Shortbread

September 10, 2016 § Leave a comment

Shortbread is the classic British, or more properly Scottish, biscuit. With just three ingredients, flour, butter and sugar balanced in the baker’s golden ratio of 3:2:1 it’s sublime in its simplicity, the perfect riposte to an oversized cookie or indeed the overworked esoterically flavoured creations on offer on our TV screens at the moment courtesy of the Great British Bake Off.

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Shortbread is relatively straightforward to make at home (though as I have discovered there are several ways to go wrong) but you can buy great shortbread too. One of my favourite commercially produced shortbreads is that made by Dean’s of Huntly. On a visit to Aberdeenshire not so long ago (mainly focused on sampling Speyside whiskies) we found ourselves in the small town of Huntly and took the opportunity to visit the factory showroom and café, learning the story of how Helen Dean started baking and selling shortbread from her family kitchen in the early 1970s. Dean’s shortbread truly is melt-in-the mouth and the list of ingredients for the premium all-butter shortbread is admirably simple.

So if Dean’s sets the benchmark, where does my own shortbread recipe come from?

It’s a combination of various different recipes plus a little trial and error.

In contrast to the brevity of the ingredients list, there are a number of aspects to the method for making and baking of shortbread that warrant a little further discussion or explanation.

1) Ratios

I referred above to the baker’s golden ratio of 3:2:1. Where does this come from you may be wondering?

I have 3 unimpeachable sources. The first is my mother-in-law’s handwritten recipe which calls for 6oz flour, 4 oz butter and 2 oz sugar (incidentally this is also what she does to make the best crumble topping); the second is Jane Grigson’s shortbread instructions from her book “English Food” (sorry Scotland!); the third is a classic shortbread recipe attributed to Katharine Robertson from the book “Seasonal Cooking” by Claire MacDonald of MacDonald who runs a famous hotel, Kinloch Lodge on the Isle of Skye.

2) Substituting some of the flour for cornflour, semolina or ground rice

The received wisdom seems to be that you can substitute up to one third of the plain flour with one of the above alternative starches. I have found that shortbread made with just plain flour has an amply crumbly and melt-in-the mouth texture if properly baked so why make things more complicated than they need to be?

3) What sort of butter is best?

I like to use a salted British butter, ideally a farmhouse one as this gives the best flavour to the finished biscuit. I think a little salt in the recipe lifts the flavour and if this is added by way of salted butter there is no danger of over-salting the dough. British butter is generally made from straightforward pasteurised cream and is known as “sweet cream” butter. Butter from the continental mainland e.g. Lurpak or the many French butters available are generally made from cream that has undergone lactic fermentation. This gives butter with a fresh, clean flavour but for shortbread making I prefer the richer taste of a sweet cream butter.

4) What sort of sugar is best?

Some recipes call for icing sugar but as far as I’m concerned, caster sugar is the way to go helping to achieve the desired crumbly texture. I also think that golden caster sugar gives an extra depth of flavour to the finished biscuit.

5) How should the ingredients be combined?

Some recipes suggest rubbing in the butter, flour and sugar whereas others suggest creaming together the butter and sugar and then working in the flour. I’ve tried both methods and find that it makes no difference. I find it easiest to start by creaming the butter and sugar in my Kenwood mixer and I was pleased to see that the legendary Helen Dean started off her family shortbread-making business using a trusty Kenwood mixer (proudly on display at the company’s HQ in Huntly – see photo above) so I feel I’m on solid ground here.

6) To roll or not to roll?

Several recipes suggest rolling out and cutting shortbread dough into shapes. Good luck to you if you can manage it! There is no way I’d attempt to roll out this type of dough as I find it just to hard to work with which is why I press my dough into a tin and cut it into fingers when baked. There are other recipes available for crisp little sablé-type biscuits that contain either egg yolks or whole eggs which are more suitable for rolling-out and cutting into shapes if that’s what you’re looking to make.

7) How long to bake and at what temperature?

Different recipes contain vastly different instructions on this aspect. As far as I’m concerned, relatively low and slow is the way to go which is why I suggest a baking temperature of 150 degrees C fan and 45 minutes’ cooking time. If you like a paler shortbread you might consider dropping the oven temperature by a further 10 degrees – Claire MacDonald’s recipe referred to above calls for a conventional oven temperature of 150 degrees C and a baking time of 1 hour.

Traditional shortbread

Makes enough to fill a standard rectangular Swiss roll tin (mine is 33cm by 23cm by 2cm) which when cut into fingers yields 36 individual biscuits. The ratio of flour to butter to sugar is the simple to remember 3:2:1 so you can readily alter the quantities to suit whatever tin size you have.

Ingredients

250g salted British butter
125g golden caster sugar (plus a little more for sprinkling afterwards)
375g plain white flour

Line the tin using a sheet of baking parchment carefully trimmed to fit. I do this by cutting a sheet of parchment slightly larger than my tin, pressing it into the tin to mark the division between base and sides then carefully snipping the paper at each corner at right angles then folding in the sides origami-style to create a 3D lining. If this sounds too complicated then just line the base of the tin.

Making the shortbread dough is easily done in a stand mixer but works well using a large bowl, wooden spoon and some elbow-grease too.
Cream together the butter and caster sugar thoroughly until the mixture is a little lighter in colour. Add the flour in 3 or 4 stages, mixing until well incorporated. The end result should be a crumbly dough that barely holds together and looks like badly made shortcrust pastry.

