Thursday, 28 August 2008

Daring Bakers: Chocolate Eclairs

"Choux pastry? Pierre Herme?" my friend Jill commented. "How very daring."

And oh how right she was. I had told Jill of my upcoming eclair making, and she knows her way around her double boilers and cheese cloths enough to know that this would present a challenge. A Daring Baker challenge, in fact.

Making choux pastry is one of those fearful cooking acts, like rising a souffle or setting a custard, that can scare cooks to their jellied marrow. For me, though, the first challenge the pastry presented was in mi
xing it with my grandmother-inherited hand mixer. As it thickened up after each egg, I too slowly thought "I wonder if this will be too much for the old dear Kenwood". Up twirled the dense mixture as I tried valiantly (vainly) to switch the speed to high, and out poured the smoke and the bad, bad smell of a electric kitchen appliance dying. At least it went doing what it loved best (a moment's pause everyone, moment's pause).

The eclairs looked wonderful when I pulled them out of the oven...and then slightly less wonderful a minute or so later. Most, sadly, needed a wee bit longer in the oven and deflated into pathetic flattened fingers. Shoe pastry rather than choux pastry, though it did give me the excuse to 'test' a few in their natural state. Without the chocolate sauce or custard to round them out, I found them very, very eggy - able to stand having one or even 2 eggs left out of the recipe, I thought.

We were given the option to alter one of the two chocolate elements in the recipe, and so rather than having chocolate filling I thought I'd make good use of our bumper crop of raspberries (the rainy and grey British summer does have some uses) and turn out a raspberry pastry cream instead. I simply swapped out the melted chocolate for a small bowl full of raspberries, boiled with some water and sugar until they were just sweet and syrupy enough, and added this into the pastry cream mixture to turn it a lovely pink and leave Mr A&N in a state of pastry cream ecstasy.

Overall, the recipe was as simple as it could be given the art we were producing, and certainly less of an all-day marathon than other recent challenges, which was appreciated. The end result was wonderful, even if it did leave huge amounts of chocolate sauce in the fridge, which I'm still bravely eating on top of anything that might cope with it (gnocchi with chocolate sauce has been over-ruled this lunch time, though bananas with chocolate sauce stays on the menu). Thanks to Meeta and Tony for setting the challenge and letting us indulge our inner French pastry chefs. Pierre Herme, you shall be getting the bill for my new hand mixer.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Beetroot Salad with Pistachio Sauce

Beet (beetroot in the UK) is a hard vegetable for me to work up much of a passion about. It does have some exciting qualities, granted - just touching a peeled beet can dye your hands or clothes a deep pink, as it may well also dye other bodily things - but beets (particularly in their pickled form) have always struck me as a functional foodstuffs, something that would exist in pickled form, stuck in the cupboard next to tins of potatoes and corned beef hash after the armageddon has wiped out all other edible things and mankind has picked all other tasty treats bare. Perhaps that point of view is why I still have a giant jar of pickled beets from my mother-in-law which has been sitting in the back of my cupboard for 2 years now.

Beets come thick and fast in our veg box delivery, and I have become an expert at grating raw beet to include into salads (it's particularly nice with grated carrot or, as my mother-in-law recently enthused to me, with grated apple, lime juice, and ginger). But other than grating it, serving it up as borscht, or turning it into apocalypse-defying pickled beets, I find it hard to see my way to finding new uses for all those beets that keep being delivered to me.

Mr A&N - and our Moro East cookbook - came up with an answer to the beet problem with a recipe for a beetroot salad with pistachio sauce that took the short
est time to put together. It was the pistachio sauce that helped bring the dish alive, pinging in mint and parsley between the citrusy lemon and orange blossom water. There are another 4 or 5 beet-based recipes in Moro East, and I don't doubt there might be need to find more inspiration in the future. The (un-grated, un-borschted, un-pickeld) beet lives to fight another day.

