Sunday, 23 December 2007

The Daring Bakers: Bagels

For this month's Daring Baker's challenge, we were to make a very festive (and decoratively impressive) yule log. So I've made bagels.

Hang on...

Yes, so this month's assignment was a yule log, and some of the examples you'll see out there are absolutely incredible to look at. Reading through the recipe, though, I realistically realized I wouldn't have the time to devote to the logging
process and so would have to skip my the challenge. To still get into the daring spirit of things and as an homage to the group, I decided to resurrect the recipe that first tempted me into the bosom of the DB'ers: bagels (and, to be fair, making it now is also because I had been talking big to my work colleagues about how London bagels didn't taste anywhere near as good as New York bagels, and I felt it was time to put my bagel where my mouth was, so to speak). When I saw that the Daring Bakers had made what I regarded to be the finest bread recipe known to man, I knew I'd find kinship with the group.

I first tried out these bagels earlier this year, and
my eyes shone with happy tears when I bit into my first one - the flavor was so perfectly New York that with one mouth-full I got a bit homesick. Even though I do bring back to London as many bagels as I can fit into my suitcase each time I visit home, they somehow get eaten rather quickly and don't last out the time period until my next visit to NY. Bagels rank high on my list of foods that might bring me to fisticuffs with Mr A&N if he tries to steal one, or in his terminology 'share' them (I mean, c'mon - I stick the bagels into **my** suitcase in lieu of bringing something else back. If he had wanted some, he should have gone to the same effort).

London bagels are different in both taste and texture from New York bagels. Really, they are just circles of bread with holes in the middle: they are crumbly in the middle (instead of having great stretchy air-pockets of gluten) and don't have the same subtle sweetness of a real bagel. I've had some Londoners swear blind to me that such-and-such beigal bakery (as they spell it here) is better than the others, or promise me that this one boils their dough unlike all the others, but I've never found anything of adequate quality.

So when my frustration with bagels reached high enough h
eights that I had to take matters into my own hands, I google'd around the internet until I found this recipe from Johanne Blank for Real Honest Jewish Purist's Bagels. Not only does it produce stunning bagels, but it is also the most enjoyable recipe I've ever read, making the process that bit more fun. They're not at all hard to make (at least that's what I say to everyone who I'm encouraging to make them for themselves) but they do take a bit of time commitment.

I still haven't achieved the gargantuan puffy bagel beauties that I can get in New York, but I may need to add more yeast to the dough. The taste though...perfect. I use a combination of sugar and honey in the mixture and the honey real
ly does draw out that special flavor. When I brought them into work last week, everyone commented that they were entirely different than what they'd tasted before, and all the better for it. Of course, they would have to say that, because I just went through the effort of making bagels for them.

Like most of you, I've been and promise to be a bit busy of this Christmas break, traveling places and hosting family and friends, so this will probably be the last blog post until the New Year. Do have a look around at all the proper Daring Baker yule logs, though - a very festive baking project sure to impress you. I hope everyone has a healthy and happy holiday season and gets their fair share of food, relaxation, love and laughter.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Menu For Hope

There are only 2 days left before Menu For Hope closes, and everyone is in a final push for the event. Last year's event raised a total of $60,925 for the UN World Food Program, and hopes are high that even more can be raised this year. Right now, there is over $45,000 raised and fingers are crossed we can top last year's amount. The money is going to support the school lunch program in Lesotho, helping keep kids in school by providing them with regular meals there, and teaching local farmers sustainable farming methods.

All your raffle ticket purchases will go directly to this cause, and it might net you a great prize as well. There are some fabulous things on offer - a Kitchen Aid mixer for the Americans, fantastic assortments of wine, food stuffs galore (including my paella kit), and a meal cooked by Heston Blumenthal or a tour of the El Bulli kitchens.

Tickets cost $10 each (or £5 in the UK - bargain). Details on how to bid on the item of your choice can all be found on Chez Pim, as well as a list of all the items on offer. Getting bidding - there isn't much time left.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Chicken, Leek, and Barley Soup

Winter is still a handful of days away, technically, but I've quite settled into my darkened-day hibernation mode without the need of calendars to confirm how I feel. To whit:

  • It's cold outside, it's cold inside: our famed kitchen extension - which might or might not be done in time for Christmas dinner - is also a few days short of the important moment when we can turn the heating on in it. Making everything in the house c-o-l-d as this large, open room sucks in all the other heating into it.
  • Climbing into bed results in too-close communication with icy sheets. My alluring orange fleece vest, woolen socks, and extra-thick pajamas don't help stave off the cold. Last night I called for the season's first use of the hot water bottle, fondly known as 'The Warmth Pig' for the way the heated rubber gives off a sausagey smell (I was tired when the name came out, but it's sensibly stuck).
  • It's too dark to ride my bicycle home at night, I'm nibbling all the time, and my extra winter coat (of fat) is piling on. Oh yes it is.
  • My lovely new Mac laptop is truly dead. It would cost about as much to fix it as it would be to get a new one. I've spent 2 days this week feeling utterly crushed about it and having on some dark days/nights of the soul over the waste of money and my careless stupidity. At least, in this case, the cold, dark, shortened days are an appropriate mirror of my mood.
This all adds up to me craving warm, hearty, comfort food. Large bowls of spaghetti bolognese. Great big mugs of hot cocoa with oatmeal cookies to dunk into it. Or a hearty chicken soup. I'm sure I'll tackle them all before the month is over, but the soup won out this time.

The leek and barley was a nice twist from a traditional leek and potato soup. I like using barley to thicken soups in place of cream or potatoes. After an hour or so of cooking, all the starch that the barley gives off helps create a soup that has the umami of something cooked with cup-fulls of cream, but which has been made in a healthier fashion.

I also quite luxuriously used a whole chicken to make the stock, which I then shredded the meat from and put back into the stock. With generous amounts of pepper, it all worked together to be a creamy, warming, filling and hearty dish
which will definitely feature heavily on this winter's soup menu. I might be tempted to experiment in the future with some gentle curry spices to take the soup in a mulligatawny direction, but that's only if I can be tempted away from my new Winter 2007/2008 Comfort Food.

In the meantime, don't forget the Menu For Hope campaign going on at Chez Pim - there are many tempting prizes, including a paella starter kit from yours truly.

