Friday, 31 May 2013

In pursuit of the perfect Yorkshire pudding

Admittedly, they really need gravy and a fore-rib of Angus to look their best.

Because I'm serving a lot of braised beef recently and because these are so quintessentially British... oh, wait, they're not. Of course they're not. Almost every culture makes a batter and bakes it to make a light pudding. Look up French clafoutis or the Japaneese takoyaki. York puds are just eggs, flour and milk/water but I was surpised at the variation in ratios. Some add two eggs to 250g of flour, while some add six!

Our puds go back at least as far as the mid 18th Century and used to be blah, waffle, yadder, yadder, yadder pretend-you-know-when-you-only-now-looked-it-up-you-fraud. Just Google it. Or click here.

There's MUCH discussion on how to make the best Yorkie. The Guardian's usually excellent Felicity Cloake being one of the first I turn to. However, I tried my own experiments using various recipes: Prue, Heston, Gordon, Simon Hopkinson etc. This is my summation:

  • Whisking the flour INTO the milk/egg mix breaks all the old rules but seems to ensure a lump free batter. Helps if you have a powerful whisk, of course. This whole make a well in the flour and gradually draw in the eggs only works if you have a huge bowl and arms like a navvy. I have neither (apart from the huge bowl).
  • DO leave your batter to stand. It seems that longer is better for batter and the result is lighter, crisper puds. I've started making my batter the day before I need it. I'm guessing the starch cells in the flour swell. Incidentally, this seems to be true with sponge cakes too.
  • 180°C seems to be the best temperature. Much hotter and the edges of the pud start to char before the centre has risen. Now, I like a little soggy starch in a pudding but not this much.
  • Yes the oil needs to be very hot before you add the batter but smoking hot means you fill your dining room/restaurant with same smoke to the vexation of your (paying) guests. Not cool.
  • Yorkshires bake and rise according to rules of physics not yet discerned by science. Interestingly, James Mackenzie, writing in his wonderful book On the Menu, tells you not to use the two central holes of a 12 hole tin to allow for better air circulation. There may be something in this.
  • Ignore any instruction that tells you a Yorkshire pudding can be baked in less than 20 minutes. Prue Leith indicates 15 mins at 200°C. I can only assume this is a typo.
So this is my recipe. Do I guarantee foolproof results? Do I bugger. Much will depend on the microclimate of your oven, on the size of your eggs, on your success with mixing the actual batter. But you'll probably end up with something crispy and edible that a passer-by would regard as a Yorkshire pudding. If you are consulting the opinion of strangers then you're either very lonely or rather too obsessed with your dinner (or both).

Jason's Recipie...

Heat the oven to 200°C. Whisk 4 eggs with 400ml milk. With the whisk running, add 250g plain flour in a smooth, continuous action. Add a very generous pinch of salt, a couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil or beef dripping and a big pinch of mustard powder (more like half a dessertspoon). You can leave out the mustard but I urge you to try it, espically if the puds are to accompany roast beef.

The batter
Whisk until smooth, something like gloss paint.Put a dessert spoon of oil/dripping in each cake tin hole. Put the cake tin in the middle of the oven for about ten minutes until very hot. Ladle enough batter to half fill each cake hole (they're not called cake holes are they!?) and replace the tin in the oven. reduce the heat to 180°C and bake for approx 25-35 minutes depending on how much sog you like. 25mins for soft and yielding with a crunchy top, 35 for completely crisp.

By the way, it's perfectly OK to specify 27 minutes or 31. Don't feel ashamed. 33 minutes is no more nor less pedantic than 30 or 35. Let's not get hung up on our baking integers! 

They'll probably go mental around 20 mins but stymie your excitement, they rarely maintain this height. As in life, pudding pride comes before a fall.

This amount of batter will make about 20 towering Yorkshires. They will all be eaten, if not during the meal, then afterwards, probably by a drunk person, with microwaved gravy. You know who you are.

