Wednesday 29 February 2012

Calamondin dreaming

All the leaves are brown, and the sky is grey...

Paul's calamondin bonsai, on the other hand, is covered in beautiful orange fruit, glowing like little suns. Very cheering as the end of winter nears.

The fruit are a bit fiddly, really. Small, lots of pips and a very thin skin. I was at a bit of a loss as to what to do with them, so I boiled a pile of them for about 15 minutes, then pureed and strained them, yielding about a cupful of bright orange, intensely perfumed and flavoured pulp. Which I stuck in the freezer until inspiration took hold.

The arrival of some inexpensive nectarines provided that inspiration. I roasted them with a little sugar and a squeeze of calamondin juice to concentrate their flavour.

I turned the boiled calamondin puree into a bowl of calamondin curd. I used this Nigel Slater recipe for it.

I poured most of the calamondin curd over my roasted nectarines, then topped them with whipped cream and broken meringues for another take on the classic Eton Mess.

The rest of the curd was dolloped onto hot, fresh scones.

But the little bonsai wouldn't take a hint, and keeps on putting out more fruit. Another pile became a version of duck a l'orange (of which I apparently didn't take a picture). Then the next pile became a drizzle cake. On Sunday another pile provided the tart edge to a bloody mary (and you really don't need pictures of that).

The season for them is almost over. Pretty soon the conservatory will be filled with the heady scent of their blossom again. Can't wait, but I will miss the fruit!

Sunday 26 February 2012

Eating crow (with mac & cheese)

I love the expression "eating crow". It's so colourful that it somehow distracts me from the fact that I am unpleasantly and humiliatingly wrong about something. It makes it easier to throw myself into the whole-hearted admission of my error.

And so it is here.

There's been a series on TV recently called How To Cook Like Heston, in which Heston Blumenthal focuses on a particular ingredient, does some stuff that sounds totally counter-intuitive to it and then says it is the best ever. Like simmering potato skins in milk to make jam (see what I mean? Those words make no sense at all in that order!) or roasting chicken at 90C (194F) to make it really juicy. It's been moderately interesting, but the more elaborate dishes I am not interested in trying and the simpler ones I have been smugly satisfied would not be as good as my usual versions.

Paul, however, was interested in the macaroni cheese. It differs from my usual (excellent) mac & cheese in 2 key ways - instead of boiling the pasta in loads of water and draining it, you cook it more like rice until all the water is absorbed, and the cheese sauce is not based on a bechamel. Instead, you reduce white wine and a dark chicken stock right down, then mix in grated cheese tossed with a little cornflour.

I didn't follow the recipe as written because those cheeses are a little out of my price range at the moment. Instead, I used a combination of red Leicester and pecorino cheeses, with a dollop of Philly for extra creaminess. I did follow the method pretty closely, including the bizarre pasta-cooking method.

And now we get to the point. He's right, I am wrong. This was indeed the best mac & cheese I have ever made. Better than the whisky and smoke version, better than the garden veg version, better than any other I have made. The texture was creamier, the cheese flavour was clearer and the leftovers reheated better. It was, from all angles, a better mac & cheese. A side order of cheesy pasta certainly helps the crow go down.

P.S Since blogger has moved to those wretched, illegible captcha words I've taken the word recognition off the site, so I just have moderation on now. If anyone has a better solution, I would welcome it because a lot of spam is getting to the moderation phase now!

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Ginger Crunch Pikelets for Pancake Day

Pancake Day is, of course, the more fuzzy, secular name for Shrove Tuesday. It's the day before Ash Wednesday, when one is supposed to go on an orgy of pancake eating to clear the cupboards of butter, eggs, sugar and other such sinful items ahead of the fasting of Lent. As I have no intention of fasting, or of viewing eggs and butter as sinful, Pancake Day is more of a self-indulgence.

Pikelets are small, leavened pancakes common in Australia (and apparently New Zealand). They are at their best hot and fresh, but they are surprisingly forgiving of being eaten cold, which is probably why they often turn up at Australian morning tea parties where everyone "brings a plate". This version is from Laura at Hungry and Frozen, who added oats, ginger and golden syrup to echo the flavours of New Zealand's famous ginger crunch slice.

I didn't muck around with her recipe much. I did soak the oats in the water over night, and used muscovado sugar instead of demerara. And because she'd said they could have been a touch lighter, I used self-raising flour and a quarter teaspoon of extra baking powder. This was a good move, as honestly these could NOT have been any lighter! As a final flourish, I added a handful of crystallised ginger, cut into chunks.

