Monday, November 30, 2009

The perfect snowflake biscuit cutter

Christmas biscuit enthusiasts will sympathise with my search for a good snowflake-shaped biscuit cutter. They just don't really exist. Or perhaps they just don't exist in John Lewis and Divertimenti, the only cookshops I go to. Oh, and Selfridges - none in there either. You can get half-arsed ones, or ginormous stars or Stars of David (I like Jews; I am marrying a Jew, but a star of David is not right for a Chrimbo biscuit) but nothing decorative. Nothing just right.

So you will join in with my rejoicing now I have discovered the perfect snowflake-shaped biscuit-cutter, made by Tala - a brand of cookware whose blue, white and red packaging you'd recognise if you saw it. Unfortunately, Tala only supply products, you can't buy directly from them, only in bulk. And for some reason the above cookware departments haven't seen fit to stock these particular cutters, only tree-shaped ones (too big) and Father Christmas-shaped ones (too ambiguous). So all you can do is go round cookware shops until you find one that has a clever bakeware buyer and stocks snowflake cutters.

For what it's worth, I finally tracked these down in a dimly-lit corner of Whole Foods in Kensington.

Perseverence and Turkish Delight

The other day I fell to thinking about things like fate and about making your own luck. So often in life, (sorry, I'm feeling a bit philosophical), I find that when I struggle and struggle and push and push for things, all I meet is resistance and when I just sit back and think 'Heigh ho, can't be helped', good stuff eventually happens by itself.

But to be honest, this is a bit frustrating for an impatient girl like me. When I make an effort, I like to see some kind of result. Which is why, I think, I've become so attached to cookery. Cooking is an area of my life where perseverence really does pay off - and fast.

If something goes wrong the first time you make it, you remember what you did wrong and do it better next time. And it works, and you are rewarded with something: a great pie, a delicious biscuit, happy supper guests.
Which leads me to Turkish delight. I just love it - the rose-flavoured ones in particular, and if they've got chopped up bits of pistachio in them, so much the better. Creamy and sweet, bursting with perfumey flavour - it was enough to get Edmund to grass up his whole family to the White Witch of Narnia and it's enough to give me a sugar high and put me in a good mood.
I wanted to make Turkish delight rather than buy some from a shop (and when I say shop, I mean Selfridges food hall) because I feel like less of a crazed sugar junkie if I make it myself - the element of home economics and creative endeavour cancels out, for me, the tooth-rotting, fat-ladling overtones.

So I made some yesterday, leaving it to set overnight and cutting it up into cubes and dousing it with icing sugar just now.

Has it worked? Yes and no. The taste is lovely, sweet and rosy, and the colour is charming, a blushing pink. But the texture? I might have to work on that. It's a touch chewy, and not quite creamy enough. I've got a feeling that I used a bit too much gelatine and I improvised with leaf gelatine rather than the powdered gelatine as directed; it's also possible that I stirred it a bit too much while it was all cooking.

Anyway, I will be try, try, trying again. But if you'd like to have a crack at the recipe I used, it's very simple and fun and you get little pink squares that are plump and delicious, if the tiniest bit of a mouthful...

25g powdered gelatine (here I impatiently used leaf gelatine, but you might get a better result if you use the powdered as specified - I will be trying again with the powdered stuff).

255ml water

4 tsp rose water (you can also add a drop of rose essential oil for extra floweriness)

450g caster sugar

3/4 drops red food colouring (although I only used 1.5)

icing sugar to coat

Before you start, oil a loose-bottomed tin in which the turkish delight can set. Oil the bottom and all the way up the sides of the tin with a flavourless oil like groundnut, or almond oil if you've got it.

1 Mix the gelatine, water and rose water in a pan and add the sugar

2 Heat very gently until it has all dissolved, stirring all the time

3 Bring to the boil without stirring

4 Reduce the heat and simmer for 20-25 mins. Here the mixture in the pan behaves quite strangely - rearing up and bubbling like it's alive and angry if you so much as touch it while it's cooking. I think I prodded it about a bit much at this stage...

