sent me a copy of the book to play with too.

I confess, that I was a little disappointed by the reality of the Festival. It was on a much smaller scale than I had anticipated, there was no defining signage and it all felt a bit slapdash. We wandered around Southbank for a while, trying to see if there was another section of market tents that looked more Festivalesque before realising that no, that was it.

On the other hand, there was a Polish sausage stall pumping out absolutely dynamite lunchboxes. My grilled, smoked sausage, dill-redolent potatoes, salad and pickles was just what was required on a cold autumn day.

We stepped into the small "main tent" for what was billed as a French pate tasting and was in fact high comedy. Apparently the producer had been approached to participate, couldn't be bothered and sent a few tins of pate over. So they were plonked on the tables with about as much ceremony they deserved and a friendly passing French man was coopted to read the labels for us.

Then it was Lindy's turn. She demonstrated a couple of techniques from her book and passed around samples to taste. Lindy was very warm and engaging and made everything look very accessible, but there wasn't anything particularly new for me in it. The most interesting thing, for me, was the audience. There was a group from The School of Artisan Food - which I had never heard of and now I want to go - and a woman with the most extraordinarily dissatisfied facial expression. It was amazing. It was like every time she tasted anything she put her whole being into showing how much she disliked it.

After the demonstration we did a bit of shopping, picking up some smoked cheese from Artisan Smokehouse and some gorgeous ham and salami from Cannon and Cannon.

Then it was home to play with my copy of Cured.

It's a pretty good starting point for a beginner I think. Not a lot in the way of outlandish ingredients or equipment, very clear explanations and good general principles that you can apply. It's not going to replace my other preserving books, but it certainly deserves a place alongside them. The duck confit, streaky bacon and salt beef that I made were all very successful.

Thursday 1 December 2011

If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all

The Worship Street Whistling Shop. This is the Panacea cocktail. It's very nice. I can't say anything about the service, ambiance or other beverages...


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