A summery salad from Southwold

May 24, 2015 § Leave a comment

Whilst on our annual pilgrimage to Southwold on the bracing Suffolk coast I tried out a new salad recipe inspired by the cover recipe on this month’s Delicious magazine. It combines two of the season’s best ingredients – asparagus and baby new potatoes and adds to them crunchy radishes and a fresh herby dressing. The Delicious magazine recipe requires you to whip up a herb hollandaise sauce to dress the salad but creating a vinegar reduction, separating eggs and creating a delicate emulsion is not my idea of fun for a quick holiday lunch, and frankly, the idea of all that butter is a little off-putting. I replaced the herb hollandaise with a quick and easy yoghurt and herb dressing that worked really well with the other ingredients.

At this time of year, Southwold’s greengrocer, the Crab Apple in the Market Place is heaving with local Seabreeze asparagus, so much so that one no longer feels the need to treat it reverentially. Wild fennel grows in abundance by the beach and a little of this thrown into the herb dressing adds a fresh aniseed flavour note that works well with the asparagus and potatoes.

The genius part of this salad is that the potatoes are not just plain boiled but after a quick parboil are smashed and roasted in olive oil in a hot oven becoming deliciously crispy.

In terms of aesthetics, the long thin white tipped Breakfast variety of radish look prettiest, especially if you leave on a little of the green radish top. If you can’t get hold of these then the regular scarlet globe-shaped type works just fine.

Here’s the recipe. I’d recommend it to anyone wanting to pep up a holiday lunch and it provides welcome relief from yet another carb-heavy pork pie and sandwich picnic.

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Southwold asparagus and crispy potato salad

Serves 4

Adapted from a recipe in the Delicious magazine May 2015 edition.

Ingredients

450-500g baby new potatoes (e.g. Jersey Royals), scrubbed
4-5 tablespoons olive oil
400g asparagus, woody parts trimmed-off and ends peeled
200g radishes, washed, trimmed and halved lengthwise (the long thin white-tipped Breakfast variety look prettiest but the regular

For the dressing

250g full fat natural yoghurt
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
small clove of garlic, peeled, smashed and finely chopped
generous handful of fresh herbs – whatever you can get hold of – I used fennel foraged from the beach, basil and chives

Optional garnish

a spoonful of extra chopped herbs
a little balsamic vinegar or pomegranate molasses

Heat the oven to 200 degrees C fan. Line a shallow roasting tin with baking paper

Cook the potatoes in boiling salted water for 7-8 minutes until you can just pierce them with a knife point but they are not quite tender. Drain thoroughly and tip the potatoes onto the prepared roasting tin. Press each potato with a fork to squash it partially. Drizzle over the olive oil, season and toss lightly to coat. Slip the roasting tin into the oven and roast the potatoes for about 30 minutes, turning them half way through the cooking time.

While the potatoes are in the oven, make the dressing. Put all the dressing ingredients into a medium bowl, stir to mix, cover and set aside in the fridge.

Steam or boil the prepared asparagus until just tender – about 5 minutes for the plump spears shown in the photograph. Slice each asparagus spear into two halves carefully on the diagonal.

When the potatoes are ready, tip them onto a platter and spread them out. Scatter over the asparagus and then the radishes. Dollop the herbed yoghurt dressing over the salad and, if liked, scatter over a few chopped herbs and drizzle with just a little balsamic vinegar or pomegranate molasses.

Lamb (or vegetables) for a springtime celebration

April 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

Last weekend, some 50 family and friends descended on the Northern Lake District hamlet of Fellside near Caldbeck to share our friend Bruce’s 50th birthday. As my contribution to the celebrations, I offered to cook a meal for all the guests staying over on the Saturday night.

This is the menu I put together with its foundations in the Lake District classics of Herdwick lamb sourced from Yew Tree Farm in Rosthwaite and Sticky Toffee pudding, a recipe that originated at Ullswater’s Sharrow Bay hotel.

