Tuesday, 29 May 2007

birthday baking (and Meeta's monthly mingle)

no, not a Tiffany's box...

When I asked my friend A what she wanted for her birthday, her answer was: ‘those cookies you made for my birthday last year were really good’ so cookies it was. The ones I made her last year are a firm favourite of mine – cardamom shortbread – but I couldn’t really bake her the same ones this year, could I? I was thinking maybe a few different sweets, with different tastes and textures, assembled in a nice box. A box was found – baby blue, which made A exclaim ‘That looks like a Tiffany’s box!’ Lucky for me, she wasn’t too disappointed that the goodies were of the edible rather than the diamond kind.

Of course there had to be something chocolate-y – I do have my Belgian-ness to live up to after all – so I decided on truffles. Coffee-cardamom truffles to be exact. Which I made, ironically, with British chocolate. But only partially; I used Belgian chocolate as well. Besides, it was dark espresso Green & Black’s chocolate, and there simply is no excuse necessary, ever, for Green & Black’s chocolate. Half the truffles I coated in unsweetened cocoa powder, the other half in the cocoa nibs I finally found at Wholefoods on my last trip to New York – after various unsuccessful shopping expeditions all around London in search of the elusive cocoa nib.

And whaddyaknow, now that Fresh & Wild here in London has been taken over by Wholefoods, they sell cocoa nibs. I’m not sure I still like the shop – it seems so much more soulless, there is much more plastic packaging and lots of fruit & veg are flown in from faraway places like Kenya and Peru, rather than the locally sourced produce they used to sell, but they do seem to have more products on offer. Like cocoa nibs. And jars of lovely caramelised shredded peppers, that go perfect with brie and basil on ciabatta. Mmm, getting hungry now … but I digress. Back to the birthday baking.

Apart from the chocolates, I also made lemon squares. I had been itching to try Mary’s recipe, and this was the ideal occasion. Unlike Mary – lucky woman – I don’t have a Meyer lemon tree in my garden, so I had to make do with ordinary supermarket lemons, but apart from that I followed her recipe to the letter. And boy, it was good.

Now, since odd numbers almost always work better, I needed a third sweet for good measure. Something soft and cakey would go well with the other two I thought. Madeleines were my first choice, but those are really only good straight out of the oven methinks. If need be, they are still ok a few hours later, but the longer you leave them the more of their yumminess they lose. So no madeleines this time. Browsing through Claudia Fleming’s Last Course, I found a recipe for almond-brown butter cakes, a financier-like cake baked in mini muffin tins, which sounded perfect. Again, I didn’t change anything about the recipe (mainly because S is always chiding me about changing recipes the first time I make them) though I was a bit apprehensive about the ginormous amount of sugar going into the batter. Indeed the finished cakes were sugar-coma-inducingly sweet, so next time I will substantially lower the amount of sugar. Also, American mini muffin tins must be much bigger than European ones, because I ended up with almost double the amount of cakes stated in the recipe. The finished cakes looked a bit plain I thought, so I brushed them with rose syrup.

And there I had it. A home-made birthday present for my friend, which she loved and enjoyed. Although I bet she secretly would have preferred if it had been a Tiffany’s box – but then what girl wouldn’t? Of course I made way too much of everything for the one present and the leftovers stretched far. They accompanied me to a picnic with friends (their only comment was ‘mmmm’), S took some to work (the comment there was ‘please ask your girlfriend to give me the recipe’) and finally I took some into work as well, where they disappeared faster than the speed of light. The only thing the sweets haven’t got yet, is a virtual recipient. So what better than to take the little blue box to Meeta’s monthly mingle, where she can virtually enjoy them for her big birthday bang. Although maybe she would prefer a Tiffany’s box as well…

chocolate truffles
my own recipe

250g dark chocolate and Green & Black’s espresso chocolate
150ml whipping cream
5 cardamom pods, black seeds only (crushed)
unsweetened cocoa powder or cocoa nibs, for finishing

Chop/grind chocolate into tiny pieces or powder. Bring cream with cardamom to a boil. Take off heat as soon as it starts boiling, cover with cling film and let flavours infuse for about 10 minutes. Add chocolate to cream and mix until the chocolate has dissolved completely. Put in fridge overnight or until firm. With a teaspoon (or melon baller) shape into truffles and dunk into cocoa powder or cocoa nibs.