Tip the dough into the lined tin and spend a few minutes carefully pressing and distributing the dough evenly in the tin. You can do this using any combination of your knuckles and fingertips, a metal spoon or a small crank-handled palette knife. Prick the dough all over with the tines of a fork. I think this helps the dough to bake through more evenly, it looks attractive and importantly creates tiny pockets in the baked surface allowing the final sprinkling of caster sugar to adhere better to the biscuits.

Place the tin of shortbread dough into the fridge for at least 15 minutes to chill and firm up. It can be left into the fridge for several hours, even overnight if that suits your timetable.

When you are ready to bake, preheat your oven to 150 degrees C fan. Bake the shortbread for about 45 minutes until a light golden colour throughout. Judging the right degree of baking is perhaps the hardest aspect of this recipe and will probably require a degree of trial and error depending on how accurate your oven temperature is. It shouldn’t be too dark a colour – baking long and slow is the way to go. Also, if the shortbread is baked too long it becomes too hard and brittle and will shatter when cut into. If underbaked it will lack flavour and have a claggy rather than melt-in-the-mouth crumbly texture. When it is baked just right it will still be somewhat soft when cut into while still warm but, fear not, it will firm up to the right crumbly texture when cooled.

Once baked, remove from the oven, immediately carefully cut into fingers of the desired size (I cut mine lengthwise into 3 long strips then crosswise into 12 strips to produce 36 fingers) and sprinkle the surface with a little more golden caster sugar. Leave to cool completely in the tin.

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Cape Verdean breakfast

August 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

“Imagine unspoilt castaway islands. With bone-white beaches that you can bag all to yourself. And a unique blend of African, Portuguese and Brazilian cultures. No wonder summer holidays to Cape Verde are the hottest buzzword in travel right now. Marooned off the west coast of Africa, they sit serenely and modestly – almost as if they’re hoping to shirk the limelight.”

So says the blurb on the Thomson holidays website which is a pretty good introduction to the Cape Verde archipelago. This group of 10 main islands and 5 smaller islets, most of which are mountainous but with some fertile land, was uninhabited until its discovery by Portuguese explorers in 1456. Just for the record, the largest island is Santiago, the capital city is Praia and the islands gained independence from Portugal in 1975.

The strategic location of the islands lying in the Atlantic off the coast of West Africa meant that they became an important staging post in both the slave and whaling trades. Interestingly, there are more Cape Verdeans and their descendants living abroad than there are on the islands themselves having left the islands during various waves of emigration. Music and football are clearly important elements of the Cape Verdean culture. Famous musicians of Cape Verdean descent include Lena Horne and the Tavares Brothers – Ralph, Pooch, Chubby, Butch and Tiny – perhaps most famous for their rendition of “More Than A Woman” on the seminal Saturday Night Fever soundtrack from the seventies. Well known footballers of Cape Verdean descent include Nani, Henrik Larsson, Gelson Fernandes and Patrice Evra.

The food of the islands is very much a reflection of its history and geography – a fusion of Portuguese, South American and African ingredients. Nowhere is this more true than in Cachupa, the islands’ national dish, a hearty stew of hominy corn, red kidney beans, spicy linguiça sausage, salt pork, sweet potato, potato, tomatoes, onion and cabbage. Fortunately for me, Cachupa refogada, left over cachupa reheated and fried with plenty of softened onion is a typical breakfast dish so it had to go on the menu.

The recipe I used for Cachupa is adapted from this one http://www.mistress-of-spices.com/2011/03/cachupa-national-dish-of-cape-verde.html

I decided to add another typical Cape Verdean dish, cuscus, to round off my breakfast menu. I found a video recipe here presented by the charming but oddly named Ideally Ilca on her Island Cuisine channel. White cornmeal is mixed with water to form little pellets. The resulting cuscus is steamed in a cake shape then served as a breakfast cereal flavoured with sugar and powdered cinnamon and eaten with cold milk. I followed Ms Ilca’s instructions to the letter and ended up with a successful plateful of Cape Verdean comfort food, agreeably soothing after the spicy Cachupa refogada:

Finding the recipes was the easy part: somewhat more of a challenge was tracking down authentic ingredients. Let’s start with hominy corn. I didn’t even know precisely what it was until I consulted Harold McGee. His encyclopaedic “On Food and Cooking” explains succinctly that “hominy consists of whole corn kernels…cooked for 20-40 minutes in a solution of lime or lye then washed of their hulls and excess alkaline solution.” The process is known as nixtamalization from an Aztec word and though it sounds a bit yucky and chemical-infused in fact produces a tasty, chewy and nutritious end result.

I tracked my hominy corn plus white cornmeal for my Cape Verdean cuscus down from ever-reliable Mexican food specialists The Cool Chile company. I sourced my linguiça sausage, plus a few extra Portuguese goodies, from the straightforwardly named www.portuguesefood.co.uk.

I packed up my specialist ingredients and headed for the coast to prepare and cook my Cape Verdean breakfast – nowhere exotic, just the good old British seaside. We were joined for a long weekend by friends Mike, Theo and Christopher who tucked in manfully (though I suspect they were hoping for a full English…)

Pass the piri piri sauce please. Did someone say it’s just like Nando’s?

Recipe for Cachupa Rica

Adapted from a recipe on “Mistress of Spices” blog.

Serves 8-12 depending on appetite.