5 Remove from the heat and add the food colouring

6 Leave to cool for 2-3 minutes and then pour the mixture into the tin and leave for 24 hours to set

7 Cut into squares and toss in the icing sugar

Friday, November 27, 2009

The most wonderful cheese in the world

If you live in London, or you are heading up to London to do a bit of Christmas shopping, stop by, if you can, La Fromagerie in Marylebone High Street.

Their cheese room alone is worth a visit, just to gawp. When I was there last week, tourists were taking photos of it. But at the moment, it's a doubly exciting place because they are making on site a really extraordinary cheese, which is a Brie with a layer of truffle inside.

Normally I think that that kind of thing - foie gras wrapped in veal, truffles in gold soup, caviar on a bed of crushed diamonds - is sick-making and gross, but this cheese gets away with it by being the most delicious and also unusual thing I've had since I ate that banana and peanut butter sandwich.

Monstrously expensive and you have to ring ahead to make sure they've got some in stock, but well worth it if you're looking for something a bit different for Christmas lunch.

Easy brownies

There is something so festive about brownies. Perhaps it's because they are, fundamentally, American, and American food is all about that first, frontal-lobe taste-hit, (I'm also thinking, here, about pancakes the USA way, fluffly and dribbled with maple syrup, eaten with crispy bacon), and to hell with the calories.
I guess that's why Americans taking eating to the other extreme as a reaction to all this out and out yumminess: Giles has just come back from New York, where he's been writing about the Calorie Restriction Society - a movement whose followers eat hardly anything and never cook anything to more than a lukewarm temperature.

Anyway, before all that, there were brownies. I've searched high and low for a good brownie recipe - I find that a lot of them are comically over-indulgent: sticky, gacky, grossly super-sweet, like a hilarious mis-translation of American over-consumption. A real American brownie, to my mind, ought to be more light and cake-light and should be eaten not in a massive daunting slab, but in a small-ish square, popped in the mouth to accompany a cup of weak diner-style filter coffee. Mmm.

This recipe, below, from the New Penguin Cookery Book, is perfect. The nuts used here are walnuts, but you could use hazlenuts instead if you prefer.

Makes about 16 bits
125g butter
250g caster sugar
2 eggs
1tsp vanilla extract
60g plain flour
30g unsweetened coco powder
1/2 tsp baking powder
125g walnuts bashed or chopped
1 tbs milk

Preheat oven to 180 (gas 4) and grease a baking tin. I use an 8in loose bottomed square tin from John Lewis but you can use any tin, really - the size only affects how deep your brownies will be.
Cream the butter and sugar until they go pale, then beat the eggs in one at a time.
Sift the flour, cocoa and baking powder together and then fold them into the butter and egg mixture.
Then add the nuts, milk and vanilla extract.
Pour into your tin and smooth the top.
Bake in the oven for 40 minutes.

Edible glitter fans can shake a little into some icing sugar and dust the brownies for a sparkly finish.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Crazy parmesan lollipops

Breakfast for a sore throat

I was woken up this morning by my tonsils. Furious, they were - furious and red and angry. But I can't be that ill because I'm hungry for my breakfast. Alas, my usual breakfasts - either museli or toast - are not exactly fun on a raw tonsil.

So I reached for my tin of oatmeal, just the thing for an empty tummy and a hurty throat.

I'm quite evangelical about oatmeals and porridges. I spent 3 months eating porridge at least once a day when I was 19, working for Raleigh International in Namibia. At first I couldn't believe how digusting it was, hated the sight of it, dreaded having to eat it every day. But then I developed a sort of Stockholm syndrome about it - I started to think that porridge was the best thing ever.

Then, after another 9 weeks, I hated it again.

I didn't eat it for years, couldn't stand the sight of it. But in the last few years, whenever the chips are down, I have started to yearn for porridge. These days, only John McCann's Steel Cut Irish Oatmeal will do. The most flavoursome, with none of the dusty yak of rolled oats. But, it's one for sick days and weekends only, as it takes half an hour to make. The other problem is that what all porridge and oatmeal really loves to do is stick to the bottom of the pan and, if possible, burn, so a good stir every few minutes is also required. You could always make it in a non-stick pan but for some reason, I feel like that's cheating.

