Tuesday 31 July 2012

Bacon Masterclass with Eat Like A Girl

OK, the bacon thing has possibly gone a bit far. I never wanted to live in a world that produces bacon-flavoured toothpaste, personal lubricant or jellybeans. But as I discovered at Christmas, bacon jam is really delicious, so who am I to judge?

Niamh Shields, the originator of the whiskey bacon jam recipe I made at Christmas, has been running bacon masterclasses in London for a few months now, sharing some of her more off-the-wall bacon ideas. Given how good the bacon jam was, I decided to trust her and book in. Then discovered that the cooking classes were being held a 10 minute walk from my office, so it was terribly convenient, as well as intriguing.

Denhay streaky smoked bacon

Niamh is getting some help from Denhay bacon for these classes, so all the bacon we used was Denhay streaky, but we had a choice of smoked or unsmoked. I used smoked for all my dishes. I really don't see the point of unsmoked bacon!

We started off making bacon jam - not the whiskey version I'd made before. There were only 6 of us (she'd had a couple of cancellations) so we got plenty of personal attention. I really appreciated being told that it wasn't ready now but now it is - often when I am following recipes I'm not quite sure if I'm at the right stage or if it is looking and feeling as it should.

Bacon jam beginning its slow cook to unctuousness
Certainly Niamh encouraged us to let the jam cook a long way beyond the point where I would have pulled it off the heat.

The beginning of candied bacon

Then we made maple and tamarind candied bacon. This stuff should be illegal. We each candied a whole pack of bacon and I can tell you that less, considerably less, than a whole pack made it home with me. The complex sweet, tangy flavour of maple syrup, tamarind concentrate and a sprinkle of chipotle powder overlaying smokey, salty bacon is more-ish to say the least.

Maple, tamarind, chipotle candied bacon

We were discussing what you'd do with candied bacon - other than eat it by the handful - and I think my favourite suggestion was to crumble it over a Caesar salad. But I also think it'd be good on jacket potatoes with a little sour cream and chives, or on some home-made baked beans. Or in a really epic sandwich, on soft white buttered bread.

Fudge - really good to know how it is supposed to look
Then we made fudge. I've tried to make old-fashioned fudge before (I don't think my mother has recovered from the mess I made as a teenager making fudge and barley sugar with my friend Lis) but without much success. This is where being specifically told when it is right was so valuable. It was also really interesting to see that, with the same ingredients and the same recipe, every single one of us took a different amount of time to get to the same point. My stove-mate was feeling quite downhearted that her fudge took a good 10 minutes longer than mine to reach the right temperature to pull it off the heat.

At the end we beat some of the bacon jam into the fudge, creating an unexpectedly delicious confectionery. At least, I thought it was unexpectedly delicious; a few of the people who have tasted it have been less enthusiastic. I probably won't make bacon jam fudge again, but I will definitely make fudge again. It had the perfect ever-so-slightly crumbly texture that you look for in real dairy fudge. I'm looking forward to testing some different flavours. So that's Christmas presents sorted out!

Bacon jam, fudge and candied bacon. Only missing the bacon vodka
Finally we stood around drinking wine while Niamh made a batch of bacon vodka and distributed it to all of us. It needed a few days of infusing, so we didn't get to taste it then and there. It came home, where it will reappear in a perfect Sunday brunch bloody Mary. At some point. It's in the freezer right now.

Bacon jam, egg and tomato brunch sandwich
The class wasn't cheap, but it really was good value. Excellent facilities, top-notch ingredients and Niamh leading you through some interesting recipes made it very much worthwhile. Plus she gave first aid to anyone who found the super-sharp knives too challenging. It's not every day you can say you've been bandaged by a published author.

Saturday 28 July 2012

Melting Moments and Kenyan Tea for Cook the Books

A quaint little teashop in a historic part of town is a pleasant setting for a nice, gentle murder mystery. And Death by Darjeeling, our latest Cook the Books Club selection, really is a nice, gentle murder mystery.

Single estate Kenyan teas
I was never in doubt that teashop owner Theodosia Browning would figure out whodunnit. I also didn't much care - I was just happy to float along on a cloud of tea-scented steam, enjoying the feeling of Charleston in "winter" (seems to be much like an English summer!) and wondering when our heroine would get a date with the charming-sounding lawyer. No real suspense, just an entertaining story, steeped in tea.

Kaamba - "a very malty flavour with light hints of currant"
As I read it, I remembered that I had been sent* a selection of Kenyan single estate teas by the Tea Board of Kenya, and I'd never got around to tasting them. African teas only get a passing reference in Death by Darjeeling, but there is so much about the different qualities and flavours and the art of blending them that I felt this was definitely the time to have a play with them.

