Thursday 29 November 2012

Heartburn and Coconut Cake - Cook the Books Club

This month's Cook the Books Club feels like a turning point. After four years, we've had our first change in host personnel, as Joanna has stepped out and Simona and Heather have stepped in. After four years, the site has moved to a new blogspot home. And after four years of sourcing second hand copies of our books on Amazon, this is the first time I have used an e-reader. We live in interesting times.

Heartburn was announced as our book for this month back in April, a couple of months before author Nora Ephron passed away. The flood of obituaries that followed her death took Heartburn from a book that I had vaguely heard of, but was a little more familiar with as a movie, to a sort of cultural icon. There were articles on how it changed the dialogue about divorce and the background of her own marriage and divorce. Even more of the obituaries talked about Ephron's love of food. It made me very, very interested to finally read the book!

It's honestly not like anything I have read before. Very funny, even when describing heartbreak: for a story about the end of a marriage it was a very easy read. I didn't find any of the characters particularly sympathetic. Ephron managed to write a character based on herself without making herself particularly heroic or endearing.

One element I did like was the occasional line that Ephron used in later work. A rival is described as "Your basic nightmare", which is also how one of Sally's rivals is described in When Harry Met Sally, and there were other familiar turns of phrase.

Food runs throughout Heartburn, as Rachel is a cookery writer, but I didn't feel particularly inspired by any of those recipes. I decided to look into Ephron's work to a more ultimately optimistic view of relationships. At the end of When Harry Met Sally when they are describing how they fell in love, they talk about their wedding cake. An enormous coconut cake with a very rich chocolate sauce on the side. 

So I decided to make a coconut cake with very rich chocolate icing. Not on the side, because picky eaters annoy me.

I used Dan Lepard's coconut milk layer cake recipe - making 2/3 of the quantity and baking it in a single 9" cake tin. I omitted the lime juice but sprinkled it liberally with rum. I frosted it generously with buttercream.

Bounty Buttercream

125g soft butter
2 tbs good cocoa
3 tbs rum or malibu
3 tbs coconut cream
Small slosh coconut essence (if not using malibu)
Up to 500g icing sugar

Beat together the butter and cocoa until fluffy and the cocoa is evenly mixed. Add the rum, coconut cream and coconut essence if using. Then gradually beat in sifted icing sugar until it is the consistency you want - I was just piling it on so I left it quite soft, would have added more if I'd intended to pipe it.

It's moist, it's rich and uses plenty of butter. Nora Ephron would have loved it.
Rich, moist coconut cake topped with chocolate rum buttercream

Monday 26 November 2012

Meat-Free Monday: ravioli minestrone

In case you hadn't noticed, last weekend I met Nigella Lawson. And as a bonus, I got a copy of her new Nigella-style Italian cookbook Nigellissima.

As I mentioned, I didn't particularly like the accompanying TV series, but now I have had a chance to peruse the book properly, there is a lot that I am tempted to cook. This soup was the first cab off the rank. It's a green minestrone (i.e no tomatoes) with the pasta element supplied by a pack of spinach and ricotta ravioli. It's also given some extra body by pureeing a portion of the vegetables with a handful of parmesan and a pile of basil leaves.

I did make a few changes to the recipe - I didn't have any fine beans but I did have runner beans, and I didn't want too much leftover so I left out the potato, courgettes and cannelini beans. Omitting those starchy bits meant that it probably isn't as thick and rich as intended, but it was a very nice, hearty supper. The basil puree mixture really lifted the flavours. A good start for a new cookbook.

Friday 23 November 2012

Empire Tea - a warming cocktail of my own device

I've been wrestling with a dilemma for a while now. Should I tell you about one of my favourite things, and potentially make it too popular and less good, or should I hoard the knowledge to myself? The thing is, I've been going to a gin club for over a year. But it's getting really busy and I don't want anyone else to go to it. It's mine and I don't want to share. But I have to tell you about it so you understand where this drink comes from.

