Friday 29 July 2016

Vegan chocolate mousse. Yes, more bean water.

My children are bored of aquafaba; tired of me whooping and swooping through the house imploring all to 'come and see, come and see'. No one is spared the miracle of my volumised bean water, not neighbours, girlfriends, Jehovah's Witnesses (You want to witness a miracle, mate, witness this!). And I'm not stopping. First it was eggless meringue, now it's chocolate mousse, tomorrow buttercream.

Chocolate mousse is a classic of course. I was about to write velvety but what does that actually mean? When did you last lick velvet anyway? Unless you were a groupie in the 70s? Blimey, I'm trying to sell this as delicious but now Ronnie Wood's long loons loom large in my mind.

Start again.

Chocolate mousse is a classic of course. Smooth, light, rich. Something to be served with a small spoon and licked on both sides. Traditionally made with egg white meringue and cream. This is a much simpler affair using just three ingredients: aquafaba, chocolate and sugar. This makes for a great showcase for the chocolate, uninhibited by cream.

There is an issue here though and one I keep reading about in comments under other people's recipes: graininess. I suspect what's happening is the chocolate is, partly, seizing. You'll know yourself if you mix melted chocolate with water, the result is fast, undesirable and catastrophic. the chocolate separates into solids and oils: a stiff, kludgy mess - the opposite of mousse. I think I've worked around that.

Vegan chocolate mousse.
Serves 4 (so long as they are people who would never admit they slob on the sofa and eat a whole tub of Ben and Jerry's in one sitting. )

In a fine sieve, strain the the aquafaba from one 400g can of chickpeas. Look for 'in water' rather than 'in brine'. There are many now. What you now do with the chickpeas is your own business.

In a heatproof bowl, over a pan of boiling water, melt 200g of good, dark chocolate (I always use Valrhona). You can use milk chocolate of course but then this won't be vegan. Set aside to cool a little.

Whisk the aquafaba on full speed until light, white and very fluffy. You can try with a hand whisk but it will take a good 15 minutes.

In a small pan, add 120g of caster sugar with a tablespoon of water to make a simple syrup. Heat this to 118°C - otherwise known as 'soft ball'. A jam thermometer or temperature probe is obviously useful here but it used to to be done by dropping some syrup into water.

With the whisk running slowly, dribble the hot sugar syrup into the aquafaba. It will increase in volume and stiffness. Whisk until cool - maybe five minutes. If this was eggwhite, we would have just made Italian Meringue. Whisking in a hot syrup cooks the mix and makes the mousse much more stable. It will tolerate refrigeration for several days.

Take about a third of the cooled 'meringue' and whisk it fast into the melted chocolate. You should get a thick, glossy sauce. 

Now gently fold the chocolate mixture into the remaining 'meringue'. You should get a light, smooth mousse with no little bits of seized chocolate. Even if it's not smooth, it'll still be very edible. Maybe manage expectations by calling it 'silky chocolate crunch' or somesuch.

I serve mine with crisp little biscuits and candied orange slices. I've also made a vegan hazelnut ice cream that works really well - Nutella basically.

Tuesday 26 July 2016

The hottest weekend, Claire's 40th, Martin's 50th, vegan mousse and a man who doesn't eat vegetables (he does now)

Alex eats veg, happily.

"I don't mind what we eat. Surprise us!" Said Claire, to my delight. "Good to have something new; something you wouldn't normally eat." I could only agree.

"Any vegetarians, vegans, allergies, food intolerances or religious proscriptions?" I asked Claire. It was her 40th birthday I didn't want anyone collapsing at the table. I find that chills the mood. "No. We're all pretty adventurous." Then a pause. "But oh, yes,  there is Alex; he doesn't eat vegetables... but don't worry, I told him to eat before he comes."

And so I prepped. It was hard. The kitchen is not the place to be on the hottest weekend of the year, with temperatures peeping over the 30° mark. Biscuits sag, chefs flag, mousses fade and whipped creams puddle.