There was no doubt at all that these were 3 different teas! Ranging from the small, almost round crumbs of the Kaamba, to the long, plump strands of the Milima, they didn't look at all alike.

Then things started to come a bit unstuck for my career as a tea blender. The teas, tasted by themselves, didn't taste the same, but if my life depended on it I couldn't have described the differences. Honestly, I'm quite good at wine tasting vocabulary, and I can normally pick out if a wine reminds me of tobacco or leather or red fruits or tropical fruit shower gel. But this? It tastes like tea. The taste of dried leaves boiled in water (that's a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy reference). It's a taste I really like, but I just can't describe what makes the Kaamba different from the Marinyn.

Milima - "a traditional orthodox tea with a bright liquor"
I realised that I needed some guidance from the experts. The tasting notes that came with the teas suggested a few different blends, and I felt that the one described as "a fresh crisp tea with an attractive bright colour" was right for me. Over the last year I have stopped taking milk in my tea, and as I was making a fresh, fruity biscuit to accompany it, I thought fresh and crisp would definitely work. And indeed, the blend of Marinyn and Milima was absolutely perfect (although I have also lost the knack of making tea in a pot and made it much too weak for the people drinking it with milk).

To go with the life-saving oolong (it's not oolong, but I'm prepared to bet Bertie Wooster's mostly wasn't either) I decided to make passionfruit melting moments.

The baked goods that Haley produces for Theodosia's shop are things that I think of as very American - blackberry scones (not much like English scones), butter cookies, caramel nut shortbread - so I decided to make one of the pinnacles of the Australian baker's art.

Melting moments are a very old-fashioned sort of biscuit, quite crisp but melting to nothing as you bite them because of the cornflour or custard powder in them. And, as most old-fashioned dishes tend to be, very, very simple. The most traditional ones are vanilla or lemon flavoured, sandwiched with lemon icing, (they have to be sandwiched) but passionfruit are so common in Australia that they turn up a lot too.

I used Dan Lepard's recipe, and it was perfect. I used custard powder (since I'd bought some for another Dan Lepard recipe, his slider buns) and as well as the important melting texture it gave the biscuits a lovely appetising colour. Just the thing to accompany a cup of tea and a good book.

Passionfruit melting moments

* 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
This month, Cook the Books is being hosted by Rachel, the Crispy Cook, and you still have a couple of days to get your posts to her!

Sunday 22 July 2012

Unphotogenic but delicious sopa de ajo

This is not an attractive plate of food. It's nourishing, comforting, quick to make, economical and absolutely delicious. But it sure isn't pretty.

It's this recipe from Dan Lepard for sopa de ajo (garlic soup). I used stale sourdough instead of making my own zopako (it was late on a week-night, not the right time to be baking) and a bottled grilled red pepper (it was late on a week-night, not the right time to be grilling my own peppers).

For such simple ingredients, pretty bland in themselves, it has an extraordinary depth of flavour and packs a very comforting punch.

I haven't contributed anything to Deb's Souper (soup, salad and sammie) Sunday in ages, so unfortunately I will break the drought with unpretty food SouperSundays  

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Norfolk treacle tart

Penny's Paella - an all-seafood version
One Saturday morning, friends invited us to come over that evening for an impromptu paella. I offered to take a dessert, of course. And then realised that I really, really didn't want to leave the house to buy ingredients.

My mental inventory of the fridge and pantry (was too lazy to actually stand up and look) showed that I had a small carton of cream, quite a few eggs and some limes. And some pastry in the freezer.

I happened upon a recipe for a Norfolk Treacle Tart. This is not what most people think of when they hear the term "treacle tart" (actually, outside of the UK I have no idea what people think of when they hear the term treacle tart - possibly a sticky prostitute?). The treacle tart that, for example, Harry Potter likes, is a delicious, but tooth-achingly sweet mixture of breadcrumbs and golden syrup in a shortcrust pastry case.

This one is more like a baked custard tart, with the golden syrup as a flavouring. It is very rich but much less sweet than the breadcrumb version. When I made the filling, I looked at the quantity and realised it was going to be a very thin smear of custard, so I increased it by 50% (i.e 170g butter, 180g syrup, 3 eggs, 6 tbs cream). I also used lime zest and not lemon. This seemed poetic, as one of my early food memories involves lime marmalade eaten in Norfolk.

