Wednesday 20 April 2016

Pickled celery, dried celery

The simplest and quickest of any pickle I've made. This was done mainly as a garnish for my roasted celeriac soup but I fancy you'll be seeing it in plenty of other places. With pork for sure, but I suspect with fish too.

Celery is one of those easy to overlook vegetables. Often salted with onions and carrots for so many savoury bases but not often given pride of the table.

This recipe is based on Nathan Outlaw's. Don't skimp on the fennel seeds.

Pickled Celery

Remove the fibrous base and finely dice one head of celery, cutting thick stems into two or three first then cutting in cubes. Or just chop finely. I wanted the square look. In a pan add 100ml of white wine,  100ml of vinegar, 100ml of water, 100g of sugar,  30g of fennel seeds and a big pinch of salt and bring to the boil. Simmer for a couple of minutes then allow to cool.

The wine is hardly cooked so you will taste it. I prefer a semillon or sauvignon blanc but just use whatever you have open, so long as it's half decent.

Dried Celery

Now, as I'd bought a lot of celery for experimentation, I wondered what powered celery would be like. The quick answer is 'almost non existant'. Celery, as any fule kno, is very, very, very largely water so the oven drying took a full 24 hours at 70°C. I should have gone lower as that may have preserved more of the vivid green colour but I couldn't entangle my oven for two days. Once dried I broke it up and put it in a grinder. Oh boy.

This, some time later, turns to this:

So unless you really, really want to taste powered celery, I'm not sure it's worth the cost and bother. I'm bet you're glad I warned you.

Roasted celeriac soup

I'm not sure how to write this. It's generally about soup but also features the best meal I've ever eaten; the inspiration behind this recipe.

Let's start with the meal. It was at Midsummer House, Daniel Clifford's Michelin two star in Cambridge; a place I've been wanting to try for ages. There was no real occasion. We were visiting a friend in Halesworth and decided to do a tour of Cambridge with Etien (and his new girlfriend!) on the way home.

I'll put the menu up so you can see what we had but I don't want to review the meal... apart from to say it was catastrophically brilliant. I've not had better... or paid more. Wow. It was expensive. My wallet was left severely traumatised. It was worth it though. It was the ten course tasting menu. Ten courses with an additional five canapé courses and chocolates at the end. We'd actually ordered the seven course menu but after a couple of canapés I switched. One of the canapés was a celery sorbet in a Bloody Mary foam. It was one of the best things ever to enter my face. Later there was a dish of celeriac, hazelnuts and celery. I was inspired to make my own celery family dish. 
I say 'inspired' but in truth, the meal left me a little downcast the next day. It's a little like scaling a mountain for many hours, pausing to take on water, feeling near the top, only for the clouds to clear and realising you've not much left base camp. I will never cook this well. This was astonishingly accomplished food. I can hear my wife and children kindly offering caveats (they are professionals; there are 32 staff for 40 guests; they use ingredients that I can't afford; they have all manner of gadgetry) but there is a certain plangent humility in realising - and tasting- that there is a height you will never attain, no matter how hard you try. This isn't me looking for plaudits, honestly. 

If you value your food, try and go there... once in your life. I'm hoping to revisit. Maybe for my 50th birthday which is advancing fast.

And so to soup.

Ugly bugly

Celeriac, essentially the root of the celery plant, must be one of the ugliest veg. It looks like a warty turnip with a ghastly mass of tentacle roots. Its appearance may be off-putting but please persevere, it's not hard to work. Cut off the roots and peel the skin and you have a waxy white mass, not dissimilar to a potato, full of flavour and minerals. Scrub the skin with a brush of some form, to ensure you remove all traces of grit and dirt.

Initially I'd thought of a brilliant white soup, with just the roasted insides of the celeriac. Served maybe with a blob of sweet, black grape must as a contrasting garnish. But once I'd cooked the root slowly (two hours and more at 160°C) and tasted various parts I realised that  most of the flavour was in the skin. Much like my roasted cauliflower dish, the natural sugars had caramelised, bringing a sweetness and complexity to the table. Given I have a oooper-sooper-doooper blender now I figured I'd bung the lot in and see how it turned out.

It turned out great.

Roasted for two and a half hours

Does this look like a beaver to you?

Roasted Celeriac Soup
Makes about a litre.

Take one celeriac and trim the roots right back, trimming off anything too fibrous. Scrub the veg well with hot water. We're going to eat the whole thing.

Roast on a baking tray for at least two hours at 160°C, until the insides yield to a tentative hand. It will wheeze when you squeeze, like an asthmatic tortoise*. This will vary, depending on the size of your roots. Don't go faster and hotter as you may burn the skin. Dark, sticky brown is fine but black and ashy is more suited for the crematorium than a soup. 

