Monday, 31 March 2014

Redcurrant Jelly (or: SEE! It doesn't always work for me)

Nice colours... but not much else
I've been asking around for a quality redcurrant jelly. I use it a lot, often in beef and lamb gravy. It adds an interesting fruity sweetness. I've never found one with much depth of flavour though. It's all been a bit one dimensional. Anyway, answers there came but one: make your own. 

So I did.

Not good.

I imagine the arse end of an awful winter is not the right time to be buying berries. I did anyway. £4 for two tiny Sainsbury's punnets. Yes sir, we saw you coming from the end of the road, maybe further. Probably raised under glass in the dim, watery, wintery sun. About as effective as being bullied into growth by an asthmatic with a torch.

I boiled the berries gently in just enough water to cover, for about ten minutes, until tender. Then dripped them over a muslin-ed sieve for a few hours. I then added 130g of sugar to the collected liquid and heated it all to 104°C.

The result... It's not much is it? 

Frankly, you disgust me.

Think how much liquid there would be without 130g of sugar. Nice colour? Yes. Expensive? Very. Packed with flavour? No. Interesting? No. Different to shop bought? Only in its lack of flavour.  I think I'll try again in the late summer, maybe pick my own berries.

Even easier focaccia

Look at that texture! I make this bread at least once a week. I've been experimenting and found that if you only prove the dough once you get a lighter texture and no less flavour. This means the want-focaccia-eat-focaccia cycle is now under two hours. I realise there may be purists squeaking with alarm and indignation but I cannot tell the difference between one prove and two. In fact, guests actively seem to prefer this new recipe. I know my children do.

You'll need a small square baking tin. I use this 9" square one. Don't use anything bigger or you won't get as good a rise (too much surface area). Take 100g of plain flour, 200g of strong bread flour and 10g dried yeast. This is more than one of those little packets but you shouldn't be buying them anyway. Buy a little tin. They're next door on the supermarket shelf. If your scales doesn't do 10g then just use a tablespoonful. Mix this up. If you're Popeye, go ahead and do this by hand in a big bowl. Otherwise use a mixer. Don't use the dough hook, use the normal paddle. Add 50ml of good olive oil mixed in with 220ml of cold water. Yes, cold. Beat this in and let the machine run for a few minutes. Now add 5-10g of salt and three inches of rosemary, finely chopped. Let the machine run until the dough starts to look shiny and elastic. It will be sticky. You would struggle to knead this by hand.

From this, lumpy mix...

To this. Smooth, elastic and with a shine. See those long, glutinous strands?
That will give your bread structure.

Splash a little oil in your tin and then Pour/scoop/scrape the dough in also. Press the dough into the corners, working the oil into the dough. You don't need to cover this. The oil will prevent the dough drying out. Let the dough prove in a warm, draft free space for at least an hour, until it's at the top of the tin. 

Bake at 230°C for just 13-15 minutes. You want a good golden colour. While it's still warm, splash the top with good olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt.

When it's cool, I cut mine into squares and griddle (as above). This adds much flavour. Serve with olive oil and balsamic vinegar or a chunky tomato sauce (or a tin of soup).

Saturday, 29 March 2014

The group shot - let's make a change

Introducing the new group shot. I'm bored of taking the same photo at the table. It needs a big depth of field for a start and invariably I don't have enough light - unless I turn everything on and have my guests blinking and grimacing into the camera like bug eyed chameleons under the Attenborough torch. No. Let's start the evening with a shot composed by the group. Ideally with some narrative. Maybe with props.

This is the official pic of Sam's group (Sam is front left). I did rather spring the idea on them. They discussed suspending someone at the front but settled for the school photo. Sam is another Palmers Green adventurer in food and has just started up a company called Layla's Pantry (@LaylasPantry) making premium quality comestibles. She's starting with peanut butter but the plan is to have an ever expanding range.

Back to the group shot... I actually think I prefer this picture. It has the disadvantage that you can't see many faces but it does have mystery. What is Graham looking at?

Monday, 24 March 2014

A recipe book. Or not.

Just insert words and pictures

I get asked if I am going to 'do' a recipe book. Well, no. Not really. Why? Because no bugger is offering me any money to do so. Because I am an unknown in a vast field. Because, save for this meagre effort, I am awful at self promotion. But mainly because all my recipes are pinched from other people (just as they pinched before them). Alright, some are original assemblies of elements from other recipes (but also pinched). It's almost impossible to be truly original in cooking. Food is old. Eating is old and really rather popular. If it can be eaten it has been. If it can be pureed, freeze dried, sun dried, sous-vided, desiccated or flock sprayed, it has been. And that's just ONE of Heston's recipes for chips.

