Thursday 27 September 2012

Liz McLarnon's pumpkin cupcakes for British Cheese Week

I don't watch Masterchef, celebrity or otherwise. I can't deal with the manufactured drama and the hosts irritate me beyond words. I didn't know who Liz McClarnon was until I googled. Still, I was quite happy to be approached with some recipes developed by Celeb Masterchef winner Liz McClarnon for Cathedral City Cheddar, as part of British Cheese Week.

As you may have noticed, for me all weeks are Cheese Week, but I still don't think it hurts to put the spotlight on the lovely cheeses we make in Britain from time to time. I also live with someone who has more of a savoury tooth, so it's always easy to get him to taste something cheesy.

I had a few minor quibbles with the recipe. Firstly, it says that it makes 20, but the instructions are to use 12 cupcake cases. It also says that the preparation time is 15 minutes, but that only works if you have some leftover roast butternut lurking around the house. Also, it is something of a pet peeve of mine to have an ingredient listed in the title of the recipe (chilli) and then only feature as a garnish. You don't call it a cocoa tiramisu just because there is a dusting of cocoa powder on it, do you? A final, nitpicky peeve, these are muffins, not cupcakes. The difference is in the method - cupcakes are a creamed batter, muffins add a wet mix to a dry mix. I am only letting this one through because of the conceit of decorating them like a cupcake, which is cute.

I made a half recipe, because of the very short keeping time. That turned out to be 9 muffins. I may have been using smaller eggs than they did when they tested it, because my mixture was terribly dry so I added a second egg to it. I added a good pinch of chilli flakes to the batter to get a bit of warmth into it. When they were cool I looked at what a half quantity of the topping looked like... and made the full quantity. 25g each of cream cheese and crème fraiche just looked so sad in the bowl.

I'm still not interested in seeking out Liz McClarnon's body of work as an actor, but these were delicious little savoury muffins. Next time, I will increase the amount of chilli, because it didn't come through at all, but other than that, I think these were very successful.

Liz McClarnon's Cathedral City Mature Butternut Squash and Chilli Cupcakes

Makes: 20 cupcakes
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes

For the cupcakes:
2 eggs
175ml semi-skimmed milk
250g mashed, roasted butternut squash
125g Cathedral City Mature, grated
3 chopped spring onions
80g uncooked rolled oats
125g whole wheat flour
125g plain flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. maple syrup

For the topping:
Chopped spring onions (the darker green part)
50g crème fraiche
50g soft cream cheese
Chilli flakes


Preheat the oven to 190°C and line a cupcake tray with 12 paper cases.
In a large mixing bowl combine the squash, milk and eggs.

In a separate medium bowl, sift together the flours, baking powder and salt, making sure they are evenly rubbed through. To this bowl, add the spring onions, Cathedral City Mature, oats and syrup and mix until evenly distributed. Pour in the egg mixture and mix until it is just about combined.

Fill the cupcake cases about 3/4 full with the mixture and bake for about 15-20 minutes or until they are a golden brown. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely before adding the topping.

To make the topping, mix the crème fraiche and the soft cheese together until smooth. Pop this in the fridge for about 10 minutes to get it to a good piping consistency. Using a piping bag with a star tip, pipe small 50p sized tops onto the cupcakes.

Dress this with a couple of sprigs of chopped spring onion and a smattering of chilli flakes. These will keep in an airtight tin for 24 hours.

I struggled to make my chilli sprinkles even

Tuesday 25 September 2012

BSFIC - Triple ginger and nectarine ice cream

I love ice cream. It's pretty much my favourite dessert. I try not to eat it too often, or have it in the house that often either, so I don't do the Bloggers Scream for Ice Cream challenge much. I do pay attention to it though! Seeing that this month's BSFIC challenge was spices really captured my imagination.

I decided to use the same egg, mascarpone and cream base that I'd used for my whiskey marmalade ice cream at Christmas - it's very rich but not too sweet and has a lovely texture. From that point I decided I wanted to build up layers of ginger flavours.

My original plan was to use some marinated baby figs to add interesting texture and another dimension of flavour, but then I saw some beautiful white nectarines on discount and decided to use them instead.