Allow to cool and cut into small chunks. Blend this with milk and some cream until very smooth. You may have to sieve the liquid, depending on the effectiveness of your blender.  This is the only real work in the recipe. Blending a whole celeriac is a bit of a potch. How much milk and cream is up to you. Start with 500ml and add more if you need to physically blend. I wanted a fairly thick, velvety texture so I added some double cream too but you need not.

Season with salt, white pepper and the juice of at least half a lemon. The soup is actually quite bland until you add salt. Don't be afraid to add quite a lot, just do it carefully, tasting as you go. 

Now we come to the garnishes. Cream is obvious but I wanted some crunch too so I toasted some sliced almonds. A little contrasting texture and acidity was needed so I pickled some celery and added a few crenelated gems (sorry . But would cream and pickle go? I wasn't sure at first until I realised that with a small tilt of the head, the question becomes 'do cheese and pickle' go? Then the answer's obvious.

*No, I've never torturted a tortoise, asthmatic or otherwise. I'm just really bored and the metaphor amused me.

Friday 1 April 2016

Vanilla soufflé with forced rhubarb.

Easily the best I've made.
Not just height, look at that structure.

I like rules. Not restrictions; fundamentals. I've always been a how's-it-work person. I think it explains my love of particle physics and evolutionary psychology. Given a choice, I would have been at CERN now... but I couldn't manage the hard sums. I gave up at the square root of -1. (I've just realised that's a number pun!) My mathematical mind doesn't extend much further than arithmetic.

Anyway, as with quantum mechanics, so with soufflés. (An effortless segue I'm sure you'll agree.) I like rules with recipes... well, not so much rules as ratios. Ratios make things easy to understand and, importantly, to scale up. What do I mean? I remember white sauce as being 1:1:a half. That is: an ounce of butter to an ounce of flour to half a pint of milk. I am now metric incidentally but this recipe is long remembered. Cake is similar. A basic recipe of a pound of butter to a pound of flour to a pound of sugar is the recipe for (guess what?) a Victorian pound cake. From this simple base you can launch a thousand bakes.

I'm also fed up of making slightly too much mix. Yes you can always eat the spare, but neither soufflés nor the batter keeps well and by the time guests have left, we've cleared the table and washed down I'm not really in the mood for a re-bake. But there are few things I loathe more than wasting perfectly edible food. It's a matter of pride for me that we only empty our small green food recycling bin once a week, and that includes Supper Club scrapings.

My issue with soufflés is that none show ratios, only strict recipes and that's no good for investigation and culinary adventure. Soufflés more than most things need accuracy of ingredients. Although not difficult to achieve a sweet, quivering tower, the cook needs precision here. All good if you are reading from a book, less so if you are, as I was, extemporising with eggs.

Draft one. Smaller ramekin.
Sweet souffles are basically a base of crème pâtissière - ubiquitously, thankfully, referred to as 'creme pat' - cut with a fruity jam or compote and then the whole folded with a French meringue. If that sounds simple it's because it is. Soufflés are simple! But creme pat recipes rarely tell you how much they produce. So you might be making enough for two desserts, or perhaps twenty. As souffles recipes rarely specify an amount of base, it's hard to know. Worse, as with this (brilliant) chocolate recipe, Phil Howard tells you to make x amount of quite expensive cocoa creme pat base but then ONLY USES SOME of it. V annoying.

I wanted, and couldn't find, a recipe for a rhubarb soufflé. But could I just adapt, say, a raspberry one? What of liquid content? Rhubarb is much, much wetter than most berries and certainly all stone fruit. It's also much more tart, so what of sugar content?

I decided to dodge the issue and make a vanilla soufflé, with a bed of roasted fruit and a pouring syrup to be served at table. Additionally this has the advantage and keeping the sweet and tart elements distinct; to be enjoyed as your taste dictates. It also means I can ring the seasonal changes. Expect strawberry soufflés as soon as the August sun is a-ripening.

Sadly, April sees the end of the forced rhubarb season. Goodbye vivid pink and hello tedious green resembling celery. Never mind, the fruit is hidden here.

Also, a warning: you will be weighing egg white hereafter. Eggs vary too much in size. If you are scaling up, allow one egg white (about 32g) per person.

One thing to note: I normally use 175ml ramekins but the deeper the ramekin the bigger the rise. Notice the difference between the first and second soufflé picture.

Vanilla and Rhubarb Soufflés
Seves 6 - assuming 175 ml ramekins.

There are four elements:
1. Creme pat base
2. French meringue
3. Roasted rhubarb
4. Rhubarb syrup

The basic mix is 200g creme pat to 280g meringue (200g egg white + 80g sugar) + a tablespoon of fruit.

Three and four are made together so let's start with those.

