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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Belated Solstice Greetings

My parents-in-law send and receive around 150 Christmas cards every year. Because they are artists, many of their friends are artists, so they get some lovely cards.
We have received a grand total of eight Christmas cards this year. But that's ok, because we don't send cards at all. Slightly quixotically, we send little Christmas cakes. This year, I even made the marzipan myself. 150 would be ridiculous, but we manage around 30.
The drill is make a square cake sometime in November, then at the beginning of December, cut it into little squares, which then get marzipanned, iced and decorated before being posted off to all our friends and relations. (Well, those for whom we have addresses. If you didn't get one and you think you should, send me an email!)
Unfortunately this year I cut the little square cakes carefully to fit the boxes we had bought without allowing for the extra double thickness of marizipan and icing. Luckily the Kitchen Accomplice noticed and sliced off the necessary slivers. She then had the inspired idea of crumbling up the resulting pointless pieces of cake and shaping the crumbs into snowmen, to be held together with marzipan, snowed over with white royal icing and decorated a la mode.This was the only one I saw being eaten, having lovingly but not very carefully transported it home to Ireland for a family Solstice celebration. You can see the decorations didn't really survive the journey.
I was afraid the poor little snowman's insides would be similarly messy, as we hadn't mixed anything into the cake crumbs to bind them together, but they were a triumph.

See? How cool is that for a Christmas card?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Vegetarians, look away now!

We spent last week in the beautiful sitio real of La Granja de San Ildefonso near Segovia, a small but amazingly beautiful city around 100km from Madrid. Not only was the weather perfect but the speciality of the region is roast suckling pig. One restaurant even had a whole one sitting, a la Japanese restaurants except not made of plastic, in its window. Splatted piglet just doesn't entice. Unless you've eaten it before, when you know it is one of the most delicious meat dishes there is - moist, savoury, covered in flavourful crackling. But there's no denying it is not the most attractive-looking beast ever to arrive on my plate.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Is he a Real Man?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Real Men Don't Eat Quiche. This is going to lead to disappointment tonight one way or another, because this is what we're having for supper:
It's my very first attempt at quiche and either the Man is going to be disappointed because he's Real and will have to go supperless, or (far worse) I will be disappointed because he's not a Real Man!
Anyway, I'm very proud of my first attempt at 'savoury flan', which I based roughly on a recipe given to me more than ten years ago by my friend Jo.
I tweaked the pastry a little by swapping some of the butter for something with the sinister name 'Cookeen', which is made of something unspeakable but does make your pastry flaky.

5oz flour
scant 1/2 tsp salt
big pinch sugar
4oz chilled butter (or near relation) cut into small pieces
4-4 1/2 tbsp ice water
  • Sift flour (oops, forgot to do that, never mind) and cut fat into flour.
  • Rub in lightly with fingertips until crumbly.
  • Sprinkle on water, one tablespoon at a time (use only as much as necessary) and bring together with a knife.
  • As soon as it will form a ball, cover with clingfilm and allow to rest in the fridge for half an hour before baking blind for 20-25 minutes at 190 0C.

The filling I changed almost entirely from Jo's original. I added courgettes and red pepper to the original mushrooms and scallions, and beat goats curd instead of cream with the eggs. This meant it didn't have the heavenly custardy wobbliness of the best quiches, but it was slightly less hideously unhealthy and did have a pleasing tanginess.

Dash of olive oil, dab of butter
1lb sliced mushrooms (courgettes, red pepper, whatever)
1tsp salt, 1 tsp lemon juice (two ingredients I entirely failed to notice when cooking)
3 eggs
1/2 pint cream (or a random amount of goats curd - probably not far off half a pint)
1 oz butter (also forgotten in my version - surely goats curd is an adequate substitute?)
Pinch of nutmeg, 1/8tsp pepper, 2 tsp Madeira (hello - who puts Madeira in quiche?)
  • Cook onions in heavy-bottomed saucepan with butter and olive oil, then stir in vegetables, salt, lemon juice and wine.
  • Cover and cook over lowish heat for 8 minutes.
  • Raise heat and boil until liquid evaporates.
  • Beat eggs and cream (or curd) with seasoning, then carefully stir the vegetables in.
  • Pour into the pastry, sprinkle with cheese (where did the cheese come from? I never saw anything about the cheese in the ingredients list!) and dot with butter.
  • Bake for 25-30 mins at 190 0C until golden on top and faintly wobbly.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Tarte Tintin - Bashibazouks!