Nectarines waiting for roasting
Triple ginger and roasted nectarine ice cream

4 white nectarines
1tbs golden syrup
2tsp ground ginger
2 eggs, separated
50g icing sugar
250g mascarpone
3tbs Kings Ginger liqueur
150ml double cream
50g crystallised ginger, chopped
1tbs Kings Ginger extra, per serving

Slice the nectarines and place in a baking dish. Drizzle with golden syrup and dust evenly with the ground ginger. Bake at 160C for about an hour, until soft, slightly caught in places and delicious-looking. Chop into smaller pieces and allow to cool.

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 and ginger liqueur. 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. Fold in the cooled nectarines and crystallised ginger.

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 (the nectarines still have quite a lot of water in them, so this sets harder than my whiskey marmalade version).

Serve with a drizzle of extra ginger liqueur on each portion.

Seriously lush: smooth, creamy with a warm spicy aftertaste

Saturday 22 September 2012

Cook the Books: Fried chicken for Home Cooking

I have slightly mixed feelings about Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking, the current Cook the Books Club selection. I mean, I thoroughly enjoyed every page of it, and I can see myself going back to re-read bits often. Unfortunately, with the pleasure of discovering a new author and a new book came the discovery that Laurie Colwin died tragically young and I will never get to take her out for a drink.

And she really does come across as someone you'd like to take out for a drink. Warm, funny, down-to-earth with a sharp eye for human foibles. The food she writes about is very much home cooking - straightforward, accessible, inexpensive ingredients and things that people actually like eating. Which, sadly, is not the case in a lot of cook books.

It took me quite a while to decide what to make. I was intrigued by angostura bitters in a salad dressing, but I haven't been brave enough. I've made Black Cake before and it was utterly delicious, but not the sort of thing I want to have hanging around the house this far away from Christmas. I've been intrigued by the notion of Sussex Pond Pudding for years, but the weather just hasn't been playing ball with the idea of a boiled pudding.

Then I saw Felicity Cloake use Laurie Colwin's fried chicken recipe in her How to Cook Perfect... series, and decided that I would give it a go.

My previous best endeavours with fried chicken have all been in seasoned flour, rather than batter or breadcrumbs, so I felt OK about that bit. What was a total departure for me was shallow frying, crowding the pan and covering it.
Apparently having the pan slightly crowded is a good thing

But you know what? I am a total convert. The chicken (I used bone-in chicken thighs) was tender and moist inside, with a really properly crunchy outside. And because for the majority of the cook time the lid is on the pan, the whole house doesn't smell like frying. So I am very happy to send this to our book club host Deb as my contribution to the Home Cooking feast!

I did some fried pickles too

Thursday 20 September 2012

Crawfish Boil (birthday part II)

You've seen the cake... this is what happened later that evening.

Before the onslaught

Earlier this summer, I saw Bea's of Bloomsbury tweet that they were doing Summer Crawfish Boils. I was captivated. Over the years I've seen so many shows on TV and read so many books talking about crawfish boils, but short of actually going to the USA, I didn't think I would get to experience it.

It took some organising. I figured that this was the sort of thing that is much more fun in a group, but most of our friends have at least one fussy eater or shellfish allergic or vegetarian person per couple. And our friends who I knew would love it were on holiday or couldn't get a babysitter for most of August.

Then I saw that there was going to be one on my birthday. I knew that could give me a bit of leverage.

It was something of an adventure. People make jokes about people from north London never going south of the river, but in my case it is true. This little patch of SE1 was geographically not very far away from where I work, but transportationally challenging and worlds away psychologically. Or £10 in a taxi, anyway.

I was set down in a funny little back street next to a railway bridge. There was a sign on a garage roller door that indicated that I was in the right place, but I wasn't totally convinced. Nor were the next couple who turned up. Or the several other people who walked towards us and then turned away, clutching their smartphones in panic.

A door set in the roller door opened, and those of us who'd shown the courage of our convictions were admitted.

Wine, in jam jars, and a whole lotta condiments
Rows of trestle tables and rather rickety benches. Large black bin bags taped to the ends of the tables, along with piles of bibs and industrial rolls of paper towel. An impressive array of condiments.

Eventually Paul and our friends turned up, wine was procured from the bar and the food started to arrive.