My real flourish was the sweet whipped ginger butter I served with them. Slightly spicy and utterly addictive, it set the pikelets off perfectly. I beat 100g of softened butter with 1tbs of golden syrup and a handful of chopped crystallised ginger until light and fluffy. I scraped it into a serving dish and drizzled it with a little more golden syrup.

I have quite a lot left, and I am wondering what to do with the remains. Maybe spread on some raisin toast? Or possibly used to fill some baked apples? Or maybe make some chocolate pikelets with the addition of some cocoa, spread them with the whipped butter and raise a toast to my mother in law - Marina likes chocolate-coated ginger, but it keeps getting lost in the post when I try to send her some.

Thursday 16 February 2012

Chocolate Butterscotch Cake

I've been waiting for an opportunity to make Grace's Butterscotch Goombah since last July. The idea of a caramel buttercream studded with chunks of toffee was just too good to let go of. And obviously that name is brilliant. Goombah. Goombah, goombah, goombah.

The perfect opportunity arose last weekend. It was my sister-in-law's sister's 40th birthday and she was having a tea party. I decided to use the goombah to sandwich a chocolate cake, and cover the whole lot with a chocolate cream cheese frosting. If there is one thing I have learned in several years of relationship with the Langland girls, it is that they do love chocolate.

For the cake itself, I used the Be-Ro recipe again, although I substituted buttermilk for the evaporated milk, and a slosh of Camp coffee for the vanilla, to give it a bit more of an adult flavour. It could easily have tipped over into cloyingly sweet and I didn't want that to happen.

I only made a half quantity of the goombah, and that really was plenty for a cake with a rich icing. If I'd just been dusting the top with a bit of icing sugar, or a thin glaze, then the full quantity would have been fine. I'm not entirely sure what the "toffee bits" the recipe called for are, but I used some dairy caramels, cut into chunks.

For the icing, I creamed 150g butter and 300g cream cheese together with a couple of tablespoons of icing sugar, then beat in 200g melted and cooled dark chocolate, then spread it on the cake (which I had brushed with a cocoa-flavoured simple syrup) quickly before it set too hard. I pressed more chopped caramels into the top of the cake as a garnish.

It was a great success! Possibly a little too rich, but with a deep, dark chocolate flavour and that slightly burnt sugar taste of butterscotch. I will make this again!

Tuesday 14 February 2012

Spaghetti and Meatballs

... with a twist. These aren't meat, they are tuna polpette. Based on Jamie Oliver's recipe, but pared back a bit. Mine didn't have pine nuts (after Paul's bout of pine mouth last year, we've pretty much gone off them), or cinnamon and I used 2 cans of tuna, rather than chopping up fresh.

Served with spaghetti, they made a wonderful meal, packed with fresh flavour.

I am sharing these with Presto Pasta Nights, hosted this week by Jamie of Cookin' with Moxie.

Saturday 11 February 2012

Chicken: an excellent foundation

I could have sworn I've posted about Hainanese chicken rice before but I CANNOT find the post!

What I would have said, in the previous post, is that while I am a fan of the smooth, gently-flavoured poached chicken and rice, Paul is not so much a chicken rice lover, because he feels that any chicken meal that doesn't involve crispy skin is a waste of time. I would also have mentioned that, although it is not traditional, I really like sambal belacan with my chicken rice, because the place I used to get it in Sydney always served sambal belacan with it.

Then I saw a post on another blog that showed me the way forward. It was Eat-Tori's chicken soup with chicken crackling and I thought Eureka! If I skinned the chicken before poaching it, I could make chicken cracklings to add crunch to my chicken rice. I followed this recipe for the chicken rice and ginger sauce, but added more water and aromatics because I had plans for the leftovers. I cut the skin into large pieces, and baked them at quite a high temperature for a few minutes in a dry pan until they curled up into crisp shards of crackling.

Some of the leftover broth and the remaining chicken from that meal became a chicken and mushroom risotto. I don't usually serve risotto as a side dish, but as I also had plans for the leftover risotto, I sautéed some chicken thighs and placed them on top.

THEN the rest of the risotto became arancini. I moulded the cold, sticky rice into balls, around a cube of cheese, rolled them in flour, then egg and breadcrumbs and shallow-fried them until golden. I was hoping for a suppli al telefono-effect, but while the cheese (I used cheddar) softened, it didn't go into the long strands that mozzarella does. Also, there were a couple of points where I skimped on the egg and breadcrumbs, and those bits didn't hold together at all, spewing newly-molten risotto into the pan. Useful tip: be thorough.