You see, at one meeting, the guest distiller was Chase, who make a delicious apple-based vodka and gin in Herefordshire. How very British. Then I discovered that they make a marmalade-infused vodka as well. Britisher and Britisher. And it was recently discounted at the supermarket, so I nabbed a bottle (eye for a bargain, arguably British).

I have also been enjoying the King's Ginger, developed to provide sustaining warmth to Edward VII in 1903. OK, so he was half German, but still VERY BRITISH.

Since ginger and marmalade have such an affinity (in flavour as well as both being terms for orange cats), I was kicking around ideas on how to combine Chase Marmalade Vodka and the King's Ginger in a cocktail. My first idea, for a champagne cocktail, didn't really work. It was, if you can believe it, too alcoholic. So I was thinking about what to use to lengthen it. What is more British than anything else? Tea.

This tea is, unfortunately, French, but since the British monarch only stopped using the title "King of France" in 1801 I am reclaiming, temporarily, a corner of Paris for the Empire.

I served this to a friend who'd arrived to stay on a cold day, without weather-appropriate clothes, and she found it thoroughly warming and reviving. Not as syrupy as a mulled wine or cider, more fortifying than a straight cup of tea. Edward VII would be proud.

Empire Tea (per serve)

35ml Chase Marmalade Vodka
35ml the Kings Ginger
150ml strong Mariage Frères Chandernagor tea (flavoured with cloves, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom and pepper, delicious fruits of colonialism)
1 lump crystallised ginger and, if properly organised to have such a thing, 1/4 slice of orange.

Put the booze into a robust glass then pour in the hot tea. Garnish with a lump of ginger and float a quarter of an orange slice on the tea. Nibble the crystallised ginger whilst sipping the steaming tea.

I could have done more with the presentation

Wednesday 21 November 2012

BSFIC: Blue cheese and quince olive oil ice cream

IceCreamChallengeA very long time ago (8 or 9 years ago now, I guess) Paul and I went with our friend Helen to a Greek restaurant in Petersham called Perama. The chef, David Tsirekas, was known for doing interesting and unusual things with classic Greek flavours. I remember that there was a large, noisy party next to us and that the staff were very apologetic - this party had brought along several more people than they had booked for and both the space and the kitchen was under pressure. I ordered the signature baklava ice cream, but the waiter had heard us talking about the olive oil ice cream and brought out a bit of that to taste as well.

It was divine. A green, fruity undertone from the olive oil, with an additional fruit note from dried figs, crunch from pistachios and a bit of spice. A very memorable taste.

On and off over the years I've thought about trying to make it myself, but I've never really had the opportunity. Then Kavey announced that this month's Bloggers Scream For Ice Cream event had a savoury theme. The perfect excuse.

While I was considering how to approach the olive oil ice cream, I also remembered the roquefort ice cream that I have had a couple of times at Mon Plaisir as a starter. I decided that I would use both olive oil and blue cheese in a sweet ice cream.

Rather than following David Tsirekas's recipe, I decided to use the condensed milk and cream no-churn base that had been so successful for me for the Japan BSFIC challenge. I thought about using dried figs, or the delicious little boozy baby bottled figs you can get, but then I spotted that quinces were in season and I knew that their honeyed flavour and intense perfume would be just the thing.

I followed the recipe in Nigella Lawson's Forever Summer, making life a bit more difficult for myself by peeling and coring my quinces and using those off-cuts to make the stock syrup for cooking them in, rather than sacrificing a whole precious quince to it. I also added a cinnamon stick, because I like the smell and wasn't going to add any cinnamon to the ice cream base.
Red roasted quinces - Maggie Beer via Nigella Lawson
I made an error of judgement in preparing the ice cream base, so I have written the recipe correcting the mistake. I added the olive oil to the cream and then tried to whip it. Of course, it didn't mount properly doing it that way. What I will do next time (and what you should definitely do) is whisk the cream and condensed milk together, then fold in the olive oil once you have the volume.
Folding chopped pistachios and diced quince into the ice cream
Blue cheese and quince olive oil ice cream (serves 4-6)