Massive trays of very good garlic bread (I am a sucker for garlic bread) came out first, but I didn't let it distract me, because I knew what was coming. Vats of crayfish, boiled together with celery, corn, potatoes and chunks of Polish sausage and a lot of spice. The crayfish were sweet as nuts and somehow everything had been boiled for exactly the right time to be tender and perfect. When our tray was down to the last couple of potatoes, another tray arrived. From time to time we dumped the piles of debris from our paper plates into the bin bags at the end of the table. Paul & Norm spent quite a while experimenting with different combinations of sauces to make the ultimate one. I just dunked the corn and potatoes in the spiced melted butter and ate the crayfish and sausage as they were.

As well as being a lot of fun, and a gastronomic highlight, we were actually performing a national service, because these were signal crayfish, which are introduced and do an enormous amount of damage. So gorging ourselves was only polite.

When the pace of crayfish consumption slowed, dessert came around. These were what the UK calls "ice lollies", Australia calls "icy poles" and Mexico calls "paletas". The one I had was the purest strawberry - probably just strawberry puree, with only the smallest hint of sugar. The only thing I could possibly have fit in at the end of a meal that size.

The main event

Monday 17 September 2012

Meat Free Monday - Lasagne Verdi

A fortnight or so ago, I was perusing iplayer, 4oD etc trying to find some good food TV to watch with my dinner. I came across an amazing thing - a current foody show that I had heard absolutely nothing about. While it was called Simply Italian, it was actually just pasta, as cooked by a pretty Welsh girl from an Italian family.

Not that there is anything wrong with just pasta. It's just not really representative of the breadth of Italian cooking, is it?

I particularly liked the way, over 4 episodes, Michela Chiappa built up from the most simple noodles that she rolled by hand, to much more elaborate filled pastas with more complicated techniques.

While I've made pasta quite a few times, I've never tried to make a spinach pasta. I thought the recipe for lasagne verdi with sage and walnut pesto looked absolutely gorgeous - plus our garden produces much more sage than we know what to do with.

I found making the pasta very straightforward. I was worried that the spinach would make it much stickier, but actually it was a really obedient paste.

First pass through the pasta machine
I had some really lovely, unpasteurised buffalo mozzarella (discounted - it'd be a seriously expensive dish otherwise!), which I tore up and scattered between the layers, rather than grating an older mozzarella. The only other change I made was to add 2 cloves of garlic to the pesto, instead of just a half. What use is half a clove of garlic?

I've heard a few times that the difference between proper Italian lasagne and what we usually get is the thickness of the layers - this lasagne was 5 very thin layers, quite different from the 3 thicker layers I'd normally do.

Ready for baking
It... was absolutely delicious. I think the lemon zest and juice is absolutely crucial. Without it, I think it would have been quite stodgy and hard work, but as it was the flavours were light and zingy. I thought there was a subtle flavour of spinach in the pasta itself, which was very nice. Plus the sheets of pasta were so much thinner than commercial ones, I honestly don't think I will go back to bought pasta, even "fresh" for lasagne.

Luscious and bubbling, but unexpectedly fresh-tasting

Saturday 15 September 2012

Chocolate cherry birthday cake

Cherries waiting for sugar and booze

I've just had a birthday. Not a *big* birthday, the one before that. I don't usually make too much fuss about my birthday, but this year I decided that I wanted to make myself a cake.

I actually began thinking about this cake about a month ago. I started with the way I wanted to decorate it, and worked my way back. On my first birthday after I moved to the UK, my mother sent me a very pretty card with cherry blossoms on it, and made the point that even though it was autumn where I was, I'd been a spring baby.

So I knew I wanted to decorate it with cherry blossoms. And that pretty much decided me on it being a chocolate and cherry cake (although I had a brief moment of flirting with the idea of a green tea sponge, to make it more Japanese).

We've had a terrible summer for cherries. We sponsor a cherry tree in an orchard in Kent, and the newsletters we were getting through the summer became progressively gloomier as everything that could go wrong for a cherry tree did. In August I did spot some English cherries in the supermarket, and put them down in some sugar and alcool pour fruits, a strong clear spirit.