Beetroot Salad with Pistachio Sauce, from Moro East
serves 4

500g young beetroot, peeled and thinly sliced

  • small handful of flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • 2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil

For the pistachio sauce:
  • 100g shelled, unsalted pistachios
  • 2 Tbs finely chopped fresh-leaf parsley
  • 1 small palm-full finely chopped fresh mint
  • 1 dessertspoon lemon juice
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 7 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp finely grated lemon zest
  • 4 Tbs water
  • 1/2 tsp orange blossom water

  1. Make the pistachio sauce first: finely chop the pistachios either by hand or in a food processor. Mix all the other ingredients together, and season with salt and pepper.
  2. Toss together the beetroot and parsley leaves, then dress with the lemon juice and olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
  3. Spread the beetroot out on a platter, then spoon the pistachio sauce on top.
  4. Serve immediately.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Vegan Cupcakes Might, Actually, Take Over My World

I was introduced to a lovely little book a couple of years back, filled with glorious frilly wishes and dreams made into cupcake form. Piled high with iced mounds of perfection, every one of the cupcakes in this book - literally every single one - made me urgently want to bring the book closer and lick the page. As well as being marvels to look at, these cupcakes were vegan. Dairy free, egg free, yet fluffy and creamy looking. Filled cupcakes, looking like your perfect Dunkin Donuts naughty little treat, had their mousse filling made mousse-y by tofu. Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World promised to be either a revelation or an absolute blasphemy.

It took me a year and a half to get the book (I'm either a rash or a long-delayed decision maker), and everything in there was still a temptation. The first recipe to attempt was dictated as much by what was on hand in the house as by what most tempted me. I also thought that chocolate cupcakes might hide more sins than vanilla ones - if these vegan versions didn't turn out to be so stunning, I thought the chocolate flavor would at least give them a fighting chance of being eaten.
Mint chocolate cupcakes, then. A chocolate cake base, a mint frosting, some chocolate ganache on top and an extra extra chocolate candy stuck on top if you were so inclined. The cake recipe was a surprise. No eggs or butter, clearly, but only a bit of oil to represent the fat spectrum. A cup of soy milk and a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar were mixed together and allowed to curdle a bit before throwing in your more tradition
al ingredients. And that was mostly it, both for controversy and head-scratching replacement ingredients. I was very skeptical as to what kind of cake these would make, and I presumed something dense and dry would be pulled out of the oven.

The cakes these made, though, were wonderful. Top them with whatever you like or just eat them on their own (I did both after whipping up another batch a couple of days after polishing off the first dozen), they are incredibly moist, fluffy, proper-cupcake cupcakes and stayed fresh for several days in their air-tight container. Almost the best part of making them, for me, was being able to have lade-fulls of uncooked batter without the worry of raw eggs spoiling my fun. It felt naughty and indulgent and it was a very good thing. There will be more (many, many more) cupcakes from this book in my future,
and with options like Mucho Margarita, Tiramisu, and Apple Cider cupcakes to chose from, it will be a great deal of fun weaving my way through the recipes.

Chocolate Mint Cupcakes, from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero.
Makes about 1 dozen cupcake (extra-large cupcakes come in at about 6, average-small sized cupcakes will number about 15)

Basic Chocolate Cupcake recipe:

  • 1 C soy milk
  • 1 tsp apple cider vinegar
  • 3/4 C granulated sugar
  • 1/3 c canola / vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp almond or more vanilla extract
  • 1 C all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 C cocoa powder
  • 3/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt

Mint Icing:
  • 1/4 C non-hydrogenated shortening
  • 3 C confectioner's sugar (sifted if needed)
  • 1/4 C plus 1 Tbs soy cream or soy milk
  • 1 1/2 tsp mint extract
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extra
  • small drop green food coloring

Chocolate Ganache:
  • 3 Tbs soy cream or soy milk
  • 1/3 C semi-sweet chocolate (chips or a bar)

To make the cupcakes:
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F / 170 C
  2. Whisk together the soy milk and the cider vinegar in a large bowl, then set aside for them to react and curdle for a few minutes.
  3. Meanwhile sift together the dry ingredients (flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt)
  4. Stir in the sugar, oil, and vanilla (and almond) extracts to the milk mixture.
  5. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients in two batches, mixing well each time so most of the lumps (or, ideally, all the lumps) are gone.
  6. Pour the mixture into lined muffin tins and cook for 18-20 minutes.
  7. Eat any remaining batter and be a very happy cook.
  8. When cooked, remove the muffins from the tin and set on a cooling rack. Allow to cool completely before putting any icing on it.