Further recipes and reading: Roast Potatoes.   Beef Rib.   A better way to roast beef.

This one was cooked for 34 mins which is just too long for me, however, the rest of my family loved them.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

It's nice out

Great to finally open the patio doors and leave them open. Tonight was Danny's birthday. He and Natalie and their friends enjoyed indoors and out.

Danny and friends enjoy drinks, bread and nuts on the patio.

Mains was the beef shin again. It's a popular dish with lots of slow braised flavour. Easy gravy too. Just reduce the masses of braising liquor, made from the beef juices, beef stock, red wine and port. A touch of beurre manié to thicken and shine, maybe.

This is the bacon version

The starter was the non bacon version of my new herby French Gnocchi starter. Instead of the lardons I used slow roasted baby toms. These were dressed with oil, salt and pepper and a touch of smoked paprika before two hours of 80°C. I'm very happy with this dish and it's porky version. I think it might be my first signature starter.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

From plant to plate in ten minutes

I have served some home grown vegetables for the first time. OK, so most of my herbs are from the garden but this is the big, serious, leafy stuff. I was inordinately excited to pick and serve some purple kale. Simply wilted in a hot pan with a splash of water and olive oil, some salt and white pepper and served as a bed for my braised chicken with tarragon butter sauce. The orange alien limb on the plate is roast carrot puree. Can't seem to photograph that so it looks tasty. Why does something warm and buttery look cold and rubbery (and some might say, phallic)? Anyway, the kale's key here.

In other garden news (how rock 'n' roll is my life!?)... the raised bed is largely planted. Here are LOTS of varieties of strawberry including wild, potatoes, tomatoes, lemon verbena, yellow courgettes, peas and soon... borage.

I hear that fresh potatoes, as in: less than twenty four hours old, are the bomb. I don't think I've ever had any. Makes sense though doesn't it? Why do we not value freshness with root veg?

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Two Fine Boys and a Cheeseboard (it was a Dif Juz song... kinda... oh never mind)

Lots of firsts this weekend. First time this year we opened up the patio, Our busiest ever two days: party of eight and then a party of ELEVEN (our first and probably, hopefully, our last). First time  my youngest son has helped. First time I've done a proper split menu (not something I want to encourage) of beef or fish. And the third time I've done a cheeseboard... but the first time I've taken a photograph.

The cheeseboard features (sound like a bloody estate agent! The cheese board benefits from a lump of cheddar...) some of the finest British cheeses and preserves and also some home-made crackers and bread. Cheese from Neal's Yard: Montgomery Cheddar, Childswickbury, Croizier Blue and Tunworth. The preserves were a damson cheese from Neal's Yard and from Richard of the Preservation Collection some quince jam and some red pepper and chilli. I met Richard (@rich_graham) for a coffee last week and talked food at him for an hour or so. He's a patient man and very local so we took a tour of his kitchen too. He was actually nervous of supplying the quince; he wasn't sure it was up to scratch. It was. He'd added some elderflower too. It gave the jam a delicious honeyed aftertaste. I will be getting more.

I made some focaccia (Right) that I chargrilled and some new plain crackers (a mix of spelt, wheat and semolina). This is just flour(s) mixed with salt and water then kneaded until it's very smooth and elastic. Roll out, brush with salt water (not sure why - will investigate) and bake. I wanted a neutral flavour that didn't compete with the cheese and jams. It's a wonderful and social way to finish a meal. It just feels... civilised. For other crackers and for the focaccia recipe, look here

Despite the cost, I've decided only to serve British cheeses (well, and Eire). That's a distinction that's becoming more important to me. I've decided to stick to British food. We can argue about exactly what that means - it's certainly a moveable feast (sorry!). It won't be exclusive and I'll certainly borrow from the French and Italians. But I won't be serving heavily spiced food like curries or tagines. There are simply too many people out there who are far more skilled with those dishes. It's not like I'm sticking to what I know - lots of the recipes are new to me - but I do want to forge (too grand) a modern British flavour. Something like The Hand and Flowers pub, that recently won its second star. Their menu is full of French terms and Italian ingredients but it feels like it has a local integrity. I can only lust after their produce and skill (and prices) but you need a target.

