Saturday 24 March 2012

Cooking the Books: tempering chocolate for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

It seems like ages since I last participated in Cook the Books - what with one thing and another I totally missed the Outlaw Cook round so I haven't done one since last November.

But what a book to come back on! Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl is a classic children's book - a wonderful fantasy with a good dollop of the macabre and some none-too-subtle moralising. Just the way I like them really.

It's a great book for the food lover. From the painfully austere, watery, cabbage soup that the Bucket family lives on, to the small, tantalising luxury of Charlie's birthday chocolate bar and then the unimaginable abundance of the chocolate factory itself, it is all described with an acute ear for language and a beautiful sense of timing.

My favourite bit is when the children first enter the factory, and go into the room where everything is edible. It always concerned me a bit that the chocolate river had to be untouched by human hands but there were no barriers to eating the mint sugar grass or anything else. I thought briefly of trying to make an edible garden, but quickly discarded the idea as being far too much hard work.

I decided to do something straightforward and absolutely fundamental to making chocolate. Tempering it.

Apparently chocolate contains several different types of crystals, and to get the best chocolate-eating-experience, you have to line them all up in the same direction. Or something. Anyway - tempering is the controlled heating and cooling of chocolate which gives it a professional gloss, a crisp snap and stops the fats from blooming out of it and making it look patchy.

I followed these instructions, from Hope and Greenwood, using the "Middle ground for people with a social life" version.

As you can see - for the dark chocolate I was tempering, I got it to precisely the right temperature. That's 31.5C, in case you can't see the decimal point.

I used my tempered chocolate to line two of my silicon rose moulds. Once it set, I filled the moulds with chocolate mousse and chilled them to set.

They turned out beautifully! The perfect snap, the perfect smooth texture and a lovely glossy finish. Willy Wonka would be proud of me!

Deb is hosting this round of Cook the Books, and the closing day is tomorrow, so check back in a few days for her round-up of the entries.

Monday 19 March 2012

Meat Free Monday: mostly Greek feta pie

I hope that a Greek person will immediately recognise this as tiropita, but I wasn't aiming for authenticity when I made it. I just wanted to make something with phyllo pastry and a creamy, cheesy filling.

Half way through beating the filling, I had a sudden memory of the divine
spicy cheese dip htipiti, which I first encountered in Joanne Weir's wonderful book From Tapas to Meze. A sudden yearning for spicy cheese sent me lunging for the bottle of smoked chilli sauce, and a goodly measure was applied to the filling.

To accompany my cheese pie, I decided to stick to my mostly-Greek theme and stuff some peppers. The Greeks do love their yemista! Instead of the typical substantial Greek fillings though, I based mine on the Piedmontese peppers popularised by Elizabeth David, Delia Smith, Jeremy Lee, Simon Hopkinson (and pretty much every other British food writer) and gave them a bit of a Greek twist.

So, unusually for me, today I have two delicious, meat-free recipes to offer you. They work extremely well together and are equally good served warm or at room temperature. It's also quite economical to make these together because they cook for the same length of time and at the same temperature, so they can happily share space in the oven.

Peppers στο πόδι του βουνού (babelfish assures me that this is the translation of "at the foot of the mountain" - which is what Piedmont means - I look forward to hearing from Greek speakers what I actually just wrote)

3 small red or orange peppers
12 black olives
juice of half a lemon
pinch of oregano
2 cloves garlic
3-4 tomatoes
olive oil

Halve the peppers lengthwise and put in a baking dish. Fill each half with 2 olives, cut in half, a pinch of oregano, a squeeze of lemon and a couple of slices of garlic, then nestle in a half or quarter tomato (depending on size) and a drizzle of olive oil.

Bake at 180C for 45 minutes.

Mostly Greek Feta Pie (makes 6-8 portions)

packet phyllo pastry
125g butter, melted
600g feta (if it ain't Greek, it ain't feta)
250g ricotta
3 eggs + 1 egg yolk
4 spring onions, sliced finely
Handful of fresh dill, chopped
slosh of chilli sauce, to taste

Make the filling first, by simply crumbling or mashing the feta with a fork and adding the ricotta, eggs, spring onions, dill and chilli sauce.

Brush a lasagne dish with melted butter, then layer half the pastry in, brushing between layers with more of the butter. Work quickly, so the remaining sheets of pastry don't dry out.

Scrape the filling into the pastry, then top with the remaining sheets, again brushing with butter in between layers. Fold any sticking-out bits in neatly and brush with more butter.

Bake at 180C for 45 minutes, then allow to cool for 10 minutes before cutting into portions, to allow the filling time to set a bit.

Saturday 17 March 2012

Fish Fight Update and some mussels

We're still trying to vary the types of seafood we eat and to make sustainable choices. These lovely mussels were simply cooked with wine, garlic, tomatoes and parsley for a very quick supper.

There is something more that you can do to preserve our fisheries than making informed purchases when you shop.

On Monday, the Fisheries Ministers from the 27 member states are meeting in Brussels to decide the future of the discards ban - and apparently the French minister is going to try to get it blocked. Richard Benyon, Minister for the Natural Environment and Fisheries has been quite strong on calling for the ban on discards, although his mention of "appropriate timelines" could be weasel words toeing the line with the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee arguing that the ban should be delayed until 2020. You can tell all the Ministers that you support the ban on discards, and a sensible, sustainable, reformed Common Fisheries Policy, by using this nifty twitter tool. This is a Big Yellow Taxi moment - please don't let the ban get blocked.

