Altrincham’s answer to Babette’s feast

March 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

The newly formed Altrincham Film Club chose the classic 1980’s Danish film “Babette’s Feast” for its March screening. The film is a loving adaptation, in almost BBC costume drama style, of the Karen Blixen novella which describes the effect of the arrival of refugee French chef Babette on the lives of the inhabitants of a remote and puritanical and village on the coast of Jutland. The story culminates in the preparation and serving of a stupendous French dinner which changes the lives of those lucky enough to share it.

The description of the meal and accompanying wines in the book is in fact a little sketchy with only these dishes and wines named specifically:

Turtle soup (Amontillado sherry)

Blinis Demidoff (Champagne Veuve Clicquot 1860)

Cailles en Sarcophage – Quails in coffins (Clos Vougeot 1846)

Grapes, peaches, fresh figs

The film necessarily fleshes out the meal with a salad course of chicory, frisée and walnuts, a plate of delicious cheeses, and its crowning glory, an immense glazed savarin liberally dosed with rum and finished in the Fanny Craddock manner with whole glacé fruits and whipped cream.

The Altrincham Film Club Committee decided they couldn’t let the opportunity of a food film go by without serving some film-themed snacks before and during the screening. Volunteers to bring cheese, pineapple, bruschette and blinis and so on soon came forward. Then my friend Gwyneth, baker extraordinaire (have a look at http://www.vintageafternoonteas.co.uk/ to see what I mean), approached me with the idea of collaborating on producing some sweet nothings to complement the savoury nibbles already on offer.

Thus the idea for the Babette’ Feast “bento box” was born, to contain an individual savarin modelled on the one in the film, a pot of Chantilly cream to accompany it and a final tiny pot containing a macedoine of black and white grapes, a passing reference to the immense platter of fruit served in the film. All this would be presented in a crisp white cardboard box with wooden cutlery, a nod to Scandinavian style and all fully disposable and biodegradable.

Here’s one of the completed mini-savarins sitting in its foil case which is happily durable enough to stand up to all that lovely rum-infused syrup:

The box I photographed below doesn’t look quite as pristine as the ones we actually served as I forgot to take a picture until I brought my own box back home again after the film, so it’s had quite a journey dislodging one or two of the carefully placed fruits!

And of course, we didn’t just have a handful of boxes to prepare but in order to cater for the AFC audience we needed a whole fifty of them which just about filled my dining room table:

The whole bento box production exercise took the best part of three days.

On day 1, a savarin recipe was developed and all the necessary ingredients ordered online. Hardest to track down was proper glacé fruit (not just common or garden glacé cherries but plums, figs, apricots, peaches and so on in the French manner) but a lovely deli in Wellington, Somerset http://www.thecheeseandwineshop.co.uk/came up trumps and was able to despatch a shipment in time. The flour, butter and eggs were all organic, the sugar all unrefined and fairtrade, the rum not Bacardi but finest Angostura from Trinidad and the vanilla the best available from Madagascar. This was going to be a baking project truly in the spirit of “Babette’s Feast”.

The next step was developing the right recipe. I began with Julia Child’s baba/savarin recipe (the two doughs are interchangeable, just the shape being different) from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”. This produced quite a stiff dough, easy to shape:

but the resulting buns were dense with a tight crumb that become a tad slimy when soaked in the syrup. We needed a wetter, stretchier dough that would bake to open-textured puffy perfection and would soak up and retain the syrup.

Over to baking guru Dan Lepard who gives a rum baba recipe in his recently published “Short and Sweet” book. I haven’t bought the book yet so had to rely on a republished version of the recipe given on the website of the Melbourne newspaper “The Age”. This was much better, a very wet dough that was hard to handle but produced a brilliantly light stretchy dough. I wasn’t happy with certain aspects of the recipe though – there was too much salt and too much yeast in it for my taste.

The third and final recipe is a conflation of the best bits of all the recipes I looked through and is the one we ultimately ran with. I give it in full below. Whilst I love the aroma of good rum, I don’t like too strong a taste of raw alcohol in a cake or dessert. In flavouring the savarins with vanilla, golden caster sugar and lemon zest and their syrup with unrefined sugar, citrus peel, more vanilla and cinnamon I’ve tried to incorporate the rum flavours without adding very much rum at all. Each savarin is anointed with just a teaspoon of rum to point up these flavours. Much less wasteful than pouring half a pint of rum into the syrup and then having to throw lots of it away.

Day 2 was devoted to baking the savarins in three double batches. Fermentation was long and slow so each batch took 5 hours start to finish so although the workload wasn’t huge, this was a lengthy task. The dough started with making a “sponge”. a wet dough used to get fermentation going and add flavour to the finished product:

Once the remaining flour, butter and eggs had been added, the completed dough looked like this as it began its first proving proper:

After proving and knocking-back, the very soft dough has to be poked and coaxed into the dinky mini savarin tins:

I picked up this mini savarin tin in Zurich earlier this year and am delighted to have been able to put it through its paces. Large individual kugelhopf/savarin/bundt moulds are beginning to appear in the UK but I haven’t been able to find a similar mini moulds over here yet.

This is what the risen buns looked like just before baking – they increase in size dramatically creating all those lovely air pockets:

And this is the end result after baking:

And of course, every batch requires quality control to make sure taste and texture are just right. Very pleased with the open texture of the dough here:

And finally, we’re on to day 3, the day of the screening itself and the major task of completing the savarins and assembling the bento boxes. The first job was the preparation of the black and white grape macedoine. Black and white grapes were halved and macerated in a light syrup of Sicilian blood orange juice, freshly grated lemon zest and just a little unrefined sugar. These were then left in the fridge for the flavours to mingle.

It was a great relief when Gywneth arrived mid-morning and immediately and calmly took charge of the rum application, glazing and decoration of the savarins while I syruped and dunked and drained. Six man hours later, we’d produced 50 bento boxes arranged in serried ranks across the dining room table and my generously proportioned fridge was filled with 50 mini cartons of grape macedoine and Chantilly cream.

Final thanks must go to my long-suffering husband Tim who barely raised an eyebrow at this 3 day baking marathon and who patiently transported the boxes to the cinema in the boot of our car, and wasn’t even able to stay and watch the film!

The boxes were handed out to the Altrincham Film Club audience right on cue with no spillages – job done – and we even managed to remember bin bags to clear up afterwards. Job done!

Anyone fancy La Grande Bouffe for April’s screening…?

Recipe for individual rum savarins

Makes 24 savarins. This is the smallest quantity of mixture which it is feasible to make in my Kenwood mixer, so if you just want 12 savarins, halve the quantities and mix by hand with a wooden spoon and dough scraper.

Ingredients

For the savarins

250 ml milk
12g fast action dried yeast
450g strong plain flour – use 150g for the initial sponge and add 300g to complete the dough
4g vanilla powder
25g golden caster sugar
5g salt
150g softened unsalted butter
4 medium eggs
grated zest of a lemon (scant – the flavour of the lemon is quite strong so don’t be too thorough with the grating)

For the syrup

500g demerara sugar
500g granulated white sugar
1.1 litre water
2 vanilla pods
6 strips lemon peel and 6 strips orange peel pared without pith using a vegetable peeler
juice of a lemon

To serve

1 teaspoon dark rum per savarin (I like Angostura)
Apricot glaze
Selection of glacé fruit (optional)
Chantilly cream (I like a mixture of cream and fromage frais for lightness).

Begin by weighing your mixing bowl so that you can accurately divide the completed dough by weight later on in the recipe. Note the weight down. My Kenwood bowl weighs 1,029g for future reference.

The recipe proper begins by making an initial wet dough, the sponge. Put 150g of the flour, the milk and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together by hand using a balloon whisk until thoroughly combined and scrape down the sides of the bowl using a dough scraper. Leave the mixture at room temperature until it starts to bubble up. This might take 45 minutes or so, maybe longer.

While the sponge begins to ferment, break the eggs into a small bowl; mash the butter using a fork to make sure its very soft and malleable; sift together the flour, salt, sugar and vanilla powder and stir into it the grated lemon zest.

Now complete the dough. Add the flour mixture alternately with the eggs to the bowl in three or four batches. Mix the dough after each addition using the dough hook on a low to medium speed. Scrape the sides of the bowl using a plastic scraper frequently while you do this. Once all the flour and eggs are incorporated, turn the speed up to medium and let the dough hook do its work for 2 minutes.

