Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Williams... Kalia... and kouign amann (you what?)


I'm having a love-in with pears. For decades I ignored them, then quite recently, I held a Williams to my nose, and I was smitten. I will never neglect them again. 

And what's not to love? They are at their very best now. Comice, Williams even the workaday Conference - succulent, slippery and aromatic. Gritty - say some people. Pah. Poach them or bake them and any granularity melts away. As if to make up for the lost years I've developed quite a few dishes recently. That's my new one above: a poached Williams with blueberries, a nutty, oaty crumble and vanilla mascarpone. You could almost eat it for breakfast.

Peel and poach your pear for just ten minutes in a syrup made 2:1 sugar to water. You can add aromatics of your choice: juniper berries, star anise, cinnamon sticks, cloves. I also had some Mexican vanilla pods that I'd been looking for an excuse to use. No. That's a lie. I bought them a while ago, slid them into the wrong drawer and forgot them. Mexican vanilla is the original. The beans were stolen to be cultivated in Madasagascar where the bulk of the crop now grows. The American variety is meant to be different, better... but it's a subtle distinction, certainly lost in a syrup.

The crumble is simple, more like a granola really:

In a bowl, combine: 50g of rolled oats, 25g of bran (breakfast stuff is dandy) 40g of malted flour (plain will do), 50g of crunched up hazelnuts and pecan (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, cinammon or cloves for a fruit topping. Pour over 70g of melted, unsalted butter and mix in. Blend to a paste consistency. You might not need all the butter - but that's no reason not to chuck it all in.

I used a mix of hazelnuts and pecans but almonds, walnuts or pistachios would work too. Better if you toast your nuts first. About ten minutes at 180°C. But check! Don't let them char.

Spread the mix thickly onto baking parchment/silicon and bake at 180°C for about 10 - 15 minutes. Longer = more colour = more flavour = more brittle.

For the cream, just whip a little double cream to soft peaks and fold in about double the volume of mascarpone. Add in a little icing sugar and vanilla paste to serve.

The pear below is the dessert I served to Kalia and her book club this weekend. Poached Williams pear with creme fraiche ice cream, crystallised almonds and a langue de chat biscuit. The orange dust is just that: orange. It's some zest that I dried and powered. Adds a citrus tang when needed.


The line up was their idea. Kalia and Dawn, her Mum, at the front.

So that's the pears and Kalia. What's this kouign amann about? It's a Breton butter cake that's pronounced kween aman. (The Breton language is still spoken and is related to Cornish and Welsh.) Kouign amann have been taking New York by storm. I noticed them when they were featured in the SeriousEats site. Never heard of them? Think of a very rich croissant that's been squished and baked with sugar that caramelizes. It's light, crispy  chewy, very rich and delicious... and a sod to make. Of course it is. It's a yeasty, laminated dough (think the mother of all puff) that you have to roll out like a big, thin flag on a bed of sugar. I was hoping to feature the recipe but my first attempt went wrong. Firstly I used caster sugar instead of granulated and I over baked the things anyway. They were still delicious.

Give me a few weeks and I hope I'll have something much more accomplished to present.


A tricky, sticky dough to roll out and cut into squares...

That are folded up and baked

Kouign amann - first attempt. A little heavy, a little overdone.



Sunday, 18 October 2015

Langue de chat biscuit

Yes it means cat's tongue in French. No, I've no idea why. Maybe their cats were different back then, with stiff, yellow tongues. Maybe feline jaundice was a thing during the revolution? Anyway, they have an elegance that belies their simplicity. 

No. Wait. That's the kind of sentence that makes my finger hover over the delete key. Sigh. Can biscuits be 'elegant'? I know people describe them that way, but... really? They are crisp, brittle, buttery and delicious but 'elegant' says more about the aspiration of the cook than it does the baked fat/flour mix surely?

I've used Gordon Ramsay's recipe, as I have for nearly two decades. Other recipes call for the whole egg. No idea why. Using just the white gives you a delicate crunch.