For the icing and ganache:
  1. Cream the icing for a few seconds until it's softened (the authors recommend doing this with a fork since it gives better results).
  2. Add 1 C of the sugar and a small splash (about 1 Tbs) of the cream/milk to the shortening, and mix well.
  3. Alternate adding sugar and cream/milk to the mixture, mixing well after each addition. Keep this up until all the ingredients are mixed and the icing is creamy.
  4. Add the mint and vanilla extracts as well as the food coloring, and mix well.
  5. Pour the icing into a piping bag and select a star tip (like a num 21).
  6. Meanwhile, make the ganache: heat the soy cream/milk in a small saucepan over a medium heat until it's just about to simmer. Remove from the heat and add the chocolate, stirring until the chocolate is entirely melted and things are mixed well.
  7. Make sure the cupcakes are cooled completely before piping. When ready, pipe the icing in a spiral from outside in, not going all the way to the edges so that a bit of cupcake is visible around the edges.
  8. Keep letting the ganache cool (about 10 minutes - you don't want it to melt the icing), stirring it every couple of minutes to keep it smooth.
  9. When cool, use a spoon to dollop a bit of ganache into the middle of the icing. It shouldn't entirely cover the icing, but drip down a bit on the sides.
  10. if desired, decorate with a small candy in the middle, such as an M&M, smartie, extra decorative rose of mint icing, spearmint gumdrop, etc.
  11. Refrigerate for 15-30 minutes to let the ganache set.

Sunday, 10 August 2008


I'm a sucker for a few things, but at least I'm predictable in my sucker-dom. I'm a sucker for fat babies, particularly if they're dressed as animals. I'm a sucker for touching stories involving animals and humans. And with food, I'm a sucker for anything that sounds 'interesting'. Not necessarily 'good', mostly just 'interesting'. So when shopping for seeds for my vegetable garden I found a salad crop that fell into that category, there wasn't much doubt I'd be buying and planting those seeds.

Salsola soda, as the Real Seed website told me, could either be boiled or eaten raw as part of a salad. It would be slightly
crunchy and salty (hence that the name began with 'sal' for salt) and is still used a fair deal in Italy an Japan. I had never heard of it before, and a bit of research showed that salsola is part of a larger family of plants responsible for the (officially noxious) American tumbleweed as well as an important source of soda ash used to make beautiful, clear, glass (including the gamed Venetian Murano glass). I imagined it as a bit like marsh samphire but for the garden.

As it grew, the plant looked like large, thick grass, and Mr A&N was eager to weed it more than once (well, I use the terms 'eager' and 'weeding' in the same sentence quite loosely - those few times I sent him out, protesting, to weed the vegetable bed, Mr A&N would hover over the salsola and ask me repeatedly whether or not he was allowed to dig it up. In his eyes, it was also easier to dig up the rest of the vegetable bed too, which would help preventing us from worrying about weeds taking it over.). It can be eaten whole when cut early. If it's not, the central stalk grows thick and fibrous and can't easily be eaten; the more delicate fronds have to be pruned off this main stem.

The first attempt to have a salsola salad didn't go quite as planned. I went to pick the plant, using the kitchen scissors to cut my way through the thicker stalks, and brought back half the crop in a bowl along with fresh garden peas and a handful of chives. It was to be a light salad, alongside the main course of the bacon-and-mushroom pasta we were making. It was only as I was about to dress the salad that Mr A&N thought to ask whether or not I had washed the kitchen scissors since he had used them to cut the bacon up. Ah....yes. Which is why the scissors were sitting in the sink rather than in the drain
board. So the first taste of salsola was as a boiled vegetable (along with the peas, chives, and lettuce leaves which had also been possibly tainted by raw meat) with lemon and salt. Hard to pick out the taste, though, of the gently salty leaf.

