Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Crystallised rose petals

Start with these...
'I must be secure in my masculinity.' I thought, standing in the kitchen: overweight, long haired and bearded, surrounded by rose petals; brushing each one delicately with lightly beaten egg white before placing it with tweezers on Silpat and dusting with caster sugar. I must have made an interesting spectacle. If the lads from the Valleys could see me now...

In truth I've been wanting to do this for ages. I love the perfume and taste of roses - blame it on Fry's Turkish Delight maybe? - I just haven't had the wherewithal to remember to ask after 'ripe' roses. Sadly, they won't grow in my garden. They have to be perfect too and be a variety grown still for perfume and not simply for appearance. Maybe that's what happened with my rearing - grown for aroma not looks?

I was discussing menus with Mahan, who's dining with us on Thursday and mentioned that I was pining after some petals. Turns out her mother grows the right type of rose and Mahan, very kindly, dropped some off. 

I'm planning on serving the crystallised petals with peaches roasted in a bain-marie of rose and orange scented syrup stuffed with a nut crumble and served with a little vanilla mascarpone.

Brushed with egg white and dredged with sugar
Rose petals are easy to crystallise. It's a faff yes, but a soothing faff... and as we approach the work desert that is August, I need some balm. I'm rubbish with holidays.

Whisk some egg white until it's light and frothy and paste onto perfect petals using a good, soft pastry brush or very, very clean (let's say 'new') paintbrush. lay the petals onto Silpat or baking parchment, etc and sprinkle with caster sugar. I actually took mine a few turns in the food processor for a finer grind.

Bake (fan oven if you have one) for at least four hours at 50°C or until crisp. Don't be tempted to go hotter and faster or the petals will brown. Be very careful with storage. The petals will wilt with a whiff of moisture and will fall apart with even slightly rough handling. Delicate things.

I'm off to wrestle a bear now.

The end result, after a mere five hours

Edit. Here's the finished dessert, incorporating the petals... and the group responsible for it.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Poaching peaches... for Helen.

Poached, cooling... ready to be denuded. What fantastic colours
Lamb chump with pea puree and pickled red cabbage
"I thought I'd leave it up to you." Said Helen. Some groups are very specific in their desires, some are not. Both come with benefits, and their challenges. A specific menu makes you work harder; a cluster of aversions or allergies can make you more creative. It's good to have to rethink. A return to a favourite is a chance to get it just right for once again.
Helen was very trusting for her birthday meal. "Thought I'd leave it up to you."She said. A little enquiry revealed a love of lamb and asparagus and that Peach Melba is her favourite dessert. We decided on asparagus and duck egg starter, my lamb chump main and a dessert of poached peaches.

Helen, in white, in the middle.
Peaches are just right at the moment. Ripe and cheap. I don't understand the winter selling of these fruit. In July they are luscious, juicy and rich with colour and flavour. In November they are like eating very expensive candle wax (£1.99 for two, Waitrose!). However, even the best fruit can be enhanced by a little poaching, introducing some additional flavour and sweetness and leaving the fruit gleaming.

I poach mine in sugar syrup, usually in a deep (and very clean) frying pan. There are many favours to try. Elderflower works well, or raspberry if you want that classic Melba take. Here I went for rose, partly because a friend donated a bottle of rose liqueur. You can obviously use rosewater though. A basic sugar syrup (sometimes called simple syrup) is made by bringing equal weights of sugar and water to a boil. Start with 500g of each.

Some of my syrups:
Spice, citrus and vanilla
I always add some spices and citrus to my syrups too. Here I chucked in loads of things: peppercorns, cloves, allspice, cinnamon and orange peel. Cardamom is wonderfully aromatic but I didn't on this occasion. I have no idea of the quantities  You can't make a mistake really though. The clear syrup will take on the colours of the peach skins: a gorgeous, glowing ruby/garnet. The timings depend, naturally, on the ripeness of the fruit. The ones above were four minutes but as we progress through to firmer fruit, maybe eight or nine. I cut mine before poaching. I cannot yet find a way of removing a stone from a whole poached peach without making a major mush.

Once poached, allow to cool and then peel. You will need to peel, as the poaching turns the once downy coating into a tough tongue torment. I feel there must be something interesting to be done with them though. Perhaps if I stretch them out and crisp them up in a slow oven? It's tricky though because the working window between burny hot but pliable and cold, sticky rag is very small. Might be a nice garnish though: a weirdly shaped but wonderfully coloured sail.