Langue de chat biscuits.
Makes about 25 of the ones pictured above or 15 of the ones shown below.

With a fork, beat two egg whites until frothy. Using a food processor, a mixer or a wooden spoon (good luck) beat together 100g of caster sugar and 60g unsalted butter until pale and fluffy. Add in some vanilla. This could be the seeds of a pod, a teaspoon of paste or half that of extract. Now beat in the egg white. Lastly, gently stir in 70g of plain flour, stopping as soon as the flour is incorporated.

Spoon or pipe the mix into lines - usually straight but you can make any shape you want. You'll need baking paper or silicon on your baking sheet. These will double in width, so leave room. Bake for 12 minutes at 160°C. You're looking for a golden biscuit edged with brown. You can shape them while warm if you like, over a jar or something.

These are excellent with chocolate mousse, ice creams or just coffee. For more flavour, add a little finely chopped orange and/or lemon zest to the batter before baking.



Why I won't be cooking guinea fowl again

So... I almost called this post 'at least the sauce was nice' but that's too downbeat. The guinea fowl I served was tasty... and hot, but all that effort to serve a simple plate of poultry... too much. In truth, this was not a dish I was proud of. Sorry Gail.

Gail's group (of tennis ladies). St Anne's parents may spot a familiar face too.
As I cut through my eighth drumstick, Etien reminded me that two years ago I said I'd never serve chicken again. This was, in part, because many people like their chicken... let's call it 'well done'. Around this time of year you will find me howling 'overcooked' at Iceland, Sainsbury's and M&S adverts as some hand model with a knife cuts through another Sahara slice of turkey breast; drier than the wit of Santa's most sarcastic gnome. But it's also because of what I call mid-size poultry logistics.

This was before I cooked it.
I'm happy to serve single-portion poultry or game: quail, poussin, teal etc. That's simple. Cook one, serve one. With a chicken sized thing though you have the plating dilemma. A guinea fowl is slightly smaller and serves two people, but you can't put a roast bird on the table and expect guests to hack their own. Honestly, I tried this in the early days. Doesn't work. We simply don't have the cutting space;  there's too much potential for a push and slide catastrophe to say nothing of gravy splashes on posh frocks or the time it takes as everything else cools on the plate. This means slicing, dicing and plating in the kitchen. So what went wrong?

I never serve anything I've not tried a few times so I'd roasted a couple of guinea fowl during the week; good looking French numbers from F. Norman butchers in Oakwood. It's a nice eat. It does have more flavour than chicken; not gamey but maybe smokier? Throw a couple at your family, of a Sunday lunch, and no one will complain - apart from your vegetarian. The cold carcass makes excellent pickings too, for those who do. A roast GF carcass makes a cracking stock by the way. Almost a soup on its own. 

I thought a traditional sauce of dry sherry, thyme and mushrooms would be good and warming... and so it is. I'm experienced enough now to know that cooking one is not the same as cooking four. The oven has to do more work and there's less air to circulate. This was my issue. After 38 minutes the breasts looked deliciously tender with a crispy skin but the legs were still close to raw in places. The solution was to cut off the legs and return to the oven for another ten minutes while letting the breast on birds rest. This was a Mary Berry tip that I'd noticed while trawling for recipes.

The dry breast/undercooked leg is of course a perennial poultry problem. The issue is acute with this bird as the breast is long, thin and slender. Some like a lattice of bacon to protect but I think this influences the flavour too much and makes the skin soggy. You buy guinea fowl to taste guinea fowl, not pork. 

Guinea fowl before.
Anyway, back in the New River sweat shop...  do you know how tricky it is trying to remove eight very hot, very slippery, guinea fowl legs? And quickly. And neatly. The answer is in the plural and rich with expletives. And of course, by then that delicious, crispy breast skin on the covered carcasses had softened. The meat was still warm and tender at least.