Menu for Bruce’s Saturday night

Olives

Hummus

Tzatziki

Dukkah and olive oil

All with pitta

*****

Herdwick lamb tagine

Seven vegetable tagine

Both with preserved lemons and harissa

Couscous

Date and orange salad

Root vegetable slaw

Chargrilled broccoli with chilli and garlic

*****

Sticky toffee pudding

Toffee sauce and cream

Cheeseboard with water biscuits and Winter Tarn Farm organic butter

Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire

Keverigg (like Caerphilly) from Winter Tarn Farm near Penrith

Burt’s Blue from Altrincham

The lamb tagine/sticky toffee pudding formula is a tried and tested way of feeding a crowd and I’m indebted to my friend Shelley for introducing me to this lamb tagine recipe which can be made ahead of time and will appeal even to those who, like me, are not lovers of stewed lamb. The fell-bred Herdwick lamb shoulder becomes meltingly delicious, sweet and spicy after two and a half hours of slow-cooking.

And for those who prefer vegetables to lamb, I offer a recipe for a Moroccan-inspired seven vegetable tagine. The vegetables are given flavour twice over first by being marinaded in olive oil, garlic and harissa and second by being roasted in a hot oven to concentrate their flavour further. As the sauce is made from pureéd vegetables and a little stock, this recipe is both gluten and dairy-free, an added bonus when feeding vegetarians with different dietary requirements.

Both recipes are straightforward to make, freeze and reheat well and are equally good eaten for supper at home or scaled up for a celebration.

Contact details for Yew Tree Farm, Borrowdale (for Herdwick Lamb via mail order or in person from the farm shop)

017687 77675
http://borrowdaleyewtreefarm.co.uk/herdwick/

Joe and Hazel Relph
Yew Tree Farm
Rosthwaite
Borrowdale
Cumbria
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Tagine of Herdwick lamb

Adapted from Antony Worrall Thompson recipe on the BBC Food website. Serves 6 generously or up to 10 if served with salads and side dishes. Doubled up, this fits comfortably into a preserving pan and if making ahead and freezing, the double quantity can be ladled into 5 pour and store bags each serving four people and holding 1.1 litres/kg tagine.

The quantity of spices given in the recipe if measured accurately with cook’s measuring spoons will give quite a spicy tagine, particularly so if your spices are fresh. If you prefer a milder tagine, put in a quarter (for a mild end result) or half (for a medium end result) of the stated quantities of cayenne, ground ginger and black pepper. Replace the hot spices with more of the milder ones (paprika, cinnamon and turmeric). Taste the sauce half way through the cooking time and crank up spices according to your taste at that stage.

Ingredients

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1 and a half tablespoons mild paprika
1 and a half tablespoons ground ginger
1 tablespoon turmeric
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 boned shoulder of Herdwick lamb, trimmed carefully to remove excess fat and sinew and cut into 5cm chunks. There should be approx 1kg trimmed weight of meat
2 large onions, very finely chopped in a food processor (original recipe calls for grated onion)
2 tablespoon light olive oil
2 tablespoon argan oil
3 cloves garlic finely chopped
570ml tomato juice
400g can chopped tomatoes
115g natural colour (unsulphured) dried apricots, halved
55g Deglet Nour dates, stoned and halved
55g organic sultanas
85g flaked almonds
1 teaspoon best quality saffron stamens (I like Brindisa Belefran brand from Spain)
570ml lamb stock
1 tbsp clear strong tasting honey (I like heather honey)
1 can drained rinsed chickpeas
chopped fresh flatleaf parsley and coriander to garnish

Combine the dried spices in a small bowl and mix well to combine. Place the trimmed lamb pieces in a large bowl and toss together with half the spice mix. Cover with cling film and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, preheat your oven to 140 degrees C fan.

Heat 1 tablespoon light olive oil and 1 tablespoon argan oil in a large casserole dish. Add the finely chopped onion and the remaining half of the spice mix to the pan and cook over a gentle heat for about 7 minutes. Add the chopped garlic and cook for a further 3 minutes then turn off the heat.

While the onion and spices are cooking, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon each of olive and argan oils in a large frying pan and brown the pieces of lamb a few at a time.

Add the browned lamb pieces to the casserole along with any juices. Deglaze the frying pan with a quarter of the tomato juice and add these juices to the pan.

