Sunday, 27 April 2008

Daring Bakers: Cheesecake Pops

I'd like to start this post with an apology (not to hijack this month's Daring Bakers task). It's been a bit of a topsy-turvey month for different personal and family reasons, and although everything should be fine in the long run it has left me quite tired and not feeling inspired to cook or blog beyond the basic. The biggest sign of this is that my Google Reader account (which I've been avoiding for ages, letting the posts pile up) today reports 855 posts from you, fellow bloggers, which I haven't been keeping up with. So apologies everyone for not visiting and commenting on your efforts, and I hope to get back on the game soon.

Evidence of this tired/distractedness is this month's DB Cheesecake Pop making. One weekend after the other, I have been too busy or not had the energy to tackle it. Yesterday was to be the day, but I wound up feeling too poor to face it. This morning, then, after some lazy newspaper reading and more feeling poorly, I rallied Mr A&N to come to the kitchen with me to be my hands while I read the recipe out to him and barked instructions at him like a drill seargent.

As Mr A&N took his time to precisely measure out his ingredients, debating the merits of imperial vs metric measurements, I had a glance at the posting date for this recipe. The date? Today. Oh crap.

With 24 hours for the pops to do their firming up, I won't get to taste them by the post date, but they'll at least be finished. Hopefully. So now for a bit of race-against-the-clock semi-live blogging:

14.35 (GMT): I read out the ingredients for Mr A&N and he begins setting his mis en place. He takes the packets of cream cheese from the fridge, and weighs them on the scales. He keeps the cream cheese in their plastic containers while weighing them, and guesses at the weight of the container vs. cheese and dumps the amount he sees fit into the mixing bowl. I request he weighs it all again now that it's just cheese and mixing bowl, but he declines. He offers for me to take over the task if I disagree with his methods. I decline. We are at a weighing impasse (a weighty matter, perhaps, would have been a better phrase. Ah well - it's written, now).

15.02 : Mixing begins with the hand blender. This is Mr A&N's first time with a hand blender. He's both fascinated and repulsed at using machinery to carry out a man's (woman's) job, but carries on with a studious, furrowed brow.

15.18 : Mixing is finished, and the water is boiling in order for the hot water bath to be set. Mr A&N pours the cheesecake into the tin (the whole time questioning the lack of crust, and wondering why what he's doing is considered 'daring') and takes great care to smooth the top of the cake evenly.

15.23 : The cake goes into the oven. I set the timer for 45 minutes just in case this cake wants to bake for the prescribed time.

16.08 : It doesn't. I stick it in for another 11 minutes.

16.19 : Nope. Another 11 minutes.

16.30 : Cake is done (ish). I drain the water bath and wip
e the tin off, and cover the top in plastic wrap. The cake should now take 3 hours to chill in the fridge (minimum). I speed the process by sticking it in the freezer for an hour and a half.

18.00 : Cake comes out of the freezer. It's very firm and chilled, so I decide to risk it. I start sloppily gouging out dough balls. The cake isn't quite firm enough and the balls are refusing to come together, never mind the idea of shaping them. They're a proper rag-tag group of misfits. But as this cheesecake A
-Team is all I have, I get out my pack of 225 flouroscent flexible straws and cut 8 of them in half to insert into my misfit balls. I don't know what I'll do with the other 217 straws.

18.09 : I try to find space in the freezer for my tray of misfits. The deepest draw is the meat draw so I try shoving them in with assorted lamb parts and a three-pack of mackerel. There's one casualty as I try to get the tray in, and Mr A&N averts further disaster by removing the drawer, gently laying the baking tray on top, and getting the drawer back in without cussing or shoving. I eat the casualty and find it tastes very good. I quickly go back to feeling sick a
s Mr A&N cooks us dinner.

19.13 : After a dinner which I didn't eat, I test the pops for frozen-ness. They're still fairly squidgy so it will be more time yet. The day light is fading and with it my chance to get clear pictures of the finished pops. Which might not be a bad thing, given how the are looking.

20.02 : I try the pops again. They could be harder. I couldn't wait. Out come the dried coconut, cherries, and almonds, as does the chocolate for melting. Coating the pops is a bit of a messy affair, and it doesn't do anything to improve their looks.

20.20 : The pops are coated and need to be photographed

20.28 : Feet up on the sofa time.

