Monday 28 November 2016

Green tea, mint and bourbon ice

You might consider this a frozen mint julep, usually found between the pages of a Tennessee Williams play, being sipped by some  socially stifled young lady just before she verbally emasculates her bronzed and brow-wiping beau. It's as refreshing as a winter walk through the Scottish Highlands, but not nearly as alcoholic. Sorry. I do go on, I know.

It's a glass of chilly stuff for when one's sucked the greasy meat off a bone.

Between the main course and the dessert we like to serve a little glass of palate cleansing ice (granita if you must). Often this is pineapple and lime but I wanted to make a change. I realise now that this Green tea and mint ice was inspired by Heston Blumenthal but my recipe is miles from his, not least because I've added a bourbon syrup. Also you don't need any liquid nitrogen to make mine. I bet you've just run out haven't you?

It's meant to refresh your tastebuds so you can better appreciate the subtleties of the next course, usually it's citric and/or astringent. In France, where this notion originated, a traditional method is to serve cubes of pickled ginger. That would seem to necessitate a palate cleanser cleanser though. I've no idea why this also leaves you feeling less full but this does seem to be another effect. Though perhaps that just the always-room-for-pudding factor. Certainly true in this house.

It is a pleasing thing though: minty tea with sweet and smokey bourbon; the slightly drying tea tannins enlivened with the zest and zing of lime. Guests have often asked for the recipe, declaring this their favourite part of the meal.

I make this in bulk so there are sometimes weeks between batches. I also forget to write down what I actually used which means I start from scratch each time. This is a major pain,  not least because errors at this scale are expensive. I have thrown away litres of (you have to say it right) 'bit-taaaaaaah' green tea that I've left to steep* too long.

This recipe makes about three litres - for us, about sixty serving. You can easily scale it down though. Or use bigger servings.

The lime is no affectation or garnish. You need that burst of acid and citrus oils to balance the sugar. It's like the 'twist' of lemon in a martini; it should be done over the glass.

There are three components that are made separately and then combined. Trust your own judgement here. You might need more or less of one. It depends on how minty you mint and how green your tea. Leave the last 10% and taste, only adding if you think the final liquid needs more. Remember though, that freezing depletes flavour and sweetness. It should be slightly sweeter than you like. Which is an odd cooking direction to give.

I say ice, but the sugar and alcohol conspire to lower the freezing point so this never gets really block hard. I do burn off most of the alcohol in the bourbon but a little will remain, so your guests should be aware.

Green tea and mint ice with bourbon syrup.
Makes around three litres.

You'll need three large bowls or jugs and a saucepan that can take a flame for a few minutes so prob best to avoid non-stick and enamel. Stainless steel is ideal. You'll also need a lidded, freezable container. One that you can shake with confidence while full of sticky liquid that will take ages to clean properly, especially if it gets under the fridge. Do we understand each other?

In your large bowl add 100g of loose leaf green tea to half a litre of warm water. To this add one and a half litres of boiling water. Cover with cling film and leave to steep for two hours. Don't leave it longer than this or your brew will be too bitter.

Mint in the back, bourbon boiling up front.
Make a sugar syrup by bringing 500ml of water slowly to the boil with 500g of white sugar. Once it's clear put in a whole bunch of mint, chopped, stalks and all. Get one of those big loose bunches (100g), not the puny plastic packets. Even better, cut some from your garden. Cover and leave for two hours (or even overnight, the flavour will only improve). Don't be tempted to mash the leaves and stalks though. Some things just take time.

Lastly take half a bottle or bourbon (so 350ml) and bring slowly to the boil with 700g of sugar. Take care here, this is a combustible mix. Once clear, as the sugar dissolves, bring to a gentle boil. Turn any kitchen extractor down low. Now using a long taper or candle lighter, hold a flame over the surface of the syrup to light the alcohol. That's why I said turn the extractor down, you don't want a big plume of whoosh. Watch those eyebrows. Turn the heat right down and allow the syrup to burn for a few minutes. You need to reduce the alcohol content or the ice will not freeze and you'll have a slushy (albeit delicious) cocktail. 

You obviously shouldn't be using your good stuff for this. Supermarket own brand will do. After boiling, burning and sweetening I doubt many could tell the difference.
Maybe wear an oven glove?
Cover and allow the bourbon syrup to cool.

After the two hours are up. Taste each element. They should all be delicious. Sieve in the green tea into your large, lidded, freezer proof container. You don't want bits. Now sieve in most of the mint syrup. Finally add most of your bourbon syrup.

