Tuesday 17 May 2016

(Not) ginger snap biscuits

The British apparently like nothing more than a nice cup of tea and a biscuit; certainly more than all that genital based unpleasantness in the bedroom. I know I need one right now (a biscuit!), having just zested and juiced eighteen lemons. 

You see, I wanted ginger biscuits to go with my new lemon posset dessert. I considered the ginger snap/nut - one of the UK's most popular crunch - but I've always found them the baked equivalent of a manhole cover, sometimes needing massive molar mastication to break the things. No, for the quivering, light, lemon posset, I wanted something delicate and flavoursome but with the bite and bake of Britain's favourite biscuit.*

Biscuit is an prime example of semantic shift. Stick with it - you know I love a little etymological tangent. Biscuit means twice baked in French. This would be more like an Italian biscotti now: a lump of dough is flat baked and then sliced and rebaked to a heart stabbing hardness. In the UK, a biscuit is a flat, crisp unleavened thing. In the USA it's a tall, soft cake, more like our savoury scone; often served with gravy. What they call gravy can be a white creamy sauce too, studded with bacon and sausage. It's a good thing an ocean divides us.

I made these thin and delicate but there's no need for that really. Leave the mix thick by all mean, just remember to increase the baking times. You can let them crisp up or eat them soft and chewy like cookies.

Ginger Biscuits
Makes at least 30 (round ones as above)

Beat together 175g caster sugar, 1 egg, 2 egg whites, a teaspoon of ground ginger, four tablespoons of the syrup from a jar of stem ginger and 100g of soft butter. Then add 350g of self raising flour and mix well. 

Take three knobs of the stem ginger and cut up very finely. Stir into the mix. These create tiny pockets of deep gingerness to be tongue discovered.

Taste. If you want a more gingery taste, add more ground ginger. You should have a sticky paste. Roll about a third of the mix between two sheets of baking paper (or silicon sheets if you have them) until it's only a few millimetres thick, then transfer to a flat baking sheet. Remove the top layer of paper. Some mix will adhere but this doesn't matter; just scrape it off and reuse. You can make them much thicker if you want but this will obviously need a longer bake at 180°C. Timings depend on thickness.

Bake at 200°C for 7 minutes. The top should be golden brown. Cut the still soft biscuit into your shapes of choice using cutters or just a knife. Carefully turn the pieces over and return to the oven for three more minutes to dry and brown the bottoms.

This is an underbaked bottom (right). The left is what it should look like.
These are versatile biscuits but they will go soft after a couple of days. Not a problem if they're just to go with coffee but you can, anyway, 'refresh' them with a three minute bake in a 180°C oven. Once cool they will be crisp again. That's the official difference between cake and biscuit, by the way. Did you know this? Cakes go hard when stale; biscuits go soft. Hence Jaffa Cakes.

*An outright mendacity. Sorry. The ginger snap/nut is in fact only the country's eighth favourite biscuit it was revealed in some nonsense poll probably commissioned by the people who make Hob-Nobs.

Served here with lemon posset

Monday 16 May 2016

Lemon posset

Lemon posset and ginger biscuits

The trouble with having attended to the infancy of both my boys is that I can't help but think of posset as that pre-sick stuff you find down the back of your jacket, usually just before you're meant to leave for JUST ONE EVENING without the kids. Of course, invariably this would be my best dark Boss suit jacket.

So to be clear, that's not what I'm making here. That kind of posset is easy to make anyway: take one baby; feed; agitate; hoist onto shoulder for kitchen-dancing.

In retrospect, starting a recipe for my new delicious, creamy dessert with pre-sick stories wasn't the best idea. It's a good thing I don't do this for some corporate shilling.

You go though many lemons making lemon posset. This weekend it was 26. Although that included two goes and some lemon bars. I once juiced 140 limes for a cocktail party that brought on some kind of anaphylactic comedy face swelling the next day. I have to demand ask my family to do limes now.