Add the remaining tomato juice, chopped tomatoes, dried fruits, flaked almonds, saffron, lamb stock and honey to the casserole dish. Bring to the boil, cover, place in the oven and cook for 2 and a half hours. Cool, skim off and discard any excess fat. Add the chickpeas, stir in well and heat through when ready to serve. Garnish generously with chopped fresh herbs and serve with couscous.

Seven Vegetable Tagine

Source: adaptation and combination of several recipes from Paula Wolfert’s book “Moroccan Cuisine”. Apparently, in both Fez and Marrakesh, the number 7 is considered lucky and this recipe has both seven vegetables and seven flavourings so is doubly so.

This recipe was originally devised for a Moroccan-themed party to suit a vegetarian family member who cannot eat tomatoes.

Serves 7-8 as a main course; 12-15 as a vegetable accompaniment

Ingredients

The 7 vegetables

1 butternut squash, peeled and quartered
2 medium aubergines
2 red peppers
1 medium turnip (not swede), peeled and quartered
3 medium onions, peeled
1 large bulb fennel, trimmed
1 can white cannellini beans (400 g can, drained weight 225g) drained and rinsed
4 tablespoons olive oil

The 7 flavourings

4 crushed cloves garlic
3 teaspoons harissa
3 tsp cumin seeds
1-2tsp salt
few twists pepper
2 tsp dried thyme
1 generous pinch saffron threads
Three quarters to one pint vegetable stock (I use Marigold vegetable stock powder)

Cut all the vegetables, other than the beans, into bite sized chunks (roughly 1” cubes). Don’t worry if the the onions and fennel fall apart.

Put the flavouring ingredients except the saffron into a large mixing bow, add the olive oil and, tip in the vegetable chunks (but not the beans) and mix everything together with your hands, making sure all the vegetables are well coated with the flavoured oil.

Tip into large roasting tin – don’t cram them into too small a tin otherwise the vegetables will steam rather than roast – and roast for approx half an hour in a hot oven – 220 degrees C in a domestic fan oven. The vegetables are ready when they are soft but not mushy and the top layer are toasted and golden brown with darker brown edges – don’t let them blacken and burn. Stir them about once or twice while they are roasting.

While the vegetables are roasting, soak the saffron threads in a little hot water (1-2 fl oz) in a measuring jug for 15 minutes or so. Top up the measuring jug to the three quarter pint level with vegetable stock.

When the vegetables are cooked, remove from the oven, tip in the drained beans and stir to mix. Remove approximately one quarter of the vegetable mix and liquidize or blend with the saffron stock liquid to make the sauce. Add up to a further quarter pint of vegetable stock if the liquidized sauce seems to thick. Tip the sauce back into the roasting tin and stir gently to mix, scraping any toasty brown bits from the base of the roasting tin as you do so, but being careful not to break up the roast vegetables too much.

To serve – warm through and garnish with chopped fresh coriander and offer extra harissa and chopped preserved lemons separately.

Fillet steak for Valentine’s Day

February 13, 2015 § Leave a comment

Yes I know it sounds hackneyed and a teeny bit boring but this is what I will be cooking up at home on February 14th. It won’t be just any old steak and chips but one of my all-time favourite special occasion recipes, Tournedos with Polenta and Salsa Verde, the signature dish of chef Alastair Little’s restaurant in Soho back in the nineties.

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The recipe comes from the book “Keep It Simple” co-authored by chef Alastair and food-writer Richard Whittington and first published in 1993 at the height of the restaurant’s fame. It’s a slim volume arranged in four seasonal chapters with attractive photographs and drawings and clearly laid-out recipes. It’s a book I turn to time and time again and as I leaf through the pages I marvel that it doesn’t seem dated at all. Every single recipe is true to the book’s title, the flavour combinations are spot-on, and the mixture of classic and eclectic dishes means it’s book you keep coming back to.

The tournedos recipe is really three dishes in one – a polenta croûte enriched with parmesan and butter, crunchy golden-brown on the outside but with a soft inside perfect for soaking up the steak juices; a perfectly cooked fillet steak medallion with the pan juices turned into a sauce with the addition of stock and madeira; a lively and unexpected salsa verde that freshens-up the dish and makes all the flavours sing.