Anyway, back to the weekend.

My two boys both helped on Saturday. And they were superb. Both did what they were told when they were told (I know!) which is essential in a kitchen (as there's only room for one ego) and both were forgiving of my mistakes and vigilant to potential improvements. I'm a proud father. Unfortunately, Fabian is at that stage of adolescence where he hates cameras, so he's rather blurred here.

Etien and Fabian. That's a temperature probe on the fridge. More about that... sometime.

It's also handy having more help as they can take the photos I always forget to. Here's one Fabian took of the Saturday dessert being plated up. Vanilla cheesecake with blackberries in their own coulis.

Dif Juz: Two Fine Days and a Thuderstorm. For me, a highly evocotive song. It's my first year of student life and Cardiff, playing in the band and doing my NCTJ and Eric, Liz and Nick.

Parmesan Thins

Really pleased with the look of these.
These are a delicate little crunch packed with strong flavours. I Didn't want to call these crisps as that usually refers to the plain, baked parmesan shavings. Biscuit sounds all wrong too. These are great as a drinks nibble before dinner. Big umami hit (oooh-mammy!). They're a doddle to make. The only technique-y bit is rolling between silpat or baking parchment. This is only necessary if you want the ultra fine finish. Thicker ones taste good too.

My thanks to @beeeze for the recipe.

Mix 50g plain flour, 75g ground almonds, 40g finely grated parmesan, 30g grated cheddar or some other flavoursome cheese (as opposed to flavourless!) 40g melted butter, 1 egg white, 1 tsp salt, black pepper, some (up to you) finely chopped rosemary or thyme and a big pinch of cayenne. Bring this together to a dough and roll as thin as you dare between two sheets of Silpat or some baking parchment. Silpat comes into its own here. It won't stick. Bake towards the top of a 190°C oven for 9-12 mins. Keep a close eye after 8 mins. Every second counts then (Depeche Mode anyone?). I like mine with a little colour - better flavour. Cut them out while still warm. I used a pizza cutter - less drag.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

A confession - one of those awful, introspective 'me, me, me' pieces that all bloggers inevitably succumb to.

I just want to be alone with my art... not really.
Blogging is tricky. It makes me fret. It shouldn't. You see, I'm a TV writer by tradeI've had a feature film (that bombed) and a few single dramas. I think I've written more episodes of BBC Casualty than anyone else. I've just done a Radio 4 play and I'm currently working on a new drama series idea - no it's not about a home restaurant. I love writing... about other people.

Blogging is personal writing. There's no characterisation to huddle behind. Yes, it's 'all my own werk' but... but... it's like the difference between acting and stand-up. It's my tone that bothers me: all seems a little... daytime TV. I have this fear that I sound like a QVC presenter. Y'know, too many exclamation marks; way too earnest; big scared eyes;  high maintenance. Forever frantic but not really that busy. It's all a bit 'love-me, love-me'.

You need confidence to blog. This is interesting. It's too close. It's a diary. It's all about me. TV writing has much in common with cheffing. You're the creative force, it's entertainment but you're not in front of the cameras. You can hide. But Blogging exposes too many of my affectations and tropes. For a start I am far too parenthetical in my writing. Caveat, caveat, caveat, caveat. And I use the word 'just' too often. And I start too many sentences with conjunctions.