Monday, 21 May 2007

SHF #31 Shades of White

After reading the theme of this month’s Sugar High Friday on Seven Spoons, so many food thoughts started spinning around in my head it made me dizzy. With white, the possibilities really are endless – coconut, banana, vanilla, pineapple, yoghurt, cream, meringue, sponge, lemon, cheesecake, … I couldn’t for the love of me choose what to make! This is a problem I often have: I think of something, or see a recipe in a magazine or cookbook, and immediately I start thinking of things to add and to change. Invariably, there are so many choices and possible combinations that I am either paralysed by the sheer magnitude of choice and end up making nothing, or try to cram too many things all into one dish, which ends up being not so good because of the overdose of ingredients and flavours.

And of course this was threatening to happen again for Sugar High Friday. Until I got a stern talking to from S. I had shown him a lovely photograph (shoved it in his face, actually) of a Donna Hay milk and rosewater jelly. Thinking it was too simple (I often feel that, when making a dessert or something for other people to taste, it has to be something spectacular and complex) I started obsessing about how to change it, make it more intricate and a million other things, but then S said to me: ‘why don’t you just make it as it is?’ So that’s what I did. Although I couldn’t help myself and just had to change it ever so slightly. It was also a chance for me to try something with gelatine again. I’d only used it a few times before, each time with disastrous results. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the smell of it, and the concept of jelly will always remain alien to me, but once the jelly was set and ready to eat, it was lovely. And a big hit with my friends. It had a silky smooth texture, the goats’ milk gave it a refreshing tang, it wasn’t overly sweet, the cardamom made it into a grown-up dessert, and there was just a subtle hint of rosewater.

Adapted from a Donna Hay recipe

600ml goats’ milk
45g sugar
1 sachet gelatine
¼ teaspoon rosewater
3 cardamom pods, black seeds only (crushed)

Dissolve gelatine in half cup of hot milk. Heat rest of milk with sugar, rosewater and cardamom. Add gelatine to this mixture. Pour in mould and refrigerate until set.

Friday, 18 May 2007

HHDD#12 Caesar… soup?

(an early entry, I know, but the weather seems to be turning from soupy to salady again, so I thought I'd better get this post up straight away)

When Katie of Other People’s Food announced the theme of Hay Hay it’s Donna Day, I have to admit felt a bit disappointed at first. After discovering food blogs (about eight months ago) and setting up shop in my own little corner of the internet (about four months ago), followed by a few busy months travelling around the world, I was very much looking forward to being home, getting my groove on in the kitchen and finally start participating in all those food events out there!

I had devoured all the previous round-ups of HHDD, SHF and quite a few more. All those chocolate-y, mousse, sweet, flowery, cocoa-y creations made my mouth water and my imagination run wild, and I was anticipating the day I’d have time to do something myself. And then, when the announcement for HHDD#12 came, it was … Caesar salad??? What about all those sweet bites?

But Katie was right of course, after months of sugar coma-inducing sweetness a nice crisp salad wouldn’t go amiss. She urged everyone to use the main elements of a Caesar salad and be creative with it. After doing a bit of research about Caesar salad (all right then, I read the Wikipedia entry), an idea started brewing in my head.

Seeing as the weather here in London is abysmal (grey, wet and cold), I’ve ditched the salads for now and have gone back to eating soup. And so I decided to turn my Caesar salad into a Caesar soup, with a recipe cobbled together from various other recipes I’ve made before – that parmesan galette I had last made years ago and my mother-in-law’s ‘summery lettuce soup’, which is one of my summer staples (her peppery cucumber soup is another firm favourite). And so, here it is, my Caesar soup. It has all the classic Caesar ingredients, apart from the dressing. I thought about making that into a foam, but I don’t have a foam making thingy, so I gave up on that idea. For now.

(my mother-in-law's summery) lettuce soup
2 onions

2 lettuces, washed and coarsely shredded

1 litre stock (chicken or vegetable, whatever you fancy)

Glaze onions in a bit of olive oil. Add lettuce and stir occasionally. It will start to wilt and may look rather bad, but don’t worry, this is normal. Add stock and simmer for about half an hour. Blend and season whichever way you like. Yes, it really is that easy.

* normally I use iceberg lettuce, which gives a crisp and summery taste. This time I used romaine, which has a bit more oomph and tastes a bit more spinach-y.
* if you prefer a smoother texture, you can also put the soup through a moulin-légumes after blending, though nobody outside continental Europe seems to know what that is.
* my mother-in-law’s original recipe calls for the addition of herb cheese (Boursin is perfect), which I omitted this time for Ceasar’s sake.

