Monday, 27 April 2009

Daring Bakers: Abbey's Infamous Cheesecake

Part of the fun of the Daring Bakers is that each month hundreds (thousands?) of people around the blogging globe are cooking up the same recipe in the same manner, and that one day a month the blogosphere is assaulted with impossible numbers of pictures of lasagnas, cinnamon buns, and yule logs - looking slightly different, but otherwise the same underneath. This month, though, we were tasked by Jenny from Jenny Bakes with being creative and inventing our own twist to a basic cheesecake recipe. So today, there will be hundreds (thousands?) of cheesecakes to look at and, like snowflakes, each will be different. Where has my Daring Baker security gone?

Cheesecake is known to be fabulous with fruits on it, but I didn't want to be predictable; why play it safe when you can go risky and fail? And fail is what I came close to doing. I made my cheesecake with a nutella swirl and hazelnuts on top. The swirl looked lovely, the hazelnuts were a crunchy top to complement the slightly-crunchy base, but the overall effect was to create a very, very sweet slice of cake with the nutella elbowing the cheesecake out of the pole position in the flavor race.

I was making my cheesecake to bring around to a friend's Greek Easter celebration. She also happens to be pregnant with twins and has had an incredible sweet tooth throughout the pregnancy, even if she's also been sick after nearly every meal/snack/sweet treat she's eaten. So though my oh-so-sweet cheesecake wasn't going to change to world of cheesecake eating as we know it, it went down very well with the woman eating for 3 sugar-hungry people.

The April 2009 challenge is hosted by Jenny from Jenny Bakes. She has chosen Abbey's Infamous Cheesecake as the challenge.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Abel and Cole

Wednesday night is football night. Every week, Mr A&N drives across North London in order to play a different bunch of 20-40 something year olds in football, and to return home every 3rd week with an injury that has yet to be life-threatening. In my previous, pre-baby life, this meant Wednesday night was girl's night out. Now Wednesday night is either early bedtime night, or blog night - sometimes both in one evening, which shows you how I still like to walk a bit on the wild side.

My Wednesday night dinner routine has returned to what it was like when I was single, since I don't have anyone to share big meals with. It means that I'll do things like dine on a whole head of broccoli (on the theory I haven't had enough greens for the day) or have a large bowl of popcorn with a side of salad for balance. Curious habits that I wouldn't want to inflict on a loved one (though perhaps I should examine why I don't love myself enough not to eat in such a way). I know these eating habits ought to change, and this week they've been given the chance to do so because of some outside intervention.

I was contacted last week by Abel and Cole, my weekly vegetable box people, to see if I wanted to try a couple of other things of theirs for this blog. I've spoken more than once about the challenges (all positive, I promise) of working through a box of vegetables and making them an interesting center piece of the meal. I've also spoken of my love for their excellent pies and how they've been seeing us through the aftermath of having a baby, for which I'll always be both a little bit greatful and a little bit teary. Abel and Cole offered to send me another of their ready meals, an individual cottage pie, as well as a free range chicken, both of which I accepted.

The chicken (roasted with some thyme, lemon and garlic) had th
e succulence and flavor that you hope a free range chicken would, with skin that crisped up nicely but didn't leave you with a roasting pan full of fat or water. And if it matters to you (which it does to me), their chickens come with some rather lovely credentials, of being raised slowly indoors for the first month until they can bear the British weather, and being given a nice varied feed from week to week, a good portion of which uses local UK produce. It's chicken that you feel does the right thing both ethically and palatably, which is really the sort of meal I most enjoy eating.

The cottage pie had me hoping for the best but fearing the worst. Cottage pie is a simple dish of ground beef, carrot, and onion, with some beef stock, tomato and spices to round off the flavor and give a bit of moisture to the mix. It's then topped with mash and baked so that it turns crispy. A simple dish, but one that people can cut corners on - the biggest crimes against a cottage pie are too much tomato (giving a sickly sweet, Chef Boyardee tang to it), mince that's so ground up and processed you begin to doubt that it even came from an animal, and a too-generous coating of mash to cut the overall cost but keep the tummy-filling potential high.

The Pegoty Hedge pie from Abel and Cole isn't afflicted with any of these problems. To my surprise, it was pretty near the sort of pie you would make for yourself; good mash-to-filling ratio, well seasoned but not too salty or peppery, and more meaty tasting than fake tomato tasting. I was especially reassured to see the first ingredient was beef (30%) and to find actual beef chunks in it. The only problem with it is that it's a single serving size, which isn't as accomodating to couples or families who want a night off from heavy cooking but not a night off from food that resembles food. However, it was perfect for this Wednesday night dinner of mine, and once again Abel and Cole leaves me feeling that little bit greatful that I've found them.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Jerusalem Artichokes in White Wine, Rosemary and Cream

Mr A&N is not a huge fan of artichokes - he'd like you to know that from the start. The regular sort of artichoke has too many leaves and takes too much effort, in his opinion. He's much happier eating some nice marinated artichoke hearts, all the effort taken out and replaced with sharp vinegar and slick olive oil. Jerusalem artichokes are only artichoke by name, instead being a tuber vegetable akin to a potato. They still taste enough like an artichoke to put off Mr A&N, each bite presumably bringing back shuddering memories of having to work for his food when I last made him eat a proper artichoke.