Next, incorporate the softened butter into the mixture. Make sure the butter is really soft before attempting this. Add a spoonful or so of butter to the bowl and mix at a low speed until incorporated. Keep going until all the butter is added, scraping the butter plate clean with your dough scraper to make sure every last bit ends up in the dough and not on your dishes. Turn the speed up to medium and work the dough for 2 minutes. The resultant dough will not resemble bread dough but will be very soft and stretchy like an elastic cake mix. This is absolutely fine, do not under any circumstances be tempted to add more flour.

If, like me, you have only one tray of mini savarin tins, you will need to retard the proving of one half of the dough. Weigh your mixing bowl, subtract the weight of the bowl which you noted down previously and remove half the dough to a separate bowl. Scrape it into a neatish mound, cover with a plate or cling film and refrigerate.

Do the same with your original bowl, but leave this one out at room temperature to prove. Leave it until the dough has begun to swell visibly and if you poke it you can see lots of spongy bubbles in the mix. It won’t necessarily have doubled in size.

While the dough proves, make the syrup. Put all the syrup ingredients into a large saucepan and bring to the boil. Boil the syrup vigorously for 3 minutes then switch off and leave all the flavours to infuse.

One the dough has proved, knock it back by beating it vigorously with a wooden spoon for 10 to 20 seconds. Now for the fiddly bit which is filling the savarin moulds. Make sure your moulds are well greased. I like to use Dr Oetker baking spray to do this quickly and conveniently.

Half fill each individual mould using about a tablespoon of mixture. Using a teaspoon and/or your fingers, gently tease the very soft dough into the mould and around the central metal spindle. Make sure the quantity of dough in each mould is approximately equal. This is very fiddly.

Cove the savarin tins with a big upturned roasting tin or similar and leave to prove a second time until the dough has risen to fill the moulds completely and puff up a bit more. This takes about an hour, maybe less. Make sure you catch the dough on the up rather than leaving it too long in which case it will collapse.

Put the tray of savarins into the centre of an oven preheated to 190 degrees C (fan). Chuck a small coffeecup of water onto the oven base to create steam and shut the door quickly. After exactly 10 minutes, turn the temperature down to 170 degrees C, rotate the tray of buns so they bake evenly, and bake for a further 10 minutes. They should have a good golden brown colour and be just shrinking away from the edges of the tin. Remove from the oven and turn out onto a wire rack to cool.

Once the savarins have cooled to a warm temperature, they are ready for dunking in the syrup. Drop them into the pan of warm syrup and gently push them under. Leave them in the syrup for about 7 minutes to absorb all that lovely sugar, basting frequently. Remove from the syrup bath, invert them and leave them to drain for about 15 minutes on a rack set over a roasting tin to drain. Try and do the dunking with the savarins facing down and the draining with them facing up to ensure even syrup distribution.

This is a long recipe, but we’re nearly there now. All that’s left to do is to drizzle a teaspoon of rum carefully over each savarin, brush with apricot glaze and if you like, decorate with diamonds of glacé fruit. Serve with a dollop of softly whipped Chantilly cream.

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Swiss new year

February 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

Yikes, we’re well into February, it’s almost the half-term holiday and I still haven’t written-up our New Year meal. It’s high time I put this right. We’ve been doing the new year thing since the big millennium celebration in 2000 and have taken turns hosting along with Neal & Shelley and Mike & Janet.

It fell to us to host this year and it occurred to me that despite my enthusiasm for all things Alpine I’d never yet chosen a Swiss theme. The challenge would be to avoid as many Swiss clichés as possible – cheese, chocolate, cowbells, cuckoo clocks and similar tat, and to keep the dishes relatively light so we’d all make it into 2012 feeling fit and raring to go.

Here’s the menu I came up with. You’ll see I didn’t entirely succeed with no cheese/light cuisine idea as the Malakoffs – deep-fried battered chunks of gruyère sound like the (Scottish?) first cousin of the deep fried Mars bar, but I couldn’t resist:

Canapés

(i) Bundnerfleisch (thin slices of air-dried cured beef)wrapped around celeriac remoulade; and (ii) Malakoffs – deep fried gruyère sticks

First course

Hay soup -light chicken/vegetable cream soup infused with meadow hay

Second course

Individual Luzerner Chugelipastete – puff pastry dome filled with braised veal pieces in cream and saffron sauce

Main course

Venison medallions with preiselbeer sauce, rösti and braised red cabbage

Salad

Lambs’ lettuce (the cutely named Nüsslisalat in German)

Pudding

Walnut and cinnamon parfait with mulled prune sauce and Zimtsternen – cinnamon star biscuits

Cheese

Vacherin Mont d’Or

Menu decided, next step was to set the scene. There’s never time to sort out a table centrepiece when you’re preparing a meal so I called in professional help in the form of Vicky Clements’ magnificent Swiss flag inspired floral arrangement in red and whie, a veritable alp in miniature (see her contact details below if you’re in or around S Manchester/Cheshire):

Vicky was responsible for the fairy-lit hearts too. Sehr gemütlich, Ja?

I dusted down my piping skills to write dinner guests’ names on an experimental batch of moulded biscuits using my newly acquired Swiss Springerle moulds. They were a little involved to make but I was quite pleased with these as my first attempt. My piping is rusty though and it took a few attempts to steady the hands and create something legible:

Air dried beef is usually served as part of a large platter of cured meats and cheeses in Switzerland. We chose to roll the beef around celeriac remoulade which created a light and fresh-tasting canapé packed with flavour. Janet made the celeriac – very simply made by mixing raw grated celeriac into a Greek yoghurt, lemon and parsley dressing – and assembled the canapés and very pretty they looked too. Celeriac makes a fantastic winter salad and we’ve eaten it several times already since then:

The doyennes of cookery and entertaining always tell you not to try out new recipes on your guests don’t they? Well, I think rules like this are meant to be broken, but sometimes minor disasters will ensue. I think it’s fair to say that the malakoffs didn’t work. Tim was banished to the garage to deep fry these battered cheese parcels. I can’t abide the smell of deep-frying fat in the house, so our deep-fat fryer lives very happily in the garage which means that, with the assistance of the barbecue it’s pretty easy to rustle up a mean steak and chips for al fresco consumption in the summer.

I thought we’d followed the malakoff instructions on the Swiss food blog http://www.fxcuisine.com to the letter. Maybe the batter was too light, maybe the oil was too hot, maybe we cooked them for too long, but when we came to consume the malakoffs, they turned out to be hollow as all the molten cheese had leaked out into the frying oil creating an unholy mess (which I have yet to properly clean up I’m ashamed to say). The fritters looked the part and retained enough of the ghost of a flavour of cheese to allow you to imagine how delicious a correctly cooked malakoff might be. Another time…

We began the meal proper with an unusual hay soup, expertly prepared by Shelley. This is a traditional Swiss soup, different versions of which come from the mountainous cantons of Valais and Graubünden. I’d tasted this in Klosters a couple of winters ago, and it looked so pretty presented on its bed of hay and garnished with dried meadow flowers that I had to put it on our menu.

I couldn’t find a definitive recipe but found several different versions by searching under “Heusuppe Rezept”. Our version used a hay-infused light stock, a flavour base of sweated vegetables and a little pearl barley to thicken. I think I’d like to try out the other versions before publishing a definitive recipe.

Sourcing the hay proved to be harder than I’d thought. I scoured farms in the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales for an elusive handful of local organic meadow hay but without success – all I was offered was silage which I don’t think would make a very pleasant tasting soup. In the end, The Hay Experts (see contact details below) came to my rescue. They really do know their hays (even if the end consumer is usually a pet rabbit) and despatched just what I needed very promptly.