Most of the prep can, in fact needs, to be done in advance making it ideal for dîner à deux when you don’t want to be spending hours in the kitchen. I suppose that the raw garlic in the salsa verde should make this a no-no for a romantic meal but, what the heck, we’ve known each other long enough now not to mind a little mutual garlic breath.


Tournedos with polenta and salsa verde

Serves 4.

Ingredients

For the polenta croûtes

200g instant polenta
50g grated parmesan cheese
30g unsalted butter
salt and pepper
light olive oil for oiling the baking tray and croûtes

For the salsa verde

1 large garlic clove, peeled and chopped
large bunch flatleaf parsley, washed, dried and largest stalks discarded (about 40g prepared weight)
small bunch basil, just the leaves (about 20g prepared weight)
half a small bunch mint, washed, dried and stalks discarded (about 10g prepared weight)
2 tablespoons capers
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
a little coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
150ml extra virgin olive oil

For the tournedos and sauce

Four 140g tournedos
A little light olive oil
Maldon salt and freshly ground black pepper
150ml beef stock
5 tablespoons dry sherry or Madeira
15-20g cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks

Make the polenta croûtes at least 2 hours before you plan to cook the steaks. Cook the instant polenta in a medium saucepan following the packet instructions. Stir in the grated parmesan cheese and butter and season generously. Spread the polenta out onto a lightly oiled baking tray and spread out into a sheet about 1cm thick (a small crank-handled palette knife is ideal for this). Cool, then refrigerate for an hour or so. When set firm, cut out 4 rounds using a cutter a little larger than the tournedos. Brush lightly with oil and transfer to a second baking sheet lined with baking paper.

If you like, you can cut the remaining polenta into chunky fingers and brush these with oil and bake them along with the croûtes to make a stack of crispy polenta “oven chips” to serve alongside the tournedos.

And don’t waste the offcuts either. Cut into the neatest pieces you can manage and keep them in a sealed container in the fridge. Brush them with oil and bake them off and they will form the basis of a light lunch served eg with chunks of dolcelatte or goats cheese or chopped tomatoes and basil.

The salsa verde should also be made ahead of time. Put all the ingredients except the oil into the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until chopped then with the motor running pour the oil through the spout and whizz until you have an emulsified sauce. You will need to scrape down the sides of the processor bowl with a spatula several times. Decant the salsa verde into a small bowl, cover with cling film and set aside in a cool place (not the fridge which is too cold) until ready to serve.

Remove the steaks from the fridge about an hour and a half before you plan to eat and allow to come up to room temperature.

About half an hour before you plan to eat, slip the baking sheet on which you laid out earlier the oiled polenta croûtes and “oven chips” into an oven preheated to 210 degrees C fan. Bake for about 25 minutes, turning halfway during the cooking process, until crisp and golden brown.

About 10 minutes before you plan to eat, heat a heavy-based frying pan (large enough to hold all the steaks and with an ovenproof handle) over a medium to high heat. Brush the steaks with light olive oil and, when the frying pan is hot cook the steaks for exactly 2 minutes each side, season, then transfer to the preheated oven (210 degrees C fan) for further 4 minutes. These timings work to cook a thick steak to medium rare.

Remove the steaks from the frying pan and place them on top of the croûtes on prewarmed plates and leave to rest for a minute or two while you complete the sauce. Make sure you protect your hand with a dry cloth from the super-heated pan handle and add the stock and Madeira to the frying pan in which you cooked the steaks. Boil fiercely for a minute or two until the liquid is reduced by about two thirds and is becoming thick and syrupy. Quickly whisk in chunks of cold butter and a little seasoning. Spoon over the steaks and serve straightaway.

Arancini from Sicily – new year comfort food

January 16, 2015 § 1 Comment

It’s only mid January and I’m heartily sick of reading about detox diets and the like. So much so that I’ve perversely made a slightly late new year’s resolution to make more use of the deep-fat fryer that lurks in my garage.