The parents of one of the Man's colleagues have an orchard. Or possibly just an apple tree, but at any rate, they had surplus apples this autumn, which somehow made their way to my kitchen, just in time for me to try out the newly-discovered tarte tatin possibilities of my silicone-handled skillets.
Tonight I bumped into the reality that one should pay very careful attention to the instructions in a recipe, not just the ingredients list. My usual practice is very carefully to make sure I know what's on the list, then skim through the instructions, based on an (over-) confident assumption that I know roughly how to put things together.
This may be the case with recipes I've tried before. It's not so good with things I haven't ever tried before.
Tarte tatin recipes call either for halves of apples or quarters. I blithely sliced my apples much thinner, which had two disadvantages. The first is that it's much harder to squish them all into the pan (I failed - two tarts are better than one, luckily) and second the little pieces of apple effectively disintegrate while cooking in the buttery sugary glaze.
Luckily the unbelievably rich pastry stood up to the wondrously toffee-ish sauce that resulted, although the whole thing didn't look quite as beautiful as a proper tart like wot my mother used to make.
The second tart I made with a scone dough instead of going through the faff of a proper flaky pastry, resting the dough for ages in the fridge and so on. I haven't tasted it yet - it's destined for my work colleagues, but it looks yummy!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Nutty tart

Two simple mistakes and I ruined what could have been a masterpiece. The first was that I forgot to keep my pantry stocked, so when I came to make this hazelnut tart, I had no plain flour.
Not a problem, I thought. I'll use wholewheat flour. That'll be grand.
I'd forgotten the salutary experience of an evening at a local restaurant in Ireland where the chef had decided on a whim to make wholewheat pasta. He'd never done it before, but when our spy in the kitchen muttered that perhaps he should cook it longer than normal pasta, he simply screamed, threw a tantrum and fired her.
As a result we had to wait for our order for nearly an hour while the manager soothed the chef, then the pasta itself was inedibly thick and undercooked.
My wholewheat pastry was not quite so disastrous, but since the recipe originally made a very crumbly pastry, with brown flour it would have been impossible to do anything without the brilliant tip to roll it out between layers of clingfilm.
The other mistake was to follow the recipe too slavishly. It called for lemon zest in both pastry and filling. I don't like lemon flavoured sweets much, but I religiously zested two little lemons.
Nobody else complained, but the lemon note in the hazelnut filling to me was overpowering and somehow medicinal.
The big excitement was that there was enough pastry and filling left to make an ancillary tart. I couldn't find any mini-tart tins, so I used a frying pan, the first time I've dared put one of my lovely Analon Professional pans in the oven.
Apart from a minor incident where I branded my own hand with the handle, it worked like a dream. Tarte tatin next, I think!

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Spaghetti? Squash?

One of the things I love most about food is how magic it is. Most of this is the kind of chemistry that happens when you boil an egg - clear liquid goo goes solid and white. When you add flour to melted butter and it forms a runny sauce, then you add liquid and it solidifies. You put cake batter into the oven and it disappears, leaving a cake in its place.

This is all magic where it feels like you, the cook, are the conjuror. You are the agent of the magic.

But even better is the magic the food has inside itself. One of my favourite examples is rarely available on this side of the Atlantic. It looks like a normal squash - big, round, a bit dull. You cut it in half - same story. Scoop out the seeds and bake or steam the squash as you normally would.

Then - ABRACADABRA and Hey Presto! - use a fork to scrape out the flesh of your boring yellow squash, which turns into noodles. Like so:

This is the spaghetti squash tossed with butter, cheese and basil leaves. No pasta involved.

Even the Man, who had traumatic memories of being forcefed spaghetti squash in a Winnebago overlooking the Grand Canyon age 10 admitted grudgingly that it wasn't as awful as he had expected.

Which is high praise.

I took the leftovers to work as my packed lunch the next day and was delighted to discover that it was genuinely nice, not just exciting because it's so weird.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Scent of Melons

I have often wondered why there aren't more positive words for smells. There are lots of unpleasant words - stench, stink, mephitic, acrid, putrid - a few neutral or context-specific - pungent, earthy, sharp - and a handful of not very specific pleasant ones, such as aromatic and fragrant.
This is in spite of the power of smell to make us happy, to trigger memories, to influence us. People trying to sell or rent their houses are told to have a pot of coffee on the stove to make prospective buyers like the place more. Supermarkets are said to pump artificial fresh-bread-smell out to make shoppers feel hungry and make the place more appealing.
One sniff of fresh blackcurrant cordial and I'm back in my grandmother's kitchen, while the smell of hay transports me back to my childhood, hot and happy summer days bringing in the hay.
And walking past the fruit and veg section of our local Turkish shop the other day, I was seized by a scent of the most extraordinary beauty. It was a ripe Galia melon, which I bought and took home to put where I usually put a vase of flowers, and it filled the room with its sweet, soft, cool smell.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The perks of the job