However! I have let the notion distract me. If I were to 'do' a book, what would it be? How could I compete for shelf space? What would my spine appeal be? In what manner would dear readers covet my covers?

Well, I finally have my approach.

I am very systematic in my approach to things. If I'm good at one thing, this is it. I like to make molecules; to break parts down to their simplest constituents and then rebuild. It's why I'm good at organising. You cannot cook well if you organise badly. OK, you can make a sandwich without fear of injury but a six course meal might mean you losing a limb.

I also notice that while recipes are obviously necessary they are problematic because they stop you thinking about the various processes involved. Why do you blanch the onion first? Why seal the meat? Worse are the calls to not overwork or overwhip or underbake without testimony or illustration to reveal when you are close to infraction. What are the parameters? I once saw an instruction to use water that was NEARLY boiling. FFS.

Also, and all too often, some recipes merely repeat instruction for reasons unknown., like wipe not wash your mushrooms. (Heston is very good at debunking cooking myths.) Mushrooms don't absorb water you know. Try weighing them before and after a deluge if you don't believe me. The web has been brilliant too at allowing the truly dedicated, fixated and pedantic to flash their wares. The Syrup and Tang site has so many pictures of macarons/macaroons at every stage of the process. BUT  of the mistakes and the successes. They do so you don't have to. I found it invaluable.

Great numbers of people, reticent and querulous as so many are when put before an oven, do just follow the written injunctions. They/you know no better.  It's all very well for Nigel Slater to tell you that recipes are only blueprints and encourage rule breaking but you have to understand them before you can break them and if this the first, and probably last, Mary Berry layered chocolate rum cake you've ever made and it's for Nanny Jones' 80th and Sainsbury's have no more of this good chocolate left... then you sure, as eggs are something Delia taught you to boil, aren't going to branch out on your own. Are you? Does it matter if the cake tin is 12" and not 8"? Where in the oven should it be? Does a fan really change the cooking time? Does opening the door matter? Nanny Jones says it does - but she's off her face on the rum. Your mother did warn you. She may be old but she's sly.

I want a book that's like a Latin Primer. Simple examples that illuminate future complexity. Let's say a dozen recipes that introduce you to all the basic techniques and the chemistry of cooking. Each step would be photographed. Overwhipping and underbaking would be demonstrated. You need to know the verbs and nouns before you approach the sentence  This would definitely include a loaf of bread. There are only four ingredients necessary in bread: flour, water, yeast and salt. So how come so many awful loaves? (For that matter, how come so many appalling martinis - where there's only three,if you include the twist and you really should be*). You need to know about gluten and how this is a matrix to capture the gas the yeast makes. Bread is a gluten foam that is hardened by heat; by baking in an oven. The book would explain all about gluten; when it's good to work it and when it's not. You want it in bread but not in pastry. I think I'd like a simple central recipe with annotations all around. You can read the instructions but also learn the reasons for the instructions. Maybe pages you could fold out? It's as complex as you want. A culinary Talmud if you will. After the simple recipe there would be further, more complex breads with other ingredients. I think this may work well as a tablet app.

There would also be a simple sponge cake recipe. The most basic cake used to be called a pound cake by the Victorians because it used a pound each of fat, flour and sugar. That's all cake is. But it's also what biscuits are... and pastry. What's the difference? What's 'short' mean in a crust? Probably need to know about gluten again. I want the reader to understand exactly why they are adding eggs, or baking powder or ground almonds. If you know WHY it's there, you will be able to remedy situations when you've forgotten to add it. Or if you can leave it out.

We need a little physics too... sorry... but if only to deal with cake tins. How often does the tin in your kitchen match the requirements of the book? I have a deep 8" square not a 10" round but the mix fits. Should I change the cooking time? And why specify 20-25 minutes if you're not to to explain what might happen in the interim? What's meant to be going down - apart from the middle when you take it out too early?

I'd also have a roast chicken (for cooking muscle and making stock), a meat pie (for pastry and slow cooking), some pan fried fish, a white sauce, and custard.

So that's my idea. I don't even have a name for it yet. Anyone fancy financing it? Anyone going to Amazon me a link to just such a book?


Postscript. My friend Bee (wonderful photographer - she makes the mundane beautiful) suggests this could be a simpler, more practical version of McGee. She's right.

*And the number of times I've seen bartenders lovingly strip off a piece of fresh zest and then twist it AWAY from the glass. Sheesh. It's about the citrus oils! That's the difference between a mediocre Martini and staggering home at 4am with a strange mobile number written on your hand.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Neighbours Ken and Moira and a vegetable terrine

So that's clearly not Ken but it is Moira, in the middle (and let's not joke about who's the vegetable terrine!), flanked by another Moira and a Maria, friends from school (don't anyone use that awful word 'bezzies'. Yuk.) Ken was a little camera shy maybe. They came to us to celebrate their 24th wedding anniversary. They only live two doors down. They are always gregarious and interesting but I always seem to wake up with a sore head. Anyway, Moira is a fish eating vegetarian...