Off-sick Oatmeal

Into four parts boiling water, pour one part oatmeal (I use an espresso cup as a measurement - it swells in the water so that's all you need for one person, I find.)
Cook briskly until it starts to thicken up and then turn down the heat and simmer for 30 mins. I always find that I need to add more water along the way.

I've never really thought of oatmeal or porridge as any kind of health-giving, angelic food, to be eaten in a bracing wind, seasoned only with salt - I have always seen it as simply a warm vehicle for butter, sugar, honey, jam, cream, maple syrup or anything else fatty or sugary I've got to hand. And today is no different, topped with a splodge of Damson jam to lift my spirits. My throat feels better already.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Edible glitter

Chilli brussel sprouts

I think people don't like brussel sprouts because they had bad sprout experiences when they were little.

My mum is a fantastic cook and never made us eat anything we didn't want to and I was still freaked out my sprouts when I was small. They were always just boiled, very plain, perhaps with butter on and were quite big for little mouths. If they were a bit hot, you'd ram one in your mouth and it would explode, boiling and bitter. Not really that nice.

But, like most people, I have a huge amount of residual affection for sprouts, nevertheless. The trick is clearly to find a way to make them a bit more interesting.

Chucking all sorts of stuff over it - bacon, chestnuts, herbs - is the answer and my favourite topping is garlic and chilli. Singapore Garden, every north londoner's top singaporean rezzy does Chiew Yim brussel sprouts, where the sprouts are dipped in, I think, batter, then deep fried with chilli and garlic. And they are outstanding, one of the best things on SG's menu.

I don't deep fry my sprouts, because I want to see my 30th birthday, but sauteeing them with the chilli and garlic works just as well to give the general cabbagey atmosphere a bit of a kick. And the marvellous thing about sauteeing a sprout is that you can cook them the night before if you're doing a big lunch/dinner.

It's essential, to make the sprouts a more manageable mouthful for adults and children alike, that you cut the little buggers in half before you fry them.

Chilli brussel sprouts
Boil your sprouts in salted water for 3 mins. When cool, chop in half.
Heat some butter, dripping or veg oil (or whatever you like most to fry with) in a pan and add the sprouts.
Then add your chopped garlic and chilli and swoosh round the pan for about 5-8 minutes. Keep the pan on a medium heat so that neither the garlic nor the sprouts burn and taste even more bitter than God intended.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A pork pie for Giles

A pork pie is a wonderful thing. But it is also complicated and can go wrong in a number of ways, because there are three elements to this: a pastry, a filling and jelly, which each come with their complications.

If you'd like to make one, I say go for it, but make sure you have an entire day - or even a day and  a half clear to attempt it - especially if it's your first go.

This recipe makes a medium-sized pork pie, using a 7in loose-bottomed cake tin from John Lewis. A similar version of this recipe can be found in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage Meat book, on p.444.

You will need for the pastry:

275g plain flour
100ml water
30g diced butter
70g diced lard
1 beaten egg
3/4 teaspoon salt

1 Heat the fat and water in a saucepan until it is melted and warm - hot, even - it but don't boil it. While the fat is melting, put the flour and the salt into a mixing bowl and make a dip in the centre. Pour the egg into the dip and half mix it in with a knife. Once the fat and water have melted together, add it to the flour and mix until it is a dough. Here the dough will probably be a bit too sticky, so sprinkle on flour until it takes on that glossy sheen of pastry. Form it into a ball, cover in cling film and chill for an hour.

2 For your filling you will need:

400g pork shoulder/leg
200g streaky bacon
200g pork belly

Or similarly ratio'd quantities. Mince this finely the best way you can see how.