I have mentioned before that my job has certain perks and that I take shameless advantage of the culinary ones.
The latest was outstanding. I was invited to a dinner at the chef's table in Gordon Ramsay in Claridges, with the head sommelier (a champagne specialist), a delightful Italian waiter called Lello, the head chef, the senior sous chef and various other functionaries dancing smiling attendance on us.
Course after course arrived, each with its own carefully chosen bottle of wine. Highlights include the bacon, egg and chips that constituted the starter: parma ham, a poached quail's egg and the most extraordinary "chips" made out of chickpea flour. The illusion of the worker's caff was completed by the bottle of red pepper ketchup. Fortunately they drew the line at the mug of tea.
Fortified by this, we set out on a tour of the kitchen.
Let me remind you that this is a top end restaurant in the middle of the dinner service. All six of us were conducted through the sweating, shouting arena, past unbelievably hot stoves and a kitchen brigade of some 15 people dedicated to producing each dish looking perfect and coordinated so that each element - garnish, meat or fish, sauce and vegetables - arrived on the plate piping hot when the waiter was ready to take it from the pass.
And yet they managed to produce welcoming smiles for us as we asked fatuous questions and ooohed and aaahed about how hot it was or how fast they were working.
Back at the table, the head chef asked for volunteers. And this is how Kimberley, Gill and myself all ended up learning how to plate up the fish course in a real chef's kitchen.
(Tip: it helps to have fingers that don't get burnt easily).
It probably wouldn't be kind to go into too much detail about the venison wellington with truffle potato puree, or the bottles of Condrieu or Pouilly-Fumé that contributed so much to my reaching a state of euphoric stupefaction by the end of the evening.
The carefully selected cheeseboard we can pass over, as the Sachertorte with blackberry sorbet, but I must just mention the little balls of hazelnut icecream they produced on request. Mmm.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Pat-a-cake, Pat-a-cake

Pat-a-cake, Pat-a-cake, Baker's man,
Bake me a cake as fast as you can.

Perhaps my parents sang this to me too often in my cradle. There has to be some reason for my compulsion to bake cakes.

Last night I decided my colleagues had gone too long with no cake or cookies, so I bought some blueberries and made Blueberry Streusel Cake from one of my favourite websites.

Streusel is a staple of American coffee cakes. It took me a long time to work out that coffee cake in American novels refers to cake to be eaten with a cup of coffee, not coffee-flavoured cake. They tend to be plain sponges with some keynote ingredient and the streusel.

It sounds exotic, doesn't it? It's basically just an aromatic and crispy crumble. It adds an interesting texture and a very pleasant, sugary-spicy flavour to an otherwise slightly dull cake.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sweet, sweet as can be

You may remember my soup resolution - I haven't managed three times a week yet, but we did have soup twice last week. The second was a very elaborate sweetcorn and red chilli chowder, which I made with six ears of fresh corn.
Sweetcorn always astounds me in how it lives up to its name, although I'm not convinced it's always a good thing how sweet it is. Sometimes it feels a little as though it's just sweet and nothing else, but the soupcorn was actually very nice. The chilies did not add a lot of spice, but they look very pretty. The most noteworthy aspect was that the very floury potatoes I used remained in rather firm cubes rather than getting nice soft and raggedy round the edges like I expected.
Next: cream of spring onion soup.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Twinkle, twinkle, little tomato

Have I told you about my arbitrary garden? For Christmas I was given a lovely wooden windowbox, containing nursery-bought thyme and sage, transplanted chives, mint and rosemary and a completely rogue tomato seedling.
The thyme and sage fell early victims to my habit of forgetting to water them. The chives, mint and rosemary have survived but bear the ravages of the ordeal. The rogue seedling is trying to take over our flat.
The tomatoes have even turned a lovely dark red, so I decided to override my own mild dislike for the fruit (and the Man's much more deeply held belief that Tomatoes are Evil) and use them in supper.
This was helped by my having brought back from Ireland some lovely floury potatoes and sweet carrots from my uncle's garden.
A couple of sea bass fillets seemed like a good idea when passing the fishmongers'.
I did have a bit of a Ready Steady Cook moment when I considered the menu, but it turned out surprisingly well.
The outcome was grilled seabass with tomato and fennel coulis, carrot gratté and steamed potatoes.
The seabass I rubbed with salt and pepper on the skin side and honey, balsamic vinegar and pepper on the flesh side, then put skinside up under a hot grill for seven minutes. (Hat tip to Jane for the honey and vinegar idea)
For the coulis, I softened garlic and fennel seeds in olive oil and butter, then simmered the skinned and chopped tomatoes in the fat for about 15 minutes. Then (struck with inspiration at the last minute - never very convenient) I sieved the sauce and put it back on the heat to reduce.
Fresh garden carrots are so delicious and unlike bought carrots that I simply grated them very finely with a microplane grater and sprinkled some window-grown chives on them for the colour. This left them light, fluffy and juicy all at once, as well as allowing their sweetness to display itself to admiration.
The steamed potatoes I just steamed.
I thought the whole was excellent, although the Man was less than enthusiastic about the carrots. I think he noticed there were vitamins in them.