Wednesday 14 March 2012

Proper Aussie Meat Pies: it's Pi Day

Last week was British pie week. Twitter, the newspapers and my fellow bloggers gave shout-outs to the magnificence that is the British pie - and believe me, a good British pie really is magnificent - but I just wasn't feeling it this year. In fact, I realised that I missed it last year too, and 2010 was the last time I celebrated pie week (and even that was tentative).

This hasn't been through any disillusionment with pies. Certainly not. Last year, I adopted Pi Day instead, and this year, as well as being tickled by the nerdy beauty of π, I was craving Australian, not British pies.

I don't know what it is, but there is something about the Australian meat pie that British versions just can't get right. It needs to have a very simple, savoury filling, with enough gravy to be moist but solid enough to eat without making a mess of your shirt, face or hands. The pastry needs to be flaky but still providing stability. It doesn't have to be eaten at the football, but it needs to remind you that you could if you wanted to.

So I tooled up with some 4 1/2" foil cases (really cheap on ebay) and some beef mince and got under way.

I wanted to make a good sized batch, and freeze some, so that the next time I had this sort of craving I was in a good position to feed it. I got pretty damn close to perfection, too, with the right balance of pastry, which was sturdy enough to eat out of hand, and a substantial filling.

Proper Aussie Meat Pies (makes 12 generously filled 4 1/2" pies)

splash vegetable oil
800g beef mince (around 10% fat)
1 large onion, half grated, half finely minced
3 tbs beef gravy paste (I used Colmans)
splash water (about 1/4 cup)
splash worcestershire sauce
1/4 tsp ground mace
1/2 tsp ground white pepper
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1 500g pack puff pastry
1 500g pack shortcrust pastry
1 egg, to glaze and seal

In a large sauté pan, cook the onion until translucent, then add the mince and brown well, breaking it up as you go. The aim is for quite a fine-grained filling, not lots of lumps. Add the gravy paste, water and seasonings and cook to a thick stew. Allow to cool completely.

Roll the shortcrust pastry thinly (about 2-3mm) and use a saucer to cut out circles. I cut the block of pastry in half because I don't have a work surface big enough. Use the circles to line 4 1/2" foil pie dishes. I stacked the lined dishes to help make sure the pastry was pressed in properly.

Fill the lined dishes with a couple of heaped tablespoons of the cooled beef mince filling.

Brush the rim of the pastry with a little beaten egg, and top with a circle of rolled out puff pastry. Use a fork to crimp the edges, then glaze with more beaten egg. Decorate with the mathematical constant of your choice (I used a toothpick to draw π).

The pies can either be baked immediately, at 200C for 15 minutes, or frozen and then baked from frozen for 35-40 minutes.

It wouldn't be the proper Australian pie experience without tomato sauce.

I think my next challenge will be the much smaller Party Pie, without which no Australian birthday party is complete.

Monday 12 March 2012

Meat Free Monday: Baid bi tamaten

Tomatoes, hollowed out and nestled onto wholemeal pita bread. Their flesh cooked with onions and herbs, packed back into the shells, topped with an egg, cheese and za'atar and baked. This recipe, from Sally Butcher's book Veggiestan, is delicious, satisfying and remarkably forgiving of being microwaved at work. I'd be keen to try more of these recipes, but when I tried to order a copy of the book Amazon said it was unavailable - so I will have to venture into an actual bricks & mortar shop to get it.

Friday 9 March 2012

When life hands you beetroot, make chocolate cake

We're back at that challenging time of year when the veg box contains beetroot every week. Even now that we have opted back in to potatoes in the box (partly because the substitute was often radishes, and I just can't see radishes as more than a minor player in a salad) we still get an awful lot of beetroot.

I've done a lot with them, over the last few years, but Paul still isn't a fan.

This recipe may have finally turned him around. As the reviews on the website said (which I should have read beforehand) the batter is too thick for a blender. I ended up having to scrape it into a bowl to finish making it, because I was in pretty real danger of burning out the motor. But eventually a startlingly red batter forms, which bakes to a delectably rich, moist chocolate cake. Paul said I should use this recipe every time I want to make a chocolate cake from here on in. So that's a very good sign.

Tuesday 6 March 2012

Barbecue Season 2012

There are lots of ways to mark the passing of the seasons. Picnicking under cherry blossom, dreading the jacaranda as a harbinger of exam time, composing poems to the autumn moon, planting corn when oak leaves are the size of a squirrel's ear, thrilling at the first day warm enough for short sleeves. For us, one of the big markers of the arrival of spring is the first barbecue of the year. Which I know amuses my hardier readers who grill outdoors all year round.

This year's was on March 1st, St David's Day. Not a leek in sight. It was such a good idea that I think I am going to declare this a new family tradition, and come hell or high snow, we WILL barbecue on St David's Day next year.

Paul cooked a slab of pork belly. It was in the Weber, lid-down on indirect heat, for an hour and a half.

When I scooted in from work (yes, I have a new job - such a relief!) I chucked together a red cabbage slaw and a warm, vinegar-dressed, dill-redolent potato salad.

Best crackling ever.

The last slices of tender, smoky pork turned up in quesadillas for brunch on Saturday. A handful of grated emmenthal, a couple of sliced spring onions and they were absolute perfection.


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