I'm used to being the vegetable refusnik, so it always takes me by surprise when I'm willing to eat something that Mr A&N isn't. My memories of vegetables from childhood are of my mother opening a can of peas/carrots/anything, microwaving them on high for tens of minutes in all their watery canned liquid until they came out grey, limpid, and somehow tepid (despite them having been endured the Chernobal School of Cookery). Unsurprisingly, I disliked vegetables for years until I began cooking for myself and realized that I was missing out on a major food group that could also be made tasty. Mr A&N can be a good vegetable eater - his mother is almost self-sustaining with her vegetable plot and often brings us gifts of food - but he'll still dig his heels in on ocassion.

Abel and Cole, from whom we get our weekly vegetable delivery, also have recipes online and on seeing their suggestion of cooking jerusalem artichokes with white wine, rosemary, and cream, I knew Mr A&N would grudginly try it. He's not alone in feeling that those flavors can bring splendor to most foods, so giving that treatment to the artichokes meant he was almost looking forward to trying them. The result?

"The flavors are great which is no surprise. It's just a shame you can still taste the artichokes underneath."

Baby A&N starts weaning soon. I'm crossing my fingers he'll take after me rather than his father, otherwise feeding both men in my life may be a bit of an uphill journey.

Jerusalem Artichokes in White Wine, Rosemary and Cream, from Abel and Cole
serves 4

  • 2 Tbs olive oil
  • 450 g / 1 lb jerusalem artichokes, scrubbed well, thinly sliced into rounds
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 Tbs chopped fresh rosemary
  • 120 ml / 1/2 C + 1 Tbs white wine
  • 60 ml / 4 Tbs double cream
  • salt and pepper to taste
  1. Heat the oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Add the jerusalem artichokes and garlic and fry for 2 minutes.
  2. Add the rosemary and wine, and cook over a high heat until the wine is reduced by half.
  3. Cover and simmer until the artichoke is just tender, between 1 and 5 minutes.
  4. Remove the cover, add the cream, and reduce the sauce for a couple of minutes until thickened.
  5. Salt and pepper to taste.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Japanese Style Slow-Cooked Fish

"What did you get for dinner, then?" I asked Mr A&N when he returned from the food shopping.

"Salmon. Can you pop it in the fridge while I unload the car?"

The salmon didn't take much hunting around for, since it wasn't just salmon, but a credit-crunch-busting, half-price whole salmon, head et al. Popping it in the fridge wasn't possible since this beast was strapped to a heavy piece of cardboard and more than spanned the width of the fridge. Freezer bags and carving knife would have to come out before we could think of putting this salmon away, as did our Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall book on Fish to help us figure out the appropriate way to honor the beastie.

As Mr A&N did his best to carve away with a dull knife and pick bones out with my best tweezers (no wonder proper sushi chefs aren't allowed to touch a blade for their first 2 years of study), I flipped through and read out recipes. It might have been the Japanese frame of mind we were in, but we settled on the slow-cooked Japanese style salmon, which (Hugh assured us) c
ould be prepared with whole mackerel, trout, sea bass, or scad as well. The fish is slowly cooked in a sweet-and-sour sauce, which then has the flexibility of being adjusted for taste at the end, so that you can get the right combination of sweet and sour to set your taste buds pinging in the right direction.

Although the clue was in the name (
SLOW-cooked fish), I didn't let the cooking time sink into me until it was 7pm and I just started the fish on its 3 hour journey. Hugh told me 'not to be tempted to move the fish until the 3 hours are up' but hunger got the better of us at 8.30 and he wasn't there to slap our wrists for our disobedience. Even with the shortened cooking time, the flavors had worked their way into the fish and making it tender (though not so much so that it fell apart, as Mr A&N feared) and authentically Japanese in flavor. We tried to balance the sweet with sour for the sauce so that none of the individual flavors stood out, and once reduced it made the perfect topping for the rice and veg we served the fish with.

A surprisingly professional taste for relatively little effort and (if such things matter to you) a very healthy meal. I can only imagine what heights the meal would have been taken to if we had listened to Hugh and left it cooking for the full 3 hours.

Japanese slow-cooked fish, from The River Cottage Fish Book
poaching liquid can cover 6-8 mackerel, or equivalent amount of other fish. I recommend making the whole amount and using any left over sauce for pouring over other items in the same or a later meal.

  • 2 large, hot, dried whole red chillies
  • 1/2 fist-sized piece of fresh ginger, cut into very thin slices
  • 3-4 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 75ml soy sauce
  • 40ml / 2 1/2 Tbs apple cider vinegar
  • 20g / 1 1/4 Tbs soft brown sugar
  • about 400ml apple juice
  • 3-4 salmon fillets or 6-8 whole mackerel, or equivalent
  1. Combine the chilli, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, apple cider vinegar, brown sugar, and half the apple juice in a small pot. Simmer gently until the sugar is dissolved, stirring occasionally.
  2. Pack the fish into a heavy-bottomed sauce pan so there's not much room left in the pot, and pour the sauce mixture over the fish. The fish should be fully covered (though only just) so if it's not the case, add more apple juice and stir.
  3. Bring to a very gentle simmer, then turn the heat down so it's only just bubbling but not boiling.
  4. Cover and cook for 3 hours, adding more apple juice at times if the level gets low. Hugh says: "Don't let it boil and don't be tempted to move the fish until the 3 hours are up". It's his recipe so it's probably best to listen to him.
  5. Remove the fish and keep warm, and reduce the sauce by 1/3 to 1/2. Taste and adjust the seasoning - it should be nicely spicy with a balance of sweet and sour flavors. So add a touch more apple juice if too salty, a touch more vinegar if too sweet, etc.