None of this is making you feel like making lemon posset is it? That would be a shame. It's a wonderful dessert, creamy but citrus with great mouth-feel. If you like panna-cotta but you've never made posset, you should. It's easier and more flavoursome.

That's better: a positive vibe.

As you might know, I do like a British dish. Posset is such and goes way back. In fact Lady Macbeth poisoned the guards with dodgy posset just before the regicide and that disobedient dog. Mind, Bill was a bit rubbish at historical research so I wouldn't take it too seriously. Nevertheless, there are many recipes dating back to the middle ages. This kind of thing:

"When it is prettily cooled, pour it into your pot, wherein is about two spoonfuls of Sack and four of Ale, with sufficient Sugar dissolved in them. So let it stand a while near the fire, till you eat it."
The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelm Digby, Knight, Opened - 1669.

Posset was until quite recently, more of a custard thing. You can find pictures of 'posset pots' with spouts. The modern take (and the one I prefer) is a firmer set. 

Talking of recipes, as is my wont, I read many and tried a few before deciding on my own. Posset is a simple enough dish, taking only four ingredients: cream, sugar, lemon zest and juice. The only issue reported was one of graininess. Posset is all about the texture. Most recipes will mention 'silky' at some point. But if you heat the cream and sugar slowly at first and then be sure to simmer for a few minutes, I can't see why you won't get a smooth set. For reasons of texture too I strain the mixture. There's no place here for boiled zest.

Which one?
Beware recipes that specify a number of lemons rather than an amount of juice. This is plain daft. Ignoring the fact that lemons come in different sizes, the amount of juice extracted will vary with your the time of year, their ripeness, your method and forearm strength. Do remember to roll the lemons under your palm before squeezing. This does make it easier. I use an add on juicer device for my KitchenAid. It's the only one I've ever encountered that works with limes as well as doing a brilliant job with lemons and oranges. Like all KitchenAid accessories though it is fairly pricey.

Setting. Yes. There's no eggs or gelatine of course. It's the action of the citric acid on the milk proteins that converts this from a drink to a pudding. Just like if you put acid into milk it will curdle, if the milk is warm it will curdle more so. Cream is different due to its much higher fat content; the sugar too will mollify the reaction.

Some recipes were ferociously citric. Too much for me. Posset should be lemony of course but also a creamy balm. However you do need to use the zest too for that lemon flavour. Remember that's where the taste is, in the skin. I decided on roughly one lemon between two people.

Zesting is made much easier with a fine, Microplane grater. These aren't expensive and can be found everywhere now. They cut through the skin, rather than mash it. they're great for parmesan too.

Before you serve a posset give consideration to the portion size. This is a very rich dish - essentially double cream and sugar. My first attempt in 175ml ramekins, defeated even the heartiest family appetite. You need something larger than a shot glass but much smaller than a ramekin or a dessert bowl. I found these 120 ml amuse bouche glasses and am very pleased with them. You could use liqueur glasses or small tumblers. Wine glasses are also OK, but you'll need long handled spoons then of course, or very fine fingertip control.

Lemon Posset
Serves 8

Gently heat 800ml of double cream with 260g caster sugar and the finely grated zest of four medium lemons. Heat gently, stirring frequently to ensure the sugar dissolves fully and the cream doesn't catch. Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for a couple of minutes. Lots of recipes insist on a three minute boil but I see no reason why.

Strain the mix through a sieve into a jug and then pour back into the pan. Whisk in 140ml of lemon juice (about four medium lemons but you may need more). Heat gently again and you should see the mixture thicken.

Pour into your chosen serving receptacles and allow to cool to room temperature. Then refrigerate for at least six hours until gently set.

Traditionally served with some kind of biscuit, often shortbread. I made a light, gingery thing (based on the ginger nut) and topped the posset with some blueberries that I'd barely heated with an allspice sugar syrup. In the supper club I served this with a lemon bar (an American standard), topped with Italian meringue, so yes, lemon meringue pie in all but name. Recipes coming soon.