The second attempt was more successful and less likely to give us food poisoning. The salsola again went into a cold salad, this time with beetroot and chickpeas in a lemon-and-mustard dressing. Eating it in its full raw glory, I found it was slightly less than what I'd been hoping it to be. It was mildly crunchy but not as satisfyingly, poppingly crunchy as samphire would be. And the salt taste itself was very, very subtle; probably if you didn't know it was supposed to have any relationship to saltiness, you wouldn't have picked up on it.

I'd like to find a Japanese or Italian recipe with salsola to see how they use it and bring out its flavors. I still have seeds left and will plant more when the space becomes available - any garden-growable and edible food stuff will be eaten in our house (I lie - don't tell her, but I won't eat the radishes my mother-in-law planted for me). I've haven't yet learned not to chase the interesting rather than the tried-and-tested food thing, but I like to think it helps to keep life from falling into a rut.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Slow Cooked Belly of Pork and Baked Beans

The slow cooker. It's a kitchen gadget that promises great things. Miraculous things. You become wooed by the tales of throwing in a handful of foodstuffs on your way out to work in the morning and arriving home in the evenings to fragrant wafts from the kitchen and a warm meal ready to dish up. My few experiments with the slow cooker took the shine off that promise.

first couple of slow cooked dinners were convenient but lacked something on the taste-front. They were watery, and lacked the rich flavour that a slow-cooked stew normally would. An obvious problem was the amount of liquids we had put in - since it's an enclosed system the water helps steam and cook everything but also doesn't escape, so natural water given off by the food coupled with any liquid added could lead to a rather watery dish.

But I'm not one to give in easily. Work has been busy, leaving me tired when I get home, and the little bubbins growing inside me gets a bit demanding for food too early in the evening for me to think of luxuriating over the chopping board and stove each night. But always on the lookout for slow-cook ideas, I found a recipe for slow-cooked baked beans at The Cottage Smallholder and I determined to give it another go. Real, slow-cooked baked beans are a wonderful thing and aren't a thing like the supposed beans-in-a-can you find anywhere in America. Though this recipe didn't use a slow-cooker to do the deed, there wasn't a great deal of liquid in the recipe and it seemed like a promising start.

To my thinking, an obvious companion to the beans would be pork, and slow-cooked pork belly was another slow-cooking winner. There was the risk of the belly pork, with its tremendous amount of fat, simply feeding its tender fatty juices to the beans over a period of 10 hours, leaving me with a delicious last meal before Mr A&N and I died of spontaneous clogged arteries. I took care to cut away the skin from the pork (it would also let me make crackling later on) as well as most of the visible fat beneath the skin in order to give us half a chance of living through the meal.

Preparation was, of course, nice and easy. Beans soaked over night, everything thrown in the pot in the morning (though I didn't follow the suggested recipe exactly, partly due to lack of ingredients). I doubled the amount of sauce for the beans so that I could coat the pork in that flavoring as well. On went the slow cooker for 10 hours, and off I went to work.

This time, I'm delighted to say, the slow cooker lived up to its potential. The pork hadn't melted into itself or the beans, but was both tender and with enough fat on it that you could
trim it off and look forward to living another day. The beans were enough to make any practical New Englander swell (just a polite amount) with pride, with nicely thickened sauce and all its flavours coming together in a perfectly sweet and savory blend. Luckily, there were also plenty of leftovers so we could pat ourselves on the backs for our good work for a few days to come. The slow-cooker lives to cook another day.