And guinea fowl after... or rather, during.
The upside is I've learned a lesson and maybe my hot fowl butchery skills are improved. Next time... there won't be one... but just in case... I'll remove the legs beforehand and roast them separately  This will give me more room in my big pan for the main body of the birds and allow me to get the timings right on both without compromise or burnt hands. Maybe the legs could be confit-ed and the rest roasted? But nooooo. No next time.

Gail's group started with English cheddar soufflés and ended with a raspberry pavlova. No issues with either of those. Pavlova: a big fluffy, sweet and creamy cloud with fruit on top. This was mine. To add interest I always make a syrup from the fruit and spice it up a little. I made some little meringue stars too, as a crunchy contrast.
Gaye's team.
 Saturday was much easier. Another tennis team; this time Gaye's. She'd asked for my new smoked haddock soufflés and for mains: roast lamb chump - a real room pleaser.

Smoked haddock soufflé with a tomato vinaigrette
Dessert was new. I've been making a lot of pear and plum tarts recently and have been struck by how tasty the poaching syrup is, post pear. So I wanted to serve just the fruit. I added some crystallised almonds, a scoop of creme fraiche ice cream and a vanilla langue de chat biscuit.

This was one of the best desserts I've ever served. If you're bringing a party to us before Christmas, I urge you to try it. The flavours and textures combine and contrast so well. The pear was William and you must make the effort to seek this variety out. It is wonderfully aromatic, seriously so. The flesh is dense and juicy.

Many recipes tell you to poach a pear for twenty minutes. Pish! I simmer mine for ten and then turn off the heat. Even firm fruit will cook in that time. I dressed my pears on the plate with a little of the poaching syrup that had been reduced to sticky by boiling with a vanilla pod - itself one of the best things I've ever tasted.

There is a classic French dish of pears cooked with... guinea fowl. Maybe. Maybe.

Isn't that soothing? Just what I need.




Sunday, 11 October 2015

A blocked sink, some good neighbours, a helpful son, a beef eating vegan and lots of birthdays.

The title's longer than the bloody blog! Welcome to the world of SEO.

Saturday. The sink blocked. Again. Second time in six months. Don't worry, there'll be no pictures. No one wants plumbing in a food blog. Or crouched, middle aged men with heads in kitchen units, their trouser top buttocks gleaming like smooth full moons. 

But you can't have a dining club without running water. Friends and neighbours came to help - Paul and Michael - brandishing rodding wires. Cue much U-bending, me lying on the floor gazing meaningfully at plastic piping and that teeth sucking you only do during DIY.

For some reason I don't seem to be able to oversee plumbing without massively embracing the double entendre. It's all that... rodding and holes and poking. Ho hum. Call me unreconstructed. Funniest half hour I've spent for some time. Anyway, after (what Etien calls) some 'top bantz' we found ourselves free flowing.

Emma and her mother's birthday group were none the wiser. Here they are only half an hour later.

Emma's in the middle, white top.

When discussing dietary requirements with Emma, I was dismayed to hear that her husband was vegan. Look, I'm happy to prepare a vegan meal but with meat eaters there's very little cross over and I can't do parallel prep; just don't have the time or space. Butter, eggs, cream, cheese, were all off his menu. I knew I could work around that for the starter and dessert - tomatoes instead of blue cheese and a poached pear in place of the frangipane tart. But what of mains? Emma really wanted the beef. She thought for a moment and then told me she was sure she could persuade him.

I don't know what or how... but she succeeded. We have now hosted a beef eating vegan.

Etien's requesting more responsibility in the kitchen. I give this over very reluctantly. I'm controlling like that - it's a fault. There are no (at least very few) second chances in a dining club. But he made an innovation with the presentation of our amuse bouche: curried butternut squash soup. Doesn't that look fine?


I'm varying the presentation of the starter. Blue cheese polenta, walnut salad and picked apple. It still doesn't look right though.

Blue cheese polenta with walnut salad and pickled apple

Our braised beef is winning more plaudits though. Guests are claiming it's the 'best beef I've ever had.' I simply can't deal with that intensity of compliment. Here it is after five hours of slow braising, served with a port gravy. A rather dark photo, even after much Photoshopping.