Our next course was a miniature version of the Luzerner Chugelipastete – an exuberant puff pastry dome filled with braised veal and veal sausagemeat in a creamy saffron flavoured sauce. In order to cut down on the pastry, I made pastry lids to cover the braised veal which was served in individual ramekins.
I posted last year on the subject of this dish:
https://rhubarbfool.co.uk/2011/03/03/lunch-in-lucerne/

I used a couple of cheat steps when I made the miniature version of the dish. Short of time, I used Dorset all-butter puff pastry – reliably good if you don’t have time to make your own. Instead of veal forcemeat balls made from scratch I used a pack of veal meatballs from Waitrose. These are made from ethically sourced British rosé veal and are delicious and versatile. Actually, I didn’t follow the Marian Kaltenbach recipe for the sauce which I’ve quoted before at all. I flash fried strips of veal tenderloin, combined them with the cooked veal meatballs, added a little stock and cream, reduced the whole lot down to make a sauce and added grapes macerated in a Swiss grappa type schnapps to finish. I was reasonably happy with the end result:

We were now well set up for the main event, a fabulous-looking venison tenderloin supplied from The Blackface Meat Company who are based up near Dumfries in Scotland. I’ve used them a couple of times before for game and rare breed meat. They may be a little expensive but they supply top quality meat, expertly butchered and delivered promptly and efficiently to your door.

I did try and obtain some local venison from Dunham Massey. Each year, the deer are culled and just a few of the younger deer are butchered and sold to the public via a local farm shop. Unfortunately because of problems with poaching this year I didn’t know if my tenderloin was going to turn up on time. When finally I did get the call that the venison was available, I was a little disappointed with what the butcher had done as this tenderloin was nowhere near as expertly trimmed as the Blackhouse meat. So Dunham’s answer to Bambi is in the freezer ready for a future Sunday lunch.

The Blackhouse website lists useful recipes and I followed chef Mark Hix’s instructions for marinading the venison in red wine before flash-frying and serving with a red wine reduction. Not an authentic Swiss recipe but very Swiss in character as you’ll find lots of robust game dishes cooked with red wine in restaurants during the autumn and winter hunting season.

The venison was expertly cooked by Janet and was served with everyone’s favourite Swiss dish, potato rösti,braised red cabbage and a spoonful of Preiselbeer sauce. The Preiselbeer is a smaller, tastier European relative of the more familiar North American cranberry. It’s also known as the lingonberry in Swedish and here in England it’s known as the cowberry but is not a popular forager’s fruit as yet.

Sorry my pictures of the finished dish are too dark to be meaningful, but here are photos of the meat bathing in its marinade, the same meat cooked and carved, and a jar of the Preiselbeer sauce brought back from a little shop in Klosters:

Avoiding the temptations of triple Toblerone chocolate mousse and the like, I chose a simple walnut and honey parfait for pudding served with prunes cooked in red wine and spices to give a delicious festive mulled-wine flavour. Alongside the parfait and prunes I served a traditional Swiss/German advent biscuit, the Zimtstern – a cinnamon flavoured dough made like a macaroon from ground nuts, sugar and whisked egg whites, topped with a crisp meringue icing. These are nutty, chewy and delicious and a tad difficult to make. I’ve not given the recipe in this post as frankly it’s too long already, and they merit a post all of their own.

To conclude the meal as we approached midnight, a superb Vacherin Mont d’Or cheese from the Jura region of Switzerland, one of my favourite cheeses. It’s soft and creamy and can be spooned out of its wooden box when properly mature and ready to eat. It’s only available during the winter months. Ours came from the Duty Free shop at Zürich airport, but you can find it over here sometimes either in a specialist cheese shop or occasionally in Waitrose. If you find one, grab it, you won’t regret it.

I couldn’t possibly list all the evening’s recipes in a single post – in fact to help with the preparations, I photocopied and printed them all out and have enough material for a small cookery book!

I’m just going to give two recipes, both straightforward and both now in my regular repertoire.

Recipe for celeriac remoulade

My lighter, fresher version of this bistro classic, replacing the usual mayo with Greek yoghurt.

Serves 4 or more as part of a selection of salads

Ingredients

1 small or half a medium celeriac grated in a food processor
juice of half a lemon
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons thick Greek yoghurt
2 tablespoons half fat crème fraîche
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon chopped flatleaf parsley

Grate the celeriac quite finely (easiest to do this in a food processor) and in a medium bowl mix thoroughly with the lemon juice to stop the celeriac turning brown. You can prepare the celeriac to this stage then refrigerate it several hours ahead of time and it will still be fine. When you’re ready to serve, add the other ingredients to the bowl and stir to combine.

Recipe for walnut parfaits with mulled prunes

Translated from the German and adapted from a little Swiss cookbook called “Geliebte Schweizer Küche”.

Serves 6

Ingredients

For the mulled prunes

1 bottle fruity red wine
200g prunes
2 cinnamon sticks
1 vanilla pod
2 cloves
1 large piece of peel from an unwaxed orange

For the parfait

2 eggs
2 dessertspoons runny honey
1 pinch powdered cinnamon
1 dessertspoon Grand Marnier
180ml whipping cream
50g walnuts, coarsely chopped

Begin by making the mulled prunes the day before you plan to serve the dish. Put all the ingredients into a saucepan, bring to the boil then leave to cool and infuse overnight.

Next make the parfait. You can make this a couple of days ahead of time as it’s frozen. Mix the eggs, honey, powdered cinnamon and Grand Marnier together in a bowl. Using an electric whisk, beat together until the mixture is light and foamy. In a separate bowl, whisk the cream to the soft peak stage and combine with the egg mixture and chopped walnuts. Divide the mixture between 6 or more small moulds (china teacups or ramekins are fine) and freeze for at least four hours.

When you are ready to serve, dip the moulds briefly into hot water, loosen with a knife if necessary and invert onto individual serving plates. Spoon the prunes and red wine sauce around and serve.

Contact details

Vicky Clements – “Inside Out” flowers and gardening, Bowdon, Cheshire
Mobile 07762 387 372

The Hay Experts – suppliers of organic and other hays
http://www.thehayexperts.co.uk/

The Blackface Meat Company – suppliers of rare breed meat and game
http://www.blackface.co.uk/

Christobel Heginbotham’s ultimate parkin and other Bonfire Night treats

October 31, 2011 § 2 Comments

A name to die for isn’t it? I met the lady in question eight years ago after tucking into platefuls of cake in a scout hut at the edge of the Pennines after completing the annual “Autumn Leaves” fell race. The local running club organising the race have the inspired idea of combining it with a village cake competition and the runners get to eat the entries afterwards. Brilliant. So not only did I get to eat the most fantastic parkin (which in case you haven’t come across it is a a moist sticky gingerbread cake, a speciality from the North of England) but it had the baker’s name on it so I was able to find her and she very kindly emailed the recipe to me. I’ve been making it annually ever since, a recipe to treasure, and traditional for a Bonfire Night party.

The cake mixture, made simply in a single large saucepan by the melting method, looks disconcertingly runny when poured into the prepared cake tin:

But fear not, it will turn into this sweet, sticky, spicy, springy cake when cooked:

Which, as you can see, can be eaten straightaway – no wrapping and storing for a week as some recipe suggest. No need to seek out tricky-to-find oatmeal either – the recipe works just fine with rolled oats which you probably have in your cupboard already for making porridge.

By the way, golden syrup seems to be a peculiarly British ingredient. Looking at various web forums, the best US substitute might be a dark corn syrup – hope this works for you.

Thinking about a fireworks party theme, I have a great recipe for an Argentinian-inspired beef stew served spectacularly in a serving bowl fashioned from a pumpkin. Perfect for a party as it can be made well in advance, warming, substantial and full of healthy veg! Actually it would work really well for a Halloween party too and you could then pull out all the stops and serve it with black pasta (the stuff mixed with squid ink) or black rice if you can get hold of some. Perhaps more economical would be a mix of fettucine type noodles, some black, some green and some plain. Similarly a mix of basmati and wild rice rather than just wild rice or Vietnamese or Piedmont black rice.

Sorry, no photos available from when I last cooked this dish but I think this consignment of squashes from Riverford Organics currently decorating my front porch are destined for this dish next weekend:

Finally, a reliable recipe for toffee apples from my ever trustworthy Good Housekeeping recipe book. It wouldn’t be a proper party without toffee apples and the recipe is literally child’s play as my son Arthur proves:

Boiling the toffee to the correct “soft crack” stage isn’t as tricky as it sounds. Drop a teaspoon of the hot toffee into a bowl of chilled water. It’s ready when the syrup doesn’t just form a ball but separates into hard but not snappable threads.