I’ve made a great start already with this lengthy but easy-to-follow recipe for the ultimate Sicilian snack arancini aka deep-fried rice balls. I first came across arancini in a Sunday magazine supplement when I was a university student. I was much taken with the concept and had a go at making them but made the fatal error of assuming that Uncle Ben’s rice would be an OK substitute for the the then hard-to-find risotto rice.

Over the years I’ve toyed with the idea of having another go now that risotto rice has become a supermarket staple but what put me off was the distinct lack of leftover risotto. There is very rarely any leftover risotto in our house as it just gets hoovered up. On the odd occasion that there is a portion left in the pan it invariably gets transformed into refried risotto à la Raffle topped with a poached egg as part of a hearty breakfast the next morning.

We visited Sicily and the Aeolian Islands recently for an inspiring autumn break. Arancini were the lunchtime snack of choice to be found on every street corner. These beautifully shaped arancini, one containing mozzarella and pesto and the other meltingly soft aubergines were photographed in a small café by the waterfront in Syracuse in the South East of Sicily. They invariably contain a nugget of savoury filling and are always served warm, something I hadn’t taken on board previously.

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Back in the UK it was finally time to take the plunge and have a go at making arancini at home. I hunted around for authoritative recipes and found Felicity Cloake’s instructions in her carefully researched “Cook the Perfect..” series for The Guardian newspaper to be pretty helpful.

There are a number of steps to be followed to make the arancini but each step is relatively simple and the arancini themselves are quite robust and don’t fall apart or burst in the deep-fat fryer. Also, if you really want to take it slowly, you can make the rice mixture one day, shape it the next and coat and fry the day after that. Best of all, there’s no need to go to the trouble of making a full risotto recipe as the simple method of simmering the rice in stock, giving it just an occasional stir, works perfectly.

The end result is well worth while and the jolly round shape of the rice balls and glorious saffron gold colour of the rice within is very cheering on a dank January day, not to mention the oozing mozzarella pieces and hit of unctuous ragù filling in the centre….

Definitely a recipe I’ll be making again.

Arancini

Adapted from a number of different sources especially Felicity Cloake’s Cook The Perfect..” article from the Guardian online.

Makes 8-10

Ingredients

For the rice base

850 ml stock
generous splash (50ml) dry vermouth or white wine
250g risotto rice (I used Carnaroli)
½ teaspoon salt (you may not need this if your stock is salty and remember that a generous helping of salty grated parmesan will be added to the rice when it is cooked)
generous pinch saffron strands
50g grated parmesan
freshly ground black pepper
150g cow’s milk mozzarella cut into smallish chunks

To complete the arancini

8-10 heaped teaspoons of the filling of your choice eg few spoonfuls of ragù; pesto; sautéed aubergines
1 large egg
180g plain flour
Cold water to mix
Box of Panko breadcrumbs (and maybe a second box)
Flavourless vegetable oil such as rapeseed or peanut for deep-fat frying

Bring the stock and wine or vermouth to the boil in a large saucepan. Add the rice, salt and saffron to the pan then turn down the heat to medium and cook at a brisk simmer for 12-15 minutes until the rice is tender and has absorbed most of the liquid and looks like a finished risotto. You will need to stir the rice with a wooden spoon four or five times while it simmers but it does not need the constant stirring called for when making risotto.

When the rice is cooked to your satisfaction, stir in the grated parmesan and season with black pepper. You are unlikely to need additional salt at this stage but do taste and check.

Leave the rice mixture to cool to room temperature then stir in the mozzarella chunks making sure they are distributed evenly. Cool completely and store in the fridge until you are ready to proceed to the next stage.

When you are ready to complete the arancini, first prepare the coating by whisking together the egg, flour and sufficient cold water to form a thickish batter. You are aiming for the consistency of a not too thick white sauce. Next, tip out some Panko breadcrumbs onto a plate.

Now shape the arancini by rolling a generous spoonful of the rice mixture between clean wet hands into an orange or lemon-shaped ball (as per the pictures above). Using the handle of a wooden spoon, poke a hole into the middle and carefully ease in a generous teaspoonful of the filling of your choice. Plug the gap either by filling with a little extra rice mixture or by gently massaging back the rice walls to cover the hole.