150ml double cream
80g condensed milk
1tsp vanilla
50ml extra virgin olive oil
75g St Agur (or other creamy blue cheese)
3 quarters of red roasted quince, diced
50g pistachios, chopped
extra quince quarters to serve

Whip the cream, vanilla and condensed milk to soft peaks, then fold in the olive oil, crumbled/grated blue cheese, nuts and quince. Still-freeze in a plastic box over night. Serve with quarters of quince and a drizzle of the quince syrup.

I had about 150ml quince syrup left over, which I re-boiled, spiked with 50ml white rum and bottled in a sterilized bottle. I have plans for it to feature in a cocktail at some stage.

Now, I thought this was absolutely delicious. Cooking the quinces this way gives them an almost glace-fruit texture, without any of the graininess that puts some people off quince. And the balance between salty, strong cheese, grassy olive oil and sweet condensed milk I thought I'd absolutely nailed. I needed a second opinion though. Paul's not particularly reliable on sweet things, and even more unreliable on sweet and savoury combinations (he doesn't like fruit with meat). Fortunately a very food-focused friend with an excellent palate came to visit, so I tried it out on her. She loved it and wasn't remotely freaked out by the unusual flavours. I'm not sure who else I could serve it to though.

Kavey improved the photo no end - increasing contrast and brightening up the colours

Sunday 18 November 2012

Afternoon tea with Nigella

Social media really is extraordinary. A couple of weeks ago Daniel Young tweeted that Nigella Lawson was cooking a one-day only, pop-up afternoon tea menu with him. I signed up for notification of the tickets going on sale. Then last week they went on sale, and in the 20 minutes it took me to get in contact with a friend who said she'd be interested in coming, both sittings sold out.

We put ourselves on the waiting list. I got a ticket pretty quickly, and then spent several days wondering if Megan was going to get a ticket or if I was going to have to go by myself and (ye gods) talk to strangers. But Daniel retweeted someone offering to either sell his ticket or buy someone else's. I swooped, and in a very straightforward transaction nabbed Chris's ticket.

At this stage it was still all very cloak-and-dagger. The venue was only announced on Friday, and we were asked not to reveal it until afterwards. Fair enough.
Parmesan shortbread and panettone stuffing squares. The shortbreads were about the size of £1 coins, to give you an idea of scale.

It turned out that the venue was a slightly dive-y, formica-tabled workmen's caff near Holborn. Not at all the sort of place you'd associate with the glamorous Nigella, or a fancy afternoon tea. It was all by design, of course - apparently she wanted to bring a breath of the 1950s Anglo-Italian experience to it all. So it was builder's tea, not a fancy loose-leaf blend, but good coffee, to reflect how far the British palate has come.

The food was on a similar Anglo-Italian theme, all recipes from her book Nigellissima, and a signed copy of the book came in the ticket price. I wasn't 100% enthused by that idea. I didn't particularly like the accompanying TV series, so I took a book plate and planned to ask her to sign that, to stick in my copy of Feast, which is my favourite of her books.

Cappucino pavlovas and nutella cheesecakes
The glass of prosecco that we started with was excellent. Dry and light. I've occasionally had excellent prosecco, but somehow whenever I buy a bottle it is sweet and headache-inducing, so I usually think I don't like prosecco. If it was all like this I would drink it more.

Daniel came around and explained how the event had come about and then cake-stands of food were served.

It seemed appropriate to start with the savouries: little coins of parmesan shortbread and squares of panettone stuffing. Personally, if I was designing an Anglo-Italian afternoon tea menu I'd have gone with some sort of mini taleggio rarebit squares (pizza was called Italian rarebit on menus when it first arrived in England) but the panettone stuffing was delicious. If we end up having a bird for Christmas this year I will definitely consider that recipe for the stuffing.
Christmas Pudding Cake.
Then on to the sweet stuff.