How does your garden grow?

The Kitchen Accomplice is very firmly a London girl, but even she enjoyed the freedom of my uncle's vegetable garden in Ireland.
We were staying with my cousins, who live in the comfortable half of the house, but with full access to the garden. There we dug potatoes and horseradish, pulled carrots and beets, collected cauliflower and cabbage, even courgettes.
In the greenhouse, we found perfectly ripe white peaches - one each - and some slightly less ripe ones that we peeled and puréed for Bellinis. Rich orange apricots and three final sweet raspberries added to our horde.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Wedding breakfast

My sister got married recently. Here is what she ate for lunch beforehand.

Don't you think that's the most inappropriate lunch for a blushing bride?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Soup of the Evening, Beautiful Soup

I am not a big soup fan in general, but recently I have decided to reconsider this principle.
One thing that inspired this was a delicious carrot and coriander soup made by my lovely cousin Lindis - I have spent some twenty years avoiding carrot and coriander soup, but this was so delicious I had to have second helpings.
I have also perhaps reached an age where comforting food that is nevertheless not hugely over-filling is a useful addition to my life.
So for tonight I made pea and basil soup.
Very gently fry a macedoine of carrrots, onions and garlic until soft (takes longer than you can imagine), then add stock and peas, and bring to a simmer. Add a handful of basil and season, then simmer for ten minutes before blending with the soup gun.
On my own initiative I crumbled in some 'Bulgarian sheeps' cheese' from our local Turkish shop (aka feta), which added the right salty note.

Monday, June 29, 2009

If the salt has lost its savour, wherewith shall we flavour the meat?

Happy Parisians sit in the street,
Talking of what they have ate and will eat

- that's me, or used to be.
I have always scorned people who were bored with food, uninterested, only treated it as fuel, not bothered about what they ate. Apart from one very brief period of trauma in my life, when I barely ate for about a week, and didn't regain my appetite properly for several months, I have always been interested in what I was going to eat.
Now, for some reason, I'm not. Not that I have lost my appetite, but food just doesn't seem very interesting. I get hungry, but I just eat the nearest thing there is that will satisfy the hunger.
My boss (I hope she doesn't read this) would be pleased, because I no longer spend half the afternoon at work dreaming about the evening's menu, but it's left my life feeling a little empty.
None of this is to say I've stopped cooking, but I just don't get enthusiastic about it at the moment.
Maybe it's the heat.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Pork chop but no pineapple

While discussing the limits and attraction of representationalism, Terry Eagleton asks: "Why do we take delight in an image of a pork chop which looks exactly like a pork chop?"
My answer is: "I'm not sure, but I take delight in a pork chop itself because it smells like a pork chop. And tastes like one."
Tonight we had a very simple supper - grilled pork chops with a sauce made of mustard and sour cream, courgettes and mushrooms fried in garlicky olive oil, and steamed rice. It took twenty minutes to prepare and cook, kept warm without detriment for a whole half-hour while I did a phone interview for work (stupid Americans, why can't they work normal hours?), and tasted delicious at the end of it.
But no pineapple. Who eats pineapple on a pork chop, apart from Professor Eagleton?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Lemon balm sorbet for Sybille

I made this last weekend, my first ever attempt at making sorbet. It was remarkably successful, given that it was done at the last minute, with no special equipment and a tiny and overcrowded freezer to make it in.

Darina Allen's Lemon Balm Sorbet

For four people; small, delicate servings

110g sugar
300ml water
1 large handful of lemon balm leaves
freshly squeezed juice of 1 1/2 lemons

Bring the water, sugar and leaves slowly to the boil, then simmer gently for 2-3 minutes. Allow it to cool, then strain into a freezeable container and add the lemon juice. Put it in the freezer.

After this, the instructions will depend a lot on your freezer. Mine left it still completely liquid after 2 hours, so I went to bed. In the morning, it was fairly solid, but I scraped it up with a fork until the ice was granita-textured, then put it back in the freezer. I did this a couple more times during the day - it never got as hard again - and it seemed to be quite a nice texture by the end.