500g dried hominy corn
250g dried red kidney beans
8 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 onions, chopped
2 bay leaves
1 litre water
1 litre vegetable or chicken stock
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
250g linguiça (or chorizo) cut into 1cm dice
500g thick piece of unsmoked bacon into 1cm dice
1 tablespoon chilli powder
4 small waxy potatoes scrubbed and quartered
1 sweet potato, peeled and quartered
1/4 white cabbage, sliced
2 carrots, chopped
2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and finely chopped

Rinse the corn and the beans. Drain and set aside.

Heat 4 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large lidded saucepan or stockpot. Add half of the chopped onion and one bay leaf. Sauté until the onions are translucent. Add the corn and the beans. Stir well and add the water. Bring to the boil, then cover, reduce the heat and simmer for 2 hours. Add the stock and continue simmering until the corn and beans are soft and cooked through (this may take a further 2 hours ie 4 hours in total).

In a second large lidded pot, heat the remaining 4 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the remaining chopped onion, garlic and one bay leaf. Stir well and sauté until the onions are translucent.

Add the linguiça, bacon and chili powder. Stir gently over a low heat until cooked through, about 15-20 minutes.

Add the cooked corn and beans and their cooking liquid to the meat mixture. Then add the potatoes and cabbage, mix well, add tomatoes and cook until the vegetables are tender and the liquid reduced, about 15-20 minutes.

Taste and correct seasoning. Cachupa tastes even better the next day sautéed with some chopped onion for breakfast, called Cachupa refogada.

Recipe for Cape Verdean Cuscus

From the Island Cuisine channel on Youtube.

3 cups finely ground white cornmeal
Sugar to taste
Cinnamon
1 cup water

Add the water to the cornmeal very slowly. Mix with your hands to form a clumpy mix. Put in double boiler (I used a steamer set over a pan of boiling water). Sprinkle with plenty of powdered cinnamon.

Steam for 25 mins. It will form a sliceable cake. Serve with cold milk, honey, butter and coffee.

Supplier details

http://www.coolchile.co.uk/ Supplier of hominy corn and authentic Mexican ingredients

www.portuguesefood.co.uk Supplier of Portuguese sausages, hams, wine and other goodies.

Cambodian breakfast

February 4, 2013 § 4 Comments

The latest in our Breakfasts of the World Project series.

New Year, new letter of the alphabet – we’re finally onto the letter C! – new country.

In preparation for our Cambodian breakfast I watched Roland Joffé’s “Killing Fields” on DVD documenting the friendship between New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg and his Cambodian colleague Dith Pran. The Vietnam war spills over the border into neighbouring Cambodia and the Communist Khmer Rouge take control of Cambodia’s capital city Phnom Penh in 1975. Schanberg gets away unscathed but Pran, as an urban intellectual, is taken prisoner by the Khmer Rouge and made to work in harsh labour camps and witnesses Pol Pot’s in the killing fields.

How things have changed in the last 30 odd years. Cambodia is now very much on the modern-day Grand Tour with the holy city of Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor Wat a must-see destination. And a tourist website gives the following cursory directions to another top tourist attraction:

“The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek are 15 km from Central Phnom Penh. To get there, take Monireth Blvd south-westward out of the city from the Dang Kor Market bus depot.”

So what to eat for our Cambodian breakfast? The opening scenes of “The Killing Fields” feature Schanberg and colleague Al Rockoff (memorably played by John Malkovich) ordering café complet and aspirin at Phnom Penh’s Café Central but I was after something altogether more authentic. Fortunately, travel blogs are almost unanimous in identifying Nom Banh Chok – bowls of rice noodles with fish curry ladled over – as the ubiquitous breakfast dish in Cambodia.

You can read about the extremely laborious process of making Nom Banh Chok rice noodles by hand here, a link to the fascinating and beautifully photographed Eating Asia blog.

The list of ingredients required to make Num/Nom Banh Chok (spellings transliterated from the Cambodian language are many and various). I succeeded in tracking down an authentic recipe which comes from another West/Eastern duo – not Schanberg and Pran this time but Austrian and Cambodian chefs Gustav Auer and Sok Chhong who co-authored the cookbook “From spiders to water lilies” containing recipes from their Phnom Penh restaurant Romdeng (Cambodian for the key flavouring ingredient galangal).

Having tracked down an authentic recipe I wanted to do my best to use authentic ingredients. Whereas most large supermarkets now stock lemongrass, Thai basil, Kaffir lime leaves, Thai fish sauce and coconut cream and milk (and you can get hold of Kaffir limes from the Natoora range carried by online supermarket delivery service Ocado), some of the ingredients listed necessitated a special expedition to Manchester’s Chinatown.

I was delighted to be able to track down galangal, fresh turmeric and something close to the recipe’s specified “Cambodian rhizome” at Kim’s Thai Food Store. What I bought was Boesenbergia Pandurata aka Kaempferia pandurata, Chinese Keys, lesser galangal (though this name is probably incorrect), krachai (Thai), kcheay (Khmer) and kunci (Indonesian).

The aromatics were chopped then blitzed in the food processor to produce 15 tablespoons of precious yellow curry paste:

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To complete the curry, a whole new batch of ingredients were needed. Coconut cream, fish sauce and coconut milk are now readily available in supermarkets. I had no idea at the time what type of fish to use, or even if it should be sea or freshwater fish so I chose a fresh and healthy looking Anglesey farmed seabass from my local fishmonger who expertly converted it into fillets. It was a shame to carefully poach and skin it and then pulp it into oblivion as the recipe specifies!