Post poaching, you'll be left with a fabulous, rich syrup. It will keep for ages in the fridge. Use it for further poaching or pour it over ice cream. Combine it with whipped cream for a fake syllabub or cocktail it with lemon juice and vodka (2 vodka, 1 lemon, half syrup) for an interesting end to dinner.

I served mine with almond biscuits, a nutty crumble mix and a passionfruit syllabub. 

Another way to go, something I used to do in my 20s, would be to press the crumble mix with a little added butter into the peach halves and flash them under a hot grill. Serve with a good drizzle of the rose scented syrup and some frosted petals. Try and find a good old English rose variety that still smells of something.

Asparagus tart and Mardi Gras masks

Possibly the strangest picture I've taken in the restaurant.
'Fur and Feathers' was the original theme apparently, until someone pointed out that this was July and could result in guests perspiring, despairing and expiring! So, Jennifer's group - self declared 'ladies who lunch', and who have been doing so for nearly two decades - decided upon 'Mardi Gras'. Hence the masks... and the crayons on the table.

The menu planning for the group had been quite testing, arriving eventually at a three way split for mains: lamb, fish and vegetable dish. I normally try and avoid this, mainly because of timing issues. You can't rehearse a three way split aside from making all three dishes and that's obviously an expensive endeavour. So you plan well and hope you've covered all contingencies. I don't want to be slicing prime Romney Salt Marsh lamb chump only to realise that the vegetarian option needs another ten minutes in the oven. You get one shot with a supper club, especially with fish.

So I wanted a simple starter. Simple but delicious obviously, and one that needed little faff at service. An asparagus and ricotta tart was the conclusion. My first.

I sampled a few recipes and combined the best elements of all. I probably would have added some lardons of smokey pancetta but half the group was vegetarian. The added ricotta improves a simple quiche I think. A few of the recipes ask you to blanch the asparagus for two to three minutes and then bake for half an hour. This, I am confident, would result in sludge pie. Unless it is very woody, in which case it should be peeled anyway, I blanch mine for no more than 90 seconds. The blanching process - plunging into boiling and then iced water - is important too for the colour. Roasted asparagus can take on a very unappealing khaki hue otherwise. Not nice - unless you're sheltering from enemy combatants in the desert. I also used a long, oblong tart tin; it seemed to make sense, allowing a greater density of asparagus than a round one. You obviously have a lot of trimmings when cutting the spears to size. I put these at the bottom of the tart, useful also to stop the top layer submerging.

I served the tart with a simple salad of pea shoots and lambs lettuce in a tomato vinaigrette. In retrospect I would have added some oven roasted tomatoes and/or bacon lardons.

Asparagus and Ricotta Tart

Trim the woody parts off about 30 medium thickness spears of asparagus. Blanch in boiling water for 90 seconds and then place into ice water. You need the spears to be of similar thickness. None of your jumbo stuff, nor the wilting baby stems.

Take 300g of pastry. I made my usual Roux brothers' recipe Pâte Brisée but normal shop bought shortcrust or flaky would be fine. I shot mine through with some chopped rosemary and thyme and a knife point of cayenne. if you want to make your own, there's a great video on the Chef Steps site. [Although if you do watch the video, look out for the rolling out bit. They claim that's 3mm thickness. if it is, I'm not a fat Welshman.]
Chill your pastry and roll out to fit your tin, allowing a good overhang. The overhang is important. The case will shrink in the oven. Chill this for at least 30 minutes. Recipes usually say to the thickness of a pound coin but I like to try for thinner if I can - disliking great slabs of cardboardy carbohydrate.  But then, I also spend far too much time making a second... and third (bloody) pastry case. It's probably the greatest cause of nocturnal howls in my household.

Take your chilled pastry case and prick all over with a fork. Line with baking paper and beans/lentils/coins etc and bake blind for 20 minutes at 180°C. The case should be a very pale beige and still pliable. Remove baking blind beans (or whatever). Now you can cut your case to the edge of the tin. I do this by gently rolling across the top with a rolling pin, it seems to crack less than when I try with a knife. and apply an egg wash all over the insides and edges. This is to waterproof the case but it makes for a much more attractive glazed bake too. Bake for a further five minutes. remove and allow to cool.

Check how long your spears need to be and cut them all to length, reserving the offcuts.

Mix together 200g of ricotta with 3 large eggs and one additional egg yolk, 300ml of double cream, a good pinch of salt and white pepper and the finely grated zest of one unwaxed lemon. Add a handful of mint leaves, chopped. Don't do as the BBC Good Food site recommends and sprinkle this on the top of the tart... unless you're a fan of mint ash. What were they thinking?