Optional Twiddles:
I added a small slosh of elderflower cordial at the same time as the lemon juice, but that's just because I like elderflower in practically everything.
Darina Allen suggests folding in a stiffly beaten eggwhite when it is almost frozen, but a) I don't know how you know when that point will be without spending hours opening the freezer to check every 15 minutes and b) it seemed to work ok without.
Lemon verbena would work just as well as lemon balm.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Those seventies housewives knew a thing or two

Luckily it didn't occur to me till after the fact that the cheese fondue is surely the dish of the film The Ice Storm. It's one of my favourite films ever, but mostly because it makes you not want to do anything the characters do EVER.
Anyway, we were having people to supper on a weekend when the Accomplice was around, so I asked her if there were anything she would like to see on the menu - Cheese Fondue came right back at me.
Then the Man said his favourite dish recently had been the vaguely oriental salad with lamb chez M+K last week, so we decided to do a carnivores and adults only course of Thai beef salad - Tigers' Tears, it's always called in fancy Thai restaurants. Pudding occupied most of the decision-making time. Creme caramel? Since I learned how to do it without a pressure cooker, I have been longing for another opportunity to show off, but we thought perhaps after cheese fondue, a rich cream and egg pudding wouldn't be ideal. How about a veggie version of my favourite fruit jellies - little clear mounds of jelly with sparkling jewels of raspberries inside?
Well, that's what it looks like if you make it with gelatine and raspberries. With agar agar flakes and blueberries, it looks like a misshapen grey rubber ball and tastes not dissimilar.
So back to the drawingboard, or rather the windowbox. My one gardening success this summer has been a pot of lemon balm, which turned into delicious sorbet. Accompanied by strawberries, this turned out to be easy and delicious.
You may be thinking this sounds like an extremely odd menu - cheese fondue, thai beef salad, strawberries with lemonbalm sorbet - and you'd be right, but it seemed to work very well.
The cheeses were Cotherstone and Ardrahan - it took a good half hour of consultation and tasting to find suitable vegetarian cheeses for fondue - and I think I overdid the white wine in the sauce, but it was very nice nevertheless. Following instructions in the Joy of Cooking, I tore a loaf of bread into bite-size bits to dip in it. Steamed broccoli was also effective, as were teeny tiny new potatoes but nobody touched the beautiful red and yellow peppers I sliced to scoop up cheesy goo.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Posting boasting

This is boasting by proxy - I'm showing off about what fantastic cooks my friends are. Friends of ours, M and K, invited us to dinner last weekend. M has been on a diet (they're getting married in seven weeks) so he's been starving himself for a while. And so, as you can imagine, he spent a whole lot of daydream time planning the menu.

After copious amounts of champagne, we started with a lamb salad - herbs and leaves and tender slices of cannon of lamb; then caramelized quail halves with carrots and pine nuts; sweetbreads (mmmmmm yum!); watermelon and feta salad; guinea fowl and fennel salad.
At this point, M and K weren't sure if we needed another course - we might have politely said 'no, no' if we hadn't overheard K saying earlier to M "Don't you think you've sliced the bellypork a bit thick?"

So we finished up with the most delicious spicy bellypork on steamed pak choi. Mmmmm.
Technically it might have counted as an Atkins meal, which I've always thought was anathema, but it was delicious from start to finish.

I'd say it's going to be a happy marriage!

Monday, June 08, 2009

Smoothie stiffie

I like to be inventive with the odds and ends in my fridge - sometimes it's not even very difficult to work out what to do with some leftover blueberries and some rather elderly yoghurt. Smoothies for breakfast - what could go wrong?
So I whisked them up with my magic soup gun and laid the breakfast table while the Man was still in the shower. Since that can be up to 40 minutes before he is ready to breakfast, I went off to do various other household tasks.
When we sat down to eat our muesli and drink our smoothies, the drinks had completely solidified. Not just got a skin on, as I initially thought, but turned into rather nasty crumbly blueberry cheese.
Why would that happen?
So we had to start the day without any superfoods at all.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

How do you say it again?

Everything I've ever read about quinoa tells you how to pronounce it, so I'm not going to add my mispronunciation to the general melee.
I had always assumed it was horrible, or at least indigestible, just like all the other stodgy, worthy stomach-ache-inducing foods health fiends try to persuade one to eat. But recently Jane, a blogger whose taste I trust, said she had cooked quinoa for dinner just because she liked it.
That made it worth a try, so tonight I cooked quinoa and spicy tomato and mushroom sauce. The sauce was a little over-chillified and the Man is not keen on chilli mushrooms, so it wasn't an entirely successful experiment, but the quinoa itself turned out to be very nice. Flavour-wise, I couldn't rate it much higher than innocuous, but the texture was lovely - soft, nubbly seeds with crispy, crunchy elements.
The next stage is to try it out on the Kitchen Accomplice. If she likes it, it will be a valuable extension of our repertoire.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Creativity challenge