Thanks to Elle from Feeding my Enthusiasms and Deborah from Taste and Tell for setting the challenge; you can find a posting of the recipe on Deborah's site. I look forward to tasting the finished product tomorrow.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Beetroot and Fennel Salad

It was a busy Saturday. I had fennel and beetroot in the cupboard. Two separate things, one might think, but according to the world that exists within my head, these two facts were very linked and could only be solved together.

In between normal Saturday food shopping and cleaning, we spent the day gardening, trying to bring some order to the overgrown former building site that our back yard had become. I garden more for edibility than for beauty so my main concern was to get the herbs potted and tended to, and to clear and prep the vegetable patch for all the goodness that awaited it. Though the rest of the garden is still not fit to have children running around in it, we have planted our 2 varieties of peas, our two types of lettuce, rhubarb (which takes 54 weeks to come a-cropping; no need to rush things), aubergines and cantaloupes, and purple sprouting broccoli has its patch laid out and is waiting to go in the ground.

And in the back of my mind were the fennel and beetroot. I felt they could come together in a salad, and a quick google search pointed me in the direction of combining them with lentils to make the salad complete. The fennel was from our organic vegetable delivery box, and the anisette smell from it was unlike any I've smelled from
fennel before - it was fresh and strong and a fabulous perfume that tempted you to stand about and sniff the bulb until your nose lost sense of any smell that came before or after it.

I had to leave the salad to be finished by Mr A&N as I needed to soak my tired gardening body in the bath tub. Before coming back down the stairs, I noticed that the smell had changed from one of fennel to one of a very strong garlic - Mr A&N is never shy with the garlic, but this smell was quite something else. The salad was simple and refreshing (albeit garlicky), with the beetroot coloring everything its distinctive purple color - including my top, when I dropped some lentils down the front of it.

The salad we made was inspired by the one
I found on RecipeZaar from Um Safia.

Beetroot and Fennel Salad

side dish for 4-6, or light meal for 2

  • 2 beetroots, cleaned and trimmed
  • 1 Tbs olive oil
  • 1 fennel bulb, leaves trimmed and set aside
  • 200g puy lentils
  • (optional: 200g cheese such as feta or halloumi)
  • For the dressing:
    • 1/4 cup olive oil
    • juice of 1 lemon
    • 1 tsp wholegrain mustard
    • 1 clove minced garlic
    • chopped fennel leaves from fennel bulb
  1. Preheat the oven to 180oc.
  2. Coat the beetroot with the tablespoon of olive oil and bake in the oven for about an hour (or until tender).
  3. Cook the puy lentils in boiling water until tender (about 20 minutes). Drain, and set aside to cool.
  4. Allow to cool thoroughly (about 45 minutes), then peel and chop into cubes.
  5. Remove the fennel leaves, finely chop them, and set aside.
  6. Slice the fennel into thin pieces.
  7. Add the fennel, beetroot, and lentils together (and cheese too, if using it).
  8. Mix the ingredients for the dressing together, and add to the vegetables.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Celery and White Bean Soup with Tomato

It’s cold again. More than once this year, I’ve declared Spring had arrived, only to be rudely shouted down by the weather. Flowers and showers alone don’t change the season, just as one warm day doesn’t mean the snow won’t follow. For example: London doesn’t see much snow, but it has had a few flurries since Easter – i.e., since the arrival of Spring. Luckily I still get a bit of a thrill from each snow-fall, especially since the London kind arrives with large snowflakey clumps and melts within hours. While it’s down, the blanketed quiet is such a peaceful cocoon from the normal background hubbub that you only realize the previous noise by its absence. The snow a couple of weeks back combined with our winter veg box glut of celery, and we found ourselves again facing the idea of celery soup. Unlike the previous celery soup (who knew there could be so many celery soups?), we used celery rather than celeriac this time around, and tempered the flavor with white beans and tomato. Since I’m a sucker for a nice sausage, I also couldn’t resist fry up some fresh chorizo and throwing those chunks on top.

Universal opinion among our guests was that the soup was wonderful for the wintery day, and that the chorizo was (naturally) the favorite part. The celery wasn’t overly strong and the tomato did threaten to take nudge aside the taste of the celery a bit. I thought the soup was pleasant but unspectacular, a good winter warmer and an excellent use of celery, but without the chorizo or extra paprika we threw in that it would have been a bit dull.