Light was too low so this is a bit blurry. Nice combination of creamy and tart, smooth and crunchy.

Monday 9 May 2016

Roast shallot bread (to make beetroot and goats cheese toasts)

This is a variation of my focaccia, a bread I've now made hundreds of times. So often in fact that I barely weigh anything and I can tell when the dough is ready by the sound my KitchenAid mixer makes. The bread is only proved once, which should send purists into hysterics but calm yourselves, it's a slow prove at least and no one's ever complained of a lack of flavour. This would make the most delicious cheese on toast. Which is kinda how I use it here. Also great to make croutons for a soup.

Here I purposefully make a thin wide bread that I can slice into long, thin strips to be first griddled and then oven dried. It's a light, moist bread with a deep savoury flavour but also hints of sweetness from the caramelised shallot.

I developed this as a base to my starter of beetroot and goats cheese toasts. Yes, you could call it bruschetta but I live in Palmers Green, not Italy.

Two types of goats cheese with beetroot puree and crisps and a little roasted walnut atop my shallot bread.
The leaf is red veined sorrel from my garden.

Roast shallot bread
Makes one half kilo loaf

I make this with a mixer as it's a wet dough but you could do it by hand. I'd still use a bowl to knead it though.

Add 150g each of plain flour and bread flour in a bowl. Add to this 10g of dried yeast, a big pinch of sugara tablespoon of sea saltabout 250ml of cold water and 50ml of oil and mix well.

For this bread I used an English rape seed as I thought the nuttiness of the oil would work well with the onion flavour. I'm using less and less olive oil now in favour of local rapeseed. This is Hillfarm, available from Waitrose (I think). If you don't taste your oils, you should. They affect the flavour of any recipe but especially a focaccia style bread like this.

The mix should be very soft and gooey. Beat with your machine, or by hand, until the dough is very smooth and elastic and starts to clump on the beaters. You should be able to pull a long filament of dough away without it snapping.

While that's doing... finely chop three long shallots and fry off gently in 40g of unsalted butter. You want to soften and cook until it's golden. You could use eight small, round shallots but it's much more work. No shallots? Use half an onion.

This is a huge one. Yours will be much smaller.
Once the shallot mix is golden, whack the heat up and stir frequently. You want to char and caramelise some of the edges to get that wonderful deep savoury smell as well as a little sweetness. Once done, allow to cool. Don't go bunging hot onions into the dough will you? It might kill the yeast.

When the dough is ready, stir in the cooled shallots and butter, kneading a few times to distribute.

Slosh a little oil around the bottom of your tin and stretch out the dough. You can also use a baking tray, as I did for this.

Leave for at least 90 minutes, in a warmish, draught free place (like cupboard) until tripled in size with nice big air bubbles visible on top. I'm looking for a slow rise here to allow the flavour to develop. It might take two hours. That's why I used cold water rather the traditional luke warm, if you were wondering. 

By the way, the term prove here is an old meaning: to test. In bread baking, it was to test the yeast. It's the same meaning we use in the expression 'the exception proves the rule'. The rule is tested by the exception. It doesn't mean the exception is proof of the rule. How could it be? Sorry, but this winds me up.

Back to the bread. It should have risen by now.

Once risen, treat the dough VERY gently. Any knock will have it deflating faster than an X-factor competitor's ego. 

Bake at 230°C for about 15 minutes.

Someone took a chunk out before I could take the photo. This was made in my cast iron skillet. I can't remember why.

Thursday 5 May 2016

Apple charlotte puddings

It was warm, so the cream slid off. You wouldn't want it looking perfect would you.
This won't make it into FoodGawker that's for sure.