Do NOT - are you listening? - do NOT, NOT, NOT use only pork shoulder, or only bacon, or only belly because the result will be grim. To your pork mixture add 1/4 tsp mace (if you want), a pinch of salt, 5 twists of black pepper and a dried chilli (if you want).

2 Grease your pie dish with butter or vegetable oil. Roll out the pastry to about a 0.5cm thickness and lay as best you can in the dish. This isn't especially easy, as you're fitting a flat thing into a rounded, 3D thing. The most important thing is that the pastry doesn't tear - nothing else really matters. This is so important that I often cut my nails very short before doing it.

I always recall Delia Smith's advice about pastry when I'm making a pork pie, which is to handle the pastry "with confidence". Like horses and naughty children, pastry can smell fear.

3 Fill your pastry casing with your filling. Really ram it in, as this will shrink on cooking. Sometimes I add a whole boiled egg, hidden in the middle, if I want to freak people out.

4 Trim off any excess pastry hanging over the side of your dish and re-roll to form a lid. You must brush the edges of the pie and the lid with beaten egg to seal it. You absolutely cannot use water or milk because it won't stick properly.

5 Seal the edges of the pie and then make a blow hole in the surface of the pie, about 1cm in diameter, for the pork juices to bubble out of during cooking. Then brush the whole of the top of the pie with beaten egg.
6 Shove it in the oven for 30mins at 180 degrees and then for 1 and 1/4 hours at 160 degrees.

7 Once the pie has cooked you must allow it to cool. And I mean really cool down - ideally leave it overnight, although I know it's torture to have to wait. During cooking, the pork will have shrunk away from the sides of the pastry to form a natural cavity to be filled by the jelly.

The point of the jelly - so unbeloved by those understandably squeamish about savoury food the wobbles - would originally have been to make an airtight casing for the precious porkstuff, which would help it to keep for a couple of weeks without refrigeration.
You can make the jelly in two ways: either make up a pint of warm stock - any will do, out of a packet or whatever - and set it with powdered gelatine. I find Dr Oetker's powdered beef gelatine to be the most user-friendly. 1 x 30g sachet sets one pint of liquid - easy peasy. You will need in total about half a pint of gelatine to be on the safe side.
If you're feeling very serious, ask your butcher for some veal bones or a pig's trotter. Boil it all up for a couple of hours with some carrots and celery and the stock will turn to jelly when it sets, without needing the help of manufactured gelatine.

Pour the jelly through the hole in the top of the pie while the jelly is still warm and it will set around the pork as it cools.

This is the trickiest part of the process, so you must keep your nerve - never attempt this in a hurry. You can use a turkey baster if you've got one, or a jug and funnel. It's a pretty messy business, so don't lose heart if the stock bubbles out of your pie's blowhole and goes everywhere.

This kind of pastry is very resilient and can withstand having quite a lot of stock splashed all over it without becoming soggy. You may have to repeat the pouring-in of the jelly as after you've poured in the first lot, as it will slowly disappear into nooks and crannies of the pie and suddenly there will be a 1cm gap between the lid of the pie and the top of the pork.

Then once you think there's as much gelatine in there as you're going to get, leave this to cool again - or chill in the fridge, ideally for three or four hours.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Recipe Exchange

I got an email the other day, with the title Recipe Exchange - a sort of chain letter for recipes. I'm supposed to get 360 recipes out of it, which sounds a bit many. But still, it's a nice idea and I can try out some new things, that aren't all out of Nigel Slater.

Although frankly, they all WILL be.

Lamb shank stew for a blustery November night

I've always been a bit scared of stews, I don't know why. But the other day I found some lamb shanks in the freezer and some haricot beans in the larder and decided to put them together, with the help of my NBF Nigel Slater.

He recommended using leeks with the beans, but I didn't have any of them, so I used some celery and carrots instead.