Everyone's love of the chorizo got me musing on why the world couldn't be more perfect by there existing there a chorizo tree, in which all of God’s creatures could enjoy fresh sausage and eat to their heart’s content without fear of chorizo shortage or animal welfare. Surely this would be the route to peace love and harmony among all creatures, great and small. With a bit more thinking, I realized that however perfect this chorizo tree sounds on first description, God would never allow it since it would turn the world into a Land of the Lotus eaters, with doped-up chorizo fiends doing nothing productive other than sitting in our gardens and nibbling. But if there’s a Garden of Eden, I now know what mine will be stocked with.

Finally, I will introduce to you one of Ambrosia and Nectar's more recent readers, Murphy Moore, who came around to enjoy the snow and the soup. Son of faithful eating companion Amanda, he's not yet old enough to be fed his own meals here so he'll have to live vicariously through Mama's dining in the mean time. He is of course welcome around whenever he likes.

Celery and White Bean Soup with Tomato, adapted from Moro East by Sam and Sam Clark Serves 4-6

  • 250g dried cannellini beans, soaked overnight, or 650g drained tinned beans
  • 5 Tbs olive oil
  • 1 large head celery with leaves - celery sliced into 1 inch pieces, leaves set aside
  • 8 spring onions with green tops, sliced into 1 cm rounds
  • 4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 500g good quality tomatoes
  • 1 Tbs sweet paprika
  • 2-3 fresh chorizo sausages (about 1/2 sausage per person)

  1. Make some celery salt by laying out the celery leaves on a baking tray and heating in a medium-low oven. Move them around every so oft to keep them from burning.
  2. When leaves are quite dry and crumbly, remove from oven and crumble with equal parts of sea salt. Set aside.
  3. Drain the soaked beans and add to a saucepan, and cover with plenty of fresh water.
  4. Boil for about an hour, skimming off any scum that arises during the cooking. Add any extra water needed if it boils away too quickly. Season with a bit of salt and set aside.
  5. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan, and add in the celery. Cook until softened, about 10 minutes.
  6. Add the spring onions, garlic, and a good pinch of salt.
  7. Cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally. The vegetables should be soft and beginning to caramelize.
  8. Add the tomatoes and half the celery salt, and cook for another 5 minutes.
  9. Drain the beans, keeping back 250 ml of the cooking liquid, and add both to the pot with the vegetable mixture.
  10. Add in the paprika.
  11. Bring to a low boil and simmer for another 5 minutes. Taste for seasoning and adjust.
  12. Heat a frying pan up with a small amount of olive oil to prevent the sausage from sticking.
  13. Slice the fresh chorizo into half-inch thick disks, then quarter them.
  14. Fry the chorizo pieces for about 5 minutes or until cooked. They usually give off a good amount of oil - fatty, but tasty.
  15. Serve the soup in bowls with the chorizo and some of its oil spooned on top.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

LiveSTRONG Day: A Taste of Yellow Escabeche

However young or old any of us are, we've all had some type of experience with cancer - some more viscerally than others. The grandmother you've never met but whose death broke your father's too-young heart; the friend's sister who missed out on her final year of high school but beat the cancer and became a pediatrician so she could help other children; those times you've been to the Doctor's office with the odd-looking mole and held your breath until the results came back. A taste of yellow is the brain-child of Barbara at Winos and Foodies, a way for food bloggers to wave the banner of cancer awareness.

This mackerel escabeche gets its bright yellowness from the cornmeal encrusted fish and the saffron in the sauce. The recipe comes from Tommi Miers, a winner of Master Chef and now a restauranteur and TV chef working to bring Spanish and Mexican flavors to the UK. The escabeche cooks the fish both through heat and through acidity, while the raisins and onions add a touch of sweet and the olives a touch of salty. It was very similar in flavor - and color - to the chicken with white wine, and saffron and pine nuts I made a short while ago, both dishes being a good way to bring a bit of Spain and a touch of yellow to your meal. Serve with some god, hearty bread on which you can pile all the bits.