Vegan mains! Braised beef short rib with spinach, roasted shallot and sweet & sour red cabbage.

Friday's group was Phil's 40th. He's there on the left. This was very much a family evening. When Phil phoned initially he told me he didn't eat veg... or fruit. I hoped I could change his mind. Reader, I failed. His mother's been trying for much longer apparently.


This is a nice photo but it seemed a bit... beige. I wanted to represent the evening better. I also wanted one of the baby. This lot is in the purple, postprandial, LED light.




Sunday, 4 October 2015

Smoked haddock soufflés




A savoury soufflé is essentially a white sauce, what the French call a Béchamel, seasoned and flavoured with aromatics such as black pepper, bay leaves etc. This is enriched with egg yolks, and often with cheese, and finally folded into stiffly whisked egg whites. The mix is baked in ramekins, large or small, with the aerated albumen being the leavening agent. 

I don't know why soufflés have that kitchen magic mystique about them. Sure they can fail to rise smoothly and vertically but a domed souffle tastes as good as a towering one. Just check your expectations. That said, OF COURSE I want my eggy columns vertiginous. I suspect a lack of ramekins is as much a reason for not cooking them. You can bake a big one in a bowl. 

But first: egg whites. We've all been told to whisk the egg white to soft peaks or stiff peaks but not to over whisk. What does over whisked mean? I believe so many people are put off cooking by vague nonsense like this. That kind of instruction is only meaningful to those who don't need instructing.

So I've gone all domestic science teacher and prepared a hand out. I'll be referring to this in future blogs. 


I've made several cheese soufflés: goats and gruyere. Now it was time for fish. Egg and fish: it has to be smoked haddock - one of my five final meals. The reason for the change was a cheese course requested by Sue and Dan. You can't really serve that at the end after a cheesy thing at the start.

Again I trawled (ha) the internet. This recipe owes a lot to the Hairy Bikers.

However before we start, a word about the fish... and how to cook it. Here the haddock is first poached in milk, which is used to create the white sauce. Why you wouldn't do that I have no idea, although many omit this stage. Don't. 

My rule of thumb when poaching fish fillets such as haddock is to bring the poaching liquor to the boil with the fish in it then remove the fish. It will be cooked, unless it's more than a few inches thick. If it is, you must be a very rich reader and can buy your own advice thereafter.

But... this fish is to be twice cooked. So surely only a par poach is needed. Traditionally this would be tricky. But I have a sous vide machine. I know, I know, you don't. But you will. Within a decade, they will be as common place as pasta machines. And probably as well used. Gifted with that grimace of recognition of future failure: for the moment we'll pretend you'll use this more than once.


Boiled fish... with albumin
If you boil your fish this will happen. You've seen that icky white stuff, especially on salmon - its colour is more revealing. I've drawn red circles around it. When fish passes 60°C it starts to tighten so much that it forces out a white protein called albumin, actually similar to egg white. It's utterly harmless and tasteless so it won't ruin your Christmas but I'm fussy like that.  It does mean your fish is very firm though... and you're about to cook it a second time.

Whereas... with a sous vide, you can bag up the fillets in milk and cook them at any temperature. I did mine for 30 mins at 40°C. The result is a much better texture; one that's much easier to skin, bone and flake.

Whichever method you use, you'll need 250g of smoked haddock fillet cooked in 600ml of milk.

And you'll notice the fish is naturally white, not dyed yellow. You wouldn't would you? Please don't let's bring that up again.

Sous vide. 30 minutes at 40°C

Smoked Haddock Soufflés
This makes four or five, depending on the depth of your ramekins. A deep ramekin will give you a larger rise - or a bigger dome.

In a saucepan, melt 25g unsalted butter and add 25g of plain flour. Mix to a roux and chase it around the pan for a minute or two to cook out the flour. Add a good splash of vermouth and stir to integrate.