Parmesan galette
Grate parmesan, put on baking paper or silpat in circular shape (I use a ring mould for guidance) and put under the grill until it bubbles and is golden around the edges. Keep an eye on it, as it can go wrong real quick. You’re aiming for a disc that has an ‘interesting’ texture, with holes in it, but not so fragile that it breaks when you handle it or so thick that it becomes gloopy. Make sure the parmesan is fresh and moist and grates in long strands – my first to attempts were disasters; I used an old piece of parmesan, which I think was too dry. It would grate only in tiny flecks and didn’t melt in the oven at all.

Garlic croutons
Cut (white) bread in little squares, heat olive oil in pan, add garlic and then bread. Fry until golden and crispy.

Crispy bacon
Go to the supermarket and buy a pack of crispy bacon strips. Or, if you have lots of time and know how to make bacon crispy, go ahead and make it yourself.

Arrange croutons in middle of plate, stick bacon and parmesan galette in crouton heap, ladle soup around it, and finally add a twist of black pepper. Looks good, don’t you think?

keeping it real

But who am I kidding; my crouton mountain tumbled down as soon as I tried to stick the bacon in it and, no matter what I tried, I could not get it to stay in the position I wanted. So I had to cheat a little (shhh, don’t tell anyone); I cut a little cube of mozzarella I had in the fridge, made two cuts in it, clamped the bacon in one cut and the parmesan in the other, plonked it in the middle of the plate, artfully arranged all the croutons around it to hide the mozzarella et voilà … oh, wait. Now the parmesan galette started to bend backwards a bit (maybe I should have left it a bit longer under the grill to crisp it up a bit more). So I pricked a sewing pin in the mozzarella behind the parmesan to hold the galette up straight. Well, at least I didn’t use bluetack. Or superglue. Or other crazy things I’ve read in a rather freakishly weird article. I’m not very fond of eating sewing pins though, so after taking my food porn pictures, I ladled my soup in a bowl, dunked in the croutons, added some parmesan shavings on the top and put the bacon on top of the bowl. One more quick snap of the real thing and then I could eat my soup like normal people would. Sans sewing pins.

Sunday, 13 May 2007

I made macarons!!!

Exclamation marks (all three of them) absolutely essential. Really. After a first, completely botched attempt to make macarons, which resulted in unremovable stains on my brand-new silpat and a few rock hard blackened heaps of something undescribeable, I shelved the idea of making macarons indefinitely. Or at least until we get around to renovating our kitchen and installing a new stove. But it just so happened I had two leftover egg whites in the fridge and in a moment of madness I thought, what the heck, let’s give it another go.

Michel Roux Jr provided me with his faultless recipe – not personally, sadly, but his Le Gavroche Cookbook did – for chocolate macarons. I sieved the icing sugar, cocoa powder and ground almonds twice, just to make sure, before adding it to the whipped egg whites. Getting the macaron mixture into a plastic bag (with a corner cut off) was a whole undertaking in itself; S had to come and help me and we could have done with a third set of hands, but between us we managed in the end. I lowered the recommended oven temperature substantially and halved the cooking time – not because I don’t trust Monsieur Roux’s instructions, oh no, but because I’m beginning to get the hang of dealing with my oven – and [insert drumroll here] they came out ok. Not great, or award-winning, most of them not even round, and the ones that were in the back of the oven started to go a bit dark already, but ok nonetheless.

Now, I have to confess I’m not a big macaron fan (I may have to go in hiding now – who knows what Robyn will do to me when she tracks me down). The ones I have had so far were invariable cloyingly sweet, with no other taste except for their sweetness. One tiny bite and I can feel a sugar coma coming on. But then I’ve never had a Ladurée or Pierre Hermé macaron, so who knows what I’ve been missing out on all my life. My chocolate macarons were still a bit sweeter than I would have liked, but not too much, and I could still taste the cocoa in them. I sandwiched a few with crème de marrons, which I’m not a big fan of, but it had exactly the right consistency and thus made for a nice photograph (yes, I am that shallow sometimes). For all the other ones I used pure, unsweetened, extremely hazelnutty, hazelnut paste, which was a bit runny, even after a good half hour in the fridge, but it balanced out the sweetness of the macaron wonderfully. The perfect combination for me. Now that I know it can be done (sort of), I will definitely try making macarons again. And while I'm at it, bring on soufflé!

Saturday, 12 May 2007

ravioli update

S has asked me to rectify the following:

1) he also eats dough, as in unbaked bread. Any kind of dough, really.

2) there's a special technique for 'inhaling' bread crumbs with a straw and one has to be careful not to choke. He usually eats them with a spoon, which is easier.