Try my trick of shoving the handle of a teaspoon into the apple as a handle if you find yourself making these at the list minute with no wooden lolly sticks in your kitchen drawer.

Recipe for parkin

With thanks to Christobel Heginbotham. I bake this in a shallow rectangular metal baking tin approx 20cm by 25cm (see pic above) but you can, as Christobel suggests, double the recipe and bake in a square deep cake tin “to make a fair sized cake”, in which case a longer cooking time may be required.

Ingredients

100g butter
50g soft brown sugar
2 large tablespoons (this weighs 75g) black treacle
2 large tablespoons (ditto) golden syrup
175 ml milk
100g plain flour
2 teaspoons (10g) baking powder
1 teaspoon (3g) ground ginger
half teaspoon ground cinnamon
half teaspoon ground cloves (or ground allspice)
100g rolled porridge oats

Preheat oven to 170 degrees C (fan). Line a 20cm square baking tin with baking paper.

In a large saucepan melt the butter, sugar and treacle together over a low heat. Be careful not to let it burn or bubble. Remove from the heat and stir in the golden syrup and milk.

Add the plain flour, baking powder, ginger, cinnamon and cloves or allspice. Mix well, beating to remove any lumps. Stir in the oats.

Pour into the baking tray and cook for 35-45 minutes. Test by pressing the top with your finger tip. It should spring back and not leave a dent. Cut into squares and leave to cool in the tin.

Recipe for Carbonada Criolla – Argentinian beef and vegetable stew served in a pumpkin

Adapted from a recipe in Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book.

Serves 15-20

Ingredients

1 large beautiful pumpkin which will fit comfortably into your oven

For the meat stew

2 large onions, chopped
4 large cloves garlic, chopped
olive oil for frying
1.5 kg cubed chuck steak
2 tins (14oz size) chopped tomatoes
1 tablespoons tomato purée or 4 tablespoons passata
2 litres beef stock (made from cube is fine)
bouquet garni (a handful of parsley stalks, a sprig of thyme, and 2 bayleaves, tied together in a muslin bundle with a long string handle to aid removal from the pot)
1 heaped teaspoon dried oregano
2 teaspoons sweet smoked paprika (or ordinary paprika if you don’t have the smoked kind)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 kg sweet potato, peeled and cut into 2cm cubes
1 kg waxy potatoes, scrubbed but not peeled (unless you prefer them peeled) and cut into 2cm chunks
1 kg pumpkin or squash (choose a variety which will collapse and melt into the sauce when cooked to act as a natural thickener) peeled and cut into 2cm cubes or chunks
0.5 kg frozen sweetcorn kernels (or the equivalent canned or fresh if you prefer)
a pack of baby sweetcorn
12 canned peach halves sliced – you could use canned apricot halves if that’s what you happen to have in the cupboard – drained contents of 2 cans should be about right
Syrup from the canned peaches or apricots

Begin by preparing the pumpkin. Wash and cut out a lid from the top, keeping the stalk on to act as a handle. Cut a small nick out of lid and base to aid repositioning the lid accurately. Using your hands, a spoon and a small sharp knife, pull out and discard the central fibrous part of the pumpkin along with the seeds. Now cut and scoop away the solid pumpkin flesh, working carefully as you need to leave a good wall of pumpkin flesh for structural integrity when baked and the skin needs to be unpierced/intact. Weigh out the pumpkin flesh needed for the recipe and set aside.

Brush the inside of the pumpkin with a little olive oil. Replace the lid and set the whole thing in a shallow roasting tin.

In a frying pan, cook the onion and garlic in a little oil until soft but not browned. Transfer to a large lidded saucepan or casserole dish.
Add a little oil to the frying pan in which you cooked the onions, turn up the heat and brown the beef cubes in batches, transferring them to the large saucepan with a slotted spoon as you go. Add to the beef and onions the tomatoes, tomato purée, salt and pepper, bouquet garni, oregano and paprika. Now take about half a litre of the stock and use it to deglaze the frying pan. Tip the deglazing liquid into the saucepan containing the other ingredients along with a further half litre of stock. This means that you will have incorporated into the dish about half the stock at this stage.

Cover and simmer until the meat is almost cooked – an hour or so. Add the sweet potato, potato and pumkpkin plus more stock so that the pan contents are covered. Return to the boil and simmer with the pan lid on for a further 20 to 30 minutes until the meat is tender, the potatoes cooked and the sauce thickened with the collapsed pumpkin. Taste and correct seasoning. Remove and discard the bouquet garni.*

Finally, add the sweetcorn and peaches but not their syrup at this stage and simmer for a further 15 minutes. Taste and add a little peach syrup at this stage to sweeten the sauce if liked.

* You can prepare the beef stew ahead of time to this stage. Best not to finish the stew until you’re ready to serve to prevent the baby corn and canned fruit becoming to mushy in the reheating process.

To complete the dish, switch on your oven to 180 degrees C (fan)about 1 hour before you’re ready to serve. Bake the pumpkin for half an hour or so. Safest to keep it underdone as you don’t want the walls to collapse so check it after 20 minutes. After half an hour, ladle the hot stew into the pumpkin then pop back into the hot oven for 10-15 minutes before serving.

Recipe for toffee apples

Adapted from a recipe in UK classic cookery book “Good Housekeeping”. Mine is the 1985 edition.

Makes 6-8 apples

Ingredients

450g (1 lb) demerara sugar (turbinado sugar in the US)
50g (2 oz) butter
10 ml (t teaspoons) vinegar – I use malt vinegar but a white wine vinegar would be fine and a cider vinegar would be appropriate for apples wouldn’t it?
150 ml (1/4 pint) water
15 ml (1 tbsp) golden syrup (dark corn syrup probably OK as a substitute)
8 small/medium apples and the same number of wooden sticks

Wash and dry the apples and push the sticks into their cores, making sure they are secure.

Place the butter, sugar, vinegar, water and syrup in a medium-sized heavy based saucepan. Heat gently, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until the sugar is dissolved. Bring to the boil without stirring further and boil rapidly until the syrup reaches the “soft crack” stage (143 degrees C or 290 degrees F if you’re using a sugar thermometer).

Remove from the heat and working swiftly to prevent the toffee from setting, dip the apples into the toffee, remove and twirl for a few seconds to allow excess toffee to drip off. Set on a sheet lined with baking paper to cool and harden.

Bring and share – two salads for summer

July 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Help! Three words that bring on a panic attack. You know the kind of thing I mean – a communal summer event, maybe a club or choir social evening, a music teacher’s summer pupils’ concert, perhaps even a street party. Some people you’ll know well, others less so, and everyone is asked to bring a dish to create an inpromptu meal.

What to bring? It’s got to be transportable; capable of sitting around on a warm buffet table without melting/disintegrating/giving everyone food poisoning; taste good; look a teeny bit impressive but not as if you’v tried too hard, and finally not something that’s going to take all day to prepare.

My suggestion is to avoid little canapé nibble type things at all costs as these take forever to put together and to go for a generous bowl of colourful salad instead. I have two reliable standby recipes, the first an old favourite and the second a recent discovery.

My first recipe is for tabbouleh, the much-loved middle-Eastern parsley and mint salad mixed with chewy grains of burghul.

I learned how to make this from one of my all time favourite cookery books, Claudia Roden’s “A New Book of Middle Eastern Food”. My cookery book collection has grown over the years and has had to have a whole bookcase of its own set aside for it in our study. Neverthless, a selection of just ten books has crept back downstairs into the kitchen because I refer to them so often. ” A New Book of Middle Eastern Food” is one of those ten. It’s a book with no glossy photos (aside from the weird close-up of spring onions and vine leaves on the cover) yet manages to conjure up all sorts of evocative images of the Middle East in its imaginative and well-informed writing. A sort of Arabian Nights of the kitchen. And this small battered paperback is full of meticulously researched, concisely written recipes that actually work.

Tabbouleh, as Ms Roden explains, is essentially a herb salad, a mass of dense green freshness speckled with the pale grains of burghul. Quite often you’ll see something described as tabbouleh which is this idea reversed – lots of pale grains flecked with specks of grain. Salads like this may be good, but to me now they’re just not tabbouleh.