Slow Cooked Belly of Pork and Baked Beans, inspired by The Cottage Smallholder
serves 4

  • 500 g Roman (aka borlotti, cranberry, or even pinto) beans
  • 1 large onion
  • 8 cloves
  • 3 Tbsp ketchup
  • 3 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 Tbsp sweet chili sauce (or if you'd rather not, just more ketchup)
  • 2 Tbsp barbecue sauce
  • 4 Tbsp maple syrup or molasses
  • 4 Tbsp muscovado sugar
  • 2 Tbsp dijon mustard
  • 300-500 ml vegetable stock (approx - enough to cover)
  • 1 kg pork belly
  • handful of fresh thyme
  1. Soak the beans overnight in water.
  2. In the morning, boil the beans in fresh water for 10 minutes and then drain.
  3. Peel and quarter the onion, and stick 2 cloves into each of the quarters. Set aside.
  4. Combine the ketchup, tomato paste, chili sauce, barbecue sauce, maple syrup, muscovado sugar, and mustard.
  5. Place the cooked beans in the slow cooker pot, and add half the ketchup sauce to it. Stir and assess - add a bit more if the beans are't quite coated.
  6. Pour in about half the vegetable stock and give a stir. The stock should cover the beans and with a little bit more to spare, so add enough stock to reach this point.
  7. Prepare the pork - cut off the skin and set aside for making crackling later. Cut away most of the visible fat that was under the skin.
  8. Place the onions, clove side down, on top of the beans.
  9. Place the thyme on top of the onions.
  10. Lay the pork with former-skin-side up on top of the onions and thyme. Cover the pork, top and bottom, with any of the left over ketchup mixture.
  11. Cover and set the slow cooker on for a minimum of 6 hours. (I cooked my for nearly 11 and it was still fine).
  12. About 45 minutes before you'll be eating, prepare the crackling by turning the oven on to 220 C / 450 F and scoring the skin. Lay the skin on top of something that will let the fat drip off a bit. Cook for about 30-40 minutes.
  13. Test the beans and pork for salt and pepper, and add as desired.
  14. Serve the beans and pork warm, with some crackling on the side.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Two Kinds of Sorbet

Our trip to France last month was filled with daily doses of dessert (naturally - we were on holiday). At least half the time we went to the effort of having a healthy dessert, and so would have sorbet. The other half of the time...we at like we were on holiday. But back to the sorbet: having it so easily available in so many flavors re-awakened the belief that fruit sorbet is one of the more miraculous sweet things one could hope to eat. Filled with fresh fruit and with little more to mar its healthiness than a sugar syrup, it comes close to being one of the rare non-naughty naughty foods.

It's the right time of year to experiment with making sorbets, given all the fresh fruit on offer and the flavors they might make together. I'm currently having a bit of a love affair with watermelon, and since even I find it a bit of a challenge to work my way through 10 pounds of fruit, it has been given the sorbet treatment. I've also been missing the option of enjoying my Pimms O'Clock when the mood for something refreshing, fruity, and alcoholic overtakes me, so Pimms style sorbet has also been created.

I threw mint into both of them to make them that much more refreshing, and though they were slightly similar in taste the Pimms sorbet also had a bit of lemon and so a bit more tartness. I loved both and have happily convinced myself that I'm getting part of my 5 a day from eating them. I next want to experiment with canned and frozen fruit in the hope of extending the sorbet season beyond just
the summer. I'll happily put on an extra woolen sweater in the winter if it means being able to eat such lovely frozen fruitiness.

Watermelon & Mint Sorbet, and Cucumber, Strawberry & Mint Sorbet (AKA, Pimms Sorbet)
each serves 4 dessert portions

Watermelon and Mint

  • 125 g sugar
  • 125 ml water
  • about 2 pounds of watermelon (4 cups when cut up), diced de-seeded
  • small handful of fresh mint

Cucumber, Strawberry and Mint
  • 125 g sugar
  • 125 ml water
  • 1 medium cucumber, peeled and diced (about 2 cups when cut up)
  • 1 package strawberries, green tops removed
  • 1 handful of fresh mint
  • juice of half a lemon

Method for both:
  1. Dissolve the sugar in the water by heating it over a medium heat. Wait until the sugar is entirely dissolved, resisting the desire to stir but possibly swirling the pot if some of the sugar is being stubborn.
  2. Remove the sugar syrup and cool down.
  3. Put the fruit and mint leaves into a blender along with the cooled sugar syrup (and lemon juice, if following that recipe).
  4. Blend the mixture for at least a minute, until everything is very smooth.
  5. Pour into an ice cream maker and churn until frozen and smooth.