The other change was to use puff pastry. I opened the freezer to get the shortcrust out and was horrified to discover that it was gluten free, vegan shortcrust pastry. I can only imagine that the grocery delivery substituted my usual butter shortcrust one day when I wasn't paying attention. Anyway, that odd substitute for food can stay in the freezer until the day when I entertain a coeliac vegan. The puff pastry was delicious with it, though. The combination of flaky, crisp pastry and syrupy custard made the dessert a bit reminiscent of two of my favourites - the Greek dessert galaktoboureko, and Portuguese pasteis de nata.

It's a very good dessert to keep in mind for unexpected company! Or unexpected invitations.

A pile of fresh berries would be good on the side. Some creme fraiche or icecream would also be delicious.

Saturday 14 July 2012

Sipsmith Summer Cup

Pretty label - with the usual Sipsmith swan

This really hasn't been a Pimms sort of summer. In a good summer, we drink loads of summer cup. It's a peculiarly British beverage, a mysterious mixture of gin and flavourings which you drink diluted with a fizzy mixer, ice and fruit. It sounds a bit odd if you haven't tried it before, but it really is exceptionally refreshing and delicious.

I'm not sure how the idea of making basically a fruit punch out of this stuff came about. And I am not sure how it became so synonymous with the English summer, but it has and it is. Even pretty basic pubs sell pitchers of Pimms through the summer months. It's the perfect thing when you are hot and thirsty and don't want something too alcoholic.

Sipsmith, the lovely boutique gin distillery I visited at the beginning of last year, has launched its own summer cup this year. Apparently they wanted to launch it last year but it took longer than they thought to get the blend right, so they missed the summer (Fairfax, from Sipsmith, spoke at the gin club I go to some months ago and that was one of the anecdotes he told).

My friend Sharon, who was also on that distillery visit, saw that her local Waitrose was stocking the Sipsmith Summer Cup and nabbed a bottle for me.

I've generally preferred my Pimms with ginger ale, rather than the more commonly seen lemonade, but as the label on the bottle suggests lemonade I thought I should taste a few different mixers. You know, so that you don't have to.

No idea why the fruit is traditional but it is and it is lovely
I tried ginger beer, ginger ale, lemonade and half ginger ale, half lemonade. All the Fevertree brand, all with strawberries, cucumber and mint, and mixed 1:3 with the Summer Cup.

The ginger beer was definitely wrong. Far too firey and overpowering. The ginger ale was good, the lemonade was good, but by far the best way was the mixture of ginger ale and lemonade. It allowed much more of the tea, juniper and citrus flavours in the Summer Cup to come through and somehow was less sweet than each mixer by itself.

If we ever get some hot weather this summer, that's definitely how I will be drinking the rest of the bottle.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Further adventures with sticky buns

A friend recently told me about a stall at her local market in W.A that sells frozen, bake-at-home pastries. She bought some maple walnut scrolls or some such delicacy, which she was then able to whisk out of the freezer and bake as a treat at a later date. I thought that was absolutely genius.

I also thought it was very achievable at home. Why not make a batch of buns some day when I was quietly at home, freeze them, and then bake them on a day with less time?

I made my usual sweet bun recipe (without dried fruit) filling it with a mixed spice butter. I'd planned to just do cinnamon, but there was less cinnamon in the jar than I'd thought, so I added 1/2 tsp nutmeg and 1/2 tsp ground cloves to the 1 tbs cinnamon I did have.

I put the buns in a foil baking tray, covered it tightly with foil and put it straight in the freezer.

Several days later, we had an "away day" for work. Some workplaces go paintballing, some do a day trip to Bruge. We go to David's house and actually spend most of the day working. I thought freshly baked sticky buns would facilitate the process. I took the frozen tray of buns with me, stuck them in the oven (his oven door is hinged at the side, which took me by surprise) and half an hour later we had elevenses.

So - given the distance between my freezer and David's house, the buns had 2 1/4 hours to thaw and have their second rise before they were baked. They didn't have quite as much ovenspring as normal, but I actually think that was the fault of the yeast - I ran out of instant dried yeast, and made up the quantity with regular dried yeast and I don't think it is as effective.

This was very successful. I think next time I'll make a bigger batch so I can have a few trays tucked away for those moments when a sticky bun would be a good thing.

Saturday 7 July 2012

Tanya's salmon

My friend Tanya is notorious for eating salmon about 4 times a week. She wraps it in foil, pours on some sweet chilli sauce and bakes it. This week I tried it for the first time, and it was absolutely delicious. Maybe not 4 times a week, but definitely once a month!


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