Taste. More mint? More Bourbon? You might think the whole thing needs sweetening. At this point I can add plain sugar syrup because I keep a stock in the fridge (2:1 sugar to water) but you can probably get away with stirring in some caster sugar. That plain syrup (often called simple syrup) has many uses though. Obviously for cocktails but It's great for adding sweetness and gloss to tomato sauces and gravies.

Once you're happy, seal the container and freeze for around twelve hours (less if you're making a smaller quantity). You're looking for a loose ice crystal structure. Then remove and shake vigorously, trying to break up the ice particles. Freeze again for twelve hours. Shake. Freeze again. Look, you might forget (I have) in which case just shave the ice with a fork. It's more work but it results in a very similar texture. if anyone does complain, take yourself away to reconsider if you really need this 'friend' in your life. It's probably someone who's known you from school and you suspect they think you've got a bit above yourself now anyway, serving bloody palate cleansers. Who does he think he is?

We serve these in shot glasses but you could go bigger, especially on a summer's day, when fearing your swarthy, drunken man is going to wake the neighbours by crying your name the streets again. Cool his ardour with this. 



*Steep? One of those words that looks weird when you write it down. Had to look that up. Steep is related to stoup, the old Germanic name for a beaker or pail for liquid.

Sunday 27 November 2016

Pigeon... sorry, Kiwi. Apparently. Also, introducing the chocolate squidge cake.

Oh look, it's a Palmers Green Kiwi.
Apols to Stephen, obscured by beak.
"We're not doing Christmas Jumpers this year," Said Jan. "The theme is New Zealand." Because, she explained, two of the group were going on holiday there. 

"I've never served pigeon before." I joked, tediously, as Jan shuffled in. "It's a Kiwi!" She put me rightpushing her beak out of the way, the sweat beading on her brow. Clad in several layers of foam and nylon she downed a cooling glass of Prosecco. The hire shop didn't have any actual Antipodean fauna, so we were informed we'd just have to use our damned imaginations. Someone suggested Jan looked like a baby kiwi. Hmmm. More imagination needed maybe?

We kicked off the evening with some kiwi fruit cocktails. That helped our creative thinking.

Following the pigeon kiwi, came sheep, some rugby players, several Orcs (I think, they are hard to tell from Vulcans in a North London dinner party), a Maori tattooed lady and a dark bobbed wig (all black). This is a group that takes their themes seriously, and rightly so. No point being a dabbler. A bird in the hand, etc.

It was a splendid evening.

Starters of French gnocchi with pickled pear and goats cheese cream (pictured left or above, or wherever Blogger decides to place it. It usually goes its own way). A split mains of either lamb shank or my roast veg layer bake. The palate cleanser was an ice of green tea and mint with a little bourbon syrup and I'd like to celebrate a double achievement here. Not only did I log the recipe as I made it so I can finally blog it (link coming soon), I also managed to take a decent photo of the finished result. Normally I take a 'taste it and see' approach which means I start from ignorance when I need a new batch.

And then dessert of chocolate... ah yes... dessert. 

Serving honeycomb ice cream on top of chocolate cakes. I really wanted to push the limits of my little chocolate fudge cakes. I was concerned they weren't moist enough. I tweaked the recipe - additional egg yolks - and reduced the baking time - 12 minutes. They looked great, felt firm. I turned the first one out, with maybe a little too much force, to watch it collapse through my fingers, the middle still molten. It seemed I had pushed 'fudginess' right into fondant. But Etien, caught it, ate it and declared it 'delicious' so we let them sit for a while to firm up before turning out the rest with a tad more deftness. They just held. Our guests also loved them. You realise after much baking that's there's a continuum of cakes. It looks like this:
Mousse > fondant > brownie > fudge cake > cake > cookie > biscuit.
Ours is somewhere between fondant and brownie. At least it will be when I bake it for 13 minutes. Let's call it the Squidge Cake.

Not really the Platonic image of cake is it?
I didn't serve this one.
New River Chocolate Squidge Cake
Makes 14 x 7cm cakes (about the size of a muffin).

Cream 250g of soft unsalted butter with 250g caster sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in four large eggs and four more egg yolks. Mix in 200g self raising flour, a teaspoon of baking powder, a big pinch of salt and 70g of cocoa powder (I use Valrhona). 

Butter a 7cm hole cake tin. A large muffin tin will be fine. Half fill the moulds. Bake on the middle shelf at 180°C for 13 minutes. I say 13 but you'll have to determine your own. It will vary depending on your oven. You should be able to see some molten mix bubble up if you make a hole in the top of one. Leave to cool for at least ten minutes then gently (GENTLY) turn out.

Baked for thirteen minutes. What a difference sixty seconds makes.

Tuesday 8 November 2016

No more beef Wellington!