Roasted rhubarb and syrup

This can be made hours, or days, in advance.

Take 200g of rhubarb (about half a supermarket pack), chop into small slices, place in a very clean baking tray, something with a lip, and sprinkle with 100g of caster sugar. Bake, uncovered, in a 150°C oven for about twenty minutes. The rhubarb pieces should be soft but still in shape. The sugar should now be an oozy syrup. If not, replace for another few minutes, cursing your oven.

Once done. Put a sieve over a bowl and pour in the pieces. Allow all the syrup to drain off - there should be at least a good 100ml. Reserve the syrup, obviously. Best to refrigerate this to a sticky thickness.

This will be served at the table. You could do big jugs (make your own joke), or serve individual shots - all the quicker to combine fast deflating soufflé and syrup. 

Not forced but still pretty.

Creme pat base
Makes just over 200g

This can be made days before but easier to do it a few hours earlier. It is much easier to make larger quantities of creme pat and I'd suggest you do. I usually make triple this and refrigerate the rest. You can use this thick pastry cream for all manner of wonders. It is stable at room temperature. Try instead of cream in profiteroles and eclairs, or between thin layers of flaky pastry, fruit and/or jam.

Over a low heat, bring 140ml of whole milk with a teaspoon of vanilla paste/one pod, seeds scraped to the almost boil.

Another use for creme pat
Meanwhile in a mixer or with a hand whisk (good luck), whisk together two egg yolks with 30g caster sugar until pale and fluffy. Add in 6g each of plain flour and corn flour (that's about two level teaspoons of each). Whisk in well. Pour on a third of the warm vanilla milk and whisk well to a smooth paste. Add this paste to the rest of the milk. Bring to the boil, stirring often to ensure nothing catches on the bottom. Simmer for two minutes. This is ensures all the flour is cooked out. The mixture should now look and taste like a very thick custard - because that's what it is.

Either use this immediately or leave to cool, with cling film pressed against the surface to prevent a skin forming. If you have to use from cold, best to warm it up slightly in a bowl over simmering water. A very thick, cold, creme pat can be a bugger to integrate with meringue and could lead to a lumpy, and thus badly risen, final result.

French meringue

This MUST be made as needed. French meringue is about as stable as a Tory budget.

French, as distinct from Italian or Swiss, or as it's known more usually: plain old meringue is just whisked egg whites and sugar. See here for guidance on peaks, soft, firm and stiff. One large egg white weighs around 32g.

Take 200g (about six eggs) of egg white and whisk to the soft peak stage, then with the blades still running, add 80g caster sugar incrementally. Whisk for a few more minutes until stiff and glossy. It's important that the mix isn't too firm as this will take more effort to integrate with the creme pat base. You'll end up beating out the air.

To assemble

A great recipe from always interesting David Lebovitz
Heat the oven to 200°C with a baking tray inside. It is important that the oven is at temperature. Meringues need a hit of heat to start the rise. Hence the hot baking tray.

Line six ramekins with melted butter, allow to cool. Coat the butter with caster sugar by rolling some around inside the ramekins.

Place a good tablespoon of rhubarb chunks at the bottom of each ramekin. make sure the base is covered.

Take 200g of warm(ed) creme pat base and whisk it to ensure softness. mix in a third of the meringue. Don't fold it, whisk it in to a homogenous whole. Now more gently, whisk in the remaining meringue. It helps to use a large bowl. The mix should have no steaks of egg white. You don't have to be precious about it, just not so violent that you flatten the mix.

This is a good how-to video of the mixing technique - although I think she overbakes her soufflés.

Fill the ramekins to the top. Levelling with a palette knife and a satisfying flick of the wrist. Clean the outsides, as these will be served at table. Tap the ramekins several times. This flattens the tops and ensures no large internal bubbles. Run your thumb around the insides of the ramekins to make a shallow trench (see pic above). Or you can use a blunt knife tip. This lifts the mix away from the china and ensures a good rise. It does seem to be important. If you don't do this, the mix will dome and split like a muffin.

Place WELL SPACED ramekins, not touching, on the hot baking tray and cook for about 13 minutes, until the top is brown and the soufflé is well risen. Traditionally icing sugar is sieved onto the tops but I don't think this is necessary and just adds unwanted sweetness.

Serve as soon as you can. At the table, ask your guests to poke a hole in the top. Pour in about a tablespoon of the rhubarb syrup. Eat. Tell your guests to drag up the tart nuggets from the bottom. It's a gorgeous combination.

One magical variation would be to churn the syrup (earlier!) in an ice cream machine with a little glucose syrup to make a glossy sorbet to plop into the top. However, you'd need to be making rather more puddings in order to obtain enough juice.

I will do this and report back with pictures.