I grew up reading 1970s recipe books where herbs were mostly dried and strictly rationed – a teaspoon of chopped parsley in a white sauce to accompany boiled ham perhaps. I think that’s why I love the hugely generous quantities of fresh herbs you need for this recipe – think handfuls rather than teaspoons. Even with 2 big bunches of parsley, you need still more…

All the salad ingredients can be prepped beforehand which makes it very convenient to put together for a party. I’ve included some walnuts in this version:

You can very the garnishes according to your mood, what you have in the cupboard or fridge and what’s in season. I decorated this version with a few snipped chives and tasty chive flowers from the garden:

Is there any downside to this salad? Well, being honest, it will almost certainly leave green herby flecks on you and your guests’ teeth.

If having to check yourself in the mirror doesn’t appeal, then my second suggestion is a salad of blanched mangetout and French beans livened up with orange zest, toasted hazelnuts and freshly snipped chives. It comes from “Ottolenghi – The Cookbook”, one of those books where I turn the pages and want to eat everything in there.

This isn’t a salad you can throw together in a couple of minutes – each element has to be prepared quite carefully, be it the accurate and separate blanching and refreshing of the vegetables;

the roasting of the hazelnuts to just the right degree of toastiness without burning them;

or the careful preparation of the orange zest to give visually appealing long, thin strips without any pith.

Your efforts spent on preparation will be rewarded in a crunchy salad with a harmonious mix of intriguing flavours – the orange, hazelnut and mild onion flavour of the chives work really well together without overpowering the beans and sugar snaps.

Recipe for tabbouleh

Adapted from Claudia Roden’s “A New Book of Middle Eastern Food”. Serves 10 or more as part of a selection of dishes.

Ingredients

250g bunched flat leaf parsley – approx. 3 supermarket LARGE bunches
100g bunched mint
100g burghul
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Juice of 2 lemons
80 ml extra virgin olive oil
200g spring onions

Garnish – standard
2 little gem letttuces
3 medium tomatoes or 8 cherry tomatoes
2 inches cucumber

Garnish – optional additions
Handful of roughly chopped walnuts
Chive flowers, wild garlic flowers
Handful of pomegranate seeds

Wash the mint and parsley and dry carefully using a salad spinner. Pull out the thickest of the parsley stems and any discoloured leaves. The thinner parsley stalks can stay in as they are fine to eat once chopped. Remove the mint leaves from their coarse stems as these are generally too fibrous to make pleasant eating.

Chop the herbs either in a food processor or by hand as you prefer. I tend to use a food processor, pulsing carefully to chop the herbs to a medium degree without turning them into too fine a mix or worse of all, a mush. Set the chopped herbs aside in a tightly sealed plastic box and place in the fridge. If you’re preparing this dish ahead of time, the herbs will keep quite well in the fridge for 24 hours, even longer. Given that freshness is the essence of this salad, I don’t like to leave the herbs in the fridge too long though.

Finely slice the spring onions and set these aside in the fridge.

Meanwhile, prepare the burghul. Covering with cold water and leave to soak for half an hour or so. Tip into a sieve and leave to drain for 10 minutes or so, pressing out any excess water. Put in a mixing bowl and add half the lemon juice and olive oil and a little salt and pepper. Let it absorb the dressing for a further 30 minutes or so.

While the burghul is soaking, prepare your chosen garnishes. Carefully remove perfect whole leaves from the little gem lettuces and wash and dry them thoroughly. Dice the tomato and cucumber. If using, roughly chop the walnuts and/or remove seeds from a pomegranate.

Now assemble the salad. It’s best to assemble it no more than 30 minutes before you plan to serve it as otherwise the lemon juice in the dressing begins to blacken the mint leaves. Add the chopped herbs and spring onions to the dressed burghul in the mixing bowl. Add the remaining lemon juice and olive oil and more salt an pepper. Taste and check flavours. You need plenty of lemon juice and salt to make the salad really sing. Once you’re happy with the balance of flavours, line your chosen serving bowl with the prepared lettuce leaves, pile in the tabbouleh and scatter your garnish of tomato and cucumber, plus any optional additions, over the top.

Recipe for French bean and mangetout salad with orange and toasted hazelnuts

Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s “The Ottolenghi Cookbook”. Serves 8 or more as part of a selection of salads and other dishes.

Ingredients

400g French beans (trimmed weight)
400g Mangetout peas (trimmed weight)
60-80g skinned hazelnuts (use the higher quantity if you like hazelnuts)
1 unwaxed orange
1 clove garlic, crushed
5 tablespoons hazelnut oil
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
10-20g chives, snipped into small pieces with a pair of scissors (plenty of chives perk up the flavour of this salad – use fewer if you prefer)
squeeze of lemon juice

Begin by blanching the vegetables. Bring a large pot of water to a fast rolling boil and add a little salt. Throw in the French beans and, using an accurate timer, cook them for 4 minutes, until just cooked. Using a slotted spoon, remove all the beans and throw them into a big bowl of iced water to refresh. Take the bowl to the sink and allow the cold tap to run over the beans until they are completely cold. Drain in a colander and tackle the mangetout in a similar fashion but the mangetout require just 60 seconds blanching time.

Pat the vegetables dry with kitchen paper and store in a sealed container in the fridge until needed. You can do this up to 24 hours ahead of time.

Scatter the hazelnuts on a shallow baking tray (I use a battered old Swiss roll tin) and bake in an oven preheated to 180 degrees C for 10 minutes until toasted to an even golden brown. Watch the nuts carefully as they bake and check them before 10 minutes is up to make sure they don’t burn. Chop roughly and set aside to cool.

Now prepare the dressing. I use a lidded jam jar to do this. Add to the jar the nut oil, the crushed clove of garlic and the zest of he orange. To prepare the orange zest, you need either to peel off a thin layer of orange skin without any pith using a swivel peeler. Having done this, using a sharp knife, cut the peel into long thin shreds. Much easier is to buy a special little zesting tool which you scrape over the surface of the orange which produces the desirable orange shreds in an instant. Add the juice of just half of the orange to the jar together with salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice to taste. Don’t add the chives at this stage as the fruit juices will make them go soggy and dark coloured.

When you’re ready to serve, tip the beans and peas and snipped chives into a handsome serving dish. Pour over the dressing and toss lightly. Scatter over the toasted hazelnuts and serve.

Parisian dark (chocolate) secrets

May 22, 2011 § 1 Comment

Daybreak in Paris last Sunday. The public shame. The disgrace. The furtive attempts to conceal the evidence. The seedy story of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s New York exploits hits the newsstands perhaps?

No, this was me, rising at dawn to try and dispose of 1kg best quality Tanzanian 75% cocoa solids chocolate, a further kg of unsalted alpine butter, lashings of organic double cream and a generous slug of cognac, the whole lot coalesced into a greasy solidified mass of split ganache which should have graced a celebratory chocolate cake, the centrepiece of my cousin Pierre’s birthday party the night before. I finally found an empty public bin by a bus stop, deposited my sorry double-bagged chocolate mess and jogged away, lightened in load and spirit.

So what was the occasion?

A Saturday Night Fever birthday party to celebrate a Significant Birthday. The cake to match was a scaled down (2 layers rather than 3) version of spectacular chocolate-raspberry wedding cake selected from my new favourite baking book “Sky High: Irresistible Triple Layer Cakes” by Alisa Huntsman and Peter Wynne.

The book is American through and through and completely over the top in terms of the sheer number of generously proportioned and imaginatively filled and frosted celebratory cakes it describes. Other bloggers have raved about it so I just had to get hold of a copy. Apart from the Bittersweet Brandied Ganache débacle, it hasn’t disappointed.

The book’s strengths are the seductiveness of its drop-dead gorgeous full page glossy colour photos, its generosity of spirit and the imagination of its flavour combinations. Where it falls short is perhaps in a lack of precision – for that you have to go to Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Cake Bible, another American classic on my bookshelf.

It all started so well. The choice of a classic American chocolate cake, seemed perfect for a party for a chocoholic into American disco nostalgia. The edible elements needed for the cake were 6 layers of Chocolate Butter Cake, generous quantities of seedless raspberry jam to sandwich the layers together, an unspeakably large quantity of Bittersweet Brandied Ganache to frost and a punnet of ripe raspberries scattered over the top to finish.