A naked Wellington - a fiendishly expensive, centre cut, Scottish beef fillet
Wellingtons make no sense. There, I've said it. For what is essentially a posh pasty of beef and mushroom they have a curious cachet. "Oh, a Wellington!" People say, in a tone of breathy reverence normally reserved for cases of unexpected nudity. But it's just meat and mushrooms in pastry. Now, don't misunderstand me, if you make one and invite me round, I'll eat it. But throughout my mastication, this argument will preoccupy me:
The heart of a Wellington is a centre cut fillet of beef; the most expensive part of a cow. For ten people you'll spend the best part of £90. It is a very lean and tender joint, ideally with a little fat marbled through to lubricate the meat.  To enjoy you should simply pan fry it over a very high heat. Being so lean the fillet benefits from some basting. Now rest, pat on a little herbed butter and eat. With a Wellington, you take this very expensive, lean, prized cut and make it as difficult as possible to cook properly. You wrap the thing in mushrooms - ok, great. Some people use pate - not great. Fillet steak is a subtle thing. Eat fillet and paté and you taste... paté. Now you wrap the joint in puff pastry. This makes it impossible to know when and if your joint is cooked to your liking. Basting is out of the question. Your meat will sweat instead. It means, of course, that there is no oven roast. That beef is now inside its own super-carb sauna. All the colour on the meat (colour = flavour) comes from the initial sear. There's no delicious crust. Even with modern digital probes timing is still vague; you have to allow for resting. Even Michelin starred chefs get this wrong. The ends will cook more than the middle so let's hope some of your guests want well done and some rare. Worse, that paté or mushroom is working hard at keeping your pastry soggy. Is that what you want with prime beef - undercooked pastry? Maybe you went old school and used some herby crepes to protect pastry from mush? Well done: another layer of insulation, preventing proper roasting. Another mouthful of unnecessary carbohydrate. When did you last serve pancakes with your beef? Yeah, and for good reason. Oh, and have you ever tried to wrap a tube of meat in a crepe, in a pastry case? Try rolling up a cat (neatly) in two oily duvets; it's a similar level of frustration. (I imagine. Put down your phone.) There's no roasting juices by the way so you'll have to invest in some other meat to make a gravy. Perhaps a kilo of oxtail and the same of marrow bone. These will need to be roasted, a stock made, port added (perhaps half a bottle) and reduced before you have something approaching a decent sauce.
Enough. No one likes a whiner. Sorry. But it had to be said.

Oh and then. THEN! You have to carve it. You want that Sunday supplement shot of a perfect ring of pastry with precision duxelles and pink meat. You rarely get it. It's like picking up glass plates with two hammers. Hot hammers. With no handles.

I have a solution. If you want that combo of fillet, mushrooms and crispy pastry I can deliver but done in a way that maximises all the assets. Dark roasted beef, cooked to your liking. Crispy and well risen puff. A soft duxelles of mushrooms and truffle. This is my UnWellington.

OK, I still have to make a gravy.

This is it. Yeah? 

It takes far less time too and can largely be prepped in advance. I make simple little hats of herbed puff pastry and bake to crisp and golden. A quick fricassee of mushrooms, shallots, cream and some truffle paste. The fillet here (my proof of concept) was pan seared and then roasted for about ten minutes. Even better, in future I'll do a reverse sear - a few hours at 55°C and then ten mins at maximum blast. Maybe basted with treacle and a black pepper butter. A pain free and predictable process delivering something that looks like this.

Yes, I thought you'd like that. 

I'm flirting with the idea of making little mushroom pastries and sitting those on top of the beef and pouring gravy over the lot. This keeps the duxelles hot and moist.

So, as far as this supper club cook is concerned, the Beef Wellington is dead. All hail the UnWellington. I just hope you agree.

Monday 7 November 2016

Under pressure... beef cheeks in brown beer

Half a cheek each will suffice, sounds like the most scant and uncomfortable seating instructions. Not something you'd want in a restaurant. (Although, Wagamama comes close; their benches seemingly designed more for the svelte diner, all angular like a folding chair,  rather than your robust sofa of a Welshman slurping down the udon.) Thankfully, the cheeks under scrutiny here are the masseter muscles of the cow, usually known as beef or ox cheek. In any ruminant these muscles are used constantly to move the jaw and so like their cousins in the cheap seats: ribs, shins, skirts, blades and briskets, they require low, slow cooking to deliver a tender texture with a great flavour.

Beef cheeks in beer is a dish I've been skirting around for months, if not years. I'm not sure why so hesitant. Maybe just the fact that cheeks are not a supermarket meat but then, neither are most of the other joints I cook. They sure aren't lookers either - members of my family recoiled - but what they lack in raw aesthetics they more than make up for on the plate.