I’ve since read about Cambodia’s enormous inland Tonlé Sap lake which apparently supplies 70% of the protein consumed in Cambodia, including not only fish but shrimps, crabs, snails, frogs and snakes.

The only ingredient I couldn’t get hold of was the Cambodian fish paste called prahok. According to the helpful Cambodian food leaflet “Cambodia on A Plate”, prahok is “a grey paste of preserved fish…(that is) probably the most distinctive flavour in all Cambodian cooking”. I had to make do with a Thai shrimp paste instead (on reflection the UK anchovy paste we call “Gentlemen’s Relish” might have made a good substitute too).

Curry complete, all that was left to do was prepare the all-important rice noodles, accompanying salad and Thai basil and red chilli garnish. Yet another long list of ingredients, some, such as the cucumber and beansprouts easy to obtain, others, such as banana flower (?) and water lily root (??) a little trickier. I was delighted to find a fresh banana flower in Chinatown but the water lily root request defeated both the Chinese and Thai shop assistants. In the end I went for the helpful suggestion of a lotus root which is apparently used raw in salads in some Thai recipes.

The resulting plate of salad was a thing of beauty:

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And finally, after about 6 hours spread over 2 days of shopping, chopping, pounding and boiling, we sat down to breakfast:

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Contact details

For Oriental vegetables in Manchester:

Hang Won Hong
Connaught Buildings
58-60 George Street
Manchester M1 4HF

Telephone 0161 228 6182

For Thai (and Cambodian) specialities in Manchester:

46 George Street
Manchester M1 4HF

Telephone 0161 228 6263

For the UK’s only Cambodian restaurant

Lemongrass
243 Royal College Street
London NW1 9LT

Telephone 0207 284 1116

http://www.cambodianlemongrass.co.uk/

Recipe for Num Banh Chok – yellow fish and coconut curry with rice noodles and raw Cambodian vegetables

This recipe is adapted from one in the book “From Spiders to Water Lilies” by Gustav Auer and Sok Chhong published as a fundraising project by the Friends International organisation.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients

For the lemongrass paste

200 g young lemongrass stalks (about 15-16 stalks) trimmed and sliced
2cm cube of peeled and roughly chopped galangal
3cm cube peeled and chopped fresh turmeric
4 kaffir lime leaves, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, halved
Peel of half a kaffir lime, chopped
2cm cube peeled and chopped Cambodian rhizome

For the curry

300 g fish fillets, poached
3 tablespoons lemongrass paste
2 tablespoons roasted chopped peanuts
500 ml fish stock

250 ml coconut milk
250 ml coconut cream
1 teaspoon prahok (Cambodian fermented fish paste)
2 tablespoons fish sauce
salt to taste
1 tablespoon palm sugar

To accompany the curry

400 g dried weight thin rice noodles, cooked al dente
2 small cucumbers, cut into matchsticks
half a banana flower, soaked in cold water acidulated with kaffir lime juice then thinly sliced just before serving
200 g bean sprouts
2 pieces of water lily root, peeled and thinly sliced

To garnish

red chillies
few Thai basil leaves

First, prepare the lemongrass paste. Using a food processor, blitz the chopped lemongrass into a paste. Add the remaining ingredients and 4-6 tablespoons cold water and blitz again until well combined. According to the original recipe, this paste will keep refrigerated for one day only, so take what you need for the recipe and freeze the rest in individual containers. This quantity of ingredients produced 12 tablespoons of neon-yellow paste which I froze in 3 tablespoon portions.

Next, poach the fish in the stock until just cooked – for thin fish fillets this will take just 2 or 3 minutes. Leave to cool a little then drain off and reserve the stock to add to the curry and skin the fish fillets making sure no small bones remain in the flesh as you do so. Set aside.

Prepare the raw vegetable accompaniments and garnish, leaving the banana flower pieces in iced acidulated water until the last minute as they discolour very quickly.

Weigh, measure and set out all the curry ingredients and necessary kitchen equipment so you can complete the curry quickly without overcooking the rice noodles and fish.

About 20 minutes before you plan to serve the curry, take the banana flower from the iced acidulated water, dry it and shred finely. Add to your serving platter of accompanying raw vegetables.

Next, soak the dried rice noodles in hot water for about 15 minutes until they soften to just al dente. Keep an eye on them as overcooked rice noodles have an unpleasant mushy texture.

You are now ready to complete the curry. Place the cooled cooked and de-skinned fish fillets with the 3 tablespoons lemongrass paste and peanuts into the bowl of a food processor. Blitz to a coarse paste. Set aside. Put 500ml fish stock, the coconut milk, coconut cream and prahok into a medium saucepan and bring to the boil, stirring frequently to mix. Add the reserved fish paste, fish sauce, salt and palm sugar, and simmer for 5 more minutes, mixing to incorporate.

To serve, put a large handful of vegetables into each person’s bowl. Add a portion of cooked rice noodles then ladle the fish curry over the top. Garnish with finely sliced deseeded red chillies and a scattering of Thai basil leaves.

My top 5 Parisian pâtisserie trends

May 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

During April’s trip to Paris to brush up my pâtisserie skills at Lenôtre’s École des Amateurs, I took the opportunity to wander the streets, gaze into the shop windows, read the magazines and do a little tasting. I’ve distilled this into my take on the latest pâtisserie trends.