Cappuccino pavlova was not nearly as sweet as I feared - the strong bitter espresso flavour and properly unsweetened cream struck a very good balance. The outer shell was crisp, collapsing into dense, chewy marshmallow in the centre.

I think the chocolate hazelnut cheesecakes had been out of the fridge for a shade too long - they were almost impossible to get from the cake stand to the plate. Fantastic flavour though. It was very obviously nutella and cream cheese and nothing else. Although I am a confirmed baked-cheesecake lover, the creamy texture of this unbaked version was delicious.

And then, oh and then, Italian Christmas Pudding Cake. I had no expectations of what this would be like, based on the name. It turned out to be a sort of trifle affair, of boozy panettone and chocolate chip-studded cream layers, topped with pistachios and pomegranate arils. Utterly sublime. This is almost certainly going to make it to my Christmas table. 

I was utterly tongue-tied and couldn't think of a word to say
When push came to shove, I came over all star-struck and couldn't actually manage to ask her to sign my book plate. She had such a rhythm going of photo, a few words and signing the book that I just couldn't interrupt. She said she liked my glasses though.

Saturday 17 November 2012

A very superior bacon sandwich

Second proving

A very superior bacon sandwich begins with some superior bread. In this case, a home-made milk loaf made using Dan Lepard's recipe. Not too crunchy a crust, not too open a crumb, with a subtle sweetness.

Look at that nice even crust
Then a very superior bacon sandwich needs 3 rashers of superior crisply cooked streaky bacon. This should be dry-cured and from high-welfare, outdoor reared pork.

Finally, the choice of condiments. This is a private matter between you and your god, I cannot presume to dictate whether brown sauce, chilli sauce, chutney or ketchup is right for you.
3 slices of bacon provides the best coverage
SouperSundaysMy very superior bacon sandwich is going over to Deb for the Souper (soup, salad and sammie) Sunday round-up.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Presto Pasta Nights - Farewell!

So here it is - the very last Presto Pasta Nights. I'm a johnny-come-lately to this event, my first entry was only last year, but it's been running since March of 2007!

For this very special round-up, I decided to put a bit more effort in than my usual boiled-pasta-plus-a-sauce, and made some gnocchi. I used this recipe from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for goat's cheese gnocchi, but instead of the walnuts in brown butter, I sauteed roughly chopped watercress and garlic in a little butter and added some cherry tomatoes and a little lemon juice to finish. The only other thing I did differently was to push the potatoes through a ricer, to keep the gnocchi light, rather than mash them.

It was, I think, the most successful batch of gnocchi I have ever made. Perfect texture, with just the most subtle flavour of goat's cheese. The walnut sauce sounded delicious but richer than I wanted! By adding the watercress and tomatoes, I didn't need to make a salad to go with it.

So, thank you to Ruth for all her efforts with this event over the last 290 weeks, and thanks to all of the guest hosts along the way.

Saturday 10 November 2012

Wahaca revisited

I met a friend for lunch this week - an old work colleague - and when we were deciding where to go we settled on Wahaca in Covent Garden. Partly because it was convenient for both of us to get to, and then to get where we had to go next, partly because we like the food and partly for Auld Lang Syne. We first went to Wahaca about a week after it opened, in 2007, and have been eating there both together and separately ever since.

Over those five years it has improved. The service is no longer kooky, but still warm and friendly and some elements that had erred on the side of blandness have been pepped up (the bottled sauces they are selling in supermarkets still lack flavour and fire though).
Pork scratchings

We started with our traditional pork scratchings and guacamole. Our waitress informed us that they have changed suppliers and that they are better now. I thought they were pretty much perfect before so I couldn't really see how they could get better. But they were. Vast, crisp and airy, dusted with fennel and very salty. Absolutely divine.
Chorizo Quesadilla

I then ordered two types of quesadillas. This was a bit excessive, I admit. I comforted myself with the thought that I was heading to dance class after lunch so I'd work some small portion of it off.