I'll mention the mousse in another blog. It was my new aquafaba chocolate mousse (vegan of course). Melty chocolate stirred into an Italian 'meringue' of whisked bean water. It's a bit good. The chocolate taste really sings forth. I used it in the dessert of thin shortbread biscuits, vanilla cream, and mousse, served with hazelnut ice cream on a bed of orange syrup and cocoa nibs.

The ice cream was new; made conventionally with my five minute custard base and an added jar of this stuff: hazelnut butter. I did try making my own, but even after ten minutes in the Vitamix mine remained gritty. Mind, even this commercial offering wasn't smooth like peanut butter, macadamia butter or pistachio paste. Maybe hazelnuts are tricky to blend? Not enough oil perhaps? It is a very high fibre nut. There's lots of recipes for making butters but not hazelnut.

Back to Claire's party. Laura, one of her friends, had asked to hide the group present (a spa getaway, I believe) in Claire's napkin. A great idea that meant the meal started with a lovely surprise.

Claire and the napkin reveal.

And so to the food and Alex, our lachanophobian friend. The amuse bouche of roast celeriac soup and pickled celery didn't please his mouth; it never even entered. Instead he ate two griddled slices of my home made sourdough. I want everyone to enjoy their meal and feel comfortable and relaxed. It doesn't do for the cook to be imposing an agenda at the table. I obviously didn't want to embarrass him or make him feel awkward so I asked about plating - what to omit? The starter was entirely vegetarian: broad bean and peas in a minty dressing with herby french gnocchi and curd cheese. Was his to be a near naked plate? No. Alex 'didn't mind peas'. I served and he ate. Everything. Result! But the best was yet to come.
Not very amusing.

Main course of pork belly with fennel potatoes, sweet and sour red cabbage and a pickled apple salad. Alex ate and declared the salad delicious. In fact he enthused. I simmered. He wanted more. He wanted the recipe. Emboldened, I offered the red cabbage. He took some and finished it... to the amazement of friends. A triumph.

Post prandial drinks and dancing.
I do love a conversion. This was four. There is something very satisfying about bringing some new pleasure into someone's life; a pleasure that they can enjoy for the rest of their life.

At the end of the meal Etien and I sat with the group (Etien rarely does) and I declared Alex to be an eater of vegetables now. He smiled. "No. I eat your vegetables." Aw. Shucks.

Etien socialises. I do hope that's not another rum and coke Et?

Claire and friends.

And onto Sunday. Very unusual for us to do but it was for Martin, a good friend and an excellent (award winning) producer. It was his 50th birthday. He'd gone for a fore rib of Scottish beef; cooked with my usual reverse sear method: eight hours in the oven at 60°C and then a final five at 260°C. It means I don't have to panic about over cooking a very expensive joint and the meat is only ever five minutes from serving. No need to rest. The one downside with this technique is that the meat loses no juice, it all stays in the joint. Downside? Well, yes, this makes for great eating but a tricky gravy. Luckily I had a pot of stock on the go from roasting a whole beef flank in the week. That's another development dish I will blog in due course.

Happy birthday Martin

Thursday 21 July 2016

The big sourdough blog

It had to happen. I've been shying away from it for too long, and I make a poor coquette, especially where delicious, crispy carbs are concerned. The last push was when good friend, fellow supper-clubber and multi-talented Bee published some pictures of her new bread and offered to send me a jar of 'Homer' her own 'starter'. So this, finally, is the New River sourdough loaf. I've finally arrived at a bake and a recipe I want to reproduce.

The Etien seal of approval: morning toast.
I say it's morning, this is definitely his
breakfast but he's just finished his GCSEs
so this could have been any time of day.
Look, this has been quite a journey and I see no reason why I shouldn't take you all the way back with me. We'll need stout boots and some tissues. It's a long trek with much frustration, a good deal of education, some sadness and an injury. I'm very sure also that this blog will be one long hostage to fortune. Sure I'll read this in a year and wonder how I was capable of such idiocy.