The other problem is the subject matter. It's just not possible to write about food without sounding quaint. I mean, how do you describe dressing a green vegetable vinaigrette or French gnocchi with crème fraîche without massive twee-ness. Chefs/cooks might be ebullient and punctilious and even aggressive when their path to excellence is blocked by an idiot but I don't think they're macho. Perhaps if this was a big beef barbecue blog I could man it up but I'm stuck with herbes fine.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Three diabolical kitchen crimes

And that's the only time you'll ever see these three near my kitchen. How can I best vent my spleen? These all represent a notion of the original but have lost the essence, the flavour, the soul. They are food ciphers. A bit like when you order Pepsi or Diet Coke in McDonalds or some motorway service station. If you actually think about what you're drinking it's nothing like the original. If you had no reference point you'd probably reject this dark, sickly sweet, tasteless liquid out of hand. But you don't because you have the memory of Coke, probably formed when you were a child, reinforced by billions of advertising dollars. Glossy pictures of cool and sinuous glass bottles with a bead of condensation slipping past; pretty young people laughing at something hilarious said only moments before they all agreed to have mad sex with each other; frothy, frosty, thirst quenching Coke/Pepsi/Sprite. And because of all this, you're content to stand there, being yawned at by an indifferent adolescent, pulling the cellophane condom off your plastic straw so you can suck on your waxed cylinder of fizzy filth.

Look, apologies beforehand. This is a rant. For some reason I've not yet fathomed, bad food annoys me. Even when it's not for my consumption, it's very existence irritates the nits off me.


Nothing to do with gravy. Nothing to do with meat. Vegans can eat this stuff. There are only two flavourings: onion salt and malt extract. The rest is starch for thickening and something called ammonia caramel (just like Granny use to make) for colour. Oh, and salt of course. Oceans of salt. 

Gravy, like coffee and mashed potato, shouldn't come in granules. At its simplest, gravy is meat juices and sticky pan scraping, deglazed with a liquid. If you have the time (and you do - just watch the omnibus rather than the individual episodes) then make stock. Stock is the secret to good gravy. But I've banged on about stock before so I won't here. Alcohol is often good in a gravy. Red wine with beef; cider or armagnac with pork - or just apple juice; port or Madeira with most things. Leave your wine bottle remnants next to the hob rather than sending it drainwards. It will keep for days.

Of course, Bisto is quick but if you've just gone to the bother of roasting a joint or a bird, spend that extra ten minutes making a gravy. Put some onions, carrots and celery in with the joint. Mash that up with a liquid, some salt and pepper, maybe some redcurrant jelly or a fruit vinegar and it'll taste better than grotty granules.

Jif Lemon

Lemons are one of life's essentials (my life anyway), along with onions, butter and vanilla pods. Lemons are about the zest as much as the juice. When you squeeze a lemon into food, you also get the citrus oils with the juice. That's what gives you the tang, the smell, the zing, the interest. Without the oils you just have mouth puckering citric acid. Which is all Jif Lemon is... along with sodium metabisulphite. It's from concentrate of course which means it's been boiled - just in case any of those delicious, fragrant but volatile aromatic oils remain. Most flavour is not taste, it's smell. Without the aroma of lemon you simply have sour. It's like going to a concert with earplugs in. Muted! Lemons cost about 25p. Just buy one.

Dried Parmesan

It smells like sick. Need I say more? How is this still on the shelves? Mmm, pass the powdered cellulose, potassium sorbate, and cheese culture that honks like the bottom of a budgie cage please. Parmesan is used on the label the same way 'girlfriend' is on a sex doll. A small piece of parmesan, well wrapped, will keep for weeks, months, in your fridge so why on earth would you ever buy this nonsense? The difference between freshly grated parmesan and this is the difference between newly roasted coffee beans and MDF dust. Mind, Kraft are also the geniuses behind non-dairy cheese so what can we expect?

Saturday, 11 May 2013


"Delicious" is the term most often used to describe these by guests, along with the phrase "Oh! They're warm." These are the first things I present to guests, along with my home made rosemary focaccia. Fabe or Etien put them out while I potch around making final menu checks. They are often all gone in the five minutes it takes me to gather my camera and present myself to the new party. "These are... were... my warm, spiced nuts." The best praise is an empty plate.