I made my normal chocolate cake, using a mixture of sour cream and evaporated milk, thinned with a little water, instead of the evap milk and water mixture in the recipe. And butter not marg, of course.

Cherry blossoms

I rolled out about 100g of bought pink fondant quite thinly (could have been thinner though, I think) and cut out cherry blossoms (I have some Japanese cookie/vegetable cutters in cherry blossom, plum blossom and maple leaf shapes). I sandwiched 2 blossoms together, slightly offset, with a dab of edible glue and pressed the end of a chopstick in the middle to give a bit of a divot and splay the petals out into more of a cup shape. Then I put a dab more edible glue and a few gold sugar pearls into the middle of each and dusted them with a sprinkling of decorator glitter.

I made a sourcream buttercream from not-quite-enough butter, sourcream, vanilla and icing sugar. About a third of the frosting I mixed with the drained, boozy cherries, and used it to fill the split cake. The rest of the buttercream I spread over the cake, and allowed to set in the fridge overnight.

In the morning, I used chocolate writing fudge to draw on some branches, and placed the blossoms on the cake. I thought it looked really effective. Tasted very good too!

The finished article

Sunday 9 September 2012

Sweet nutty treats

Another week of holiday for the nut-allergic staff member means the chance to make more nutty treats for work.

When I did the bacon masterclass a month or so ago, I declared that I wouldn't make bacon jam fudge again, but I would use the technique for making other flavours. I've been contemplating other flavours, and settled on peanut butter for my first solo fudge experiment. I followed this recipe (which, as far as I remember, is the same proportions as Niamh's recipe, but on the way home from the bacon class one of my containers oozed all over the recipe sheet and I had to throw it away).  At the "remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract" point, I added about 1/3 cup of crunchy peanut butter (I buy an organic no-added-sugar one, because I think it has a better flavour).

It was, unfortunately, the hottest day of the summer so far. Making fudge - while I had the oven on as well - was one of my less happy ideas. I was dripping sweat and drinking pints of water while I beat it.

Still. It did work very well. Smooth, creamy, with a slight salt tang and the occasional crunch of a chunky bit of peanut. If I were to make it again I think I would add some more coarsely chopped peanuts as well, for a bit more textural contrast.

peanut butter fudge
I've also been wanting to make Nigella Lawson's Pecan Plus Pie ever since Heather blogged about it 18 months ago (I have an exceptional memory for recipes, but I do keep a spreadsheet for things I want to blog about). It certainly seemed to fit the bill as a portable sweet treat that packed the maximum quantity of nuts into the smallest possible space. To make it more shareable, I baked it in a rectangular tin. I also added 1tbs cocoa powder to the pastry, to add a subtle chocolatey  flavour to the base. I also used slightly more nuts than the recipe called for - a 400g packet of roasted, salted mixed nuts. When it was cool, I cut it into 18 bars.

It was delicious. I will never order pecan pie in a restaurant or cafe again; this was so much better than any I have ever had before. Short, crumbly pastry, sweet, smooth golden-syrupy custard and crisp, crunchy nuts. I particularly liked the interplay of the different tastes and textures of the nuts (as you can see, the mixed nuts I used contained pecans, almonds, hazelnuts, cashews and peanuts). It made a very good slice to have with a cup of tea, but I can see that it would make a fantastic dessert, maybe with some creme fraiche icecream.

A good day's work.

Friday 7 September 2012

Turkey taco salad

This is a very quick, very tasty, very satisfying meal. I made it for lunch one bank holiday Monday and it definitely won't be the last time. In fact, I think it would be very do-able as a work lunch, taking one container of salad veg and one container of the turkey chilli, and microwaving it.

I sauteed a small chopped onion in a splash of oil and added 1tbs of ground coriander, 1tbs of ground cumin and 1tsp hot smoked paprika, then browned minced turkey thighs in the spice mixture. I added a spoonful of chipotle in adobo and a bit of water and let it simmer until it was almost dry, then stirred through a handful of chopped coriander leaves.