Mackerel Escabeche, from Tommi Miers
serves 4

  • 4 + 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
  • 2 large red onions, sliced
  • 200ml good chicken stock or water
  • 1½ tbsp good quality sherry vinegar
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 large dried red chilli, or a few small ones, finely chopped
  • A pinch of saffron
  • 75g pitted green olives, quartered
  • 75g raisins
  • 4 fresh mackerel, cleaned and filleted
  • 3 tbsp cornmeal/polenta
  • 4 tbsp pine kernels, toasted, to serve
  • Freshly chopped flat leaf parsley, to garnish (optional)
  1. Start by making the escabeche: heat 4 Tbs of the olive oil into a hot frying pan and cook the garlic and onions over a low heat until softened and lightly coloured, stirring regularly.
  2. Stir in the stock, sherry vinegar, bay leaves, chilli and saffron.
  3. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for around 10 minutes. Stir in the raisins and olives.
  4. While the sauce is cooking, prepare the mackerel. Cut each mackerel fillet in half lengthways and dust in seasoned cornmeal.
  5. Heat 2 tbsp of the olive oil in a large, non-stick frying pan and cook the mackerel fillets in two or three batches for just 1 - 2 minutes on each side, adding extra oil if necessary.
  6. Drain on kitchen paper and transfer to a shallow dish.
  7. Spoon the escabeche over the mackerel fillets and leave to infuse for half an hour.
  8. Sprinkle the pine nuts over, and scatter with a little chopped flat leaf parsley if you have it on hand

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Rhubarb Ice Cream

Like many a convert, I have become more passionate and vocal about the cause of rhubarb than those who might have grown up believing in its magic. I invariable have an 'Oooh, rhubarb!' moment if I see it mentioned in a recipe book or spot its pinkness on display at the market. This Saturday afternoon will be spent planting my fruits and vegetables for the season, with rhubarb included among the seeds I've bought (that is, if the weather holds. And it better, since I've just stuck the laundry outside).

This recipe for rhubarb ice cream so caught my eye that I finally bought an ice cream maker because of it. The ice cream maker had been on the wish list for a while, particularly because we only eat non-diary ice cream in the A&N house and it can be very hard to come by in the UK. Now that we have a kitchen big enough to hold gadgets, the ice cream maker jumped the gadget queue and was designated my next birthday present (in June, perfect for the start of ice cream season). But, as rhubarb isn't available in June, I ignored all that had been decided and bought the ice cream maker last week. Some would point fingers and say I lacked patience, but I'll just point out I've wanted that ice cream maker
for a time that spans years, so really, I've been very patient indeed.

The ice cream is made with a custard base with stewed rhubarb and its syrup added into the mix shortly before the end. The picture of the finished dessert in cookbook was enchanting - a delicate pink cloud of creaminess, the frozen-egg-and-cream equivalent of Cinderella when she puts on her slipper or Snow White when she wakes from her slumber. The custard base led me to think of serving meringues with it to use up the egg whites, furthering the delicate airy nature of the dessert. It was enough to make me stick my arm out the window for the birds to perch on as I sang to them and whipped up my kitchen delights.

Clearly I was deluded, and I should have known that a first attempt at something rarely produces stunning effects. The basic vanilla ice cream was luscious and didn't taste or feel compromised by the thinner soya cream and milk we added to it. I think the problem came from the rhubarb (*gasp!* Not the magic rhubarb!). The rhubarb didn't break apart enough once it was added, and since it was late-season rhubarb I probably should have cooked it longer than I did. The bigger problem was the syrup. Again, I probably should have cooked it down further, added it in sooner, and made sure it was cold rather than just cooled, but as soon as it was poured into the ice cream it turned the ice cream texture into a liquid from which it never recovered. The meringues were crushed while being juggled around the oven to accommodate other things.

It still tasted wonderful, but the rhubarb chunks suffered once they were put into the freezer, becoming solid crystalized masses that reminded you where every one of your fillings were and made you shrink back a bit in the remembered-pain of having had cavities. Tips for future ice cream making were learned, and more may follow, but I'm still looking forward to the ice cream season with excitement. As well as my birthday, now that I have another present coming to me.