3) the spinach and ricotta filling of the ravioli also contained parmesan, pepper and nutmeg.

Friday, 11 May 2007

S starring in the kitchen (and a white plate guest starring)

S bought me a white plate! ‘For your food pictures’ he said. Sweet, non? But the plate is only guest starring, so let’s quickly move on to the real star.

Quite a while ago, S came home after work one day with a copy of Giorgio Locatelli’s Made in Italy: Food and Stories. S has a completely food-unrelated job in a food company, and one of the food people at his office had told him it was an excellent book. S also happens to be mad about pasta; he could eat it 24-7. He even eats it uncooked. But then he also eats stock cubes, flour, coffee and bread crumbs (preferred method for these:‘inhaled’ straight from the packet with a drinking straw) and after more than ten years together I’m used to these little quirks.

The book is not one I would buy myself – my first impression was that it looked a little bit messy. There is a lot of background story and explanation intermingled with the recipes, and I prefer it somewhat more separate and organised. When I started reading however, I found myself completely absorbed in Locatelli's family stories and anecdotes. He is clearly very passionate about good food, cooking, and conveying to his readers an understanding of Italian cuisine. And of course the title of the book is food and stories, so both are of equal importance.

The first thing S made from the book was pesto a la Genovese – a beautiful and delicious intensely green paste, which we added to pasta, sandwiches, chicken and lots of other things. Last weekend he was feeling a bit more ambitious and decided to make ravioli from scratch. Now I love me a good ravioli – I usually buy mine home-made from Lina’s, a wonderfully old-fashioned, family-run Italian delicatessen in Soho (18 Brewer Street) – so I wasn’t about to pass up on that offer! Also, S had a new toy to try out; a little pasta-shaping-mould thingy that we bought on our last trip to Antwerp.

And so last Saturday, S set about making dough and filling. We don’t have a pasta machine (it’s on our wish list), so getting the dough thin enough was a bit tricky and it ended up a bit on the thick side. For the filling he used my favourite: spinach and ricotta – very simply blanched spinach, wrung dry and chopped mixed with a tub of ricotta cheese. He served it with a tomato and basil sauce – even more simply a tin of chopped tomatoes, reduced in a pan with a bit of olive oil – and of course some parmesan shavings. Pasta, a nice glass of red and Billie Holiday in the background – the perfect Saturday evening.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

a taste of yellow

With lots of DIY planned for the long bank-holiday weekend, I didn’t have any ambitious baking plans, though I did plan to whip up something for A Taste of Yellow. Barbara of Winos and Foodies is the instigating force behind this food event, which has been approved by the Lance Armstrong Foundation as an official LiveStrong event to raise cancer awareness (LiveStrong Day 2007 will take place on 16 May). Barbara writes: “there isn’t a person in the world who hasn’t been touched by cancer in some way” and that is sadly true of course.

About six weeks ago, M, a dear friend of mine, died of cancer. She was only 34. We first met at uni at our postgraduate degree in Asian art history – a wonderful year, with lots of dinner parties and in which strong worldwide friendships were forged. After graduating, M decided to stay in London and went on to do a PhD while I got myself a job. Both of us being busy people, we saw each other only occasionally, but we kept our fooding tradition going. When she started having stomach problems – and with the NHS living up to its reputation – she decided to go back home to Taiwan for a proper check-up. By the time her cancer was diagnosed, it had already spread. Unfortunately she gave up without a fight, refusing all conventional treatment (because it made her so sick and miserable), trying some herbal remedies instead and refusing to see any of her friends. I, along with our other common friends, felt frustrated and helpless, reading about her suffering in the occasional email she managed to write, but unable to do something. All we could do was send her encouraging emails, urging her not to give up. She wouldn’t have made 80, and probably not even 50, but I can’t help thinking she could have had a good few years left. However, seeing as there is nothing I could have done, I decided to make do with A Taste of Yellow.

With some vague ideas floating around in my head, I didn’t think it would be that difficult to create some sort of yellow food. Right? Hmmm, let’s see. Bread pudding with leftover raisin and cinnamon bread – bread seemed to have moulded overnight. Something with mango – nope, only one sorry-looking rock-hard mango in my fruit bowl. Banana cake – those overripe bananas I had frozen turned out all mushy, looking and smelling rather disgusting. Freezing bananas obviously doesn’t work.