Trend 1: Choux puffs

Move over macarons, choux puffs are set to be the latest small cake trend, or so young entrepreneur Lauren Koumetz hopes. She set up her boutique bakery named Popelini in the Marais district last year. Cannily, the tiny patisserie selling just choux puffs is just across the road from world-famous bakery Poilâne’s newest outlet in the rue Debelleyme (see my previous post). Eagle-eyed viewers will have seen Rachel Khoo popping into the shop in Episode 2 of her recent BBC 2 series “Little Paris Kitchen”.

The concept is simple – take a choux pastry puff, fill it with flavoured crème pâtissière and top it with a disc of prettily coloured fondant icing. The appearance of these choux puffs and their flavour combinations clearly owes a lot to the macaron trend, and indeed the pastry chef at Popelini, Alice Barday, is ex- Ladurée.

There are 9 classic flavours in the current range – these include dark chocolate, lemon, salted caramel, pistachio/griottine (more on this one later) – plus an ever changing ‘flavour of the day’.

Trend 2: Pistachios

The love affair with the pistachio nut goes on and on. It must have something to do with their intriguing green colour as well as their delicate flavour. In the on-trend pâtisseries, every classic tart or entremet traditionally prepared with ground almonds has been reinvented with pistachios. The pairing of griottine cherries (morello cherries preserved in kirsch) with pistachios, whether in the filling for a choux puff (see above) or in a frangipane tart is increasingly popular.

There’s even a shop, La Pistacherie, which opened in mid 2011, devoted to the pistachio nut in all its forms on the Rue Rambuteau just around the corner from Beaubourg, the Pompidou Centre:

Trend 3: citrus

Forget familiar lemon and orange, now it’s got to be mandarin, grapefruit (ideally delicate pink grapefruit), or more exotically still bergamot or the Japanese favourite yuzu. The Japanese are avid buyers of French pâtisserie – just look at the big names that have opened up branches in Tokyo – and are in turn bringing their influence to bear – the green tea powder matcha is found flavouring all sorts of cakes and biscuits now. The tart, aromatic yuzu described in flavour terms as being similar to the grapefruit and mandarin is very popular in Japan but sadly well nigh impossible to get hold of in the UK. I have seen prepacked juice available for sale in specialist Japanese stores so maybe the fresh fruit is on its way.

Not strictly citrus, but the herb lemon-thyme is popping up all over the place whether perking up emigré pâtissier Eric Lanlard’s lemon cake or adorning a Pain de Sucre (see below) fig tart.

Trend 4: all things American

Parisians have fallen in love with brownies (charmingly pronounced as ‘brew-neez’), luscious cheesecake and simple-to-make pound cakes and muffins and have made them their own. You’ll find them everywhere now – peeking out of chi-chi pâtisserie windows and on sale to grab and go as you pass through the Gare du Nord or wherever. On-trend boulangerie-pâtisserie Huré on the rue Rambuteau has an enticing display of American-inpsired loaf cakes in the window with flavours such as white chocolate and cranberry and pecan to the fore.

Trend 5: Classics reinvented

A step further down the rue Rambuteau and you’ll find Pain de Sucre (‘sugarloaf’), one of Paris’ hottest establishments, regularly featuring on top 10 lists of Paris’ best pâtisseries. Renowned for its flavoured breads, oversized jars of pastel-coloured marshmallows, reinvented classics abound here. Its rum baba, renamed ‘Le Baobab’ is sold complete with miniature pharmacist’s dropper of rum to allow for dosing of alcohol just the way you want it.

It’s not just in Pain de Sucre that you’ll find classics reinvented. The space age showroom featured in several episodes of the BBC 2 programme “Little Paris Kitchen” is Philippe Conticini’s “Pâtisserie des Rêves” (Pâtisserie of Dreams). Rachel Khoo, the chef within the Little Paris Kitchen is shown admiring a reinvented chocolate éclair, a sculpted beauty almost unrecognisable as an éclair displayed like an artwork beneath its own glass dome. You can find pictures of it plus detailed tasting notes here.

Places like this lead the way, but everywhere you’ll find classic large cakes like the gâteaux Opéra or St Honoré reinvented either as small individual with sophisticated pared-down decoration. The mini Opéras will sport a lacquered chocolate glaze, as dark and shiny as a Steinway grand piano, ornamented only by a shred of pure gold leaf. Alternatively, classic cakes can be miniaturised and given a new flavour twist like Ladurée’s billowy pink raspberry and rose miniature St Honoré. You can see this here. My last two links are to US citizen Adam’s beautifully obsessive blog http://www.parispatisseries.com/ dedicated, as the name suggests to all things sweet in Paris – you couldn’t find a better starting point if you were planning a food-based trip to the French capital.

As the French are voting for a new president today, I’m going to sign off with a French joke. I suspect it may be the last we hear of Sarko for some time:

Q: What is Nicolas Sarkozy’s favourite cake?

A: Brownie (pronounced like ‘Bruni’ in French!)