The chorizo quesadilla - deliciously stuffed with soft mashed potatoes, chunks of Mexican-style chorizo and cheese - is an old favourite. But then I couldn't resist an item on the specials menu, a chilli quesadilla. I don't think they've had a specials menu before, but this was certainly a good one. It was billed as a mix of jalapeno, habanero and another kind of chilli with two kinds of cheese and the waitress was very careful to warn us how hot they were. I don't go in for combat-eating, so I genuinely wasn't showing off when I ordered it, I just thought it sounded good.

It was hot. Runny-nose-and-sweating hot, but not ear-wax-melting hot. Not so hot that the flavours of the different types of chillies were lost, not so hot as to be uncomfortable. I did have to ask for a glass of water though.

I love this place. It's a chain now, although this is the only branch I've been to, and it shows that a chain doesn't have to be a bad thing. Anyway, I could find fault if I wanted to, but I don't so I won't*.
Chilli Quesadilla
*except you used to get a piece of chilli-flavoured chocolate with your coffee and we didn't this time, which was a bit sad.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

Presto Pasta Nights #289 - prawn & 'nduja fusilli lunghi

Fusilli Lunghi is my new favourite pasta shape
My love affair with 'nduja persists. The heat and rich porkyness of it is totally irresistable to me. And the way it melts as soon as it gets warm means you can make an almost instant sauce.

I boiled my pasta - fusilli lunghi, spaghetti-length curly tubes - and in the few moments while it drained I melted a 100g chunk of nduja in the pot with a packet of large, peeled, raw prawns and a punnet of halved cherry tomatoes. Then I tossed the pasta back through it. Incredibly speedy and an extraordinary amount of flavour for so few ingredients.

Just the thing for the penultimate Presto Pasta Nights this week. It's being hosted by Kirsten at From Kirsten's Kitchen To Yours, as ever under the auspices of Ruth at Once Upon A Feast. Now I just have to come up with something amazing for the very last one.

Monday 5 November 2012

Autumn food for Bonfire Night


Today is Guy Fawkes Day - which traditionally commemorates the king surviving a Catholic assassination attempt but now is just an excuse to drink mulled cider, eat sausages and let off fireworks. Coming so soon after Halloween, you hear quite a lot of people harrumphing about how we should make the most of our traditional British festivals and ignore the American ones. But Halloween was British before it was American, so that doesn't really hold water.  And anyway, as I don't have children I am not particularly wedded to either event (although Bonfire Night is more fun, as far as I am concerned).

The big thing is that Bonfire Night really does mark the beginning of winter. It's properly chilly now, the leaves are changing colour and falling from the trees and all the food has rich, autumnal flavours. I've been baking cakes and breads redolent with booze, honey and spices, making hearty meals of slow-cooked meats and pulses, taking advantage of seasonal produce like quinces and girolles, and making preserves for the winter months. I've been baking pies.
Cutting the pastry offcuts into maple leaf shapes

I had in mind to make an apple pie. Then I saw this one. It was just so darn pretty I decided to decorate my pie in a similar way. I have a maple leaf shaped cutter that I knew would be just the thing. I wanted a slightly more subtle effect, so instead of kneading colours into pastry offcuts, I mixed dabs of colour with a little beaten eggwhite and smeared it onto the leaves with my fingers.
My tree shape got a little distorted
Apple, maple & walnut pie

500g shortcrust pastry
Food colouring paste
2 eggs
Apples (I used 6 very small Cox's and 5 small Bramleys)
Zest of a lemon
1tbs spices (your choice - I used cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and a touch of cloves)
1/2 cup maple syrup (the real stuff, don't even think about maple flavouring)
1tbs cornflour
75g walnuts, chopped

Peel, core and chop the apples and place in a saucepan with a splash of water and the grated lemon zest. Cook over low heat until the Bramleys have collapsed to fluff and the Cox's apples are just tender. Cool.