Chicken, Leek, and Barley Soup

  • 1 medium sized chicken (1 1/2 kilos / 3 lbs)
  • 2 liters of water
  • 1 large onion, peeled and cut into quarters
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 200 g barley, rinsed
  • 1/2 liter water
  • 4 medium leeks, washed
  • salt and pepper to taste
  1. Place the chicken in a large pot with the 2 liters of water and the onion, and bring to a boil. If the chicken doesn't look like it will be submerged under the water, you may need to quarter it.
  2. Gently boil this stock for about an hour.
  3. At the same time in another pot, bring the barley and 1/2 liter of water to a gentle boil. Also boil this for about an hour, checking in on it every 20 minutes or so to make sure the water hasn't boiled away.
  4. Chop the leeks into approximately 1 cm / 1.2 inch disks. Set aside until ready to use.
  5. After the hour, remove all the chicken and onion pieces from the stock pot. Set the chicken aside to cool down enough until you can handle it.
  6. Also after the hour and once the stock pot contains only liquid, add the barley and the leeks to the stock pot. Bring to a gentle boil and cook for around 30-40 minutes.
  7. Shred the chicken - remove the skin and throw it out, and pull the meat apart so that it's in bite-sized chunks.
  8. After 30 minutes, check the soup mixture for consistency. It should be nicely thick rather than watery. If it needs to thicken up, turn up the heat to boil away some of the water.
  9. Add salt to taste, and enough pepper to make the entire soup warmingly peppery.
  10. Add the chicken back into the soup when it is otherwise ready, and cook for a further 3 minutes to warm through.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Persimmon Chutney

I had a bit of a disaster last night when getting ready to write the day's blog post. It wasn't a culinary disaster (well, at least, that wasn't what was troubling me) but a computer disaster. Reaching for my 4th cup of tea of the evening, I mis-judged the height the laptop screen would re-gain as I leaned back, and...horrible, horrible tea all over the keyboard. Of my new computer. It immediately shut off, and we thought "Oh how clever, an auto shut-off function", which, we've since learned, the computer doesn't have. It's quietly sitting in a corner now, with me trying not to make eye contact with it until we take it to the shop, because I've learned that's how you make computers work again. All my recent food pictures are on the other computer, so I am sharing with you a recipe that was fine if not over-the-top exciting.

We live near a market with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetable options, and where the occasional interestingly-named item crops up. The process goes that I become intrigued, buy it, take it home, look it up on the internet, find it's something fairly mundane/completely bizarre, and try to find an appropriate way to eat it. Last week's purchase was a fruit named 'kaki'.

Kaki, it turns out, is the Latin word and Japanese name for the fruit that is also called a persimmon or Sharon fruit (thank you internet). The name persimmon supposedly comes from the Algonquin name for 'dry fruit', and the tree the persimmon grows from is part of the ebony family. I've always liked the look of the fruit, with its frilly stem on top of the jewel-like glow of the cut flesh.

Persimmon is a very sugary food when ripe, and so I thought of making something savory with it that cut through some of that sweetness. I found a recipe on epicurious for a permisson salsa which sounded lovely for summery months, and which I thought could be tweaked into a warm chutney sauce for colder months like these. It suggested tying together persimmons with lime, ginger, and chili - three fantastic flavors in their own right. We had the chutney with roast chicken, and I used some of the drippings of the roast to add a depth of flavor to the chutney. Not strictly necessary, but I did like how it helped tie tastes together.

I wasn't over-awed by the chutney in the end, in a large part because the persimmons weren't quite ripe enough and so stayed more whole and chalky than I would have expected. I still really like the idea of all those ingredient together, though, and do feel it should 'work'. I would be tempted to try this again keeping the ingredients more or less the same but making sure my fruits were achingly juicy sweet next time.

I'm submitting this to Anna at Paulchen's Food Blog for this week's installment of Weekend Herb Blogging.

Persimmon Chutney

  • 4 limes, juiced
  • 2 ripe persimmons, peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks
  • 1 small-medium red onion, chopped
  • minced chili or 1 small chili, chopped (enough chili to accommodate your taste)
  • 1/2 tsp fresh grated ginger
  • 1 Tbs fresh chicken drippings plus 1/2 C water, or 1/2 C chicken stock
  • glug of dry white wine
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • (optional: 1 Tbs brown sugar)
  1. Combine the lime juice, diced persimmon, onion, chili, ginger, and chicken stock/water in a saucepan, and heat over a medium-low heat.
  2. Simmer until the persimmon has reduced down into a mush. Leave it to simmer further if you want it to be less chunky, or simmer less if you like the chunkiness. Take care not to let the mixture dry out. Cooking should take a total of 5-10 minutes.
  3. Taste for flavor and balance with salt and pepper.
  4. If the chutney is too sour for your taste, add some brown sugar 1 tsp at a time.
  5. Remove from heat once it's the consistency you like, and serve warm with meat.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Menu For Hope

Today launches this year’s Menu For Hope, an event created by Pim at Chez Pim in order to raise money for those who need it. This year’s beneficiary is the Lesotho school lunch programme (to keep children fed – and going to school – while attending their daily classes), organized through the UN World Food Program. The event is run as a raffle, in which you buy a ticket for the item(s) you want to win, and then you wait with baited breath until you find out whether or not you’ve won what you most covet. There is a huge array of exciting things on offer, and though I can’t compete with a meal cooked by Heston Blumenthal, I am making my own small contribution which I hope will tickle someone’s fancy.

I am offering up a starter paella kit (prize code UK06), to help you bring a touch of Spanish ole into your lives. In the kit are a paella pan for 2, 1 kg of calasparra rice, sweet paprika, saffron, and a home-made booklet of some of the best paella recipes I’ve found, put together from various cookbooks and websites. All the goods are bought from the wonderful Brindisa foodstore in Exmouth Market which anyone in the area really ought to check out – they do fantastic sausages, cheeses, and general Spanish foodstuffs. The only thing I ask of anyone bidding is that they let me know how their first meal went, and they make the effort to pronounce the word correctly (it’s pah-AAAYY-ya, people, not pa-ELL-a; drives me a bit nuts, that does). I am willing to ship this to anywhere in the world.

Menu for Hope runs from 10 December to 21 December, with the raffle winners being posted on Chez Pim on Wednesday 9th of January. Tickets cost $10 (a piddly £5 in UK money) and you can buy multiple tickets for multiple prizes. All the money goes to help people who need help, and you could wind up with some goodies for yourself - I believe that's what's referred to as a win-(hope-to-)win situation

To enter:

  1. Choose a prize or prizes of your choice from our Menu for Hope at Chez Pim for the global list of prizes, or at Cooksister for the UK prize list. You must make sure to check the terms and conditions for the individual prizes BEFORE you bid, as some will come with restrictions regarding where they ship to or how long the prize is valid for.
  2. Go to the donation site at First Giving and make a donation.
  3. Please specify the prize code of the prize you'd like in the 'Personal Message' section in the donation form when confirming your donation. Each $10 you donate will give you one raffle ticket toward a prize of your choice. If you are buying more than one ticket, please indicate how you would like the tickets to be allocated. For example, a donation of $50 can be 2 tickets for EU01 and 3 tickets for EU02. Please write 2xEU01, 3xEU02. Remember, the prize code for this paella kit is UK06.
  4. If your company matches your charity donation, please check the box and fill in the information so we could claim the corporate match.
  5. Please check the box to allow us to see your email address so that we could contact you in case you win. Your email address will not be shared with anyone.
  6. Cross your fingers, and check back on Chez Pim on Wednesday January 9 for the results of the raffle. I’ll post the result on here, as well, in case anyone is curious.
Best of luck, everyone, and start buying those tickets (for either me or Heston, I don’t mind).