Contact details

Popelini
http://www.popelini.com/
29, rue Debelleyme
Paris 75003

Tel +33 (0)1 44 61 31 44

Opening hours – check website but currently Tuesday to Saturday 11.00 to 19.30; Sunday 10.00 to 15.00

La Pistacherie (website still under construction at time of writing)
67, rue Rambuteau
Paris 75004

Tel +33 (0)1 42 78 84 55

Opening hours “every day of the week”

Huré
18, rue Rambuteau
Paris 75003

Tel +33 (0)1 42 72 32 18

Pain de Sucre
http://www.patisseriepaindesucre.com/

Rue Rambuteau
Paris 75003

Tel +33 (0)1 45 74 68 92

Opening hours: 10.00 – 20.00 closed Tuesday and Wednesday

La Pâtisserie des Rêves
http://www.lapatisseriedesreves.com/

93 rue du Bac
Paris 75007

Tel +33 (0)1 42 84 00 82

Opening hours: Tuesday to Saturday 9.00 – 20.00; Sunday 9.00 – 16.00

111 rue de Longchamp
Paris 750016

Tel +33 (0)1 47 04 00 24

Opening hours: Tuesday to Friday 10.00 – 20.00; Saturday and Sunday 9.00 – 20.00

Pain Poilâne: the best bargain in Paris?

April 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

The little box of Pierre Hermé macarons I wrote about in my last post set me back 25 Euros. For a third of the price, you can buy yourself beautiful, round, whole loaf of arguably the finest bread in the world weighing in at a shade under two kilos.

Here are the loaves on display at Poilâne’s newest store (opened in July 2011) on the rue Debelleyme in the Marais. The staff are charming and friendly and, unlike the Pierre Hermé shop, were happy for me to take photos. You’ll see that the word for what we might call a cob is not a mere “boule” but a “miche” literally a generously rounded buttock! I love that idea.

It was such a treat to carry out the whole loaf, still faintly warm from the legendary wood-fired oven, lovingly wrapped, and less lovingly stuffed into my rucksack for the journey back to Manchester. It survived the journey intact:

and was soon sliced up ready for sampling:

What makes the bread so special? It has the dark, crackly crust typical of a wood-fired oven bake. The crumb is not white but a deep cream colour attributable both to its wholegrain content and its long fermentation. The texture of the crumb is dense but not heavy. It’s chewy, just a touch sour, flavoursome and slices well. Fresh, it tastes excellent but thanks to its sourdough fermentation it keeps for a week and a few days old it toasts brilliantly.

What’s in it? The Poilâne website tells you that the bread is made from just four ingredients (stoneground flour, sourdough starter, water and Guérande sea salt) but doesn’t go into detail as to what type of flour is used. Lots of people have written lots of things about the flour in a Poilâne loaf. US baker Peter Reinhart in his book “The Breadbaker’s Apprentice” describes the flour as a stoneground 85% extraction wholewheat ie with some of the bran removed. This is not a type of flour readily accessible to homebakers but can be approximated by mixing three parts white flour to one part wholemeal/wholewheat. Other commentators refer to the inclusion of 30% spelt (épeautre in French) flour in the Poilâne mix but I haven’t yet found an unimpeachable source for this claim.

According to the Poilâne website, legend began in the 1932 when Pierre Poilâne from Normandy set up shop in the rue du Cherche Midi in St Germain on Paris’ Left Bank. He made a traditional loaf in the traditional way (best quality ingredients, long fermentation, natural yeasts, baking in a woodfired oven) rather than producing the more popular white flour baguettes. His sons Lionel (and also Max) continued the family baking business. Lionel was the marketing genius – very convenient if you’re going to supply countrywide if you can first convince the world that your bread tastes best not when absolutely fresh but 3 days’ old! – and it is his bread which has gone onto achieve iconic status worldwide. Lionel died in a freak helicopter accident in 2002 leaving his 19 year old daughter Apollonia in charge.

I’ve occasionally wondered how Poilâne bread can appear on English and French supermarket shelves when there are just three tiny traditional outlets in Paris. I’ve visited two of them, sadly not the original rue du Cherche Midi shop yet which I’ll have to save until next time.

Here’s the Boulevard de la Grenelle shop:

and here’s the newest rue Debelleyme shop in the Marais:

The answer to the supply conundrum is that in the 1980s, Lionel built a 24 wood-fired oven “facility” as the website delicately puts it, to supply growing demand. The discreet little cream-coloured tree-screened factory is located in Bièvres in the southwest outskirts of Paris not far from Versailles.

Harvard Business School graduate Apollonia Poilâne seems to have inherited her father’s business sense as well as his passion for good bread and has made a number of discreet innovations. I’m not convinced about the matcha flavoured green teaspoon shaped biscuits but the “Cuisine de Bar” outlets that have appeared adjacent to the bread shops in the rues du Cherche Midi and Debelleyme (also in London now) are an excellent idea. They are essentially cafés based on toast (tartines in French). So next time you’re in Paris looking for a fashionable, wholesome and inexpensive breakfast or light lunch, you know where to go.

After a bit of research

Contact details (Paris)

http://www.poilane.com

38 rue Debelleyme (Marais- “Cuisine de bar” adjacent to shop)
Paris 75003
Tel +33 (0) 1 44 61 83 39
Opening hours :
Tuesday to Sunday 7:15 am to 8:15 pm

49 bld de Grenelle (Eiffel Tower)
Paris 75015
Tel +33 (0) 1 45 79 11 49
Opening hours :
Tuesday to Sunday 7:15 am to 8:15 pm

8 rue du Cherche-Midi (St Germain – “Cuisine de bar” adjacent to shop)
Paris 75006
Tel +33 (0) 1 45 48 42 59
Opening hours :
Monday to Saturday 7:15 am to 8:15 pm

Good things from Borrowdale

November 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

Perhaps the only good thing about having the kitchen redecorated is that we’re forced to get out of the house. When a glistening fresh coat of extra-slow drying oil-based eggshell arrived on the cupboard doors on Friday afternoon, we were forced to spend a weekend away. Fortunately, it all fell into place as there was a weekend of glorious high-pressure weather forecast for the North of England (remarkable for the first week in November) and my favourite youth hostel, the remote but cosy one up on the Honister Pass in the Lake District, had a family room available. So we packed the car, upped sticks and were rewarded with the most fantastic autumn weekend in and around the Borrowdale valley.