Good colours

This is a vegetable terrine; my first in fact. It's loosely based on a Michel Roux recipe. I used wilted spinach as a casing and a filling of celeriac mousse. It's not complicated or even very fiddly. You line a terrine tin (loaf tin) with cling film and then with spinach, blanched for a few seconds. The case is filled with mousse and layers of vegetables. 
I used celerybeans and asparagus, which were blanched for a few minutes, and roasted carrot and shallots. Why roasted? For more flavour and some sweetness. I managed to find some long thin carrots which was very useful. In retrospect I might prefer more veg and less mousse. The mousse was made by cubing 300g of peeled celeriac (about a half) and simmering this with 500ml of double cream until the root is tender. Season with salt and white pepper. Blend this until very smooth then add three egg yolks and four eggs and pulse a few more times. I then added some finely chopped parsley and lemon thyme.

Blanched and refreshed
Top the whole with more blanched spinach and pull in the cling film tightly over the top. Don't worry about cling film in the oven. Cook the terrine at 160°C for around 1 hour and 20 minutes. Cool and then chill in the fridge overnight. Allow the terrine to warm to room temperature before serving. This is for flavour and texture. Cold veg don't taste of much. 

I served the terrine with roasted tomatoes that I'd coated with a mix of salt, sugar and spices. I cooked them for only six minutes or so at 250°C. I wanted a slightly charred exterior. This was plated with lots of parsley and a vinaigrette sweetened with some gooseberry jam (see above). Michel Roux suggests his pear and lime salsa. If I ever manage to find a pear that's somewhere between a rock and mush, I'll make some and try it.

Quite pretty. 

This was the fish dish they had for mains. Pan fried cod with a anchovy and rosemary butter. Accompanied with charred gem and braised (and then fried to colour a little) fennel. This was served with fennel seed roasted 'crash' potatoes - par boiled, crushed and roasted with a drizzle of olive oil.

Toffee apple pudding and Crème fraîche ice cream

No, that's not Branston Pickle on the sponge. But yes, that is a large and rather delicious blackberry tadpole.

One of those happy kitchen accidents. I turned my back for a moment and my apple juice and sugar reduced rather too quickly to a caramel. I managed to catch it before it actually burnt though. There is a gnat's wing between a deep caramel and monstrous sugary tar. I cooled the pan quickly in a bowl of cold water to stop the cooking process.

You start with these:

You end up with this:

There are six elements to this dish:

1. Apple sponges

2. Toffee apple sauce
3. Apple crisps
4. Crystallised walnuts
5. Blackberry sauce
6. Crème fraîche ice cream

This dessert is a variation of the apple and rhubarb dish I did last year. That was based on a James Mackenzie recipe. However  this replaces the rhubarb sorbet with Philip Howard's crème fraîche ice cream. I wanted something tangy, and not so creamy to cut against the sticky apple sauce. This is really worth trying. Even if you don't have an ice cream machine. The texture is very silky and there's no annoying, splitty, stir-me-for-an-hour, mother of a custard to make as a base. 

The first four elements are in the original recipe (substituting walnuts for the pistachios). Just take the apple sauce that bit further, heating it until it becomes a caramel. I'm not going to offer any reassurance here. You may well burn it. It is a bugger.

The blackberry sauce is... blackberries and sugar syrup whizzed together then sieved.

Creme Fraiche Ice Cream

About as simple as it gets this. There's very little cooking. A child could do it... if it didn't involve burny, melty sugar.

Combine 110g caster sugar and 35g liquid glucose in a heavy pan with 50g water and gently heat until the mass has dissolved. Off the heat, allow to cool, and then whisk in the 260ml 
Crème fraîche, 260ml double cream and 15ml of lemon juice. Cool the pan in a bowl of ice water and when very cold, churn in your ice cream maker. 

Now for some reason I can't fathom, Phil calls this a sorbet. There maybe some technical say-so for this but it's escaping me. He also warns against churning more than two hours before eating but I've had this after two hours and after a week. On neither occasion did I complain.

A note on plating up... paste a blob of the sticky apple on the plates to secure the walnut mix as a base for the ice cream.If you don't the whole shebang will skate across the plate like a black and white Buster Keaton, as soon as you pick it up.

While I was looking up things for this post I found this picture on The Square's website.

Golly, doesn't THAT look fantastic. I'm assuming it's a beetroot and goats cheese starter.
I will steal! Philip Howard is an artist indeed.