My recipe is based on the Union Square Cafe dish that has been copied the world over. Mine is smokier with less chilli heat. I wanted to have something simple but different for diners; something that set the tone and standard of the restaurant as soon as they entered. The nuts go very well with a glass of wine or beer, of course.

Take 100g mixed nuts. Now, I say mixed but I try to avoid Brazilian and pistachio and I favour walnuts and pecans. Brazils are just too big - the bully of the nut world, and pistachios are so far outside the flavour of the family - the crazy cousin.

In an 180°C oven, heat the nuts on a baking tray for 8-10 minutes. You're looking for a slight change in colour but most importantly, a crispness. The time will vary on the type of nuts you're using.

While the nuts are warming, prep the spice mix in a bowl. I use a mortar and pestle so I can grind everything to a powder. Personally I don't like big bits of rosemary (unlike the picture above - ahem). Add 1 heaped tablespoon of muscovado sugar and 1 level tablespoon of sea salt (important - NOT table salt. I always use Maldon) with 1 tablespoon of finely chopped, fresh rosemary. To this add a good few grinds of black pepper, a half teaspoon of smoked paprika and a knife tip of cayenne - more if you like heat.

Add a good knob (maybe 25g) of butter to a pan a heat until it's just browning (beurre noisette). remove from the heat, add the nuts and coat with the brown butter. Allow to cool before adding the spice mix and stir thoroughly. Taste. You might want to add more salt. Beware any sticky lumps of spice mix; it's a brave person who swallows those. Although one guest did seem to seek them out.

Nita's (vegetarian) Night Out

This was my second all veggie evening and another all female event. Why don't men eat in groups, apart from curry houses? I served French gnocchi again, using the fry and refresh in oven technique which worked well. Here's the whole menu:

Ceci n'est pas un éclair au chocolat!
With apologies to René Magritte
Warm spiced nuts, treacle soda bread
and butter
Mushroom and truffle velouté
Fennel tarte tatin with beetroot purée
Cheese and onion eclairs (see right)
French gnocchi with green vegetable vinaigrette
Iced Tea Ice
Sticky apple sponges with rhubarb sorbet, 
apple crisps and crystallised pistachios
Cointreau chocolate truffles

I've made the savoury eclairs before but this is the first time I've managed a decent photo. This is normal pate a choux but with no sugar and added mustard, cheese and black pepper. The filling is a cheese mousse. This is made by scalding double cream then adding grated cheese, salt and white pepper. Chill in the fridge and then whip up as with normal cream. The topping's made of my slow roasted onion purée rendered darker and glossy by adding butter (of course), sticky balsamic reduction and dark soy. They look pretty convincing I think.  

Friday, 10 May 2013

Wood and dirt

There it is. My raised bed. Built it, with much help from eldest. Wood and topsoil from Travis Perkins. There's more work there than you might think. Mind, I don't know how much work you there is there so feel free to disregard that sentence. More garden updates when I have something interesting to blog. Can't quite believe I've posted a picture of dirt on the internet. I used to be quite the catch y'know.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Cooking is scary

It is. It's pooh scary. It's partly why I do it. Every single occasion is risky. From the mundane burning of toast to the exotic chemistry of split emulsions and gluten reactions to the nobody-knows of the unrisen macaron.

Almost anything can go wrong. Old, reliable, established recipes can suddenly result in something shockingly dull or dry. Often, the reason is arrived at with a slap of the forehead and an unused ingredient lurking behind a pot. But sometimes... God knows. I have made salmon paté many times. Never goes wrong. I tried the recipe with smoked mackerel (spelt with two 'e's. Who knew?). The result was inedible. It split to buggery and back, acquiring the texture of wet sand. Nothing would retrieve it. NOTHING. Still don't know why. If you have a idea, please do let me know.

Sugar and eggs are often culprits. The egg is particularly devious; containing two discreet units of yolky fat and albumen protein. You can whisk miracles with these, everything from Italian Meringue to mayonnaise, fried-over-easy to perfectly poached. But beware once heat and/or further fat is applied. Custards will move from runny to scrambled in a spoon beat. Mayos will run apart like squabbling siblings. Fine sieves and fast blenders are your friends here.