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Carrot and Cardamom Mash

Cardamom is one of my favorite spices, both to smell and to taste. The first time I knowingly tasted it was in a Celestial Seasonings tea called Bengal Spice. I found the combination of cinnamon, ginger, and cardamom absolutely intoxicating. Like a cat with catnip, I would go into moments of empty-headed joy when drinking the tea, and was fully addicted to the body-warming suffusion of flavors that this simple drink could give.

Cardamom is used mostly in Middle Eastern and Central Asian cooking, with use also seen in Scandinavian countries. Green cardamom is more typically used in sweet dishes and in the Middle Eastern coffee drink, while black cardamom is more for savory dishes and is described as having a more blunt, strong flavor. It has a huge range of medicinal uses attributed to it, from being used to sweeten breath, help mouth ulcers and gum problems, aid tuberculosis sufferers, improve digestion, counter-act obesity, and act as an aphrodisiac. A fairly impressive list, I think, and makes me wonder why we haven't all been munching on cardamom to help heal all our ills.

I got in the mood for cardamom the other night when faced with a cold, rainy walk home and a return to a cold (though dry) house. I remembered the wonderful warmth of the tea, and felt I had to work its way into my dinner. Carrots were already on the menu out of necessity, and I thought that a mash with carrots, potatoes, and cardamom would deliver both the right, comforting, flavor and consistency.

We had the mash with middle-eastern spiced lamb chops: plenty of garlic, ras al hanout, and a bit of chilli powder, stirred together in a dish with some olive oil, salt, and pepper, and then put under the grill. It was all very right for a rain-soaked winter night.

For my weather-led use of cardamom, I'm submitting this to Simona from Bricole for this week's Weekend Herb Blogging.

Carrot and Cardamom Mash

  • 4 large carrots
  • 2 medium potatoes
  • 3 pods cardamom (green cardamom is preferable)
  • 1/2 C milk
  • 10g butter (approximately - use as much butter as you normally do for your mash)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  1. Peel the carrots and potatoes, and roughly cut into pieces.
  2. Boil the carrots and potatoes in water until they are both well softened.
  3. Meanwhile, crush the cardamom pod and combine it with the milk in a small saucepan. Gently boil the milk for about 15 minutes, to allow the flavors to infuse.
  4. Drain the carrots and potatoes, saving a ladel-full of the cooking liquid.
  5. Strain the cardamom seeds from the milk.
  6. Mash the carrots and potatoes together with the butter and the cardamom-flavored milk. If mash needs a bit more liquid, add some of the reserved cooking liquid.
  7. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Ham in Coca Cola

One of the things that amuses me about Nigella Lawson's cooking is the unexpected combinations many of her dishes throw up (what I don't like? The cream, cream, cream). There's a sweet rosemary bread (recently made by Pille at Nami-Nami), a gin and tonic jelly, and this ham in Coca Cola. A normally savory and salty meat dish is sweetened and lightly glazed by boiling it in a pot of soda and roasting it in an oven. Nigella says she channeled the recipe from something similar done in the South, to give the ham a smokey barbeque flavor without going through the effort of a full-on barbeque.

Now I absolutely adore ham (I know, I know, I adore lots of food stuffs, cheese, popcorn, and peanut butter among them). The proof?

  1. I haven't taken Mr A&N's surname in marriage, but I do mean it that if his name were Cheeseman or Hammings (unlike his actual name, Hemmings), I would have taken it.
  2. I strongly advocated for us to move to either the towns Ham or East Ham in London, purely due to their names; instead, I've had to settle for Walthamstow (see? it's in there).
  3. For our first Christmas together, Mr A&N gave me the gift only a man who understood me and was destined to be my life partner could give me: a large gammon ham, wrapped up and waiting for me to cook it.
Any recipe that promises to improve upon the naturally wonderful flavor of ham, then, is a must-try for me. The ham was indeed slightly sweet and smokey, and a slice-by-slice enticement. It wasn't quite as moist as a boiled ham normally but I had also thoroughly soaked the salt out of the ham, so that could have affected its moistness.

One of the other beautiful things about a boiled ham is that it keeps on giving for many slices, and is equally happy placed in a sandwich or placed straight in the mouth (my favorite route to hammy-ness - why mess with the middle man?). Since a good boiled ham is a reserve that can feed dozens in comfort, it's also what I have made for Peabody's Housewarming Party, over at Culinary Concoctions by Peabody. I wish her as much happiness in her new house as the Christmas present of a ham once brought to me.

Nigella's Ham in Coca Cola, from How to Eat and Nigella Bites
  • 2kg mild-cure gammon (ham)
  • 1 onion, peeled and cut in half
  • 2-litre bottle of Coca-Cola
  • For the glaze:
    • handful of cloves
    • 1 heaped Tbs black treacle
    • 2 tsp English mustard powder
    • 2 Tbs demerara sugar
  1. Boil the soda and onion and ham in a large pot and reduce to a simmer once boiling
  2. Cover most of the way, and boil for close to 2 1/2 hours (roughly 1 hour / kilo plus 15 minutes if it's just come out of the fridge)
  3. When it approaches the end of the boiling time, pre-heat the oven to 240 C
  4. Remove ham from the pot, keeping the cooking liquid behind, and let ham cool slightly so you can handle it (or entirely if you want to finish the glaze another time)
  5. If there's a skin, remove it, leaving behind a light layer of fat
  6. Score the fat into a diamond pattern, and insert a clove into each of the diamonds
  7. Spread the treacle on top, going gently over the cloves
  8. Pat the mustard and sugar onto the top of the treacle and cloves
  9. Line a roasting pan with foil, place the ham in it, and cook for 10 minutes (or, if you've let the ham cool all the way, cook for 30-40 minutes)

Monday, 3 December 2007

Apple and Pumpkin Pies

In my family, Thanksgiving and Christmas are a very similar affair, culinarily speaking. That's not a complaint, please note. The recurring themes are turkey (mainly because I demand it - I can't get enough of the meat, and have eaten myself into a turkey coma on more than one occasion), stuffing, some form of potatoes, and pie. Pie is almost always pumpkin, made by the dear Mrs. Smith. As much as I insist on turkey showing up twice a year, my father insists on frozen pumpkin pie. My brother and I have dared to try to make it from fresh and serve it instead, only to be threatened with removal from the will for the betrayal of switching pies on my father (well, not really, but he was rather upset and forbade us from denying him the frozen variety again).

In the UK, pumpkin pies are slightly harder to find, either the fresh bakery or frozen variety. That doesn't cause too much strain since I prefer to make my own, and once I'm armed with my trusty tins of pumpkin (than
k you Waitrose), the hardest part of making the pie is deciding how indebted I want the flavor to be to Mrs. Smith's. Which, as it turns out, is my absolute standard for how pumpkin pies should taste. I suppose I've been indoctrinated as much as my father has, I'm just more stubborn and will make it from scratch in order to make it taste like the frozen. Still, that's some damn fine pumpkin pie.

Apple pies are a close second on the holiday pie-eating favorites list. It was for the sake of apple pies that I made my first pastry, and honed my technique (as it is). I've been making apple pies and crumbles for years now, though I still tweak my apple recipe each time I make it. I currently like to sautee up my apples for a couple of minutes, accompanied with a glug of amaretto liquer and the occasional handful of raisins if I'm feeling in a German, strudel-like mood.