I have neither the time nor the space to give the complete recipe here – you’ll have to buy the book for that – the instructions for the full 3 tier wedding cake go on for 6 pages. However I do give the recipe for the Lenôtre chocolate ganache which eventually saved the day I’ve tried it 3 times now (albeit using European ingredients) and it’s been spot-on every time. A ganache to lean on, so to speak.

Here is the end result, finished just minutes before the first guests arrived at 7.30 pm. Not bad given the stresses of the afternoon of which more later…

The baking of the cake itself was fine. I followed the recipe to the letter, eschewing my favourite Green & Black’s cocoa powder in favour of Hershey’s obtained here in the UK via Amazon Marketplace.

This wasn’t just for reasons of American authenticity. The recipe specifies a non-Dutch Process cocoa powder in order to ensure the right chemical reaction with the recipe’s raising agent, bicarbonate of soda, to make the cake rise properly. Reading the Green & Black’s small print, you’ll see that this cocoa powder has been through the so-called Dutch process whereby the beans are treated with an alkaline agent to produce a milder flavour and, counter-intuitively, a darker colour. The Hershey’s stuff is paler but in theory contains more “roasty, caramel-like molecules…and…astringent, bitter, phenolics” (quoting from Harold McGee’s indispensable kitchen reference work On Food and Cooking).

The recipe is not a chocolate sponge made by the familiar creaming method but requires softened butter and buttermilk to be beaten into the sifted dry ingredients before the eggs and more liquid in the form of strong coffee are incorporated into the mixture. I would not attempt this recipe without the help of a Kenwood or Kitchenaid-type mixer as it requires a lot of heavy-duty beating.

After the addition of butter and buttermilk the mixture looks like a moist and friable garden loam:

Once the eggs and coffee were incorporated, it became soft, thick and lusciously silky, like a chocolate version of mayonnaise:

Baked, the cake rose well but not too aggressively. Don’t worry, the dome that forms in the oven settles down once the cake is cooled leaving a firm, glossy and flat cake which holds its shape well, eminently well-suited to the architectural task ahead.

The finished cake was firm, rich, dense and crumbly. It had an intense chocolate flavour pointed up by the addition of cinnamon and coffee in the recipe though neither flavour is perceptible. This is a cake designed for filling and frosting as eaten on its own it would be a tad dry.

The cakes were mixed and baked first thing Friday morning. Once cooled and carefully wrapped and packed, the cake’s 6 layers travelled as hand luggage, sitting obediently beside me on the short Flybe flight to Paris. Cake assembly began in situ at the party venue at about 2.00pm on Saturday afternoon. First the layers were spread with seedless raspberry jam (Tiptree brand), then sandwiched together with each triple layer cake having a slim silver cardboard base:

If I were to make this cake again, I would be more generous with the raspberry jam and I would leave the cake to mature overnight as the recipe instructs. The quantity of jam shown in the picture may look generous but is far less than the recipe suggests and when the cake was cut into later that evening, it had practically disappeared. More jam would have made for a moister cake I think as, being self-critical, it was just a little on the dry side (easily remedied on the night by serving it with extra fresh raspberries and a dollop of crème fraîche).

The next potentially tricky step was the positioning of the 4 transparent plastic dowels which supported the top layer. I measured, cut to size and positioned the dowels. This bit of the assembly worked like a dream – a relief as I’d never worked with dowels before. I know you shouldn’t experiment when baking for a special occasion, especially someone else’s special occasion, but I just couldn’t help myself:

Now for the ganache. How hard could it be to whip up a batch of ganache and slather it on all over the cake? I’d preweighed all the ingredients so it was quick work to set the vast quantities of best quality dark chocolate and unsalted butter (a kilogramme of each no less) to melt over a pan of barely simmering water.

I was patient and careful, never letting the mixture become too warm, not letting a drop of water near it lest it seize up and going easy on the stirring. On the home strait now. All I had to do was whisk in the warmed cream, then the brandy, just like the recipe said and I was home and dry. Blithely, I tipped them in and whisked away. That’s when disaster struck as the previously smooth glossy mix began to separate out into particulates and oil before my very eyes. 30 minutes and frantic whisking and cooling later, I pronounced the mixture officially beyond redemption, tipped it into a big plastic box for subsequent disposal and confessed my error to my slightly alarmed host and his family. The public shame and humiliation!

Having checked Harold McGee subsequently, I think that where I went wrong was in using chocolate with too high a cocoa content – 75% in my case. When liquid is added, the cocoa solids absorb the water releasing the fats out of emulsion and hey presto the mixture splits. His advice is to follow a recipe which sets out precisely the fat contents of the various ingredients and to follow it to the letter. The Sky High recipe was a bit on the sketchy side – ie just bittersweet chocolate, heavy cream and American ingredients are not quite the same as those we can buy in Europe which can make for misunderstandings.

Back to the party. Remembering Corporal Jones’ advice from Dad’s Army (Don’t Panic), using my host’s computer, I quickly retrieved the tried, tested and reassuringly precise ganache recipe I’d learned at the Lenôtre cookery school in Paris over Easter. Next, an emergency dash to the local supermarket for yet more cream and chocolate (just 600g of chocolate this time as 1kg was way too much, even for the most enthusiastic chocoholic) and I was back in business:

I followed the Lenôtre recipe as accurately as I could, though without scales or thermometer to hand I had rely on educated guesswork and prayer. To my immense relief, the ganache behaved itself perfectly and after 20 minutes’ or so cooling, it had reached the perfect consistency for spreading. The first house guests were just arriving at this point so I smiled and pretended to be part of the evening’s entertainment, a sort of cake artist installation.

The final step was piping a bold decorative border of what I can best describe as chocolate blobs to hide the joins between cake and board. Very effective though I say so myself. By the time the cake was served, the blobs had firmed up to become in effect mini chocolate truffles which could be detached and discreetly popped into the mouth while the cake was being sliced and served. Cook’s prerogative!

Cake complete, it was time to enjoy the party with the host rather than the cake the centre of attention – just as it should be. Great party Peter!

Recipe for foolproof chocolate ganache

With thanks to Philippe from the Lenôtre cookery school in Paris. I scaled this up by a factor of three to use to coat the birthday cake which comprised a 7 inch square stacked onto a 9 inch square.

Ingredients

200g cream 32% fat (equates to UK whipping cream – this is liquid cream not thick crème fraîche)
250g dark chocolate 50% cocoa solids (buttons are ideal for quick melting but bar broken into square is OK too)
50g unsalted butter

Heat the cream to 85 degrees C. Break up the chocolate and place into a large heatproof bowl. Pour over the hot cream and leave to stand for 10 minutes. Once the chocolate has melted, stir with a rubber spatula to incorporate the cream into the chocolate. Keep a ball of molten chocolate in the centre whilst incorporating the cream at the edges of the chocolate. Reduce the temperature to 30 degrees C then beat in the butter previously softened and tempered at 22 degrees C.

Cover with cling film and reduce the temperature to 17 degrees C when it will be the right consistency to use.

A birthday Zuger Kirschtorte for Vivienne

January 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

After a teeny bit of excess over Christmas, it seems it’s the time for reinvention and self improvement which in food terms seems to mean restraint and raw vegetables. Well I’m going to buck the trend and write about a cake I made in December for a friend’s special birthday. This was a Zuger Kirschtorte, a traditional almond and cherry liqueur flavoured cake from the canton of Zug in central Switzerland.

Click here to view a short movie featuring the whole process. The kitchen scenes were shot by my son George who provides that authentic edgy camera wobble.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n0wxHIfKYcs&feature=mfu_in_order&list=UL

The cake idea came from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s amazing book “The Cake Bible” and she calls it “A Taste of Heaven”, a light as air heart-shaped confection of crisp almond meringue discs sandwiching a cherry liqueur-sprinkled sponge, frosted with cherry-flavoured buttercream and finished with toasted almonds.

I discovered The Cake Bible a decade or so ago on the shelves of the Mayfair library on South Audley Street in London round the corner from where I worked at GEC’s head office on Stanhope Gate. When work pressures became too much I would occasionally seek sanctuary here at lunchtimes, leafing through the pages of Rose Levy Beranbaum’s book and marvelling at her descriptions of pistachio marzipan, white spice pound cake, orange fruit mousseline and the like.