Saturday was spent on a circular lower level walk which, in addition to uplifting views and vibrant autumn colours, took in 4 different tearooms at Grange-in-Borrowdale, Watendlath, Rosthwaite, then back to Grange for a visit to its other tea establishment. Definitely my kind of walk.

I took the opportunity to stock-up on local products including this fantastic comb honey available from the Grange tearooms. According to the label, it comes from S. Edmondson of Troutdale, just down the road. It’s a dark, clear honey – from heather perhaps? and spread on my breakfast toast this morning I can confirm that the taste is divine – deeply fragrant, not too strong, and, odd as it may sound, I love the chewy crunch of the little bits of honeycomb wax.

I’ve now done a little reading round about the etiquette of whether or not to eat the wax in honeycomb. The consensus amongst the beekeeping community seems to be to go for it and eat the lot, honey, wax and all, so I now feel vindicated. There are some more delicate folk out there who prefer to chew then discreetly spit out – each to his own I suppose.

The village of Rosthwaite is home to Yew Tree Farm and its Flock-In tearoom which with its practical slate floors and generously sized cakes and mugs of tea, offers a warm welcome to walkers.

They make their own Borrowdale teabread here and sell whole loaves to take away as well as buttered slices to accompany your tea. I love teabreads of all kinds – quickly made, wholesome, and because there’s generally not much if indeed any fat in the cake mix itself, you can feel justified in enjoying a slice spread with lots of lovely butter.

Borrowdale teabread is a dark, moist slightly spicy loaf cake. Its colour comes both from the tea-soaked dried fruit it contains and the soft brown sugar used in the mix. I had a chat with Mrs Relph of Yew Tree Farm who was behind the counter that afternoon about the origins of Borrowdale teabread. Her view was that the dried fruits, spices and indeed tea in this teabread are a legacy of the overseas trade from the nearby port of Whitehaven. She mentioned that her recipe is made without the addition of fat so that it needs to be well-wrapped and stored in an airtight tin if it’s not to dry out if kept for any length of time. Not much chance of that in our family…

I’ve researched Borrowdale teabread recipes and have come up with my own version which I give below which combines the best bits of each recipe. I think the addition of a little melted butter which several recipe authors suggest will improve the keeping qualities of the cake.

I was then reminded of a treasured recipe for Borrowdale biscuits which I assume must originate in this same Lake District valley. Here’s the recipe given to me by my schoolfriend Helen Wright’s grandmother absolutely ages ago and kept in a file ever since:

These are the most moreish pale gold crunchy biscuits – like a superior Hob Nob for those familiar with the McVities product range. Going back to Helen’s house after school we’d be offered some of these with a cup of tea. I’m not proud to say I’d help myself to 6 or so more than the polite 2 offered when I thought nobody was looking…

I’ve tinkered with the original recipe just a little, substituting butter for margarine as I avoid margarine if I possibly can on grounds of flavour and odd as it may sound, health – all those lovely fat-soluble vitamins in butter from grazing cows can’t be all bad.

Most of the measurements in the original recipe are in “small teacups” so I’ve done my best to standardise the measures to give a consistent result.

I can’t wait to get back into my kitchen to start cooking once again rather than relying on baking memories, but in the meantime, it’s good to be outdoors burning off those cake and biscuit calories.

Recipe for Borrowdale teabread

Adapted from various sources including a Lakeland contributor to the Farmer’s Guardian, Carole Gregory’s little booklet “Favourite Lakeland Recipes”, Sizergh Barn’s online recipe (unusable as published as riddled with errors) and eating carefully the of Flock-In tearoom’s own teabread. I’ve maintained the key ratios and ingredients of the recipe but have incorporated what I think are the best elements of each recipe.

Good spread thickly with salted butter and maybe a wedge of crumbly Lancashire cheese.

Makes one large loaf cake.

Ingredients

½ pint (225 ml) strong hot black tea
14 oz (400g) dried mixed fruit (to include sultanas, raisins and glacé cherries)
6 oz (170g) dark soft brown sugar (use light soft brown sugar for a paler teabread with a less pronounced molasses flavour if you prefer)
1 large egg, beaten
grated rind of 1/2 orange and 1/2 lemon
1 oz (25g) melted butter
7 oz (200g) plain flour
2oz (50g) wholemeal flour
3/4 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon mixed spice

Mix together the dried fruit and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Pour over the hot tea, cover and leave overnight to steep.

The next day, prepare a 2lb loaf tin by greasing and lining the base with baking paper. Preheat the oven to 160 C (fan).

Add the beaten egg, melted butter, grated citrus rind and grated nutmeg to the bowl containing the soaked fruit and mix well.

Sieve together the flours, bicarbonate of soda and spices. Tip any bran from the wholemeal flour or any larger pieces of grated nutmeg which don’t make it through the sieve back into the bowl too. Add to the bowl and fold into the mixture to blend thoroughly.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and bake for about 1 hour until firm when pressed lightly, well-risen and a deep golden brown.