Winter Rhubarb Ice Cream, from Skye Gyngell's A Year in My Kitchen Ice cream base:

  • 450 ml double cream
  • 150 ml whole milk
  • 1 vanilla pod, split lengthways
  • 6 large egg yolks
  • 120 g caster sugar
Rhubarb flavoring:
  • 1kg rhubarb
  • 1 vanilla pod, split lengthways
  • 180 g caster sugar
  • 150 ml verjuice or water
  1. Start by making the custard base: pour the cream and milk into a heavy-based pan an place over a low heat.
  2. Scrape the seeds and place the seeds and the pod into the cream mixture.
  3. Slowly bring to the boil, remove from heat and set aside for 15 minutes so it can infuse.
  4. Meanwhile, beat the egg yolks and sugar together in a separate bowl until the mixture
  5. turns thicker and paler.
  6. Gently reheat the cream mixture and pour it into the eggs, whisking as it's poured.
  7. Place everything, now combined, into the pan and heat over the lowest possible heat, stirring until the custard thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon (about 6 - 8 minutes).
  8. Remove from heat and set aside in a bowl to cool.
  9. Wash and trim the rhubarb, then cut into 2 inch/5 cm chunks.
  10. Place rhubarb in a saucepan with the vanilla pod, sugar, and verjuice/water. Turn the heat onto medium and stir gently to start the rhubarb off.
  11. Bring to a simmer, then turn heat down to cook gently for 10 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. The rhubarb should be soft and on the verge of falling apart (if using later season rhubarb, you may need to cook for closer to 20 minutes).
  12. Remove the rhubarb and set aside in a dish. Taste the syrup to make sure it's both tart and sweet at the same time (adjust for taste if needed) and turn the heat up to simmer away half the syrup.
  13. Pour over the rhubarb and allow to cool completely.
  14. Once the custard is cooled, pour into the ice cream maker. Just before the ice cream sets, pour in the cooled rhubarb and syrup, and churn for a further 10 minutes.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

My Favorite Roast

I had a chance to make my favorite roast this weekend: a leg of lamb, done with your typical rosemary and garlic, but with the surprising addition of...anchovies. It's a meal I've tried in Italy and am told it's not uncommon in France, either. Although they sound like a completely mis-matched ingredient, the anchovies melt along with the butter and leave behind a simple, salty tenderness.

This particular recipe comes from the Simon Hopkinson book, Roast Chicken and Other Stories. It was last year voted as the favorite cookbook among chefs in the UK, which made this little-known cookbo
ok sell out very quickly. I didn't feel overly compelled to get the book until Mr A&N came home from a job with daily stories about how his boss loved the foods the book lead him to - simple, classic dishes but all knee-meltingly excellent. His boss, to all intents and purposes, was a Very Large Man, but he also Really Enjoyed His Food - not fatty unhealthy ready-meal food, but fatty unhealthy home-made food of the gourmet domain. Simon Hopkinson, he swore, knew how to make some good things fairly simply (and to tell some nice stories around them).

The lamb from this comes out very, ve
ry tender and juicy. We tend to like our lamb pink, but even if you err on the side of well-done your lamb should still be in succulent enough shape. The gravy it produces is also a rather perfect kind of gravy, but do take care to drain off any extra fat - not doing so might just send some of you rotundly plummeting over the heart-attack precipice. My favorite Sunday roast dinner indeed, probably made all the tastier since I know I'll only be having it a couple of times a year. Please note, I only had time to take pictures of it pre-cooked, since once that thing was out of the oven and being carved up everything else got lost in the blur of me trying to get as much lamb into my mouth as possible.

Roast Leg of Lamb with Anchovy, Garlic, and Rosemary from Simon Hopkinson
serves 4

  • 1.8kg/4lb leg of lamb
  • 100g/4oz tinned anchovies
  • small bunch of rosemary
  • 4 large garlic cloves, peeled and sliced lenghtways into 3 pieces
  • 75g/3oz butter, softened
  • black pepper
  • 1/2 bottle white wine
  • juice of 1 lemon
  1. Preheat the oven to 220 C/425 F.
  2. With a sharp knife, make about 12 2-inch deep incisions into the fleshy side of the joint.
  3. In each of these incisions, insert a sliver of garlic, half an anchovy, and a small sprig of rosemary, and push them all into the cut well.
  4. Cream the butter along with any remaining anchovies and smear this all over the meat. Grind black pepper on top of this.
  5. Place the lamb in a roasting tin, and pour the wine around it. Tuck in any remaining rosemary into some incisions, and squeeze the lemon over the lamb.
  6. Put in the oven, and roast for 15 minutes.
  7. At the end of the first 15 minutes, turn the temperature down to 180 C /350F.
  8. Roast for a further hour (or slightly more/less depending on how you like your lamb cooked), basting from time to time with the juices that come out.
  9. Leave the lamb out of the oven and untouched for 15 minutes before carving.
  10. Use this 15 minutes to make the gravy with all the leftover juices.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Prune and Armagnac Tart