Pour some of the mix into the case, until about half way up. Pile in the asparagus offcuts and then arrange the longer spears across the top. Place in the oven and finish by pouring in enough mix to just meet the top layer of asparagus.

Bake for about 20 minutes. Check before that though. You want your cream mix to have a little wobble. But be careful. three minutes will make a difference. Check often. It may take 20 minutes, it may take 30. Allow to cool before attempting to remove from the tin.

Serve with aplomb and a light sprinkling of Maldon salt.

If you have any mixture remaining, you can always bake this with additional veg or bacon, in a ramekin or bowl as a chef's treat. Or you can leave it in the fridge for a day or two, promising yourself that you will bake it because you hate waste. And then not. And then throw it away. 

That time between noticing something in the fridge is past its best and knowing you will throw it out... and the time you actually do: that shameful interval should have a name.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Duck eggs... and how to sous vide them

Eggs. Duck eggs.
That's an egg. Specifically it's a duck egg. I now know more about duck eggs that I ever thought possible. I know they are 30% larger than a hen's egg (always hen, not chicken, strange) so you should cook two duck for three hen. That little white, springy thing so detested by Belinda is called a chalaza (plural: chalzae) and is merely part of the albumen scaffolding, keeping the yolk centred in the egg. It has two contra-twisted threads. Quite clever (but still disgusting, according to my wife). Duck has much more fat and protein. There are three types of white albumen which is contains different proteins to hen's so cooks differently. If it's zinc or potassium you want, walk not further. Duck's are the eggs for you. I care about none of the above. What does matter is a duck egg has a much larger yolk, which, let's face it is what an egg is about, unless you're baking with it. What also became important is the little known fact that duck eggs have harder shells and much tougher inner shell membranes.

Waiting for an egg.
I wanted to sous vide duck eggs to serve with my new asparagus starter. Sous vide meaning cooked in a water bath of any temperature, not just boiling. On instructional videos, I watched many chefs place eggs in the water without protecting them. Sod that. I bagged mine first. What if they cracked in the bath? I'd have barely set albumen all over my impeller. That would not do.

The asparagus dish works well with hen but they are too small. There's not enough yolky goodness. I had the idea of serving the eggs on the table in egg boxes - kept pristine for the occasion. It would be a fun bit of table theatre for guests to crack the eggs into a nest of buttered asparagus and a toasted rosemary crumb. A kind of make your own hollandaise. And it was. It works. There's no horror story here sorry.

The 70 minute egg. Nope.
The issue was the temperature and the timing. All the sous vide recipes I found were for hen's eggs. If I wanted a 'poached' egg I'd always done them for 13 minutes at 75°C but if you do this with a duck you harden the inner membrane which then sticks to the white albumen making it almost impossible to:
a. break the egg and
b. nothing comes out when you do.
The egg sits in the shell, sniggering at your ineptitude. Stupid cook!

So I tried many variations. 70 minutes at 64°C. Yup! Nooo. Yuk. Yes, it was cooked but way too (I have to say it) snotty. Who like that texture? Apart from my mate Paul Mari, who I suspect would neck them raw. Also, having such a long cooking time is impractical in the kitchen. I can't have guests waiting an hour while I cook an egg! But I can't start cooking until they all arrive; people sometimes are delayed. So what temperature delivered a decent texture without the recalcitrant membrane? 

It's 69°C. Cook your duck egg, straight from the fridge, for 20 minutes. And that's not a rounding off. I tried 27, 25, 24 and 22. Fabian and I love a poached egg. But maybe less so this week. What with serving guests at the weekend, I went through 40 eggs in five days. 20 minutes at 69°C. Delicious - at least for the first ten times.

Egg in action - being eaten.

Monday, 20 July 2015

A weekend of old friends starting with asparagus

Ali and Ken on the right. I confess I made them hold the badminton racket/raquet
We don't have many Thursday-Friday-Saturday bonanzas thankfully, more than two days in the kitchen, especially in July heat, and I start to doubt my love of cooking. But these were special groups. Ali (above) and Steve (below) were among the very first to support us when we kicked off in our original fund-raising form. Ali's brought back several other groups but this was Steve\s first return. He'd been busy moving house/building house/getting married in the interim.

Steve on the right, Rachel on the left.
Ali's group were her badminton group. I've played them all; beaten a few. I used to be a keen badminter. Less so now although I must start again - or some other exercise. Fed up of rolling out of bed feeling like I've been beaten up.