In our big meal-sized noodle bowls I piled chopped little gem lettuce, avocado and tomatoes, and squeezed a bit of lemon juice over it. I divided the hot turkey chilli between the bowls and topped them with a spoonful of fat-free yoghurt and a small grating of cheese.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

Brasserie Zedel

I sort of expected Tin Tin to jump out of that train

I'm not an early adopter. I can't be bothered rushing to get ahead of the pack or queuing to get into the latest restaurant or bar. I'd rather sit back and wait until a place is a bit more established and the hordes have moved on to the next big thing. But I do read restaurant reviews eagerly and make a mental note of places to try at some point. 
Lovely woven napkins

There have been a lot of reviews of Brasserie Zedel lately. They've generally been favourable if a bit lukewarm - "really very good for what it was", "the menu reads like a 1950s cookbook", "at these prices it's churlish to complain", "a soapy wallow in all the things we adore about French bourgeois ideals" - but the descriptions of lavish decor and cheap, classic French food was enough to intrigue me. When a friend said she was going to be in London one Saturday and could we have lunch, it seemed like a good place to head for even though it is new and shiny and being talked about a lot.

Steak haché - that's a hamburger to you & me

I had an appointment with my hairdresser which made me very, very late for lunch. Very late. So late that they had to leave the bar they were waiting for me in and get a snack of soup dumplings to tide them over. It was about 4pm when we eventually walked into the mammoth marble and brass hall that is the main part of Brasserie Zedel. And obviously most people have finished lunch and aren't thinking about dinner at that sort of time, so there were very few other people eating.

Since my friends had just been eating xiao long bao, they weren't ravenous. I was hungry, but also aware that Paul was at home and expecting me to have dinner with him in not-many-hours. We skipped starters and went straight to mains. Very boringly, we all ordered the steak haché - a patty of minced steak, with a peppercorn sauce and French fries. When it came out I had a moment of confusion, wondering why they'd garnished with a scattering of lentils. But of course they aren't, they are green peppercorns. It was very good, somehow managing to taste steakier than an average minced meat burger.

I don't understand why a place like Zedel can offer the steak haché cooked rare or medium, and so many other places will only serve a burger well-done "because of health and safety". I think it just means those other places are lazy and their meat isn't fresh. Anyway - mine was medium rare and delicious and did me no harm.

The fries were thin, crisp, greaseless and perfect. They came in a paper cone, standing in a silver torch-shaped arrangement.

Loved the silver fries holder.
The restaurant was actually quite brightly lit, but a diffuse light, which totally freaked out my camera, hence the yellow cast to all the pictures.

For dessert, I ordered the Peach Melba. The waiter said something about it being a good choice because it's a classic dessert, which struck me as odd when the menu also contained Ile flottante, Savarin aux fruits et rhum and Gâteau Opéra. All the desserts, in fact, are classics. This wasn't the best peach melba I have had. The whole dish was too cold, the icecream was a bit crystalline and I have the faintest suspicion that it was a tinned peach. Still, it wasn't the worst I have had either.

All the reviews were right about the prices - 2 courses each, and a bottle of wine shared between 4 of us, and it came to £18 a head. That really is very good for central London. We weren't deliberately choosing the cheap stuff either, we could have got it lower than that if we tried.

Peach Melba

I think pretty soon Brasserie Zedel will be established as a reliable place to take the family when you are having a day out in London. And I think it'll do very well for business lunches. It's definitely one to keep in mind if you are in the area - partly because it has the nicest loos I've seen in a London restaurant, and access to decent loos is priceless, in my opinion.

Sunday 2 September 2012

Mushrooms on toast

We're making an attempt to eat a bit more healthily, and maybe lose some weight. At this stage, it's smaller portion sizes, trying to reduce the calorie intake and being a bit more mindful of where the calories are coming from. And one thing that sadly doesn't fit that model is a massive fried breakfast on a weekend.

At the same time though, food still has to taste nice and be inviting and on a weekend it should be a bit luxurious. I think these mushrooms on toast fit the bill nicely. I have no idea what the calorie count is, but it is definitely lower than a standard fried breakfast.

As it was just us, I toasted 4 slices of dark rye and walnut sourdough bread on one side under the grill. Then I thinly sliced 30g of soft cheese and melted that onto the untoasted side. I sauteed sliced white mushrooms in a small knob of butter with garlic, tarragon, parsley and a slosh of vermouth, then when the juices had almost evaporated, piled the mushrooms onto the cheesy toast.


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