Dip each rice ball into the batter to coat thoroughly, then transfer to the plate of breadcrumbs and coat carefully with the crumbs, spooning them over and patting them into place. There’s no need to double-dip and coat. Place each coated rice ball onto a tray lined with greaseproof paper.

Finally, you’re ready to fry. Cook the rice balls in small batches (no more than four at a time) in a deep fat fryer at 160 degrees C for about 12 minutes until crisp, golden brown and piping hot in the centre. Drain on kitchen paper and eat while hot or warm.

Peasant girl with veil

August 25, 2014 § 2 Comments

I’ve been researching Danish food over the past couple of weeks in readiness for a forthcoming special occasion and yesterday decided to try out a recipe for the charmingly named dessert “Peasant girl with veil”. In its original form, it’s layers of stewed apple, whipped cream and fried breadcrumbs arranged in decorative layers in a glass bowl. It’s a really simple and effective formula that ends up tasting a bit like a deconstructed cheesecake.

I decided to serve up my version in small glasses and decorate the layers with edible flowers to pretty it up and make it suitable for a party.

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I lightened up the whipped cream by combining it with Greek yoghurt, pepped up the stewed apple with spices and Calvados and replaced the fried breadcrumbs with one of my guilty pleasures, crushed HobNob biscuits (for non-UK readers, these are an oat-crunch type biscuit made by UK manufacturer McVities).

To make the layering-up of the dessert more precise, I spooned the stewed apple and the cream into separate piping bags which worked a treat. Next time I make this I’m going to make sure the apple purée is really smooth to make the piping easier, and I won’t make the top layer of biscuit crumbs so thick as they showered everywhere when we dug our spoons in!

These tasted good yesterday after dinner and equally good 24 hours later straight from the refrigerator.

Peasant girl with veil

My version of this classic Scandinavian dessert claimed as their own by both the Danes and the Norwegians.

Serves 12 dainty portions or 8 more substantial ones.

Ingredients

For the apple purée

3 Bramley apples, peeled, cored and cut into rough slices
6 tablespoons golden caster sugar (or to taste)
2 tablespoons water (if required)
1-2 teaspoons mixed spice
1-2 tablespoons Calvados

For the cream

150ml whipping cream
170g Greek yoghurt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons icing sugar

To assemble

8 Hobnob (oat crunch) biscuits, crushed to fine crumbs (about 120g crumbs)
fresh or dried edible flowers (optional)

Begin by making the apple purée. Combine the prepared apple, sugar and mixed spice in a medium heavy-based saucepan. Cover and place over a gentle heat, stirring regularly to dissolve the sugar and make sure the mixture doesn’t stick and burn. Add the 2 tablespoons of water if the mixture seems to dry. Cook the mixture gently for about 15 minutes, stirring the apples vigorously with a wooden spoon so that they “fall” ie become a thick puree.

If you’re going for a dainty presentation involving piping the purée into small glasses then you need to cool it then run it through a food processor to remove any lumps that would otherwise clog your piping nozzle. Set aside and chill.

Now prepare the cream. Combine the cream with half of the icing sugar and vanilla extract and whip to the very soft peak stage. In a separate bowl, beat the Greek yoghurt with the rest of the icing sugar and vanilla extract. Now carefully combine the two mixtures by folding one into the other.

You are now ready to assemble the dessert. The layering-up is made very straightforward if the apple purée and cream are decanted into disposable piping bags each fitted with a 1cm nozzle.

Spoon or pipe a layer apple purée into the bottom of each serving glass or bowl. Top with a layer of cream, again piped or spooned as you prefer. Now spoon over a thick layer of crumbs. Repeat the process to fill the glasses but keep the top layer of crumbs very thin otherwise they scatter everywhere when you dig in with a spoon. If liked, decorate the top of each dessert glass with a piped blob of the cream and one or two edible flowers. Enjoy straightaway or cover and keep in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

A simnel cake for Easter

April 3, 2014 § 1 Comment

I baked myself a traditional simnel cake last weekend just in time for Mothering Sunday. I was pleased with the end result and felt moved, albeit prematurely, to dig out the easter eggs I’d previously painstakingly blown and painted to complete the decoration of our Sunday lunch table.