I sit here, happily disconcerted by the May sun. The back doors pushed fully open, listening to the morose thrum of the too close North Circular and maybe a distant lawn mower - the first this year. The warm, busy, London silence normally reserved for Wimbledon. Any moment now there'll be a grunt and a thwack and some polite applause. Fifteen - love. Wasn't it winter only a week ago? That can be the only reason why I served a big, sticky pudding to Katie and her party.

Early spring can be tricky for desserts. There's no fruit to speak of other than perennial lemons, oranges and apples. I've wanted to make apple charlottes for a while. It's basically bread and butter pudding turned in on itself. Crisp and golden, buttery bread cases filled with a plump glut of sweet/sour fruit. This is classic British stodge, like suet puddings, jam roly-poly and spotted dick. Just had to check that spelling. Why isn't it rolly-polly? Tsk. English orthography eh?

Once at a restaurant in Southwold with Belinda, when the boys were young, Etien was scanning the menu when he shrieked with laughter and pointed, beaming with happy astonishment. Spotted Dick. He simply wouldn't accept that this was a bona fide English pudding. He insisted that it was some mistake or joke, even when assured by the waitress. He giggled for hours. He still does.

First lets look at the initial letter. Should that be a capital 'C'? That depends on which history you believe. Was it named after Queen Charlotte, wife of George II, patron of apple growers (apparently) or was it a French or even Russian creation, or maybe a corruption of an earlier Jewish dish named Schaleth, Schalet or Schalat? It is one of those dishes often found prefixed as 'quintessentially British', as so often things are that are rarely eaten here.

I tried out a few recipes before serving to guests, as is my custom. I learned a few things:

  • Apples when cooked, even Bramleys need a perk of acidity to keep us interested. So I added lemon juice and zest.
  • Good, artisan bread, such as Holtwhites, my baker of choice is not regular enough in its consistency. I had to eschew the good stuff and go with Waitrose medium cut white. I know, the horror.
  • A lot of recipes use ceramic moulds such as ramekins to bake the puddings but I fancy a metal container gives a crisper result.
  • A combination of both well stewed and slightly poached apples gives a pleasing mix of chunks and goo.
  • Keep them small. The one above is a 175ml pudding. Any larger and even your family will struggle when you add the inevitable creams and custard.

Apple charlotte puddings
Serves 8

Peel three large Bramley apples, decore and cut into bite size chunks. Place in a heavy bottomed pan with four and a half tablespoons of sugar and 25g of butter. Add the juice of a lemon and all the zest, pared into strips that can be removed at the end. Add a handful (to taste) of golden sultanas and a pinch of clove powder.

Cook, covered, on a very low heat until the pieces are softened - about 15 minutes. Stir occasionally to stop sticking but not so often that you mulch the apples.

Remove half and continue to cook until the remainder is pulpy. Perhaps another ten minutes. Combine chunks and pulp. Taste for sweetness. You may need more sugar, apples vary greatly in tartness. You can now add a glug of apple liqueur or calvados.

Butter well eight moulds. these should be around 175ml size. About the size of a muffin.

Using plain, sliced white bread, cut a template to fit your moulds. This will be a small round, a strip, or strips to line the sides and a larger round to cap the lot. Having little cake/cookie/scone cutters helps a lot here.

Butter all the pieces well and dredge well with caster sugar.

Line the moulds with the bread.

Preheat the oven to 200°C. Brim the moulds with the apple pulp and place on the bread caps. Bake for at least 30 minutes. These are not especially time sensitive. Once the bread is golden and crispy, the puds will slide out of the moulds easily. Honestly. If the first isn't gold enough, slide it back in and go another five minutes.

They will sit happily, upturned in their tins for 15 mins.

If it's winter, custard will work well. If Spring, maybe an ice-cream. I made a vanilla and served it with an apple crisp and some fennel seed granola.

Katie wasn't too impressed with my puds. I sought her opinion and she gave it. A little heavy, she thought. Her friends were of a range of opinions. I agree with her though. This is probably one best enjoyed in the depth of dark midwinter.

Katie and friends, now recovered from a heavy charlotte.