The last of the chicken broth became a pot of minestrone. Carrots, onions, borlotti beans, some smoked Polish sausage, canned tomatoes, macaroni and shredded cabbage joined the broth in a big, cuddly potful that lasted us a couple of days. I'm sending this delicious, warming soup to Deb for the Souper (Soup, Salad and Sammy) Sunday round-up. Do join us!

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Shrimp po'boy - a first attempt

I've never been to Louisiana. Never been to the USA at all actually (one day...). Which means I've never had a po'boy sandwich in its natural habitat.

A general thought that I should make one at some stage was clarified by this post about a bad one in London. I decided that I needed to have a go at making a good one.

I seasoned a beaten egg with some salt and black and cayenne peppers, and tossed some raw prawns through it, leaving them to sit for about half an hour. I drained the prawns from the egg and dredged them in a mixture of 2/3 cornmeal/ 1/3 self-raising flour, seasoned with more salt and pepper.

I fried them in deep hot oil for a couple of minutes, until they were crisp and golden, and drained them well on kitchen paper.

I made a dressing of garlic mayonnaise, chopped dill pickles and chopped pickled jalapenos, loosening the mixture slightly with a dribble of pickle juice and adding a touch of sugar for that all-American diabetes kick.

I piled shredded iceberg lettuce into split baguettes, then added my dressing and a pile of the freshly cooked prawns.

And... they didn't quite work. My home-made sourdough baguettes were entirely too "robust" for the sandwich. It really needs a lighter, fluffier crumb and a thin, slightly crackling crust. I don't know how to make bread like that. I will have to do some more research before I try again.

The sandwich filling was good though!

Monday 6 February 2012

Meat Free Monday: red onion tarte tatin

How about a warm, savoury tarte tatin in this cold weather? Not particularly laborious, inexpensive and with a lovely, deep agrodolce flavour, I was very pleased with how this one turned out! We had big wedges of it with some warm broccoli vinaigrette but daintier portions would make a very nice starter.

Red onions and garlic were cooked slowly in butter and red wine until soft, then sprinkled with a little sugar and balsamic. If I'd had some fresh thyme I would have added that, but I didn't want to cloud the flavour with dried thyme.

I made a light, flakey parmesan and black pepper shortcrust to create a really savoury foil for the onions.

Red Onion Tarte Tatin

40g SR flour
80g plain flour
40g grated parmesan
1tsp freshly ground black pepper
60g butter
1 egg
dribble of water

2tbs butter
1kg red onions
2 cloves garlic
50ml red wine
pinch salt
1tsp caster sugar
2tsp balsamic

Parmesan or pecorino shavings to finish.

Peel and halve the onions. Melt the butter in an oven-proof pan (I used my Le Creuset shallow casserole) and cook the onions gently for about 15 minutes with the lid on, turning a couple of times and trying to keep the halves intact. Pour over the red wine and sprinkle with a pinch of salt and continue to cook for another 10 minutes, again with the lid on.

Sprinkle with the sugar and balsamic, and arrange the onions so that they are cut side down. Cut the peeled garlic cloves into quarters and put them in any little gaps between the onions.

Allow to cool for at least half an hour (this bit can be done ahead).

For the pastry, combine the flours, grated parmesan and pepper in a bowl. Rub in the butter, add the egg and, if necessary, a splash of water to bring it together. Wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge for half an hour or so.

After resting, roll the pastry out on a floured surface and tuck over the top of the cooled onions. Bake in a pre-heated 190C oven for 20-25 minutes or until a dark golden colour with bubbles of caramelised onion juices erupting around the edges. Let sit for a couple of minutes then turn onto a plate. Any onions that stick to the pan can be lifted off with a palette knife and replaced on the pastry. Shave over some parmesan or pecorino to serve.

Saturday 4 February 2012

Borscht and Pampushky for Anna: Heart of a Peasant

Rachel, the Crispy Cook, combines being a second-hand bookseller with being a keen gardener and cook. The combination of books and food has led to the hosting of the Cook the Books Club, along with Deb and Johanna, for the last three years.

Through the book club we have read and talked about a lot of books, and cooked a lot of recipes inspired by them. It's a great way to combine passions!

Then, before Christmas, Rachel emailed an exciting extra-curricular book proposal. Rachel's mother, Carol Marie Davis, had written a book about her grandmother and Rachel offered copies to read and be inspired by.

Anna Heart of a Peasant is a fictionalised biography of Anna Anisovich Olchick, who was born in a village in Byelorussia in 1886 and emigrated to America in 1914. In some ways, it is an unremarkable story. Tens of thousands of our ancestors did the same thing: Paul's left Lithuania for South Africa, mine left England for Australia.