Ali's group now hold the honour for having the longest, loudest political discussion debate/debacle ever held in New River Restaurant. This wasn't surprising given the range of views around the table and the lack of timidity of those holding. The discussion was loud, wide ranging, voluble and never knowingly hindered by facts. 

Steve's group was positively sedate by comparison.

Plating designed to take and contain a duck egg.
Both had agreed to my new starter of asparagus. The spears were blanched for 90 second  - no more! - before service and then rolled around in brown butter in a 180°C oven for three minutes. The result was tender without that awful wilt. This was served on a bed of rosemary crumb, with parmesan shavings and some brilliantly smokey, local pancetta (from F. Norman in Oakwood). This was coupled with a sous vide duck egg, served in egg boxes to be cracked by guests - a nice bit of table theatre. Working out the timings of the duck egg was also a bit of theatre. I'll blog more about that soon. Suffice to say that Fabian and I have eaten rather a few in the last few days, with more in the fridge, waiting to be refreshed.

Complete with egg. I was slow with my camera hence dish in advanced state of eat.

The badminters were Thursday, Saturday brought the tennis team. Booked by Helen, the group included a few restaurant returnees (including Bina of coffee conundrum fame). Another lively night. I've never seen an entire table of guests rush to dance quite so quickly. A few bars of Cheryl Lynn's 'It's Got to be Real' flushed the table for the floor. Apparently their tennis club recently had a 'Strictly' evening which may explain their behaviour (Helen was robbed apparently) The men in particular seemed keen to show their signature moves  - see below.

No hoary old tennis puns please. Helen on the right.

Lemon cream crumble

It's not a lemon crumble in the traditional sense of apple or blackberry. Sorry. This is a bit cheffy-poncy. These days anything with a crunchy topping can be called a 'crumble' and I have fallen foul of this fashion. This is a non traditional topping anyway, using not just rubbed flour and butter, but oats, bran and nuts for lighter and crunchier doings.

Mentioning blackberry crumbles makes me remember picking the things with my mother off overhanging walls in Abertridwr and Senghenydd (yeah, pronounce those English people). We'd take the berries in our bramble blooded hands and soak them overnight to remove dust and detritus. In the morning, each bowl would have a little flotilla of drowned maggots floating in the water. The fruit would then be combined with not nearly enough sugar to produce a fruit compote of startling tartness that would end its days heaving under a heavy floury crumble. Happy days.

This cream crumble only happened because I wanted something to serve with my poached peaches and orange sorbet. Though both delicious and very summery, both are a little tart and soft and need a mollifying cream AND a contrasting crunch. It seemed sensible to combine both requirements into one dish. This could be eaten on its own of course. Call it a syllabub crunch or something, which technically it is. You could also pipe it into profiteroles and serve with a fruity sauce.

The cream can be lemon, vanilla, any kind of fruit. Make a puree and combine with stiffly whipped cream. In this case, I used lemon curd. The topping is actually very granola-like, using oats, nuts and bran. Almost sounds healthy doesn't it - if we close our eyes to the butter and sugar. Our eyes maybe, never our hearts.

Oaty, nutty crumble topping (doubles up as granola)

It's a versatile thing this. I imagine (not tried yet) you could pour this into a shallow tray of melted chocolate and make your own granola bars. I used almonds here as the topping was to marry with peaches and orange but obviously change the nut to work with your dish.

I've also an idea (doubtless not new) about omitting the sugar and making a savoury crumble to go on something cheesy or to add interest to a soft dish of aubergine - god knows they need it. I also used malted flour but feel free to use plain or wholemeal.

In a bowl, combine: 50g of rolled oats, 25g of bran (breakfast stuff is dandy) 40g of malted flour, 50g of crunched up almonds (or any nut), big pinch of salt and 50g of caster sugar. Mix well. You could add spices or zest at this stage. Perhaps ginger, cinnamon or cloves for a fruit topping. Pour over 60g of melted, unsalted butter and mix in.

Spread the mix in a shallow tray or baking sheet lined with baking paper or silicone and bake at 180°C for ten to fifteen minutes. The longer: the darker: the more flavour, but be careful not to burn it. If you are putting it on fruit to make a proper crumble you don't need to pre-cook it at all.

Lemon Curd.