Now add the fishy milk (300ml), in small amounts, whisking in over a low heat until smooth. To this add a teaspoon of English mustard, 50g of mature cheddar cheese, grated, and a few twists of black pepper. Steady with the salt though. The cheese and smoked haddock may have introduced some already. Leave to cool.




Separate four eggs. Free range or not I leave to your conscience. Beat the four yolks into the fish sauce.

Break up the fish into small flakes and place them in the sauce. You want to preserve some structure. Fish paste is off the menu.

At this stage you can let everything rest until guests arrive. Push some cling film over the fish sauce to prevent a skin forming. Refrigerate the egg whites.

You need to prepare your ramekins. They need to be buttered and coated with a crumb of some sort. This acts as both a grip and a lubricant, allowing the soufflés to rise. if you don't prep your ramekins you may end up with dense eggy puddings.


Black bits are a mix of pepper and rosemary. The breadcrumbs are from my rosemary focaccia, y'see,

Butter your ramekins well, stroking up from the bottom to avoid egg impeding lines. Now roll around inside a mix of ground parmesan and dry breadcrumbs. Use a small blender or spice grinder to ensure a fine grain. This has the advantage of coating your soufflé with a delicious crispy filigree - basically very thin fried bread. I tend to keep a pot of this in the fridge - using the dry rind end of parmesan and any stale crusts together.

I use this nifty little Tefal. Had it for a few years now and the engine hasn't burnt out, despite my best efforts. Pro hint: stop when you smell plastic burning. Also great for chopping nuts, chocolate, olives etc; small, faffy stuff that goes skidding away from under-blade.

When you are ready to cook, transfer the fish base to a large bowl - it's easier to fold in the egg white. Whisk the egg whites to firm peaks and mix a third into the fish to slacken it. Now gently but completely fold in the rest of the egg white. It should be homogenous with no white blobs. You can't rush this but it should take no more than three minutes.

Brim the mix into the ramekins and level the tops with a knife. Now, important: take the knife tip around inside the lip of the ramekins to release the mix from the edge. This helps the rise. I suspect that otherwise the mix bakes onto the rim and then has to dome.

Bake at 180°C for about 18 - 20 minutes. The exact time varies with ovens and ramekins. A soufflé should be soft and fluffy remember, not set like an omelette  Actually, an omelette shouldn't be set either. Unlike this monstrosity.

The really difficult thing is getting the buggers onto plates - fast! Etien and I have a system which involves me swearing a lot and using an entirely unsuitable set of slippery metal tongs. If you find a better way, do let me know in the comments.


Served here with some watercress and chopped tomato vinaigrette









How to (over) whisk egg white

Don't over whisk warns the recipe. As if that's helpful. How will you know until it's too late? Much like simmer but don't boil, or don't overwork the pastry. Instructions for people who don't understand that aren't needed by those who do. What is a dry egg white anyway?

So here's my handy egg white guide for reference with my blog. These will be my terms on my conditions; others' stiff may be my firm. Don't shout at me if your pavlova flops.

I won't give timings. They will vary with machine and arms. For those of you rheologically inclined, here's a brief intro to the physics of egg white foam.


This is what I call wet. This is barely whisked. There are no peaks. Very FOAMY. I use this in friands and financiers.






Next up is SOFT PEAKS. Do those peaks look soft? In the bowl things are looking full and soft but without any very defined structure. There are still visible bubbles.






FIRM PEAKS. The mass now clumps within the whisk and has a definite thick volume but still looks soft, mobile. There are light whisk marks in the bowl that stay visible. I use this to fold into soufflés.





STIFF PEAKS. The mass now clumps within the whisk and has a definite thick volume but still looks soft, mobile. The whisk marks are now deep with well defined ridges. This is what I use to make meringue. Traditionally you can hold it upside down. But that seems... daft. The mix is smooth, silky and brilliant white in colour. Stop whisking now.






If you don't stop whisking your egg white will be OVER WORKED. They will be DRY. They are beginning to break down. See how granular the mix is now? It no longer looks smooth and silky.