The exact recipe can be found in Volume 1 of NS's 'Tender' cookbook, but it goes something like this:

(For 2)
- Soak 150g haricot beans overnight, or for approx 6-hours, then change water and bring to boil, skim off the gross froth bit and then simmer for 40 mins. When they're done, leave them in the water they boiled in.
- Season lamb shanks all over and then brown in some oil in whatever casserole pot you're going to cook the whole lot in. Takes about 10 mins to brown lightly all over (but it's going to cook for 2 hours, so you don't have to be really neurotic about it. And anyway, I always tell myself, lamb won't kill you if it's a bit rare). Then put aside, on a plate.
- Chop up your carrots and celery - maybe two of each? - and a clove of garlic and add, with a thick slice of butter to the casserole. Then cook gently for 20 mins. Here, NS recommends putting a sheet of greaseproof paper underneath the casserole lid, but if you haven't got any (and I frequently haven't) it's probably ok just to put the lid on.
- Take the casserole off the heat and sprinkle a tablespoon of plain flour over the veg and stir it round. Then drain the beans and add them, then pour in about 150 ml stock (just made with a cube or whatever), give it a stir and then place in the lamb shanks.
- Cook at 160 for 2 hours.
NS says it's best re-heated and he's right, athough it's also great first time round. It goes really well with Haimisha cucumbers on the side, just to cut through a bit of the fattiness of the lamb and the delicious gackiness of the beans.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Coriander roast chicken

I've had a lot of coriander hanging around recently and applied it, the other day, to a roast chicken.

I'm one of those people who does that thing where I push butter, salt and garlic under the skin of the breast of the chicken before roasting. Not everyone likes doing that, but I think it's a great way of keeping everything moist as well as making it taste a bit different to the 98,000 other chickens I've roasted.

Anyway, I took some scraggy old coriander (why does it go scraggy so quickly?), a good lump of butter, salt and garlic and rather than mixing it all up by hand, I ran it through the food processor (I do love my food processor) and spooned it under the skin.

Then I roasted the chicken as normal, turning a couple of times during cooking.

Curry without the bleurgh

I love curry, but I'm always freaked out by the recipes for it - about 16 ingredients, all things that I haven't got and that if I bought I'd invariably use once and then have to throw away ten years later when I moved house.

I was also always so fazed by coconut milk - you could only ever buy huge cans of it and although I like curry, I'd never eat enough of it to use a WHOLE can and would have to throw away most of it and then feel guilty.

So I never really make curries. But staring at a massive bunch of coriander the other day, I was reminded of a recipe I made a few years ago that I found in a newspaper, that called itself a 'Keralan curry'. I also discovered that coconut milk now comes in little 160ml cans, which are perfect for making a curry for one or two peopl.

I'd lost the recipe, but vaguely remembered that there was also chilli, garlic and ginger in it. That sounded pretty nice, so I whizzed up the vaguely scraggy coriander, some garlic, an ancient piece of ginger and the last bits of a chilli, much the worse for hanging around in the kitchen for about 3 weeks, and it turned itself into the most delicious, fresh curry paste-thing. It works with anything - chicken, lamb, fish - and its freshness yet spicyness is brilliant for when you get that feeling that you MUST HAVE a curry, but don't want to be tasting it for days afterwards.

Keralan curry

Large bunch of coriander
1 clove garlic (or 2 if you like garlic)
2 de-seeded red chilli (or leave some seeds in it if you want it hotter)
About 2cm cubed of ginger
Lime juice out of a bottle (if you've got it)
About half a cup of stock - just made with a cube or whatever
Half a teaspoon of cumin powder - if you've got
Two onions
A few glugs of cream or one of those 160ml mini cans of coconut milk

Chop the onions and cook for 15 mins over a low heat. Whizz up the coriander, garlic, chilli, ginger and lime juice (optional) in a food processor.
In a separate pan cook the meat until it's browned.
Once the onions are done, sprinkle over the cumin and shake around in the pan for a bit. Then add the coriander mixture, then the meat, including any juices or bits at the bottom of the pan.
Add the cream or coconut milk and stir. Turn the heat right down and pour in enough stock for the curry to be well-hydrated but not actually soup-like, a couple of tablespoons.
Put a lid on the curry and simmer for about 15 mins.