The instructions for curd almost always tell you to mix the ingredients in a bowl over simmering water. Standing there, stirring for half an hour. Sod that! This is often tricky and always a tedious faff. I do it straight over heat in a thick pan. It works fine, with the caveat that I use a thermometer to monitor. Your eggs will take the heat without a problem up to about 70°C and you can heat them quickly up to this point. Once this critical, protein denaturing stage is reached though you must whisk continuously and quickly. This should take no longer than 15 minutes.  Have a bowl of very cold water ready to cool the mix when it thickens, else you could end up with sugary scrambled eggs. Your washing up bowl or sink is fine. Just don't leave the curd pan there and forget about it, ready to be ruined by the careless toss in of a used teacup - as someone may have once done in our household.

Zest and then juice four unwaxed lemons. You can used the cheaper waxed but there will be less zesty zing and that's what we're after. If your zest is not very fine, chop with a knife until it is. I use a micro-plane grater so don't need to. In a heavy pan, combine zest with juice and 200g caster sugar, 100g butter, three eggs and a additional yolk. Whisk together thoroughly over a low heat. Then raise the heat and whisk until thick. There will be a noticeable labouring when it's thick enough. Immediately take the pan off the heat and place in cold water, whisking still. If you get some lumps pass the whole lot through a sieve. Chill. It will set to a satisfying, gelatinous judder. Store in jam jars etc. Unopened, it will keep for weeks in the fridge. And if you open it, it won't keep at all.

Now all you need are some fantastic, fragrant, gently poached peaches. Recipe coming soon.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Cauliflower purée

Purée. Puree. Sheesh. Keyboard faff. My fingers seem to grow fatter and less nimble with every entry. At what point can I start dropping that damn accent off the 'e'? Not yet it seems.

One of those - but I don't like cauliflower - cauliflower dishes. I've never seen people fall on my cauliflower with such enthusiasm. Some have even been spotted smearing the last molecules from the serving dishes with scraps of Yorkshire pudding. It gladdens my heart. It comes from Tom Kitchin (was ever a chef better named?).

You could also try roasting the cauli in some butter until it goes a gentle golden colour, then  purée or just eat. Wow. Or imagine using one of those purple or orange varieties? Or both! I must do that.

Cauliflower pureé
Enough for dinner for several people.

In a saucepan, gently sauté (more bloody accents!) a finely chopped onion in butter until tender - no colour just translucency. Add the white parts of whole chopped cauliflower and cover with milk. Add four whole, peeled garlic cloves and boil for fifteen minutes then drain (reserve the milk). Purée until very smooth in a blender with some more butter (naturally) and a little of the reserved milk. Season with salt and white pepper to keep the purity of colour. It's a wonderfully textured thing. Velvety.


Sunday, 5 July 2015

Crunchy/chewy almond biscuits

These started life as a chunky biscuit in Ferran Adrià's family cookbook. I wanted something more delicate to eat with the passionfruit soufflé I serve; a little extra crunch. Possibly I'll make these into biscuit spoons to eat the soufflé with, I've done something similar before. These must be the simplest biscuit ever, with the added bonus (unintentional so all the more pleasing) that they are gluten and dairy free. The only fat is in the almonds. The nuts will kill some people I suppose. Nature gives and nature takes away.

The Spanish way
They can be soft and chewy or brittle like biscotti, or a little of both, depending on how long you cook them. They are Spanish by design but the taste takes me straight back to a Brynmill bakery in my Swansea youth. As a seven year old, I would agonise between an iced slice or a crisp macaroon. Iced slices were devilish hard to eat with small hands though, the oleaginous custard filling would often lubricate an escape from between puff pastry confines and flubber onto the crumb, ash and dog hair floor. Macaroons were the safer bet. 

Almond biscuits
Makes that tinful below. I think I'd eaten a few by then.

Wisk one large egg white until stiff. With the whisk running, slowly add 135g of caster sugar. Whisk until it's stiff and glossy. Add a scant teaspoon of natural almond essence if you want that old fashioned British macaroon taste (I do). Pour in 135g ground almonds and gently fold these in. You could also add lemon or orange zest at this stage; one of each maybe? Try not to beat out all the air. Pour the paste onto baking paper, or even better, a baking silicone sheet and gently spread out with a palette knife until even in thickness. Scatter with flaked almonds. A sprinkle of caster sugar makes everything sparkle but can be omitted. Wow, just how camp did that sound?

Bake at 180°C for anything between ten and twenty minutes depending on how fluffy/crunchy you want. The ones pictured were baked for about 14 minutes. Turning the baking tray around after ten minutes is a good idea, unless you have a perfect oven. Cut into shapes while still warm. Allow to cool before attempting to lift or they will fall apart. 

These seem very susceptible to moisture so keep in an airtight container while you're pretending not to eat them.