When I worked at Neal's Yard Dairy, one of my favourite dishes was Coolea cheese melted on Staffordshire oatcakes - this was easy to have for lunch given the ingredients were to hand and our only cooking equipment was a George Forman grill.
Ever since, I have a tendency to buy the oatcakes approximately every third time I go into the dairy. Unfortunately I don't have a grill at home, the Man is underwhelmed by the concept of pancakes and cheese for supper and the Kitchen Accomplice rejects Coolea cheese because it uses animal rennet.
So all too often, my lovely oatcakes sit in the fridge until I have to throw them out, unless I can delve deep into my creative impulses and come up with an alternative.
This is usually based on Cafe Paradiso's suggestion involving a rather elaborate artichoke and garlic paste, asparagus and Oisin cheese. I bypass a lot of that, delicious though it is, and just put some cheese, a vegetable such as spinach and perhaps some pesto in the roll.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Cast into the shade

I am feeling very mediocre cooking-wise at the moment. An impulsive foray into the world of macaroons resulted only in flat things that looked like dollshouse cowpats and refused to come away from the greaseproof paper.
In the same weekend, the Kitchen Accomplice made perfect double chocolate chip cookies, delectable raspberry sorbet and the most beautiful-looking pink grapefruit marmalade you can imagine (only you don't have to imagine, because here's a picture).
I console myself with the thought that at least I can do a mean roast meat, a feat that is out of her reach because she's a vegetarian.
At this moment, she is in the kitchen whipping up some more cookies. Yum, yum!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Granny Cooked

When my cousin Thomas was small, our mutual grandmother was concerned he was eating too much junk food. As a moral lesson, she trained her Pekinese dogs to do a new trick. You put a piece of food (they particularly liked bits of Victoria sponge) in front of them and said 'Junk food'. They would sneer. 'Crisps' - the same reaction. 'Burgers', 'chicken nuggets', 'chips' or 'biscuits' would all be scorned by Bangs or Azalea.
Then before the poor beast starved to death in front of your eyes, you would say 'Granny Cooked!' and the dog would gobble up the finally licit morsel.
I'm not sure Thomas really took this to heart as a lesson (although he is now a very devoted organic gardener and disciple of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall), but I was much impressed.
Granny Cooked notwithstanding, there are certain convenience foods I still find irresistable.
Hash browns, curly fries, waffles - there's a processed potato theme here, I realise.
I have started stocking hash browns in the freezer for the Kitchen Accomplice when she gets in from school.
This week i also invested in Toastabags, thinking they would be good for preparing hash browns.
But when I asked how it had gone, the young lady said cooking them from frozen was quite demanding.
"The toaster had to be popped like 1200 hundred times just to defrost them. So then I put them in the microwave. And then I fried them." By then, I guess, she was certain they were dead, so she ate them.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Red velvet

Remember my valentine cake? Made (partly) out of red velvet cake? Well, I thought it was time to try out the cake properly.
It's a funny thing with baking soda and vinegar - surely they cancel each other out?
I used this recipe for red velvet cake - which I won't repost here - from one of my favourite baking websites.
The recipe calls for pints and pints of extraordinarily rich 'creamcheese frosting'. You make two normal layers of cake, then cut each laterally in half, so you have a four layer cake. That means four layers of icing - yum, yum! Although I must confess that my appetite for gooey icing seems to have been quenched somewhat with age.

Still, it looks good with the red stripes, doesn't it?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Queen of Hearts

When I get home after work, I am greeted at the door by two furry kitties. They surge around me as I climb the stairs, squeaking their greeting.
On Thursdays, the feeling of welcome is hugely enhanced by the presence of the Kitchen Accomplice and the consequent delightful aroma of baking that greets me alongside the felines.
I'm not that much of a cake eater, but who could resist these tiny jam tarts? They didn't even last till supper time.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bland, bland, bland

Although the Kitchen Accomplice loves spicy food, it is never a good idea to try pleasing her with curries, because she just compares it with her grandmother's and dismisses our poor efforts as 'bland, bland, bland'.
This is particularly sad for the Man, who is quite proud of his tarka dal (not in the least bland to my mind).
My plan is that we should have a cook-off - each of us has to produce a dal, to be tasted blind, all at one meal.
Given how competitive I am, it should come as no surprise that I am practising madly. Luckily this is a delicious and healthy meal - although I'm not sure I'd like to eat only this, I'm happy to eat it once a week.
For supper tonight, the Man requested "some green vegetable", a rare request from him. So I went for the greenest I could think of. Baby spinach leaves, washed and dried, then thrown into a hot pan where I had fried grated ginger, mustard seeds and kalonji (onion seeds).
This with basmati rice and tarka dal made an easy, delicious, balanced meal.
Here's the dal recipe I'm currently using - bear in mind that you can alter the spices as much as you like. The amounts given below feed four not very spice-tongued eaters.
PS the 'tarka' is the fried spice mixture that flavours the dal.