Luckily I did have another bunch of rather ripe bananas and some nectarines. Since I spent most of the weekend sanding skirting boards (and cursing the man who plastered the walls, such a shoddy job, but that’s England for you) I went with an easy, tried and tested, good old Delia recipe for banana walnut loaf, which is published on her website. Having sliced the finished cake in little squares, I tried icing the squares, but my icing technique (I used icing sugar and water mixed into a paste) obviously needs a lot of work still. To jazz the whole lot up a little, I found inspiration in D&C Duby's Wild Sweets in the shape of nectarine carpaccio. I don’t have a mandoline, so I just tried slicing the nectarine as thinly as possible. The slices were then ‘marinaded’ for a few hours in simple syrup (equal measures of water and sugar, boiled and stored in a closed container) with added vanilla bean paste, and draped on top of the cake square. Et voilà, a yellow(ish) cake thingy. Which I'm sure M would have enjoyed.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

weekend experimenting

Being a big fan of Keiko’s beautiful blog Nordljus, I got intrigued about all those delectable-looking Hidemi Sugino cakes and tartlets that keep on popping up on her blog. Keiko links these entries to the Japanese Amazon store and Sugino’s cookbook Le Gôut Authentique Retrouvé. Encouraged by the French title, and since amazon.co.jp is, well, in Japanese, and my Japanese doesn’t stretch much further than some touristy phrases, I enlisted the help of my Japanese friend M in Fukuoka and asked her to check for me whether this book was written in French. If so, Mr Sugino and I were in business. No such luck though, the book was written in Japanese only. However, M informed me that he did have a second cookbook, called The Dessert Book, written in Japanese and English. Not only that, she also very kindly sent me a copy of this book. Thank you M-tyan, arigatoo gozaimashita! The recipes in this book are fairly simple, basic and easy to make, but elegant. The one that immediately caught my eye was a tiny tartlet with a rhubarb and mascarpone filling, topped with cherry tomatoes, basil and balsamic caramel, and served with a celery sorbet. And so, last weekend – jetlag forgotten, three weeks of laundry and ironing all done and itching to start baking again – I knew this was just the thing I wanted to try.

cocoa pastry cases? Nope, just burnt pastry cases...

I had some cinnamon sweet pastry dough in the freezer (leftovers from a Claudia Fleming recipe), a bunch of dainty baking moulds I bought in Paris last July and hadn’t used before, I had finally figured out how to get pastry dough thinly rolled out without it sticking to the work surface (roll it out between two sheets of baking paper), and so I set about fumbling around making the pastry cases. It took me a long time to roll the dough, drape it in the moulds and trim the excess, but I had fun with it. I wonder though how these things are done in professional pastrychef land – if you have to make, say, 800 rather than eight. After the rolling, draping and trimming I bunged the whole lot in the oven and there it all went horribly wrong. I followed the baking instructions to a T but of course the oven decided to not cooperate and my dainty rectangular pastry cases came out rather dark brown and smelling quite burnt. For a minute, I toyed with the idea of pretending that it was cocoa pastry, but there’s not much use making a tartlet that looks nice but is inedible. Luckily the somewhat larger, less dainty moulds I had put in a different place in the oven came out fine. A bit darker than I would have liked, but still very much on the right side of burnt and inedible.

The baking bit over and done with, I proceeded to the tomato and caramel bit. I had never made caramel before but I remember some stories about boiling hot things exploding on stoves, so I thought I’d better be careful with this. Sugino’s recipe said to melt butter (I used salted rather than the unsalted specified, which gave it a slight edge) in a pan, cover it with a layer of sugar, cover the sugar with a layer of honey and then, when the whole lot starts caramelising, add balsamic vinegar and sauté cherry tomatoes in this mix. It all looked rather strange, but worked perfectly. The balsamic vinegar added a nice twang to the caramel, as did the juice from the tomatoes, which also prevented the caramel from setting to a rock hard substance.

Moving on to the filling bit, I realised I had completely forgotten about the rhubarb, so I had to make do with just the mascarpone, which I mixed with sugar and shredded basil. The celery sorbet I had decided to skip altogether. You see, I was pretty sure S wouldn’t be jumping up and down with enthusiasm for this dessert, as he’s more of a vanilla and chocolate kinda guy. To his credit though, he does taste everything I make. And when he says ‘mmmmmm, yeeeees, it’s… ok’ when trying some weird concoction like, I don’t know, a dessert with tomatoes, basil and balsamic caramel, that means I’m on to a winner.

The finished tartlets were just a tad too sweet to my liking – that rhubarb I forgot would have been perfect to cut through all the sweetness of the mascarpone, caramel and tomatoes. And of course, the celery sorbet would have provided the finishing touch. Next time I’ll make sure to put celery and rhubarb on my shopping list. And not trust my oven…