Simnel cake was traditionally made for Mothering Sunday but has now become more usually associated with easter. It struck me as I gathered together the copious quantities of marzipan, butter, sugar, eggs and dried fruit needed for the cake that these ingredients seemed very much at odds with the spirit of the Lent fasting season. After all if we can’t even eat the humble pancake comprising just milk, flour and eggs after Shrove Tuesday how on earth would a cake like this be permitted?

I did a bit of research into the subject. One commentator suggests that the simnel cake was given as a gift on Mothering Sunday but put aside and not eaten until easter . This sounds unlikely and peculiarly ungenerous. I found a more likely explanation on a website devoted to the rites of Catholicism. Mothering Sunday coincides with Laetare “Rejoicing” Sunday close to the midpoint of Lent and on this day worshippers are permitted a bit of a breather from the strictures of the Lenten fast and may have a bit of a blow-out before resuming the fast the following day. This sounds much more plausible to me.

A properly made simnel cake is a lovely thing with the buried marzipan layer a delightful and finely flavoured surprise in its centre. I’m sorry but you really should make your own marzipan as the bought stuff is much sweeter than homemade and always has far too much almond flavouring added for my taste imparting a harsh chemical flavour to your otherwise lovely mellow cake

The Four Seasons Cookbook recipe on which I based my version of a simnel cake has perfect proportions for the specified 8 inch/20cm cake tin. The completed cake is golden in colour with a distinct citrus flavour from the combination of zest and candied peel. I found some rather pleasing golden sultanas (see pic) to heighten the golden colour of the cake.

Baking the cake presents something of a technical challenge as the usual test for doneness, sticking a skewer into the cake and seeing if it comes out clean, doesn’t work. The buried marzipan layer clings to the skewer come what may so the baker has to draw on other knowhow – checking for a slight shrinkage from the side and gently pressing the cake surface feeling for just the right degree of resistance. As always with rich fruit cakes, a long slow bake works best.

Simnel cake

Adapted from a recipe in Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons Cookery Book.

Ingredients

750g prepared weight of marzipan (homemade is best) divided into two pieces one slightly larger than the other plus a little sifted icing sugar for rolling out

175g unsalted butter
175g Demerara butter
3 eggs
1 tablespoon golden syrup
grated zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon
225g plain flour
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon each of freshly grated nutmeg, ground cinnamon and ground allspice
450g currants
225g sultanas
115g chopped mixed candied peel
up to 150ml milk

To finish the cake

The second piece of marzipan plus a little sifted icing sugar (see above)

2 tablespoons sieved apricot jam or marmalade (or light coloured fruit jelly if you have some to hand)
a few Cadbury’s mini eggs or similar
an easter chick or two
pretty ribbon to tie around the cake

Roll out the smaller piece of marzipan into a round the exact size of the cake tin. No need to trim as it won’t be visible but will form a layer baked inside the cake, just press this disc into shape with your hands. Do this before lining the tin so you can use the base as a template.

Preheat the oven to 140 degrees C fan and fully line with double thickness of baking parchment a deep 20cm/ 8 inch loose-bottomed round cake tin.

Cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Beat in first the tablespoon of golden syrup and grated orange and lemon zests then the eggs one at a time adding a tablespoon of flour after each addition of egg to help the mixture emulsify.

Stir the salt and spices into the remaining flour and fold into the mixture with the dried fruit. Finally stir in just enough milk to make the mixture a not too soft dropping consistency like a Christmas cake batter. If it’s too soft it won’t support the weight of all that dried fruit and the internal marzipan layer.

Spoon half the cake mixture into the prepared tin and level off. Carefully place the preshaped marzipan round onto the cake mixture and top with the remaining cake mixture. Level off and place into the preheated oven and bake until done, up to 3 and a half hours but could well be less depending on how your oven behaves at lower temperatures.

The usual technique of inserting a skewer into the cake and seeing if it comes out clean won’t work as even when the cake is baked into oblivion the marzipan layer leaves a false trace on the skewer. Instead, press the cake top gently to make sure it resists and look to see if the cake has shrunk just a little from the sides of the lined tin.

Leave the cake to cool in its tin for several hours or overnight until it is quite cold. This gives you time to gather together the bits and pieces needed to decorate and finish the cake.