300g red lentils (masoor dal)
850ml water or stock
1 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp coriander

30g butter
1/4 tsp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp asafoetida

4 garlic cloves chopped
1 medium onion chopped
2 chillis chopped

2 tomatoes finely chopped
1tsp curry leaves
1/4 tsp chilli powder

1 tbsp garam masala
1 tsp salt
1/2 tbsp fresh coriander for garnish

1 Bring the water or stock to the boil and add the lentils.

2 Add the turmeric and ground coriander, stir and simmer for 20 minutes or until lentils are soft. Cook until the water is absorbed; if the lentils go dry and are not soft, simply add more water.

3 Add the butter to a large frying pan and cook gently with the cumin seeds and asafoetida for a few seconds, add the chopped onions and garlic and fry until the onions just start to brown. Add the chopped tomatoes, curry leaves and chilli powder and continue cooking for another few minutes. (This is your tarka).

4 Add the dal to the tarka and stir well.

5 Continue cooking and add the garam masala and salt (to taste) and stir in well.

6 The finished tarka dal should be soft and runny - if necessary, add more water.

7 Serve with a few knobs of butter on top of the dal and sprinkle the fresh coriander leaves on top to garnish. Serve with basmati rice or plain naan/chapatti breads.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

It's not rocket science

Although pasta with pesto is an easy and not too unhealthy supper, my heart always sinks at the thought. Unfortunately, it's all too frequent a solution to the problem of what to feed the Man and the Kitchen Accomplice if no planning ahead has been done - all too regular a situation.
Last week I came up with an alternative, just a little bit less straightforward, significantly healthier and much yummier. Rocket pesto!
A packet of fresh rocket is easily available in local shops, as are walnuts. Vegetarian parmesan (a nod to Miss Picky, aka the Kitchen Accomplice), garlic and olive oil are stock store cupboard ingredients, as is a lemon.
Chuck them all in a processor or blender (grating the parmesan and juice the lemon), along with salt and pepper. Taste repeatedly to get the proportion right - we ended up putting in the juice of half a lemon and LOTS of olive oil to get it smooth enough.
One final twist - it was nice enough five minutes after making, but even nicer a week later - mellower, smoother, less bitter.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Ginger cookies for my colleagues

Some time ago, I was given a cookie jar for work. That is to say, I as a journalist was sent this cookie jar as a freebie. It contained some digestive biscuits, which I gave to my colleagues, and I have entirely forgotten who sent it.
Anyway, I keep it stocked with cookies of various sorts depending on whim.
At the moment, the popular vote seems to be for ginger cookies, made with ground ginger, fresh ginger and crystallised ginger (gingery!). I have just restocked the cookie jar with a mini-version of these, spiked with lemon oil, so they are just perfect for my boss, who is coming down with what sounds from the other side of the desk like a very bad cold.
Here's how to make them:

250g plain flour (I use wholewheat)
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp star anise, finely ground
4 1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp salt

50g unsalted butter
60ml black treacle
120g caster sugar, sifted
1 1/2 tbsp fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1 large egg, well beaten

150g crystallized ginger, finely minced
zest of 2 lemons

50g granulated sugar

Preheat the oven to 350F (180C, Gas mark 4). Line a couple of baking sheets with greaseproof paper and set aside.

In a large bowl whisk together the flour, baking soda, star anise, ground ginger, and salt.

Heat the butter in a small pan until it is just barely melted. Stir in the molasses, natural cane sugar, and fresh ginger. Or put it all into a bowl and microwave briefly until butter is almost melted.The mixture should be warm, but not hot at this point, if it is hot to touch let it cool a bit. Whisk in the egg. Now pour this over the flour mixture, add the crystallized ginger (make sure it isn't too clumpy), and lemon zest. Stir until just combined.

Roll the cookie dough into small balls (1 tsp of dough each is what I normally go for - for bite-sized cookies, halve that). Now roll each ball in the granulated sugar until coated. Place balls a few cm apart on prepared baking sheets. Bake for 7-10 minutes or until cookies puff up, darken a bit, get fragrant and crack.

Makes about 4 dozen or so.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The romantic associations of tea-bread

I'm normally a staunch member of the 'Down with Raisins' fraternity, but there is one exception. Tea bread, which is really cake made with raisins soaked in tea, somehow persuades me it is acceptable. Perhaps this is something to do with having been introduced to it by a very close friend when a teenager - not a boyfriend (always so much less romantic than the imagination), but a boy nevertheless.

For years I carried his recipe for tea bread, written in his characteristically spiky handwriting, in my wallet. It was very slightly more complex than the one I use now, but came out very well too.