It turns out that “A Taste of Heaven” is Ms Beranbaum’s version of the classic Swiss cake, a Zuger Kirschtorte. I find myself drawn to all things Swiss so it was funny I’d picked this cake not knowing its Swiss origins at the time.

The different components of the cake are two heart-shaped Dacquoise (nut meringue) discs; 1 Génoise Classique (whisked sponge) heart-shaped cake; syrup flavoured with kirsch for moistening the Génoise; kirsch flavoured buttercream; and finally a handful or so of toasted flaked almonds.

The crisp Dacquoise discs were spread with a thin layer of buttercream and used to sandwich the kirsch-syrup moistened Génoise. The top and sides of the cake were frosted with the remaining buttercream and the flaked toasted almonds were gently pressed around the sides of the cake.

I suggest just two changes to Ms Beranbaum’s recipe:

1) To halve the quantity of buttercream from the full heart attack-inducing 1 pound 9.25 ounces to a more modest 12.5 ounces.

2) If, like me, you like to avoid artificial food colouring, you can achieve a pink buttercream by beating into the mix 4-6 tablespoons of puréed cherry compôte instead of a few drops of red food colouring. This gives a gorgeous ever so slightly sour true cherry flavour to the buttercream.

I went ever so slightly over the top when I added the cherry purée to my buttercream and ended up with an in-your-face pink frosting which, I assure you, despite its garish looks, is 100% natural.

I give the recipe for the Génoise Classique below as this is arguably the most useful and versatile component of the cake. Ms Beranbaum’s special twists to the classic French recipe are to substitute browned butter (beurre noisette) for the usual plain melted butter and to use half cornflour half cake flour rather than just cake flour. If I were to attempt to reproduce here the recipes for all the cake components, plus all the advice and troubleshooting tips in the Cake Bible I’d be writing this post for days. If you are at all serious about baking I’d urge you to buy or borrow a copy.

I started by making the Dacquoise (nut meringue) discs. There was nowhere near enough mixture to pipe the heart shaped discs so instead I piped a border a few millimetres inside the template I’d drawn (to allow for a slight spreading of the mixture as it bakes) and spooned the meringue mixture into the centre and gently spread it to fill the outline using a small crank-handled palette knife.

This is how the cooked Dacquoise disc looked:

The next step was to make the Génoise Classique whisked egg sponge. Ms Beranbaum’s special twist is to fold in not ordinary melted butter but browned clarified butter. This imparts a subtle nutty depth of flavour to the finished cake. Here’s my browned butter and the dregs left behind to show the depth of toasting achieved without going so far as to burn the butter:

Ms Beranbaum’s other handy tips when making Génoise are to use a mixture of cornflour and cake flour and is to whisk a spoonful or so of the beaten egg mix into the melted butter before adding the butter to the main bowl. This certainly helps incorporation of the butter. Whenever I’ve made Génoise before I’ve always encountered the problem of the melted butter sinking to the bottom of the bowl which didn’t happen this time.

Here’s the bowl of butter and egg mix ready for incorporation, along with the flours, into the big bowl of super-foamy whisked egg:

The cake batter was carefully spooned into the prepared heart-shaped cake tin, base lined with a double thickness of baking paper. This is how the finished cake looked:

It wasn’t quite as deep as I was expecting so I decided not to attempt trimming it before drizzling with the kirsch-flavoured syrup.

The next major cake component was the cherry buttercream. Here are some of the raw ingredients – note the authentic Alpine butter for this Alpine cake (though my butter was in fact German rather than Swiss).

The Bonne Maman cherry compôte was a real find – intense sour cherry flavour, gorgeous colour and not too sweet. Definitely a new store-cupboard standby for whipping up a sauce for duck or adding to a pudding.

The buttercream is no mere amalgamation of icing sugar and butter. Looking at the recipe it’s immediately apparent that there is quite a low ratio of sugar to butter which means that the end result is silkily textured yet not too sweet. I began by beating a hot sugar syrup into my egg yolks, a slightly tense step without a sugar thermometer relying on the cold water test, speed and a bit of luck. The resulting mix if it all turns out right is a pale, foamy mass. The picture shows a 6 egg yolk quantity which turned out to be way too much for one cake.

The next step involves combining the egg yolk foam with the softened butter:

And the final step was to beat in the kirsch and sieved cherry compôte to flavour the buttercream and tint it a 100% natural totally girly pink:

A word of warning – do stick to Ms Beranbaum’s guidelines when it comes to beating in extras to buttercream: I went above her recommended ratios when beating in the water-based cherry compôte to the fat-based buttercream. Although it was fine at first, I set the bowl aside in a cool room to use later and, horror of horrors, when I attempted to beat the mixture to soften it it split! I managed to re-emulsify it by warming the bowl very gently, adding a little more sifted icing sugar and beating like crazy.

The end result was a beautifully flavoured, unusual cake, a welcome change from the current surfeit of chocolate (and would be a great choice for a Valentine’s Day treat too).

Recipe for Génoise Classique

From Rose Levy Beranbaum’s “The Cake Bible”. She says “Since this recipe first appeared in print in 1981, I have received more calls about it from readers than for any other recipe. Many say that for the first time in their lives they have succeeded in making the perfect génoise”. Praise indeed.

For a 9 inch by 2 inch round or heart shaped cake tin or 8 inch by 2 inch square cake tin, greased, bottom lined with parchment, and then greased again and floured.

Ingredients

37g clarified beurre noisette*
4 g vanilla extract
4 whole large eggs, 200g weighed without shells
100g sugar
50g sifted cake flour (not self raising)
50g cornflour

*In a heavy saucepan melt 4 tablespoons butter over medium heat, partially covered to prevent splattering. When the butter looks clear, cook uncovered, watching carefully until the solids drop and begin to brown. Pour immediately through a fine strainer or a strainer lined with cheesecloth.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Warm the beurre noisette until almost hot. Add the vanilla and keep warm.

In a large mixing bowl set over a pan of simmering water heat the eggs and sugar until just lukewarm, stirring constantly to prevent curdling.

Using the whisk beater, beat the mixture on high speed for 5 minutes or until triple in volume.

While the eggs are beating, sift together the flour and cornflour.

Remove 1 scant cup of the egg mixture and thoroughly whisk it into the beurre noisette.

Sift half the flour mixture over the remaining egg mixture and fold it in gently but rapidly with a large balloon whisk, slotted skimmer, or rubber spatula until almost all the flour has disappeared. Repeat with the remaining flour mixture until the flour has disappeared completely. Fold in the butter mixture until just incorporated.

Pour immediately into the prepared tin (it will be about 2/3 full) and bake 25-35 minutes, or until the cake is golden brown and starts to shrink slightly from the sides of the pan. (No need for a cake tester. Once the sides shrink the cake is done.) Avoid opening the oven door before the minimum time or the cake could fall. Test toward the end of baking by opening the door slightly and, if at a quick glance it does not appear done, close door back at once and check again in 5 minutes.

Loosen the sides of the cake with a small metal spatula and turn out at once onto a lightly greased rack.

Many Happy Returns Vivienne and here’s to the next decade!

Tour de France around the North Circular

January 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

We’ve been celebrating New Year’s Eve with two other families for a number of years now – in fact over a pre-dinner glass of champagne we worked out that 2010/2011 would be unbelievably our twelfth such celebration.

This year it fell to Shelley and Neal to host the event at their home in North London and the chosen theme was “Tour de France”. This left the dress code wide open and host Neal led the way by sporting slinky black and white lycra…

Fortunately Shelley had decided not to continue in this vein by serving up carbohydrate gels, bananas and a cocktail of hard drugs. We began in a very civilised manner with the silkiest Côte Atlantique smoked salmon mousse canapés to accompany our Laurent Perrier champagne:

Our first course looked to the mountains for inspiration – charcuterie from the Alps accompanied by rustic pain de campagne. The delicious ham was snaffled up too quickly for me to take a photo but here’s the batch of pain de campagne I made earlier – using the pain au levain recipe learned on my School of Artisan food baking course in October 2010.

The race now headed south with bouillabaisse à la marseillaise served en verrine. This was the course Shelley had tasked me with preparing so I’m able to give the recipe below. Verrines (small glass containers for serving food) are all the rage in France so we just had to give them a try.