Cool in the tin for 30 minutes then turn out and cool on a wire rack. Store in an airtight tin. Best left overnight before eating to allow the flavours to develop and the bread to soften and become sticky.

Recipe for Borrowdale biscuits

Adapted from a recipe given to me by my schoolfriend Helen Wright’s grandmother.

Makes 50-60 biscuits

Ingredients

8 oz butter
8 oz golden caster sugar
2 dessertspoons golden syrup
6 oz rolled porridge oats
8 oz self raising flour
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
2 tablespoons boiling water

Cream together the butter, sugar and syrup. Dissolve the bicarbonate of soda in the boiling water. Add to the mixture then add the dry ingredients.

Pinch off and roll between your palms small balls of the dough about the size of a heaped teaspoon and set a little way apart on a prepared baking tray.

Bake at 160 degrees C/325 F/gas 3 for approximately 15 minutes.

Contact details

Flock-In tearoom
Yew Tree Farm
Rosthwaite
Borrowdale
Cumbria
CA12 5XB
Tel 01768 777 675
Website www.borrowdaleherdwick.co.uk

Borrowdale honey – jar and whole honeycomb in box available from tearoom in Grange-in-Borrowdale

Details on honey label are:
S. Edmondson
Troutdale
Keswick
Cumbria

In search of the real Pithiviers

April 29, 2011 § 2 Comments

You have to wonder what the point is of the tourist office in Pithiviers. After 10 minutes’ browsing the leaflets for various châteaux, parks and gardens I was none the wiser about the two things for which Pithiviers is most famous. The first is its eponymous cake, an indulgent confection of buttery puff pastry with an almond filling, and the second is its notorious second world war transit camp where French Jews were rounded up and detained before being sent on to Auschwitz.

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We were spending the easter holidays in France based in and around Paris and Fontainebleau. On a sunny Monday morning we decided over breakfast to head off to Pithiviers, a typical French market town some 50 miles South of Paris.

Q: Why?
A: a rather frivolous excursion to try and track down a genuine Pithiviers pastry.

The less frivolous outcome was that we learned a little about an unedifying episode in French history, one that the tourist office was keen to airbrush away. I’d read about the French internment camps before, specifically Drancy on the outskirts of Paris. This was not in a history book but in Sebastian Faulks’ moving wartime novel “Charlotte Gray”.

It was another novelist, Irène Némirovsky, the author of the sensational “Suite Française” who’s partly responsible for putting Pithiviers on the map, for all the wrong reasons. Némirovsky was interned here before being sent to Auschwitz where she died in 1942 leaving her epic novel unfinished, its manuscript undiscovered until some 60 years later.

Back to the original purpose of our visit. The Pithiviers has a special place in our family history as I ate a stunning chocolate Pithiviers at London’s Bibendum restaurant the night before our eldest son George was born. It features in chef proprietor Simon Hopkinson’s book “Roast Chicken and Other Stories” if you fancy making one at home.

Finding a Pithiviers proved surprisingly easy. Having found a parking space in a sunny square (the Mail Ouest) in the centre, we found ourselves just across the road from an inviting-looking pâtisserie, “À la Renommée” (the Renowned).

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Heading to the window, we realised we’d struck lucky with a picture perfect example of a Pithiviers feuilleté (puff pastry) with its distinctive scalloped border and sculpted lid not just once:

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but twice, with its more gaudy iced cousin, the Pithiviers fondant:

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Of course, we had to buy both, the fondant version to enjoy there and then with a cup of coffee and the feuilleté version later after our evening meal.

The fondant Pithiviers, with its virginal white icing and old school glacé cherry and crystallised angelica decoration, bore more than a passing resemblance to a Mr Kipling Cherry Bakewell, but without the pastry case. Beneath the icing was a dense and crumbly almond sponge, satisfying in its simplicity. Apparently this is the original version of the cake, an ancient Gaulish speciality, its origins lost in the mists of time. Maybe Asterix ate one of these…

The origins of puff pastry in France are generally dated back to the 17th century so the more familiar Pithiviers feuilleté is a relatively recent upstart. We followed the bakery instructions to warm it through gently for 15-20 minutes before serving. It needs no accompaniment (other than a strong cup of coffee). The puff pastry layers were featherlight, belying the huge quantities of butter that went into its manufacture, and the almond cream filling rich and sweet. It reminded me just a little of its more rustic cousin the English Bakewell pudding – the real dense almondy version you find in the Peak District town rather than the more usual tart I mentioned earlier. Maybe Pithiviers and Bakewell should be twinned?

You’ll find recipes for the regular puff pastry Pithiviers in any fat cook book with a pâtisserie chapter. Recipes for the fondant version are harder to come by so here’s one I hunted down:

Recipe for Pithiviers fondant – iced almond cake from Pithiviers

From the recipe section of the website http://www.loiret.logishotels.com with quantities halved to make a more manageable sized cake.

Ingredients

250g blanched almonds, very finely chopped
250g caster sugar
250g butter
1.5 cl rum
6 or 7 eggs (depending on size) beaten
White fondant icing
Halved glacé cherries and angelica to decorate

Mix the sugar with the finely chopped almonds and beat in the softened butter. Incorporate the eggs gradually and the rum. Spoon into a greased and floured Pain de Gênes mould (a deep fluted flan tin – use an ordinary round cale tin not a shallow flan tin as a substitute) and baked in a moderate oven (180 degrees C fan) for 30 to 35 minutes. When cool, ice with white fondant icing and decorate with glacé cherries and Angelica.

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