My current recipe has the beauty of extreme simplicity.

2 mugs dried fruit
1 mug brown sugar
1 mug hot black tea
1 egg
1 mug self-raising flour.

Soak the fruit and sugar overnight in the tea, mix in the egg and flour, pour into a greased and lined loaf tin and bake at 150 C, gas mark 2, for an hour and a half.

Unable to leave well alone, I add some pinches of spice - cinnamon and clove, even a pinch of star anise I ground earlier - but this is entirely optional.

The important thing is to serve it in thickly buttered slices. Yum!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

One more valentine-ish post

The recipe for the elaborate Valentine's cake was a bit sketchy on some of the details, especially about amounts. This led to my making two layers of red velvet cake when only one was necessary and more than double the amount of cream cheese frosting.
So I had the inspired idea of slicing the second layer into two very thin layers, then using a heart-shaped cookie cutter to make lots of little heart-shaped cakes, which I then iced with the leftover cream cheese frosting. A few coloured sprinkles and you have perfect little Valentine's cakes. How's that for creative?
They made a perfect hostess gift for the delightful Sunday lunch I have just come home from (around 8pm), and were surprisingly nice. The only snag is that cream cheese frosting doesn't really harden at all, so they didn't transport perfectly and serving them was a bit messy.
And I forgot to photograph them, so you just have to imagine what they looked like.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Valentine cake

It's a little different from the Bakerella version. For a start, it's not as perfect or pretty. I'm not a perfectionist, which means that what I do is rarely to a very high standard. On the other hand, I do a lot of things, even if sometimes they are a bit slapdash.
Another excuse for its less than perfect appearance is that I used marzipan instead of fondant to make the cardboard box. I've never worked with fondant, so it may well be easier to manage, but the marzipan was very soft after kneading in the food colouring. While on the topic of food colouring, neither the cake nor the marzipan came out as red as suggested. I think Green & Black's cocoa may be darker than standard American cocoa, so it overrode the redness. The food colouring itself seems to come out pink rather than red - the whole concoction used a bottle and a half of food colouring!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Ambitious plans

I have very ambitious plans for a Valentine's day cake. Before you get all upset, I should reassure you that I haven't gone all soppy and conventionally romantic. This is pure self-indulgence as I take on a patisserie challenge. The Man will eat at most two or three slices, but if it works, I'll make it again the following week for a friends' wedding.
Anyway, the idea comes from a random blog, (I don't want to put up a picture because I don't want to follow that - you'll see my version first!), and it's based on an American recipe (as above) called red velvet cake. I've made the base cake and it smells gorgeous and looks very nice, but it's sort of dark chocolatey red rather than the scarlet of all the pictures. Despite two tablespoons of red food colouring!

Monday, February 09, 2009

Breakfast on Christmas morning

Now, I hate to come over all Bah Humbug, but one of the downsides of Christmas is that there's all this traditional food and I don't like any of it.
Turkey? Yuck. Dry and nasty-flavoured.
Brussels sprouts? Euch. Bitter and watery.
And mince pies, Christmas pudding, Christmas cake etc all have dried fruit in, making them a no-no from my point of view. Admittedly a picky point of view, but valid, I think.
And the cake often has marzipan on it.
So I lose weight and family good will over Christmas.
This year was different.
This year we all went (completely mad, but wonderful) to Sri Lanka for Christmas and had fresh fruit and spicy dal for breakfast and curry at every other meal. Oh it was bliss!
And the warmth, the sunshine, the baby elephants, the blue ocean and golden beach, they were good too!

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Kitchen Rivals

I haven't been posting much on the blog, partly because things have been busy at work, what with the end of the world as we know it (I'm a financial journalist) and partly because I'm having to fight for space in the kitchen.
My wonderful stepdaughter is going through a manic baking phase, which has the unexpected consequence that she has a devoted fan club both in my place of work and her father's.
She will only bake cakes, muffins, cookies - sweet things all - and neither she nor her dad is greedy enough to eat all of them, and I'm not very keen at all. So every other weekend, when the Accomplice has spent three days with us, we bring tubs of chocodoodles, strawberry jam doughnut muffins, cinnamon cookies, honey and spice cake, into work and distribute them among our fellow-workers.
I have qualms about how wasteful the practice is, and I dislike being expected to eat so many cakes, but I can't bring myself to discourage her from such a wholesome, productive, self-empowering pursuit. I love coming home from work on Thursdays to a flat full of seductively sweet baking smells, being offered a still warm cookie while I'm taking my coat off, seeing her triumph when an experiment works and her determined analysis of failures.
But my belated new year resolution is not to let this deter me from writing about food - and to try to blog more regularly.