At the same time it is truly remarkable. That an illiterate peasant woman who spoke no English travelled alone across the world and ended up with her own home, garden and flourishing family shows such extraordinary strength of will that it is hard to imagine almost 100 years later. My favourite passages, though, are in the beginning of the book, where some of the folk-beliefs that Anna grew up with are described. They reminded me of some of the Russian folk tales, like the Baba Yaga stories, that I grew up with (not entirely sure why we had books of Russian folk tales, my mother will have to clarify that one).

There are some of Anna's favourite recipes in the book, but I tried to do some wider research into Byelorussian food. This coincided with my Anthony Bourdain binge and led to me developing a hypothesis. I couldn't find very much at all online about distinctive Byelorussian cuisine and in the No Reservations episode on Prague several people talked about how distinctive local food had almost disappeared under the Soviet Union. They claimed that all restaurants were only allowed to cook from one cookbook and traditional cooking died out. I have a suspicion that something similar probably happened in Byelorussia from 1939 until Belarus declared independence in 1991.

So I decided to make borscht, as it is found in one form or another all over Eastern and Central Europe. The version we prefer is a thick stew containing meat, carrots and cabbage as well as beetroot, so it is much more luxurious than the soups Anna would have eaten as a child. This one had big chunks of beef short-rib in it and was topped with a dollop of sour cream. I made pampushky to serve with it. Pampushky are like little savoury doughnuts, rolled or dipped in garlic and salt. I actually had some blaa dough on hand, so I just formed that into little balls, deep-fried them and sprinkled on garlic crushed with salt, creating what may be the the world's first Irish-Ukranian doughnut. If that isn't a hymn to immigration I don't know what is.

Thursday 2 February 2012

Product review: Hotel Chocolat Season of Love Goody Bag

I'm really not one of those people who is motivated by chocolate, but in a long and grim, grey January, the offer of a sweet treat as a pick-me-up was pretty much irresistible. I was given the chance to sample the Season of Love Goody Bag (£17) from the Hotel Chocolate Valentine's Day range and I grabbed it with both hands.

Firstly, as I don't buy chocolate very often I was a bit shocked by the price. 12 truffles, a 100g slab of chocolate and 80g of chocolate buttons for £17? Is that the going rate? I know Hotel Chocolat have high ethical standards and tick all those important boxes but really? I could buy a lot of nice cheese and a packet of crackers for £17 so I do struggle a bit to see that as good value, regardless of how prettily the chocolates were presented.

And they are presented prettily. The gift bag and ribbon are high-quality and feel luxurious, unfortunately the gift tag/label looks terribly tacky, and if I were giving this to someone I would definitely remove it and attach my own gift card.

Obviously though, the important thing is how they taste.

Soft chilli caramels - I was expecting these to be my favourites. Dark chocolate with a chilli-spiked liquid caramel centre certainly sounded like my cup of tea. And yet, they somehow missed the mark. The filling was divine: a nicely flowing caramel with a gentle, building warmth of chilli. If that was bottled by itself I would pour it over ice cream at every opportunity. It was the dark chocolate that let them down, I think partly because I prefer enrobed chocolates to moulded ones. The chocolate was slightly waxy and had a faint after-taste that didn't work harmoniously with the chilli.

Raspberry Riot - This, on the other hand, was SO much nicer than I expected! A slab of raspberry and milk chocolate studded with freeze-dried raspberry pieces and chunks of biscuit, as someone who really doesn't like fruit and chocolate together this didn't float my boat at all. But somehow, the tart tang of the raspberries and the malty crunch of the biscuit cut through the sweetness of the chocolate to make something really delicious. This slab disappeared very, very quickly - and Paul ate at least half of it, which is unusual.

Vanilla Truffles - Given the black-speckled filling of these truffles, I was expecting a really pronounced vanilla flavour. They didn't deliver a strong flavour, but they did offer a very pleasant, gentle vanilla filling, inside a not-too-sweet milk chocolate mould. Very nice.

Caramel Buttons - These were absolutely lovely. Milk chocolate but with a strong, clear flavour of caramel. Fortunately Paul wasn't too interested in them, so after a token offer I didn't have to share.

Overall - Would I buy these? Probably not. I don't have anyone that I buy Valentine's chocolate for, and with all the pink and the heart shapes it's not like I could give them for a February birthday or anything. But would I be utterly delighted if someone gave me this goody bag? Why yes, yes I would.

*Usual disclaimer: the product was provided free of charge, no other compensation was offered or requested, views are my own and no PRs get to vet my copy*


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