When trying to find a dessert that would go well with our beef and prune tagine, I turned to my new favorite cookbook: A Year in My Kitchen by Skye Gyngell. Even though I have more cookbooks than it's possible to regularly cook from (I started a spreadsheet of the recipes I'd like to make, their key ingredients, and the books they're in. I managed to record all that for one of book), I have only 3 or 4 that I'll really turn to for inspiration, and Skye's book has already increased that number of core books to 4 or 5. Since the book is arranged seasonally, I optimisticly turned to 'spring' hoping I could speed the season toward me with my choice of recipe.

And so the prune and armagnac tart. This is a very classic French flavor combination, and I was still in a bit of a reverie from a friend's description earlier in the week of his home-made prune and armagnac ice cream. With prunes in the main co
urse as well, I thought it would be a nice flavor arc through the meal. With two times the prunes initially needed, though, I actually had to go out and buy another packet of prunes - something I didn't think I'd be doing until I was in my 80's and afflicted by a certain sluggishness.

The prunes I bought were not pitted which turned out to be something of a poor choice since my hands were hunched in cutting and pitting position while covered in sticky prune goo for what felt like much longer than it was. My patience grew short, and I'm not known in the A&N household for being The Patron Saint of Patience to begin with. The pastry recipe for the tart was excellent - crispy, subtly sweet and nicely buttery, and kept well for a couple of days. The pastry combined well with the prunes, which tasted like a rich jam. Next time, I would probably double the almond mixture on top since I do like my almond topping and I didn't get much of the sense of the orange blossom water. Other than the torture of pitting the prunes, it was an easy but sophisticated dessert to make, and is very open to being tweaked with different flavors and combinations.

Both Pastry and Tart from Skye Gyngell's A Year in My Kitchen


  • 250g plan flour
  • pinch salt
  • 125g unsalted butter, shilled and cut into cubes
  • 25g caster sugar
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • finely grated zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 1 egg
  • 25-40 ml ice-cold water
  1. Sift the flour and salt into a mound on a cool surface.
  2. Scatter the butter, sugar, vanilla and lemon zest over the flour, then toss the ingredients together using a knife or pastry scraper.
  3. make a hollow in the middle and add the egg and water and toss again.
  4. Gather the dough close to you and, with the heel of your hand, work it away in a quick movement. Keep bringing the dough back to you and working it until it is evenly combined (don't worry if little bits of butter show through, it is important not to overwork the dough).
  5. Once the dough has come together, continue to knead to a minute or so, very lightly.
  6. Wrap the pastry in greaseproof paper and chill for 20 minutes (no longer or it will be difficult to roll).

Prune and Armagnac Tart

  • The pastry recipe above (already halved)
  • 300g good quality prunes
  • 30 g unsalted butter
  • 2 eggs
  • 120g caster sugar
  • few drops vanilla extract
  • 1 Tbsp orange flower water
  • 5 Tbsp double cream
  • 3 Tbsp ground almond
  • 3 Tbsp armagnac (or brandy) to drizzle
  • icing sugar, to dust
  • creme fraiche, to serve
  1. Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface to about 3mm/just over an inch thick.
  2. Lift the pastry carefully and place over a 25cm/10 inch flan tin. Press the pastry into the sides and bottom of the tin, then use your rolling pin rolled on top to cut the excess pastry off.
  3. Prick the base all over with a fork, then place in the fridge to rest for 30 minutes.
  4. Preheat the oven to 180C / 375F.
  5. If not already pitted, pit the prunes and place in a bowl. Cover with hot water and leave to soak for 10 minutes and then drain.
  6. Melt the butter and allow to cool slightly.
  7. When the half hour is up, line the pastry tin with greaseproof paper and fill with baking beans in order to blind-bake the pastry.
  8. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove the beans and bake for another 5 or until the pastry is golden, then remove from the oven and allow to cool.
  9. Increase the oven temperature to 190 / 390.
  10. In a large bowl, combine the eggs, sugar, vanilla, orange flower water, cream, and almonds. Whisk together lightly until evenly blended, then stir in the melted butter.
  11. Scatter the prunes evenly over the pastry base, then ladle the whisked egg mixture over the top.
  12. Carefully place on the middle shelf of the oven and immediately turn the temperature back down to 180 / 375.
  13. Bake for 25 - 30 minutes until the topping is golden brown on the surface and slightly wobbly in the center.
  14. Remove from the oven, and while still warm drizzle with the armagnac.
  15. When the armagnac is absorbed, lightly dust with icing sugar. Serve either warm or cold.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Beef and Prune Tagine