As one of the most ancient of breads, sourdough has a widespread diaspora of starter superstition and baking lore, much of it, I suspect, is suspect. So what is sourdough? It's a light bread with a distinctive flavour, a well aerated but chewy texture and a very crisp crust. It makes the best toast. Etien, a fan of such, has given my produce his seal of approval (after much initial eye rolling and adolescent scepticism).

First that name. Why sour? Sourdough doesn't use brewers yeast like the vast majority of bread produced in the West. Instead it uses something called a 'starter' as a leavening agent. This is a mix of flour and water that's been left to collect the natural (but much weaker) yeasts that are present everywhere. However, a happy bacteria called lactobacillus also naturally occurs and it's this that gives the bread its distinctive flavour. Lactobacillus is also essential to the production of yogurt, cheese, pickles, cider and chocolate. This bacteria also means sourdough keeps for longer. I've had some for well over a week without a hint of mould.

Sourdough is disliked by large commercial bakers because it demands time and care. It is much, much slower to produce than a loaf of Mother's Pride and its Chorelywood kin. Consequently it tends to attract the description and price tag of 'artisan'. However, at home, it is the cheapest bread to make.

To begin and the beginning is to start with the starter. Presumably discovered by some lucky chap/ess who left some unleavened bread mix out and a week later saw the bubbles and baked it. Mind, not as lucky as the chap/ess who discovered the more watery version... and drank the world's first beer.

Anyone can make a starter but you need to begin the process at least a week before your first loaf. Mix together about 75g each of flour and water and leave to sit open, in a glass or plastic container. Every couple of days add more  equal weights of flour and water. You'll notice bubbles start to develop along with that distinctive, yeasty/beery smell. At the end of the week, the starter will no longer look liquid but will have a structure. if you fail to feed your starter, it will die.

I took a short cut. Bee sent me some of hers, named Homer (Doh!). So mine is called Bart. 

An active starter. This is Bart.
Of course you don't have to suffer this faff for every loaf. You only use a little of the starter, replacing the rest with a feed of flour and water. I keep mine in the fridge, feeding it every few days. You need to remove it to warm up a day before you plan to bake.

To knead or to stretch or to fold? Maybe all three? Who the hell knows? Some even claim to do nothing. Whereas normal bread can be easily kneaded by hand in ten minutes, sourdough is so wet that it takes much longer, scooping and scraping until the gluten starts to form and (finally!) brings some much needed body. Apparently there's baker in San Franscico (have I been reading too much about sourdough? Possibly) who kneads his bread and then stretches it on the hour for twelve hours. But think about how impractical that is. Bugger that. I'm afraid (I'm not) that if that was the required routine I would produce precisely zero loaves of sourdough. No, I used my KitchenAid and a dough hook. But even mechanically, this still takes 15 minutes until I get a smooth, silky, elastic dough.

Like a good martini, like a cup of tea, like a cheese sandwich, a sourdough only has three ingredients and yet, so many combinations. Some can be delicious, others disastrous. Ratios of starter to flour to water vary hugely. Some like a stiff dough, some soft. Salt is also key, not enough and you have a bland bread, too much will inhibit the yeast... and taste awful.

Traditionally sourdough is proved in a basket called a bannaton. This sounds like something Highlanders should play with hoops in the two weeks that counts as summer in Scotland. It's this ringed thing that gives sourdough the distinctive round grooves in the crust. Use of baskets predates the use of tins. Now, the dough is a wet sticky one and there are many tales told of frustrated bakers shouting at tenacious baskets, especially when new and unseasoned. Some use a floured cloth as a liner, as did I. For me, the real problem proving in a banneton is the perilous transfer at the end to the baking tray. It's a soft dough and it's almost impossible (so far) to avoid knocking some air out. Puh-loof! And hours of work are sat wasted in a puddle of dough. There seems to be no practical reason to stick with baskets and so I'm not. I'm going to prove mine in a tin!