Remove the cake from the tin and peel off and discard the layers of baking parchment. Knead and roll out the reserved marzipan to a thickness of no more than 1cm.

Brush the top of the cake with warmed sieved apricot jam, marmalade, apple jelly or similar – something with a suitably golden colour.

Invert the cake onto the rolled out marzipan and trim to a neat circle, reserving the trimmings for the traditional marzipan ball decoration.

Turn the cake the right way up and gently mark the top into large squares or, prettier still, into lozenges using a large cook’s knive. Try not to cut right through the marzipan.

To mark the top into lozenges first mark horizontal lines across the cake at a distance of c.2.5cm from each other. Then rotate the cake and mark another set of lines not at a 90 degree angle but offset so that the intersecting lines form lozenge or diamond shapes.

Slip the cake under a heated grill to lightly toast the surface to give an attractive finish to the cake. Be sure to watch it carefully at this stage so that it doesn’t catch and burn.

Make 11 small marzipan balls (the traditional number representing the apostles minus Judas) with the reserved marzipan trimmings and set these evenly around the cake, sticking them into place with a little more warmed jam if you like.

Complete the decoration by adding a few pastel coloured mini eggs and an Easter chick or two to the top of the cake and tying a decorative ribbon around its sides.

Central African Republic breakfast

January 30, 2014 § 2 Comments

The latest in our Breakfasts of the World Project series.

I’ve been well and truly caught out by events. When I began investigating the Central African Republic (“CAR”), it seemed to me to be one of the world’s most anonymous nations but has since been catapulted into the headlines following the outbreak of civil war.

The country’s population is estimated to be some 4.5 million in a country comparable in size to France, coincidentally the former colonial power. Much of the country is taken up by the Ubangi and Chari river basins. The capital city, Bangui, is on the banks of the mighty Ubangi river that flows south to Congo and defines the border between the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo for much of its length.

Since gaining independence in 1960 the CAR seems to have suffered more of its fair share of misfortunes. The notorious Jean-Bédel Bokassa 1 was crowned “emperor” 1977 in a lavish ceremony watched by the world’s media. Since then, coup has followed coup more or less to the present day. Michel Djotodia, leader of the Séléka rebel alliance seized power March 2013 deposing President François Bozizé. The country has since descended into anarchy with the Christian anti-balaka militia (balaka means machete) retaliating against the mainly Muslim Séléka rebel group. Djotodia has now stepped down leaving a peacekeeping force of 1,600 French and 4,600 African troops vainly trying to control the violence. One can only hope that the new interim civilian government can deliver on its pledges to halt the violence and to organise elections by February 2015.

From this country of diamonds, timber, virgin rainforest and fertile river basins comes a recipe for the freshwater fish Nile Perch cooked in banana leaves. It seems somewhat frivolous to say so but is nevertheless true that this is a very attractive way of cooking and presenting any white fish fillets (I give the recipe below).

Given the circumstances, this was a somewhat sombre breakfast.

Somewhat to my surprise, I was able to source authentic Nile perch from online specialist retailer The Fish Society and found banana leaves in one of the specialist food shops in Manchester’s Chinatown.

Steamed Nile Perch in banana leaves

Serves 4. Recipe adapted from various internet sources.

Ingredients

4 fillets of Nile perch (capitaine in French)
4 banana leaves, halved
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
handful flatleaf parsley, roughly chopped
1 chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
3 small tomatoes, peeled, deseeded and sliced
salt and pepper to taste

Mix thoroughly together in a small bowl the chopped onion, garlic, parsley and chilli.

Arrange four pairs of halved banana leaves into rough cross shapes.

Put a quarter of the onion mixture in the centre of each pair of leaves then sit a fish fillet on top, followed by another spoonful of the onion mixture. Top with the tomato slices then wrap the banana leaves over the top to form a parcel and tie each one securely with string.

Place the banana leaf parcels on a rack set over a deep roasting dish half-filled with water.

Carefully transfer to an oven pre-heated to 200°C and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the fish is tender. Serve directly from the parcels and accompanied with fried plantains and/or boiled rice.

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