I had a request to make an apple pie this week for Anne, the grandmother of my just-baptized godson Matthew. The pie was to be the dessert at the christening party, although I wasn't under any delusion that the pie was meant for anyone other than Anne. Sadly, I was hit by a bug this weekend and Mr. A&N rightly declared that I couldn't/shouldn't/wouldn't be handling foodstuffs unless I was happy with possibly infecting the whole party. So Anne didn't get her apple pie, for which I can say: stupid sickness bug. I have promised to make it for her the next time she's over from Ireland, but shall in the mean time post the recipe here (along with a picture of baby Matthew, the most gorgeousest baby I've had the privilege of blowing raspberries onto).

Pastry Crust
Makes enough for 1 10" crust; double if making apple pie or any other covered pie

  • 1 C flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 70 g / 1/3 C shortening (Crisco in the US, Cookeen in the UK)
  • 1 1/3 Tbs butter
  • (optional: ground cinnamon or nutmeg)
  • apprx 1/8 C ice cold water
  1. Cut the flour, salt, shortening and butter in together until the mixture resembles coarse corn meal. I like to add in 1/2 tsp of cinnamon or a few shavings of fresh nutmeg in with the flour mixture in order to give the pastry a bit of the taste of the pie.
  2. Add water into the pastry a bit at a time. You should use enough water to gather up all the dry bits of the flour mixture, but the pastry should not be wet or tacky.
  3. Cover and allow to sit in the fridge for at least 1/2 hour.
  4. After chilled, roll out the pastry on a floured surface so that it's big enough to fit in the base of the pie dish.
  5. Cut off any excess dough (if making the pumpkin pie, you can cut back to the top of the rim of the dish; for the apple pie, leave a little bit more overhang).
  6. Line the dish with baking paper and fill with weighted baking beans (or, the cheap option of dried beans) and blind bake for 10 minutes at 175 degrees C.

Pumpkin Pie (bake at 220 C, reducing to 175 C)
  • 1 1/2 C mashed pumpkin (about 4-6lb fresh pumpkin roasted, peeled, and drained or 1 15 oz tin)
  • 1 14 oz/400g tin sweetened condensed milk
  • 2 eggs, yolks and white separated
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 Tbs allspice
  • 1 tsp fresh ground ginger
  • 3/4 of 1 fresh nutmeg, ground
  • 1 tsp salt

  1. Combine the pumpkin, condensed milk, egg yolks, all the spices and salt, and mix well.
  2. Beat the egg whites until fluffy and with soft peaks
  3. Fold in the egg whites into the pumpkin mixture (if you have trouble with folding - like I do - stir in about 1/4 of the egg whites until well combined, and then fold in the rest of the whites. It will be much easier).
  4. Pour mixture into blind-baked crust, and bake for 15 minutes at 220 C. Then reduce the temperature to 175 and bake for another 40 minutes.

Apple Pie
  • 8 average sized apples (cooking apples are recommended though since these can be quite big, 4-5 will probably do)
  • 1/4 C flour
  • 1/2 C light brown sugar
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 Tbs butter
  • 1/3 C almond-flavored liquor
  1. Peel and slice the apples into thick chunks (about 1/2 inch in width).
  2. Place sliced apples in a bowl, into which you'll add the flour, brown sugar, and cinnamon. Sire well and allow to sit for 1/2 hour.
  3. Heat the butter in a frying pan, and add in the apple slices and any of the juices from the bowl.
  4. Add the liquor, and sautee for 3-5 minutes until the liquid has thickened a bit. The apples shouldn't begin to soften, the ingredients should simply come together and create something of a syrup.
  5. Place into the pie tin with the blind-baked crust. Cover with another layer of rolled-out pastry, and cinch the top and bottom crusts together by folding the top edge under the bottom and creating the fluted-type pattern with your fingers as seen above.
  6. Cut a hole into the top crust, making it seasonally decorative (such as a leaf or a turkey).
  7. Brush the crust with milk or a beaten egg.
  8. Bake for around 45 minutes at 175 C, taking care not to let the edges of the crust burn (if the edges do start browning too quickly, cover them in foil).

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Competition! For Chocolate!

After indulging myself at their chocolate tasting the other week, the good people at Hotel Chocolat have offered up a competition to help one of you (yes, you!) indulge themselves in their lovely chocolate as well. It's worth your while entering since one of you is guaranteed to get the goods. Free chocolate! Christmas has really come early. Be sure to enter soon, though, since this closes at 11.59pm on Dec 12.

Win luxury Hotel Chocolat Christmas Prizes - for you or a loved one
Tis’ the season to be chocolaty. As Christmas time approaches, Hotel Chocolat is reaching out to Ambrosia and Nectar readers in search of the finest Yuletide themed chocolate recipes.

Do you have the best Christmas chocolate-chip cookies in town? Is your Christmas chocolate log simply to die for? Then why not put your recipe to the test against the rest of the country.

All you have to do is submit your recipe – the more original the better - and you could win a host of luxury chocolate goodies. The lucky winner of the Ambrosia and Nectar and Hotel Chocolat Christmas competition will also be automatically entered into the Hotel Chocolat Grand Prize recipe competition and could win even more seasonal chocolate goodies!

Do you think you’re the finest chocolate chef in the land? Well there really is only one way to find out …

Click this link here to enter!

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Many Bean Soup

I've been making this soup for years; it's one of the first things as an adult I figured out how to make after tasting it and falling in love with the flavors. It's hearty, it's filling, it's very easy to pull together, and it's wonderfully delicious in a very homey way.

This is an Italian-style soup, discovered when I did a term abroad in Florence during my undergraduate degree. I lived with an Italian woman who was a wonderful cook and who opened my eyes to a whole new way of cooking (and eating - I gained about 6 pounds from living with her for 3 months. Pretty impressive). This soup began making an appearance in my Italian home during the autumn, as the weather grew colder and the daylight shorter, and it's very much linked in my mind to staving off any outdoor chill with a warming bowl of goodness.

It is more than halfway to a stew, it's so thick; adding in some spinach, kale, or chard at the end of the cooking, quickly fried in a bit of garlic, would help tip the balance away from a simple soup. Even without the extra vegetables, though, it's a full meal in one bowl. The beans are nicely soft and should be caught just before they go mushy, and the minimal amount of liquid that remains after all the cooking helps tie the ingredients together and adds to the warming comforting squishiness of eating the dish.

The simple flavors of beans, beef stock, rosemary and garlic are fairly straight-forward, but generous lashings of parmesan cheese at the end really make the difference. The recipe is more of a guide than anything strict to follow; as long as you ge
t the basics correct (the right amount of beans and stock, pasta cooked for the right time, plenty of cheese) you're onto a winner.