Worse is sucrose. Sugar's nature changes every few degrees over 110°C. 112°C gives you fudge, 120°C marshmallows and gummy bears, 148°C results in hard toffee and peanut brittle. 175°C and you have a dark, dangerous caramel. 190°C and you have men with yellow hats and hoses. But of course, sugar doesn't change uniformly in temperature, however thick your pan is. If you've made caramel you'll have seen a pale straw suddenly darken and taste of bitter hell.

Temperature is always a concern. Recipes say to 'put it in the oven'. But where? Middle, top, bottom? Pizzas benefit from bottom only heat don't they? I can put two trays of identical profiteroles in my oven, one only two inches below the other, and the bottom rack will take a good 20% longer. This even happens with the fan oven. I will never understand Yorkshire puddings. If the outside ones were burnt that would make sense but occasionally I'll have two seemingly random, much darker than all the others, while one will not rise at all. Of course, is your oven actually at 220? Oven thermometers are the solution there. My oven varies by 15°C top to bottom. I once GRILLED ten lamb shanks for ten minutes because I clicked the mode once too much. Luckily they were wrapped in foil and something charred, alerting me.

Tip: trust your nose: if it smells wrong, it is. If it smells cooked, despite what the recipe calls for, then check. Cooked food smells cooked.

Then there's the range of ingredients that increases daily and the literally limitless combinations thereafter. The world gets smaller. Ten years ago I'd never heard of ras-el-hanout,dragon fruit, Moghrabieh, sumac, or rose harissa. I'll let you Google them.

More locally, the rise of foraging and generally a greater interest in domestic produce has brought samphire, fennel pollen, lesser celandine, ground ivy, liquorice root and sea buckthorn. Do you pan fry them (always on Masterchef!), grill them, blanch them or bake them? For each technique there are parameters to observe. What's too soft or too crunchy? Would you know if your buckfast was ripe? Is ground ivy meant to be stringy?*

Forget the exotic. I'm embarrassed at the range of foods I've never cooked. Albatross, aardvark, panda. OK, but really... lobster, never even looked at one. I've eaten it (invariably I prefer crab - really don't get the lobster hoo-ha) but I've never killed one. But more mundane: grouse, sardines, cauliflower FFS! Shocking.

But nothing is more scary than staring at a pan that contains something eagerly awaited by eight people, all sitting in your dining room, all of whom have paid for the pleasure and only you know that you've made a right arse of it. And you have no more left. And even if you did, it would take four hours to make a new one.

Now this hasn't happened to me... not yet. But it's bound to. Mistakes always happen. I've cooked maybe a dozen dishes, EVER, that I thought could not be improved. Luckily most mistake are small. People won't miss the lack of tarragon garnish or that extra apple crisp but they will miss the main course... because I dropped it, or forgot to put it in the oven, or left it in too long (TIMERS - ALWAYS USE A TIMER. Even if, no especially if, it's only for a couple of minutes). I dread the phrase 'so who likes omelet?' But I know it will come.

One of the real problems with slow cooked meat - if you've been paying attention here you'll know this is my choice - is you don't know if it's tasty, if it's tender, if it's frickin' edible, until the last minute. You can't test fry a piece of pork belly or beef shin or brisket. It could be the best thing you've ever put in your mouth... or the furthest you've ever thrown a piece of cow in frustration.

So far the worst has been me making six apple cakes for seven people. Luckily, graciously, two guests pretended to be full anyway and happy with half each. A sticky toffee sauce split on me once. A fast re-whisk with some extra creams solved that. Forearms like Popeye, me. I've dropped a soufflé but the ramekin didn't break. No one commented that one was a little flatter than the others. I did own up though. I think honesty is better. And when I do suffer a catastrophe I pledge to tell you.