We continued our tour clockwise with the next stage ending in the Aveyron département of Southern France, home to the limestone caves where Roquefort cheese is matured. Our next course was a crunchy salade d’endive, noix et roquefort prepared by Shelley using a Raymond Blanc recipe:

It was then onwards and upwards to red wine country with Shelley’s deeply savoury Coq au vin, again using a Raymond Blanc recipe:

Next up was France’s favourite English cheese, le stilton – yes I know we departed from our theme somewhat but stilton this good (Colston Bassett from Neal’s Yard (no relation) Dairy) is too good not to serve at a special dinner. And of course the 2007 prologue was in London wasn’t it?

Next we recalled France’s Atlantic coast islands (Belle Île, the Archipel des Glénans and the like) with Îles flottantes, façon Maman Blanc – yes you guessed it, a Raymond Blanc favourite. Janet prepared this technically demanding course involving poached meringue and egg custard thickened without the aid of stabilising cornflour. She also had to handle deftly the caramelised sugar final decoration at close to midnight:

The final stage is always in Paris around the Arc de Triomphe which we recalled in culinary fashion with a dainty plateful of pistachio flavoured macarons parisiens :

As we nibbled on a macaroon at midnight we heard he patter of not-so-tiny feet as 8 children celebrated a real midnight feast – a landmark occasion as they’ve been fast asleep by midnight in previous years.

Happy new year to all and huge thanks to our generous hosts Neal and Shelley once again for a magnificent meal. Now we’re off the tour it’s on to the wagon for my annual no alcohol January semi-detox. Fantasising already about what my first glass of wine will be in February…

To conclude here’s the recipe for bouillabaisse – I know it’s lengthy but it’s really not as complex as it looks.

Recipe for bouillabaisse cooked and served en verrine

I used as my starting point the fish soup and rouille recipes from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Child, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle and tweaked them to turn them into a refined version of bouillabaisse suitable for serving as part of a multi-course dinner.

Using the kilner jars is not merely a modish presentation but is an easy and stress-free way of gently cooking the pieces of fish in the broth, sealing in all the flavours and ensuring that the delicate fish like bass does not break up when cooked and served.

These ingredients will fill 8 small (12 oz) kilner jars and leave you with plenty of fish soup left over which sets to a gelatinous firmness and freezes well.

Ingredients for the fish soup base

4 oz chopped onions
3 oz chopped leek
2 oz chopped celery (my addition, no celery in Julia Child recipe)
1/4 pint olive oil
4 cloves mashed garlic
1 lb ripe tomatoes roughly chopped or 1 tin tomatoes roughly chopped (I used a standard tin of tomatoes – 14 oz/400g including all the juice whereas Julia Child recipe suggests draining the tomatoes)
3 and 1/2 pints water
6 parsley sprigs
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon thyme or basil (I used fresh thyme leaves stripped from the stalk)
1/8 teaspoon fennel (not sure whether original recipe wants dried fennel, fennel seeds – I used a few leaves of fresh tarragon for a similar aniseedy hit)
A 2 inch piece of orange peel (I used a vegetable peeler to remove this)
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon salt (I added this gradually to taste rather than all at once as salt is a personal thing)
3 to 4 lb lean fish heads, bones and trimmings, raw shellfish remains, lean fish or frozen raw fish.

Note on fish choice

Julia Child, catering for her US and Northern European readership suggests choosing fish from the following list: cod, conger or sea eel, gurnard, haddock, hake or whiting, halibut, John Dory, lemon sole, perch, plaice, pollack, coalfish or saithe, red or grey mullet, rock or sea bass, sea bream, sea devil, frogfish or angler, freshwater trout, sea trout, turbot, weever, wrasse, shellfish – scallops, mussels, crab, lobster. Many will tell you that an authentic bouillabaisse can’t be made without rascasse – by all means add this to the list if you can get hold of it but providing you include plenty of lean bony fish in the soup it will turn out just fine.

Making this recipe in the dark period (in food distribution terms) between Christmas and New Year all that was available at my local fishmonger was sea bass and sea bream bones heads and trimmings. Despite the lack of variety of fish, the soup was nevertheless suitably flavoursome – it need not be an enormous production and can be varied according to what you have. It’s probably best to avoid oily fish such as salmon and mackerel though as these won’t give the right flavour to the soup.

In a large saucepan, cook the onions, leeks and celery slowly in the olive oil for 5 minutes or untll almost tender but not browned. Stir in the garlic and tomatoes. Raise heat to moderate and cook 5 minutes more. Add the water, herbs, seasonings and fish to the pan and cook uncovered at a moderate boil for 30 to 40 minutes.

The Julia Child recipe specifies straining the soup at this point, pressing the juice out of the ingredients. I wanted a slightly thickened soup but without resorting to flour so I lifted out the fish bones and heads with a slotted spoon and gave the soup a blast with a stick blender to liquidise partially the soup vegetables. I then strained the resulting soup through a coarse sieve, pressing it through as per the original recipe.

Correct seasoning adding a bit more saffron if you feel it necessary.

Soup can be cooled at this stage until you are ready to complete the bouillabaisse. I froze my soup and took it down to London with me and defrosted it a couple of days later to turn it into my finished dish.

Additional ingredients to turn the soup into bouillabaisse

Purchased from the redoubtable Walter Purkis & Sons fishmongers in Crouch End

6 fish fillets (I used 2 sea bass and 1 sea bream – again all that was available in the intra Christmas and New Year dark period) cut on the diagonal into generous bite-sized pieces
8 giant raw prawns, peeled except for tail and deveined
Sufficient mussels to allow 3 per serving once any duds discarded – scrubbed and debearded
a tablespoon each of chopped onion and celery plus generous glass of white wine for steaming the mussels
generous pinch saffron strands
zest of 1 orange
tablespoon shredded basil
tablespoon pernod

small slices of pain de campagne drizzled lightly with olive oil and baked until crisp plus a bowl of rouille to serve (recipe below)

Set the kilner jars into a deep roasting tin. Divide the fish fillet pieces evenly between the jars and drop in 1 giant prawn per jar, tail pointing upwards for easy removal. Ladle in reheated fish stock to cover. Season each jar with a few saffron strands, a couple of drops of pernod and a couple of shreds of orange zest and seal the kilner jars. Pour boiling water from the kettle into the roasting tin. The jars should be at least half covered. Put the roasting tin into an oven preheated to 125 degrees C and bake for 15-20 minutes.

Meanwhile, steam the mussels for a few minutes in a lidded sauté pan or large saucepan with the chopped onion and celery and glass of white wine until they open. Discard any that do not open. Set aside until you are ready to serve.

Remove the kilner jars from the oven. Using rubber gloves or similar to protect your hands from the heat remove each jar from the water bath roasting tin, flip open the lid and drop in 3 cooked mussels in their shell. Half close lid but do not reseal and place the hot jar on an individual serving plate. Place 2 baked bread croutons onto each plate and serve.

Pass the bowl of rouille separately. Diners can spread the rouille on the croutons and dip into the soup and/or drop a spoonful of rouille directly into their soup once it’s half eaten to enrich the remaining broth.

As this was a party, I decorated my plates with seashells and a few fronds of fennel arranged artfully to look like strands of seaweed on the shore…

Ingredients for the red pepper and garlic sauce – rouille

For about 1/2 pint sauce

1 oz chopped red pepper simmered for several minutes in salted water and drained or tinned pimento
(these days one might bake a red pepper until charred and remove the skin – I cheated as time was short on New Year’s Eve and used a couple of pieces of chargrilled red pepper preserved in oil from a jar)
A small chilli pepper boiled until tender, or drops of Tabasco sauce
1 peeled medium potato cooked in the soup
4 cloves mashed garlic
1 teaspoon chopped basil, thyme or savory
4-6 tablespoons fruity olive oil
Salt and pepper

Pound all the ingredients in a large pestle and mortar for several minutes to form a very smooth, sticky paste. I found it difficult to achieve a smooth paste so went with a slightly rough, rustic paste which was fine. I avoided using a food processor as this would turn the potato into a gloopy paste.

Drop by drop, pound or beat in the olive oil as for making a mayonnaise. Season to taste.

If liked, just before serving, beat in drop by drop 2-3 tablespoons hot fish soup before decanting sauce into serving bowl or sauceboat.

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