Many Bean Soup
Serves 4 as a main course, 6 as a starter

  • 500 g of mixed dried beans (chickpeas, white beans, and roman beans/borlotti beans are usually my preferred combination)
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
  • 2 litres of beef stock or 2 litres of water and 3 beef stock cubes
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 4 sprigs of rosemary
  • salt (about 1 tsp, depending) and pepper
  • 250 g ditalini pasta
  • (optional: about 300-500 g of spinach or chard and 1 further clove of garlic, well chopped)
  • plenty of parmesan
  1. Soak the beans overnight / during the day to start to soften. Keep the chickpeas separate if using them.
  2. When ready to cook, bring the stock / water and stock cubes to a gentle boil, adding in the onion, garlic, bay leaf and rosemary.
  3. If using chickpeas, add them to the boiling stock first and cook for about 20 minutes, covered.
  4. Add the other beans to the soup, and gently boil, covered, for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
  5. The beans will be ready when they start to shed their shells. Keep in mind that the chickpeas will take the longest to cook, so make sure you check those when testing for doneness.
  6. When the beans are just about done, add the salt to taste - depending on what type of stock you used, you might need 1/2 to 1 tsp of salt. Take care not to over-salt since the paremesan in the bowl will also help keep this salted.
  7. (optional: quickly fry up the chopped glove of garlic and the vegetable in a bit of olive oil, turning off the heat before the leafy greens are wilted. Add the contents to the soup just before you put the pasta in, and stir through)
  8. When the beans are ready, add in the pasta and turn off the heat after 1 further minute of gentle boiling.
  9. Remove bay leaf and rosemary twigs, and spoon into bowls. Add generous amounts of parmesan into each bowl, stirring through.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Daring Bakers: Potato Bread

The gauntlet was thrown down this month for the Daring Bakers: we were to make a bread recipe, but we were all banned from using a bread machine. Well, thought I, this would be more of a hardship for some than others. I own no bread machine, so I couldn't mourn what I didn't have. Any bread I make has to be done the hard way, and though I'm not a bread expert the prospect didn't leave me shivering in yeast-based fear.

The bread was a potato bread, chosen by Tanna at My Kitchen in Half Cups (where you can find the recipe). The bread could be formed into humble loaves, shaped into dainty rolls, or laid out as a lovely focaccia. It didn't take long for me to decide on the focaccia; I had never made one before, and I love drizzling that bread with olive oil and different Italian toppings.

The recipe was mildly confusing in that we could use two different quantities of potatoes, depending on our confidence levels. Or, in my case, general foolishness: I has happy to wade in to the deep end despite not being familiar with the recipe. I was also, as is becoming typical for me, facing a few obstacles: we are at the tail end of house construction (namely, creating a new kitchen) so each day that goes by sees more dust and less counter-top space in my already small kitchen; our weekends are taken up by renovation work so finding a window for baking is getting more difficult; taking pictures is nearly impossible since there are no un-cluttered surfaces and the only natural light I can grab demands me waking up early and sneaking into the extension before the builders arrive; and on the only day I could take on the recipe I had a friend's (important) concert to attend in the evening, so I had to finish everything by a given time. Better get cracking.

I started the potatoes boiling around noon, giving me plenty of time to be dressed and out of the house by 6pm. And then friends dropped in for a visit. Despite the place being chaotic and there not being a dusty-free chair to offer them to sit on, they stayed and chatted and I even mustered up a cup of coffee. What was that you said? Oh yes, the potatoes - thanks for reminding me. They boiled for the allotted time but then sat in the water for quite some time more, slowly getting a bit mushier and taking on quite some water.

But these were my only potatoes and my windows were closing fast, so these would have to make do. The mixture was very, very wet even after using all 8 cups of flour. Since I had whittled down my time by chatting with my friends, I calculated that I could only let the dough rise for 1 hour rather than the suggested 2 hours. This rushing was in some ways fortuitous, since even after one hour the dough had risen a good deal - or, more accurately, the very wet dough had made an attempt to rise and was drooling itself over the sides of the bowl.

Kneading the bread was a problem because it was so wet. On the counter-top, it looked more like The Blob than a bread, spilling its way around and trying to absorb the utensils and microwave on the edge of the counter. I added more flour - another 3 cups or so - in order to make it marginally less tacky. This meant that I had a huge amount of dough on hand, so I divided it in two at this point and froze half.

The focaccia would take about 30 minutes to bake, and I had 35 minutes before I had to leave the house (honestly, where had the time gone?!). The bread went in the oven, I got changed (the kitchen and I were covered in flour, but luckily the kitchen didn't have to head out to the concert), I readied all my things and was set to sprint out the door after making sure the oven was off. After the 30 minutes, the bread looked like it could use a bit more time to come to a golden color, but time was the one thing I didn't have. The bread would have to settle for sitting in a still-hot-but-turned-off oven to finish cooking.

The bread was very good despite the compromises I forced upon it. I will make it again, and next time make sure that I take the potatoes out of the water promptly and give the dough the full time to rise. I would also resist adding any extra flour, since my bread was slightly on the dense side, and I felt it could be lighter. And me? I made the concert on time, though I did have to sit there, quietly picking off the dried dough from my wrists and arms which hadn't quite washed off. It's no wonder my friends want a classy person like me to give them moral support.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Hotel Chocolat

I will confess, I had never heard of Hotel Chocolat before I saw their name popping up on UK food blogs, sponsoring competitions to win chocolates and champagne. I was intrigued, I entered, I won (hooray!) and though I ostensibly campaigned on the grounds that Mr A&N is a greedy chocolate fiend (which, he is - oh boy, is he), I have been dipping into these chocolates as quickly as he is and enjoying myself thoroughly. It's a seasonal box of chocolates, and there are some unexpected flavors in there - a blackcurrant truffle, a Cointreau ganache and (my favorite to look at) a praline filled acorn.

Through this here blog, I also had a chance to attend a Hotel Chocolat evening of chocolates and champagne in order to taste some of their winter chocolate range (honestly, it's a hard hard life). Hotel Chocolat has stores dotted around the UK as well as an internet service, and their chocolates (and their stores, by extension) definitely seem positioned to be the posh alternative to Thorntons. From what I've seen at their High Street Kensington store, their shops are well designed and laid out to make you feel like you're shopping for pretty things as much as you are indulging chocolate, with extra information on their lovely packaging letting you become closer to the products (details on Hotel Chocolat's own cocoa plantation; tasting hints and flavors you should pick up on when eating the chocolates, as if you are sampling a wine).

One of the first things that caught my eye were giant slabs of chocolate in different flavors, packaged minimally but gleaming through their see-through wrapping like a chocolate temptress calling you over. The back 1/3 of the shop was taken up by row upon row or chocolate concoctions, coming in small-slab sizes or in 6 to a box, and divided into white, milk, and dark chocolates to make it easy to find your poison. Cook's ingredients include things like chocolate pasta, chili olive oil with cocoa beans (which turned out to be surprisingly nutty), and 100% cocoa chocolate (perhaps not something to be munched on without explicit commitment to that cause).

It won't come as a surprise that Deirdre and I (my faithful companion for the evening) had a lovely time eating and drinking bubbly. I had wondered ahead of time if I should have a game plan for eating the chocolates - dinner first? gorge myself early? chocolate-graze throughout the night? - but discovered when there that I do actually have a chocolate-eating limit. Their chocolates are quite rich without being sickly, and I fo
und that after a few I was happily satisfied. Of course, we weren't so full that we felt we could escape the evening without buying extra chocolates to take home and share. Spread the chocolate, spread the love.