Proving takes a long time. Some recipes call for a two hour rest and then a twelve hour prove. Again, this just isn't practical. Maybe it works in a 24 hour bakery but not in my home. Also, my own loaves seem fine after a mere seven hours.

So many variations on the bake. Often we're told to throw in a cup of water (a la baguette baking) into the oven to keep the crust soft to allow for better expansion. I haven't made enough loaves to see the difference but many bakers swear by it.

So that's the concept. Onto the trials. And, sorry, this is vague and rambling; many bakes across a couple of weeks that were punctuated by us having friends to stay, having the back room redecorated (yay!) and me going back and forth to Cardiff as I'm writing Casualty again (also yay).

#1 was just a proof of concept. Did the starter work? My banneton hadn't arrived so I proofed in a cake tin to produce this rather bizarre looking loaf. The structure was good but the interior seemed oddly coloured. No idea why.

#2 was made after my proving banneton had arrived. I also tried using a leaven: a starter that's been well fed and then left overnight. I also tried a longer bake in a casserole dish as many recipes claim this gives superior results. 

Good looking dough sitting in a well floured tea towel in my basket.

About six hours later. It looks like this.

Baked in my largest and best lidded casserole dish. Great finish but it was stuck fast!

So this was the result. Gah! I won't be using a casserole dish again. I know, I know. I should have made a smaller loaf but I didn't noticed any improvement in the texture or the crust.  In fact the crust was very thick. So much for steam. Family complained that the flavour was odd. Too sour.

#3 For some reason the interior was lighter in colour. No idea why. This version used less starter, so maybe that's why. Everyone liked the flavour of this. But these large loaves were taking ages to prove and seemed to collapse under their own weight. I decided to make a smaller loaf.

#3 outside

#3 inside

Not bad but you see at the bottom how it's denser? We can do better.

#4 and I'm very happy with this. Banneton proved for seven hours, simple mix without a leaven. I think I won't bother with a leaven. Just seems like more faff to no great result. I didn't bake it for long enough so the crust isn't dark. This was mainly because I put it in the oven at 3am and was desperate to go to bed. Another ten minutes would have been better. Great texture and flavour though. The ratio of starter to flour and water is key. My mate Bee uses a very simple and useful 1:2:3 mix - one of starter, two of water, three of flour. So do I now.

#4 and I'm wondering if there's too much hole and not enough bread?
#5,  #6 were tales of woe. #5 was, ahem, neglected and proved for about 18 hours. If nothing else, it did demonstrate that you could overprove sourdough. #6 was over kneaded because I turned on my KitchenAid and then unexpectedly watched a very funny episode of Man Down (the one with the fox in the skip) on 4od. If nothing else, it did demonstrate...

Actually it demonstrated that it is possible to gash your thumb on a sourdough crust. No joke. One injury.

#7 made in my new square tin but forgot to add salt. Binned.

At this point I'm beginning to realise that half the battle with sourdough is the antisocial hours. Half an hour to mix and knead, two hours to rest, a move to the baking tin and then a seven to eight hour prove. Half an hour to bake. That's most of a waking day. If, like me, you tend to wake when others are thinking about lunch, the bake happens very late at night, so I can't be out, or drunk. You have to plan your social life around sourdough. I want something simple. The sourdough loaf that requires me to do something every thirty minutes for six hours is the sourdough loaf that doesn't get made.

#8. Cut when still hot.
#8 and an end of sorts. I'm (currently) happy with this. Many traditionalist would not be. I don't care. It's a repeatable recipe. It uses a mechanical knead and it's an all metal prove. The final bread is square not round. It lacks the cute basket grooves. I don't care. It's light, delicious, not too sour and with a wonderful crisp, dark crust. It makes brilliant toast. I also like a shallow square loaf because it means I can cut many identical slices: useful for supper club recipes, less useful for sandwiches. But if you want to show off to bakers or hippies, this other recipe is probably your bag (and also a damn good explanation of the sourdough principles)

The New River square sourdough
Makes 1 approx  750g loaf

This takes no less than eleven hours.