I love Moroccan food, and it always surprises me to hear of people who don't have any experience of the cuisine and so don't know the wonders that they're missing. The cuisine artfully ties together the different cultures and influences across the centuries: Middle Eastern, Moorish, Spanish, Jewish. It's the interplay of warming, infusing spices with some element of sweet and element of meat, drawn together in a stew and served with thirsty cous cous that helps you lap up all the wonderful juices the stew gives off. Our choice of honeymoon destination was almost solely guided by our stomachs, placing Japan and Morocco on our (very) shortlist. In the end, we went to Japan because of the greater probability of curious computer games and bizarre vending machine opportunities, but Morocco remained a close second.

Since it is a former French colony, you can also find excellent Moroccan food in France. When we were last in Paris we visited a Moroccan restaurant housed in an old bistro. As I walked to my table, I cast a glance into the kitchen and saw one of the most wonderful sights my eyes have seen: a tub, the size of the sliced-off end of an oil-tanker, filled with cous cous. The man trying to stir the cous cous didn't attack it with a spoon but with a broom with a large paddle attached to it. I had loved Moroccan food up to that point; after I saw this, though, I said a quick prayer to be granted forgiveness as I felt an urge to renounce my husband and pledge myself in marriage to the man who was running that kitchen.

I was recently given a beautiful tagine as a gift by my brother. A typical tagine is an glazed clay affair and acts as something of a slow cooker, trapping the steam produced during cooking and returning it to the wide-based bottom and keeping the food moist. This tagine is even more glorious than your usual one since it's a crimson red Le Creuset version, and sits in your kitchen like a smooth erupted volcano, aglitter in the sunlight.

Tagine is the name for both a style of cooking and the dish it's cooked in. The tagine we made came from our reliable Moro cookbook. Beef and prune tagin
e, the book tells you, is one of your most classic tagine combinations but shouldn't be dismissed for being predictable. Since it spent nearly 3 hours cooking, we all got to smell it developing its flavors. The aroma was torturously good, and the four of us eating were hungry in a manner that not even an empty stomach can induce. There was enough to generously serve four, and none of us could bear leaving any behind uneaten. A trip to Morocco will come some day, but in the mean time I'll always have Paris. And my shiny red tagine.

Beef Tagine with Prunes, from Casa Moro cookbook
Serves 4

  • 40g unsalted butter
  • 2 Tbs olive oil
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 3 Tbs finely grated onion
  • 4 Tbs roughly chopped fresh coriander
  • 1.2kg / 2 1/2 lb stewing beef, cut into 3cm cubes and trimmed of excess fat
  • 40 threads saffron, infused in 2 Tbs boiling water
  • 400g / 1 lb stoned prunes, soaked in cold water
  • 2 Tbs runny honey
  • salt and pepper
  • To serve:
    • 1 Tbs sesame seeds, lightly toasted
    • 180 g whole blanched almonds, friend in olive oil until just golden
    • 4 Tbs fresh coriander leaves
  1. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan or tagine base, heat up the butter and olive oil over a medium to high heat.
  2. When the butter starts to foam add the ginger, 1/2 tsp of black pepper, cinnamon, onion, and coriander.
  3. Fry for 30 seconds, then add the beef and stir well for a minute or two so it is coated in the spice mixture.
  4. Cover the meat with water and add in the saffron infusion. Bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer.
  5. Drain the prunes, then add half to the meat.
  6. Cover the pot, and simmer gently for about 1 1/2 hours until the beef is very tender and juicy (or, cook in an oven at a low temperature, at around 140 C / 280 F).
  7. Add the remaining prunes along with the honey and some salt and pepper.
  8. Simmer for a further 30 minutes or until the meat is tender and the sauce has thickened and reduced some. (We did this final stage with the tagine uncovered on the stove rather than in the oven, but the choice is yours)
  9. Serve with sesame seeds, almonds, and coriander leaves over the top.