Monday, 19 November 2007

A Quick Sabzi

Some days, I am overtaken by pangs of healthy thoughts. I wonder how I can work more bran into my diet. I begin craving broccoli. I contemplate going for a jog. With the cold weather and the holidays hurtling toward me at speed, my mind is telling me to be good before it all falls apart in a tumult of turkey and oh-alright-just-another-slice-of pie.

One rather tasty way of eating healthy vegetables is to make them into a sabzi. Madhur Jaffrey, the Indian chef and cookbook writer, tells that 'sabzi' is a word that came into northern India from Persian invaders. In Persia, sabzi simply means 'green'; in India, it's transmogrified to mean vegetables, or a vegetable dish prepared without meat added in.

Because of that broad definition of what sabzi means, you'll find many sabzi recipes about. I like one of the recipes Madhur gives, mainly for its simplicity in preparation but the flavor it can deliver. I also like the fact that you can change around some of the ingredients and still come away with a tasty side dish - I often make it with carrots rather than the suggested courgettes, and have scaled back the list of the ingredients until it was only cumin, coriander, and mustard I was working with, and still I've chased all the last bits around the plate. I've copied out Madhur's recipe as written, but I do feel it's
a forgiving one if you can't match every ingredient, especially asafetida, which might be the most difficult to find (and perhaps even commit to, since it's translation in English is 'devil's dung' due to its...rather strong odor).

For the lovely combination of Indian spices and vegetables, I'm submitting this to Truffle from What's On My Plate for this week's Weekend Herb Blogging.

Courgette and Green Pepper Sabzi, from Madhur Jaffrey
Serves 3-4 as a side

  • 3 Tbs olive or corn oil
  • Generous pinch of asafetida
  • 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1/4 tsp whole brown mustard seed
  • 1 1/4 Lb / 560g courgettes sliced into 1 1/2 in long and 1/2 thick fingers
  • 1 large green pepper, cut into 1/2 in wide slices
  • 2 Tbs yogurt
  • 1 Tbs ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp chaat masala (or pinch of cayenne pepper and squeeze of lemon)
  1. Heat a large pan or wok over medium-high heat, and add the oil
  2. When the oil is hot, first add the asafetida, and quickly follow it with the cumin and mustard seed
  3. The mustard will begin popping within a few seconds; when it does, add the vegetables
  4. Stir and fry for 5 minutes
  5. Add the yogurt, and stir until it's absorbed
  6. Reduce heat to low, and stir in the coriander and salt, continuing to stir for a minute
  7. Add the chaat masala / cayenne pepper and lemon, and quickly toss all together
  8. Taste, and add more salt if needed.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

A Sad Tale of Some Frozen Cheese

Sit back to hear the little tale I have to tell you. There once was a (not quite so) young woman who adored cheese. She often spoke of it, she more than often ate it, and thoughts of cheese took up both her waking and sleeping moments. She loved it quite like nothing else.

One day, this woman found a new cheese she hadn't yet tried but liked the sound of. A goat's camembert, it had traveled from a small producer called Wobbly Bottom Farm; the name made her giggle, the pongy cheese smell was enticing, and the sample offered had her hooked. She decided to give the cheese a good home with her. And her tummy.

The cheese came home with her, but it then tragically disappeared. She looked in the fridge, but there was no cheese. She checked in the shopping bags, but there was no cheese. She kept her nose out for funny smells in case the cheese was festering in an unseen corner of a kitchen somewhere, but a month on and there was still no cheese. The (not quite so) young woman was beginning to think she had imagined this cheese in some beautiful yet ultimately sad dream.

And then, when searching through her freezer for some fish fingers, she found a familiar oval. Could it be...? was the cheese! In the freezer. Frozen. Oh dear.

I don't know many people who have experience with frozen cheese, and I certainly didn't know how it would turn out when I de-frosted it. I turned to the best source I could think of: Jamie at Being a cheese addict, this is a website I had been familiar with for some time, but I only recently discovered that it is run by a high school friend of mine. Fancy that. I asked Jamie what I ought to do and expect from the de-frosting, and I had this response in return:

I wouldn't nuke the Camembert. You don't want to end up cooking it. I would just let it defrost in the open air, but you very likely might end up with a mess. The ice crystals that form from the water content of the cheese will act like little razors and cut the tiny fat globules in the paste. And when fat globules lose their "skin," they become runny milk fat. You might end up with something that's sort of de-emulsified. But I've never done it myself, so I'm very curious to hear what actually happens!

I thawed out the cheese this morning, and had my first pieces a short while ago. It didn't de-frost as badly as feared - the cheese stayed whole, slightly runny but no more than would be expected of a camembert. The exposed edges were rubbery looking, like cheese left in the refrigerator uncovered. I'm not at all sure how the taste was effected, though, since the memory of having sampled the cheese is long gone and I can't tell how this slice compared to the original. I may need to head up to the farmer's market tomorrow and buy a fresh chunk in order to perform a more accurate comparison.

So all was not lost, my fair cheese, but I promise to you I will never do that again.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Chorizo and Squash Soup

This week, I once again found myself with a couple of unused squashes on hand (and phwoar, how often does that happen to the best of us?). I do very much like my squashes and my veggies in general, but I suppose when I buy my groceries I sometimes get over zealous and get more than we can eat; the spirit is willing but we're just unable to live up to my ideals of vegetable eating. I also found myself a bit stumped as to what to make with these two butternut and acorn squashes. I've done a squash bake, squash risotto, and sweet squash desserts all in the past few weeks, and I was somewhat flummoxed as to what to do now.

And then it came to me: chorizo. A nice sausage is often the answer to many of life's troubles (as a nice cheese can be as well) and chorizo was the answer to this problem. It's a rich sausage with some fantastic flavors to it, which I thought would complement the healthy squashes quite nicely. I'm very lucky with where I work that I have a brilliant Spanish food shop near me (Brindisa, whose tapas restaurant is the favorite I've found in London), and my choice of chorizo was vast. More than other sausages, I believe it's important to get a good quality chorizo since it's such a fatty sausage, and a poorer chorizo tends to be filled with gristle and give off even higher-than-normal amounts of fat when cooked. I opted to get a slightly sweet fresh chorizo, and a spicy cured chorizo, and to use both in the soup.

Aside from just having a craving for it, chorizo also made sense because of the herb I knew I'd be using with this soup. For the past 3 months our house has been under construction, and our entire garden has been an inaccessible write-off. I would worry about the herb plants occasionally, but knew there wasn't much point in worrying since there was absolutely nothing I could do. The construction will be finished next week (so they tell me - please be true, pleasebetrue) and slowly we're beginning to see the garden again. With it, I could tell that everything had died except for our impossible-to-kill lemon geranium and our doesn't-quite-thrive-but-doesn't-quite-die rosemary. As much as I love the wonderfully citrusy and almost astringent taste and smell of the geranium, it would be the evergreen-like rosemary that would be the natural compliment to my chorizo and squash in this soup.