And why beer? Well, it sounds so British doesn't it? Beef in beer with boiled carrots and cabbage. The French and Belgians would call this a carbonnade of course. 

While researching recipes I remembered that I needed a new pressure cooker. My last one lost its safety valve. It was a nasty cheap thing anyway; aluminium. If I used it to brown veg or meat everything would stick to the base. You don't need a pressure cooker to do this dish but the differences in cooking times are striking. As a low oven casserole: 6 hours; in the pressure cooker: 45 minutes. Yeah. That's quite a saving of time and energy. Also, with pressure cooking the meat is at 120°C rather than the usual braise temp blipping around 100°C. This means your get more Maillard reaction - basically more beefy, umami tastules. AND any tough bits are more easily transformed into loverly, slippery things.

Oh, just look at him.
So I bought a new pressure cooker. It was, of course, MUCH more expensive than the last one, but if I've learned one thing these past few years it's 'buy cheap, buy twice'. You will not regret the extra few quid on your deathbed, unless you die of penury. It's Swiss. Just writing that gives me a shiver. It has a titanium base, which naturally makes one feel very special. How special? An aluminium base would just roll over and snore at the end of the evening, taking most of the meagre duvet with it. A titanium base would pad around their Miele kitchen, making you some green tea in a porcelain cup while arranging a car home.

I cooked the meat both ways and the pressure cooked cheeks were the hands down winners. They even evoked a 'wow' from wife and teenager. If you have a teenager, you'll know how rarely this happens. The texture is different to any other cut I've tried. There is no stringiness or granularity; this is all super supple, moist meat. It's almost, but not quite, heading for paté. It's that soft.

Beef cheeks in beer

Allow one cheek between two people. You need to start the day before eating.

A little extra time invested early on pays big dividends. Firstly make sure your cheeks are well trimmed. Some of that white membrane is very tough. Remove it. It's like skinning a fish. Now salt generously and leave for an hour or two. The salt will be drawn into the flesh making it much more tasty.

Once cleaned and salted, you need to sear the meat. Remember that colour = flavour. We want a dark crust. Many recipes tell you to do this after the marinade but I can't see why. It will be much harder to burn a crust on wet meat. To sear well, you need as much heat as you can muster. This means a big burner/hob and heavy pan combo. I used my Lodge cast iron, left on the heat for ten minutes. When I put the cheeks in, the surface fat atomises and catches alight. That's hot! Do only a few at a time. If you overcrowd the pan it will cool down.

Now to marinate the cheeks in beer for at least six hours, or traditionally, overnight. So this brings us to the choice of beer. It will make a difference: an IPA, bitter, wheat beer, dark ale, porter or stout. I tried a few and settled on a London Porter. It doesn't have the iron tang of stout but it is rich and dark with chocolate and malty overtones. Immerse the beef cheeks in the beer - a bottle or two; cover with cling film and refrigerate until needed. You might want to warn the family. It does look horrific. 

Once marinated, remove the beef and bring the beer to the boil in either your covered casserole dish or pressure cooker adding an equal volume of beef stock along with a good sprig of fresh thyme, some cloves of garlic (one per person), flattened but not cut, some chopped onion and mushrooms (cook these off in a frying pan for a few minutes for extra flavour) and a few whole carrots to be eaten later; allow two per person. Cooking time is 45 mins at full pressure or six oven hours at 130°C. Once cooked remove the meat and carrots from the heat until ready to serve. The cooking liquor should now be boiled to dramatically reduce its volume, maybe to a third. You're looking for that lovely demi-glace quality: thick and glossy like molasses. Actually you can add some molasses towards the end to sweeten a little, along with some more fresh thyme (maybe). But don't season just yet.

While the meat is cooking you might want to boil up some small white onions as a garnish. Slice in half, peel and gently boil until tender, around 30 minutes. They can be served like little petals around the beef. Brown them off in a hot buttery pan first until the edges turn golden then peel apart the layers. Season well with salt and pepper.

About 30 minutes before eating time heat up your beery gravy. Grind some black pepper over the meat and add to the casserole/pressure cooker. Turn them several times in the reducing juices. Cut the carrot into chunks and add this too. Reduce the gravy to a syrup. Now taste and season with salt and pepper. This should be a delicious gravy. Strain it before serving if you're feeling fussy.

I'm going to serve these with the onion petals, maybe on some black cabbage, blanched and then tossed in hot butter and nutmeg. I often see this next to mashed potato but that's too much pap for me. Instead perhaps some Yorkshire puddings or roast potatoes that deliver both a crisp bite and something to mop up the gravy.