Add 140g of starter to 420g bread flour. Dissolve 10g of salt in 280ml of tepid water. Mix. If using a mechanical device, 'knead' with a hook for around 15 minutes. If manual, good luck! I'll see you at the other end. We'll have a drink and tell tales of dough.

The dough should be smooth and elastic with a bit of a shine. It shouldn't stick to the back of your dry hand. If it does, beat in a little more flour. Cover the mixing bowl with clingy and leave to rest for an hour or two. This 'resting' is also called the autolyse where the flour absorbs the water and becomes fully hydrated. This is good apparently.

At this stage you can put the covered dough into the fridge and leave until the morning.

Once rested, transfer the dough to a floured surface to stretch and knead a little. Shape the dough into a ball, tucking the ends underneath itself. Sit the dough in a shallow, 9" baking tin. You could of course use a bannaton.

Prove for up to eight hours in a warm place. I don't cover mine. The dough should be filling the tin and doming over the top, like a beige pillow. Make a slash across the top (or not). Perhaps put a reminder on your fridge or your phone. It's easy to forget an eight hour prove.

Bake at 230°C in a fan oven for 25 minutes, turning once  after about 15 minutes. The bread should shrink away from the sides and sound very hollow. The crust should be firm and dark.


Tuesday 19 July 2016

The chickpea miracle

Golly! I've been cooking seriously; with intent, for some three decade and it's very rarely I encounter something so surprising, so unexpected, that I do a little dance of discovery while squeaking like something furry from a woodland.

Vegan desserts are tricky, especially in the winter months when fruit is hard and flavourless, wearing its many carbon miles like a protective shroud. So, if I told you I was researching a vegan dessert (for supper club friend Alex) and produced a tin of chick peas, you would be forgiven for thinking I was about to combine them with, I don't know, golden syrup and perhaps tahini and blend up some kind of sweet paste... maybe a pie? A sweet tahini tart?

But no! I'm not interested in the legumes, it's the unpromising looking water in the bottom on the tin I'm after. I kid you not.

Drained off a 59p can of chickpeas. Who would have thought?
This has a name: aquafaba (bean water) and it is amazing stuff. Because it contains proteins and starches from the beans it acts much like egg white. In fact, exactly like egg white... and better. A scant 200ml from a can will balloon up to over two litres of featherlight fluff.  If you whip it, add sugar and bake it, you can make meringues. If you whisk it with oil you can make mayonnaise. It will take oil and fat and make vegan buttercream.
It can be used as a thickener, binder, emulsifier, foaming agent, and more. Unlike protein isolates and starch-based egg replacers, this broad spectrum allows aquafaba to be used in applications where its superior organoleptic properties are needed, and where traditional albumen falls short.
From unpromising puddle of bean water to this in a few minutes.

I've only just discovered this via but it's not new. The Vegan society has  a whole section dedicated to this wondrous 'bean water'. I was so agog I had to try it myself.  The chemistry of the stuff is still not properly understood which means there may well be other tricks to play. Don't you just love it when something so ordinary, so quotidian, turns out to be remarkable?

How does it taste? Well, whisked raw, not of much to be honest. But then raw whisked egg white is none too palatable either. It has a fairly neutral, slightly savory flavour but this is easily defeated by adding sugar and/or fruit. Look for brands that are low in sodium as some might be salty.

I rewhipped some with a hot sugar syrup and a dab of vanilla paste to make a vegan Italian meringue.
It looks and acts exactly as the egg version.

For me, the fun is only just starting. This is not something that will only appear in vegan meals as it has a whole range of unique qualities, of both egg white and yolk. I'll come back with more info as I develop recipes. I have some sitting in my fridge at the moment as I want to see how well its structure is maintained with time and with temperature changes. It's cheaper than egg white and throwing away shells, with this waste product, you get to make hummus. 

Mixed with a little caster sugar, It pipes perfectly.

Further reading: I've now developed this chocolate mousse using aquafaba.