I roasted the vegetables together (with garlic and rosemary) to bring out a bit more of their flavor before throwing them in the pot with the already-cooked chorizo. I also found some sweet paprika at the back of our cupboard, and though I have no idea how it got there it found its way into the pot to some very pleasing results. I loved how this all came together, with the squashes being softened but not mushy, and absorbing the rosemary, chorizo, and paprika flavors in equal measure. It was a great way to send off these squashes that were moping around my vegetable rack, and to welcome the rosemary back from the confines of my off-limits garden.

And for rosemary's proud return to my table (as well as, may I say, my inspired use of sweet paprika and two types of squash), I'm submitting this to Vanessa at What Geeks Eat for a bit of weekend herb blogging fun.

Chorizo and Squash Soup
Serves 4 as a main course

  • 1 butternut squash, peeled and chopped into 1 inch squares (although any squash will do)
  • 1 acorn squash, peeled and chopped into 1 inch squares (again, any squash will do)
  • 1 tin tomatoes
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 4-5 stalks of rosemary
  • 2 Tbs sherry vinegar
  • Olive oil
  • 1 onion, well chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 400-500 g fresh chorizo (I used regular/sweet chorizo)
  • 80-100 g cured chorizo (I used spicy, to add a bit of variety)
  • 1 liter water, boiled
  • 1 tsp sweet paprika
  • 1 tsp chili (more or less depending on what level of spiciness you like things)
  • salt and pepper
  1. Pre-heat the oven to 190 degrees
  2. Throw the chopped squashes into an oven-proof dish, along with all but 1 sprig of the rosemary and 1/3 of the chopped garlic. Pour a bit of olive oil in and stir until it's all coated with a bit of oil and the garlic is mixed.
  3. Empty the tin of tomatoes into another, smaller, oven-proof dish. Stir in the other sprig of rosemary, another 1/3 of the garlic, and the sherry vinegar.
  4. Place both dishes in the oven and cook for 20 minutes.
  5. Meanwhile, saute the onions, celery, carrots, and remaining garlic with a bit of olive oil in a large pot over a medium heat until they all begin to soften.
  6. Slice both types of chorizo; the fresh chorizo should be in hearty but still bite-sized chunks, the cured should be thinner (but not wafer-thin).
  7. Add in both chorizos and cook until the chorizo is cooked through, stirring often. (If you need to de-glaze your pot a bit, use another glug of the sherry vinegar.)
  8. This step should (hopefully) be happening just as your vegetables are coming out of the oven: pour the water into the pot with the sausages, and bring to a low boil. Skim off any scum or excess fat (you'll get quite a bit from the chorizo but you might want to leave some since it is tasty)
  9. Test to make sure the squashes are just soft enough to eat; if done, remove both the tomatoes and the squashes from the oven.
  10. Take out all but one or two of the rosemary sprigs, and then add everything into the soup pot.
  11. Add the paprika and the chili to the soup and stir well. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  12. Cook the soup for another 5 or so minutes at a low boil, until the flavors come together. Remove the rosemary sprigs before serving.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Pumpkin Bread

I was recently asked a question by a fellow American-in-London which resonated deeply with me: did I know a good recipe for pumpkin bread, because the last several she tried out all smelled and tasted like very bad things. Sweet pumpkin things are much more an American affair than a British, and even just finding tins of pumpkin in the UK can be very difficult (or, when you find them, they're two to three times as expensive as you'd expect back home). Messing about with substandard recipes is a hazard on both the wallet and the stomach. No pressure on me to come up with the goods, then.

Pumpkin pie I'm very familiar with making, but I've only made pumpkin bread once in my memory. I was 14 and was in a flush of post-Thanksgiving turkey eating, and wanted to carry on the Thanksgiving spirit through seasonal baked products. At 14 I was comfortable with baking, but my mother's cooking repertoire had changed in the preceding years to shun any use of an oven or stove top in lieu of the microwave. Although I grew up with her baking for us (granted, from packets), once she returned to work it was microwaves a go-go. I would occasionally be allowed to make a banana bread when we had bananas half a step away from being thrown in the bin, but otherwise the oven was cast suspicious glances and only used at holiday times
and discouraged at all others.

Just before my foray into making pumpkin bread, my family got a counter-top convection microwave oven - essentially a microwave with a bit more excitement thrown in. The convection microwave came with a recipe book, and within that book was - behold! - a recipe for pumpkin bread. This was akin to divine intervention for my
mother: she hadn't wanted me to use the normal oven to bake, so this opportunity to make a convection microwaved-approved baked good meant that my fate was sown. I was young enough then to still listen to my mother, but I now would know better. My overriding memory of that pumpkin bread was that it was rubbery, slightly flat and sunken, fairly tasteless, and shockingly orange.

This would not be the recipe I would suggest to an American looking for a good pumpkin bread, then. So while I didn't have a known pumpkin bread on hand, I did have a favorite recipe for zucchini bread which I figured I could tweak a bit. Zucchini was swapped for pumpkin, cinnamon found itself accompanied by nutmeg and allspice, and I made a simple crumb topping which made me question whether or not it would be gastronomically acceptable to just eat a tray-full of crumb topping.

I made both a loaf as well as half a dozen extra-large muffins, all of which looked and came out beautifully. The bread stayed moist and all the spices come together in a lovely warming medley. The pumpkin, as it often is, was so subtle it threatened to disappear if you didn't concentrate on it; I would try making the recipe with more pumpkin next time to see how that worked out, although I've written the recipe out as I made it. But I will most certainly be making this again, and forwarding it on to any Americans-in-London yearning for pumpkin bread as well.

Pumpkin Bread
Makes 1 large loaf or 18-36 cupcakes, depending on size

  • 3 C all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 1/2 Tbs cinnamon
  • 3/4 Tbs allspice
  • 3/4 freshly grated nutmeg
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 C vegetable oil
  • 2 1/4 C caster sugar
  • 3 tsp vanilla
  • 1 15 oz tin of pumpkin (or 15 oz of fresh pumpkin, after roasting and draining it of excess water)
  • 1/2 C walnuts, chopped
  • For the topping: (I admit, this is approximate - you may need to even out my measurements, but the consistency when made should by like big grains of sand)
    • 10 g butter
    • 20 g flour
    • 15 g brown sugar
  1. Pre-heat the oven to 165 C / 325 F
  2. Sift together all the dry ingredients - the flour, salt, soda, baking powder, and spices
  3. Beat together the eggs, oil, vanilla and sugar until they're well mixed
  4. Sift dry ingredients into the wet ingredients in batches, mixing thoroughly each time
  5. Stir in the pumpkin and mix thorougly
  6. Stir through the walnuts
  7. To make the topping: combine the butter, flour, and brown sugar in a bowl, and using two forks turned upside-down from normal, cut the three ingredients together until they resemble rough grains of sand
  8. Pour either into a large, greased bread tin, or into cupcake tins
  9. Sprinkle the topping onto the bread/the cupcakes
  10. Bake the bread loaf for 60-70 minutes, the cupcakes for apprx 25 minutes for normal sized cupcakes, 35 minutes for large cupcakes

Saturday, 10 November 2007

A Sort-of Moussaka

Mince is a very fine thing. Whether it be beef or lamb (and to a lesser extent, pork or turkey), something magical happens when you grind up meat and mix it with other things. The only difficulty with mince is finding interesting ways to eat it rather than just placing it over pasta, or digging in deep with a spoon.