Gradually add the maple syrup to the cornflour in a bowl, and mix until there aren't any lumps, then beat in one of the eggs and the spices. Stir the cornflour mixture into the cooled apples and add the walnuts.

Roll out half the pastry and use to line a pie plate. Pile the apples into the dish. Separate the second egg and brush the yolk around the rim of the dish, then roll out the second half of the pastry and top the pie. Using a sharp knife, cut a tree shape out of the lid, then glaze the lid with more of the egg yolk.

Roll out the pastry trimmings and cut into leaf shapes. Beat the separated eggwhite until frothy and divide it between 3 or 4 ramekins (depending on how many colours you are going to use) and add a different colour to each one. Use a finger to dab colour on each of the cut out leaves, then mark veins on them with a toothpick and stick them on the pie. I then also glazed them with a bit more egg yolk, but I actually think that was a bad idea because it dulled the colours a bit.

Bake at 180C for about 45 minutes, or until a beautiful golden brown. Allow to cool for 10-15 minutes before eating.
The perfect autumnal pie

Friday 2 November 2012

Kettle Tortilla Chips

I got to try 3 of the 4 flavours
One of my favourite things in the world is a chilli Kettle chip. Not sweet chilli, chilli. Which is slightly unfortunate because they aren't sold in the UK and apparently were discontinued in Australia until there was an outcry. But in my memory they stand as the perfect snack - crisp, salty, spicy and just robust enough to dunk in a fairly runny dip.

Chasing that memory of perfection leads me to try lots of other chips and crisps, so I welcomed Kettle's offer of some samples of their new tortilla chip range. They made an unwise decision when they chose to put the samples in an envelope and pop them in the post, but enough big pieces survived to give a fair tasting.

In addition to three flavours of the tortilla chips (sea salt, sour cream & nacho cheese) they also sent me a recipe card with some dip ideas. The only problem was that I didn't particularly fancy the recipes (one contained a squirt of tomato paste, just added to a raw mixture, one contained tinned sweetcorn *shudder*, two relied on ingredients that are tricky to get without a bit of forward planning, i.e a ripe mango or a ripe avocado).

So I made a couple of other dips to try them with. A roasted red pepper "bagna cauda" (not very much like a bagna cauda at all, actually, and a beetroot and walnut dip.

As you would expect with a Kettle chip, the tortilla chips were crisp and crunchy. A little bit thinner than other brands of tortilla chips, which made them nicer as a snack but presented a problem with dunking. The bagna cauda was fine, but the chips kept breaking off in the beetroot dip, even though it wasn't that stiff a mixture.
Red pepper "bagna cauda" and beetroot and walnut dips
Of the three flavours, I preferred the sea salt. While I have a certain fondness for the powdery coatings of the other flavours, I think the nutty, corn-y-ness of a tortilla chip is best without it. But if you particularly go for flavoured tortilla chips, I don't think you'd be disappointed with these.

As a final test, I made nachos. We had loads of lamb left from a weekend roast, so I cut it up into small chunks and made a chilli with lots of chipotle in it. I placed a big mound of the chilli in a dish, surrounded it with the nacho cheese Kettle chips and piled on some grated cheese. I baked it at 180C until it was all brown and bubbly, then I served it with salsa and a dollop of sour cream.

Now, the chips kept their shape and crunch really well in the baking, and did a much better job of scooping the toppings than others I have tried.  But the flavourings on the surface of the chips obviously has quite a low burn point, because they blackened, and the blackened bits developed quite a bitter flavour, before the cheese had melted thoroughly.

So. An excellent tortilla chip for snacking or dunking in light dips, but probably best to stick to the sea salt ones for making nachos. 

Lamb chipotle nachos


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