Lamb mince always makes me think of middle eastern cooking. The Moro cookbook has a wonderful recipe for a lamb mince, raisin, and pine nut mixture tucked inside a potato cake. When I don't feel like going through all that effort, though, I usually turn lamb mince into a sort-of moussaka. I skip the traditional bechamel sauce since we try to go dairy-light in the A&N household, but equally I like being able to taste the aubergine and the mince together without it being smothered by a white sauce. I do borrow heavily from the Moro recipe for the mince in order to get it tasting nice and exotic - spicy and warming and just tomato-y enough to bring out the natural flavor of the lamb. I make sure to make enough to have leftovers, since the flavors settle together even more nicely the following day. That's when going after the mince with a spoon is absolutely irresistible.

A Sort-Of Moussaka
Serves 2 for a main course, with some leftovers

  • 1 medium red onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, well chopped
  • 1 stalk celery, well chopped
  • 1 carrot, peeled and well chopped
  • 400 g / 1 lb lamb mince
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 Tbs Charmoula (if you have it - otherwise, 2 tsp cumin)
  • 1 Tbs cinnamon
  • 1 clove, ground
  • few pinches of freshly ground nutmeg
  • Harissa paste or chopped chilis (I like to make mine a bit spicy, but spice-level is up to you)
  • 1 tin chopped tomatoes
  • 1 Tbs tomato paste
  • 1/4 C water
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 medium aubergine, sliced into thin-ish discs (just less than 1 cm in thickness)
  • Olive oil
  • Parmesean

  1. Finely chop the onion, and gentle fry it in a large, heavy pot with some olive oil
  2. When the onion is getting softened, add the garlic, celery and carrot and stir. Allow to cook gently for a couple of minutes to allow everything to soften slightly
  3. Add the lamb mince, and stir until the mince is mostly cooked
  4. Add the bay leaf and all the spices, and stir until it's well mixed into the lamb
  5. Add the harissa/chilis, chopped tomatoes, tomato paste and water, and stir until well mixed. Add 1/2 tsp of salt to flavor and stir well.
  6. Cover and allow to simmer on the lowest setting for about 30 minutes
  7. After 30 minutes, turn oven on to 180 C / 375 F
  8. Taste the mince for flavoring, and adjust as needed
  9. Test also for liquidity - if it looks to be getting a bit dry, add in a bit more water and stir well. The mixture should be thicker than a typical spaghetti bolognese sauce, but still definitely liquid enough to call it a sauce rather than a paste
  10. Try to find the bay leaf and remove it from the sauce
  11. Slice up the aubergine
  12. Spoon a healthy layer of sauce into a deep, oven-proof 7x7 in dish (or something similarly sized)
  13. Place a layer of aubergine slices on top of the sauce; you may need to cut some of the aubergines in half to gain an even layering
  14. Spoon the rest of the sauce on top of this last layer, and then again layer the rest of the aubergine one top. I tend to fit my aubergines together like puzzle pieces so that they cover the sauce without overlapping each other, but overlapping would be fine too - you may just need to add on another few minutes of cook
  15. Drizzle the aubergines generously with olive oil and a pinch of salt, and cook for 15 minutes (or 20 minutes if your aubergine slices overlap quite a bit)
  16. Remove from the oven, and turn the grill rather than the oven on.
  17. Grate a generous amount of parmesean cheese, and sprinkle over the aubergines so that they're mostly covered by the cheese
  18. Grill for a further 5 minutes or until cheese is slightly browned and bubbly - you can increase the temperature of the grill if these feels like it's taking too long
  19. Remove and serve

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Lime Pie and a Non-Brush With Stardom

I recently had an email from a production company, telling me about a new cooking show they were filming. They were interested in having me on the show, they said; I would prepare a dish ahead of time, bring it with me, and when on the show could have a chance to talk about what I made (and a bit about myself as well) and might help the head chefs out in the kitchen.

Now I was in two minds - clearly I enjoy making my food and sharing it with people and this would be a huge venue for this, but my overriding thought was that this could be absolutely terrifying and, if nothing else, a good chance to appear a bumbling fool and weep abundant tears on television as I was made to chop an onion. Difficult, deciding whether or not to say yes.

But say yes I did, and I began the search for what recipe to make. I reasoned that it had to be something that a) traveled well b) wouldn't go rancid sitting under studio lights and c) would taste alright tepid since I'd have made it the day before. Many friends came up with excellent suggestions, but in the end I decided to make a lime pie with a ginger cookie crust from my Magnolia Bakery cookbook.

I had had it before, and wolfed the thing down in a matter of hours. It's midway between a cheesecake and custard, and the combination of the spicy/peppery ginger crust and the refreshing, cit
rusy lime is absolutely wonderful. It's also very easy to make (as long as your wrists hold out, juicing a dozen limes) and can be made into fun, individual-sized serving or into a large communal pie, depending on your preference.

And so on the appointed day, I showed up to work with my pie (packed in a cool bag to keep it fresh until the afternoon) so that I could take a half day off to go to the filming. I arrived at the studio, I introduced myself to the reception, and...nothing. For over an hour. When someone finally did come to speak to me, it was established that the production team had not only told me the wrong time to arrive, but they had also mixed up what day I would be there and had double booked me with someone else.

I was, to put it mildly, annoyed: to have gone through the time and effort of thinking about what to make, to have taken time off work, and to have been treated shoddily. But I have practiced my best zen breathing and have let it all go. I don't really mind not having had a brush with 15 seconds of cookery show semi-greatness, and the pie was still just as good as I remembered with people in the studio happily hoovering it up when I armed them with spoons and pushed them toward it. At least it saved me from eating the whole thing on my own this time.

Lime Pie with Gingersnap Crust, from the Magnolia Bakery Cookbook

  • 1 1/2 C finely crushed ginger biscuits (approx 1 200 g package with 1-2 more ginger biscuits and 1-2 hobnobs crushed in, for good measure or for slightly larger-than-9 inch pie dishes)
  • 1/4 C / 60 g butter, melted
  • 1 C lime juice (approx 12 limes)
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 21 oz / 600 g sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 Tbs freshly grated lime zest
  1. Pre-heat oven to 160 C / 325 F
  2. Combine well the melted butter and the crushed cookies
  3. Press the buttery crumbs into a 9-inch pie dish
  4. Bake the crust for 10 minutes and then allow to rest
  5. Combine the lime juice, egg yolks, and condensed milk, either using an electric mixer on low or mixing well by hand
  6. Stir in the lime zest, and taste for tartness; if too sweet, juice a few more lines and stir in
  7. Pour the lime mixture into the crust and bake 25-30 minutes until the middle is set
  8. Allow to cool for around 20 minutes, then refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving